The Zoo Diaries IV – Frances Pauli

The Zoo Diaries IV – Frances Pauli

Metaphorosis cover, April 2023
April 2023

Part Four


At the Rainriver Zoological Gardens, one escape became the catalyst for a series of unfortunate incidents. The tortoise, Oliver, roamed the zoo as a fugitive, searching for his missing cage mate, Miranda. When the Zoo-cam caught him interacting with the elephant, zoo attendance spiked, putting more pressure on the animals inside and increasing crowd-related stress but inspiring a zoo-wide photography contest which drove the crowds to push their limits, tossing trash into the animal enclosures, and crossing fences that were meant for their protection. Oliver was led to the aviary, but his pigeon guide betrayed him and, once he’d gotten her inside, left him to be recaptured.

Determined to escape again, Oliver made a deal with the devil. The crow, Debra, promised to lead him to Miranda. A well-meaning keeper supplied Gonzo with chocolate-covered coffee beans, and Charlie the lion dreamed of his true nature, haunted by the aroma of the crowds’ hot dogs.









The Crow

Debra watches them dart the grizzly. She knows the gun is not lethal, that the dart’s poison will not kill the bear, but when he shudders and flops onto his side, her feathers prickle in delight.

It would be like that, she thinks, if he were hit with a real bullet.

She has lighted on the tall stump that is a broken-off tree, a casualty to some long-ago storm. When it fell, it lay across the trench and nearly let the bear escape. He might have, she remembers. He could have climbed that fortunate bridge right to freedom.

He could have eaten someone.

But the stupid bear ignored the opportunity. Conditioned to his captivity, he stayed in his cage, and men with grumbling, noisy saws quickly broke the ramp to bits and carried them away.

Only the jagged stump remains, and Debra perches there while They-who-shoot-guns roll the sleeping Grizzly onto a tarp.

He is too heavy for them, too big. It takes four just to rock him back and forth. Each time, the shaggy pelt ripples. The bear rolls right back to the position in which he began.

They-who-shoot-guns curse and argue among themselves. They sound like crows, like a murder of their own. Debra approves of this chaos. She imagines Hector will wake soon and eat one of them.

But the bear sleeps on. He is dead weight, but eventually they heave him into position. They drag him, in the flimsy tarp, all the way to a very clever door.

Debra approves of this, too. The clever door is a trick, and she adores trickery. It stands beside the small square den opening, and it has been painted to match the rock around it. It is not smooth either. If she hadn’t been a very clever crow, she might even have been surprised when it opened.

Her sharp caw is only a cry of triumph. An appreciation of a very clever trick. When she tells the story to the rest of the zoo, she will remember that detail the most.

They shot the bear. They dragged him through a very clever door, but I could see it there the whole time.

Debra puffs and watches as the tarp, the bear, and They-who-shoot-guns vanish through the gap in the rock. She keeps her eyes fixed on the opening, stares as the door closes again. Stares, and is convinced she can still see it.

“You never know,” she will tell them all. “You never know where a door might be, do you?”

Grizzly Caged

Hector wakes slowly. He is confused at first, his vision blurry. The voices around him chatter in soft, familiar tones.

For a breath, he believes he is a cub again.

The surface he sprawls on is smoother than his den, colder against his belly. He moans softly, and the cadence of the voices shift.

On reflex, Hector churrs. It is a happy sound, a song of contentment, and it has never failed to earn him the attention he craves. Even now, he hears approval.

He churrs louder, rumbling until his whole body shakes. His muscles are sore and flaccid, but he manages to sit, to blink until he can actually see them.

Bars to all sides.

They’ve locked him in a metal box, a tiny container for an enormous bear. Outside it, faces press all around him. They peer in, eyes shining and mouths tight. Watching him.

He makes the sound and sees the pleasure flicker from one face to the next.

They are doctors, Hector thinks. He knows them from his youth, the odd, loose-fitting skins they wear, the tiny boards they carry, marking with their pens the way the artist does but never once showing him what they work on.

Hector believes they capture his likeness just the same. They record him, too, and he tilts his head and poses.

He remembers too late that his bones were hurting, that he could barely stand to walk this morning. Now, however, the quick movement brings no pain. The doctors make their markings, and Hector tests his joints. He twists and reaches and finds no agony.

This pleases them, too, and he adds more churring for good measure. He performs for them, and he remembers They-who-cared.

His brother is not here.

He is too old to wrestle anyway.

Hector sits in a metal box, watched and captured, and is happy for the first time in forever.

Lion Enclosure

Someone drops a cell phone into Charlie’s cage. It is inevitable, really, with the jostling and shoving, the sheer number of devices. The black rectangle flips end over end, arches out, and falls, unerringly, on the lion’s side of the trench.

Charlie sees it land. He has been lying in the sun, thinking of the veldt dream, and is not really interested until he smells the squeaky meat.

His lioness has already gone to investigate, but Charlie huffs, slashes his tail and approaches on the tips of his paws. His strutting drives her off, but she grumbles, mouthing back at him as she stalks away.

The phone lies in the long grass beside the trench wire. Charlie knows this is electrified, that it will give a nasty shock if he is careless enough to touch it. He lowers his head and sniffs, drinks in the meaty smell which clings to the dropped phone.

He uses one paw to bat the rectangle away from the wire, teases it to a safe distance before lowering his face to the screen.

His jaws open. He huffs, tastes the air, and is carried back into the dream. His eyes close. He lets his tail lash.

His tongue stretches, swipes over a slick surface, and tastes only a disappointingly faint flavor. It is the meat. His mind pairs it with the scent, fills in around the flavor until Charlie believes he can fully taste it.

He can hear it squeaking.

He can hear it screaming.

It is too slick to bite, too solid. Like his blood ice. Charlie wedges it between his front paws and wraps his jaws around it. He breathes. He imagines.

He uses his tongue to gather the traces, to lick and lick until all he can taste is hot plastic.

Elephant Paddock

Shanti is thrilled when Oliver appears. She has been standing over his exit all evening and has been watched far too closely by They-who-carry-guns. Their continued scrutiny makes her nervous, and she is relieved when the familiar, flat face pokes free of the earth.

One tortoise fills the tunnel mouth, and Shanti finally has someone to talk to.

“Wait,” she lowers her trunk to hold him in position, to keep his presence hidden. “They’ve only made three passes tonight.”

She knows that there will be five before they leave for the evening. That two more times They-who-carry-guns will march along her chain-linked fence with their clipped steps and shining badges.

“It will be safe soon,” she tells the tortoise, “But you must wait.”

She thinks he understands her caution. Already, it has been two days since They-who-keep-cages-barred returned him to his enclosure. Oliver is not a rushing animal. Not like the zebras who move at the slightest sound and are impossible to count properly.

The tortoise is deliberate. He is like her.

“Tell me,” Shanti swings her trunk and whispers, “why you have to escape.”

So, Oliver tells her his story. He remains in his tunnel, whispering as They-who-carry-guns pass another time. He talks about his bird, Miranda, about the day she miraculously appeared in his pen and how he followed her long strides around and around until she finally spoke to him.

Shanti doesn’t like this bird from the start. When Oliver describes her with his warm words, Miranda seems cold and distant. She was not a kind animal, Shanti thinks. But Oliver loves her.

They-who-carry-guns pass again, but Shanti says nothing. She lets the tortoise spill his story, and she counts the times his voice crackles. She measures the cadence of his speech patterns and calculates the odds he’s about to have his heart broken.

When he gets to the part about the pigeon, Shanti flaps her ears and stamps in sympathy. When he mentions the crow, she trumpets out loud.

“Crows cannot be trusted,” she says. “They always lie.”

“Unless there is better sport in telling the truth,” Oliver says. He has thought this through, apparently. He believes he can outsmart the devil.

Shanti hopes he can, but she realizes they have spoken for too long. They have lingered over the story and eaten up the larger half of the nighttime.

“I think it’s too late to count you again,” Shanti says. “But I will still bend the fence.”


Oliver’s answer makes her tingle. She remembers his shapes, and she hopes she is not as cold as his bird.

“I will go tomorrow,” the tortoise declares. “When there is more time.”

“I’m sorry,” Shanti says. She has let him linger over his story for her own pleasure. She is as bad as a crow.

But Oliver’s voice seems brighter. He speaks with less crackling now. “It was good to talk,” he says. “Good to share it all with someone else.”

Shanti is thrilled. She scuffs her big feet and looks at the sky. One star. One tortoise.

“It’s not daylight yet,” Oliver says. “If you’d still like to count me.”

Shanti steps back, making room for him to leave his hole. She watches the shell emerge, one row of patterns at a time, and thinks she has never been happier.

Hyena Removed

They-who-bring-food drop something disgusting in Alice’s cage. The smell mingles with her food, confusing her. At first, she thinks a dead cub is hidden in the fluffy blanket they’ve given her. She drags it to the far corner of the cage and finds nothing. Only cloth that reeks, that smells of urine and male hyena.

Alice tries to bury it, but the cage floor is not dirt. She splits three of her claws before she gives up, pushes the smelly cloth into a wad, and leaves it. She returns to her meal.

The cat watches her eat. He has taken to staring at her when he is bored, which is far too frequent for Alice’s tastes. He ignores his own food, waits to acknowledge it until Alice retires to her corner for the evening.

She lies as far as possible from the nasty blanket, but already the scent is less offensive. She will ignore it, like she ignores the cat. She will let it sit, stinking in the shadows, until she can’t smell it any longer.

Eventually, she will seek out the blanket. She will go to it, dig and push at the fabric, searching for any trace of the scent.

She is not in season yet, but Alice remembers the last time. She will ignore the blanket and the smell for now. But she thinks, in a few more days, the stink of it will be not nearly as offensive.

Tortoise Abroad

Oliver meets the crow outside Shanti’s paddock. The bird has been waiting for him, has paced and cackled atop a picnic table while the elephant pried up her fence. Oliver emerges to the clattering of metal. He thanks his gigantic friend, taking his time while the crow frets.

He plays a slow game, a long con. He smiles when the bird’s feathers prickle.

“It’s going to take you a while,” Debra croaks. “You should hurry.”

Oliver wants to hurry. He wants to see Miranda tonight, but his stumpy legs move with careful deliberation. The crow bounces. She hops and sputters. He has not decided what she wants. Maybe, like the pigeon, she means to use him. Does Debra long for a free ticket into the marshlands?

Oliver doesn’t trust the bird, but when she takes to wing, he follows. The crow lands on the sign in front of the macaque cage, waits for him. They dance their mutual deception, while the zoo watches, holds its breath.

The monkey is not asleep. He flings something that makes the bird duck and screech. Oliver enjoys her fury. He walks quicker, however, worried the assault will drive her away.

She only moves down the path, only lands on a bench beside some bushes while Oliver works his way past the ape house.

The macaque does not attack him, but Oliver hears it, whispering to itself as he passes. The words are muddled. The animal’s voice is low and quick. Oliver sees it as shadow only, hunched against a wall, rocking and whispering.

Mad. The crowds and the captivity have broken the primate, and Oliver is glad when his feet carry him beyond that cage. Relief floods his shell when the crow leads him on again, right at a place where the pathways branch. Left where they make a Y around the nocturnal house.

They pass a cement ring where the sound of water lapping against the walls echoes skyward. Here the crow pauses, perches atop the basin walls, and calls taunts to the denizens inside.

Oliver cannot see them, but they beep softly, throw insults back up their shaft enclosure. He imagines living inside a pit and shivers.

“Hurry,” Debra caws.

Oliver slows his steps then thinks better of it in case she gets bored and abandons him. He hurries. He must see Miranda again.

“The marsh is by the family farm.” The crow hops back to him, strutting across the path before his blunt nose. “If you don’t make it tonight, you can hide in there.”

Oliver grunts, sniffs for the lie in her words, for a warble of deceit. “What will you do?” he asks. “When we get to the marsh?”

“I have a plan to pry up the net,” she says. “It’s not hard. There are many stones nearby, but you may have to push the larger ones.”

“I will.” Oliver thinks she needs him to get inside, but the crow shakes herself and flutters a few steps ahead.

“It is damp in there,” she says. “You won’t like it.”

“Will you?” He pauses, watches her smooth again.

“No.” The crow’s eye is a clear-bright gem, a steady beacon. “I won’t go in there. After the net, you’re on your own.”

Oliver thinks she lies, but her steady gaze haunts him after she delivers him to the family farm. After she has found him an empty stall to hide in. Long after she has covered him with straw and left him for the day.

He waits, surrounded by the farm animals, by tall guests and shrieking children. He thinks he must guess what trick she will play on him, and he thinks about it for long hours. He hides, warm and secure, and believes he will not be a fool again.

Ape House

Gonzo has not slept. His head feels swollen, full of cottony down. He smacks his lips again and again, rubbing his face with both leathery palms. He shivers, but he is not cold. It is as if he has been in ice too long, can no longer feel it. His limbs quake, and he closes his eyes against even the softest sounds.

The troop waking is a parade of gongs and trumpets. Their nails scratch at the hard floor. Their yawns are deafening. Gonzo hunches, holds his head, and cries aloud when they rattle the bars inside.

He drags himself back through the square door. Perhaps water will help. But when he limps to the rubber basin and dunks his face, the relief is only cursory. He drinks. He shivers. He needs the bean again.

The troop cavorts, and Gonzo leaps at them, baring his teeth and slapping whoever is slow enough, unlucky enough to remain in range. He gives them his teeth, spins, and gnashes until they all abandon him.

They scamper out into the light, and he drags himself to the bars and the aisle.

He checks the ledge, but there are no crumbs left. He searches the straw, but the black cherries had no real skin, melted in his mouth so that he finds no trace of them.

When They-who-bring-food arrive, Gonzo sits, glaring into the aisle. He-who-sweeps is with them. He slumps over his broom, but Gonzo catches him looking back. He is a sneaky primate, curled and glancing sideways.

Gonzo fears he has been punished for giving him the bean, but when the troop returns, when They-who-feed bring breakfast and move on with their tubs, a miracle occurs.

The troop dives on the fruit and biscuits. Their noises drill into Gonzo’s skull, but his eyes stick to He-who-sweeps. The broom still brushes at the aisle, but it is creeping toward the macaque enclosure.

He-who-sweeps digs one paw into his coverall pocket. He whistles a note that nearly cracks Gonzo, that is so high and so lingering that the monkey has to close his eyes. When he opens them, He-who-sweeps is near. The pocket paw emerges as a fist. The fist flashes to the ledge, opens, flies back to the broom while Gonzo seizes a fresh paw-full of dark beans.

The stars align and the monkey stuffs his lips with his addiction.



AGE 19





Grizzly Caged

Hector stuffs his paw through the bars and wiggles it, palm pads up, until She-who-takes-notes drops a grape onto it. He curls his claws around the fruit, brings it inside the box and lips it more slowly than necessary.

The clipboard rattles as she writes. She is not an artist, but as a substitute, he thinks she does all right. When he churrs and tilts his head to one side, her mouth curls upwards in pleasure.

Hector has suffered three injections, needles stabbed through his bars on long sticks. Piercing jabs, they poke through his thick skin and make him wince. There is no way to avoid these. His metal box allows him little movement.

Though the shots are painful, his bones no longer ache. He understands that the doctors have done this, and he churrs and sits as upright as he can for them.

At first, She-who-takes-notes fed him tidbits from a similar stick. Hector has charmed her, however, and when his paw comes out again, she is quick with another grape. She no longer flinches from him. She smiles, and the bear brattles like an engine sputtering.

On the wall behind her, a picture of his bones hangs. Hector thinks it is not art. Photos are beneath him, after all. But there is something appealing about the way the light shines through his ghostly outline. There is something seductive here. Something that reminds him of the early days with his brother.

He churrs, reaches, and stuffs down grapes until She-who-takes-notes is forced to put down her clipboard and focus fully on the bear.

Elephant Paddock

Shanti counts her straw. Her trunk curls against her forehead, careful not to blow away the frail bundles. She has gathered them into groups of ten to make the counting simpler. There is no wind, and the damned crows have moved on with Oliver’s most recent departure.

The elephant lines up three-hundred bits of straw in three rows of ten bundles each. She has counted her tortoise friend three times, helped him find freedom twice.

She flutters her ears. Her scrub tail flicks against her saggy buttocks. Satisfied. She sighs as she counts, certain that she has helped, that somewhere Oliver carries his 37 hexagonal scute patterns toward victory.

Shanti counts as her paddock rail fills with gaping faces. She imagines them, as they pack together, as plates on an enormous domed tortoise shell.

She does not know she is in love. Shanti only sees the perfectly aligned shapes, one against the next. She only feels a fluttering in her belly, a warm contentment as she counts her straw, thinking of Oliver. Thinking he will want to return eventually, and that there was no reason to let her count him so many times… and yet he did.

Her trunk tightens at the thought of seeing him again, and she lays her bits and bundles into looser groups, rounding the lines until they make a high arc, a gentle dome for her to count again.

The Crow

Debra inspects the net while the tortoise sleeps. She has stashed him in the family farm where, even if discovered, his presence is unlikely to cause an alert. All the souls penned in that area of the zoo are subject to interaction, are forced to wander the paddocks while the crowd’s offspring molest them.

She is certain Oliver will be fine there, and she is just as sure that she is clever enough to find a way to trap him inside the marsh.

The bottom of the netting is weighted, staked to the earth at regular intervals to prevent anything larger than a vole from digging beneath it. It is these diminutive rodents, however, who have shown her the way in. For their crisscrossed tunneling has loosened a stake or two. There are now places where the net gaps and moves, and a very clever bird ought to be able to hike it upwards.

At least high enough to admit one tortoise.

Debra cackles and struts along the perimeter. There are six stakes missing now, a few others that are loose and easy to pull. She examines each breach and its surroundings and picks a site where the path nearby curves around a bronze statue of a heron. Flat stones surround its base, and Debra thinks they will be perfect.

She believes she should let the tortoise move them, that there is glorious sport in Oliver constructing his own trap. But time concerns her.

She decides to help a little, to be certain they can get him in before they are caught in the act of building.

The crow chuckles, flaps to the statue, and eyes the stones. The largest ones, the tortoise will have to shove. She selects a few that are smaller, flat smooth stones she believes will stack easily. Then, one by one, she plucks them from their arrangement and carries them to the marshland netting.

One by one, she lays them where they will be close at hand. When the time comes to trick the tortoise, Debra wants to be front and center. She wants to see the net fall, witness the dawning realization that he has been caught by a trap of his own making. That he is imprisoned inside with his own misery.

Lion Enclosure

There is a rain of debris into the lions’ enclosure. Ever since Charlie’s encounter with the cellular phone, more things are dropped, flung even, into his range.

They-who-carry-guns frequent the Savannah more regularly, policing the rail, but only managing to pause the tide of offenses piling up on both sides of the trench and its hot wire. There are too many people, and the guns, it seems, do not fire.

Charlie huffs. He has taken to lounging much closer to the debris field, guarding the offerings like the king he is. Those that interest him are quickly pounced upon. He has tasted many new things.

Popcorn. Soft animals filled with white fluff. Leather straps, little square cameras, lattes, and many more phones. He ignores these now, though he still enjoys shredding the fuzzy toy animals. He appreciates the buttery taste of popcorn, too, and he chews the leather bits out of boredom.

But mostly, Charlie waits for the squeaky meat.

When the crowd tosses him these, the long reddish tubes of meat, Charlie roars and pounces. He snarls in case the lionesses dare to sneak closer, and he bites. He chews and devours with all the gusto of a natural predator.

It is delicious, somehow feeling both raw and wholly artificial. The hot dogs hold traces of his minced diet, but along with that they carry a thousand new flavors, unrecognized tastes that drive straight from Charlie’s tongue to his brain.

He is rabid for it.

He chews and dreams, and in the night his veldt is peopled with hot dog monsters that sing to him from the far shadows. He can smell them there, always out of reach. And when he wakes, there are even more faces, more paws to toss him offerings.

Charlie basks in his fame, eats his hot dogs, and thinks there will never be enough to satiate him.

Tortoise Abroad

Oliver struggles free of the straw. He cannot shake himself, hasn’t the flexibility to do more than swipe a forefoot across his face to clear his vision. Bits of the pale hay poke into the gaps in his shell, forward and back.

He is prickled, and the soft skin folds around his neck and legs begin to itch.

The crow goads him onward. She bounces along the stall railing until Oliver picks up his pace. Night has fallen, and Debra becomes a set of dancing eyes in the darkness. A gleaming beak like a knife slash as she calls his name.

Oliver moves to her command, but he is thinking, thinking that her urgency cannot bode well for him.

“It’s ready. It’s ready,” she sings while bobbing.

Oliver smells the trap, but his brain fills with Miranda. He shuffles eagerly from the family farm and follows the bouncing crow. The straw pokes him with each step, but eventually it falls free or he forgets to care about it.

Debra leads him down the pathway. Just beyond the family farm she perches on a miraculous thing. It is enormous and made of metal, but its shape is Miranda’s shape. Oliver gazes up at it and shivers.

The statue guards the marshland, and Oliver thinks it is an omen. He believes the crow now. His love is inside the nets.

Debra has gathered a pile of small stones. She shows him her work. She explains her plan, and Oliver waves his long neck from side to side. It is a good idea, clever, and though he knows he will have to go carefully, to watch for deception along the way, his heart races.

Debra lifts the net, only a fraction at first. She is a small thing, made of hollow bones and not strong. Oliver shoves the smallest rock into the gap. They repeat this maneuver twice before there is enough room for him to push the tip of a foot underneath.

He watches the crow stack a third rock on top of the other two, lifting the net one inch higher. If she means to dart inside, to leave him like a dirty pigeon, this is her opportunity.

But Debra bounces backwards and eyes the widening gap instead.

“A large one next,” she croaks. “One to hold it up while we remove these.”

Oliver decides her game is not to steal his entrance. She really means to get him inside, to whatever end, and that knowing moves his feet much faster.

He wobbles to the statue and finds a large stone, bulldozes it, rolls it with his flat nose onto the path and back to their building site.

The net rises, one stone at a time, each larger than the last until it is half his height and there are no larger rocks to be found. Then, Debra begins to stack again. She places small stones atop the big one while Oliver wedges his neck beneath the net. He lifts his head, uses his body as a lever to pry the material higher.

It resists them. They have reached the limits of the next stake down and now it fights against their effort.

Oliver stares at it, frantic and half tangled. The lower edge has caught on his shell lip, but he is halfway through. He is stepping inside the boundary now, pulling while the crow screams at him.

Her claws scratch at his dome. She rides him as Peg did, and Oliver thrashes in panic before her words settle.

“Wait, idiot. You’re stuck.”

He is frantic. He is trapped. He will knock her free if he has to.

But when he pauses to decide, the crow bobs down, uses her beak to lift the net from his rim. She pulls it, and with a deep twang, it slides free, resting atop his dome with her and, when Oliver presses forward, slipping up and over.

The crow is swept from his shell. The net passes freely over his body.

Oliver surges ahead and walks into the marshland. He steps on grass and soggy earth. His body rocks from one side to the other, and the net falls away behind him, snapping back to the ground and leaving the crow outside after all.

They have done it. Oliver’s heart bounces now. He is inside.

The crow’s plan, their plan, has worked.

Your thoughts?

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