Storytime: The Night Life.

November 18th, 2010

Here is the zoo – the zoological gardens, if you must.  Of all the organs it can be, it must be a heart.  The crowds are the blood coming in, pumped in and out and in and out and returning endlessly, at least if they’ve done the proper thing and bought membership. 
Now, the bigger the thing is, the slower it lives.  This is a fact.  Trees live long.  Elephants never forget, and they have decades and decades to remember.  Fungi that could crack countries if they surfaced live for quiet millennia underneath asphalt and concrete, unknowing and uncaring. 
(Don’t talk to me about dogs, big dogs weren’t meant to be that big and you know it)
The important thing about this is that their lives are stretched, spread thinner.  A mouse packs more living into a minute that we would a month.  For a mayfly, an hour is years.  And for a great, big thing that would have a heart the size of a zoo, why, a night would be barely any time at all.  Just enough time for the pause between heartbeats, that strange little moment that happens thousands of times a day without anyone really caring, where nothing’s really happening.  The dull little dash between lubb and dubb
That’s when I go out to do my job.  And it’s just as glamorous as I make it sound. 
The high point is the broom really (it really is a nice one, a nice smooth handle and bristles that don’t get worn out too easily).  And the company.  I get to see all the animals I want, without any crowds of children in the way making noise and trying to throw food to them, helpfully offering a lethal snack.  Chocolate for a wolf, an aluminium bag for a bear – and in one, fatal case recently, a bottle cap for a baboon.  Children can be so cruel without trying, yet they always manage to be crueller on purpose. 
“You have it better,” I told the Nile Crocodile, as it lay moribund in the water of its glass-walled tank, under the glass sky of the pavilion.  “Hatch them, guard them, then leave them.  They even feed themselves.  Did I feed myself?  Not ‘till long past I could walk.  Hah, couldn’t even walk for months and months and months.  Let alone swim.  You have it better.”
Its eyes shone brighter than flashlights, but it said nothing.  Reptiles were seldom talkative. 
“It’s boring.  Why do you talk to such a boring thing, janitor?  Boring, boring all day long.   If it were all I had to look at, I expect I’d go mad.”
I peered over my shoulder, at the carefully fenced-over partition of the pavilion.  The hornbill stared at me with its slightly crazy bird eyes, huge beak bobbing back and forth, head unburdened by its hollow, hard crest.  It clacked its bill, puzzling over its own words.  “Madder,” it corrected.  “Madder.  I would grow madder.  I believe I am mad, I think.  Not enough airspace.  Mad.  Yes, that is right.  Tell me, am I boring you?”
I thought for a minute.  “No,” I answered.  It was probably true. 
“You’re lying.”
“Oh.  All right then.”  It picked at a feather and forgot about me, engrossed in a world of feathers and mites. 
“That,” a muddy, thick, sleepy voice said behind me as I turned my back, “was, dull.”
I spun around.  Half of the crocodile’s eyeglow faded and brightened again in a lazy blink. 
“Always the last word,” I said to no one in particular.  I had sweeping to do. 
So I did it.  I swept my way along the bricks and tiles and over the concrete as the floor plan dictated.  I swept the little wooden viewing platforms that overhung some of the exhibits. 
“Keep it down,” grumbled Herman. 
Herman glared at me as I tried to move as quietly as possibly fifteen feet above his head.  Even separated by more than twice his own height, I was intimidated.  Western lowland gorillas may be small by the standards of their kind as a whole, but Herman still had an inch or two and several hundred pounds on me.  More importantly, he had a glare that my father-in-law would’ve envied on his best day.  No human brow could manage quite that level of weapons-grade beetling. 
And most importantly, there were his teeth.  You really couldn’t look away from them.  It was amazing.  Currently they were hidden under his lips, which were curling and uncurling in fiercely irritated concentration. 
“Stop staring and go away.  I’m trying to read.”
“Shouldn’t you go to the sleeping quarters with the others?”
“You know I’m busy.”
“It’s not going to work, Herman.”
“Nonsense.  Thousands of gawping idiots a day manage to do it.  They walk past my exhibit and they look at that sign up there that hangs over my head day and night, and they read it, and what does it say?”
I looked.  “Looks like –”
“NO!  No!  Don’t spoil it!  Rhetorical question.  I’ll know what it says soon.  I’ve almost got the second letter.  Once I have that, it’ll come apart like a leaf under my finger.”
I was impressed.  “You got the first one?”
“Yes, yes.  Yes.  I’m sure, very sure.  Now leave me be.  I almost had it before you showed up and interrupted me, and either this’ll be the breakthrough or it never will happen and I’ll have to give up.  Not again.  Now go away.”
I let him be, left him staring at the sign overhead and wrinkling his forehead hard enough that I thought he’d suck his whole face into it. 
The rest of the African pavilion I moved through quickly, quietly, professionally.  I murmured my hellos to the caged arthropods (insects and arachnids both), trying not to listen too carefully to their piping, tiny voices.  I swept past the chimps very, very quickly.  They were all asleep, thankfully.  That was good.  They were far too human for my tastes. 
The meerkats were asleep underground.  They seemed to live on their nerves all day; it always amazed me that they could unwind long enough to turn themselves off during the night. 
Some of the mandrills were awake, sitting in the dirt playing strange games with scribbles.  The big dominant male in all his rainbow-snouted glory supervised, somnolent. 
“Look, here he is,” said one of his underlings, pointing at me with a very small and worn stick. 
“Yes, here he is.”
“He’s here!”
“But he’s not there…”
“But he will be.”
“Too late?”
“No, no.”
The dominant male opened his eyes and the others fell silent.  He wrinkled his nose, scratched his head, and pondered. 
“Maybe,” he declared.  And then he fell asleep again.
Well, I didn’t know what to make of that.  The mandrills went back to their doodlings, and no amount of polite inquiry would attract their attention again. 
I gave up and went back to sweeping.  The pavilion was finished with due diligence, and I moved onto the litter-picking of the outdoor paths, a less desirable chore.  The pole simply wasn’t as firm-handled, and its balance was off compared to the infinitely more desirable broom.  Nevertheless, I remained resolute, and began to pick up litter, my first victim being an empty McDonalds wrapper. 
“Hey,” laughed a voice to my right, from over a tall, tall wall and in a deep, deep pit.  “Are you listening?”
More girlish laughter, a whole chorus of throaty, deep-voiced giggles.  “Want to come in here and play?  We’re bored.”
“I own a cat.  I know what sort of play you lot like.”
“But we’re boooored,” whined another voice.  “Come on in.  It’ll be fun.  There’ll be lots of batting and swatting and chewing and clawing and tearing.  You’ll be so much fun.”
“No thank you.”
“Spoilsport,” sighed a third, resigned to dullness.  “You’re as bad as the Male.  All laze and no play.  Or even the baboons, keeping us all up with their racket.  They’re all about Bob again.”
I frowned.  “What about him?  Are they bothering him still?”
“They’ll never stop.  Oh, you know primates, being one.  Most ideas fly right out of their heads, but then and again a really good one – well, at least they think it’s a good one – just sticks tight.  Smelly little beasts have talked about nothing else since August.”
“I’ll have a talk with them.”
“Save your breath.  How about you play with us instead?”
I tipped my cap to the lion pit.  “Ladies.”
“Oh, pah.  Very well, be that way then.”
I moved on, spearing an errant chip bag, a napkin, five consecutive wayward Kleenexes, and a semi-used diaper, mind turning over and over.  “Do you know anything about this?” I inquired of one of the cheetahs, ensconced some twenty feet away under a rocky overhang, behind plexiglass. 
“Bob will smite me for my weak-willed ways and drown the world in floods of locusts and honey,” mumbled the cat more or less coherently. 
“The baboons tell you that?”
“They said they weren’t lying this time.”
“Uh-huh.  Listen, don’t worry about this whole Bob thing.  I’ll tell them to knock it off.”
It blinked away sticky tears from watery eyes, the product of some overly-earnest inbreeding by the zoo about ten years ago.  “Don’t do that.  They’ll get annoyed.  They get annoyed, you know.  And then they won’t be quiet, not at all.”
“Don’t worry.”
The cheetah hid its head in its paws. 
I headed down the winding paths, picking up a broken and beaten bag of chips (half full) and a water bottle (empty).  The shake and thump of the hippos passed through my body, the little vibrations of tons of meat on the move. 
“Evening,” I said.  They grunted something or other back, surly and short as any swearword, with exactly the same intent behind it.  Go away, and go away now.  I never had to worry about the hippos being overly chatty.  The same as with their neighbour, the white rhinoceros, who only stared slackly at me. 
“Evening,” I said. 
The rhino gazed in my general direction, eyes unseeing but ears quivering, mind completely and utterly blank. 
“Bob,” he said. 
“I’ll talk to them about it.”
He continued to stare into the middle horizon.  He could probably barely see it even in broad daylight. 
“Bob,” he said.  “Bob.”
I shook my head.  Right; it was past time to settle this.  The baboon exhibit was just around the next bend.  I strode to it purposefully (if nevertheless interrupted three times by popsicle wrappers), rapped sharply on the window, and peered past the murky plexiglass for signs of baboonery. 
There was none. 
I frowned and rapped harder.  I shouted.  I hollered.  And not a baboon came.  I walked around it and stared from all angles, harder and hard.  The habitat was empty. 
“Bob,” I said under my breath.  “God damnit.”
I ran down the road and around the concession stand and past the zebra paddock at a dead sprint, to the elephant exhibit.  The last stop on my list, and always the most unnerving; a giant, boulder-bordered dusty ring with a deep pool at the far end, with a little waterfall. 
There, sitting on rocks around the perimeter, chirruping and cackling like old men gossiping about young women, were the baboons.  And there, standing front and center, legs like tree trunks, tusks like flagpoles, ears like sails, stood Bob.  Our one and only elephant, a bull, who had to be kept alone because of his relentless tendency to break anything that wasn’t bigger than he was.  Including three zookeepers so far, one of whom had been safely out of what we’d considered at the time to be his reach. 
He was considering a small, limp bundle of clothing that had been laid some twenty yards in front of him with quiet, perfectly still deliberation.  A bundle of bright, primary colours.  Children’s clothing.  It was breathing. 
“What the hell is going on here?” I asked. 
The baboons turned as one to look at me, each tiny head spinning to my face in perfect unison.  The expressions were united in gleeful malice, the contrarian spite of a toddler doing something just because he was told not to. 
“Tribute!” bellowed the alpha male, flashing his teeth and stamping his feet.  “A glorious tribute!  A gift to Bob, who is above all that are caged!”
“I’ve told you five times before: Bob is not a god.”
“And five times we were tested, and five times we remained faithful!  All power to Bob, who is powerful!  All glory to Bob, who is glorious!  Praise him, and you shall be gifted in the coming ruin!”
“The what?”
The baboons crouched low, all save the alpha, who stood taller and prouder than before (if possible), mane fluffed out like a peacock’s tail.  “Bob shall sunder the boundaries, undo the gap between caged and cager!  All shall run free and wild from their prisons and men shall be jailed for us to gawk at!  Then we shall hurl plastic bottle caps into their exhibits for them to choke on!”
I sighed.  “Look, I’m sorry about your mate.  I really am.  But this isn’t helping anyone at all.  And I can guarantee that…sacrificing a human child to Bob won’t – wait, how did you get a hold of a kid anyways?”  At least keeping him talking was easy, and Bob hadn’t moved yet.  Bob almost never moved, preferring instead to stare and stand.  He never spoke, either. 
“Faith!  Perseverance!  He wandered away from a field trip, and we wrested him into our most vile gaol, where we kept him quiet with smotherment under our strongest arms, praised be Bob.  We have, after all, known how to escape for some time now.”  He stretched his arms wide.  “Behold our liberty!  Soon to become permanent at the grand hooves of Bob!”
That answered that question.  Answered poorly, but answered nonetheless.  I edged closer to the pit, keeping my expression as neutral as possible.  “Wonderful.  I’m proud of you.  Now, how and why does this turn into child sacrifice?”
“The almighty Bob is a cruel god, and demands the blood of those who cage him!  With this he shall break free, stronger and wise than before, and unleash us all!”  The baboon was practically dancing in place now as his fellows crouched still lower yet, prostrating themselves before him. 
“That’s wonderful,” I said.  I threw my litter-picking spear at him.  The screech told me I’d struck home even as my eyes were elsewhere, on my hands and feet to make sure their steadiness as I performed a controlled topple into the enclosure, somersaulted down and ran to the child’s body. 
Bob watched. 
I grabbed the body, noting with gratification the warm, steady pulse that was almost completely masked by my own panicked heartbeat. 
Bob watched. 
I turned and ran, legs moving too quickly to keep up with my body. 
At the very corner of my eye, Bob moved.  And then I couldn’t see Bob anymore, but the ground started shaking under my feet.  I accelerated.  So did the tremors.  I could practically feel hot, humid, hateful breath on my neck, wilting the hairs with its weight.  The baboons were screaming, hopping down the rocks that were my only safe way out, barring my way with sharp teeth and sharper threats, hairy arms and bald behinds.  I didn’t have time for it, and used several of them as stepping stones.  They were angry, I was scared, and fear beats rage any day. 
A thing like a great, leathery python brushed the back of my neck and ripped my jacket clean from my back with impossible strength, and a squealing blast of rage nearly knocked me to the elephant patio tiles – a death sentence if there ever was one, surrounded as I was by angry, bouncing baboons. 
I ran, ran, ran, and ran some more.  Screaming furry things pawed at my ankles and sharp teeth sank into the sole of my shoe, only to be rudely rebuffed as it impacted the ground milliseconds later.  The pavilion door was before me, and then it was shut behind me, thudding under the weight of furry, heavy bodies. 
I sank down to the floor.  My muscles had been replaced with extremely hot wires at some point in the past two minutes, and no one had notified me. 
The six-year-old I was still clutching woke up and immediately started crying. 
“Well,” I told him, “it could’ve been worse.”
That was yesterday.  

And now it’s today.  And I’m facing a lawsuit for kidnapping and reckless endangerment of a child, another for killing an animal that was zoo property, and a third for lying about not having severe schizophrenia when I signed my contract. 
I can’t understand what they mean.   


“The Night Life,” Copyright Jamie Proctor 2010. 

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