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. His adventure has taken him to the Aviary, where he was recaptured only to dig free again, this time with the help of the duplicitous crow, who led him to the Marshland and helped him slip under the net.
While the zoo’s photography contest set the crowds wild, their poor behavior heaped extra stress upon the already troubled animals. The spike in attendance boded well for the bottom line, but the zoo was forced to hire armed security to keep the mobs in line.
While the other animals dealt with the increased interaction, Oliver searched the Marshland for his lost love, unaware that the crows were watching and that his reunion was not likely to go as planned.
When the contest results are tallied, zoo management calls an emergency meeting. The victor is problematic, but it has won by a landslide. ‘Lion Eats Cellphone’ has blown away all competition, but the repercussions have caused nothing but difficulties.
Security reports a need for more boots on the ground. Janitorial gives a presentation in which they display 25 glossy photos of trash and detritus littering every corner of the zoo, including a shot of the interior lion paddock with each foreign item circled in red ink.
The lead veterinarian speaks for ten minutes on the dangers of ingested plastic on a lion’s digestive track. During his speech, the head of marketing is caught nodding off.
Someone’s nephew suggests altering the results online.
The deception is given serious consideration, but marketing believes it would cause a PR nightmare.
In the end it is decided. ‘Lion Eats Cellphone’ will be disqualified for violation of zoo regulations. The video owner will receive half the cash award but no mention other than a reiteration of zoo policy and a public post on the safety of zoo animals and property.
The official winner is now ‘Avian Courtship’. A distant second place is another Charlie video, ‘Lion Licks Little Boy’.
Everyone is satisfied except the owner of ‘Lion Eats Cellphone’, who takes the cash but continues to insist it was an accidental drop. The internet discusses the event with some heat, a great deal of insults and over-explaining, and complaints on all sides.
Eventually, the contest is forgotten. The zoo webpage visitor count returns to its pre-popularity state, and someone’s nephew finds a summer job working at the local burger joint. Zoo attendance is still up, and the website never mentions the second tortoise escape.
The keeper team reports evidence of stress on their animals. Increased traffic, they believe, is beginning to affect the behavior of their charges. They are listened to briefly and then assured that the contest’s end will reduce attendance.
It is only temporary.
Things will settle down soon, and in the meantime, the money might be used to improve conditions.
Or to expand the gift shop.
The employee appreciation potluck is pitched as a reward for the staff’s perseverance. Signup sheets fill quickly with offers to bring pie, potato salad, and lots and lots of hot dogs.
Alice falls asleep in the cat house, curled into a blanket that no longer smells odd. She has been twitching all day today, growing warm and uncomfortable. And very lonely. She awakens back in her own cage.
The floor is smooth and littered with straw. The stair-step rock stands guard from the corner. Her water basin is exactly where she remembers it belongs, but everything smells different. Only the blanket beneath her suggests it is not a hostile scent, that this, too, should have been expected.
Alice lifts her square head, opens her mouth, and cackles out her nerves. From the uppermost stair-step another hyena answers with a low growl.
She is not threatened by this. His scent may be all over her cage, but it is familiar, hers now as much as the rock is.
He only needs to be taught.
She stands, bracing all four legs in a stiff, bristling pose. Her ears move non-stop, and she takes a few jerking steps toward the water. Her mouth is fuzzy, and she will be able to see the intruder more easily from across the cage.
He growls again but there is no force behind it, no authority.
Alice ignores him but drinks with her ears aimed, always, in his direction. He shifts atop the rock. He sniffs and rumbles, but he is smart enough not to surrender the perch.
He has her at a disadvantage, however, in position only. Alice knows this, as she knows every inch of the stair-step surface. She waits, letting her tail flick and her ears swivel. She rises and pees, moving around the cage as she does to spread the urine. She covers his stink with her own mark and is thrilled when he growls again.
Alice waits. She knows many tricks. He will want to sniff and circle. He will need to come down soon enough.
She gives him her back, stares through the bars and pretends to watch the pathways. It is light already. The zoo will open soon. Alice hears him slip to the second tier and smiles.
Her body is still, relaxed, and non-threatening. Her mind is sharp. He reaches the third step where she could easily leap at him. Alice lies down.
The other hyena slinks to the floor. He moves, not to her directly, but to the blanket instead. He buries his nose in it, smells his own odor overlain with hers.
Always on top.
Alice waits until he moves to the corner, until he begins to follow the trail of her urine.
“This cage is mine,” she says without looking at him. “You don’t belong here.”
His voice is deep and jagged. There is something about it, however, that she likes. “I am here,” he says simply.
Alice sits, yawns, and listens to the padding of his feet. His breath is heavy as he drinks her in, his steps too soft, too confident. When she lunges, he is off guard, distracted, and foolish.
Alice hits him in the side with her full weight. He rolls under the impact, and she is on him, pinning his spotted body to the ground and holding his delicate throat in her heavy jaws. His body is rigid, fights her for three long breaths. Then, as easily as a sigh, he softens. He relaxes beneath her, and she has won.
There was never any doubt of this.
Alice releases him and sits. He rolls onto his belly, groveling, whimpering, and trying to lick her muzzle without lifting too high and earning another reprimand.
“You are mine,” Alice says, and he wriggles and sinks lower. “Everything is mine.”
She thinks she likes the sound of him even more now. His smell is not foul, and she has itched for company for many days.
“Who are you?” Alice asks.
“I am Rocko,” he answers, cringing when she growls. He corrects his mistake quickly. “I am yours.”
“Yes,” Alice says.
She allows him to rub against her chin, to whine and scoot in homage before she leaps away, bounding to the apex of the stair-step rock to wait for him.
Gonzo’s elation carries him to the highest ropes. He has found his bean again. Five black cherries waited for him on the ledge this morning. Five perfect crunchy bites that stop his shaking and bring his headache fast to bay.
He chewed four of these immediately, his excitement too much to resist, his need too powerful. Today, however, he has managed to reserve the fifth. He means to savor it.
Gonzo hides it in one clenched fist and hoots down at a troop that seems sluggish today. The other macaques pass through the square door one by one, blinking into the sunlight and reaching for the lower vines with empty paws and full bellies. Gonzo has forgotten to eat.
He peels back his lips and screeches at them. He hoots, and his fangs flash. They are stained today, marked by the bean juice and ready to display that color proudly.
The others show him halfhearted smiles, pale teeth in slow mouths. He thinks they’ll try to steal his bean, and he stuffs the last cherry into his mouth, chews with his lips sealed while the juices drain down his throat.
The cage vibrates around him. The world slows and Gonzo imagines he is king over all of it. His bean is speed and power, and with it between his teeth, he believes he can reach out to the whole zoo, grip it all in a tight paw, and crush it slowly between his leathery fingers.
Raksha is named after a famous wolf mother, but she does not know it. She is not likely to ever encounter a book. She is a wolf, and a mother, however, and like her literary counterpart, she is made of patience.
Today, her pups are sulking. They have been less active, choosing to lie in a place even when the sunlight has moved past them. She fears for their bellies, fears the worms that sometimes kill a pup’s drive to grow and to thrive.
Raksha calls them to her, and they drag their tiny bodies across the grass. The female sits, but the male pup flops onto his side, tongue lolling. His belly looks full but healthy enough, neither distended nor sparse of fur.
“Are you ill, my pups?” Raksha asks.
Their ‘no’s echo one another, flat and listless.
“But something had taken the pounce out of you,” Raksha insists. “You must tell me.”
The pups exchange a look that hangs from them like a weight. The male covers his nose with both paws. His sister answers for them both.
“We want freedom,” she says, sitting taller and flattening her ears to her head. “We want to go beyond the high wall.”
Raksha lets slip a low growl. Her ears lay tight to her skull, and she sits back on her haunches. This is not at all what she expected. Far worse than a belly full of parasites.
Their minds have been poisoned.
“Who told you about freedom?” she asks.
“A pigeon told us.” The pup’s answer is heartsick, twangs with longing for the unknown.
“Pigeons are liars,” Raksha tries, though she can see the light in the pups’ eyes. She can see the damage that has already been done. “What does a pigeon know of anything?”
“She flew away,” the male pup answers. “She went over the wall.”
“And might easily be dead now,” Raksha says. “Might be eaten or ravaged.”
“Do you think so?” There is interest in the female pup’s voice. There is more energy than Raksha has seen from her in days.
“I do.” She latches on to the opening. “Birds are too stupid to know anything. They are not wolves.”
The girl pup leans into her question. Her brother’s ears lift from his skull. Their eyes drill into their mother.
They are practically begging for the lie.
“What do you like best about being a wolf?” Raksha asks.
“Sitting on the tallest rock,” the girl pup barks it, sure of herself.
Her brother mumbles, “Eating the fat bugs that live under our log.”
“Then do that,” Raksha proclaims. “Do that as often as you possibly can.”
“What do bugs and rocks have to do with—”
Raksha cuts off the pup’s argument with a growl. “It makes you happy,” she says. “Do the thing that makes you happy. That is freedom, my cubs.”
“Are you sure?” The male pup whines, but his tail thumps against the grass.
“I am quite sure,” Raksha says. “You must do what makes you happy.”
She watches them carefully, and even though she has won, they seem much older when they answer.
Hector’s box is rolled on eight metal casters down the long hallway. She-who-takes-notes is there, along with his other doctors. When he poses and presses his paw for them, they offer a skewer of grapes through the bars.
She-who-takes-notes does not clap, but her smile soothes him.
The end of his box is positioned against a dark wall with much jostling and mutters from the doctors’ servants. There are more bars along that surface, but they slide aside. Someone grumbles in the dim light while Hector chews his treats.
Metal screeches. A square of light appears, drawing his gaze down. When he can look without blinking, he is surprised to see the interior of his own den. The box has been wedged against it, and with a click and the effort of many human paws, the end slides upward.
Hector is free to go home.
He stuffs the grapes between his black lips and looks at She-who-takes-notes. The den smells of him. Beyond it, he can see a sliver of his fallen log. He has been content in the box with the grapes and the doctors, but his artist is out there.
She is probably worried about him.
Hector groans despite the fact that he is pain-free. He ambles slowly from the cage, crosses his den, and sits while the bars move again. For a single moment, he can see the doctors through them. Then the wall comes down, and it is as if they never were.
Hector moves easily. His body has mended. He feels, in fact, stronger than he has in decades, younger and fiercer.
At his railing, the sun tells him he is late. The artist has missed him today, has come and gone already.
Hector is sorry to disappoint her, but there is always tomorrow. He will be ready by then. He will show her just how much of a bear he can be.
He lopes from his den like a cub would run. His joints make no comment, and Hector lifts onto his hind legs. He stretches toward the sun, poses, and shows the clicking cameras at the railing all his teeth.
He is bear.
Tomorrow, he will be ready to shine.
Shanti has stopped counting. Today she draws pictures with her straw. She piles it into tortoise-shaped sculptures or flattens smooth canvases of yellow gold and then removes bits to expose an Oliver-shaped portrait in the negative spaces.
Occasionally, she mutters. “One tortoise,” but through most of her work, she is concentrating far too hard to worry about how many pieces of straw it takes to build a tortoise shell. How many swipes of her trunk equal a suitable likeness?
She is inspired, obsessed. She has found her muse, and he is shaped like a stone and covered in perfect, patterned, hexagons.
Charlie chews in his sleep now. His tawny jaws work around his pink tongue, masticating the memory of squeaky meat, of morsels offered by the crowd to their maned god. He lies in the sun, sprawled on his side with his mouth partway open. His tail twitches as he chews nothing.
His dream veldt is populated by hotdog gazelles. Great herds of migrating beasts with sausage legs and long tube necks. They squeak when they walk, filling the Savannah with their delicious cries. Filling Charlie’s head and making him salivate freely.
The air is a thick blanket of scent, of rich sweet meat and spicy preservatives.
It is driving him mad.
He dreams the lionesses hunt for him, but they are far afield, dark shadows on the horizon only. Charlie chews the scent. He swallows the idea of the meat, tasting from memory. He is obsessed. The squeaking meat has possessed him.
His tongue lolls against dry grass. His teeth rise and fall, and deep in his long gut, a desperate rumble echoes like a mighty roar.
Debra circles the marshland three times to make certain she has enough time. The tortoise moves like a slug, one lumbering foot at a time. Even ecstatic, he is mud flowing, weighted down by his ponderous nature.
He is pointed in the right direction, but Debra is sure he will not reach his goal before she returns.
She must not miss that moment, but her victory will be sweeter with an audience. She needs the murder to witness it, needs the other crows to appreciate exactly what she has done.
She circles again, marks Oliver’s progress, and then angles away. The zoo blurs below as she cries out to her fellow crows.
At the old bear’s cage, she gathers a pair of birds who have already grown bored waiting for him to be injured again. A low sweep over the cat house brings three more. As she flies, Debra calls to her kin. She screeches a promise of sport that is far greater than their ordinary games.
The murder responds with a collective cackle. They gather around Debra, adding their wings, their voices, to her cause.
“Come,” the croaking voices sing. “Come, come and see.”
By the time the murder returns to the marshland, it is as if a black cloud descends upon the nets.
Oliver calls Miranda’s name as he trundles through the marshland. His steps churn, as much as a tortoise is capable of churning, and he drags his shell past a low duck pond where teals and loons mingle their regal shapes with those of the common mallard.
He sticks to the paths, and once he reaches that solid firmament, progresses quickly. The fences here, like those in the farm, are wooden and open enough for tortoises to pass below the bottom rail. A few have wire behind them, however, and he sees with a sinking heart that this is usually where the long-legged birds are found.
He passes storks and flamingos, egrets with frilled heads and cranes that stalk to the front of their enclosures to gawk at him as he passes.
Oliver asks them all about his heron, and they all give the same answer.
“Just down a few more.”
Oliver thanks them, but his elation is fading. He thinks he will never reach her, thinks the universe is adding cages between them so that each time he passes one, three more spawn further down the line.
His steps begin to stutter. He pulls his head halfway into his shell and stamps onward. At each fence he cries Miranda’s name, and he almost fails to notice when the birds beyond the fence begin to look like her.
Oliver steps and pivots. There is a wooden fence, but he ignores it. His legs carry him easily underneath, across the strip of mowed grass to the short wire wall inside. It is not unlike the one around his own home.
Beyond it, five long-legged, tan-bodied, curl-necked herons stand. They cluster in the rear of their pen, where the grass grows long, and a high arc of reeds marks some pond or other waterway.
“Miranda.” The first time it comes out as a whisper. Oliver stretches his neck, tries to see his love in the huddle of so-similar birds. “Miranda!”
She looks his way. He sees her graceful neck stretch and twist. He holds his breath as she detaches herself from the flock. His eyes tear.
Miranda moves toward him with all the elegance he remembers. She glides on her stilt legs, and her downy neck is an ess holding her wedge-shaped head aloft.
“Oliver?” Her voice is a nutshell cracking. “What are you doing here?”
He doesn’t notice it at first, the way she turns to look over her shoulder, the way she lowers, bending and flexing her legs so that she is a screen between the flock and his domed body. Until she unfurls one wing to hide him, Oliver misses the cool note in her words. The sharp glint in the eye aimed in his direction.
“I— I came to find you,” he says.
“You escaped?” Only in that he hears a speck of interest.
“I did,” he agrees with too much vehemence.
Miranda takes a step away. “You’ll be punished.”
“I didn’t know where you were,” he blurts, sensing her drawing away, understanding only on the surface what has to come next. “You were just gone.”
“They moved me here,” Miranda’s tone veers again, sounding at last as he remembers it. Bright and haughtily, she informs him, “They were building us a new enclosure, you see, a space with room for all of these new herons.”
“New herons,” Oliver parrots.
“Oh, yes. Fresh in, all of them. The two females are from another zoo, as is Manuel. But my mate, Evan, was caught in the wild.”
“Evan.” Oliver’s neck lowers, slips back inside his shell. “Your mate.”
“Yes.” Miranda nods. Her wing lifts just enough to offer Oliver a view of the other birds without making his presence too obvious. “Evan used to belong to a huge colony. He’s been places. His stories are amazing.”
“You don’t want to come back,” Oliver half-muses. “You want to stay here.”
“Of course.” Miranda pulls herself higher, dropping the wing as she does to keep Oliver veiled. Hidden from her new friends and her mate.
Faintly, he hears the crows laughing. Far off. Somewhere overhead.
“You shouldn’t stay here, though,” Miranda continues. “You’re not a bird, Oliver. You don’t belong here any more than I belong in a turtle pen.”
“Tortoise.” He says it automatically, robotically.
“Whatever.” Miranda ripples, a full body dismissal of his presence, his adoration, and his existence.
She fluffs her feathers once, shakes them flat again, and whispers, “Goodbye, Oliver,” before strutting away.
Her long legs stab each step into the marshy grass like an arrow striking deep into a turtle’s heart.
RAINRIVER ZOOLOGICAL GARDENS
MEMO TO ALL EMPLOYEES
THIS IS A REMINDER TO ALL ZOO STAFF NOT TO PROVIDE ANY FOOD TO THE ANIMALS THAT IS NOT A PART OF THEIR REGULARLY SCHEDULED DIET.
EACH AND EVERY RAINRIVER ANIMAL’S DIET IS OVERSEEN BY A TEAM OF VETERINARIANS AND KEEPERS AND ADDING ANYTHING TO THAT REGIMEN CAN BE DETRIMENTAL TO THE ANIMAL’S HEALTH AND WELL-BEING.
THERE ARE TO BE NO EXCEPTIONS TO THIS RULE.
WE WILL CONSIDER PROVIDING OUTSIDE TREATS TO THE ANIMALS A FIRST TIME FIRING OFFENSE, AS PER EMPLOYEE CONTRACTS.
WE CANNOT ALLOW THE ENTHUSIASM AND EXCITEMENT FOR OUR THRIVING ZOO TO RESULT IN LAX CARE OR DANGEROUS BEHAVIOR.
THIS WILL BE YOUR ONLY WARNING.
REMINDER: THE POTLUCK WILL BE HELD TOMORROW EVENING. DUE TO A CHANGE IN EMPLOYMENT, WE COULD USE ONE MORE PERSON TO BRING A SALAD.
There are no beans on the ledge today. Gonzo stares at the empty shelf outside his bars as if he can will them into being. While the troop dines, he continues to check every second breath or so, but no cherries magically appear for him.
His need pulls back his lips. He snarls at the melon in his paws.
He-who-sweeps has not come. Instead, a new one drags her broom across the aisle. Her head is down, focused on the work and oblivious to a monkey’s expectations. They-who-bring-food do not even carry the paper cups today.
He smells nothing but fruit and macaque feces, and that lack enrages him.
His paws quake until he wraps them around the bars, dragging at the metal as if he might tear it free of its rigidity.
Gonzo screeches. He hops and bares his fangs while They-who-bring-food watch, shaking their heads and discussing him with barking voices.
Gonzo flings shit at them. He loosens his grip on the cage and finds a fresh, filthy pile to grab and toss. To splatter and spray.
They-who-bring-food step out of range, continue their discussion while Gonzo’s mind implodes. He must have the cherries. He must taste the bean. He must have, must have, must chew it again or he is certain he will die.
Peg has grown as fat as a plump, round chicken. She has spent days stuffing herself on birdseed, on little chunks of fruit and flat, striped sunflower seeds. She waddles beside the phony creek at the bottom of the aviary, and she puffs her feathers, becoming a gray sphere as she glowers at the sparkling water.
It is always wet in here.
Her feathers have not dried once since she’s arrived. Her eyes swivel and blink against the moist air and her hocks have begun to complain about the extra weight. The aviary birds are not pigeons. They are too crowded, and fight the proximity by keeping to themselves, not gossiping. There is nothing, really, to whisper about here. Only warm air, shining leaves, and a steady supply of healthy foods.
Peg is miserable.
She scratches at the moist ground, and it clings to her feet, clogging her toes, making her shake and stamp.
There are no cast-off hot dogs here. There is no soft bread, no popcorn, and no soda, and no need at all to fight and squabble over a meal.
She has taken to watching the doors, standing just inside the twin portals while they open, close, open. But she is too fat now, too slow to risk an exit.
Hector wakes pain-free for the first time in years. He has missed his artist while away, and this new, fresh feeling in his limbs presses him to move quickly. Out of the den, he ambles, hump swaying from side to side between his shoulder blades.
There are not doctors to give him grapes and needles today, but here is his own territory, his fallen log, his trench, and his jagged scratching stump.
It is early, so he indulges in a good, long session with his shaggy back pressed up against the bark. Up and down, Hector wiggles, reaching those persistent itches that his new range of motion finally allows him to assuage.
When he is satisfied, tingling from neck to fat bottom, Hector lifts his muzzle and sniffs. His nose twists left and right, chasing the aroma of his breakfast.
A pile of fruit waits behind the fallen log. It is still early. He sits and pokes his nose among the soft chunks. He noses through colored morsels, and he smells something not unlike the odor which clings perpetually to his doctors.
His first bite is bitter. He thinks the fruit has gone bad, tosses it off, and grabs a new bit. The sharp taste clings to it as if painted on.
Hector’s stomach urges him to push past it. He lips cautiously, however, cringing from the unpleasantness hiding behind his breakfast. He remembers sweet grapes on a long skewer. The zoo will open soon. He has wasted his advantage poking at his food and decides to leave it be.
Despite his belly’s complaints, he moves back to the stump to wait. He tries a few poses in preparation, testing his new flexibility and striking more than one mighty figure.
She will be impressed, he thinks, to see him stretch so tall, bend so low, and twist…
Hector hears feet upon the paths. Voices sing like birdsong on the morning air. He stands without wavering, gazes over the railing, proud and proper.
His artist is the first face at the rail. Hector greets her with a churr he has perfected on the doctors. She smiles and claps. She reaches into her bag while Hector switches his pose. She pulls something free, something that is not made of art, not a sketchbook, nor a stub of charcoal.
Hector’s artist aims the thing at him, shamelessly, and he drops to all fours.
He huffs as the click echoes through his morning, bitter as his fruit, loud as gunfire.
Hector turns, shows the artist his back, and pouts.
There will be nothing more between them.
She has stooped to photography.
Alice hates Rocko. He is too large, too clumsy. His breathing scratches like a flea behind her ears. He pants too freely, splashes her water across the cage floor while drinking, and sneaks to the top tier to crowd her while she sleeps.
They have mated twice, and she is done with him.
She paces near the front of the cage, measuring the steps down and back in an abstract fashion and with a growing sense that there simply is no room for him.
Not enough space for two in her box. Not enough room for a Rocko mate.
He cackles from a low tier on the stair-step rock, pants and licks and makes a stupid, lolling face at her. He will want to mate again soon, and Alice thinks she will not let him.
She thinks the cage is too small, the walls too close.
They seem to move as she watches, creeping as Alice stares, one inch closer. Shrinking, boxing, trapping her inside them with a massive, dopey excuse for a male hyena.
Oliver doesn’t hide when the sun rises. He drifts along the marshland pathway, keeping to the far end, away from the herons, and waits to be caught.
The nets arch overhead, a mesh of pale lines that seem to weigh more today. He is pinned by them, held in his dismay by an ephemeral wall.
Eventually, he stops moving. There is nowhere to go, no path that won’t eventually lead him back to Miranda. Even with the huge duck pond between them, Oliver imagines he can hear her voice.
It is only the crows laughing, but he hears it in the haughty, clipped tones of a heron who never wanted him to begin with. Oliver tucks his head into his shell and remembers Shanti’s voice, deep and encouraging, awed by his shell and his pattern.
He has no reason to think of the elephant now, but the memory soothes him anyway. At least until the crows begin to shout and taunt him again.
Oliver hates them, hates all birds today, but it is an abstract, force-less feeling. His rage has no power. Even Debra is a wisp of irritation only.
The crow didn’t trick him, after all. Oliver did this to himself. He knows it, knows he was blind on purpose, willfully deaf to Miranda’s indifference. He was obsessed, irrational, unwanted from the start.
It is that which burns brightest now. Not the sting of heartbreak or the raw chafing of rejection. It is shame.
His sense of self has been shattered by the blow to his ego. Oliver feels it seeping in through the gaps in his shell. He was wrong. He was deeply, embarrassingly wrong, and how his crimes are exposed.
He is a cracked egg, leaking his flaws onto the path for all to see.
And, overhead, the crows have every right to mock him.
The tortoise takes his heartbreak far too well. Debra watches, laughs when the snooty bird rejects him, but her joke is flat. She has to explain the story to the murder three times before they get it and join in.
They follow Oliver for only a short while, taunting and earning no response from their moping victim. It is enough of a game to please the murder, but they are not as impressed with Debra as she desires.
Even devastated, Oliver is ponderous and unexciting.
Debra leaves the marshland to the murder and circles the family farm. A cow is moaning over some mild stomach distress, but it is not worth landing to mock her. She flies to the hyenas, but ever since the male was stuffed into the cage, the female has turned aggressive, more dangerous than usual. Debra will wait until he is removed to find sport there.
She gives up and spends the day in the top of a tall tree, sleeping off her long night setting up Oliver’s misery. Maybe he will try again with the heron, but Debra thinks she has gone too far this time. He is too broken to wring any more distress from his situation.
A restless feeling has gripped her, a sense of dread building. Normally, this would please her, but something is not right. Something deep inside her knows fear. As if her sport has left her hollow.
She tucks her beak beneath one wing and lets the zoo fade. In her dreams a dark paw reaches for her. She is caught, captured, stuck in a gage. And only madness circles the skies above her.
She wakes to the sound of human voices.
Night has fallen, and yet the people have not left. It is not quiet. It is not even truly dark. Lights bounce and flicker around the snack bar, and Debra chases them. She sweeps down from the tree and crosses the shadows in between to investigate.
They-who-keep-cages-locked are here. For a moment, Debra believes there will be a hunt. Those-who-carry-guns are with them, and her heart skips merrily. But no. They-who-sweep and They-who-bring-food are also here. They mingle freely with Those-who-pick-up-poop-and-trash.
There are others, too, strangers who join the familiar faces. Their voices raise and chatter. The night fills with the cacophony of their conversation. After hours. This has never happened before.
There is food, too, great piles of it lined up on the outdoor tables.
Debra dives in and steals a flat, round cracker. As she escapes with it, the pigeons, who have swarmed the event, shout obscenities at her. Their whole flock waddles beneath and between the tables, dancing around the many feet—boots and shoes and tall spike-heeled platforms that would skewer a bird if it moved too slowly.
Debra watches in case it happens, but the people in the shoes are foolish. They may be sick, even, and she fears for a moment that the food has been poisoned. They-who-work-at-the-zoo limp and stagger. They bump into one another, shaking, moving as if their legs are not their own.
Like a newborn giraffe trying to stand for the first time.
If they are poisoned, they do not suffer. Debra cringes from their laughter, the barking of their brusque, abrasive voices. They are happy. They are masters at the game Debra only plays at. At trapping and at torture. She is among the cruel and the vindictive, the keepers and the punishers. The stealers of freedom.
Debra can do nothing but admire them.
She still feels a disaster brewing. The air is thick with it. This mob of humans, the pigeons cursing and squabbling underfoot, the poisoned food and drink. A new tension crackles on the air. It has, she realizes, been brewing all along. Something terrible is about to happen. Debra feels it like a storm coming, and she lets her dark heart fill with anticipation again.
The danger sings to her. Its voice is tragedy. Its words are a promise of disaster. Debra perches on a light post, high above the party, and waits for the lightning to strike.