His pen contained three large acacia trees, a pink and yellow baby pool that leaked, and a lion cub named Frank who fancied himself a bit of a philosopher.
“Ralph,” Frank would say. “Do you think our zoo disappears for want of a better foundation? Does our zoo understand its roots, its history in the great ecological containment centers that came before? The National Zoo, Audubon, Harrod’s…”
“Go to sleep, Frank,” Ralph would say and the next morning their pen would have moved to location different in space than the one previous.
One morning, Ralph opened his large, brown eyes and found himself peering at a small boy with wild hair who gibbered excitedly to his mother.
“He’s saying, ‘Look momma, the lion wants to eat me!’”. For all that Frank annoyed Ralph, he did have a knack for languages. All the giant tortoises said so.
“I have no intention of eating anyone,” Ralph grumbled. “Tell him I was only thinking about what a fine cotton blend that cotton shirt must be made of.”
“He would like for you to go douse yourself in salt,” Frank said to the boy and laughed as the boy and his mother fled.
This happened many mornings. A child would speak, Frank would translate and then mistranslate. Ralph suspected this, but could not accuse him outright as he had a great fear of taking a stand and being wrong after all. It was much safer to merely shake his head in such a way as to suggest equally “I am aware of your games and I disapprove” or “Humans are stupid.”
Ralph could not remember the last time he understood the language of the visitors and began to doubt he had ever understood them at all. Perhaps the language of his home was not one spoken by any city or small village or seaside park. He thought of telling Frank this, but feared that Frank would give the matter great consideration and dwell on the topic overlong before ultimately mocking him for his professed ignorance. Ralph entertained the possibility that Frank believed that Ralph could actually understand all languages, and that this was merely a game between them. Yes, that made Ralph into an altogether noble character: mature and long suffering of a child’s cheap entertainment.
The zoo’s owner was a large orangutan who always wore a shabby morning coat and a pair of tweed trousers. This, he claimed, was not out of pretension but sheer practicality. The various mayors and purveyors would not take an unclothed primate seriously. And the reason he wore the trousers and the morning coat even when the humans were not around, was simple: he would get cold otherwise. The honey badger would nod at this. “Yes,” she said. “I think I would be very cold if I suddenly found myself without my coat.”
That the other animals quickly agreed with her was wise. One never challenges a honey badger on any point, large or small.
Ralph and the honey badger had a bit of an understanding, which was why all the animals deferred to Ralph as easily, if not as quickly. It was not, Ralph imagined Frank would say, out of fear of teeth or claws. Neither Ralph, nor the honey badger, nor the giant tortoises or orangutans, the brown bears, or the birds of paradise, knew anything about the ways of animals outside their small, itinerant menagerie. Everyone deferred to the honey badger, and the honey badger out of habit or something else, quite often deferred to Ralph.
“Where do you think we shall go next,” the honey badger would ask.
“Somewhere warm. Definitely someplace tropical,” Ralph would say. And when inevitably the next place would be only a few measly degrees above freezing the honey badger would point out to the other animals that Ralph had merely been expressing a wish: one shared by all.
That Ralph never seemed able to guess where they were going troubled him. He engaged in guessing less and less, or when he would guess it would be in such a way as to offer many interpretations, even when the question and subsequent answer were not of the type as to potentially make him look foolish.
“What would you like to eat today, Ralph?”
“Oh, something warm but cold. Filling but not.”
The honey badger would nod, as if this was the most logical of answers and then the others would repeat the answer as their own. It was a frightening thing, to so often move to place to place that many animals, despite their better instincts, became slavish followers of any perceived trend. Serious answers became catchphrases, and the habits of one became the habits of all. Ralph feared this but the honey badger assured him that the one in the lead never had to worry about getting left behind.
Ralph’s real problem, when he thought about it, was Frank. Frank was a cub who spoke all languages. He would grow into an adult lion soon enough and would challenge Ralph’s position, possibly. Already Frank mocked him with Frank’s language games and the way that every time Ralph offered a suggestion as to where they would go next, Frank would guess too. And Frank was usually right.
“Someplace sunny,” Ralph would say.
“It will rain,” Frank countered. And it did.
If Ralph had been only slightly more paranoid, he would have guessed, incorrectly, that Frank and the orangutan had a secret arrangement. He would have imagined the orangutan and Frank meeting in the shadow of one of the acacia trees, or in the dry bottom of the baby pool while Ralph slumbered. Frank would whisper his predictions and the orangutan would do everything in his unearthly power to ensure it.
The truth of the matter is simple and perhaps you have already guessed it. Sometimes one is just unlucky, and there is someone else in your life who is not. Though Frank mistranslates Ralph’s statements to the children and the mothers and the grandmothers with their multi-colored shawls, he adores Ralph as all children adore their fathers and uncles and older brothers. He does in fact believe that Ralph understands all, knows all, and is capable of predicting all, but indulges Frank out of deep affection. If Frank is overzealous in snatching bits of his evening meal, or lets slip a small cutting remark, it is only the impatience of youth. If Frank had ever once guessed Ralph’s doubt, he would not turn on him as a wild lion may do, but would retreat in horror and sadness. He would spend long hours reflecting on the situation and would come up with a solution. Frank is very good at coming up with successful solutions as Frank is, and always will be, a very lucky and gifted lion.
But alas, as you have already guessed, that is not the case in this story. Instead, Ralph believes that it has come time for him to move on. Though he fears Frank’s astuteness, his lucky guesses, he does not hate the lion–for if Ralph is truly honest, Frank stopped being a cub several towns ago. So rather than setting the stage for a duel, delivering a dramatic monologue at dinner beginning with, “The baby pool is not deep enough for the two of us!” (though he would forget the rest making even the honey badger wonder if Ralph is upset over the lack of a high dive), Ralph climbs the highest tree and leaps boldly over the fence. He lands so softly that he even begins to believe that there is luck in his old bones after all. He sashays past the other pens, nodding to the other animals who nod back, dumbfounded that one of their number is risking life and limb to go out for a midnight stroll.
But the honey badger knows Ralph like no other. She has guessed his intention, and is furious. “Come back,” she screams at him, raking her claws against the bars. When he will not listen, she hurriedly scrambles up her own tall tree. Her leap misses her mark and she shrieks that he is a fool, that he can’t survive without the zoo. “You know what will happen!”
“Yes,” Ralph says back over his shoulder. “I know what will happen.”
As Ralph nears the edge, the place between the zoo’s reality and other, more predictable reality, he slows down. He does not have to cross, only wait. When the zoo pulls itself together to fling forward into space and time, Ralph will not be with them. He turns his head, giving the honey badger one last look at his eyes. She nods, slowly, accepting the loss she will for the rest of her days, and the other animals accept it too, though less quickly. Even Frank in time forgives Ralph for leaving without a goodbye. He never speaks another word to anyone, even tourists, though sometimes, in the dirt where his cage has been, you can find lessons in grammar and vocabulary scratched in a script large enough for a lion to read.
Just in case.
Note: ‘the disappearing zoo’ is a story that was mentioned in a story I read in Zoetrope: All Story. The story that mentioned the story was “Be Bold, Be Bold, But not Too Bold” by Helen Oyeyemi. I do not know if ‘the disappearing zoo’ is a real story, as it was mentioned in the context of things written by a fictional character. Perhaps Ms. Oyeyemi has written this story and merely temporarily ascribed it to an imaginative being. Or perhaps she liked the idea of a disappearing zoo and imagined a character who would write such a story. At any rate, I like to take things literally and so while I have stolen the idea and the phrase, I am certain that what follows is a poor, poor imitation of what Ms. Oyeyemi could herself write if she hasn’t already.