by Daniel Vlasaty
A crowd gathers outside the zebra habitat. You can’t see what they are all looking at from where you’re standing, but people in the crowd keep gasping and quietly screaming. You think it is probably some disaster, a death or an injury. But they don’t seem panicked enough for it to be too serious. You are curious to see what’s going on, but the crowd is too thick and you couldn’t make it over there even if you wanted to.
You’ve heard rumblings about the zebra, about the zebra and the lion, and you wonder if the lion somehow managed to get into the zebra habitat. But that’s not it. It can’t be. They wouldn’t let the people stand around watching if the lion managed to get into the zebra habitat. They would shut the whole place down. But what was it that you heard about the zebra and the lion? You can’t remember.
“Oh my god,” someone from the crowd says. There are more gasps, an uncomfortable chuckle.
“Holy shit,” someone else says, “That’s…that’s messed up.”
“I think it’s beautiful,” a young mother says as her little daughter cries because she does not understand what is going on.
“Well,” her husband says, “I think it’s just wrong. Just all kinds of wrong.”
The zebra and the lion have fallen in love with each other, that’s what you heard, you remember. The zebra and the lion have fallen in love with each other, and at night, they’ve been sneaking off together. You don’t know how this is possible, but this is what you’ve heard. That they are sneaking off together in the night. It is love and it is romantic and it is beautiful, the other animals say.
You hate the other animals, and they don’t particularly like you either. You hate them because they laugh at you. They laugh at you because you don’t belong in the zoo. You’re a human being, a man, and you do not belong in the zoo. You are not an attraction, you are a person. But you can’t tell anyone this because your voice box has been removed, and now you spend your days naked in a cage. You spend your days being stared at by strangers. They also laugh at you, like the other animals. You spend your days as an attraction, an exhibit, and you spend your nights listening to the other animals gossip.
The zoo’s owners have decided to let the zebra and the lion share a habitat after they’ve seen them falling in love with each other, after they’ve caught them sneaking off together in the night. The zebra is pregnant, you’ve heard the other animals saying, whispering to each other. They say things about how the zebra is such a slut, and how their baby, if it is even born alive, is going to be deformed, a freak. They say that it’ll never make it in the world. They’re always saying things, the animals, they never shut up.
You hate the animals so much, and you just wish they’d shut up.
You wake up one morning and there is a young girl staring at you. She is pointing at your naked body, laughing at you, at your penis. It is small, but that’s only because it is cold, so cold. You’re always so cold. You jump up from the futon the zoo’s owners set up in the corner of your habitat and you pace back and forth in front of the bars of your cage, your prison, your home. The young girl keeps laughing at you, laughing and pointing. There is no one else around, and you wonder where this girl’s mother is. Her mother should be here with her, and she should yell at her daughter for laughing at you. She should tell her daughter that it is not polite to point and laugh at someone, at another human being, even if that person is naked in a cage, in a zoo. But you know that that wouldn’t happen, even if the girl’s mother were here. The mother would probably be laughing at you with her daughter. Pointing and laughing at you, at your nakedness.
You stop directly in front of the little girl, standing there behind the bars of your habitat, your cage, completely naked. You don’t care anymore about your nakedness. You glare at the little girl. You growl. And you give her the finger. She only laughs at you more, harder.
The little girl’s mother comes up behind her, tells her that it’s time to go, time to go meet daddy. The little girl looks at you one last time, laughs, points, and sticks her tongue out at you. She laughs and laughs. You jump up and down, enraged, rattle the bars of your cage, try to scream with a voice you no longer possess.
Later, when most of the visitors have left and the zoo is getting ready to close for the evening, you hear the other animals say that it is time, that the zebra is in labor. The zebra is giving birth to the lion’s baby. The zookeeper walks by and all the animals go quiet. He does not pay them any mind. He does not even look in your direction. You hate the zookeeper, and he seems to hate you too.
The zebra gives birth to the lion’s baby and all the other animals start clapping and cheering, putting on a big show of it. You close your eyes and try to shut it all out. It doesn’t work, and after hours of screaming silently in your own head you somehow manage to fall asleep.
In the morning, you wake up and all the cages around you are empty. All the animals are gone. It is early, and the sun is not even out yet. You hear voices coming from the zebra habitat. You crane your neck around your cage’s bars to see, trying to get a better look. All the other animals have gathered around the zebra’s habitat, trying to get a look at the zebra’s and the lion’s baby.
You wonder how they all managed to get out of their cages, and you see that the gate to yours is opened a bit. You don’t question this. It does not matter. You push it all the way open and cautiously step out. The ground feels cold under your bare feet, but you don’t even think about this. You think about making your escape, but you know you’ll be caught, you know they’ll catch you. It’s been so long since you’ve lived as a free man, that you probably couldn’t make it on your own anyway. You think about going over to the zebra habitat to try to see the zebra’s and the lion’s baby, but you don’t care about that. You don’t care about what kind of freak the zebra and the lion have brought into the world.
You look around. You’ve never seen the zoo from this angle. How small your cage is. You’ve never noticed from the inside. The other animals are laughing and talking and having a good time together, enjoying the company of the zebra, the lion, and their freak baby. But you don’t care about any of that. You stretch your arms high over your head. Everything around you looks so big, so open. But you don’t like it, so you step back into your cage, your home, and close the door behind you. The latch clicks loud as it locks you inside.
“I’m a human being,” you tell yourself, in your head, because you no longer have a voice. “I’m a man.”
Daniel Vlasaty lives in Chicago with his wife and two cats. He works at a methadone clinic. His fiction and poetry have been appeared in various publications, both in print and online. He is the author of the novella THE CHURCH OF TV AS GOD, published by Eraserhead Press.