Feeding the Animals

Amy Bitterman

On the third waterless day at the Baghdad zoo, when the sun was directly over the monkey house, the keeper finally returned.  The monkey’s ears rolled forward when he heard the click of the keeper’s heels on the stone path that led to the cage.  Light bounced off the keeper’s white uniform and made the monkey blink.  When he widened his nostrils and breathed in the sour smell of humans, his mouth watered.

The keeper reached into his pocket and pulled out a bag of almonds and dates.  Honey and sugar filled the air.  The monkey poked his snout out as far as he could.  He stuck his paw through the bars and grabbed at the sweet smells.  Then he brought his fist to his mouth, licked the salt on his fingers and screeched.  His noise woke his sleeping mate, who was curled up in a corner of the cage, hiding from the heat.

"Patience, little fellow, I’m not going anywhere.”

The monkey’s ears rolled forward to meet the keeper’s voice.  His mate raised her head from her belly, lumbered over to the edge of the cage and softly barked “oh-oh.”    The keeper put the dates on the ground and stroked the mate’s fur.  She rubbed herself against his hand; her head fit neatly into his palm.

“Poor things.  Didn’t know there was a war on, did you?”

The keeper opened a bag of nuts and tossed a handful through the bars.  Almonds and peanuts rained down on the monkey and his mate.  They scrambled from one end of the cage to the other.  When the last morsel was gone, the monkey leaned back on his haunches, scratched his head with one paw and held the other paw out for more food.  When the keeper laughed, the monkey chirped.  Laughter meant figs and walnuts.

“Not this time, little fellow.  We have to save the rest.  God only knows when I’ll be able to get more food.”  The monkey hopped from one foot to the other – a move that had always been rewarded.  Even the strangers who lined up against his cage threw peanuts and chips when the monkey danced.  But the strangers hadn’t come for days and days, and now there was only the keeper.

“Sorry, my friends.  Strict rations, these days.  People will kill you over a few eggs.  You’re lucky the zoo is such a dangerous area; otherwise, you’d be stewing in someone’s dinner pot.”

The keeper climbed a ladder on the side of the monkey house and picked up a pole that was lying on the roof.  He pulled a banana from the inside pocket of his coat, tied it to the wood with a long piece of string and pried open a hatch near the roof’s edge.  The squeal of the dry hinges hurt the monkey’s ears.  He looked up through the hole at the top of his cage.  The sun, hot and clear, stared back at him.  He rolled around in the circle of light and warmth on the floor.

“Time for exercise.”

When the keeper dropped the banana through the hole, the monkey sprang up and swatted the air.  The keeper moved the pole from right to left.  With a flick of his wrist, he made a rainbow of smells over the monkey’s head.  Sweat matted the monkey’s fur, but he kept running.  He and his mate chased the sugar scent from one end of the cage to the other.  The banana twisted and turned on the end of the string, always just out of reach.  The monkey climbed to the top of the cage, gripped a bar with his tail and legs and stretched his paws out.  Pinches, like little gnat stings, ran up and down his arm, but he still couldn’t reach the fruit.  He lost his balance, tumbled to the ground and landed on all fours.  When the keeper laughed, the monkey rose up and beat his chest with two tiny fists.

“You’re quite the little warrior today.  Maybe we should give you a gun and send you out to fight with the rest of the animals.” 

A flash of light made the monkey blink.  A thunderclap rang in his ears.  He looked through the bars, but the sky was clear.  He widened his nostrils, but there was no hint of the clammy smell of rain.  Another flash of light and noise.  The hatch snapped shut, trapping the banana on the top of the cage.  The keeper tumbled to the ground and landed on his back.  His head was a blur of pink, red and gray; blood pooled around his neck.

The monkey lumbered over to the edge of the cage, dragging his knuckles on the concrete surface of the floor.  The salty scent of fresh blood mixed with the sugary odor of the dates that spilled from the keeper’s pockets.  The monkey smelled the sweet fruit turning to syrup in the sunlight.  He grabbed a bar with one paw and stuck his free paw through the space between the iron rods.  His stomach squeezed between the bars, but his bones trapped him.  Pressing his ribcage against the metal, he swiped the air, brought his paw to his face, sniffed his fingers and whimpered.

His mate joined him at the edge of the cage.  She reached through the bars and stroked the keeper’s fingers.  Pulling the hand through to her side of the iron, she held it up by the wrist and rubbed her head against the palm.  When she let go of the wrist, the hand thumped on the ground.  Vapor rose from the still warm, already decaying flesh.  Something bitter mingled with the keeper’s scent.  She backed away from the smell until she reached the center of the cage.  When she looked up, she saw the banana twisting in the air.  Dangling from the broken pole, it was just a foot above her now.  Resting her weight on her haunches, she rose to her full height.  When she reached for the fruit, she lost her balance, returned to all fours and screeched.

The afternoon sun sank into the monkey’s fur.  He walked to his watering place on the side of the cage.  The heat had lapped up most of the water.  Wet fur and trapped bugs floated in the moist patches that darkened the bottom of the bowl.  The monkey grabbed a beetle between his fingers, crunched through its hard shell and popped it into his mouth.  Wings and legs scraped against his throat.

When the monkey and his mate woke the next morning, the keeper was still lying on the ground.  The monkey pursed his lips into an O and hooted for attention.  Slapping the concrete floor of the cage produced nothing but noise.  Rushing up and down the trunk of his tree dislodged a few leaves.  The keeper only ignored him when he’d done something wrong, like the time he bit the man’s hand in his eagerness to get at the figs tucked inside it.  Desperate, the monkey walked to a corner and pushed the three cartons stored there to the center of the cage.  Carefully, he stacked each box on top of the other – the keeper’s favorite trick.  Nothing.  Then he noticed the flies buzzing in and out of the man’s mouth and nostrils.  Throwing his head back, the monkey shut his eyes, opened his mouth as wide as he could and howled.

The next day, the monkey and his mate woke up, shook the dew from their fur and lumbered over to their watering place.  Then they sat on their haunches, wrapped their tails around their legs and waited.  They picked the fleas out of each other’s head and back hairs, rolled them between their paw pads and waited.

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