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The Last Zoo Keeper

animal skull

[by Melissa Crandall]

 

After the pandemic had killed everyone but him, Emerson left the city and wandered without purpose, a shambling thing half-dead with grief. He longed to lie down and die as well, but a hot kernel of regret kept him walking; guilt for having failed Imogen.

He slept wherever exhaustion claimed him, sometimes falling to the  ground between one step and the next, and ate little when he remembered to eat at all. Haggard and filthy, he broke into houses and took away whatever he fancied. He lay on dead people’s couches—but never in their beds—and found damnation rather than salvation in his unlikely survival. For all he knew, he was the sole human alive on the planet. Certainly nothing in the wider world suggested otherwise.

One night, he discovered a baby grand piano in the living room of a suburban home. He stared at it for a long time, then slowly approached; hesitant, as if it might bite. He ran his hand along the lid, disturbing months of dust, then sat on the bench, wiped his palms against his pants, and laid his fingertips on the ivory keys. The opening chords of Moonlight Serenade conjured Imogen—the swirl of her favorite purple dress as she swayed to the music, the shift of long dark hair against her back, her smile. He played to the end, and then cried until he vomited.

When at last the thought of another day spent walking became more than he could bear, Emerson settled on a small abandoned zoo as his refuge. The reasons for this were visceral rather than conscious—the place had an air of safety, like a fortress, and Imogen had loved the children’s zoo near their apartment.

He spent several days exploring, salvaging anything of use—tools, medicine, pre-packaged food and plastic bins to store it, a rifle and ammunition, books to pass the time. His footsteps echoed in the empty cavern of the bear grotto, the elephant barn, and the cement building where big cats once prowled in shoulder-rolling silence. Overgrown grass wicked softly against his boots as he wandered the empty paddocks. In the ape house, swings and climbing ropes hung motionless.

There were bones everywhere.

It wasn’t difficult to imagine how events had played out. The pandemic had struck with such unexpected violence and speed that no one had remained to care for the animals. Open cages attested that many of the smaller creatures had been set free, but not the larger beasts or predators. Tooth and claws marks scarred the walls and doors of their enclosures, evidence of their desperate struggle to escape. He tried not to dwell on the gut-twisting hunger and burning thirst they must have suffered; the confusion and terror when, day after day, no one came to tend them.

Spring turned to summer. Emerson kept himself occupied by tidying up the place, moving from office to laboratory, clinic to nursery, anything to keep from thinking too deeply. With a vague sense of winter lurking somewhere in the months ahead, he foraged for wood, chopping and stacking with diligence. Never a muscular man, he grew hard on the strenuous labor and meager diet, portioning his food like a miser dispensing alms. The work toughened him, but its real blessing lay in sleep without dreams, free of the violence of Imogen’s final seizure.

He carried the rifle everywhere, not as protection—what was there to defend against?—but as insurance. If he meant to survive, he’d need to learn to hunt before the easy food ran out, but the prospect of killing filled him with an oily cold he couldn’t shake. If he were honest, he might have acknowledged the weapon also granted him a sense of control. It represented possibilities, should life without Imogen prove too arduous to contemplate.

One sultry night, he woke to sound. Fearful, he lay without moving, listening. This was no fox or raccoon; he’d learned to identify their noises in the night. This was different, something … exotic. Rising, he shoved his feet into boots, took up the gun, and hurried outside.

The zoo was full of animals.

Emerson rubbed his eyes, positive he must be dreaming. He pinched his wrist hard enough to raise a welt, but the creatures remained. Translucent as fog and glowing with moonlight, the phantom beasts tread familiar paths, weaving among their bones, colorless eyes bright with a sense of soul. They saw him, and responded to his presence with strident demands for food and water.

“Go away,” he commanded harshly. “You’re dead.” He fled back to his den and locked the door behind him. Throughout the night the animals trumpeted and howled their misery, making sleep impossible. Only as the eastern sky grew pale with impending dawn did their cries lessen, weakening as each once again relinquished hope and lay down to die. As the last faint wail shredded on the morning breeze, Emerson slept.

The next night, and every night after, bedlam rang in the zoo’s caverns and corridors. The noise settled at the center of Emerson’s skull, denying him rest. He became largely nocturnal, napping only when daylight silenced the cries.

The sensible thing was to leave this place; walk on in any direction until he found a house with a fireplace, a soft couch, and no noise. But the thought left him queasy. He couldn’t abandon the animals as their keepers had done, even if that betrayal had not been intentional, but what could he possibly do for them if he stayed?

Long ago, he’d read somewhere that ghosts were nothing more than troubled spirits unaware of their own death. To lay them to rest, one need only convince them of their demise. Emerson spent an entire night walking the zoo grounds, chanting, “You’re dead. Move on.” The animals watched him with bleak, begging eyes and cried their hunger, growing gaunt as the dark hours waned. The sight of bones pressed in stark relief beneath their hides made him weep with despair, as he’d wept over Imogen.

He staggered to bed in the predawn hours, the sun a faint pearlescent glimmer in the east. Animal moans dwindled in his ears as he plunged into a dream in which he entered a familiar sickroom bearing a bowl of soup on a tray.

“Lunch, dearest,” he announced softly to the woman in the bed.

Imogen’s eyes, enormous in the wasted planes of her face, tracked away from the ceiling to look at him. “Thank you,” she murmured without energy or emotion, drained of everything except disease. Her body, withered and twisted, barely disturbed the covers.

He placed the tray on the bedside table and drew up a chair. Snapping open a napkin with a flourish, he tucked it beneath her chin. “On today’s menu,” he said, adopting the ostentatious tones of a maitre d’, “we have Dr. Emerson’s Super-Duper Beef Barley Soup, guaranteed to cure what ails you.” It was a name he’d made up, same as Grandma Charlotte’s Really Good Grilled Cheese, Uncle Harry’s Penicillin Pumpkin Pie, and half-a-dozen others in an ongoing attempt to stimulate his wife’s flagging appetite and make her smile.

Imogen offered what passed for one these days. “Mmm, sounds delicious.” But when he lifted the spoon to her mouth, she grimaced and turned her face away. “Sorry, darling.” Her eyes begged him to understand, to not see her refusal as rejection of him. “Guess I’m not as hungry as I thought.”

“Perhaps later, then.” Heartbroken and hopeless, Emerson set the bowl aside and folded his hands together between his thighs. He stared at the clock, the lamp, the half-drawn window shade and the bright day beyond without really seeing them. These days, he made it a point not to look closely at things, afraid of what he might find lurking in the shadows, waiting.

Imogen sighed. In that sound was all the misery of the world they shared; the small one confined by these few walls, and the greater one beyond their apartment where countless had died and more lay dying, lips bubbled with pustules, internal organs dissolving into mush.

“Dearest,” he said into the silence, “if you could have anything to eat, anything at all in the whole wide world, what would it be?”

“Strawberry shortcake.” Her reply came with a surprising lack of hesitation, almost as if she’d been expecting the question and held the answer ready. “The kind my grandmother used to make, with sweet biscuits and clouds of whipped cream.” Enthusiasm he hadn’t seen in weeks animated her face, filling her eyes with light. “We picked wild field berries as small as the nail on your pinkie. They smelled like warm wine and tasted of sunshine.”

Emerson touched a finger to his lips in thought, and then made a cup of one palm as if holding a small bowl. He imagined it full to the brim with the sweet goodness she’d described. “You know, darling, it just so happens that your grandmother’s recipe has come down through the ages, written on papyrus and delivered by a wee sparrow this very day for madam’s pleasure.”

He saw at once that she understood what he was doing, that this game of pretend was not only for her amusement, but might also encourage her to take a few useless mouthfuls of soup. Her chin dipped in a barely perceptible nod. She focused on his empty hand. “More whipped cream,” she whispered.

He woke sobbing. “Thank you, darling,” he said, palming tears from his eyes like a child as he sat up. “Oh, thank you!” Pushing to his feet, he scrubbed his hands through his greasy hair. Taking a chocolate bar and a small bag of corn chips from his stores for breakfast, he spent the day riffling through file cabinets for information on what the animals had eaten, scribbling notes on quantity and serving method in a barely-used steno pad. In the feed rooms and prep areas, he located buckets and pans, cleavers and knives, everything necessary for his pantomime.

Physical props were helpful, but Emerson understood that the chief element to success lay not in creation, but in his ability to make the animals believe. For three days, he hardly slept; rehearsing until the motions became fluid and the images fixed in his mind—a barrel of fragrant yellow grain, fronds of leafy green bamboo, cold water gushing from a bone-dry hose.

On the day of his premiere, he went to bed at first light, slept deeply, and woke refreshed. Stripping off his rank clothing for the first time in months, he bathed in a bucket of cold rainwater, making a ceremony of it. He trimmed his hair and beard with surgical scissors, and dressed in a too-big keeper’s uniform taken from a locker.

He emerged from his den as the first sounds from the rousing animals reached him like the opening chords of an overture. Pushing a variety of tools in a wheelbarrow, he went first to the tiger because its cries were the most strident and pathetic. Beneath the animal’s intent, colorless gaze, he brought out a cleaver, hacked at an invisible joint of horsemeat, and tossed a chunk past the bars. The cat stared at him and cried, seeing nothing. Emerson swore and clenched his eyes tight, drawing up the images he’d practiced so assiduously. The cleaver’s sharp edge caught the moonlight as he raised it high, paused, and brought it slashing down. It bit into flesh—he felt it!—and severed the haunch at the joint, revealing gristle and a bright circle of bone surrounding the marrow.

Grasping the meat in both hands, he swung and launched, putting his shoulders into the effort. The tiger bounded after the rolling lump of meat like a kitten pursuing a toy and fell on it in a frenzy of hunger. Elated, Emerson turned on the empty hose, filled the drinking bowl with water that existed only in his mind, and moved to the next enclosure.

Hours later, as the sun stroked its first pale fingers of light across the ground, he watched the animals fade one by one. Wishing them well, confident that their spirits had been laid to rest, he barely made it to bed before falling unconscious.

Their cries woke him at sunset.

Emerson sat up, bewildered and disappointed. He’d seen to their needs and watched them consume their ghostly meals with vigor, yet they remained. What had he done wrong?

There was no time to ponder the question; animals were waiting to be fed. The dispensing of grain, meat, hay—like a sacrament to the sinner’s soul—now bound him to the beasts, made him theirs. So he rose, splashed water on his face, and went to work.

His chores became first routine, and then habit, as weeks passed and he grew more adept. Like any muscle, his imagination strengthened with use. In his care, the animals began to flesh out again, pale hides shining with robust health. Their panic at being abandoned waned, and they began to greet him as well as the bounty he provided. The tiger—Joe, according to its file, a stupid moniker for such a magnificent beast—rubbed its chin against the bars at his approach. One night a chimp—Bella—caught his sleeve as he passed her a banana. She pressed the back of her hand against his and drew him into a brief embrace as Emerson wept.

The pythons were the first to vanish. He arrived at the reptile house with his ephemeral dead chickens to find nothing in the glass-fronted enclosure except old bones and desiccated skin. Rather than being elated by their departure—here was proof that his idea did work!—he felt grief at the loss. But perhaps that was right and proper. Now that they were truly gone, their excitable ghosts laid to rest, sorrow was the next logical step.

A few nights later, the zebra was absent, and then the gazelle. After that, the process sped up, taking at least one species a night, sometimes more. He watched Bella fade before his eyes, and hurried to unfasten and swing wide the cage door before she departed entirely. He did the same with Joe. The big cat strolled through the open doorway like a king, paused to rub its head against Emerson’s thigh, and evaporated into moonlight.

The Asian elephants—Sundar and Thoda—remained, standing together at the cage bars, rocking slightly on massive feet, trunks coiling ghostly fodder into their mouths. “What are you waiting for?” he asked. “All the others have gone.” They met his gaze with placid, enigmatic eyes and flicked their ears in response.

Because they were the last, he spent most of his time in their company—standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the moonlight, or sitting on the floor with his back against the stout pillar of a leg as the first chill of autumn crept from the cement. By day, he pored over every file in the elephant keeper’s office, seeking to better understand the animals. As incentive to leave, he propped open their cage door. They moved through it willingly, and often followed him on strolls about the grounds, but seemed content to remain in his company.

Until one evening.

He was leaving the cage, having laid out a small mountain of food in front of each elephant, when Thoda suddenly abandoned her meal, pushed rudely past him, grabbed the cage door with her trunk, and slammed it closed in his face. Instinctively, he cringed back and quickly slid through the man-width space between the bars as if that might make a difference. She met his gaze with intensity never before displayed, then eased open the door and slammed it again.

“All right!” he said loudly over the clangor as she repeated the motion a third time. “You have my attention. What is it?”

Sundar moved up beside her and the two elephant cows looked down at him. To Emerson, small in their presence, it felt like being regarded by the eye of a god. From his reading, he’d learned that elephants were widely regarded as a “keystone species,” one capable of modifying its habitat to the benefit of others. He knew also they existed within a web of family experience that stretched both backward and forward through time, using infrasound broadcast in the bone and through the ground across countless miles to bridge the distance between herds. In this way, each elephant knew the location of every other.

Emerson put a hand to his mouth, breathless with sudden understanding. If this zoo could hold the spirits of the animals that died here, then so could every other. How many shades haunted those places, bound by starvation, unable to move on? How many needed him to set them free?

The elephants dogged him with long-legged strides as he ran to the office. They waited patiently outside as he tore through every file, searching for something he knew he’d seen, but could not remember where. Finally, he found the booklet containing a list of every zoo in America. Maybe not the small road-side attractions, the ones he now knew were called “mud shows,” but he’d find them as best he could, and the elephants would help because elephants know.

Three days later, on an evening whose sky bled with an extraordinary sunset, Emerson shouldered the rifle and a heavy pack and stepped through the zoo’s front gate. Heart beating strongly in his chest, he set his feet on the road south.

And the elephants walked with him.

 


Melissa Crandall writes fantasy, dark fiction, and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Tricks and Treats: A Collection of Spooky Stories by Connecticut Authors, Allegory online magazine, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. She is the author of three science fiction media tie-in novels. A nonfiction book, The Man Who Loved Elephants is currently under consideration. She lives in Connecticut, where she spends her free time cooking, gardening, and beating her husband at Scrabble.

www.melissacrandall.com

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