The Tastes of Animals in the Zoo
African or Indian, just as long as she wasn’t English. Toby straightens the ties of his smock and looks back at his distorted reflection in the flat sheen of the steel door. That’s just the way it had to be, sometimes.
It wasn’t as though he didn’t like English girls. Some of his best friends were English girls, after all. But he wouldn’t want to be … intimate with them. Not like this. The skin was all wrong; too fair, too thin. He hopes that no-one would call him a racist.
A memory: a zoo visit as a child, reptile houses, monkey cages. He had been fascinated by the sullen tiger, quietly sunning itself on the floor of its concrete pen. It seemed to be waiting. Toby always suspected that it was only biding its time. Later he would fantasise about the tiger, on the loose, prowling the deserted walkways of the zoo each night. Slowly padding from cage to cage, from enclosure to enclosure, silently selecting the meal for that evening, like a feline gourmet.
Toby grunts, pulling the drawstring tight. This way there won’t be quite so much blood. He always liked to be neat, despite the work. His tools are laid out by his side, in the order he intends to use them. Different jobs demand different tools, after all. Different work demands.
She’s coming round now. He wonders what the first thing she’ll see is? The white of the ceiling? The mask? Maybe, he wasn’t sure. He watches closely: the best moment comes when they realise that they can’t move.
She stiffens, the dark hair rising on her arms. Toby looks down at her and gives a wide smile. “Hello again,” he says.
Thinking about it, of course, the gourmet tiger wouldn’t mind being held in a zoo at all, if it thought that it might be able to get at the other animals. Toby had wondered about it, even as a child, imagining the tiger flitting between cages. Such a variety of tastes there. The smoky tang of chimpanzee, the fatty steaks of the panda, the salty penguin flesh… to the gourmet tiger it must seem like a neatly sectioned buffet. He always found it funny. They were locked up with it…
She’s over the panic now, he thinks, though the sweat still beads on her arms and neck. Toby walks slowly around the table that she’s strapped to, looking down at her all the time. He’s looking at the whites of her eyes now, the way that her pupils shiver and dilate. That was unusual. He touches his fingers to the mask as he looks.
“Have you ever seen the way that a tiger walks,” Toby asks the girl, ignoring the dull grey tape that he had put over her mouth. “They roll forward – I don’t know, it’s almost lazy when you see it. Utterly at ease, the way people look when they think that they are on top – when they own the world they live in.” She starts sucking air through the tape, or trying to; her nostrils flair.
“But behind that, with a tiger I mean, there is the acknowledgement of power. The knowledge that the tiger can take on anything. That’s not why people walk that way, not really, I think.” Toby is pleased with what he is saying and allows himself a small chuckle. The girl starts struggling again, her hands clenching and twisting in a way he hadn’t seen before.
“They might think it is. But people have ways of fooling themselves. We’re not tigers. Not even caged.” Toby moves to the head of the table and takes her chin in his hand, forcing her to look at his eyes. “You shouldn’t walk the way you do,” he says.
There is a movement, and a flash of something bright.
Toby’s dream was always the same, ever since he was a little boy, ever since he went to the zoo. The tiger stalking between cages, greedily hunting to fill an emptiness that won’t to go away. The monkeys are howling. The hyena lets out a shrill yelp as the tiger moves past its cage. The tiger’s eyes glitter in the low light as she walks. There must be something.
There it is, meat sheathed in grey, lumbering back and forward. Has the tiger seen this thing before? Toby couldn’t imagine. Maybe moving past her enclosure, maybe glimpsed in parts, but it must be a surprise. So much there. Muscles shift as she moves up onto the fat concrete wall that surrounds the elephant’s pen. Her tail flicks. Her breathing slows.
She launches herself. For a second she is silhouette on the sky, the sun a halo behind her, a burst of fur and light. Her claws spread in the moment before she lands, sliding out to meet her prey.
Now tearing. She doesn’t know what it is, this great thing of meat, but she’s hungry now. Hungry always. There is this moment.
Toby looks up from the floor. Now this isn’t right. There’s blood here, but it doesn’t belong to the girl. His hands skid backward on the wet floor tiles, toppling him again. How did she move? She couldn’t move, she wasn’t supposed to. This was not the way that it was supposed to happen.
She’s up though – one hand still taped to the table, but that won’t last long. He can’t see how this could have happened. She couldn’t have reached one of his tools, could she? He looks until she kicks him in the face. And then again. There’s blood in his eyes and he can’t see. There’s the slow breaths of her, as she walks about him. He’s still struggling on the floor, blind and staggered. Listening for her breathing, her footfalls.
There, in that moment of waiting, he tries to remember what happened at the end of the dream.