The Zoo at the Edge of the World (10 page)

BOOK: The Zoo at the Edge of the World
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“So this is a circus,” he purred. “I have to admit, it was very entertaining.”

Third Night

We're sure that performance left you breathless. With wild beasts just a stone's throw away, you'd have to be dead to not be thrilled. But here at the Zoo at the Edge of the World, we make it our business to marry death and danger with safety and splendor.

After a day of thrills, expect a night of delights: a candlelight soiree by our Reflecting Pool, and an ice-cream social in the Great Hall. But you needn't choose just one—they're both open until midnight!

And if you're wondering how our animal trainers worked their magic with the animals in the circus ring, there will be a special presentation after dinner starring your master of ceremonies, Ronan Rackham, and his top staff. Listen closely: he may have some tips on how to train your little ones back home.

18.

“Y
ou find out who's responsible, you bring them to me!” Father commanded no one in particular. “Someone set fire to that tent.”

The heads of all the work groups were in his office. Tim and I stood shoulder to shoulder with the thirteen crew captains. Everyone was solemn. I tried to keep from shaking.

Father was standing hunched over his desk, hair in his face, mustache beaded with sweat. I glanced at Tim, who stared straight ahead, hard faced. Zargo was to my left, strong and calm, but the ragged breaths around me betrayed the other men's fear. I felt it overwhelming me. My right hand burned with fire, and I had to clench it in a tight fist to keep from screaming.

“Sabotage, yeah?” His voice was a torn whisper. “We had a traitor here last week, Nathtam Leent.” Father referred to the man who had led the strike and was killed by the Jaguar. “Luck doesn't favor traitors.”

A snort sounded to the left of me. It was Leedo Flute.

“Something funny?” Father asked, deadly serious.

Leedo quickly swallowed whatever had been on the tip of his tongue and said, “No, sir.”

“Are you laughing at me?” Father raised up to his full height. The air seemed to leave the room. “Do you wish I weren't here, Leedo, bothering you with this . . . petty concern?” Father took one step toward him. That was all it took.

“No, sir—no, not at all.” Leedo bowed his head. “I've respect for you, sir, utmost respect. I'm so very sorry.”

“He's lying,” Tim said, stepping forward.

“What?” Leedo asked, sweating. “No.”

“I heard him the other day, taunting Marlin,” Tim continued. “He told him he hoped that you didn't return from your hunt. That the jaguar would kill you.”

“I did not!” Leedo shouted, but Father was already on him. He grabbed Leedo by the shirt and rammed him against the wall.

“Want me dead, huh?” He rocked him against the wood beams. “Want to burn down my zoo?”

Leedo hadn't done anything. I deserved the punishment. Part of me wanted to be in my father's grip, for him to shake and strike me for what I'd done and all the people I'd endangered. But another part wanted to strike him back, to stand over him and shout that he was a bully and a blowhard and that he'd gone back on his word. These animals were ours to protect, he always said so, not to turn on each other for entertainment.

I felt the words boiling up in my throat. My palm ached, and the pain propelled me forward. But I was caught at the back of my collar by a big, strong hand. Zargo pulled me back and wrapped another arm around my chest. “Leave it,” he whispered to me.

“What do you have to say for yourself?” Father bellowed.

“It was the jaguar!” Leedo's lips pulled back as he pronounced each word, and flecks of spit sprayed my father's face. “It is a curse he laid on us for bringing him here. What we did was wrong, and this is punishment.”

Father pulled back slightly, unnerved by Leedo's words. Zargo Hunt stepped in front of me and echoed him. “It's true. The jaguar laid a curse.”

Father released Leedo and stared blankly. “You're saying a jaguar set the fire?” His eye rolled around the room. “An animal?”

“Animal has power,” said one of the men.

“A curse,” said another.

One by one all the men were casting blame. “The jaguar!” they shouted. “We must kill it!”

Father turned away from the crush of men. “I won't have you giving me orders.”

“Mr. Rackham,” Zargo spoke up. “How can you deny—”

“I deny what I wish!” Father bellowed. “I will not harbor superstition. And I will not be governed by fear. I'll throw you all in a cage.” He pounded his fist on his desk. “Then you will tell me what happened to my circus!”

The room went quiet. The men feared the jaguar, but Father was the more present threat.

“That cat will not turn my zoo into a jungle. We are civilized here!” He stamped his foot. “Tim, Marlin, come here.”

We broke ranks with the workers and went to our father's side. He put one massive hand on each of our shoulders.

“My boys will be guarding the jaguar's den from now on. None of you goes near it until I find out who burned my circus.”

“I volunteer for first watch, Father!” Tim barked in a soldier's voice. Father considered him.

“Marlin will watch the den tonight,” he said, squeezing my shoulder.

“But I'm the oldest,” Tim protested. “That's not right!”

“Who holds the Paw?” Father said. “We run this zoo on merit. You want fairness? Become a lawyer.”

Father turned to me. “You can do it, Son,” he whispered.

Behind him, Tim burned with rage.

But I still nodded.

“I know you can.” Father winked and dismissed the men. They crept out of the small office, sullen and shaken, muttering to themselves. Tim glared at me. I half suspected he knew what I'd done. But that was impossible. He was only jealous.

No one knew the truth. Father smiled at me. My right palm was seared with burning fire.

I smiled back.

19.

T
he Jaguar lay silent across the darkened room. Father had outfitted me with a rifle and bayonet to ward off intruders. It wasn't the first time I'd held a gun, but I wasn't much of a shot. I didn't like blowing apart the coffee cans we used for practice, and I'd never hunted something living. How could I protect the Jaguar if someone came for him? I adjusted my grip on the barrel.

Father and I entered the Ruby Palace, and the light of the oil lamp twinkled in the hundred bits of glass. But their glimmer was diminished somehow, not as bright as it had been the night before. There was rain in the air, heavy and thick, and the lamp struggled to light the damp darkness.

Father told me where to stand and positioned the rifle in my hands. He kicked my feet together, told me to stand up straight.

“If anyone comes, shout, ‘Halt!'” Father said. “Fire a warning shot at his feet. If that doesn't stop him, aim for the chest.” He addressed me like a soldier. “Understood?”

I nodded my head.

“The bayonet,” he added taking the rifle from my hand, “is used in close quarters, if a shot to the chest isn't enough to stop him. Slash to push him back and then jab.”

I blinked my eyes rapidly, trying to hide my fear. But Father saw it. He set down the gun and knelt.

“I know this isn't the way you'd prefer things to be.” The skin around his eyes crinkled, and a pained smile formed under his mustache. “Tim's the warrior in the family. He's got that part of me. And I know it isn't easy for you, living with him. He's hard on you, just like everyone else.”

My face felt flush and a lump rose up in my throat. I turned away from Father, but he put a finger to my chin and drew me back to him. “Do you ever wonder why I don't stop him when he's cruel to you?”

My head grew hot and I was very afraid I would start to cry, because I did wonder that. I had wondered it my entire life. My father was the strongest man in the world, but he never stopped anyone from being cruel to me.

“It's because Tim's got the warrior in me, but you've got something else. And though no one has ever expected much from you, I've always known something was there.” Tears filled his eyes then, and ran along the crinkles. “When you walked out of that cage with those apes, everyone saw it. You've got the best part of me, son.”

Tears were in my eyes too, though I couldn't say if they were from pride or fear.

“I know you'll do great things,” Father said, handing me the gun.

I blinked the tears away and nodded my head.

When Father left, the Jaguar stopped pretending to be asleep. We looked at each other but said nothing.

 

We must have spent several hours in silence, because eventually the antbirds began to sing. They only do that just before dawn.

“I should say I'm sorry,” I said.

The Jaguar didn't respond. He reclined lazily, his paw beneath his chest, looking up at the flickering oil lamp. A cloud of gnats hovered around the flame.

“I mean to say, I'm sorry for what happened today. My father and the circus. I'm the one who lit the fire.”

The Jaguar blinked his eyes. “I know,” he said.

“Father's furious. He thinks it was one of the men.”

“I see.”

“But the men say it was you. They say holding you here is a curse, and we should kill you. That's why Father has me standing guard.”

“I see that, too.”

The Jaguar's uninterest enraged me.

“If you see so bloody much, how come you're in this cage? How come you killed Nathtam and caused all this trouble?” I realized I was pointing the rifle toward him. The blade of the bayonet poked through the bars of his cage. The Jaguar considered its tip.

“I've just puzzled something out,” he said.

“What?” I sighed and withdrew the bayonet.

The Jaguar perked up, his yellow eyes squinting. “Since you came here, I've been confused by that lamp. I thought it was captured moonlight. And I've wondered about those insects that circle the flame.”

He lifted his eyebrow at the lamp and the cloud of gnats that surrounded the light. “They fly around and around, crashing into each other, and then they get too close and poof, they're gone.”

I wasn't really in the mood for questions. I said, “Bugs just do that. I don't know why.”

“There's a reason for every action,” the Jaguar responded. “Today, I watched men flee from fire in terror, and I thought, ‘Why does the gnat fly toward it?'”

“Because they're stupid,” I said. “I don't know. I can't talk to bugs.”

“Yes, they're too simple to speak with us. But simplicity does not lack reason.”

“Then why?” I said. “Do you know?”

“The reason the gnats circle the flame,” the Jaguar said as another bug burst into vapor, “is because they make the same mistake I did. They think it's the moon.”

“So bugs want to fly into the moon?”

“No,” he said. “At night, insects navigate by the position of the moon. If they can keep it to one side of them, they know they're heading straight.”

“Huh,” I said. “That's how sailing ships do it too, you know. Except they use the stars.”

“For all the years since the world was made, that is how the insects kept their flight. And for eons, it worked, because there were no bright lights besides the moon. Then man came and worked out a way to light the night. The gnats that see your flame mistake it for the moon, and, as they've done since the dawn of time, they try to keep it to one side.”

I looked up at the cloud of tiny bugs, all circling the flame like planets around the sun.

“But the fire is so much closer than the moon,” I said. “So when they fly by it, they've got to turn to keep it in the same place.”

“And circle round and round chasing it,” the Jaguar purred. “And in their frenzy, they bump into their friends and grow confused. So attracted are they to the light that they fly closer and closer, maddened by its ancient pull, and are swallowed in the heat.”

“That's a shame,” I said.

Another gnat burst into smoke. The crackling noise made me wince.

“The simple instincts of that gnat drove him true in the night. But now, with the machines of man, his basic nature does him in. We are all governed by instinct. But like the gnat's, man's instincts have been warped by his machines, as you call them. Look at the lock. All of us need to eat and store our food. But once you give a creature a lock, he thinks, ‘I can capture all the prey in the forest and lock it up for my pleasure.' Instead of taking what he can eat and enjoy, he strives to take it all and locks up the entire world.”

“Sounds like a king,” I said. “They want to own everyone and everything.”

“Yes,” the Jaguar purred. “And what happens when two kings meet?”

“There's war,” I said.

The Jaguar nodded his head. “We kill to eat in the jungle. But there are no locks and cages. There is no war.”

I thought of my father. He was the king of this place, and that made me a prince. One day I'd get the keys to all the locks.

I turned to the Jaguar. “You told me people choose to be apart from the animals. Was there a time before when we were the same?”

“I was not around before, so I don't know.” The Jaguar flashed his eyes. “Most men's tongues go unused, but you're unique. I gave you this gift, Marlin, because you could receive it.”

I didn't feel well. My hands were shaking. Another gnat burst into flames, and the crack of its body breaking apart set off a panic in me. “I don't want to be a king,” I said. “And I don't want to hurt anyone. But ever since you've given me this power, I feel like I'm doing it all the time. I fail my father; I fail the animals. Tell me what I should do.”

He slid one enormous paw between the bars of his cage and curled the other around the lock. He licked his nose, and for a moment I felt hunted.

“You can let me out.”

His ears were peaked. His nostrils flared slightly, taking in my scent, and his haunches flexed. He was a curtain of black that could draw over me in an instant, snuffing me out.

The gun rattled in my hand.

“I can't do that,” I said.

“Of course you can.” He raised his voice slightly.

“I don't have the key.”

“You can get it,” he snarled. “Free me and all the others. End this nightmare of confinement.”

“No, I won't,” I said, taking a step back. “This place is my home. These animals are my friends.”

“Friends you keep under lock and key?” the Jaguar said.

“This place is my father's,” I said, feeling indignant. “It's not mine. I can't do that. It would kill him.”

“Then what's the alternative?” the Jaguar retorted. “Killing me?”

“You're safe here!” I said. “We'll protect you. That's
why
you're here. To show everyone there's nothing to be afraid of!”

I parroted my father's words with tears in my eyes. I had always believed them.

“Marlin!” Tim's voice called from beyond the door of the Ruby Palace. He was early.

“That's my brother,” I said, taking the lamp from the hook. “We'll protect you. I swear it.”

The Jaguar considered me silently. I wiped my eyes and opened the door.

BOOK: The Zoo at the Edge of the World
8.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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