The little girl often squatted herself on pavements to observe the movements of ants in crevices. Held her fingers out to rain drops, watched them stipple the petals of hibiscus, pearl the stalks of flames-of-the-forest. Released souls visited animals and sometimes they stayed.
The zookeeper said the Sumatran tiger was sick and wouldn’t eat. Her friends had run on ahead, backpacks jostling; their teacher had both hands fisted on her hips. That morning, they’d seen: sun bear, dwarf crocodile, two-toed sloth, black and white colobus. The zoo had started as the Sultan’s menagerie. It was said he loved all the animals so much he told them his secrets for happiness and a long life. During the war, all the animals died, the zookeeper said. Katak whispered that actually, the animals were slaughtered, hung, poisoned or starved to death by the Sultan’s command, because escaped animals would savage humans. Sumitha whispered back: Total myth, the Sultan died before the war started, so how could he have given such a command. Myth: a word they’d learned recently – just another word for broken fiction – when adults didn’t want you to know the truth of things.
The tiger didn’t look sick in its man-made environment of caves and ridges and trees; its eyelids flickered; flies buzzed around its jowly flaps. The zookeeper brought out a box with a circular plate, a steel trumpet protruding like an odious flower. Bet you’ve never seen one of this. When the tiger wouldn’t eat, he played music to let it forget its pain. He held up a finger, eyebrows tenting. He put on a black disc and the plate spun round and round. Peppy music that made the little girl’s ankles jump and her feet tap.
Duke Ellington, he said. She knew: her mother played it when she had her wine and danced alone.
The Sumatran tiger pricked its ears. Next door, the Asiatic lion released a soft howl. Earlier, the little girl had seen a reticulated giraffe and aardvark for the first time. She traced their smoky outlines in the heat with a tiny finger, their wandering restless spirits a scrim of shadows across the path of sunlight. Even earlier, her mother had packed her a sardine sandwich and a Minute Maid juice, when she had promised omurice and cherry pop. The little girl watched as her father came out of the shower, and her mother slumped back to bed, forgetting to close the lid of her lunchbox. Did not hug her, did not sing out, “Watch yourself on the road, sweetie pie.”
Outside, the macadam glittered and the bus rumbled up like a tired beast.
In the music piping through the box now, she heard all the animals purr, huff, grunt, hum, roar and growl. But the Sumatran tiger did not lift its head, did not shake its fur or rattle its teeth.
Will it eat if you play music?
Sometimes. Sometimes it gets lulled to sleep. When you’re sick, sometimes you just want to sleep. And the little girl grew quiet.
Do you think the zookeepers played music during the war when they killed all the animals?
The zookeeper seemed to be thinking. Maybe the music came from the animals themselves.
The little girl saw that this could be true. With each indrawn breath, the tiger’s flank rippled, cross-currents of fire and sun, and its spine lengthened like an outline of hills. She pressed her face close to the partition. A song was lilting out of its sunk ribcage and hollow bones, distinct and melodic.
That evening, her father stood at the stove heating up mac and cheese from a box and the little girl turned the radio on, the music low because her mother was resting. Her father asked her to put out knives and forks, and he didn’t shout. Magically, the music was exactly what she’d heard on the zookeeper’s phonograph, music for padded feet and tiny shoes, and the little girl remembered: how the zookeeper had looked sad, then the smile wisping across his lips.
She pressed her face into the windowpane. There. Nothing had been lost or forgotten: the macaque waltzing with the gorilla, the flamingo and emu quickstepping, the okapi swinging its behind, the maned wolf raising the roof, the hippopotamus bringing up the rear. The song that had wormed past her feet into her heart flew out the window. Nestled in the mythic parade of animals, where it belonged.
Elaine Chiew is the author of The Heartsick Diaspora and the editor/compiler of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World. A two-time winner of the Bridport Prize, her stories have been published in anthologies in the U.S., UK and Singapore, the most recent of which appeared in A View Of Stars: Stories of Love (Marshall Cavendish, 2020). Her stories were most recently longlisted and shortlisted in The Cambridge Short Story Prize, Mslexia, Fish, and Mogford Prize of Food and Drink, and was selected for The Best of Asian Short Stories (Kitaab, 2021). Her story in NFFR ‘Insurance’ was reprinted in Best of Small Fictions (Sonder Press, 2019).
September 27, 2021