The little girl couldn’t tell what he was, or what it was. She quietly watched through a space between metal bars as the lumbering, dishevelled creature stood on its hind legs with its back turned to her. A stream arced from below its belly where it held its forepaws.
“Mother, what’s that?” the little girl asked.
Her mother stood at her side. “I don’t know, I can’t read his sign. Wait until he turns around,” she said.
The little girl rose on her toes for a better view. She had short blonde curls and wore a blue dress with black buckled shoes holding the reflection of the summer sun. Her mother looked like her older twin, with blonde curls that hugged her rosy cheeks. She had on a long, red house dress and pearly white gloves. The scene of mother and daughter at the zoo had the picturesque qualities of a perfect world that exists only on dime store postcards, far removed from the world through which it will be sent.
“I can see his zipper,” the little girl said.
Her mother pulled her away, away from the exposure to an ugliness she didn’t yet understand. Was it nature or man-made? They hurried their pace, hoping to see all the animals and still get home before nightfall. The visit was a treat to little girl for being good, but also for her mother, who wanted to see what had become of the animals after the change.
One day, a curious silence had befallen the zoo in the sleepy town of Springfield. The zookeepers searched in every cage and under every rock but found no living creature, not even a feeder mouse. The police found no signs of forced entry. The animals simply vanished.
They were all visible as the little girl and her mother followed the hard black asphalt from cage to cage. The animals, however, looked different from those the little girl saw in her school books. There was something odd about them, as if they were the ugly ghosts of their former raw, majestic selves. When the flamingoes pranced by with fat, fleshy legs, she realized what it was. All the animals had the same shade of white in their hollows and joints.
“Are they sick? Do they have a disease?” she asked.
“No, they are all just made the same inside,” her mother replied.
They stopped at an ice cream cart. The day had the kind of oppressive heat that weighed on breath, motion and will. A black man in an immaculate white jacket and hat handed the little girl two scoops of ice cream in a waffle cone.
“Sure is hot today. Feels like it’ll never be cool again,” the man said.
“You think the animals are okay?” the little girl asked.
“Oh, I think they’re fine. The animals’ skin isn’t as thick as it used to be. The animals are people, and people can do just fine in the heat. So they say.”
Word of the mysterious animal exodus had quickly spread around town. A meeting was called. The townspeople arrived at the courthouse on Main Street in their Sunday best, trying to cloak their anger and fear. But the pressure to adapt to the unknown was too much. People shouted and scolded each other. Two men got into a fist fight that didn’t end till blood hit the floor.
Who will come spend money in a town with no zoo? Someone asked. What is a world without animals? Someone asked. A world without animals is a sign we’re next in line, Someone replied. We can’t disappoint the children, Someone said.
A grand plan was plotted. The townspeople would dress and act as the disappeared animals. Everyone agreed it would be a marvellous performance, better than the real thing. They exited the town hall proud of themselves, even those with blood on their faces.
The next day the townspeople gathered at the empty, silent zoo. They used sheets of coloured construction paper, yards of patterned fabric, and rolls, lots of rolls, of Scotch tape to revive the animals. There was a lion, a tiger, a rhino, and other stars of the animal kingdom. Some animals, however, were too crude to be distinguished as any creature anyone had ever seen. Another meeting was called and a new rule was made: Animals must wear signs around their necks with their names in black paint.
The ploy worked for a while. Then the animals started making demands. The elephant protested the construction of a carousel next to its exhibit because the noise of workers and machinery would be too loud. The crocodile refused to swim because her body was cold and pruned after being submerged in water every day. The penguins complained about the foul odour of each other’s unwashed bodies and demanded to live separately. They no longer frolicked or greedily munched on raw fish to the delight of visitors.
As the little girl and her mother passed by, the animals went through the motions of confinement. They listlessly walked back and forth, or stood or lay in silence. Their eyes did not look back at them, but through them.
The curtain was raised. The little girl now saw the terrible faces under the beastly disguises. In front of her, a gorilla sat on a stone with his head rested in his large, pink hands.
“Why are they so sad?” she asked.
“Some days, people feel hopeless,” her mother said. Then they turned away and walked out of the zoo while the animals remained, lonely and out of place.
The gorilla sighed and checked his watch.
Jacob Schroeder is a writer living in Detroit, Michigan, USA. His work has previously appeared in publications such as Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine and the Detroit News.
All work is the property of the author and is distributed with their permission