Short Story: The Zoo
Arts & Culture, Features, Short Stories - Posted on Wednesday, September 15, 2010 18:25 - 1 Comment
By Ben White
He lifted the wooden beam just enough for him to squeeze under, picking his way carefully so as not so step on the shards of broken glass. It was a challenge, since Mohammad was also trying to keep his eyes fixed on the pile of rubble outside the shattered wall. He knew it was there. He’d seen it. He was walking to school this morning when he saw it for the first time. First, the head and the neck, sticking out over the top of a wall. When he ran over, the creature must have heard him coming because it started to lollop away as fast as its one good leg could manage. Mohammad had never seen such a thing in his life, not even on the television. He scrambled over the wall and began the pursuit.
Despite the ostrich’s ability to always evade the boy at the last minute, Mohammad was not exasperated. He was gripped by the same fascination he felt the moment he had seen it, and his face was set with concentration. The chase had led him across a dirt field and through the shattered remains of houses. Now, as he stepped over jagged concrete teeth, his heart beat fast and steady. He felt that the beast was near, and in a matter of seconds, he would have his prey.
With a few sudden movements, Mohammad bounded round the side of the rubble and leapt on the bird. His hands struggled to find a secure grip, as the ostrich shrieked, and the long neck snapped back and forth. They were both rolling in the dirt, and Mohammad savoured the smell of dust, sweat and feathers, even as he fought to keep his grip. Without warning, the ostrich stopped moving, and Mohammad the Hunter had won. He sat atop the bird, his chest heaving. The ostrich was not dead. Small black eyes stared up at Mohammad’s and when he caught the bird’s gaze, it seemed that both stopped breathing for a half second.
The creature seemed to be calm, thought Mohammad, but what was he going to do now? He remembered how a few months ago his class had visited the zoo, where he had seen animals of wonder that still appeared to him in his dreams. That was the answer: he had to take this beast to the zoo – they would know what to do there. He started to pick himself up, all the while keeping a tight hold on the ostrich. As he stood, the bird stretched and stood with him. Mohammad looked down and saw that one of the bird’s two legs was almost entirely severed at the knee. The bottom half hung limply, swaying as the ostrich moved. ‘Don’t worry’, he said to the bird, ‘We’re going to the zoo’.
* * *
The stone floor felt cool under Rania’s feet as she walked to the window. She placed one foot in front of the other slowly and deliberately. The last time she fell, her Mother had been so cross with her that Rania cried the rest of the day. She looked back at the bed, the sheets turned up and pushed to one side, and her body shaped hollow in the mattress. She could go back. But then she heard it again. The notes rang through the early morning, as sharp as the light filling the room. A sound she had never heard. A beckoning. She had to go.
It was only seven more paces until she could lean against the bottom of the window. Her Mother would always leave it slightly open so as to give Rania the benefit of fresh air. Four, five. The song came again, and she looked up smiling. Six, and – she was there. Her hands trembled slightly from the effort, but her face glowed with pride as she looked through the bars. Her bedroom was on the second floor of the house, overlooking the small garden. A few feet from the house there was a fig tree – not an enormous one, like the one Rania’s cousins had next door – but it still produced fruit in season. She desperately scanned the garden, looking for the bird – she was sure it must be a bird – that had serenaded her as she dreamed.
The more she looked the harder it became. All the colours of the garden seemed to be brighter and more glaring that morning, making it impossible to find the little soloist. Another time she gazed all over the fig tree, and – she saw it! “Ah!” she shrieked. There he was, rocking back and forth on a flimsy branch, his neck tilted to the sky and throat wide open. His body was a beautiful green, lighter than the tree leaves, which melted into a fiery red covering his breast, neck and face.
Rania was so mesmerised that she did not hear the footsteps of her Mother outside her bedroom door, and she barely even registered the click of the handle as the door was pushed open. It was her Mother’s sharp intake of breath that broke the spell, and Rania twisted round with a look of fear and pleading. For a reason that the little girl could not understand, her Mother did not speak, but walked slowly over to the open window. She put her hand on her daughter’s shoulder and gazed out, following Rania’s gaze to the singing lovebird in the fig tree.
They stood there, silent, for a long time. They were still standing there when the lovebird suddenly stopped, looked around, and flew up and above the house.
* * *
His black paws crunched on the rough mix of sand and dirt as he looked warily from left to right. He had never seen a place like this before, nor so many people. He had stepped out of his cage cautiously at first, but soon realised that there was nothing, or no one, to stop him going wherever he liked. He set out in no particular direction – since he had never been the other side of the metal bars before – and gingerly followed the side of a road as it made its way towards the camp. Sometimes a car would come hurtling down the road, and the jaguar would pause to warily watch it until it was out of sight again.
He hardly even flinched when he heard the loud bangs behind him, or the dull explosions in fields to his left. Instead, he kept on padding forward, his four legs having slipped into a comfortable, rolling rhythm. After he’d been walking for some time, he began to relax, and his shoulders loosened slightly. Under the glaring morning sun, however, he was getting thirsty, and his eyes darted around looking for where he might find a drink of water. But all he could see, everywhere he looked, were dust, stones, and the higgledy-piggledy houses of the camp.
The cat’s eyes grew brighter as the intensity of his thirst increased. A few times he coughed for several minutes, hacking up dust and tiny pieces of concrete. It felt like his lungs were full of the stuff. Water. His pace quickened, head flicking from side to side. Soon the ground was slipping across his paws and the light burned off the stones, piercing his eyes. The jaguar slowed down, and for a moment, seemed to have frozen, poised to take the next step. Then he shivered, wobbled to the left, and fell over onto his right side. A small cloud rose up around his trembling chest and flanks, like incense. His eyelids flickered and his nostrils twitched, breathing in more of this damned dust.
* * *
Mohammad and the ostrich limped together through the streets. People would come out of their homes once they saw the pair, standing silently and staring. The little kids, who would normally be running and screaming at finding something new and marvellous, were all in school. One little girl stood at a window and fixed Mohammad with a long stare, mouth slightly open. She followed him with her eyes until he’d turned the corner.
The ostrich had grown quieter the longer the two of them had been walking together. Mohammad noticed that the ostrich was always looking straight ahead, never turning to the side once, and this both unnerved and impressed him. They came to a slightly wider street, with shops either side, and here the shopkeepers and customers stopped their gossiping to turn and stare. As they went, Mohammad could hear rushed snaps of conversation coming from either side of him.
– They’re still there? I thought they’d begun to leave half an hour ago?
– No, they’re going house to house! Oh God, what can we do?
– Well I feel sorry for the children. There was no reason to go into the zoo, was there?
– You know they put some of the birds in one of their bulldozers! They knew these were the rarest kind, the most valuable.
– Well, they’re thieves, God curse them, but that’s the least of our worries. I heard that there are wolves on the loose!
– Wolves? That’s only the half of it! Abu Mahmoud saw a python, and my neighbour’s wife says she heard on the radio that there are crocodiles and monkeys, just roaming where they please!
Mohammad was confused, and the words he heard seemed to fall in on top of each other in his mind, forming an incomprehensible heap. What did this mean? The animals crowded into Mohammad’s imagination and he felt dizzy, holding tight to the ostrich so as not to lose his footing. Pictures from the magazine his aunt showed him once, of a jungle and a faraway people, danced with the creatures he remembered from his trip to the zoo, until he thought he would go mad from all the noises these animals were making. For months after that day, Mohammad’s dreams would be full of these beasts, swapping heads and bodies with each other, holding hands, and singing.
* * *
Imm Issa was grumbling to herself as she swept the small concrete enclosure at the back of their house. From time to time, crumbs, nut shells, leaves and dirt would accumulate, mostly, she muttered, from her sister-in-law’s place above them. Every week, she imagined leaving the filth long enough that the woman would be ashamed to look down from her window, but she never had enough patience. After five or six days, she was back out there, gently cursing as she stabbed short strokes with the brush.
She stood up, groaning as her back straightened, and tried to waft some air around her neck damp with sweat. Inside the house she could hear the television murmuring. As Imm Issa leant back down to her work she had the strange feeling that she was being watched. That nosy woman is probably smirking down at me, Imm Issa thought, as I clear up her mess. She didn’t look up, but continued to scrape the dirty floor, sweet papers and dirt clinging to the rough wooden brush head.
There was a small noise behind her, but turning her head, she saw nothing. She paused – a strange sight, bent double and her neck twisted round and over her shoulder. The day was still. Then, another scratching, this time, in front of her, and as she snapped her head back round, Imm Issa saw a flash of burnished red go past her.
* * *
The entrance to the zoo was a twisted pile of metal, all points and vicious curves. Tank tread marks had split the sign into three pieces. Mohammad stopped, and the ostrich continued to look ahead, into the wreck of the zoo. It was quiet, Mohammad and the ostrich sharing the moment with a goat gnawing at something on the ground. The pair picked their way over the rubbish, and looked around. A dozen yards in front of them was the swimming pool, now filled with debris and wreckage, dark water stains on the ground. Sticking up out of the chlorine-water were the skeletal remains of cages, and the soaked fronds of countless shrubs. Planks of wood bobbed on the surface, and between the metal and the green were the floating bodies of another goat and a kangaroo.
The ostrich was staring at the ground, and Mohammad’s gaze flicked to the left, beyond the pool, towards the remains of an animal pen. A man wearing dirty, blood-smeared overalls was walking to and fro, picking up dead guinea fowl and ducks, and laying them out in neat rows. He worked slowly but rhythmically, gently placing one down before moving straight to the next body. Watching, Mohammad noticed the smell for the first time. He gagged, as the air thick with blood and feathers rushed in through his nostrils. Dropping to his haunches in the dust, he finally released the ostrich, who remained standing, gazing down.
Ben White is a freelance journalist and writer, His first book, ‘Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide’, was published by Pluto Press in 2009, receiving praise from the likes of Desmond Tutu, Nur Masalha and Ghada Karmi. Ilan Pappe called White a “strong and clear voice”, while Ali Abunimah described the book as “essential reading”. His articles have appeared in the Guardian online’s ‘Comment is free’, Electronic Intifada, the New Statesman, Christian Science Monitor, Al-Jazeera English online, Palestine Chronicle, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East International, Al Aqsa Journal, Church Times, Church of England Newspaper, Third Way, The Muslim Weekly, and Palestine-Israel Journal.
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