The zebra stands by the chain-link fence in the shade of the sprawling maple. Her ears are up, pointed slightly forward, on edge when she’s alone. Her hooves catch sometimes in the cracks of the tarmac where thick weeds have erupted, so she tries to remain still. But that makes her more of a target. Her stripes only offer protection when she’s moving, when her outline blurs to dizzy and confound predators. There isn’t enough room to run like that here.
Monkeys screech from the metal bars and the ropes of their artificial playground. Maybe they’re inviting her to join them? With monkeys, sarcasm and sincerity are difficult to distinguish and anyway she is frightened of their noise, their rude gestures, and the attention they always carry, something like a marching band.
All in pink the flamingos pose by the wall, their usual spot. Almost identical in their patent shoes, and sequined plastic purses. Only demure games for them, and then only when the zookeeper insists. They don’t ruffle their feathers willingly.
And over there, just beyond the flamingos by the open gate, is the tortoise. She’s heard people say that tortoises can live for almost a hundred years and that this one must be well on his way to that now. But it’s not really true. He just has an old soul. You can see it in his eyes. Plus, he reads a lot. The tortoise is the only one who doesn’t make fun of her for being alone.
Is he coming towards her? He moves so slowly over the hot tarmac, so painstakingly, that she has to wait in suspense for his direction to become clear. A September wasp, one of the guardians of the trash cans, has ventured over, checking the corners of his mouth and his tail for the sweetness of vegetation. The zebra envies the tortoise’s solid patience. Wasps send her skittering, dancing from hoof to hoof. A thick shell would be just the thing.
The wasp moves on, tempted by the monkeys’ mess, and the tortoise looks up at her. She shuffles, trying to arrange her hooves, of which she suddenly has too many. She flicks her tail.
She doesn’t see the zookeeper in his jeans and red jacket until he is almost standing over her. Her ears turn back and flatten.
The zookeeper is underpaid the way most of those whose jobs are to care for others are underpaid. This makes him twitchy too. He doesn’t like differences or deviations or anything that makes his job more difficult. And he certainly didn’t like it when her large yellow teeth squeezed his backside when she first arrived or how she usually greets his arrival with yips and barks. He is a man to follow the rules he sets and in this way he is fair. He lacks the imagination to see that zebras might require different rules.
The tortoise is picking his way so slowly that she doubts the zookeeper is aware of his approach. But she can see him and she is heartened. His beady eyes meet hers and the corners of his mouth turn up in a small smile. She wants to run toward him but she’s conscious of her capacity for speed and checks herself. She doesn’t want to embarrass him.
And still the zookeeper doesn’t go. He seems to have taken up residence, leaning one hand on the metal fence, supervising the scene. He is too close. Sometimes the zebra could swear he wants to stroke her, let his hand smooth over her back, her side, and the thought revolts her. If he tried she would kick him hard and run, run like there was no such thing as a chain-link fence.
But the tortoise is at her ankles, come to her rescue. Her green knight. The one animal who can sense her distress and actually seeks to allay, not exploit, it. He digs around inside his shell and pulls from its depths a shiny red apple. It even has a small leaf still clinging to its stem. He holds it out to the zookeeper and the zookeeper, delighted, takes it.
“Go on, you two,” he says gruffly. “Go and play before recess is over.”
Jennifer Falkner’s short stories have appeared in The Steel Chisel, American Athenaeum and LitroNY, among other places. Recently she won the Firewords Quarterly Writing Competition. She lives in Ottawa, Canada.
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