Fabled


It earned fable status in history books.  How they survived the enemy and the winter; and the boy, the orphan Michael, who escaped into the night, how they never agreed what happened to him.  They demolished the zoo after it was over:  they piled wagons with cage bars and shipped them to the city ironworks to cast into cannons and statues; they topped the zoo with a park and only the occasional sinkhole betrayed where the moats and pits had been.  City newspapers chronicled the attack on this tiny town, interviewed adults and published their stories; but the children muddled the story with childish details and it was the muddle, continually muddled, that became fable.  There was this boy who asked to watch me bathe, one girl recalled; she would repeat this when she was thirty, fifty, on her deathbed, and a young columnist would scribble this memory into a notebook or tap it into a laptop.  She would continue, Michael said, What's the point of being a child?  That convinced me.

*

Soldiers rushed through town without warning.  The invasion seemed a bad joke on this bright June afternoon.  Clerks were selling bread or buttons or tobacco to customers, old men were discussing politics in cafés, gardeners were tending plots of squash and melons and daffodils.  Then this rush, this sudden wave of ruddy soldiers in gray uniforms.  Coins splattered out of tills, hot cups of coffee spilled, a woman's wrist was seized, though she had the wits to thrust her spade's tip into a soldier's eyeball.  Chaos, vandalism, and women cornered.  Loot, smash, growl, hurt.  The bookseller tipped shelves of novels over himself, bruised his body with them, hid there until he was taken into the street, a bayonet at the nape of his neck.  He joined others held now in small groups, soldiers happy in this task.  A captain marched to town hall and demanded the mayor; his lieutenants hauled the mayor out and shoved him into the main square.  The captain announced to him, Your country is conquered.  Your king has surrendered and is useless to you now.  You are better under our king.  You are better under us.  Do not try anything.
      The mayor had no answer.  He had not been elected to deal with this; he enacted litter laws, settled fusses between neighbors, strolled the streets, twirling his ebony cane with its ivory knob.  He could think of nothing to say to this red-faced captain; he simply jutted out his chin and swelled his chest in his candy-cane vest.  The captain punched his rifle butt into the mayor's stomach, then turned to his lieutenants and issued the order, Put them all in the zoo.

*

They were crowded into the zoo.  One man who dared to fight back was shot in the throat; his bride knelt at his body and kissed the last breath out of his mouth.  The priest blessed him, then grabbed his ankles and dragged him into the zoo where they were locked in with the others.  The enemy troops rumbled out of town and their din of hurrahs melted into the evening.  The mayor stood on a bench and said, The king has surrendered.  We are occupied.  Nobody understood the meaning of this.  They spent the night clustered in the center of the zoo and chatted through the sleepless hours, What now, what's next?  The zoo animals paced and fluttered, howled and screeched.  Another horde of ruddy soldiers smashed through town in the morning and killed a man at the zoo gate.  His wife, Marie, cradled his head in her lap.  Boys scooped a shallow trench in a grassy patch in front of the otter pit and in a quick ceremony, the townspeople buried the murdered men.

*

Only this zoo prison now, only this isolation.  No friendly army came to protect or rescue them.  No wheat, no milk, no meat, no fresh produce:  they had always depended on shipments of these, they were not agricultural themselves.  They needed the things of private gardens and pantries and shops.  The locksmith picked the lock of the zoo's main gate, the zookeeper sobbing, sorry, sorry, for having relinquished his keys to a soldier.  With wishes of luck and godspeed, with pats on the back, pairs of the bravest sneaked into the night.  Under a hint of moon, they raided their own homes, collected sacks of potatoes, turnips, lentils, beans, bricks of chocolate, fruits and jellies in jars, loaves of stale bread.  The bakery, the butcher's shop, and vegetable alley were empty; the enemy had already thieved through.  Women funneled spices into satin gloves, packed fingers and thumbs with basil, saffron, cinnamon, then knotted the gloves in banana-like bunches, slung them over their shoulders and hurried back to the zoo.  The townspeople voted to risk a fire; they cooked a stew (someone had smartly retrieved a kettle, someone else bowls and spoons).  They joked about becoming vegetarians.

*

I need knives, said the butcher.  Michael?  Come with me.  Michael was the town's orphan, thirteen now and capable; he had a cot in the rectory, sneered at lectures about the jeopardy of his soul, odd-jobbed for sweets and galoshes.  He was a wary boy, not affectionate with anyone after his father had vanished in a lusty scandal and his mother had succumb to heartbreak.  In this zoo, the two new widows used him, Stir this pot, thread this needle, and they fed him.
      Michael and the butcher slunk out one night to the butcher's shop.  In its window had hung skinned hares and inside, on metal shelves, had been juicy cuts of beef and tender lamb roasts.  The butcher felt no nostalgia, though he had spent his life here, had been the talented apprentice to his father.  He and Michael took knives, a cleaver, and a mallet, thankfully not stolen, and started back to the zoo.  In the distance, in the surrounding hills, they could see the soldiers' campfires.  Michael asked, Why don't we try to escape?  The butcher muttered, Because we're polite, not brave.  And those damned patrols.  There were daily patrols, soldiers in twos or threes who circled the zoo's fence and threatened harm, then plundered homes and took antique chairs and tables into the hills.

*

Tigers lay on brown grass, their ribs visible under their orange and black fur, their once glossy coats now dull and mangy.  They were breathing shallowly and bluebottles buzzed around their eyes; but those eyes were yet alert and they judged Michael and the butcher.  Not these, said the butcher who had never trusted cats anyway.  They moved on like customers browsing in a market.  Thick stench; dead animals, their carcasses bloated, rancid, maggoty.  But two gazelles were licking the bark of a tree; bits of bark stuck to their dry tongues.  Pitifully thin legs, flaking hooves.  Graceful animals in their cement savanna.  Used to be, said the butcher.  He pictured their rumps on a platter garnished with sprigs of parsley.  He nodded at Michael and they climbed over the low wall and slid into a slimy moat; Michael pulled himself onto the lip of the moat, pulled the butcher after him.  Too weak to be skittish, the gazelles didn't flinch.  The butcher raised his mallet over the female and smashed her skull.  She collapsed with a thud; the male gazelle swung his bony head away.  The butcher cut through haunches, shoulders, neck, and Michael tossed bloody chunks to the widows who stood now on the other side of the wall.  The widows salted the gazelle meat and wrapped it in cloth.

*

Rest now.  Marie led the butcher into a nook of shade.  He lay on a blanket and twisted lumps of candle wax into earplugs.  But he couldn't sleep; this was Marie's fault, how she had pinched his elbow to lead him to this nook, how she had tricked his heart muscle to skip and thump.  He had handled plenty of hearts, cow, sheep, pheasant, but had never troubled with his own.  He wished Marie would interrupt his pulse again.
      Marie had stroked her husband's head after he had been shot, and she mourned, but lightly; sadness was a luxury now and anyway, she wouldn't miss how he had labeled her shrew, leech.  Marie set her sights on the bachelor butcher; she had always been fond of him, how tidy and fair he was.  She would point at a trout in his shop and would hope he noticed her slender arm.  She scolded him once, You weren't at the party Friday.  I was in lilac silk.  He stared at her, eyes blank as the trout's.  She tried cautious flirting again now, in this awful zoo, but what a stubborn man!

*

Gazelle ragout, zebra brisket, koala bear kidneys fried in seal fat.  Delicious, these poor things, and everyone forgot about their joy when carts arrived with these animals out of the tundra, oceans, jungles.  Only slurps and lip smacks now, and chins slick with grease.

*

Nobody had yet mentioned winter, though there had been stealthy darts at night to get coats, mittens, scarves.  Nobody wanted to think of winter yet.

*

What can you tell me about women? Michael asked the butcher.  The butcher said, Nothing, Michael, absolutely nothing.
      They had eased into the monkey pen one cool dawn.  Monkeys curled on the filthy dirt floor, their bodies shriveled, their mouths stretched into toothy smirks.  They heard a faint squeak in the top of a bare tree.  Lonely monkey, how sad it sounded.  Michael stood at the tree and held out his arms; the monkey let itself into the boy's arms, clutched the boy's body with its scabby body.  The monkey was shivering, whimpering; Michael pried him loose and laid him on the ground.  The butcher cracked its skull with the mallet and Michael lifted the monkey's limp body and asked the butcher about women.  The butcher thought of Marie, how she walked into the sun, blocked the sun on his face.  Please, Marie.  She sat next to him in his private wedge of sunlight and she balanced her wrist on his knee.  You wore lilac silk? he said.  She sighed, And a silk flower in my hair, a violet.
      The butcher skinned the monkey and the women boiled it in a kettle.  They poured the bones into the trash pit; Michael picked out the bones of the monkey's hands, strung them on a length of twine, wore this necklace under his collar.

*

Snow, wood, leather, dirt:  what they put into their thinning bodies.  And in their talk, guesses about the orphan boy, stupid boy, no, brave, maybe he's on a beach, sandcastles, laughing, no, he's a pirate now, maybe he's a monk, ha!, he's in America now.  This wild mosaic.  Until on a brittle January noon, the king's cavalry thundered in on horses; the men in fine blue uniforms who had come equipped with shovels were wowed instead, look at this, impossible, and fetched out the survivors.

*

Polite.  Suffer this violation, this savagery, politely.  Those ruddy soldiers in their gray uniforms, clumsy but exact at once.  Fear of them stank like rotted onions; obedience of them stank too, like the priest's bad breath.  But Michael wasn't afraid of the soldiers; they were brutal and they had no right to be here, but they were unapologetic and Michael admired this, it okayed what he had been told to check:  curiosity.
      Curiosity is evil, the priest had said.  It seduced your father, it's why he abandoned you and your mother.  Michael couldn't argue, but he wondered:  curiosity about what?  Things his mother lacked maybe.  But she'd had a heart, hadn't she?, and the priest had said, What a good heart.  Then that heart broke.  It was weak, not good.  That dumb priest had been wrong.

*

Michael let loose his curiosity and he asked the butcher what he knew about women.  Nothing, Michael, absolutely nothing.  This was not helpful.  But he had noticed the butcher taking a moment of sunshine and the widow Marie stopping at him, casting her shadow on his face, sitting with him, talking with him.  He would ask Marie about love when they slipped out into the dusk to find firewood.
      The sky was the blue of a bruise and the stars began their struggle in it.  They tip-toed through alleys to the back door of the doctor's office.  The door had been kicked in; the back room was dim and cluttered.  Cabinets had been knocked over and supplies littered the floor:  probes and scopes, bottles of pills and serums and ointments, canisters of swabs and lollipops.  Michael stacked wooden drawers and shelves; Marie scooped a spill of tongue depressors into her apron pockets.  They worked quietly in the fading light.
      Woo, swoon:  two words Michael had heard which seemed to be connected to what girls wanted to happen to them and what the result should be.  This was what Michael thought to ask Marie.  He cleared his throat, spoke her name, but she interrupted, You like that girl, don't you, Michael.  That cake-icing look you get when she flits past.  And you fumble in your pants at night.  Boys are all the same.
      Michael gulped and his knees buckled.  Had he been obvious?  He had tried hard to be anything but obvious.  What a disaster.  But he had to be bold, this was his chance to learn something useful.  She's nice, Marie.  Isn't she nice?
      A rosebud.  But her parents are lunatics.  They'll never let her bloom.
      Michael considered this.  Not a fool, this Marie, this woman who had no children of her own, but never seemed too unhappy about it.  How women blathered over babies, those gross, reeky, irritable blobs; he had seen Marie at baptisms, smiling gently, nodding at other women who said to her, You'll be blessed someday, Marie, though their voices sounded blaming.
      Michael watched her yank at an eye chart, fold it into eighths, tuck it in a pocket.  She stood in front of him now, looked down at him, then lifted one side of her skirt.  A bare thigh, a marvelous thigh.  She moved her knee and Michael read permission in this.  He put his hand on her thigh.  Nothing in this world now but this thigh, this lovely flesh; no invasion, no gloom, only this.
      Not a mystery, Michael.  Not really.  Marie stepped back and Michael's hot palm cooled.  That girl?  Unspoiled, unused.  But be careful.  This impractical warning.  They took the found firewood back to the zoo and others pyramided it in the fire ring; they poked the tongue depressors into the embers, let this kindling catch, then wadded strips of the eye chart, added these, the letters curling into flames.

*

Be careful.  These words a burr on his eardrum, but he planned an advance.  Maybe thighs, unspoiled thighs, were not a marvel.  He had known the girl since they were both ten, but he had always ignored her.  But last autumn, ideas shifted in Michael, and there were her ankles, thin and delicate, in little white socks trimmed with lace, her feet in plain brown shoes with brown shoelaces.  Flashing at him under her desk.  She would scratch a mosquito bite and maybe glance at Michael behind her.  She was pretty, but not the prettiest girl in school.  Other girls had more flair and bounce, but this girl held his attention.  Brown hair in a thick braid; white collar, starched and ironed.  She doodled flowers and bunnies in the margins of her notebook; she nibbled on her pencil (how Michael loved those tiny teeth marks!).
      Michael!  The teacher shouted at him and in her mouth his name became a curse.  Tell us how the earth orbits the sun.  Michael winced, scanned the solar system in his textbook.  The earth, Michael.  It's a planet.  Maybe you've heard of it.  The other students squirmed in their seats, but didn't dare snicker because snickering had unpleasant consequences.  Michael spat, Who cares?  What could the teacher inflict on him?  She was a silly spinster, a nothing.  Would she send him home to his mother?  His mother was in bed, her heart shedding its final beats like a flower shedding petals.  Nobody could punish him.  But the teacher's face purpled and she ordered Michael into a corner, then put the cone-shaped dunce cap on his head.  Michael felt the girl's eyes on his back as he stood there an hour, two hours, as the subject slid out of science and into history, kings and treaties and all that other stuff that didn't matter.  He spied the current king's portrait on the wall; their king had not been a good student and Michael wondered if, as a boy, he too had focused on a girl's ankles or how her hair seemed molasses one day and tarnished bronze the next, or maybe he'd had private tutors and was prohibited these odd creatures called girls.
      The recess bell clanged and the students rushed out to the playground.  Go, the teacher told Michael; this wasn't due to lack of strictness but because she needed one of her Turkish cigarettes which she smoked behind the gymnasium.  Michael went out into the cool October day.  Boys tussled or traded marbles; girls skipped rope.  Michael's girl hopped effortlessly into the turning rope and they all chanted a counting rhyme.  When the girl noticed Michael watching, she flubbed and scowled, then took her turn to turn the rope.  Michael shrugged, then looked at the girl's shins, how blades of damp grass stuck to her skin.
      Now Michael and this girl and the other students and their teacher were in this zoo.  The teacher organized sessions of math and grammar; she sat the kids in a cove next to the aviary of tropical birds.  The town's old men met in this aviary, though they had quit talking politics.  Birds shat on their hats and they heckled the schoolteacher, punctuation, gender, ha!, adverbs, iambic blah blah, who cares?  The parrots and toucans heckled too and the teacher was purple, but that who cares secretly thrilled Michael.  After this, he avoided the lessons, he was too useful to others:  he scoured pans, fixed chipped dishes, retrieved lockets and dolls.  Wonderful boy, they said, but Michael took the praise lightly, how unfamiliar it was.

*

Soiled, lousy bodies, five hundred twenty-six hunched, itching souls.  The women wanted a bath; the men didn't mind their own musky stink.  The cistern which replenished the animals' tanks and moats was dry; over several nights, Michael and the butcher and other men hauled pails of water out of the only wet well, the one in the middle of town, and they poured the water into the otter pool (the otters had been sandwiches).
      The men and boys were told to busy themselves with euchre and dice in the vacant fox pen (these red foxes sandwiches too).  The girl marched over to Michael and said, Thank you.
      Let me watch you bathe.  This was rude maybe, but Michael was too restless to try a slow woo (he had figured out what woo meant:  it meant ridiculous flattery and bunches of dumb flowers, and swoon meant fainting, which hardly seemed romantic).  The girl protested, But I'm a child!
      What's the point of being a child?
      This stymied the girl.  If you have to.  Michael smiled.  A tiny victory.
      The women's bathing time came.  They gathered around the otter pool and the first group of twenty (they had drawn straws) undressed, slipped their bodies into the water, squealed in its coolness.  The girl was in this first group and Michael glimpsed her from a tree he had climbed into.  The women and girls scrubbed their necks and armpits, soaped and rinsed their hair.  Yes, a marvel, and excruciating, the water running out of his girl's loosened hair, over her freckled shoulders, her little breasts.
      Boy!  A shout.  The girl's father, who had been lurking under Michael's tree.  The shout rattled into the branches.  Michael had no choice but to descend into the man's huge hands.  He hit Michael's jaw with one fist, his gut with the other.  Michael doubled over, scampered away.

*

Not how to live:  what Michael decided.  He filled his knapsack with stolen goods:  a knife of the butcher's, strawberry jam and peaches in jars, extra boots.  At midnight, he elbowed the zoo gate; he glanced back and saw the butcher and Marie cuddled together, moonlight silvery on them, and her hand slack on his chest, his heartbeats cupped in her palm.
      Michael headed north towards the soldiers' campfires burning in the hills.  Thick, dark woods, fresh air.  He jogged now, not terrified, not wasting energy on terror.  He neared a camp.  Those gray uniforms, that red hair.  He wanted to go through them; he was not their enemy now, he had no false loyalty to some foolish king.  He neared.  Two soldiers sat on antique chairs; one had his dirty boots on a velvet-padded footstool and was mending a rip in his coat, the other was whittling a figure out of a knot of oak.  They heard Michael approach and they turned towards him, the whittler's blade winking in the firelight.  Michael reached into his knapsack and brought out the jar of peaches; he stepped forward and offered this jar.  The soldiers judged him with awful eyes, then took the jar; one soldier gestured get out and Michael scurried through.  A victory, better than stymieing a girl.
      North, north, into the mountains, churning his legs over crests.  He slept under juts of rock or in hollows under shrubs.  He drew an arrow on the ground to send him in the same direction after his rest.  He became that arrow.

*

White landscape, icy, pure.  This suited Michael and he was happy in it.  The crunch of snow under his boots.  His body lean and taut.  He ate scraps of pink fish bear-smeared along half-frozen rivers.  And the sun died less here.  Tell us how the earth orbits the sun.

*

He lay exhausted on a sheet of ice.  The little warmth in his body melted the ice and he plunged through a boy-shaped hole into the cold ocean.  Drowning sweetly, the ticklish pull of water into his lungs.  And curious fish nosed the monkey bones floating around his neck.  
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