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For the first six days Hassan couldn’t leave the house he shared with his mother, father and two younger sisters, Haja and Farrah. As explosions juddered the floor and the incessant high-pitched shrieks of missiles passed overhead, he worried that they would all die, suffocated by brick dust created from the walls that now protected them, their limbs crushed by chunks of rubble. Towards the end of those days, in carefully selected moments when the noise of warfare dulled, he permitted his heart to lilt with the hope that the fighting might be over, and at these times he turned his thoughts away from what the future held for his family and towards the animals he should have been caring for.
[private]He never doubted that the other zoo staff would be holed up in their houses too; the occasional visit from a neighbour with news of a ministry bombed, or a block taken, or a rumour passed stealthily from person to person that electricity would be available at seven that evening, invariably also told of city streets empty of civilians. Even doctors and nurses were staying away from hospitals where life-threatening injuries (and there were plenty of these discussed and grieved over) were left unattended to. What madness was taking place?
‘Tomorrow will be better,’ Hassan’s father would pacify the visitors and his family who, like him, could only envisage a rosier future.
‘Shock and awe.’ His father shook his head as he said the words, as if he himself were in awe of the military operation taking place for the benefit of him and his countrymen.
By the seventh day, food supplies, gathered diligently during the preceding weeks of negotiation and searching for weapons of mass destruction, were becoming low and, although buckets, empty cans and even his youngest sister’s dolls’ pram were brimming with water, the daily half-hour gushes from the taps had ceased. The stench of urine and composting faeces could not be avoided, however far within the four walls Hassan roamed from the unflushable toilet. His ears had become immune to the frequent cascades of shots from the world outside and he found that maintaining the high level of fear he had lived with for several days, since the stories of young girls’ purity being taken by troops from both sides had first entered the house, had become impossible. Any pity he had had for his mother’s twitches and sobs had turned into irritation. Even his father’s optimism had faded, leaving the man who could only foresee freedom and democracy self-consciously quiet and humbled.
‘I’m going out,’ Hassan announced at which his mother let out a predictable wail. ‘We’ll be needing food soon,’ he said. ‘And I’ll see if there’s water anywhere.’
Both of these were true, and it certainly was his intention to find whatever food there might be to bring home, but he also had a compulsion to get to his animals; he could imagine only too well the effect that a week of being confined without food and water, and with incomprehensible noises blasting all around, might be having at the zoo.
‘I won’t be long.’ He kissed his mother on her hair parting, patted his sisters’ heads and finally shook his father’s hand.
‘Be careful,’ his father said and squeezed Hassan’s hand a touch tighter than necessary for a goodbye.
That Hassan had wanted to be a vet since a child had never been a secret. Animals had always fascinated him; the sheer variety of them; the way they adapted to their environments; the simplicity with which, when left alone by man, they lived on and alongside nature. What was a slightly guilty secret, however, was that at twenty-one he still harboured this childish ambition. But as time had gone on, and his father’s promotions still failed to materialise, and no stroke of luck arrived along with the necessary fees for his training, he had resigned himself to the fact that becoming a vet was an ambition unlikely to come to fruition. He had therefore endeavoured to content himself with his job as a zoo hand; chopping fruit for the apes; mucking out the elephants and giraffes; weeding the flower beds which filled the acres of land surrounding the eight hundred or so animals and birds in their cages. And as he worked, his general interest in animals focussed in on specific animals, namely those in the zoo, and even though he would never name a favourite, in the same way a parent would never name a favourite child, in his heart Kesari, the beautiful Bengal tiger, had a special place.
Outside his house, on the abnormally quiet street, he darted from shadow to shadow, down alleys and through bombed buildings, pausing to listen, glancing at roof tops and round corners, his heart racing out of all proportion with the speed of his legs, and as he made slow, convoluted progress towards the zoo, his mind ran along the row of cages; four gorillas, six rhesus monkeys, a variety of parrots and budgerigars, three Labradors and a Beagle; then on to the bear enclosure containing the female American brown. And, ignoring the shattered debris all around him, he prayed to Allah that they would be unharmed.
The zoo gates, locked as usual the day before the invasion began, lay flat on the ground, padlock intact, the gate posts similarly prone. The ticket office was a hole, almost a mirror image of the single storey building that had once stood. Hassan balanced along the rubble that had been the wall and hopped down into the zoo grounds, surveying the scene.
In front of him, the first row of cages, so recently envisaged full of lively animals, were a twisted mass of metal rods. Away somewhere to his right the scream of an unidentifiable animal in fear gripped at his heart, and the reek of decomposition forced bile into his mouth. Slowly, methodically, as though carrying out a normal morning sweep of the paths, Hassan walked past the cages, searching for any evidence that creatures had once lived there. Only the buzzing of flies alerted him to a mass in the monkey cage so covered in dust that it could have been a stone. Hassan hurried past. Just the one corpse, he thought. The others will be free, scampering through trees, feeding off flowers and titbits they find lying around. He had some hope for the monkeys. In the next cage a lemur cringed, its remaining eye asking Hassan for water, for food. He held open his hands; he had nothing but he would find something. He’d be back.
A scuffle diverted him, low voices muttering over by the penguin enclosure. Hassan’s heart sang out; other zoo keepers were there; his colleagues had turned up to tend to the animals too. He ran, flitting between hiding places, his recently acquired ability to move discreetly in self-preservation already ingrained in him. He passed the lion enclosure, noting the cubs lying on their sides panting while their mother pawed the ground as if searching for roots to feed them. On past Kesari’s cage where he paused while the elegant giant cat raised her head from the earth floor to growl. On he ran.
Two men, one with a canvas bag, stood by the miraculously intact wall next to the pit that had once been filled with water. Hassan steadied himself; these weren’t men he knew. He faded into the darkness behind a tree.
‘… better than that dog,’ he overheard.
The bag twitched. Incensed, Hassan stepped out from his hiding place and, surprising himself with his forwardness, after all these men could be carrying a knife or a gun, said:
‘What have you got there?’
‘It’s ours.’ The man clutched at his bag.
Thinking only of the poor, captured creature, Hassan advanced on the men.
‘It belongs to the zoo. I am a keeper here,’ (a slight variation from the truth in these circumstances was surely permitted), ‘and I’m instructing you to put the bag down, now.’
‘Too late,’ the second man said.
‘It’s still alive,’ Hassan insisted, for while there was life, there was hope.
The first man shook his head. ‘What can we do?’ he asked. ‘We’re hungry. My wife and children are hungry.’
Only now did Hassan fully understand and his anger increased.
‘You can’t eat it,’ he said, the words sticking in his throat.
‘Why not?’ the second man asked. ‘If those other bastards can get their chops round a giraffe, why can’t we eat a bird?’
A shot from somewhere close killed the discussion and, in the second that Hassan retreated to the tree for protection, the men scarpered with the penguin. He quaked, waiting for who knew what.
The American soldiers walked backwards, sideways past him, their eyes looking everywhere all at once, taking in each twitch of a leaf, each dart of a fly. Hassan held his breath. One of them yelled out, pointed the butt of his gun in the direction of the animal stealers and they too were off. Hassan let the air stream into his lungs as he relaxed and, with the boot steps dimming, he sneaked out, knowing that his duty was to preserve what life he could.
Lifting the dead monkey was almost impossible; its body barely hung together any longer with the flies and decay. Added to that, the smell repulsed Hassan more than anything had ever repulsed him before. He carried the corpse by a foot, holding it away from his body so as not to taint his clothes; there would be no washing them for some time to come. Finally he reached his destination and lobbed the animal he had once fed on dates into the lions’ den. He had no time to wait and watch; he had work to do.
Capturing the lemur wasn’t hard; the creature had no energy to swing away to safety, and as he carried it, its head wrapped in his shirt, he pretended that it wasn’t real. What else was he to do?
Kesari had moved to the bars as though anticipating Hassan’s return and he was grateful for this, for somehow the tiger’s action justified what he was about to do.
‘Good girl,’ Hassan said, half to the tiger, half to the lemur. ‘Good girl.’
Kesari backed away, distrusting Hassan; would he not be her saviour after all? Yet even as he saw this withdrawal from him, Hassan hesitated.
‘Good girl,’ he repeated, trying not to think.
It would have been easier if the lemur hadn’t found a last bit of strength inside her, a primitive surge from deep within which remained when all else had deserted her.
‘Go.’ He pushed her head through the bars. ‘Go,’ he shouted, unfurling the fingers that clasped.
And she was gone, and Hassan bowed his head and prayed to Allah for forgiveness.
A canal flowed past the zoo. In normal times Hassan had paid it little heed; it was simply a city canal. Now it was the only source of water he knew of. Acquiring the buckets had been straightforward. The hotel which overlooked the zoo’s gardens had lost its rear door; easy to walk into, easy to find the housekeeping cupboard, easy to pick up six buckets. He lay on the bank and swooshed up the fetid water. One, two, three buckets filled. Four, five …
He jumped, the last bucket falling away into the water. Panic and fear shot down his arms as he rose to face the American whose gun, slung across his chest, was only a twist away from Hassan’s head. He raised his hands, just like in the films, not comprehending the words being hurled at him. The shouting stopped, the soldier was expecting something from him in return. What was Hassan to do? He growled, pointing at the buckets, then the zoo. The American watched, his face showing no understanding, no emotion. Hassan repeated what might be his final act. The American looked at the water, looked at Hassan and roared a growl so huge that it resounded in Hassan’s head, before picking up three of the buckets. Hassan followed with the remaining two, the stinking water spilling down his trousers.
Hassan was grateful to Kesari for leaving no trace of the lemur; now he could pretend it had never happened. He lowered a bucket into the cage and, as she lapped, the soldier took off his backpack and pulled out a box which he ripped open to take out a foil packet, the contents of which the tiger consumed with one lick. Next out of the box came a bar of chocolate which the soldier handed almost carelessly to Hassan before tearing open another foil packet to feed to the tiger.
‘Thank you,’ Hassan said, although he knew the soldier wouldn’t understand. ‘I’ll take it to my family, my sisters,’ he explained as he put it in his trouser pocket. ‘Haja and Farrah,’ he named them to demonstrate their thanks too. ‘Thank you.’
Another soldier joined them, and another. One had brought a crate of rations with him. Hassan moved between cages, alerting the soldiers to the animals which needed feeding, those which needed water, those which, may Allah forgive him, were better off being fed to another. When all were counted only forty-three remained alive. One soldier patted him on the shoulder, another smiled and slapped him on the back and in his head he allowed himself to imagine that amongst these men would be one who would see his ability with the animals and who would say, ‘Here, Hassan, why don’t you come to the United States of America and study to be a vet? Our country will pay of course, after all, look what we’ve done to yours.’
When evening arrived, and the carrying of water from the canal had ceased for the time being, Hassan sat with the soldiers, not understanding a word they said, but content in the safety his new friends provided and grateful to the men who had ensured that some of his animals would live for today at least. He had explained to them they needed donkeys to feed the big cats. Four dollars a donkey, he held up four fingers and said the word, ‘Dollar,’ he could manage that much English. They had copied his bray to show they understood and he had stood side by side with foreign soldiers and laughed.
Hassan couldn’t linger long though. While there was still light, he had to leave his zoo and attempt the dangerous journey home to bring his family the four bars of chocolate he had now been given, together with two of the foil bags of food he had guiltily pocketed while no one was looking. His parents would be pleased with him. His sisters would be pleased with him. Tomorrow he would return and, while he continued to tend to his animals, he would start work on improving his English.
Some of the soldiers were smoking, some drinking alcohol from bottles. They were eating, offering him bits of food which he ate readily, but not too greedily, and because he was paying attention to the group, he didn’t notice the lone soldier enter Kesari’s cage until, as if someone had instructed them to, they all turned as one. In the cage the American held out his arm, taunting Kesari with a piece of meat.
‘No!’ Hassan called, trying to smile; he didn’t like to upset his new friends by shouting. ‘She’s dangerous. Get out.’
Momentarily the soldier turned to look at him and in that split second Kesari attacked, the man’s fingers disappearing between the tiger’s teeth.
The shot that cracked past Hassan’s head was the loudest he had heard in all the fighting. Kesari’s legs lost their bones, wobbling her body to the ground. Her head smacked onto the compacted dirt and, even seeing the blood spurting from beside her eye, Hassan couldn’t believe that in this world turned upside down, Kesari was dead.
The soldiers became a trained fighting machine once more. The handless man was passed moaning over the cage bars. First-aid packs were opened. Hassan backed away from them all, the comradeship of a few minutes ago forgotten. And he remembered his mother driven mad by fear, his father’s hopes betrayed, his vulnerable sisters.
He wiped a week’s tears from his cheeks with his stinking hand and as the chocolate in his pockets became rancid, he whispered to himself, ‘You bastards,’ for Kesari’s pointless death, for the death these men had brought to his country, and for the death of his dream.[/private]
Ruth Brandt has previously had a story published online by Litro. Her work has also appeared in a Leaf Books anthology, Yours and Candis, magazines, competition anthologies and on-line. She teaches creative writing at Surrey ACL and has a degree in Maths and Physics. She’s currently working on a novel.