Hugh remembers how the sunrise had been tinged with red the day all the animals stopped. He says he remembers it like it was yesterday.
I ask him how he feels about what happened. Hugh says that he feels very little these days, and says no more. But I’ve done my research, and I’ve talked to his wife, Deianira, though he doesn’t know. She asked to be interviewed in private. Deianira told me about how he cries in the bathroom some nights, even though it’s been twenty years.
Hugh and his wife were senior zookeepers at the time of the incident, and he says their lives revolved around the animals there. The baboons were his responsibility, and he treated them like children. Hugh and Deianira were never able to have kids.
I scribble in my notes and glance at the recorder to make sure its green light is blinking. Hugh is staring at a vase of closed purple flowers on the table. I ask him to describe that day.
It happened in middle of spring, and the hyacinths and the irises and the crocuses were in bloom all over the zoo. The gardener did swell work, Hugh says. But none of the animals were engaging in any mating behavior. The zebras stood sleeping at the corners of their stalls. The chimps didn’t look at one another. Even the rabbits in the petting zoo were growing lethargic. The inexplicable apathy among the zoo animals had become so extreme that attendance had dropped severely. That day, the zoo welcomed only one family through the gate, a white father, his black wife, and their two children who just laughed at the motionless spider monkeys and the stone rhinoceroses and the limp tigers. The kids glared behind the glass and the bars and the fences, littering crass words through the gaps.
Hugh had listened to the family while cleaning out the baboons’ sleeping pens. The space was usually strewn with straw and droppings and stray food, but was oddly clean that day. The water bowls and food containers were still full, apparently untouched.
A while later, the gardener found Hugh quietly staring into the baboon cage. None of the animals moved. They stood, squatted, and lay perfectly still, scattered here and there in the green trappings of their mock jungle. Each eye was likewise motionless. Not a sound came from their toothy mouths.
The men looked at each other, realizing that the whole zoo was thus quiet.
Deianira told me that the entire zoo staff was called in for emergency duty. No one could explain it. The animals did not react to the zookeepers’ ministrations, the petting and the shoving, the talking and the feeding. By nightfall, nothing had changed. Hugh and his wife and the others were able to carry, push, and shove some of the lighter mammals to their sleeping pens.
I asked Hugh’s wife what she had been thinking at that moment. She said that she couldn’t read Hugh’s eyes, that something had changed in him when the animals stopped. She confessed she was not as dedicated as her husband. She wanted to go home that night, but Hugh insisted that he stay with the baboons, to keep an eye on them. They argued there in front of the baboons, and not one so much as blinked, even when Hugh began shouting. She left for home that night and Hugh stayed, not sleeping a wink.
Hugh tells me that he’d been noticing a rift between him and his wife over the baboons. For a long time up till then, commitment to the zoo had chafed their relationship. He doesn’t say any more, but Deianira told me she looks back on the time with regret. She said that she had been having an affair with the gardener at the time. The “animal event,” as she put it, brought things to a head.
I look at my notes, realizing with some disappointment that most of them are about Hugh and his wife up to this point. I try to return to the topic of the animals.
The zookeepers came in for the second day of emergency duty. Overnight, all the animals had moved to the very edges of their domains, staring out through the glass and sticking their heads through the bars and leaning against the fences. Their eyes looked straight ahead as if something held their gaze, but there was nothing. Some of the smallest rabbits and foxes and ocelots had already died from starvation. The keepers tried feeding the animals by hand unsuccessfully. They inserted water bottles into their mouths, but the water just dribbled through their teeth onto the ground.
Hugh’s wife told me that on the third day, Hugh had caught her and the gardener in the men’s room. They shouted at each other before Hugh stormed out.
As for Hugh, he doesn’t mention it at all. But he does tell me that it was on this third day that he started force-feeding the baboons, and spraying them with the high pressure hose from the maintenance closet. The baboons just rolled under the water stream, pushed this way and that like ragdolls. Deianira mentioned watching Hugh through a crack in the door as he took the baboons’ heads and knocked them against the wall in desperation, slapped them with his hands, cursed at them, hissed her name at them.
Deianira and the gardener were fired for misconduct on the fifth day, but it didn’t really matter, she told me. The zoo was finally closed on the seventh day because the animals were dying in large numbers. The vets couldn’t diagnose them with anything, couldn’t treat them with anything, couldn’t feed or help them in any way–that’s all there was to it.
She looked me in the eye at the end of her interview, saying she and Hugh had a long talk after the zoo closed, and they went to a family counselor, and that things were back to normal.
At this point, Hugh’s tight mouth is bothering me. No new twists concerning the twenty-year-old disaster grace my scarce notes. Hugh obviously doesn’t know any more than I do about why it happened. Out of curiosity, I ask Hugh about his wife’s affair, and he looks out the window. After a long time, he tells me quietly that he killed Brenda, the oldest female baboon, the day before the zoo closed. No one ever found out, because all the animals were dead by the end of the seventh day. They just stopped, he says, as if it justifies him. The pencil in my hand is still, like the zoo of twenty years ago. The graphite doesn’t touch the page.
It’s getting late. I shake Hugh’s hand and thank him for the time, gathering my notes and recorder and stowing them in my portfolio. He opens the door for me and wishes me luck on the article. I walk down the steps onto the sidewalk. I wave to Deianira on her knees and tending to the plants around the mailbox. She waves back with her gloved hands and resumes cutting back the Thorn Apple blooming purple under a vesper sky.
BIO: When Jedd Cole is not writing stories, one can find him brooding over the pages of other worlds both real and imaginary (but mostly imaginary), usually accompanied by his wonderful wife. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, Plasma Frequency Magazine, and Isotropic Fiction, among several others. Find him and his creative writing blog at electricdidact.weebly.com or like his Facebook page at facebook.com/electricdidact.