Author : Salli Shepherd

Feeding-time is an unnatural silence. The last otter walks in dry circles, won’t chirrup for fish. A bobcat, only yesterday elevated to the lone archetype of all American felines, has pined to little more than loose hide draped on a bone frame and sulks below the hang of a rock to the fading of rival scents. The lion’s enclosure is faintly sour and sharp, speaks of pride passing, and past. The tiger’s cage is still laboratory-sterile.

Still. You laugh, at nothing amusing, and find yourself wishing the keepers wore harder soles than obligatory rubber-grips; that you’d left your Nikes at home in favour of Blundstones. You crave a footstep, even your own, anything that might help you lose the sense of being an exhibit.

The memory of an ostrich strides across a mimicked tundra while your fingers trace over its likeness cast in bronze on a stone pedestal. You’d distract yourself with an ice-cream, but they closed the kiosks months ago.

At the entrance to the elephant-walk you find the massive iron doors open and thank God it rained the day of the dying matriarch’s Green Mile. Fitting your footsteps to her crater-tracks, you recall reading somewhere that elephants wept real tears and wonder if her tragedy, stretching like a forlorn trunk from sawdust to sawdust, had struck her at all.

No wonder nobody comes here, anymore.

We can only bear so much guilt; can only stand to carry our own share of the weight of twenty billion people standing shoulder-to-shoulder, shoving life aside as though it were the last passenger to board our peak-hour train. You are an anomaly: a human being with the capacity to accept blame for shriveled grasses struggling up through cracked asphalt, peeling paint, the soft shush of things aging in despair and terrible solitude.

An arthritic gorilla shambles from its concrete granny flat, and stares across the dividing moat. You stare back a while before you climb onto the low fence, bunch your legs under you like a great cat, and leap.

You’re nowhere near as elegant in the landing.

In his prime he might have torn your arms from their sockets like fresh bamboo shoots. His great humped shoulders sag as he bends to sniff your body, one sausage-sized finger prodding your neck and belly. You think it best to lie still— as if you had a choice with your femur splintered like that, blood welling over sharded bone.

The silverback gathers you up in his arms, rocks you like a child, or a treasured doll. He’s been deaf for years, or would not be so indifferent to the screams that bring the last pair of zookeepers on earth running, on silent feet.

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