The Zoo at the Edge of the World (6 page)

BOOK: The Zoo at the Edge of the World
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Second Day

Long night, eh? Perhaps the unusual sounds of the jungle made sleep difficult to come by? We know just what you need to recover: a catered breakfast in bed.

After boating up a winding river, touring the finest zoo in the world, and two-stepping your way through one of high society's most exclusive occasions, what could be better than mountains of fried eggs, boxcars of sausages, and oceans of juice and coffee?

You've earned it!

This is your time to relax and take in the brand-new world around you. The zoo and gardens are always open, and they are pulsing with life. There are eighty-seven different species of animals in our collection—you didn't think you could see them all in one day, did you?

Our staff is always hard at work caring for and feeding our many animals. Most of our collection are herbivores and eat fruits gathered by yet-to-be-civilized Tribesmen living in the jungle and delivered to our gates daily.

But for the carnivores in our zoo, fresh meat always comes in the form of a live feeding, just as it would in the wild. Bait animals are caught in the jungle or raised in the zoo, and for the bigger creatures in our care, mealtime proves to be quite a show.

Ask a friendly zoo hand about feeding times—but only if you've got the stomach for it!



t was the monkey fingers in my nose that woke me up.


I opened my mouth to breathe and spotted Kenji sitting on my chest. Her tail was curled round her legs, and her arms were stretched out toward me, her fingertips disappearing into my nose. I shook my head and swatted at her. She flipped backward onto my belly and then crawled back up my chest. She screeched at me, but not in a language I could understand.

Disappointed, but a little relieved, I thought maybe it had been a dream.

Then I remembered to pull the cotton from my ears.

“—and Blue Boy said, ‘Oh yes, he did. I heard it!'” Kenji went on, “but Kenji doesn't believe him because that stinky old chimp always lies to Kenji. But then it was Trébone who said, ‘Oh yes, it's true!' and Kenji always listens to Trébone—”

Kenji was yapping at me, jumping up and down on my chest and tugging her mustache.

“—but Kenji had to know, so Kenji came here to wake you up, Master Marlin! So you can tell Kenji!”

Her little hands were gripping my eyebrows, and her mouth was less than an inch from my face.

I broke out laughing.

“Ahh!” Kenji howled. “It's true! You're a talking boy, Master Marlin!”

Kenji hopped off my chest and launched herself onto the bookshelf at the opposite wall. She scaled it and leaped like a furry cannonball onto my stomach.

“Ow!” I laughed, grabbing her by the scruff of the neck.

“This is crazy!” Kenji shouted happily.

“I know it is!”

“Kenji always thought you were so dumb, Master Marlin!”


She laughed and tugged at her mustache. “Kenji's sorry, but it's true!”

“Well, I thought you were dumb,” I said back.

Kenji froze. She pulled her mustache down past her shoulders.

“That does not make any sense.” She cocked her head. “Why would Kenji be dumb?”

“Erm, I guess it doesn't?” I said, trying to make her feel better. “You're probably the smartest monkey I know.”

Her face lit up. “Okay! You're the smartest person Kenji knows, too, Master Marlin!”

Kenji was my oldest friend. As strange and disarming as hearing an animal talk still was for me, I realized I'd been talking to them all for years, especially Kenji, and it was second nature to me. This felt even more natural than before.

“So you talked to the jaguar, Master Marlin?”

“Yeah, it was unbelievable,” I said. “He told me he did this with magic. And then I cut my hand, and he healed it!” I showed Kenji the fair, untouched skin on my palm. It still felt raw and pulsing with energy.

“This isn't good, Master Marlin.” Kenji said, backing away from it. “Magic is dangerous. Once it gets in you, you can't get it out.”

“I don't know if I want it out,” I said, marveling at my hand. “This is amazing. We're talking, but I don't even know how I'm doing it.”

I tried to pay attention to the actual sounds I was making. Stutterers have to pay very close attention to sounds—they can be tricky things. Talking to Kenji now, I recognized that I wasn't speaking English and neither was she. But I wasn't hooting either, or screeching or howling like she was. I tried to say something to Kenji while focusing entirely on the sounds my mouth was making.

“Kk-kkk—Kooo—” I stuttered.

A disturbing development.

“What did you say?” Kenji looked confused.

“I really don't understand this, Kenj,” I said, trying not to overthink it. “When I speak to you, you understand what I say?”

“Uh . . . yeah, Master Marlin! What have we just been talking about?”

“I mean the sounds, Kenj.” I sat up. “I know I'm not making the same sounds as you. You're a monkey making monkey sounds. Tuskus is a boar who makes boar sounds, and the Jaguar makes jaguar sounds.”

“Yes.” Kenji looked at me skeptically. “That is good. You figured that out.”

“I know I'm stating the obvious,” I said. “But how can all these different animals, who make all these different sounds, be understandable to me now? And how can you all understand each other?”

Kenji squinted her eyes and stroked her mustache thoughtfully. After a pause, she offered, “Kenji doesn't know. How come humans can't understand what anybody says?”

I leaned back on the bed. Maybe that was the better question.


It was time to take this new power on a test run. I asked Kenji to come with me on my chores around the zoo and help me get reacquainted with our animals.

Our first stop was the Blue Birdcage, an enclosure eleven yards high and about four times as wide. Three sides were made of thin bars that made viewing the birds easier, and there was a sturdy brick wall at the back.

The Blue Birdcage is one of my favorite parts of the zoo. Our resident storyteller and artist, Heppa, painted an enormous mural across the wall. It is a jungle scene, complete with vines, trees, shrubs, fallen logs, flowers, and insects all crowding one another. But the twenty or so birds that call it home tend to add their own kind of paint to the mural, so Kenji and I went in with a mop.

As soon as I closed the door behind me, our two rainbow toucans, Eddo and Bill, flew down from their ropes hanging overhead.

“Ah! It's him!” Bill said to Eddo.

“The boy-who-talks-to-jaguars!” Eddo said to Bill.

“How exciting!” they both said together. Each cocked his head side to side, looking at me expectantly.

I felt nervous and turned to Kenji. “What do you say to a toucan?” I asked her.

“Say good morning!” Kenji threw up her arms and turned to Eddo and Bill. “He's just learned how to talk yesterday, so you gotta give him a little time.”

“I didn't just learn how to talk yesterday,” I said, annoyed. “I just learned to talk
to animals

“So who were you talking to before?” Eddo asked.

“Other people,” I said, but then thought about it. “Well, no, I didn't really do much of that either.”

“Like I said,” Kenji went on. “Yesterday.”

“Well, that's just wonderful,” Bill squawked.

“Yes, excellent.” Eddo echoed.

“Look-it! Look-it! Look-it!” a little bird called from the corner of the cage. It was Tappet, our new bird of paradise. He was prancing violently about and making an awful racket.

“I despise that creature.” Bill flapped his colored wings angrily.

“Hate him!” Eddo cawed.

“Yeah,” I said to the toucans. “What's his problem?”

“He doesn't have a problem,” said Bill.

“We're the ones with the problem,” said Eddo.

“We've got to listen to him,” they said together.

Over in the corner, Tappet was gyrating and vibrating and making a terrible noise. He'd buried his face in his chest and stuck his wings straight out in the shape of a T. There was one brilliant blue dot on each wing, so he looked like a face with two giant eyes.

I knew from watching other birds of paradise with my father that this was a mating dance. But even though there were two girl birds of paradise in the enclosure, he never paid attention to either of them. He'd been dancing and cawing like a madman ever since he arrived.

Kenji and I looked at each other and nodded.

“What are you doing there, Tappet?” I asked, walking over.

The bird flipped his head off his chest and peered at me.

“Oh, Marlin.” He considered me for a moment. “So it's true what I heard about you and the jaguar. And now here you are, talking like a regular bird. Very impressive, I say!”

With that he buried his beak back in his feathers, popped out his wings, and resumed the dance. “Look-it! Look-it! Look-it!”

“Kenji isn't too fond of this bird, Master Marlin!” Kenji said, plugging her ears.

I approached him, saying, “Tappet, why are you still—”

“Back it up! Back it up!” He fiercely pecked the air to keep me from his circle. “This is my spot!”

“I'm sorry,” I said stepping back. “But can I talk to you for just one minute?”

He was still.

“Why do you go on like this?”

“Why do I dance?” He puffed up his chest and raised his little birdy chin. “I dance for love.”

“He's trying to mate with a bird, Master Marlin,” said Kenji. “You know what that is?”

“Yes, Kenji, I work in a zoo,” I whispered. “But which bird is he going for? If she's not interested, maybe we could move her to another cage.”

“Which bird?” Tappet cried, overhearing me. “Why, you crazy boy. Is your taste so unrefined?”

“I suppose it is,” I said.

“You are standing before her and still cannot see.” Tappet laughed. “Did the jaguar trade you speech for your sight?”

I cast my eyes around the cage, but the two female birds of paradise were all the way on the other side. “Tappet, who are you talking about?”

“It's her,” Kenji said, pointing at the wall. “But she doesn't say anything.”

“Look-it! Look-it! Look-it!” Tappet turned away from me and went back to his dance.

He was chirping at the wall.

“There's no bird there,” I said.

“You don't see?” Kenji pointed. “The little brown bird in the grass.”

She was pointing to the mural on the wall. In the mess of painted leaves and grass, there was a small brown figure. A female bird of paradise.

“Oh, Kenji,” I said. “That's just a painting.” I leaned forward and put my hand on the painted bird.

“Keep your hands off her, you knave!” Tappet leaped into the air and thrust his beak at me. I jerked back my hand and retreated with Kenji.

“And don't you come back!” Tappet howled.


I told Kenji to wait outside the Arts and Leisure Building.

“But how can she be so flat like that?” she shrieked. “Kenji has never seen a flat bird!”

“Because she's not a bird,” I said for the third or fourth time as I walked into the building.

“Looks like a bird to Kenji.”

“That's our problem,” I whispered to myself.

Jarro was at the front desk, which meant that his mother, Heppa, was teaching a class. That meant I couldn't sneak in unnoticed and get what I needed.

“Young Rackham,” Jarro said when he saw me. “Good day to you. Can I do something for you?”

I nodded and prepared myself to speak, thinking of how I could get my message across in the fewest words possible.

I managed to say with great effort, and I think Jarro understood me. I decided to skip the connecting words of the phrase and just get to the subject. “HH—Hhhheeee—Hhhhehhh-ehhh. . .”

“Talk to Heppa?” Jarro said for me. “You want to talk to my mother?”

He put a slight emphasis on the word
and couldn't help smiling. The employees' disrespect was nothing new, but I could never get over the shame.

He gestured to a mahogany door across the hall, and I shuffled toward it. I cracked it open and peeked through.

“A color is not like a bachelor, eating dinner alone at home,” Heppa said in her heavy Arawak accent. “He has a brother somewhere, a sister, parents, a wife! If he gets lucky, he might even have some children appear at his table.” Heppa spotted me peeking through the door and discreetly waved me in. “There is a family in your colors, and each relationship is unique. Green and blue have not spoken for several years. Yellow and red are in business together; purple and orange are having a baby.” Heppa put a hand to the side of her mouth. “But it is an ugly baby.”

A large table full of female guests tittered at Heppa's joke. They wore paint-covered smocks over their fancy vacation wear and worked on nature scenes.

Heppa stepped away from the table and led me to the back of the classroom. “Hello, my dear.” She greeted me warmly and wrapped leathery arms around my neck. Her embrace was comforting; she was like the grandmothers I'd read about in books.

I felt unsure of myself from my encounter with Jarro and took a deep breath in anticipation of speaking, but Heppa gave me a look of infinite patience.

“Heppa!” a lady in a red hat called out. “Can you help me, please?”

“In a moment, darling,” Heppa said sweetly. “I am conversing with my friend.”

She turned back to me and I very simply said, “P-paint?”

“Of course.” She smiled and led me to a cart full of supplies. “Take anything you wish.”


“Seeds! Seeds!”

Kenji made an excellent distraction, dragging an open bag of seeds around the Blue Birdcage. All the birds jumped off their perches and madly chased her. Even Tappet, deciding his dance could wait, left his girlfriend on the wall and went to get some breakfast.

Amidst the chaos, I rushed over to the corner where the painted brown bird was. I thought it'd be cruel to paint her off the wall entirely; Tappet would be heartbroken, wondering where she'd gone. So I decided on a different plan.

Female birds of paradise are drab creatures, usually just two shades of brown. But males, like Tappet, are brightly colored, with beaks and wings in yellows, greens, and blues. So I took my paints and made some colorful embellishments.

Once the seeds had run out and the birds stopped chasing Kenji round the cage, Tappet returned to his little clearing by the mural. Kenji and I watched from the farthest wall as he cleaned up his display area, stretched out his wings, and prepared to dance. He squawked once, and froze.

He hopped up close to the wall and leaped backward, then leaned toward it again.

“I'm sorry, my friend,” he said to the mural. “I suppose that's my mistake.”

He laughed, shook himself off, and flew up into the ropes, where the two real birds of paradise were waiting.

BOOK: The Zoo at the Edge of the World
6.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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