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JENI CURTIS

The Zookeeper’s Shadow

 

Before
At school the kids called Sally ‘Rabbit Girl’. She was born with a harelip, which early surgery had closed but left a scar and a twist to her upper mouth. She did not have the cleft palate too, but even so she grew to mumble and to hide her mouth instinctively behind her hand.
But Bertram Caufield, with his strange interests, thick glasses and tawny hair, was not subject to similar teasing. Somehow his intelligence earned him respect and, while he did not join the boys in marbles, bullrush or rugby, he was quite good at cricket, and this saved him. Sally tagged along behind him as he scoured the trees along the playing fields for insects. The long hot days when the new school year began in February were his delight. It was cicada season, and he spent hours watching as they pulled themselves from the earth and up the furrowed tree trunks, as their brittle backs split and the cumbersome bodies slowly emerged, leaving hollow shells like skeletal armies of amber.
‘Look, Sally,’ Bertram said. He peered closely at the emerged bug. ‘Look at the way the body shines. Iridescent, that’s what it’s called. Look at the wings. You can see through them. Look at their veins. They’re like the windows in the sitting room.’
And even though her family regarded him as a little strange, Sally was encouraged to play with Bertram. He had cages at the end of the garden, down where a few straggling wires and mossy fence posts separated his place from the paddocks beyond, where the convolvulus and nasturtiums ran rife. He kept rabbits and guinea pigs. Aunty Marge lived next door. She gave Sally vegetable scraps to take in a rusty bucket to the Caufields’ house: the outside leaves of cabbages, the tops of carrots, the bits of silverbeet like green lace, where the caterpillars had chewed great holes.
‘Bertram’s a good boy,’ Aunty Marge said to Sally. ‘He takes good care of those animals and he’ll look after you.’
The two of them crouched beside the cages, on their knees, their jeans becoming muddy, the toes of their gumboots digging into the wet grass. Sally put the carrot tops through the chicken wire and watched the rabbits nibble on the ferny fronds. Their noses wrinkled up and down, and hers moved in response. Her upper lip itched.
‘Don’t have much manners, Sally,’ Bertram apologised, as the rabbits scuffled over food. But she loved them. Little brown rabbits with glassy brown eyes.
Sally understood the need for rabbits. Aunty Marge would occasionally make rabbit stew, with mashed potatoes and dumplings. But guinea pigs seemed to her to be without any purpose whatsoever. There was no place for them in the food chain as far as she could see. ‘Maybe not here,’ said Bertram. ‘But there are places in South Africa where they breed them just to feed them to the raptors.’ Images of dinosaurs flitted into her mind. ‘No. Eagles, hawks, vultures,’ explained Bertram. ‘And in the Andes, they eat them. Like we eat chicken.’ Sally thought about that.
‘Or rabbit,’ he added, smiling at her. ‘So they do have a place. Just not here. Here they just are.’ Bertram came out with things other kids didn’t think about, let alone talk of. But it made Sally think what it would be like, just to be, nothing else, inside a cage.
‘Bertram’s your boyfriend!’ the kids would taunt. ‘Rabbit Girl!’
But Sally did not mind. She stuck close to Bertram. In spring, he let her go with him, bird’s-nesting. They found a sparrow’s nest in a gorse bush in the back paddock. Four small bluish-white eggs clustered on the dry grass and feathers of its bowl. In the plum tree at the end of Aunty Marge’s garden, a blackbird nested. They climbed up to watch the scrawny fledglings with their oversized beaks open, waiting for worms. They never disturbed them. Bertram didn’t allow that. And they didn’t tell the other kids either – they wouldn’t have understood.

 

Visiting the pandas
Aunty Marge took Sally and her brother to see the pandas at the zoo. It was a special trip as the pandas were visiting from China. Sally liked to imagine them flying in, with thick overcoats and brown leather suitcases. They lined up in the wintery sunshine with all the other panda enthusiasts and waited to file past the enclosure where the pandas sat, chewing bamboo.
‘Count yourselves lucky,’ said Aunty Marge. ‘I’ve been told that they spend most of their time sleeping. My friend brought her grandchildren the other day and all they could see was a black furry butt.’
Aunty Marge made them giggle. She didn’t have children of her own, even though she’d been married to Uncle George for ever. Apart from the time when he went away for a while. ‘It was that barmaid from the pub,’ Sally heard her mother say to her friends. ‘She took him back, like a dog with his tail between his legs. Poor Marge. At least she’s got him where she wants him.’
‘The panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca,’ Sally stumbled through the Latin, tracing the syllables on the green-painted notice with her finger, ‘is a native of central and south-west China. Its name means black and white cat-foot. In the wild the panda is an endangered species. Its diet is 99 percent bamboo and the average giant panda eats as much as nine to fourteen kilograms of bamboo shoots a day.’
‘Boring,’ said her brother.
Sally persisted. ‘Giant pandas reach sexual maturity between the ages of four and eight, and may be reproductive until age twenty. The mating season is between March and May, when the female goes into her oestrus cycle, which lasts for two or three days and only occurs once a year.’
‘What’s an oestrus cycle?’ said her brother. They both looked at Aunty Marge.
‘Probably something like a bicycle,’ she said. ‘The rest sounds like my marriage.’
Of course, they believed her, in a puzzled sort of way. Standing there in her white coat and hat, with her sunglasses and black scarf, Aunty Marge even looked like a panda, so anything was possible. This was the dearest memory Sally had of her. She died soon after. Sally identified Aunty Marge’s ironic self-deprecating tone much later, long after the uterine cancer took her. ‘Women’s problems,’ her mother told Sally, which did nothing to enlighten and much to scare her.
Sally remembered her aunt’s hand holding her own, and her broad smile, as the pandas continued to munch their bamboo indifferently and the people continued to troop past, making oohing sounds of appreciation, stopping to press their faces against the bars of the enclosure.

 

The philosophy of zoological gardens
The earliest zoos should more correctly be called ‘menageries’. Sally found herself, one time, visiting the Tower of London. There had been a menagerie of sorts there for centuries. Kings and princes bestowed lions and leopards on each other, and the populace came to be titillated or feel the thrill of fear. She wondered what they thought, those men and women of old, looking at the big cats, no doubt as mangy and flea-ridden as themselves. One of the lions grew so old and toothless that the keeper allowed it to sleep in the kitchen at night. She read that during the eighteenth century, the price of admission was three half-pence, or the supply of a cat or dog for feeding to the lions. ‘So much for the family pet,’ she said to Bertram. ‘Would a rabbit or a guinea pig have done as well?’ It seemed to Sally that there had always been a great human need to distinguish us from them. A psychological boundary to push us onto the side of angels.
The advent of zoological gardens did little to change the idea of oddities to be marvelled at. Though eminently more civilised, and claiming to be more humane, zoos still lined up the animals in cages for the excitement of the populace. Even humans at times, like the pygmy from the Congo displayed in the Bronx Zoo with the chimpanzees, as an example of the missing link. The enclosures became larger or were decorated to emulate the animals’ natural habitat, and going to the zoo became a harmless family entertainment, but Sally still shivered at the thought of eyes peering, fingers pointing; it was far too close to home.
Bertram was of a modern turn of mind, of course. Zoos, not as spectacle, but as places of science, to study and conserve. Breeding programmes, endangered species, those about to die out saluting him, that was always on his mind. Wildlife bioparks, they could be called. Change the name to hide the reality, Sally never said to him. Cages, she saw, were still necessary evils in this modern, failing world.

 

Cages
Now Bertram’s retired from the zoo, he’s taken to padding round the bounds of their tiny section, his hair white, like a fox in winter.
They sit of an evening in their La-Z-Boys watching Animal Planet, the familiar tones of David Attenborough their lullaby. In their day, they have visited many of the places they watch in the documentaries. Bertram, through his work in conservation, had open entry to many zoos – San Diego, Berlin, Sydney, London, even the panda breeding place in Chengdu. Sally feels a sense of satisfaction when she murmurs, ‘I’ve been there. I’ve been there.’
As the zookeeper’s wife she did not have to answer the hard questions. She did not have to do anything but follow him and gaze and marvel. Watch them as they watched her. Sally, rabbit girl.
Now, she grows thinner by the day. Looking in the mirror she sees Aunty Marge. Inside she feels the gnawing teeth and claws of pain, the tickle of whiskers, the twitch of a nose. Bertram tends to her as he always tended his animals. With meticulous care and a detachment, almost indifference. It does not worry her. Neither of them likes fussiness. She is his new specimen, his new endangered species. He studies her when he thinks she is not looking. At night Sally feels his body cradling her. He strokes her hair if she whimpers. But she doesn’t, not often.
‘There, there, Sally,’ he says into the darkness, ‘there, there.’

 

 

 

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