by Louise Taylor
Jenny’s gloves were dark
with blood. She stripped them off at the wristband, turned them inside out and
dropped them next to the mugs on the suitcase. ‘That was the last of the oryx,’
she said. ‘Apart from the haunch we kept for
In the corner,
a pile of cotton Bags for Life shifted to reveal a sprouting of grey hair and
the lower portion of a voluminous purple skirt. From somewhere in between, a
muffled voice said, ‘I hope Bella appreciated it.’
Sitting in a
chair next to the suitcase, Mark pushed the gloves away and picked up a mug. Its
faded legend was just visible: Visitors who throw things at the crocodiles
will be required to retrieve them. ‘What about tomorrow?’ he said, as he
chink-chink-clinked a teaspoon against the china.
Jenny sat beside him and
rubbed her upper arms. She was cold but, more than that, her skin prickled and
itched. She wished she could slough it off like a snake. ‘She won’t need to eat
tomorrow. Maybe not for three days or so.’ She’d have named a day if she’d known
what it was she was naming.
‘There aren’t any bullets
left. You know that. How can we kill her?’
‘You couldn’t have done it
anyway.’ Mark no longer sounded like he minded. Either that or he had other
things to mind about. With his thumb, he held the teaspoon out of the way
against the side of the mug, and drank. ‘Coffee?’ He licked its dark traces away
from the corners of his mouth. ‘It’s 100% acorn but it is
They rested their mugs on
their knees, while in the corner the bags settled back to stillness. ‘Perhaps
Bella could learn to like acorns too,’ Mark said. ‘Tigers must have fewer taste
buds than humans.’
Jenny thought of her
research for the MSc she’d never get. She’d been looking at the incidence of
domestic prey over wild prey taken by captive-bred tigers reintroduced to the
wild. There’d been something about taste, she was sure. If only she’d been able
to retrieve her notes before she was hurried to the airport for one of the last
flights home. Livestock was tastier than spotted deer – or was it the other way
around? Not that it mattered. The study site was close enough to the Bay of
Bengal to have been entombed in water for months now.
She thought of something
else. ‘There are some capybara still, running wild in African Valley. Wilf wants
to dig a pit to catch one. He’s got it all worked out. Says we can lay sticks
and branches over the top, and camouflage them with
‘I take it the kid’s been
reading Zoo Quest again.’ Mark leaned back in his chair, a padded swivel
one they’d taken from the HR department. ‘I knew there was a reason we hadn’t
added it to the fire. Does it tell us what to do when we’ve eaten all the
Jenny picked at
the skin around her thumbnail. ‘He’s serious, you know. It’s a good idea. And we
do have lots of leaves. We’d have no trouble gathering
Mark sat up, the chair
creaking beneath him. ‘Not from the insect house. You’re not having them. What’s
in there’s our best hope.’
‘You would say that.’ Jenny
put the mug on the floor so she didn’t have to look at its contents. She’d drunk
it down to the sludgy, bitter grains at the bottom. Once, she’d have described
herself as a super-taster. Cabbage, sprouts, broccoli, all of them had
shrivelled her tongue and made her gag. But now? What she wouldn’t have given
for a brassica now!
She stood up and pressed
her forehead to the small window, smeary with dirt and the build-up of the warm
breath from five still-living beings. Outside, the peculiar half-light – not
quite day and not quite night – draped itself through the silent aviary
opposite. She hadn’t thought she’d miss the metallic green clouds that had
massed, army-like, for those first few weeks but she did. Now she thought about
it, she could persuade herself those green clouds had been almost like the
Northern Lights. She ought to have enjoyed them while she’d had the chance. This
thick, almost opaque grey air that had replaced the green – when was it? –
seemed like the shroud she’d never have. ‘Your leaves will stop growing too, you
know – once the generator stops working,’ she said because it was more bearable
to pick an argument with someone who was as frightened as you were than to allow
in the thought of never seeing another sunset or
‘They might not. And,
anyway, the generator won’t stop. Not yet. See.’ He clicked his fingers at the
single electric bulb dangling from the ceiling as if its yellow glow was a
promise to the future.
She couldn’t think how he
could let himself believe the bulb could do what the sun was not but there was
grease on his cheek and his fingers were black so she knew he hadn’t given up,
not yet. She heard herself try again. ‘Then the army ants will eat the
leaf-cutters sooner or later. They’re bound to. Didn’t they have the tarantula
the other day? Her tank is empty.’
Mark touched a small bulge
in the hip pocket of his fleece. ‘No. They haven’t had her. There was another
hatching of crickets.’
‘And you gave them to the
ants?’ Jenny shook her head and turned away from the window. ‘Even though we
could have eaten them. Toasted, like chestnuts.’ When she was angry, she smiled.
Right now, her cheek muscles were tight with smiling but she grinned on, furious
that she was now hungry enough to look on crickets in the same way as she had
once viewed curry and a Cobra beer.
The only reply was a quiet
snoring from the corner.
The door banged open, and
the rack of dusty masks – gorillas, zebras and a single anteater – pivoted on
its stand, as if it somehow knew it was showing off in front of a child again.
But this child, bulldozing his way inside on a blast of the sulphurous wind,
didn’t look at the masks or the cuddly parrots or any of the gift shop ephemera
that once might have had him clamouring for an advance on his pocket money. In
his arms, he cradled a biscuit tin, printed with scenes from the Nutcracker and
obliquely advising its consumers that this was an M&S Christmas. By his
side, the young chimpanzee, jumped up and down, puckering and smacking his lips.
Eeeeeeee-eeeeeee he squealed.
‘Henry, shush!’ The boy’s
cheeks were pink - and it was easy for Jenny to imagine that, underneath the
black hair, the chimpanzee’s cheeks were just as flushed. Excitement radiated
like heat from the pair.
‘What do you have there?’
Jenny said, looking at the tin.
Under the boy’s encouraging
gaze, the chimpanzee took the tin, put it on the suitcase and then clapped his
leathery palms together as Wilf prised off the lid with a
Mark leant forward, and
peered into the tin. ‘Oh. Snails.’
‘Let me see.’ Jenny bent
down to look. ‘That’s loads! Where did you find
‘Here and there.’ Wilf
rubbed his chin with a grubby forefinger, and looked pleased with himself. ‘All
over really. Henry helped too. Although he’s eaten about a thousand
Noticing that some of the
molluscs were making a slow but determined bid for freedom, Jenny fitted the lid
back on the tin. ‘Then we can expect him to have a tummy-ache quite soon. What
about you? Have you eaten any?’
‘Only one.’ He made a face.
‘It wasn’t very nice, and I couldn’t get all the bits of shell off, but I expect
I’ll get used to the taste.’
‘That’s the spirit,’ came
from the pile of bags.
‘You need a pin,’ Mark
said, picking up the tin. ‘I’ll show you what to do. But we need to punch some
air holes in the lid. We should starve them for a few days before anyone eats
anymore. Get rid of the toxins.’
They turned to the snails
once they’d finished eating the oryx. Jenny fretted about Bella, who hadn’t been
fed in almost a week. ‘Do you think she’d eat snails?’ she asked, prodding at
her portion with a toothpick from a packet Wilf had found on the empty shelves
of the café.
Mark laughed. ‘She’d tread
on them before she noticed them. ‘Look, worry about us, not her. She could catch
birds, couldn’t she?’
‘What birds? Those that are
left aren’t hanging around her enclosure, that’s for sure.’
But Mark was already on his
way out of the door, muttering about the diesel level in the
Wilf’s laboriously dug trap
came up trumps and snared a single capybara. He lugged it back to the gift shop
in a wheelbarrow. ‘It’s for Bella,’ he said.
Jenny thanked him and
didn’t ask whether the fall had killed it or whether Wilf had taught himself
some other method.
Mark, who might have
quibbled at the generous dispensing of 50 kilograms of meat into a tiger’s
enclosure, was absent. ‘Probably counting his ants,’ Jenny said. ‘Perhaps he’s
sacrificing a finger to them, unless he’s given in and fed them the
That made Naomi sit up from
under her pile of bags. Other than when it was time to eat, she’d scarcely done
so, not since she’d taken herself to her makeshift bed almost as soon as the
five of them set up home in the little gift shop (‘quite well insulated,’ she’d
said, when they were weighing up the relative merits of the shop and the café,
‘and it doesn’t smell of chips’). Jenny hadn’t liked to think how she was
relieving herself and preferred to suppose she was creeping outside when the
others were sleeping.
‘If any of us are going to
see this through, it’ll be those of us with six legs or more,’ Naomi said. She
peeled a snail, an escapee, from the wall near her head, looked at it and added,
‘or one large muscular foot.’
‘Do snails have feet?’
Jenny asked, and straightaway wondered why she, with her BSc in Zoology and so
nearly an MSc was asking that question of a lady who’d spent her working life
picking up the telephone and convincing wealthy widows to leave a share of their
estate to the zoo.
‘If it moves it’s as least
as good as a foot, if not better,’ Naomi said, and wagged her head. ‘Shouldn’t
you look for him?’
Outside, Wilf and Henry
were playing tag in the miniature train. ‘Do you think Mark could get this going
again?’ Wilf called, while Henry screeched from the driver’s
‘I doubt it,’ Jenny said,
noticing how the wheels were rusting to the track. ‘Although come and ask him,
if you like. You probably shouldn’t be outside alone
‘Don’t see why not.
No-one’s got in here for weeks now.’ But Wilf hopped down from his carriage
anyway, and Henry copied him. ‘Are you going to the tropical
The tropical house – and,
in particular, the small “not on display” room where he’d moved his precious
ants – was where Mark spent much of his time. It was where Jenny and Naomi had
first found him, soon after they’d secured the main gates, when they’d thought
it was just the two of them left. He’d been explaining the interplay between the
carbon cycle and the oxygen cycle to a small boy it turned out none of them knew
and a juvenile chimpanzee they’d thought was dead. ‘If we can keep these trees
and those ants alive,’ Mark was saying, ‘we might have a chance.’
And, so far, he’d done it.
Now, sliding open the steamed-up doors, Jenny saw how the trees – banana, two
weeping figs and a single palm – were still green, and the ants, in their
see-through plastic tunnels, apparently more numerous than ever. Of Mark,
however, there was no sign.
‘That’s an odd noise,’ Wilf
said, head cocked to one side. ‘It’s the generator. It doesn’t sound
Jenny followed him outside,
towards the place where Mark had relocated the emergency generator after the
power went off. He was there sure enough, starfished on the ground, his rib cage
torn open and diesel spreading in a blue-green bloody rainbow around his head.
‘I suppose the generator won’t be working anymore,’ Jenny said.
She regretted the words as
soon as they were out there. They were a triumph she hadn’t intended.
The news made Naomi do more
than sit up. She rose, Lazarus-like, from her camp bed, swept aside the bags and
got to her feet. Jenny couldn’t recall seeing her so active, not since, purple
skirt flying, she’d led the Conga at the staff party they’d thrown the day after
even the BBC went off air. They’d gone all round the zoo: out of the function
room and onto the terrace, disturbing the Eagle owl and the tiny Scops owl, up
the hill past the leopards, the servals, and then Bella and her mate. Everyone
had been shouting goodbye, knowing what was to happen, what had to happen –
although even then Jenny’s chest was tightening at the thought of beautiful
Bella taking a bullet. That was why she’d been up before dawn the next day – one
of the last dawns, now she thought of it – suitcase in hand, ready to secure
Bella’s enclosure with every padlock she’d been able to liberate from the
smashed-up DIY shop in town.
The padlocks hadn’t been
enough to save Bella’s mate, who was taking the morning air but, in the
adjoining enclosure, Bella stayed in her sleeping quarters long enough for the
vet with the gun to give up and go away. ‘She’ll starve soon enough,’ he’d said,
‘behind all those padlocks.’
‘And he thinks he won’t?’
Naomi had said, when Jenny told her what the man had said. The two women had met
in front of the zebra paddock. The three Grevys were already dead and the sole
Burchell’s zebra looked on mournfully as half-a-dozen men with two wheelbarrows
sliced and hacked and chunked until the air was thick with flies. ‘We should be
eating them,’ Naomi said. ‘The zebra not the people,’ she said, when Jenny
raised her eyebrows. Together, they’d followed at a vaguely respectful distance
as the men left the park. There had been others, of course, but when they were
all gone, laden with their butchered spoils, the women had locked the entrance
gates with more of Jenny’s padlocks. ‘We’ll stay, shall we?’ Naomi had said.
‘Might as well,’ Jenny had agreed, just as if she’d even thought of doing
Now, all those uncountable
rotations of the earth later, Naomi said, ‘Time to go,
And Jenny nodded as she
watched Naomi settle a grey shawl around her shoulders and stump off down the
steps out of the shop. Without being told, she knew Naomi was going to lie down
with the army ants.
‘And you’re sure?’ Jenny
Holding firm to Henry’s
hand, Wilf said, ‘Of course I’m not,’ but he was nodding and neither he nor
Henry tried to turn the other back.
At the gates, the padlocks
still held and, outside, there were fewer than half-a-dozen bodies, bones picked
clean by crows and magpies, in the long grass. ‘Listen! Isn’t it quiet!’ Wilf
Jenny listened too, not
sure whether she was hoping to hear something or not. ‘So, where will you go?’
she asked, sure she was speaking over nothing more than the wind in the
The boy shrugged, and at
his side, Henry copied the gesture. ‘Somewhere there are snails,’ he said, as
she turned the keys in the padlocks, one after the other.
‘I’ll find Bella,’ Jenny
said, when there was no one left to hear.
About the author
Short story writer and poet, Louise Taylor sometimes
tries to write about subjects other than nature but doesn’t usually manage it.
She is co-editor of Words for the Wild and has her own blog at