How he delighted the crowds with a Havana cigar in one hand and a can of beer in the other. He wore a Lincolnesque top hat and a gold-braided purple vest. His antics had everyone rollicking at seeing their vices aped before their eyes.
He’d chug the beer and drum on his belly, inhale from the cigar, then roll over backwards without spilling a drop or losing his top hat and come up puffing smoke rings. It was a performance that delighted his handlers, who never knew what he would do next, and so found themselves clapping along with the crowd.
Alfonse was jealous of Julie and Romeo who were always together, and he’d quickly step in when they had fights. Alfonse had given up Lily to Jocko, who was drawn to the pink tutu she wore when Alfonse would let her perform with him.
All the while, Phillip bowed to everyone with his massive gray weight, and his trunk always raised for travel, though he never went anywhere. He was a living example of how bulk could be left behind. The most precious part of him had been sawed off and now he stood around all day resigned, unaffected by Alfonse’s performance. For years he had acknowledged Charles only by moving backwards in his presence, hiding all emotion.
Ray was king of them all, whose tan ruff had forgotten about his proud walk. Instead, he stalked shadows rolling over on his back, as lunatics do, growling at rainstorms or a full moon, imagining an affinity with thunder and lightning.
Babs, Lila, and Sara were always displaying their purple rumps to each other, a permanently streaked dress that changed colors with their moods. Only they could read the delicate shades on their backsides, the exact degree of wiggle. Sam was the Mormon of the population, lording over the three females.
Slip left the herd to dote on Sandy, who could go for days without water; so regal was he that he seemed to give Ray competition, though everyone knew despite his tawny hue he was only a humpbacked, spindly-legged impersonator. Slip gazed starry-eyed at Sandy, felt the shifting dune between them, as Jack and Billy, little more than harmless two-year-olds, sharpened their claws on the palm tree as if it were balsa, surveying the two love birds with bemused lynx eyes.
Lulu wanted to fly before she grew pregnant with Rosie by Henry who groaned for two straight nights with a constant toothache, as if it were he who was giving birth. She would have settled for bathing in the Tshopo River that ran by their compound, but it was fenced off, so she lay in the mud looking at the inviting current that bore her along like the smoothest fingers of a masseuse.
And there was Sherman, who was fond of Lulu and her soft skin, probably because of his prominent nose that some already coveted as an aphrodisiac. Sherman was as light-footed as the idea of war was absent from his armor-plated bulk.
Stripes, who stood by incarcerated, always had an eye out for Slip – who was more graceful than Stripes, despite his reputation for running. Maybe Stripes could imagine, despite shivers through his prison garb, his pink snout already buried in her soft coat.
Savannah towered above everyone with her exaggerated neck and always seemed to have a sore throat. Some wondered that she must have had the biggest heart of all for the blood to climb so high.
“How’s the weather up there?” someone would inevitably ask. When she sneezed, tiny droplets of water would land on Stripes and Slip and everybody.
And then there was Chip, who ate so heartily that he could supply whole villages with fuel to burn. Also there was Jewel, more colorfully bedecked than any royalty. She seemed to fan herself and pirouette every time she was looked at. Jack and Billy had dreams of her, but never seemed to get past the idea of feathers already in their mouth and eyes accusatorily trained on them.
People came in busloads, herds of them from Brussels, Antwerp, London, Paris, and from far away as New York and Tokyo. And with every paid admission the lawns were better tended, the tropical flowers more astonishingly colorful, the population healthier and better fed, and the Tshopo River more sparkling than ever, threading its way through the most luxuriant vegetation.
Since 1954 the Gardens had been the Jewel of the Congo, the most prominent setting in the tiara of perhaps the richest continent in the world.
And the visitors grimaced, grew delighted, barked, squirmed, snorted, worked their jaws endlessly, stood agape, pointing and marveling at the diversity of the life–redheads with freckles, with green, blue, gray eyes, and hair styles that shot out of their heads like beehives, pony tails, pig tails, flat tops, crew cuts, layered, spiked, crimped, wavy, yellowed, straightened and curled, kinky-black, flaxen, and lately – fluorescent pink, green, and orange. The visitors looked on in amazement and belched in contentment at seeing themselves mirrored.
They wore black habits with white wimples, uniforms decorated with the most colorful insignia, hemp, silk, cotton and polyester dresses, garb the likes of which the creatures they came to see were sometimes a poor imitation of. Even the toucan. They sported platform shoes, high heels, heavy boots, leather and straw sandals, sneakers, tennis shoes, clogs and thongs.
But still the wildlife set the standard for the visitors, gave them ideas beyond adorning themselves with boas and skins, spots and stripes, with armor and crests. They taught them about living in close quarters, about boredom and abstinence, about mating rituals, parenting, aggression and peacefulness, about hunting and stalking, about every aspect of life imaginable. As a matter of fact, people would have been at a total loss without them.
The keepers, too, marveled at the visitors. How odd their dress, their habits, how they stopped to kiss and caress each other in all seasons, chewed gum and smoked tobacco, how boisterous they were, and shameless. And the copulation they came to see only warranted a bored glance from the participants, little different than what occurs every day on the stages in Amsterdam.
All except Alfonse and his ilk, compelled as they were to entertain the tourists with their own habits. Some think that is why they came all the way from Europe, to see their behavior mimicked in Central Africa. The local population thought this a strange payback for all the years of colonialism. For despite the live imports to Europe, it wasn’t the same as coming to the Congo and seeing these creatures in their natural habitat.
Then one night there was an explosion and the sky lit up with the groan of shells and an orange tracery of bullets. The residents hunkered down and looked on in amazement at the bursts of red flame, tried to protect their ears from the deafening roar, felt the vibrations race up their hooves.
Alfonse groaned, Romeo and Julie held each other. Charles and Phillip lay mute like large gray boulders, immovable but sensitive to every tremor. They both had endured the grating sounds of hacksaws going through their tusks, but still grew frightened at the periodic bursts of light.
Even Ray hunched closer to the ground, as if his kingdom was now smaller than ever. Jack and Billy, after fighting all day, pretended to sleep balled up in each other’s fur. They were young but not oblivious to the successive concussions that assumed a kind of rhythm, like the hum of an old hotel air conditioner whose wheezing and mechanical readjustments are required for the comfort of the human race.
Babs, Lila, and Sara quickly patched up their differences and were huddled together around Sam, as their accelerated pulse now seemed one circulatory system.
Slip had rejoined the herd that stood still as if grazing, for the antelope had no place to hide–maybe they thought Kenny the kudu, or Giles the impala, with their magnificent horns, might yet protect them. Slip kept her eyes on the camel tent all night to make sure Sandy was all right.
Lulu lay in the mud with Rosie curled up in her belly, believing the bath of wet earth would amply hide her. Sherman couldn’t see behind a solid metal door, but could smell Lulu’s fear, and periodically, between concussions, would scratch the ground for her to hear.
Stripes was skittish and would have liked to break out from the enclosure and run to the savannas twenty kilometers away, lead the herd from the gunfire–and bring Savannah with her long neck along for reconnaissance. Maybe Chip and the rest could lead the way, stampede through the city for the open savannas. Jewel and her ilk would probably stay behind preening themselves, their feathers bound to be used for dusters or to amuse house cats.
The next day the keepers came to work, despite the pockmarked earth and stench of gunpowder still in the air. The stunned population was up looking out of their enclosures. The keepers were nervous, like the animals tentative, and seemed to have lost their appetites. The residents picked up on the keepers’ whispering, their hesitancy, and their fears.
When the gates opened at nine there were no visitors, and for the next few weeks nobody but a few local families came. Civil war had broken out and the city was divided in two camps. After two weeks the rebels took over the city and the government had to flee to the countryside.
The workers’ loyalties were divided, some fled with the government troops, others joined the rebels. Most of the senior staff stayed on to take care of the residents; however, since government functions were interrupted, they were paid out of petty cash, three days one week, two the next, until finally they were reduced to getting a day’s wages for a week’s work.
The rebels were not disorganized, but their resources went into essential services. They could barely feed the people, so black markets sprang up overnight and the economy neared collapse. The influx of tourists stopped altogether, and even mediators from abroad canceled flights to Kisangani.
The keepers had to cut the rations of the residents in half, then quarter them. The enormous caloric requirements could no longer be met. The animals lost weight, grew lethargic, lost the sparkle in their eyes and the luster of their coats. The keepers at first brought food from their homes, some even stinting with their own families, but were overwhelmed by the metabolism of even the smaller-sized animals.
The laughter, the joviality and the good spirits that existed before between the keepers and animals disappeared. Disgruntled, starved, accusatorial looks replaced them as the animals looked at their keepers in bewilderment, and the keepers dropped their eyes. The chimps pleaded with their yellowed eyeballs, the tiny red threads and rheum telling of a hunger that kept them awake at night. They no longer swung from chains, or climbed on tyres.
Alfonse took off his purple vest in protest, and of course the cigars and beer stopped. The top hat lay crushed in the corner of the cage, soiled with dry excrement, and nobody bothered to pick it up. Romeo and Julie lay on opposite sides of the cage among stiff brown banana skins. Phillip and Charles grew gaunt and their wrinkles multiplied massively as their loose skin lengthened even their sawed-off tusks.
Ray’s ruff was matted with clots of filthy debris, as his long purple tongue tried lazily to catch the rows of flies lining the wet mucus of his eyelids. The youngsters Jack and Billy seemed fluffier, now that they had grown emaciated. They no longer played except to push each other feebly away. There was water from the Tshopo River, but it was infested with typhus from the dead bodies. The keepers hadn’t the fuel to boil the water, not even from Chip.
Babs, Lila, and Sara were red-rumped, as their sexuality had lost its purple, and withered the rest of their bodies with hunger. Slip was just that, a slip of an antelope whose legs were rickety as a newborn an hour after birth. Sandy sat all day and stared, that the keepers wondered if he’d ever have the strength to get up. Lulu seemed to have lost all her flesh except the bulge that was Rosie. Sherman seemed only armor and horn. Stripes seemed totally black now, as his white stripes were collapsing into one absence of color. Savannah, too, lost her reach and could barely feed herself. Chip and his kind were lying in their own dry droppings for so long they became a permanent part of their bodies.
Then one day a shell fell into the elephant house. Neither Phillip nor Charles was hit, though the ground shook wildly. The next morning, Charles crossed his buckling knees and crashed to the ground. It shook as if another shell had struck the compound. The palm trees trembled and dropped their last two coconuts, but the flesh was rotten inside as one of the workers opened them in vain. The keepers went up to Charles who was breathing heavily. Some remembered the rides he dutifully gave tourists, how majestically he bent down, rose and swayed back and forth as his tail kept a kind of rhythm to his ears flapping, gently fanning himself. They noted how especially gentle he was with children on board.
The veterinarian was called, but by that time Charles’ heart gave out and he died of a massive hemorrhage. Phillip stood in the corner and didn’t move, but then for the first time in years came out of his stall head first. Inside a week he, too, was dead, and mysteriously – that is when the disappearances started. It was as if nobody had gotten the idea until Charles died.
The remaining workers had not been paid for months and were living from hand to mouth, coming to work every day hoping for a change. Soon the cages started to empty one by one and lost the odor of life and the bracing stench of ammonia. Each night another animal disappeared, and by day a curious eeriness filled the zoo.
The workers went about their duties cleaning the cages of dust and bird droppings, for the animals now rarely fouled them with anything more than little greenish-brown puddles, or the tiniest balls of excrement. Some looked sadder than before, others healthier. The antelope, zebra, giraffe, and buffalo were first to go after the elephants. But though they were starving by the time of Charles’ collapse and had little flesh on their bones, it is certainly to the keepers’ credit that they waited so long.
When Professor Samuel Ndomba’s article appeared in the newspaper, that too, signaled the beginning of the end.
“How can people feed the animals when they are hungry themselves, when our children are malnourished. It’s a crime!” he wrote.
That’s when the disappearances accelerated. One night the two chimps disappeared, Romeo and Julie, then Alfonse himself. Some of the keepers were in tears the next morning remembering Alfonse’s antics, how he mimicked their behavior, chugging beer and blowing smoke rings, how he brought smiles to countless tourists over the years. His handler went into a deep depression and said he didn’t want Alfonse’s vest. His crushed top hat remained in the corner even after the cage was cleaned.
Only Ray’s ruff was left, scattered around the cage one morning when the keepers arrived, though fresh blood was still on the bars. Jack and Billy disappeared the same night. Babs, Lila, and Sara were missed on successive days, soon after Sam, though people in that part of Africa had never been heard to eat baboon.
The hippo and the rhino were last to go, all except for Roc the crocodile. He was the only survivor, and stayed alive for more than three months after his last meal of fish in January. He lived until April. It was rumored that Julie was fed to Roc but nobody believed it. Still some keepers had an especial respect for the longevity of the crocodile, for its cold-blooded tenacity. It was a survivor, like they were, and so a pall of gloom settled over the facility when Roc died. They had tried to feed him snakes, but he wouldn’t take them.
“He was one tough guy,” a worker said.
The workers still show up promptly every morning because the zoo is officially open. They go about their duties cleaning the empty cages, tidying up for the animals’ return. Maybe they won’t admit to themselves that they are really gone, such ponderously massive presences, such graceful dignified creatures, so in possession of themselves, and with whom they formed such intimacy. Chimps and baboons, so like them that they gave audiences and keepers alike endless pleasure. Even Roc in his element floated into their psyches, all nostrils and eyes, with a dental heritage they too denied, refusing to openly admit the animals they had eaten.
“They were like relatives!” one keeper said, bursting into tears.
Alfonse’s handler refused to speak to journalists, he was too broken up. Everyone now had grave expressions on their faces going through the motions of a normal day, carrying inside them the huge deception that there were still animals to care for. Though there was no smell of excrement, or urine that kept their airways free of colds and respiratory infections. Their blood pressures even rose now that there were no animals to pet or care for. In fact, a curious malaise overtook the workers.
Pierre Bambalayo, a senior worker, insists the zoo isn’t closed, that it is open.
“There just aren’t any animals,” he says.
Ramazan Bekanda still claims, “They died of hunger.”
The skull in Joseph Okoko’s office nobody will say for sure is Alfonse, but everyone knows it contains a spirit that some believe at night blows smoke rings.
The civil war still rages, but the remaining zookeepers are curiously pacific –perhaps from their charges safely in their bellies, contributing to the remaining luster in their eye, the gloss of their hair, their own body movements and animal strength, as they go about the business of now caring more meticulously for their absence.
But a closer look reveals that they are less healthy than before. Maybe they have simply been aged by all the turmoil, by the betrayal, and loss of the reason for living –the absent antics of their charges, their missing love affairs or attachments, by Charles and Phillip not getting along for years without coming to blows, by Ray who would lie in the sunshine and not want anymore to pounce on Slip or any member of her herd, by the antics of the jaguars, Billy and Jack, little more than cubs who lost the habit of playing only when they grew emaciated, by the love triangle of Lila, Babs, and Sara for Sam, by the distance always in Sandy’s eyes, or the gravid beauty of Lulu with tiny Rosie inside her belly, by Sherman always standing before the metal door of his concrete cage, or Stripes, permanently wearing the emblem of his incarceration with dignity, and by Chip who may already be sewn together for someone’s shoes, or Roc who surely is a handbag, or last but not least Jewel, and her feathers for dusting or decorations.
Unoka now has gout worse than ever. Maybe it is from the purines in the meat he ate when the rest of the city was starving, that he can hardly get around the grounds anymore. Okoye has heart disease; his cholesterol got out of hand a few weeks before, and the doctor advises a diet of legumes and grains. Okonokwo is having dizzy spells from, his wife says, “moping all the time and not eating—he doesn’t even know a civil war is raging.”
Tombo is forever lying in the doorway of the tiger cage he used to take care of. Some whisper the spirits of Ben and Louise pass him by and flies collect on his body like they did on Louise when she didn’t have the strength to brush them off. Babo has constant eye infections since he puts his hands in them. Samba’s liver is bothering him since, his brother says, he drinks all the time. Nobody knows where he gets the money. Alfonse’s handler, they say, is losing his mind, talking to himself more and more these days, swatting at flies not even on him. They say sometimes he sits in his office and stares at Alphonse’s skull for hours.
Still they all turn up each morning to clean cages whose occupants, in a moment of hunger, filled their empty bellies.
Richard Krause’s collection of fiction, Studies in Insignificance, was published by Livingston Press, and his epigram collection, Optical Biases, was published by Eyecorner Press in Denmark. In the last year, his fiction has appeared in Eastlit, The Oddville Press, Scarlet Leaf Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Indiana Voice Journal, and Hackwriters Magazine. A story of his is also upcoming in Cold Creek Review. He teaches at Somerset Community College in Kentucky in the U.S.