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 ourselves.’
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 hot.’
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 leaves.’
‘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 capybara?’’
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 them.’
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 sunrise.
‘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. Eeeeeeee-eeeeeee.
‘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 penknife.
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 them?’
‘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 already.’
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 generator.
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 tarantula.’
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 cab.
‘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 anyway.’
‘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 house?’
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 right.’
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 something else.
Now, all those uncountable rotations of the earth later, Naomi said, ‘Time to go, then.’
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 asked.
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 said.
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 trees.
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 nofrigatelikeabook.