The Zookeeper

Posted on March 27, 2009

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By Matthew David Scott

The Zoo had been evacuated of people. The animals were left to starve. Lionesses were joining their mates in the eating of the cubs.

The Zookeeper had known this was going to happen for a long time, well before the rumours started and the news reported. Long before the army moved in.

Walking down the streets of the town during those days, people nodded hellos to the Zookeeper as they always had done. It caused a fizz and pop at the back of his tongue and a fire in his solar plexus. He began to chew through pack upon pack of antacids but only work helped douse the guilt.

He carried on working for as long as he could. He wanted to find the creature he would save. He had room for just one.

The Zookeeper still lived in the family home. It was a huge storybook house with a basement, an attic and a long, rectangular garden. Some parts were crooked and a staircase took the middle of the landing to spread left and right.

His grandfather had made a fortune from vulcanised rubber. He’d bought the big house so that all generations of his family could live together under one roof and he would have their constant company and comfort. The Zookeeper’s grandmother had died in her early thirties and family had become important to his grandfather. The dream of a whole family beneath one roof never lived up to the reality though. Apart from the young Zookeeper, the rest were a disappointment to his grandfather – a son and daughter-in-law obsessed with work with little time for him, and little more for their son. So the grandfather would delight in the young Zookeeper’s flights of fancy, his searching through the house for new nooks and crannies to explore; new doors to imagine worlds and monsters behind.

But the grandfather died, then the mother and finally the father. And now only the grandson remained – The Zookeeper.

Options had to be weighed carefully. For instance, the animal must be able to survive on the provisions he had put aside and the conditions in which they would be held. It was also important that the creature might not want to eat him. A zebra was considered but then he decided that the animal was too large and it would be crueller than death to have the beast in such a confined space. He went through each of the great apes. He toyed with the idea of reptiles and knew that one of the larger snakes would have a ready diet of rats to feast upon after the calamity. He also knew that to go outside and find the vermin would kill them both. Of all the wonderful creatures in the zoo, the giraffes and hippos, the great cats, the multitudinous insects, the Zookeeper realised the only animal he could entertain saving was a giant fruit bat that another keeper had christened Bruce. It was perfect.

*

One summer holiday, the young Zookeeper had stumbled across something in his grandfather’s study. The study was a place he loved to be in. It was cramped with books; maps covered the walls from times when the shapes of continents still bulged in strange places and the Kraken’s tentacles were inked rising from the sea. Sometimes he would sit in his grandfather’s chair at the desk and just close his eyes taking in the aroma of dust and hide.

It was in the study that the Zookeeper’s grandfather had told him the old tales: of Perseus and Medusa, of Icarus. He told him of Vulcan.

One thing was unsettling about the study though. His grandfather was a keen hunter, and stuffed prizes were glass-boxed and hanging about the room. A particular mount affected the young Zookeeper more than any of the others – the head of a bison directly above his grandfather’s desk. He would often climb on the desk to look into the glass eyes of the dead creature and imagine them still moist, the snow reflected in their blackness, the frost in its beard. Seeing the decapitated beast caused a great rage in the boy Zookeeper that finally erupted the time he climbed onto his grandfather’s desk without the usual care to avoid papers and capsized books, and grabbed the bison head by its horns.

He had hoped to pull it from the wall and take it into the garden to burn. He had wanted to dance around the burning head like an Apache and pray for its spirit to be loosed. However, as he pulled the horns, something else had happened. The wall of the study folded out revealing a hatch and a long, silver tunnel, barely big enough for a grown man to crawl through, but just about.

On his young hands and knees the Zookeeper crawled down the silver tunnel. The metal was cold and if he breathed on the surface colours formed. The tunnel smelled clean.

He went on for about two or three minutes until he reached the end. At the end, some ladders attached to a wall were sucked down into darkness. At first he felt too scared to climb down them but he noticed a switch on the wall opposite and flicked it. The switch lit small, dim lights the length of the ladders and he didn’t feel as scared.

The ladders went on for a long time, much longer than the tunnel, and there were no smells down there. He began to feel scared because he knew he was going under the ground.

The fear only lifted slightly when his feet touched the floor. He turned around and there was a large door. It had a handle like the ones he had seen on the inside of submarine doors in films. He grabbed the handles and tried to turn them but he was too weak. Then he heard footsteps and the ladders began to shake.

*

The streets were filled with people trying to escape but the army held them back. These were to be allowed to perish. Their escape would severely hinder the chances of the elect once food and fuel became even scarcer and so it was decided they be penned-in until the last possible moment. Even if he had warned them when he first knew, they wouldn’t have believed him. They wouldn’t have left it all behind: their jobs, their houses and their furniture – not on the word of a Zookeeper. This was what he told himself.

In the meantime he had continued to go to work. He would clean out as many cages as he could, feed those animals for which there was still food, but he was soon collecting the dead infants, the corpses of beasts scavenged upon by the free birds that would soon drop from the sky in flames or crash into buildings blinded. He would look at the seals, the penguins by their pools. He imagined the pools beginning to boil in the heat, the animals poached in the waters; the polar bear charred black and smoking. But one day, as he threw the rotting fish over the fence, he felt a tug at his shirt. Beside him was a small girl, no more than eight or nine years old. He looked away and continued to throw the fish.

“You shouldn’t be out.”

“Why are you still working?”

“Someone has to take care of the animals.”

She pondered this a minute.

“I see you come in everyday. You look sad everyday. Why do you come in if it doesn’t make you happier?”

He stopped before dipping his hands into the cold water of the fish bucket and then wiping them on his overalls.

“You ask too many questions.”

The Zookeeper liked children. He liked their questions. Of all the visitors to the Zoo, the children asked the right questions. While the adults would try to engage him in debates about conservation and Darwinism, the children would ask why orang-utans had ginger hair, or if penguins were too lazy to fly.

“Where’s your mummy and daddy?”

“Arguing with the soldiers.”

“Well, you need to go back to them. I have to feed the snakes now and that is too dangerous for little girls.”

As he walked away, the little girl watched.

He thought of that moment as he stood at the door. The Zookeeper did not go to work today. Nor would he go for the many mornings that followed, for today was the day. The small radio informed that it hadn’t happened yet but that everyone should take the measures spelled out in the pamphlets distributed by government officials the previous week. The post had long since stopped and so these government officials took the form of the soldiers, half of whom were using their rifle butts to smash back the desperate, the other half with crosshairs webbing the lines that stood to watch. The leaflets were tossed about the road for people to pick up but all knew the information was useless. If they stayed, nobody was going to survive.

Except the Zookeeper.

He’d brought the fruit bat back to the house the day before and it was already installed on its makeshift perch. Tins of fruit had been liquefied and placed in a bowl so that it could feed and the bat only took what it needed.

The Zookeeper listened to the radio reports with unfeeling concentration. He wondered where the reporters were. Surely nobody was out there. It took the hiss of the door to wake him from his trance.

He didn’t stand as quickly as his panic might have had him. Instead he lifted the shotgun from its brackets and pumped the barrel, walking slowly over to the door. The air-seal had been broken but the door hadn’t moved. He wondered when the marauders would surge in, over-powering him and squatting – rendering the plans and place useless as none could now survive given the rations he had calculated. But they didn’t come. The Zookeeper put the shotgun down and with a hand on each bar of the handle pulled the door toward him. It was the little girl from the Zoo.

“I followed you.”

The Zookeeper looked behind her and then up the ladders.

“Did anyone see you?”

“No. Everyone is inside.”

He crouched down and smiled at the little girl.

“What’s your name?”

“Leah.”

“Do you want to come inside, Leah?”

The girl nodded and he took her into the shelter.

“I saw you take the bat yesterday. So I followed you. I was scared yesterday but last night I made a promise that I would come and check if you were alright.”

The Zookeeper poured some powdered orange into a tumbler and filled it with bottled water.

“Would you like some squash?”

He stirred the drink with his finger and passed it to the girl. She gulped at it. She sat on the small bed and he shut the door and re-sealed it. He knew he couldn’t let her go. If she left and told other people his secret everything would be over.

“Leah, something bad is going to happen. Have your mummy and daddy told you about it?”

The girl shook her head,

“No, but I can tell. My mummy and daddy tried to get the soldiers to take me but I wouldn’t go. Because…”

She looked at the shotgun leaning against one of the aluminium units.

“Don’t worry about that, Leah. It’s just… I don’t like the soldiers either.”

He put the shotgun back in its brackets and walked over to the fruit bat. He lifted a bowl of pineapple to the fruit bat and it drank and the girl drank too. He watched the girl as she watched him feed the bat.

“Do you want to say hello?”

The girl nodded.

“Come here then.”

She walked over and looked up at the fruit bat. It seemed huge to her.

“Does it drink blood?”

The Zookeeper laughed.

“No. It eats fruit. It’s a fruit bat. Its name is Bruce.”

The girl frowned.

“That’s a stupid name.”

The Zookeeper nodded.

“We can give it another name if you like?”

The girl put a finger on her nose and said, “Fantastic. The fruit bat should be called Fantastic.”

*

That first time, the young Zookeeper had also struggled at the door. It had hissed but would not budge. The ladders had begun to shake more violently above him and he had thought it might be an earthquake. He’d closed his eyes and hoped it would go away but then the smell hit him.

When he opened his eyes, his grandfather was smiling.

“Grandpa. I thought there was an earthquake.”

“Well there isn’t. Don’t worry. Even if there were you would be safe here. Do you want to go inside?”

His grandfather put his shoulder to the door and pushed it open. The lights came on automatically.

“Go on. It’s alright.”

The young Zookeeper walked in. The room was the same size and shape as the long, rectangular garden above it. Along one wall were a series of metal units, trays and shelves. Some were full and some were empty. On the other side of the room were two foldout beds, already made. A bookshelf and a record player sat at one end of the room with a small radio.

“Is it a secret?”

“A deep, deep secret,” his grandfather replied. “Would you like some squash?”

Over the next few weeks, the young Zookeeper and his grandfather had gone on secret missions. They would go to the shops and buy tinned food. They went to camping stores and bought firelighters, torches, and sachets. Parcels would arrive that his grandfather would sign for. One day, he had brought home a shotgun.

During dinner, his mother and father would ask him if he’d had fun with this grandfather but they never listened to his answers.

When the time had come to go back to school, the young Zookeeper’s grandfather had asked him to come down to the study. He sat in his big chair while the boy sat on the desk. The young Zookeeper looked up at the bison head and both he and his grandfather smiled.

“Now, do you remember what I said about our secret place?” He nodded. “You mustn’t tell anybody. If you do, they will take it from us. They might even put me in jail.” He felt scared. “I don’t mean to scare you but sometimes the world is a little bit of a frightening place. One day it will become so frightening that we will have to live down in the shelter for a long time. Things will be happening outside that little boys and little girls should never have to see. You are a special little boy. You will be saved from all that. But only if you keep this place completely secret.”

He thought about what his grandfather had said. He imagined what might be going on. Perhaps vampires. Definitely wolves. He’d never thought about his parents.

He sometimes thought about the girl’s parents. As the time grew nearer, people had grown more religious. The churches were full and confession was taken in shifts. The Zookeeper hoped the girl’s parents believed a miracle had saved her.

Even after his grandfather died he kept the existence of the shelter secret. His parents weren’t far behind the old man. He had no need to work. The house was his, the fortune from the sale of his grandfather’s business was his, so he was lucky in that he got to do what he loved – and what he loved was the Zoo.

As a child his grandfather would take him to see the animals. He would point out those that were like the ones he had shot or trapped but the young Zookeeper was never interested in that. Neither was he interested in the plaques and information in front of the cages.

Being a rich man, his grandfather managed to fix things so that his grandson could help feed the animals. This soon became a weekend job, a weekend job that his grandfather was very proud of as it showed him a spirit he never saw in his own son.

He worked for so long at the Zoo, from such an early age, that he became known only as the Zookeeper.

His grandfather had left him the study in his will – all of it. Complicated property laws were circumvented so that the study became a separate dwelling. By the time he was nineteen he lived a separate life to his parents entirely.

When his mother became ill, his father was too busy to look after her and for a while, the Zookeeper tried his best. They had been estranged in the same house for so many years now though that he cared for her as he might care for an animal in the Zoo rather than a mother. His father became ill shortly after his mother passed and the Zookeeper put him in a home.

In the will was an envelope, sealed with wax, with the Zookeeper’s name on the front. It was a list of instructions on how to keep the shelter operational – suppliers, names in code of trusted friends from far away cities that also had secret places. The coded names hid the real names of powerful men, men whom his grandfather had met with for military contracts.

It was from one of these names that he received a call two months before it happened. The man introduced himself by way of the codename. It was Sahara. He asked if the shelter was ready and the Zookeeper half-lied that it was. Sahara went on and gave details of where and when it would be happening. He said that at that time nobody knew but the inner circle, however it wouldn’t be long before rumours started and matters would escalate to a level where desperate measures might be needed. He advised the Zookeeper to ready the shelter according to the instructions left in the will; that any goods needed from abroad or out of town should be purchased immediately. The Zookeeper prepared for the coming.

*

The radio no longer transmitted anything but static. It had been silent for six months. Above, most things were dead. The last of the humans died quickly. His beloved animals perished just as swiftly. Even the mythical cockroaches succumbed. Flies swarmed the city and the streets slid with maggots. Then they too died.

Below sat Leah and the Zookeeper. The girl called him Zookeeper. He told her his name but she always called him Zookeeper. She read his books, learnt some of the old stories by heart.

On their knees were plates licked dry. They had held the plates for four days, the four days since their last meal. The meal before that had been four days earlier. They were starving. He had been foolish to even wish that the rations might last. Some of it was his fault. Some of the goods he bought were not exactly what was stated on the list and they had perished.

“Are we going to die?”

She’d asked the question so many times. At first he’d always given one answer – he’d reassure her that no, they wouldn’t die, that they had been saved. That there were many like them all over the country and soon they would rebuild the world on new terms. She began making lists of what she would change about the world – there would be no money; no weapons; animals wouldn’t locked in Zoos; there would be one flag for the whole world and it would be a yellow sun. The Zookeeper had smiled at her optimism but knew that those who had survived had interest in none of those things.

Still, he humoured her, encouraged her to focus on creating her perfect world. Her notes filled books and books until they ran out of ink. He couldn’t read them because to know that such a world was impossible was too much to bear, especially when it all seemed so simple.

His answer for Leah changed the day they ate the bat. It was a tough decision but they were already getting through the bat’s fruit at such a rate it would have starved anyway. Much better that they killed it while it was still fat. The meat barely made two meals.

She’d asked him again as soon as they had finished eating, “Are we going to die?”

And this time his answer had been,

“One day.”

He had given the same answer ever since.

He stood and took his plate to the shelf. He was weak, and just walking the width of the room sapped him. The shotgun was still on the brackets from when he first put it away. The girl had grown used to its presence but still didn’t like it. There was no use for it in her perfect world. He looked at her, sat on the edge of the bed, the plate held against her chest.

“Pass me the plate, Leah.”

She held the plate out and he made another exhausting breadth of the room. He had to sit for twenty or so seconds before taking the plate back and stacking it alongside his own.

“When?”

“Sorry?”

“When?”

He turned to the girl, “When what?”

She looked at him, not a muscle in her face seeming to move, the sound leaking from behind her dry and creviced lips.

“You always say one day. When. When will we die?”

He looked away at the aluminium units.

“I don’t know.”

The Zookeeper opened a drawer and took out the antacids.

matthewscott
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matthew David Scott is originally from Manchester, England but now lives in Wales. A novelist and playwright, Matthew’s debut novel Playing Mercy was listed for the 2006 EDS Dylan Thomas Prize and, working with his company Slung Low, his most recent theatre work Helium has won the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award for 2008. His short fiction has appeared in a number of print and online anthologies and magazines. Matthew’s new novel The Ground Remembers is due for publication in May 2009 and thanks to a bursary from the Welsh Academy he has just started work on his third. For more information see Slung Low.

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Posted in: Fiction