at the last
No one knew why Joe had released the lions, least of all him. He had been working at the zoo in Boston for about ten years. When he’d started, his duties involved sweeping up the trash left by visitors, the candy wrappers absentmindedly dropped by children, their mothers too exhausted to bend over and pick them up. Joe gradually worked his way up to a sort-of, not-quite zookeeper. He hadn’t gone to collage—it just wasn’t for him and anyway, he liked the zoo. Now his olive work pants hung heavy with the keys he carried. He possessed keys to most of the enclosures and at night when he returned to his small Watertown apartment he’d take them out and smooth them with his fingers, watching the light from his lamp catch on the bronze teeth.
The day he released the lions, the keys suggested the idea. They'd seemed to whisper, then beg, to be put in the locks, so that they could turn and release the heavy door from its bolt. Joe wasn’t used to questioning much and this sensation, this desire to use his keys was more than he could resist, and so it was without any real consideration or contemplation that he released the lions.
The lions, 16 in all, were very accustomed to captivity. They had been born in half-a-dozen zoos across the country and when they matured, they had been tranquilized and shipped in cages to Boston. Finding themselves nauseous and bewildered, they’d slink on the edges of the pride. Big house cats, really, resentful of being moved without any thought given to their wishes. Eventually, though, these sixteen settled into a pride of lions, ten females and six males. There were rarely cubs; the females received a powerful contraceptive in their daily meal. The zoo was not prepared for any additional lions. Funding was always an issue and lions needed to be fed.
When the thick door opened, none of the lions paid it much attention. The door opened and closed several times a day; fresh food and water was delivered with a regularity the lions enjoyed. They had also come to appreciate the stunned awe of the zoo’s visitors. The lions would stretch, exposing their claws, displaying their ferociousness. The lions didn’t know what the visitors were saying about them, but they knew that they were powerful in their kingdom, an area they inhabited without ambivalence.
Shelly was the first lion to leave the enclosure. She was young and easily bored. She was the first who saw the opportunity, and seized it. Several of the other female lions followed her, walking through the open door past Joe, who stood breathing heavily, stunned by the keys in his hand which now felt too heavy, his hand too clumsy.
In the end, all of the lions left. Several of the males were the last to leave and they looked back wistfully at their den, their territories already marked with the strong scent of urine. The sounds of heavy traffic frightened them, their ears back and eyes narrowed as they darted behind the carefully landscaped shrubs, the ones that Joe had swept under when he was younger and the zoo was still new to him.
By some unspoken feline agreement, the lions followed the two largest and strongest females, Shelly and Margaret. They slunk and moved noiselessly out of the city and into the suburbs.
The missing lions were noticed quickly, though not immediately. The zoo issued a statement that the lions would be recovered—that was the word they carefully chose—recovered, and returned to the zoo. Joe was in custody, shocked by the turn his life had taken, explaining about the keys, the whispers, the demands of the teeth to be put in the locks.
The public quickly got bored of Joe. Now there were lions! The residents of Arlington, where most of the lions had settled, were unusually undivided about the lions. They loved them, and felt as if the lions were a divine sign of the superiority of their town and of their innate goodness. The lions reduced the deer population, which had spent the last several decades in a state of mindless reproduction, spitting out fawns every spring. The people of Arlington could barely contain their self-importance.
Some of the lions adjusted to their release better than others. The females wasted no time creating dens and, freed from their contraceptive restraints, they mated determinedly. By spring, each female had at least one cub, the first wild-born lions of their generation. The males hung at the edges of this group, mating with the females when summoned, but unsure of where they were supposed to live.
Several of the males were hit by cars on the highway. They had ventured too far up Route 2, past the exit for Walden, misreading the pace of the road, now narrowed to one lane. They had lingered too long on the road, looking ahead for a familiar cage.
One of the males, Christopher, was the most bereft by his change in circumstances. His coat was always greasy from the oil on the road and his paws stung from the fertilizer used in the yards where he would furtively defecate. Most of all, he missed being in his enclosure, being seen and fawned over by the visitors. His food had always arrived at the same time each day and, while it was never exactly what he wanted, he never found himself hungry. Shelly and Margaret had killed most of the area's deer, so Christopher had to settle for squirrels, the occasional dog. The feral cats frightened him in their fearlessness. He’d approach tentatively, hopeful that maybe this was the group to which he could belong; but they would hiss and lunge at him, eyes blazing, teeth fierce and sharp.
Christopher took to lurking outside of houses. During the day, he’d nap in drainage pipes and behind dumpsters. He was too nervous to sleep freely and he roamed bleary and exhausted. There was one house he favored. He even went so far as to mark it, spraying a stream of hot urine on the rosebush. At night, he’d peer into the windows, watching the family go about their business. He’d watch them separately and then together. Hidden in the back hedge, he could press his face to the glass, the condensation from his nose obscuring the family with every breath. The family was oblivious. If they noticed the pawed mulch, or the fur by the shed, they blamed raccoons. The lions were a party trick, something they liked to mention at dinner parties in the neighboring towns. “Yes, we have lions,” they’d say, “but we’ve never actually seen one.”
The zoo officials and police were becoming more concerned. Not only had they not recovered the lions, but also several were dead. They found evidence that there were lions about; the scat in the public park, claw marks on the sign advertising pizza on Mass Ave. Lions were spotted by residents often enough, but by the time they took their eyes from the lions and pulled their phones from their pockets, the lion was gone.
Christopher, though. Christopher ached to be with people. When food was placed on the kitchen table, he longed to sit there too, joining the family in their meal. He had given up any idea of pride. He wanted to be an indoor cat, to belong to this bipedal family, a group of creatures he’d previously only thought of as his audience and, occasionally, his meal. But he would give it up, all of it—the zoo, the applause, the power of being a mighty beast, if only these people would take him in.
One summer day, he saw his opportunity. When Lynn opened the back door, a basket of wet laundry on her hip, the latch did not quite catch when the door closed. She began to hang the laundry in the hot sun, pausing when she heard the neighbor calling over the fence to chat. Would she like some coffee, the neighbor asked and, happy for a break from the tedium of laundry, she left the basket, opened the gate, and walked into her neighbor’s house.
Christopher acted at once, darting to the door and carefully using one claw to pull the door toward him. Quickly, he jumped into the house, the door missing his tail by inches. The house smelled different than he had imagined. There were odors he could not identify and the smell of the floor made his head swim.
Never mind that, he thought, and began to search for a place to hide. Wasting no time, he crawled behind the couch and fell into an exhausted sleep. He slept for hours, snoring gently, waking only when he heard the clanking of pots in the kitchen. He heard the chatter of people and he listened intently. They were different from the zoo visitors. There was no sudden intake of breath in their conversations with each other, no gasp at his roar. He had left that behind, he reminded himself and, summoning the very last of his courage, he came out from behind the couch.
The people saw him at once! They began to scream and run. Nothing in their lives had prepared them for this moment. The adults gathered their children, ran out of the house, and locked him in. Christopher was alarmed. This was not what he had imagined. He was trapped in the cage of a broken dream and there was no escape.
Soon there were sirens screaming down the street. The local police arrived, excited. In this moment, they did not call the zoo, the lion recovery team. By entering the house, this animal had proven himself a danger and, as such, they had a duty, an imperative, to kill him.
Christopher paced the house. He could hear the voices, the excited shouts from every side of the building, and with each clatter of footsteps he became increasingly agitated. He began to moan deep, sorrowful howls. He was in misery, drowning in this terrible life. The window filled with masked faces and guns that were pointed at him. He gave one more cry, one last bellowing plea for someone to fix this, to make this mess disappear, when an officer knocked out a window with her rifle, took aim at Christopher’s head, and shot him.
The family stepped back into their house, the blood flooding the floor, the musky scent of this dead animal sinking into the walls and air. The officers picked up Christopher’s body, his fur matted and rough, and carried him to the cage in the squad car, slid the bolt, and drove away.
Sara Padrusch is a lover of words put together in just the right way. Previously she has been a script writer and editor for History Channel projects, as well as the co-writer of a song with Boston-favorite Tanya Donelly. Sara’s interests include lions, gorillas, and infectious diseases. Her fascination with lions began when she three and was bitten on the bottom by a lion cub. To her knowledge, she has never been bitten by a gorilla.