portion of the artwork for Daphne Buter's fiction

Why Did You Visit the Zoo on a Day Like This?
Daphne Buter

It’s the perfect day to visit the Amsterdam zoo. The weather is bad. A grey endless sky plasters Amsterdam. The trees surrounding the zoo are dangling in the rainy wind. My mother just died and I can’t believe it yet. I am feeling sad and lonely, like an imprisoned animal.

When I enter the zoo a young man with a camera asks me to pose for him. He is wearing an orange raincoat and his jeans are soaked. He smells like ripened puberty. He convinces me I have no obligation to buy the pictures. I can’t resist his acne. I pose for him in the rain and when he says, “Smile to the bird and I’ll make your day,” he waves his elongated fingers in the air. He takes a couple of shots and the flash of his camera blinds me.

The rain stops falling. Above me, buried in the clouds, the voice of God murmurs.

Right behind the entrance—a huge iron gate in Art Deco style—the city zoo of Amsterdam has a long sandy lane. The lane is muddy now. As long as I can remember there have been big tropical parrots on both sides of the path. Their legs are shackled with silver chains at the branches of chestnut trees. The green and red and azure birds wobble restlessly on the twigs. They shake their heads and shriek and shout with frustration. Sometimes one of them flutters up into the sky and tries to fly. The chain jingles until the string is stretched out and the parrot drops down, shrieking, yelling, fighting with its own wings.

The zoo lane is very discouraging. Everywhere I walk I see coloured feathers flow. I inhale the stinky air that exotic birds create. The lane leads to a modern construction of a cube-shaped monkey rock for a dozen anxious monkeys. The smell of the monkeys floats across the parrot lane. By the time I get there I feel like I’m on my last legs, and the day has only just begun. A round canal surrounds the cubic jungle. Remains of fruits and vegetables drift in the shadowy water. Suddenly the rain stops falling and silver sunlight escapes from the clouds, dropping down on the artificial rocks.

I let the monkeys watch me for a while. I think about my mother when I see a monkey with a toddler on her back. Now that the rain has stopped the humanlike creatures run over the deceptive rocks like crazy. I never get used to the red behinds of some female monkeys. I’ve read somewhere that the cherry tumour-like buttocks turn the male monkeys on. I gaze at the buttocks for some time and next I remember the red and swollen eyes my mother had for months, many years ago.

When I was a child my mother took my sister and me to the Amsterdam zoo. There she told us my father and her were getting a divorce. If I think back on that day it is like I’m entering a hallucination. We saw two elephants making love that day. It was the first time I’d seen the penis of any creature and this was the biggest one I would ever get to see. I didn’t know it then. I thought every penis looked like that one and I figured my mother had a good reason to divorce my father. The bull climbed the back of the female elephant— his penis looked like a gigantic tube with yellow, pink, and purple stripes—a rainbow penis that wobbled under his belly, until it vanished into the body of the female. Some visitors and tourists watched the spectacle, took shots with their camera, giggling, but most of them walked on in a hurry, acting like they didn’t notice what was going on. Especially visitors with children walked on, blushing, and dragging their kids away from the event. Except my mother. She pushed us toward the copulating elephants and said, “This is our lucky day.” We watched the elephants. We heard the bull howl like a dinosaur and we noticed the female elephant chewing fruit with her mammoth jaws, slowly, as if the big thing that moved inside her didn’t pierce her body.

That day I tried to understand love. That day I tried to realize what our life would be like if we would come home, later that day, and my father would have left.

I think my mother was in shock then. She was wearing dark sunglasses, which made her look like a huge insect. Despite the heat she was wearing black clothing as if she had to visit a funeral soon.

A hot endless summer had captured us. A summer that made our blood thick and our legs slow. Right after we entered the zoo, some guy asked us to pose for him. At the end of the day my mother bought the pictures and she swore they were fake because in none of them she wore sunglasses. All the pictures showed her swollen eyes, her sadness, and her misery. She argued with the photographer for at least an hour, until the clouds turned purple, tore open, and a massive rain dropped down on us. The rainfall first brought out the smell of the earth, like the damp of a swamp, and later the heads of worms, poking. I see us leaving the zoo, running. Yellow lightning in a purple sky and the rain and the sour smell of the earth are the final things I remember of that day.

I walk away from the monkeys, farther, to the right. I pass camels with fur that looks like shit, and a donkey with a hard-on, and even an animal that looks like a dinosaur. It stands in solitude on a field and takes my breath away. I can hear the drums of my heart. For a moment I wake up out of my melancholy to take a closer look at the biggest animal I’ve ever seen. It is white as chalk. It’s amazingly interesting, but when I get closer I realize that although it is in fact a dinosaur, it is only a sculpture.

I walk on the grass, ignoring the signs that say “Don’t walk on the grass.” I need to feel I’m still alive now and then. I need to touch a dinosaur. When I get there—in the green shadow of the huge sculpture—I look over my shoulder, but hastily. No one is watching my crime; I can say my prayers.

It’s a Tyrannosaurus Rex. My favourite monster of the past. I look between his colossal legs but the sculptor didn’t make a dinosaur-phallus. I put my hand on the wet legs of the king. I embrace one of the soaked legs of the sculpture and I feel diminutive, like a shrinking child. I smell the perfume of urine. I close my eyes and try to weep. The tears don’t arrive. I keep my eyes closed and whisper, “God, if you are out there in the mighty universe, look down and see me standing here, a lonesome individual, lost in a zoo, a big orphan … You are the creator of the big animals that vanished. You threw a meteorite to change their world. God, you are the creator of us, human beings that are made to imprison and demolish all the rest. We are the clippers of bird wings. We are the designers of cages. We are the creatures that fish the oceans empty. We are the whale killers. We are the annihilators of all species, even our own. We are responsible for the bombs and radioactive toddlers. Hear me, see my agony … My mother died a few days ago. She never said she loved me. Why did she never say she loved me? They bury her today. They bury her thoughts about me, with her. I don’t believe it. I just don’t …”

Now I can cry. It’s such a heartbreaking prayer. If God exists he’s probably weeping, too. Unexpectedly the sky above me explodes. I open my eyes and see a bright strike of lightning speeding toward the Tyrannosaurus rex. I’ve got to run. God is trying to explain something to me. I sprint like a maniac over the grass. Behind me a big hammer beats up planet Earth. I stop running as soon as I reach the reptile house. I can hardly catch a breath. I need a cigarette. As I take shelter under the entrance of the building I light one, and look at the Tyrannosaurus rex on the grassland, smoking. It could be my imagination but I see a mysterious steam rise up from its heavy jaws.

A little later I walk through the reptile house, drenched in the dark shadows that reptiles seem to like. The atmosphere of the reptile house is humid. The smell in there is disgusting. Cockroaches meander over the granite tiles of the floor. I stop walking to watch the crocodiles that are lying in a rigor mortis pose on little African fake shores. It’s so miserable I nearly start to weep again. One of the crocodiles, a fat one with the body of a rotten tree, looks at me with little devilish eyes.

“Hi, Mister Satan,” I say out loud. “You would like to chomp my head off, wouldn’t you?” My voice echoes through the large building, wallops onto the walls, and returns to me like the voice of a phantom.

The crocodile doesn’t move a muscle.

“You would like to chew on my skull, wouldn’t you?”

The crocodile smiles vulgarly.

“Well, I would like to kick your yellow teeth out of your reeking beak,” I say.

A white glow-in-the-dark message board shows me a warning that says: “Don’t go behind the railing. Don’t stretch your hands out above the water. Don’t feed the animals!”

I start to imagine what would happen if I was stupid enough to do all the things the mysterious messenger advises me not to do. I feel a strong urge to go behind the railing, to stretch both my hands out above the water, and to feed myself to the crocodile. All of me.

I’m such a problem nowadays. I’m a walking wreck. I need to leave this place before it keeps me.

I leave the reptile house in a hurry. I need to rush before I give in to the desire to be eaten.

* * *

If I go to the zoo I don’t go there to fear the crocodiles. I don’t go there to wave at gorillas and chimps. I don’t go there to see elephants copulate. I don’t go there to smell the stench of shit. I don’t go there to collect cockroaches in my underwear—no—I go to the zoo to watch the big birds. All the animals in the zoo make me sad, except the big birds behind fences. I cannot figure out why the big birds don’t make me sad. I know they should be freed. I know they should be soaring through wide azure skies above silvery mountains and emerald rainforests. I know the pink flamingos should be standing among thousands of others, on one leg, in African lakes, bathing in sunlight. I know the paradise birds should soar from jungle tree to jungle tree. I know they do not belong behind bars, but still, I like them there. I like the locked-up eagles with their curved beaks that stare with golden eyes at my trembling fingers as to rats. I adore the heavy-coloured beaks of toucans. I love the beautiful cranes that dance before they pair in the open air. I love big birds for their repulsive behaviour and offensive looks. The long skinny legs of the cranes are amazing. They look like firewood; like golden straws that need a suck; like elongated penises of gods.

The Amsterdam zoo has two sand cranes that form a happy couple. Together they are behind a fence and they have a terrain for themselves. I walk to the fence and wave at the cranes. I want them to cheer me up. One of them strides to the fence. It is the male sand crane.

A little boy with a fat pale face and sunglasses with mirrors that bury his eyes looks through the fence like he’s examining the birds for a school project. His mouth hangs open and a substance drips from his potato-shaped nose. He’s wearing a red cap with the flap turned to the back of his spherical head. I don’t know why, but I feel hate at first sight for this boy.

“Don’t go too close,” I say to warn him.

I look at the sharp pointed beak of the sand crane. The male crane moves his head up and down like he is trying to say yes all the time. His beak looks like a stiletto, ready to fight any ugly kid. The head of the crane is huge; a fat rusty rock with artificial eyes in it.

“I’m not afraid,” the boy says with a eunuch voice. “That big bird just likes to dance with me. It’s a brainless fairy.”

“He doesn’t know what dancing is, boy, he’s just ready to attack you. And he’s straight as hell. His female is having eggs. Haven’t you read it on the message board by the entrance of the zoo?” I make up: “That’s why he is aggressive this time of year.”

“No, he’s not.”

“Yes, he is.”

“I won’t listen to you. You are dead.”

Maybe I am dead. Maybe I look like a corpse. Maybe my life is just a dream and maybe I’ll wake up a little later, finding out there is no real world to wake up in. I walk away from the fence and that nasty little fellow. I sit down on one of the iron zoo benches that hurt my ass after a minute. The raindrops that are still on it wet my pants but this possibly will make me feel better after awhile. I sit there and watch the boy with the red cap and the crane with the red-feathered head. I feel three things. One of them is concern, both for the boy and for the sand crane. I think I feel concern because I’m human, no matter how much I hate that boy. The other thing I feel is responsibility—a feeling I dislike a lot—especially when I feel responsible for someone else’s kid. The third thing I feel is revulsion. A huge revulsion that fills my chest like a balloon, ready to explode, and then Armageddon shall begin in the Amsterdam zoo.

The sand crane is getting closer to the fence. The bird is shaking his head up and down maniacally now. His orange eyes remind me of twinkling sensors of an android I saw many years ago in an SF comic book, when I was a child myself.

The boy with the red cap is shaking his head now, too, just as rapidly as the bird.

That boy is insane. Even a blind toddler could tell that that crane is pissed off.

I look around for the boy’s parents, but he seems to belong to no one. All the individuals who walk through the zoo park just pass by, now gradually, like I am watching a movie in slow motion.

Maybe his parents threw the boy away in one of the litter containers. Maybe he just crawled out and doesn’t belong to anyone anymore. I better not think about it. I really don’t want to feel responsible for that walking ogre.

I get angry with the boy. Who does he think he is that he can spoil my visit to the zoo? If I try to mourn my dead mother in this soul-destroying zoo, surrounded by forlorn animals that are incarcerated by barns and fences and walls and fake lakes—just like all of us are caged by the briefness of our lives—then why did I have to bump into that little fat fellow over there, who, at any moment, could be hurt real bad by the stiletto beak of a sand crane?

The boy with the red cap moves his head up and down real slowly now. The sand crane does the same, while the bird is getting closer to the fence, every endless second.

I have had enough of it. My heart can take no more. It’s like a lobster is crawling through my veins. I feel dirty with fear. I stand up and walk in the direction of the boy, ready to drag him away from the fence. My legs are sluggish—I’m caught in an impossible trance. Then I see the sand crane stretch out his neck—I see the stiletto speed through a hole in the fence—I see the boy jump back; I hear the screams of the bird and the kid mix up. The gods are sending lightning down again. The grumbling voices in the clouds grow into laughter. I feel raindrops falling. Suddenly I see two elephants making love, but briefly, on the inside of my skull. I hear the bull lamenting when he shoots his DNA into a universe of meat. The bird speeds into the direction of the boy’s eyes. My heart explodes. I see the sections of the kid, his eyeballs, his legs, his fingers … splatter through the sky in an amazing vision of blood and meat and feathers...

The boy lies on the muddy earth, crying, and he is flabbergasted because blood drips over his forehead into his eyes. “That wicked crane stole my glasses. He bit me. He tried to kill me.” His cap falls off but he puts it back on his head, sludge and all.

“Stand up,” I say. I grab his hand and lift him onto his sneakers. “Let me see your face.”

I look at the howling boy with the red cap. The crane pecked his forehead. Between his eyes I see a little flesh wound. His sunglasses lie behind the fence and the crane is stepping on them, trying to bury them with its toes.

“I told you he would attack you,” I say.

“No, you didn’t,” he says, moaning.

I could exterminate him. I could feed him to the crocodiles. I could wrap him up and push him into a litter container to get rid of him forever …

Out of nowhere, a replica of the boy shows up—a bigger, fatter one with a red cap and sunglasses with mirrors camouflaging his eyes, similar to the boy’s.

“How could this happen, you stupid woman? I saw you didn’t do anything to protect Buddy,” the man says.

“What?”

“Move it, lady. I saw you waiting for Buddy to get attacked by that bird. You are evil. Why didn’t you warn him when I took a piss?”

“Are you his father?”

“Yeah. I am.” The man taps his chest with his fists for a second, like Johnny Weismuller would have done if he were still alive, reminding me of a fat gorilla.

“Well, who’s responsible for your DNA?”

“We all are, ma’am.” He points his index finger in the direction of my face. I smell the odour of some pee on it. “I had to take a piss, right? When I was pissing at the leg of that dinosaur over there, I saw you doing nothing. Get the hell out of here or I’ll beat your little brains out.”

* * *

I walk on the sandy lane, back to the entrance of the Amsterdam zoo. Red and green and turquoise feathers rotate before my eyes. God is weeping. I can feel his tears running over my back. I hear the shriek of parrots that are trying to fly, and when they are held back by jingling chains they sound like chickens in an abattoir.

By the entrance the young man in the orange raincoat is waving at me. “Ma’am, I’ve got your pictures over here!” A bright light surrounds him, making him look like a copper cherub.

I really don’t know how to pass him. He stands in the middle of the lane, in front of the entrance. He looks like a big orange bird. Behind him the real world begins, the world in which my mother is buried today. The mouth of the Earth opened its jaws, and must have swallowed her by now. I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to stay here. I don’t want to see the pictures the copper cherub took, either.

“Great. I’m curious,” I lie to him.

I follow the chap to a picture-stand. Hundreds of pictures of visitors in the rain swivel before my eyes.

“Here, these are yours,” he says with an empty voice. He hands me a bunch of photos. I almost faint when I look at them. It is me standing by the entrance of the zoo, wearing sunglasses with mirrors covering my eyes, and next to me stands the boy with the red cap. It is me embracing the leg of the dinosaur, wearing the sunglasses, while the boy with the red cap is embracing the other leg. It is me standing behind the railing in the reptile house, wearing the sunglasses, with stretched-out hands above the water, and in the mirror of my sunglasses I see a red cap floating in the water. It is me, wearing the sunglasses, by the cranes, together with the boy with the red cap, while the sand crane attacks the boy. I see me pushing the boy to the crane. I see my glasses float through the air and I see the crane burying the glasses with his toes.

“This cannot be …” I mumble. “None of this ever happened that way. I do not even own sunglasses like this.”

The guy in the orange raincoat smiles at me mysteriously. “I’ve followed you all day,” he says. “Fifty euros, please.”

He puts the pictures in a little white bag and I take them with trembling fingers. He holds his left hand stretched out before my face and repeats, “Fifty euros, please.” His face is covered with shiny flecks. In his bright blue eyes I see the reflection of the clouds. “Ma’am,” he says, “ma’am, why did you visit the zoo on a day like this?”

I cannot answer him. There is so much revulsion in me I give him the money.




Daphne Buter’s Comments

I am a prisoner looking through the bars of your cage.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 39 | Winter 2013