The Zoo at the Edge of the World (3 page)

BOOK: The Zoo at the Edge of the World
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4.

S
ometimes I wonder why people who speak the most always seem to have the least to say.

The guests had had their tea and changed into more reasonable clothes, and were now being led around the grounds of the resort by Tim. He was pretty much bungling the whole thing.

“Our zoo is built on the ruins of a stone pyramid that is over one hundred years old,” Tim prattled to the assembled guests.

Over one hundred years old
is technically correct, but the pyramid is actually over
seven
hundred years old.

“There are more than thirty different species of animals in our zoo,” he went on, leading the group down the Golden Path.

We have exactly eighty-seven species in our collection.

The great stone pyramid on which our zoo rests was a temple complex built by the native people in ancient times. There was once a great city here, and they built this pyramid as a tribute to their gods. Steps run up the pyramid on all four sides, and along those steps are dozens of shrines and chambers stacked all the way to the pinnacle.

The city must have been abandoned some time ago, because the jungle swallowed it up, leaving only the pyramid. Some of the structures along the temple shelf remained intact, while some were just pillars and fallen stone.

My father discovered the site on one of his first expeditions. It's about fifty miles inland from Georgetown, but there is no road through this dense jungle, so the only way to get here is by our riverboat,
Saint of the Animals
.

Old shrines and chambers along the pyramid were fitted with bars to make them suitable as animal enclosures. My father captured most of the animals himself in the surrounding forest; the rest were shipped in from Africa and the Caribbean. The pyramid is nearly a half mile square, but not very steep, so it's easy to walk the steps between the different animal attractions. We call the steps and the paths around the zoo the Golden Path, because the bricks are made from a kind of mud that hardens with a yellow hue.

Tim led the snaking group of guests up and down the Golden Path, all the time providing them with more misinformation.

“And on your left you'll see Crocodile Corner,” Tim called out, “a stone enclosure where we keep three full-grown crocs”
—two adults and a baby, in truth—
“one of which I caught myself.”

Not a chance.

“Caught a crocodile!” The duchess tittered to Olivia. “That's a boy you want to get acquainted with.”

Olivia blushed and smiled. She looked over at me, and I couldn't help shaking my head, as if to say,
It's not true
.

I suppose I was jealous.

“Why are you shaking your head?” she whispered.

“Huh—hh-hh—h,” I stammered.
He didn't catch a crocodile!
I wanted to say.

But I couldn't. I never could. And so I stepped off the Golden Path and, with a quick flick of my hand, bade Olivia to follow me.

I took her on my own tour of the zoo and showed off my favorite animals. I showed her Longsnout and Bottlebee at the Tapir Pond, Minxy in the Sloth Cage, and Mala, the spectacled bear. All without words, of course; when she asked questions, I kept it to a shake or a nod. I wanted to tell her all the things I knew about the animals. I had funny stories about each creature, but I was afraid if I stuttered I'd look a fool.

We ended up at the Elephant Stomping Grounds to visit Dreyfus, our big gray. He was shipped over from Africa when he was just a youngling, and he'd had a major growth spurt recently.

I wanted to tell Olivia he'd nearly doubled his body weight in three months. But I wouldn't risk bungling the words.

“My God!” Olivia exclaimed as we came within sight. “It's an elephant!” She grabbed my collar in shock. “An elephant!” she said again.

I laughed. Most English hadn't seen half the animals we've got in their shoddy zoos. It's always fun to watch a guest's first encounter with a creature.

“He's marvelous!” Olivia moved toward the gate. “His trunk can move just like an arm! In all the books it's a dragging, hanging thing.”

Dreyfus was picking some greens out of a trough with his trunk and shoving them into his mouth. A two-ton beast that uses his nose like a hand was so commonplace to me that it took a moment to see what was so fascinating about it.

“How much does he weigh?” she inquired of me. Her face was alight with joy.

I opened my mouth without thinking and stammered. “Whoo—whoo—whaaaaa-”

My hand covered my mouth and stopped the noise. Olivia's smile wavered for a moment.

“He must weigh quite a lot,” she said.

All my stories were stopped up inside. Tim would have been a better guide: even with all his rubbish, he always had something to say.

Olivia leaned against the gate, pressing her face between the bars.

“Mr. Elephant . . . ,” she cooed. “Mr. Funny Elephant, what are you munching on?”

Dreyfus looked up from his feed trough and trumpeted.

“Nothing for me, I guess!” Olivia laughed uproariously.

At that moment, I realized there was something I could do. I gestured for her to step away from the gate, and I pulled the brass key ring off my belt.

“Marlin, what are you doing?”

I smiled and found the key I needed. I opened the big creaky gate just enough to squeeze through. Dreyfus was easy to spook, so I closed the gate behind me and crept toward him to check his mood.

The big elephant was back at his trough in the center of the stomping grounds. He eyed me cautiously but kept on chewing. We were out of earshot of Olivia and I felt my tongue relax, my breath returning to my throat.

“Hello, pal.” I stroked his trunk. “I've got a visitor for you, if that's all right. She's a girl.” I dropped down to a whisper. “And she's pretty nice. I think she'd like it very much if she could give you a pat. What do you say?”

Dreyfus considered me from above, then went back to munching. I took that as a
yes
.

Olivia called to me, “Everything all right there, Marlin?”

I smiled broadly and waved her in. She pushed the gate slightly open and squeezed through. Perhaps too optimistically, she skipped toward Dreyfus, and I felt him shift his weight. Before I could tell her to slow down, she came right up to him and hugged his trunk like a pet.

I winced and braced myself for the worst, but the elephant just snorted and went on eating. “He's a gentle giant!” Olivia laughed, and I couldn't help joining her. “This is wonderful, Marlin. Thank you so much—”

A bugling sound blasted through the air. Dreyfus reared up his head, and Olivia, still embracing his trunk, went up with it. She screamed and tumbled into the mud.

I ran to help her up and another bugle blast sounded.

“I'm all right,” she said, standing up from the mud. “What were those trumpets?”

I pulled her toward the elephant gate. I'd get in trouble if someone found us here. We weren't supposed to bring guests into the enclosures. It was Father's number one rule.

“Marlin, what is it?” she asked again as I locked the gate and dragged her toward the Golden Path.

“MM—mm—MU-muh—MMMM—” My tongue thickened up.

I pointed my index finger horizontal and set it beneath my nose.

“A mustache?” Olivia looked puzzled.

I straightened up and puffed my chest.

“Your father!” she guessed. She must have seen an engraving of him somewhere.

I nodded and pulled her desperately back toward the group, praying he wouldn't find out I'd left.

5.

W
e spotted the rest of the guests heading down the bottom of the Golden Path on their way to the gatehouse. Some of them had already gathered outside the door.

“What are they all doing?” Olivia asked me.

I had no idea. The gatehouse was a small building attached to a stable where we housed donkeys. There was no reason for guests to be there.

“Livia!” the duchess shrieked when she saw us. “What happened to you?”

“What's going on?” Olivia asked.

“You tell me, young lady. You're covered in mud!”

“Oh my goodness, you're right.” Olivia feigned surprise.

“You were with
him
.” The duchess snapped her fingers in my face. “Boy! Boy!”

“He's not deaf, Mother,” Olivia said.

“Well, then he should be able to hear this clearly,” the duchess pronounced. Her face was sharp and beautiful, and very frightening when she was angry. “Stay away from my daughter.”

“Daddy!” Olivia turned to her father, who had been standing by ineffectually. For such a large and powerful man, he didn't seem quite equipped to deal with an argument between the duchess and Olivia.

“Oh, Everly, there's no need to be harsh,” the duke offered. “This boy doesn't know what you're saying.”

“Yes, he does!” Olivia said, now angry at both her parents.

I'd just been screamed at, insulted, and argued over in the space of about a minute, and I still had my own family to worry about. I decided it'd be best to bid the Bradshires farewell.

“Buh—bb-buh-buh—” I stammered as a means of excusing myself, and made all the necessary bows as quickly as I could.

“I'm sorry, Marlin,” Olivia mouthed as I waved and backed away. I nodded to show everything was fine but decided I wouldn't be talking to her anytime soon. It was always best to leave the guests alone. Though I did need to push through a horde of them to get to the gatehouse.

“Little Marlin,” said Leedo Flute, who was guarding the door, “they just dragged your father back here on a gurney. Guess the jaguar got him after all.”

A hollow pain opened in my chest. “Wh-wh-WH-what?” I gasped.

Leedo's grim face was beset by twitching. His right eye wrinkled involuntarily and his lip jerked up.

“Bah-ha-ha-ha!” he laughed uproariously. My face soured and I pushed him hard in the gut. He grabbed my arm with his strong, thin hands and easily tossed me to the side.

“I'm only joking, little Marlin. He's right inside there and has been asking for you about a quarter of an hour. Where have you been?”

I pushed by him and through the wide wooden door. Leedo slammed it shut behind me.

Ronan Rackham turned around, his face tensed and eyes wide. All the nights in the bush had ravaged his nerves, and loud noises tended to startle him. I always thought of it as his Jungle Look.

Several days of stubble was shading his chin, and sweat from his forehead streamed into a bushy mustache. The khaki sleeves on his shirt were rolled up, and I could see the thick forearm veins that popped out even when he held a teacup.

My father was an old man. He had turned sixty just last winter, but he looked like men half his age. The only place his years showed was in the wrinkles near his eyes when he smiled. He liked to say that he'd lived an entire life before having children, and Tim and I were his second life.

The Jungle Look melted into a smile.

“Marlin!” he bellowed. “Where have you been?”

“Ay-ay-uh-uh-uh,” I stuttered.

“Yes, where were you?” repeated Tim with a smirk, trying to start trouble. “Tell us.”

Father ignored him. He pulled me close and mussed my hair with a dirty hand. Then he hooked both our heads into his elbows and drew us into his chest. “Boys, boys, boys!” he chanted as he smothered us in his shirt. We gasped for breath and giggled, relieved at his good mood. “You would have been eaten alive out there!”

Tim and I broke free and we mock battled him, punching his arms and shoulders as he pressed us backward by our necks.

“I wish you two had been with me,” he said. “You'd be dead, of course, but it would have been a nice way to die.”

“So you killed the jaguar?” Tim said, grabbing hold of his arm. “Can I have its skull?”

“Well . . .” Father gave us a small smile and glanced at Manray Lightfoot, one of our newer employees, who was carrying a chain into the gatehouse stable. “First I want to see that Paw. Have it out!”

The Paw. He never told us where he got it, or what it was, but that never mattered. It was a dry and crusty thing that looked something like a lemur's hand. Its tiny knuckles were balled up in a fist. The thing was ghastly to look at, and it smelled awful. But I would do anything to have it.

“Right here,” Tim said, and pulled it out of his breast pocket. Tim always kept it close when he had it, which was most of the time.

“Good,” Father said. “We're about to have a game.”

Sometimes Father challenged us to do something that required bravery or smarts. The winner got to hold the Paw until he did something especially bad or the other one did something especially good. Then it was transferred again.

I usually got it only when Tim did something bad, and then I'd quickly lose it; I never had it for more than a day, because Tim won most of the games. He was stronger, faster, and braver. Plus he could talk.

“What's the game?” Tim asked excitedly. He'd had the Paw for the last two weeks straight. I tried not to drive myself crazy by counting, but Tim kept a count, and made sure I was duly informed every evening at dinner.

“The game is afoot,” Father said, snatching the Paw from Tim. “And closer than you think.”

Just then the door banged open.

“Mr. Rackham,” Leedo complained. “it's mad out here!”

“Captain Rackham!” the guests called out. “Captain Rackham!”

“What do you want me to do?” Leedo threw up his arms.

Father gave us a knowing look. “Slight pause for interference,” he said. “We mustn't leave a bunch of sweaty snobs waiting.”

“Yes, Father. You should go out there,” Tim said, feigning worry. “I tried to control the group as best I could, but Marlin abandoned us when we were on the tour, and it wasn't easy leading the whole thing by myself.”

He threw me under the carriage, the tattler. I tried to put together a statement in my mind explaining my absence in the fewest words possible, leaving out the bit about letting a guest be mauled by an elephant, of course.

But Father casually patted Tim on the shoulder and said with exaggerated patience, “You get better with experience.”

Then he winked at me and walked to the gatehouse door.

Tim's jaw dropped. I knew he'd make me pay for it later, but it was worth it.

The gatehouse door opened and the red setting sun blazed behind the crowd, casting everyone in silhouette. They waved and called out, “Captain Rackham! Captain Rackham!” pushing each other for a better look. This was always my favorite part of Greeting Day. A special pride welled up in me, hearing them cheer him. Tim and I stood to either side of our father, soaking up all the glory we could.

“Hello and welcome,” Father said quietly. “Thank you all for journeying to our zoo.” Immediately the chattering crowd went silent. I'd seen him use this trick before. Father never had to shout to get attention. “I'm so sorry that I wasn't able to greet you properly at the docks. But I trust that my sons Marlin and Timothy hosted you admirably.”

Tim blinked hard and his mouth twitched. Father had said my name first.

“I would have joined you,” he went on, “but my latest expedition went on longer than I hoped. I promise I'll make it up to you with the wonderful—”

“Another adventure, Captain?” a voice called from the crowd.

Father furrowed his brow and searched the silhouettes for the source of this interruption. A large, round, familiar shape separated itself from the others and approached us.

Slowly, Father unknitted his brow and curled his lips into what had all the features of a smile but was missing some vital ingredient.

“Your Grace,” Father said through his teeth, and dipped into a deep bow. The guests near the gatehouse bowed and tipped their hats too. The duke's smile was genuine, and he laughed and waved at the guests.

“Good to see you, Admiral,” Father said stiffly. “And Your Grace. So many titles now, hard to choose just one.”

Guests in the crowd chuckled at this.

“I've brought my family with me!” the duke said loudly, as if he were onstage and performing a show for the other guests. He gestured to one short and one tall silhouette to my right. “Let me introduce my wife, Everly, the Duchess of Bradshire, and my daughter, Lady Olivia.”

Olivia and her mother made their entrances like they were accustomed to this sort of thing. They came to the front of the gatehouse and curtsied first to the crowd and then to my father. The duchess refused to make eye contact with any of us, but Olivia shot me a smile. My plan to avoid Olivia and the Bradshires was not off to a good start. But I smiled to let her know I was enjoying her mother's discomfort as well.

“And these are my sons, once again, Timothy and Marlin,” Father said flatly. We looked at each other, not knowing what to do, until Father pinched us. Then we bowed.

“Beauties and the Beasts!” a guest wearing a green driving jacket called out. The duke chuckled at this, and the rest of the group followed suit. I suppose our two families together did make quite a sight. One was the height of English society, and the other made a living running a zoo in the jungle. But Olivia, in her muddy dress, looked like she belonged more with our lot.

“We're delighted to be here,” the duke said.

“And delighted you're still in business,” added the duchess while looking over my father's shoulder.

“Why wouldn't we still be in business?” Father bristled.

“It's a lovely resort, Captain Rackham,” interjected the duke. “Even more grand than in the pamphlets we've seen. We are just delighted to be here and—”

“You'll have to excuse us, Your Grace,” Father said, much louder than necessary. “And to you all, I apologize as well, but I have urgent business to attend with my sons.” He shot me a look. “I will properly greet you tonight at the Welcoming Gala. Leedo, please show the guests to their cabins.”

Leedo sighed with exasperation, and Father gave him a quick kick in the shin.

“Captain—” the duke protested, but Father pretended he didn't hear and pushed Tim and me back into the gatehouse. Leedo was unenthusiastically addressing the crowd as the door closed.

“England not big enough for them?” Father said to himself. “Have to lord over my land as well?”

He spun violently and punched the wall, cracking it.

Tim and I jumped back and locked eyes. Father stayed facing the damaged wall. I watched his enormous shoulders rise and fall as he breathed. Never once had Father turned his strength on either of us, but I'd seen him crack enough walls to imagine what it'd feel like.

“Don't mind me, boys,” Father said. “Just a bit of business between me and that one is all. Come on, now.” Father slapped our backs. “Game's afoot, and it's a good one.”

BOOK: The Zoo at the Edge of the World
9.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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