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The Zoo

                                    Paul Crenshaw

Everyone was excited about the field trip to the zoo except for Emily, whose father had gone to Iraq. She sat at the back of the bus staring out the window. It was raining a little, which made her even sadder because she was sure it never rained in Iraq and her father liked rain, especially early on Saturday mornings, when she would come down the stairs and find him at the window, the steam from his coffee condensing on the glass as he stared at the streams running in the gutters. The other kids were leaning over the seats to yell at people behind them, chewing gum with their mouths open, talking about the giraffes and lions and zebras which Emily didn’t give much of a crap about. The air in the bus smelled like Cheeto dust. Someone had a window down and drops of rain fell on her face.

By the time they got to the zoo the rain had stopped and the concrete parking lot was steaming in the heat. They went single-file, Mrs. Satterfield holding a finger to her lips and telling them all to use their inside voices. When Randy Garret said “Why?” in a voice that was not an inside voice, Mrs. Satterfield said, “Because we don’t want to wake the manticore,” and pointed to a big sign draped like a tapestry over the stone entrance.

New from Iraq! the sign read, Dangerous Manticores!

“What’s so dangerous about them?” Randy Garret said, though his voice was a little quieter. Mrs. Satterfield pointed to the sign again, where beneath Dangerous Manticores! the sign read Poisonous Spines! Stinging Tails!

They passed through the little turnstile with Mrs. Satterfield counting their heads and Randy Garret and the other boys repeating “Stinging Tail!” and “Poisonous Spine!” but Emily kept thinking New from Iraq, which made her want it to rain, to really storm, with lightning and thunder, so they would have to get back on the bus and drive back to school, where her mother would be sitting in the car smoking one cigarette after another. When Emily climbed in the car she would be enveloped by warm smoke and they would drive through the rain and thunder back to her house, where she could sit at her bedroom window and watch the rain fall.

But the rain was gone. The sun kept getting hotter. Emily could tell the zoo people had tried to make the zoo seem like it was natural, that animals had just gravitated here because of the beauty of the place or whatever. The African exhibit, which was the first thing they came to, was a wide open field. It was so big they had binoculars to look through, and if you squinted you could see the elephants way down at the far end, throwing water from a small creek onto each other. The giraffes were hiding in the shade. The zebras went thundering by so quickly she wasn’t sure she even saw them.

No one seemed to care much about Africa. Randy Garret told them he’d been here just a few weeks ago, before school started, and he had seen the elephant and the giraffes and the stupid zebras. Emily had been here before as well, though she didn’t tell Randy Garret, or anyone else. Mrs. Satterfield was trying to tell them all about Africa and its diverse eco-communities, but the elephants were too far away and everyone had seen elephants before.

“The manticores,” Randy Garret said. “Let’s go see the manticores.”

Mrs. Satterfield pretended to look at the little map the zoo people had given her. She turned her back to the big sign pointing the way to the manticores, but another group of children came past with their arms swinging wildly and their eyelids propped open widely. They said “Manticores!” and “Did you see their tails?” and “I bet they could kill us all if they wanted to!”

Mrs. Satterfield frowned at the teacher with the other group of children and the woman shrugged, as if to say Hey, they’re manticores, what am I supposed to do? Randy Garret was tugging on Mrs. Satterfield’s arm, but she extracted herself and said, “Oooh, snakes, who wants to go see the snakes?”

No one liked the snakes. Emily didn’t like them the last time she was here. Her father didn’t either. Her mother made cringing faces, even though the snakes just lay there like they were dead, occasionally flicking their tongues out. No one really ever likes snakes, Emily thought. Mrs. Satterfield stood in the middle of the room, as far from the glass displays on either side as she could. Randy Garret kept tapping the glass even though he wasn’t supposed to, but one of the other boys had dared him. Susan Smith said she needed to puke. The big tarantulas jumped at the glass and the lizards blinked slowly at Randy Garret. It was cool inside the snake place but everyone except Randy Garret just ran through. Right by the door a centipede as long as Emily’s arm raised itself up on the glass as if it was trying to climb out and get her and she screamed a little, which made Susan Smith scream as well.

Outside the heat was waiting. Emily thought it might be 100 degrees, or 105—she didn’t really know how hot it could get but she could remember past summers, her father whistling as the TV weatherman announced a temperature in the high 90s. But she had never felt it this hot before. Mrs. Satterfield shaded her eyes. On her desk at school was a small picture, old and faded, of a man in an army uniform. Her small frame seemed to wilt in the heat. She walked from shade to shade while the kids burst out into the fierce light, blinking against the green glare. 

They went past the Watani Grasslands, where the rhinos and gazelles and ostriches leaned over things. The ostriches had learned that people would sometimes feed them, and so they followed along at the edge of the fence with their beady eyes and their long necks thrust out. The rhinos lay in the shade or gathered enough energy to scratch themselves against trees before lying back down. Their tails switched like cows. Mrs. Satterfield lowered herself onto a bench while Randy Garret jammed quarters into the peanut machine. The ostriches flocked around him, heads bobbing. He had piled the peanuts on the ground and was halfway over the fence when Mrs. Satterfield revived enough to notice and surged upward from the bench and staggered over to him. She took his hand and yanked him off the ostrich’s back, telling him all the while that he could be trampled or eaten or any number of things.

They went past Lemur Island and Kitera Forest, where the chimpanzees refused to swing from the trees because of the heat. One of the zoo people came by to tell Mrs. Satterfield that the heat was approaching dangerous levels so she made them all get a long drink at the fountain. The water tasted faintly of copper or iron or some other metal found deep in the earth. She told them to throw water on each other like elephants, and Randy Garret threw double handfuls on Emily. She glared at him the way she had seen her mother glare at people on TV who said the war should go on longer. She imagined biting his finger off and spitting it out. Then she imagined one of the lemurs or chimpanzees swinging down and snatching up his bitten-off finger and disappearing with it, which caused her to start laughing. When Randy Garret saw her laughing at him he threw more water, but the water hit Mrs. Satterfield instead, who only looked around dizzily and said “Thank you,” to no one in particular. Emily wondered if she was all right. She looked like she did when someone asked her who the picture on her desk was.    

When they left Africa it got hotter still. They went through an arch of trees, and then the grasses turned to sand and the trees ended. The sun was so hot it lifted off the sand in waves. They walked along with their feet sweating into their socks. Another sign read, All The Way From Distant Iraq, The Dangerous, Exotic, Rare Manticores! and up ahead they could see the manticore exhibit shimmering in the heat. Randy Garret went running ahead, even though Mrs. Satterfield was telling them to stay together and not to get too close. She was fanning her face with her map and Emily thought she might fall over so she took Mrs. Satterfield’s hand and Mrs. Satterfield smiled down at her. They walked together to where the other children had already gathered and were oohing and aahing.

The exhibit was a giant rock that rose out of the sand. It was about the size of a tennis court, with iron railings around it to keep people back, and there, in the full sun in the middle of the rock, two manticores were lying with their mouths open and their tongues out. A sign on the railing read, Do not feed the manticores. Do not get close to manticores. Do not throw anything at manticores. Do not look directly at manticores. Do not call the manticores names.

The manticores looked miserable. She wondered if it was because of the heat. They had human faces, or almost human, and sleek lion bodies, but they were so hot and tired-looking that Emily wondered if they would die soon. Her mother flinched every time the phone rang. Together they watched 24-hour news channels that told how hot it was in Tikrit and Baghdad and Fallujah, places Emily pinned on a map. She wondered how hot it was here, if they were keeping it so hot to make the manticores feel at home, but then she thought they must have overdone it, or maybe it was the humidity here, because the manticores looked on the verge of death.

She was still holding on to Mrs. Satterfield’s hand when Mrs. Satterfield fainted. She was standing looking at the manticores—one of them had just raised its head—and she toppled backward. Emily had bent down to check on her when she saw Randy Garret climb over the railing and walk toward the manticores. Every few feet he stopped and looked back, but the other kids waved him on, so he turned and started again. The zoo people came rushing out of nowhere, some of them helping Mrs. Satterfield up and splashing water on her head, while the others gathered at the rail and shouted for Randy Garret to come back, it was too dangerous, he was going to be killed, but Randy kept going.

The manticores were both sitting up now, watching him come. Their dangerous tails raised slightly and hovered in the air like cobras.

The manticores had not been here the last time, Emily thought. It was October, and her father had trailed along behind her watching her with a half-smile, nodding as she shouted for him to look at the black bears, “Daddy, look at the monkeys.” He said, “Yes, Pumpkin, I see them,” and held little whispered conversations with her mother, who for some reason kept wiping at her eyes. Afterward, in the ice cream shop, he told her he would be leaving. She was sure there had been no manticores that day. Her mother’s face was pale, her eyes red-rimmed. Leaving where? Emily said, and when they got home he went upstairs with her mother and when he came down he was wearing his army uniform. He smelled like boot polish and aftershave. He did not know how long he would be gone, he told her, or when he would be back.

Standing at the manticore exhibit, Emily closed her eyes.

In her mind, a boy named Randy walks closer and closer to the dangerous manticores with stinging tails and poisonous spines, but instead of Randy Garret, Emily sees her father walking down a torn street. At the zoo that last time there was a scream near them, so close her father had grabbed her shoulders. When she looked up at him she saw he was scared. Then they saw the little boy screaming for his lost balloon and her father’s hands on her shoulders relaxed. Her mother had not started crying yet.

Behind her eyelids she can feel Randy getting closer. People are shouting at him and he is yelling back that there is no danger, except for some reason he says, “All clear, it is all clear.” Someone is fanning poor Mrs. Satterfield who, Emily is sure, has lost a husband or a son in her life and is afraid to lose anyone else, even Randy Garret.

Her father is walking down a street. In her mind, the shouts are turning to screams. She has seen him only once since his airplane drifted skyward like that lost balloon. He called from a computer in Iraq and she could see his face on her screen at home. Behind him, through a flap in the tent, she could see a long street. She imagines him walking down it. He is walking toward something. He is walking very slowly. He is watching the black spaces in the broken out windows.

Randy is now close enough to touch the manticores. He holds his hand out. The screams are louder now and the mother is trying to comfort the boy with the lost balloon. Her father is saying he has to go, is turning off the computer screen and disappearing, and she knows he is going out to walk down that long street where the buildings have broken windows and the masonry has crumbled into the sand, so she stands there in the heat with her eyes squeezed shut, afraid of what she will see when she opens them: Mrs. Satterfield fainted on the ground, her lips bloodless. The balloon out of sight, the boy screaming red-faced for what he has lost. Her father at the end of the street, turning slowly to look back. Randy Garret reaching the dangerous manticores and all of the students of Mrs. Satterfield’s third grade class turning their heads away and throwing their hands in front of their faces as if to shield them from what they are seeing.

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