When the rumor circulated that the lion had been prowling just below 59th Street, Joseph Dix loaded his revolver and, much to the chagrin of his hysterical wife, headed for the front door. She didn’t comprehend the point in going out when The Herald reported that the mayor had the city on lock-down. But then again, Ms. Valerie Dix, née Blanchett-Sauvette, had only lived in New York for three years now and had yet to fully comprehend why Americans acted the way they did. The things she had seen below 14th Street would never be tolerated in her own, much missed, Paris.
Ms. Dix standing halfway down the staircase held up the newspaper report that read in bright bold letters AWFUL CALAMITY and A SHOCKING CARNIVAL OF DEATH, begging him once again to stay inside. “At least seventy animals are free,” she said reading from the paper. “Joseph, you cannot go out there. This is madness.”
He stopped at the door, peeking through the side lights and then feeding bullets one by one into his revolver said, “The wild animals of the park are loose and roaming my city, Valerie. What would you have me do?”
“Stay inside like a reasonable person!” Valerie shrieked.
But Joseph Dix took much pride in always being his own man and his tolerance for hysterics, especially female hysterics, was at an all-time low. He tucked the revolver into his waistcoat and warned his wife to stay away from the windows.
Besides he knew that already this freakish experience had transformed into an opportunity. And these days opportunity was a commodity he rarely traded in. No one had expected that the cages at the Central Park Zoo would prove so inadequate. The zoo had only been formally called so since the recent city charter, and already the city was threatened. The paper had reported forty-nine souls had been lost, with only half of them identified. The description of the rhino gorging was particularly grisly. Joseph couldn’t help but question how the locks on all the cages came loose. According to The Herald, it was possibly sabotage. Regardless, he was incapable of standing by, not while Grant was fouling up the reconstruction and the depression that began last year still had her hot hands wrapped around the financial district. He had to do something. Joseph was keenly aware that his chance to do something profound was slipping by.
And in just the few minutes since he had begun talking he saw them passing by his door. One by one, walking in slow steady packs, silhouetted, sketched on the fog by the flickering gas lamps: men with guns.
The city was slowly transforming, in just a single day, from the center of urbanity to a world not unlike Livingstone’s jungle.
“I’m begging you,” his wife said from the steps. Joseph watched how her hands wrinkled the paper, clutching it tight. He despised panic, he found it characteristically un-American, but his wife touched something tender in him. Something unexpected. Without answering he slid back the lock and opened the front door.
The air on the street was static. In the fog, Joseph could see figures moving and he was barely seventeen steps from his front door when the first crack of gunfire ripped through the air. He ducked and scooted towards the low wall buffeting the park. In the distance he heard men shouting and then the screech of something utterly unhuman.
Joseph turned and saw crouching along the wall his neighbor James Thomas clutching a rifle. Joseph scurried back towards him and the two of them sat with their backs against the park wall like soldiers.
“It’s bad, Thomas.”
“Two hundred injured, they say. The police are nowhere to be found.”
“How long have you been out here?”
Joseph nodded, his hand warm around his gun. The early November fog rolled slowly through the city, blanketing it in an eerie sea green glow. Joseph thought of his wife at home, imagined her pacing the upper bedroom, staying away from the window not because he had told her so but because Valerie knew, as he knew, that there was terror, terror as real as The War going on in the streets below her.
Things seen can never be unseen.
“Best of luck, Thomas,” Joseph said, rising.
“Where are you going?” Thomas hissed.
“To do what must be done.”
Even as he left he could hear Thomas whispering his name, begging him to come back. But he wasn’t going to get what needed to be done crouching alongside the park wall like a scared child. Besides, Thomas was a waste, a skin sack waiting to be filled with food and wine so that he could regurgitate more vile political nonsense. And if Joseph was going to be ripped to shreds by a lion it was not going to be at James Thomas’ side. There had to be a nobler place to die. He had missed The War by just a few years. Instead he watched his brothers leave and die, one after another, to fight for the sanctity of this Union. His father had been wounded early on but never let a day go by where a story wasn’t told. Joseph felt it, the way it dragged at his ankles, this need to do something. Something profound. Something right. Something, if not for his country, then for the city he loved.
The gas lamps flickered and every shadow transformed into a wild animal as he turned up Fifth Avenue. It was a stagnant foggy night, like a sea before a storm, the kind of night where you could smell the seawater wafting all the way up from the estuary. Valerie had begged him to vote against the expansion of the Menagerie. What nonsense she cried, wild animals in the heart of the metropolis. It was a mockery of Mother Nature.
She had not dared invoke God before Joseph. Valerie knew exactly where her husband stood on the eternal question of what lay behind the veil of mortality: firmly, though secretly, in the non-believer camp. God had left Joseph, that chilly September morning when the Lord stole through the window like a vengeful goblin in one of Valerie’s fairy stories and took with Him the soul of Joseph’s baby daughter. All that He left behind was a cold waxy pink shell. And when He did so, Joseph took back the part of his own soul that had been conscripted to the Heavenly Father and offered up instead something black and dangerous. Something that Valerie did not dare rouse.
Things seen can never be unseen.
A scream erupted just to his right and Joseph swung his pistol towards the bush next to him, which shook ferociously. From it, a monkey leapt, its brown matted hair brushing right past Joseph’s face. It stopped for a moment on the top of a carriage and observed Joseph, its face a rubbery distortion of mankind. The creature emitted another fang-baring scream and then bounded off down the street.
Its hands. Its hands looked so human.
In his head Joseph heard his own pastor from his youth telling him that God had made all these creatures for Man to have. To command at his will. But Joseph could not help but think that something that close to human was not a gift but in fact a terrible mirror.
Before he was able to fully collect himself, steady his own shaking hand, and continue down the street, Joseph heard the clatter of hooves and with a not small bit of relief realized the cavalry must be here. The police had been slow to respond to the emergency, but they must be finally here. Except what clattered up the pavement was not mounted police nor even the chestnut muzzles of harnessed horses but instead four panicked zebras clattering down the center of Fifth Avenue, their eyes wild with fear, nostrils flared, foam dripping from the corners of their mouths. They clattered past him, bumping into one another and then into carriage omnibus parked on the side of the street. From the corner of his eye Joseph watched a wet shadow leap onto the park wall and race after the panicked zebras.
The panther was bigger than he could have imagined, even in his worst dreams. It leapt from the wall and pounded after the zebras, taking the smaller one down by the flank just a block north of where he stood. The zebra’s scream ripped through the air sounding so vivid and so much like a dying child, Joseph was stopped in his tracks. The gun hung utterly useless at his side as he watched the blood spread like a blanket across the road.
Another shot was fired from somewhere, causing the hysterical zebra to scream again before the panther put it out of its misery with a quick bite to the neck. Then, as easy as pulling tender chicken meat from a bone, sunk its teeth into the creature’s leg and tore it from its body. The panther took its reward and with the agility of an alley cat leapt upon the wall, disappearing into the park, dark as midnight.
Joseph raised his gun, not with any real purpose, as the panther was already gone but just so he could see it. It was a sign that he had some means of protection. A reminder that against teeth and claw he was not naked and weak. Valerie had been right all along. Coming out here was madness. What was his intention really? Two hundred were reported injured already. Forty-nine killed. He glanced again at the dead zebra, the wash of blood, lava-like, working its way towards him. In the stillness of the city Joseph felt something rise in him, something he hadn’t felt in the years since he had reached into the bassinet and picked up his own dead daughter.
“How pointless,” he whispered toward the carcass of the zebra. And then it seized him. He must return home immediately. Being here on the street with this weapon in his hand, he was committing some sort of cosmic treason. There had been no place for him in The War and now there was no place for him in this manufactured city. Under the layers and layers of concrete there was still mud and earth — an earth that was teeming with life that cannot be hidden or changed or truly killed. Nature would always out. In the end it would find its way back up through all the cracks that man had felt so sure he had paved over. It would find him and remind him he too is animal.
Joseph turned and headed back towards 59th street, back towards home and Valerie and a life that had, at one time, made perfect sense to him. His hysterical heart told him there was a path back to that. He just needed to stay on it.
At the end of the street, the giraffe was just standing there, as bewildered to find itself here as Joseph was to see it, half wrapped in the fog that rolled down the street. It stood utterly still, its legs unimaginably long — a creature that seemed to be crafted from a child’s imagination, sketched on paper and then breathed into existence here on street. Its neck graceful and arched turned toward Joseph and considered him for just a moment before it took a single careful step forward.
Joseph didn’t dare breathe watching it move slowly down the street. Its perfectly round belly, the way it lowered its head so that its long neck was horizontal, attempting to see eye-level with the man on the street. It watched him as he watched it. Naturally, Joseph meant the creature no harm, and yet here he was with a gun and no means to confess that special necessary sentiment. For a moment the giraffe bucked, rearing up like a horse, stamping a hoof against the city street and bleating like a goat.
It dared him. Or possibly just acknowledged him, a fact that Joseph embraced more fully than he had embraced the previous fifty-two years of his life. For the first time ever, he was really being seen.
Shaken by this, Joseph took a step back and broke whatever it was that had existed between them. The giraffe turned then, heading towards the avenue, away from him. It ran, galloping graceful strides, before stopping once and turning back to look at him warily.
It wasn’t until the gunfire splintered the quiet that Joseph realized he had forgotten to breathe. The animal swayed, stumbled, its long legs now a hindrance, before it collapsed in a twisted pile. In the distance he heard men yelling, disjointed cries and the stampede of feet. Something somewhere screamed.
Joseph waited until the quiet returned before venturing towards the creature. Its long neck twisted and flopped on the street like a snake. By the time Joseph reached it, it was dead, a single bullet hole through its hide close to the heart. Whoever pulled the trigger was an excellent marksman. Joseph couldn’t help but wonder if they had fought in The War. If they had taken down many others.
He kneeled down near the giraffe’s head, examining the hard rounded horns on its head, the deep long nostrils, the velvety ears, not unlike a cat’s. Tentatively he reached out and gently lifted its face. It was surprisingly heavy, the weight of this dead animal’s skull in his shaking hands. He tried but failed to avoid looking into those two black eyes. They were not round and dark as lumps of coal as they seemed from a distance but instead a dark brown iris with a tender pupil. In it, he saw his own wretched reflection. Things seen can never be unseen.
With a careful hand he reached up, extended his finger and slowly brushed its eyelashes, letting each individual lash kiss his finger before standing, placing the barrel of the revolver against his temple and firing.
ALLY MALINENKO is the author of the poetry collection The Wanting Bone (Six Gallery Press), the children’s book Lizzy Speare and the Cursed Tomb (Antenna Books) and the YA novel This Is Sarah (BookFish Books). She lives in the part of Brooklyn that the tour buses don’t come to.