listening to the zoo
On the last day of April of 2052, as a newly discovered comet, Urga-Rampos, neared Earth, a very ill, very old, and very corpulent man started to shoulder his way into the thick hedges around the last public zoo on earth. Cuthbert Handley, a freshly minted nonagenarian—and a newly homeless one— clambered into the shrubbery as fast as his large, frail bones allowed (which wasn’t very). As the tough branches of yew and hazel abraded his arms and neck and face, he hardly felt them: what stung him was consciousness, every last red, lashing ray of it.
“Crack on,” the old man grumbled to himself, struggling to guard his eyes with his immense hands. “Go, you two-boned bletherhead— you get a wriggle on!”
It hurt Cuthbert to think, and it hurt to feel. Most of all, it hurt to remember. For a moment, he saw the boy’s face—that sinking face, with black, deep-river eyes. He saw the long lips, as purple and frail as iris petals, and the pale forehead wreathed in rushes. He glimpsed again the tiny clawing hands, grabbing at fronds of ferns from the brook-side, and all of it, the whole creature, tangled in green threads of time, plummeting, twisting, swimming, down to the depths, right down through the misery of the last century.
There, or somewhere, was his lost sweet brother, the otter-boy. Here, now, eighty years later, he would be found.
Cuthbert had never stopped looking. “Drystan,” the old man whispered aloud. He paused for a moment, gulping for breath, pulling a twig off his ear. “I’ll find my way to you. And to tha’ others.”
And what of this comet? All the world jabbering about it, and it was the worst of omens, Cuthbert felt; Urga-Rampos seemed to presage a frenzied phase of the mass-suicide pandemic that had already wiped out tens of thousands of Britons, and abroad, millions of other people—and animals.
For the most powerful and largest of the suicide cults—a group named Heaven’s Gate, originally from California—had also let it be known that animals occupied a “Level Below Human,” as the cultists put it, and must be exterminated to enable suicided cult members to travel more readily to the “Level Above Human.” Earth was a “dead vessel,” they claimed, a mere technical impediment to spiritual ascension. They also claimed God had “revised” Jehovah’s covenant with Noah. Instead of a revering the “bow in the cloud” of Genesis, that ancient sign of His promise never again to destroy Earth’s living creatures, the cultists said to look to the white comet, to a new covenant in which animals didn’t fit, and on one continent after another, they found ways to tip already endangered whole ecosystems toward their bowls of ashes.
The international response had been, so far, slow and uneven. America, where most of the cults had begun and where the self-murders and animal killings seemed to be accelerating, had organized a “cognitive policing” effort, but it wasn’t authorized outside New York, despite being under the control of the new “national police,” an extension of the U.S. Army. Only a few other larger countries—Korea Hana, India, the Nigerian Federation, and Britain—seemed up for a fight. As the last great repository of living “whole” animals on earth— genomic clones were available but also dwindling in numbers—the London Zoo now ranked as the cult’s biggest target, at least as Cuthbert saw it. The animals had awakened—for him, he believed— because Britain, and indeed the world, stood in desperate danger. Waves of species were being wiped from the wild at a level not seen since the end of the Mesozoic era. So few nonhuman animal species existed in the deforested, bulldozed, and poisoned planet, the London Zoo had truly become a kind of “ark” for all interconnected life—an ark, and a death row prison. The animals, wisely, wanted Cuthbert to help them escape before it was too late.
* * * *
Cuthbert was big, big, big—twice the size of most Britons and half as dainty. Despite his semihomeless state, he always, somehow, managed to find food, especially his favorite—cold kidney pies and kippers. His love of England was outsize, too, nearly as great as his respect for its ruthless king, Henry IX. His fingers were as thick and dirty as parsnips, and his feet as long and narrow and slippery as eels. An old set of EverConnector™ muscle-sleeves bound his old body together, but he heaved around a fat tummy on the lankiest of frames, and his enlarged heart, thick-walled with cardiomyopathy after decades of high blood pressure, struggled to siphon his gallons of blood around a porpoise-shaped body. And yet this most unlikely of recipients, Cuthbert Handley, a lowly Indigent born long ago in the Black Country, the son of a machinist, was the most recent, and perhaps final, recipient of a gift given only to a few people through human history—the Wonderments.
Earlier that day, he had bided time until the right moment came with the long sleeving shadows of evening and the zoo visitors beginning to disperse for the day. When the nearby Broad Walk and the adjacent playground emptied of people, he had made his appalling gambit, unbandaging caution from his long limbs in one rip of movement. He could not scramble fast enough now. A branch jabbed his neck. Another struck his thigh. He scrunched his eyes shut. He kicked his filthy way forward, a man powering an immense spinning fan of rags and anguish. The hedge’s branches felt far stiffer than he remembered, and much sharper. He flung his ancient forearm at them. He ducked. He sidestepped. He puffed his chest out. He threw another chunky forearm out. It was as if he were trying to taunt a mob of thin men all threatening to stab him with a yew stick.
And there was a kind of horde about him, after all. Cuthbert, who had lived much of his life on the dole* and, later, “the Sick” (disability benefit), and who could not stop drinking Flôt, was not simply disturbed. He heard things—loads of things. For half of the past year, his mind had inhabited, like a terrified moth in a candle lantern, a phantasmagoria of mental tiger-shadows and ghost-smokes. It was far worse than even the renowned horrors of a typical first Flôt withdrawal. Every time he saw an animal, whether a stray moggy or the rats running along the New Tube rails before trains burst into the station, he felt sure the creatures were preparing to do or say things to him, or both—until they finally did just that. He could hear the language of animals—or so he believed— and he was doing this.
And here he was, attempting to break into the old London Zoo.
“Almost there,” he said, panting. “Break a leg, mon!”
Cuthbert had no money, no friends, and no possessions, but he had learned through the Wonderments to listen to England’s animals. It was something even the powerful king he so revered couldn’t comprehend, and through this skill, he was going to save Britain and its creatures.
Unfortunately, Flôt addict and madman that he was, not a living human soul on earth believed him.
And on Flôt, as everyone knew, one could believe that microscopic violet-quiffed visitors from Planet Flôtica kept castles on the tips of every blade of grass. One could believe that the last Tasmanian tiger didn’t actually freeze to death in 1936 because of an incompetent zookeeper. When Flôt was good, it was hands down the best legal hallucinogenic and sedative on earth. It offered more than intoxication, more than a release: it took you rippling across whole new planets of purple-white euphoria. Like the old rave drug ketamine, or “Special K,” from the 1990s, it offered a sense of being utterly, and sometimes pleasantly, alone; but uniquely, it also gave the proprioceptive illusion of having extremely long, lissome, and powerful legs. To “get up” or “spire” on Flôt, as it was often called, was all about total self-possessed elevation. On Flôt, the world stood miles below you alone, a distant purple and white field of violets you could only feel tickling your ankles, and you needed nothing or no one else—not God, not a lover, not your pet cat.
* * * *
Cuthbert had done the proper prep for his assault on the zoo, or at least he thought so. A few meters through the dense shrubbery lay a secret grotto that he had fashioned earlier that month inside yew and hazel hedgings and a few coppiced beeches, scooping dirt with his dry hands and charily snapping twigs. He kept an emergency bottle of Flôt stashed there, and a powerful pair of bolt cutters. His plan was to wait until darkness, cut his way in, then break open as many enclosures as possible—especially the otters’. It was the most organized thing he had done in decades. One couldn’t spot the grotto from either the park or the zoo’s interior. It sat a meter from the zoo’s sturdy iron perimeter fence, close to the jackals— and to a rare gap in the iron fence. But the grotto might as well have been in France, such were the difficulties of getting to it now.
Cuthbert shoved forward a few more paces until the crisscrossing hazel branches budged no more and encapsulated him in a green foliate cage. For a moment, he thought he saw a boy, a thin boy with dark hair, shoving along with him a few meters away in the shrubbery. “Dryst,” Cuthbert said. “Look at me. Over here!” Then the boy vanished. Every so often, a stressed branch would crack and loosen the cage’s “bars,” allowing Cuthbert to move again. At one point, tiny twigs jammed up both nostrils and his mouth, making it appear as if he were disgorging leaves from his face like some kind of garden goblin.
“Oh, shittin ’ell,” he gasped, spitting out flecks of shredded leaves. The beast of first Flôt withdrawal was upon him, too, pulling him downward, tearing at his nerves, seizing his muscles—including his fragile heart. A singularly vicious facet of Flôt addiction was its two-bell-curved dual-withdrawal syndrome. It crushed the newly and the long-term sober alike with two acute phases sometimes a decade or more apart. Yet the dual-withdrawal also allowed ex-addicts past the initial psychosis-laden hell of withdrawal No. 1 an island of peace and sanity before dragging them into the furies of withdrawal No. 2.
For so many years, from the last days of the era of the powerful prime ministers and the European Union, up through the Great Reclamation and the Property Revolts and the slow rise of the various suicide cults of the 2020s, and on through the Second Restoration to the new king in 2028, the ramshackle Cuthbert had somehow survived. All those decades, he’d searched doggedly for his long-lost elder brother, Drystan, who, in his mind, had vanished when they were children, way back in the late 1960s. Since then, after leaving the Black Country, he had learned to suck in and oxygenate himself on London’s quotidian pathologies as naturally as breath. The filthy old town seemed to nourish him, to fuel the hunt for his brother. He took in every coarse ’oi of speech, ate every chip-butty** bag of cheap potato joy, learned every mucky machination to blag† Flôt—all of it, fluently and helplessly, and it had all led to this brambled corner beside the beasts. If the entire history of London, from the Iron Age to the age of digital skin, had a meaning, this spot, as far as Cuthbert knew, was precisely where it stood. This, he was certain, was where his dear long-lost brother Drystan would come back and stay.
* * * *
God knows, the paroxysms of the 2020s and Henry IX had sucked nearly every other last drop of energy from Britain’s tired veins. While thousands of artists, philosophers, and authors had joined the suicide cults or the ranks of brazen self-promoters on WikiNous— the implanted, all-purpose comm-network that grew within human tissue—the most original minds faced almost total indifference.
WikiNous had long ceased being freely moderated by “WikiNousians.” Its inner workings were no longer open-sourced; they were “open-branded” and edited vertically by subeditors obedient to Henry IX and the aristocracy and rules, rules, rules. The sending of messages in Britain had become expensive, tightly centralized, and censored; in America, India, Scandinavia, and parts of the Far East, WikiNous’s relative freedom had brought its own set of problems (particularly, the cults), but even there, open network protocols were dead and the Internet golden age long gone. Cryptographically protected WikiNous “stalks” had replaced the URLs. Among Britons, WikiNous mainly spread Harry9’s official views and a boorish brand of light “newsertainement.”
“Oh, Dryst,” Cuthbert said aloud, reaching with his hand toward the fence. He clutched a shock of tender, faintly serrated hazel leaves, pulling himself forward. “Dryst!”
Finding the boy wasn’t just the search of a lifetime for Cuthbert— it was a command, a direction, a holy destination.
That his lost brother would have been aged ninety-two, were he alive, was entirely meaningless to old Cuddy.
Drystan was, in his mind, always a child.
* * * *
Cuthbert turned around and leaned against the crosshatching branches he’d just plunged through. He found that they supported his full weight—all twenty-two stones of a man wattled together with crylon mesh and half-poisonous nickel rods. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. It had rained the night before, and a few drips of water coursed slowly across his cheeks and down his neck.
“Gagoga,” he gasped, breathlessly, repeating the most mysterious of the various phrases he had been sent a few months before by the zoo animals. “Ga! Go! Ga!” he cried, sounding as raw animal as he knew. How he knew this watery, gurgling phrase, what it meant, where it came from, why he ought to repeat it—none of those things were quite clear. But he knew he must say it.
The zoo wasn’t the only source of animal voices, though it was the strongest. He heard them all over the place these days. England roared and screeched with them, especially those of cats. He could hardly make it down the street lately without a moggy telling him that moths in the moonlight were enchanting, or saying that those blue mallow flowers along garden walls in Holloway smelled of petrol, or asking him to touch me here, no touch me there, no here yes there here between the ears there here there—workaday cat-thoughts, really.
Britain’s dogs had much to say, too: a Seeing Eye Labrador on a bosonicabus* had told Cuthbert that invisible grid lines crisscrossed every pavement, street, house, New Tube, or bosonicabus entrance in the city. From its point of view, London was impeccably Pythagorean and soothing. A wirehaired fox terrier, on the other hand, who yelped behind a wooden gate that Cuthbert often passed in Islington, would shrill with impish pep, Happyfury! Happyfury! Happyfury! Cuthbert did not know what it meant— but he believed it.
And on and on they went, voices from across Albion. The black-eyed ponies of the New Forest wanted larger pastures. The fat gray seals off the Isles of Scilly wanted cleaner breeding waters. That autumn, down from the craggy Black Carls of Beinn Eighe came the angry voices of red deer stags in rut, barking for sex. Then there were Britain’s forty million head of sheep, and each head, Cuthbert suspected, had a gentle idea of its own.
All these animals didn’t talk to him exactly, not like Virginia Woolf’s Greek-uttering birds or Kipling’s noble, contraction-averse wolves. Words did not pass through snout, proboscis, or mandible. But nonetheless, the animals asserted themselves toward him. They sent messages, some limpid, some inscrutable, but all appreciable. Some were preverbal, others expressive and exact. Most were enigmatic—but they all nipped at him, if only just a little.
They spoke so tersely, too. Often the zoo animals imparted just one or two expressive words. “Saliq,” the sand cats would whisper. “Murkurk,” rumbled the hippos. “Progress and dominion,” the imperial—and often verbose—lions would intone, and so on. On more and more days, these occult reductions popped into perfect sense within Cuthbert. For example, murkurk, as Cuthbert grasped it, clearly meant “let the hippopotamus make its way to the Thames.” He’d think: how much clearer could it be?
* * * *
He lifted up a tangle of the thin, elastic branches in the hedge with his arm, spun around, and tried backing in. He needed to make sure no one was watching. He felt he could not be more prepared for today, considering his circumstances. He’d put on his black weather-buffer and green trousers for cover. He wore the hood on the buffer, and cinched it tight around his swarthy face. He looked like a big, dark Teletubby from the old TV program—a new one, Boozey, with a smashed television screen on its tummy and two purple Flôt bottle-tops for eyes.
Getting to this secret spot, a maneuver he had practiced twice that week, seemed far more difficult this evening; he felt as if he were crawling under a duvet stuffed with plaited, stinging sticks. He had ducked and shoved in, stolid and elephantine, but come to a real sticking spot. He must move fast. If a passer-by spotted him—a fat man splayed in the hedges—undoubtedly a commotion would ensue. If that happened, everything ended. His grand plan to free all the animals would die.
It was with this realization that something truly unaccountable appeared before Cuthbert, within the hedges. All at once, a broad and robust figure, in the shadows of the leaves and branches, crept upon him. A nimbus of golden-green air surrounded him. Cuthbert began to quake in terror, his neck hair standing on end.
“You!” cried Cuthbert. “You there!”
The figure seemed to have actually sprouted from the ground within the hedges, a massive yew tree dotted with angry red berries. For a moment, it spumed in all directions, chaotically, a flutter of spinning green boughs with handfuls of black soil and nightlarks and tiny owls bursting from it. A multitude of small, dark animals—they resembled hares made of shadow—poured out from its base and took off into the night air, where they dissolved. The great yew-tree figure moved toward Cuthbert, who could barely breathe, such was his dread.
“What do you want from me?” he asked.
The figure replied, “Gagoga.”
The voice was unlike all the other animals he had been hearing. This one was familiar, yet oddly muffled. It was like code from some enormous forest, a code spoken from beneath one of its deepest, darkest brooks.
Cuthbert whispered, “Drystan?”
* Welfare benefit
** A buttered bread roll stuffed with French fried potatoes, i.e. chips, often served with brown sauce or ketchup
† To obtain for free, often by trickery
* A form of public mass transport with bosonic particle-based engines
From NIGHT OF THE ANIMALS. Used with permission of Ecco. Copyright © 2016 by Bill Braun.