The Dead Zoo

Photo by Paolo Viscardi.

By Hannah Harman Colon

He asked me to meet him at the Natural History Museum at three. A weird location but quite typical of Jack. It only crossed my mind as I saw him waiting outside the entrance on Merrion Street that perhaps he had already visited the exhibition. I arrived at a deliberate eight minutes past. He could wait. 

“Hey. Shall we?” I nodded towards the entrance. 

His smile froze and I knew then that he had just finished wandering the place. There had been no secret code behind the suggestion. It suited him, that was all. 

“Yeah. Let’s,” he grinned. 

So polite. 

We walked in and I stopped to allow my eyes to adjust to the darkness, the looming shadowy-ness from the high ceilings contrasting painfully in my retinas after the sunny May afternoon outside. There was a faint rustling sound and I saw him palm a crumpled pink tenner into the narrow grimace of the donation box. 

Suggested donation was a fiver; he had paid for us both. I had always read some significance into his insistence on paying for things: coffees to break up long library stints, frothy pints at the Pav by the cricket pitch. Watching this furtive gesture, I realised that he was simply shedding money as quickly and indiscriminately as possible. It was something grubby to be got rid of and certainly not cool, in our circle, to have in excess. 

The main room downstairs was long and low-ceilinged. It housed the less exotic, more Irish creatures. And rocks. 

“Let’s skip this and go upstairs.” 

“No, no. Wait. There are some cool things here.” 

It was the smell that I couldn’t stand: the powdered musky sweetness, ominously covering the darker, denser scent of decay. It made the memory of last night’s indulgence more vivid. I felt sick and wanted to leave. 

“So show me your favourites then.” 

We were no longer pretending that he had not already looped the place. He looked around eagerly as we walked down the main aisle, between two raised tables of various fossils. They were brightly lit and covered with thin panes of glass held together by rickety-looking wooden frames. I paused to admire a sparkling amethyst. 

“Here! This guy definitely makes the cut.” 

I looked up to see him pointing up at the pièce de résistance hanging from the ceiling in the centre of the room: the long slender body and unmistakable fin. 

“What type of shark is it?” 

I walked to join him at its mouth and saw what it was before he said it: a basking shark ( Cetorhinus maximus ). Obvious from the wide, harmless grin and slightly dazed look. 

“I didn’t know they got that big.” 

“Me neither.” 

He turned to read the accompanying plaque, deftly summarising aloud: “One of the largest ever landed in Irish waters… Ew! A commercial basking shark fishery used to operate out of Achill Island in Mayo. This one was caught off Galway over a hundred years ago.” 

We stared up at it. Such an undignified ending, suspended from the ceiling. 

“I know they’re not interested in humans but I wouldn’t want to swim near it in Roundstone.” 

He had told us about his parent’s summer house in the moneyed coastal suburb of Galway. We were all expecting to be invited this summer. It was obvious he was going to from the way he had brought it up so many times around Maud. That was the way to make things happen. Then she would rally everyone and magically bring it all together. 

The walls were lined with frames of smaller sea creatures. I felt sorry for them. At least the basking shark had been hung up. A small wooden frame left you both exposed and embarrassingly sidelined. He joined me by the frames. I was aware now of how close he stood, the slow, barely audible sound of his breathing. I wish I’d worn something nicer than a ratty summer dress from last year, slightly too small so it grazed my thighs. It left my arms and legs bare, my neck and chest gaping. As if I was trying to remind him of last night. I had a lumpy woollen jumper in my bag but that would be even more conspicuous with the heat. 

“Is that one empty?” 

“I thought that too. But no, it’s not. Look closer.” 

I stepped towards the frame and bent down slightly. At its centre was a tiny flash of something silver. 

“What is that?” 

“A weaverfish. They’re absolutely tiny because they disguise themselves as grains of sand in the shallows. But they have a massive spike. See that? So when you step on one, it’s agonising.” 

“Really?” 

I turned back towards him. He hadn’t shaved this morning so bristles of blond winked on his chin. He may not have had time between leaving mine and getting home to his parent’s house and then coming back into town to meet me. 

“Seriously painful. I think the only time I’ve even seen my dad cry was when he stepped on a weaverfish.” 

I stored this anecdote for later. Jack’s dad was a famous broadcaster and I knew my dad would relish hearing the detail. 

“Can we go upstairs now?” 

Jack smiled widely, as if indulging a child. 

“Okay.” 

We retraced our steps around the room and out towards the entrance, passing glass cages showcasing twee families of hedgehogs ( Erinaceus europaeus ) and badgers ( Meles meles ) and other, boring land mammals native to Ireland. I paused by the heavy wooden stairs to look at the map of the exhibits. When I looked back at Jack he was staring at his phone, the ghost of a smile flitting across his face. 

Was he texting her? 

He looked up, sensing my eyes, and slid his battered Nokia into the pocket of his orange corduroy trousers. He was at this point known on campus for his abhorrence of social media and modern technology, whipping out his ancient, dumb phone at parties. There was something publicly intimate about his interactions with it too; the slow, jabbing movements as he laboured over a text, scrolling through his phonebook to find a number. Not to mention the furtive enquiries needed to get his number or the satisfaction when he asked for yours. I could remember where I was when he asked me for mine. As we climbed the stairs, I wondered whether Maud knew by now. He would not have texted her about it. Maybe he had called her, speaking softly in the early hours of the morning on the Dart train from mine because he knew she was hungover. As was he. 

The first floor was busier and brighter with its yellowed walls. Light washed down from the overhead windows. There were two higher balconies, narrow corridors framed by thin white railings from which you could inspect each giant rib of the fin whale ( Balaenoptera 

physalus ) and the humpback whale ( Megaptera novaeangliae ) hanging from the ceiling. The fin whale had washed up in Bantry Bay in 1862. I didn’t need to check the plaque; the fact had stored itself effortlessly in my mind many years ago. The higher floors had been recently closed to the public. I felt sorry for younger kids who would not remember the giddy fear of looking down at the frozen zoo from a height, clinging to my dad’s trouser legs and imagining the animals coming to life. 

“So will you show me your favourite?” 

I laughed. “There are too many.” 

We were separated by children weaving around our legs closely followed by cringing parents, whispering apologies as if to make up for the noise of their offspring. This floor was more peopled but not yet crowded. Primary school would still drag on for two months. 

Our exams began on Monday and two weeks after that we would be free for over four months. I had already begun updating my CV to look for a summer job. Our college group would drift for the season back to our pre-college lives, catching up with estranged friends from secondary school. Maud and Jack would return at the end of the summer, tanned and rested, from extended holidays with their families. They might meet up with each other like they did last year, their families overlapping in Venice by chance. I passed the zebra ( Equus burchellii chapmanni ) and followed my usual path towards the lions ( Panthera leo ). 

“Ruth!” 

Jack had stopped in front of the African hippo ( Hippopotamus amphibious ). It had been mounted at an angle so that its front legs were raised and its hulking chest towered over us. There was something comical even in its ferocity; its lower tusks massive compared to its tiny ears. Astounding how something so ugly could look so proud. 

“That’s how I felt waking up this morning.” 

The first allusion to last night so far. I forced a laugh and turned away. I heard his footsteps behind me. I didn’t want to look at the lions with him. I didn’t want to reveal them as my favourite and, in so doing, consent to the anecdote he would later present. So I stopped suddenly and feigned an interest in whatever was in front of me. The glass reflected a short girl in a too-short yellow dress. Her dark hair was pinned up, messily, and her skin was shining with the heat of the day. Beside her, he was all pale, gangly limbs, with bright grey-blue eyes. 

“Are these your favourite?” 

I blinked and looked through the glass. I had stopped in front of the male and female grey wolves ( Canis lupus lupus ), their flat, glassy eyes staring through us. The male was in front and had been positioned so that he was angled towards the smaller female, as if he was protecting her from our gaze. She was further back but looking out, over the male’s sloping neck, right at Jack. 

“So if you were an animal, would you be a wolf?” 

He was looking at me. I wasn’t a wolf. I couldn’t be. They reminded me of Maud and Jack. Sleek and decisive, glittering in their pale fur. And their proximity to one another: not touching, not yet, but instinctively inclined towards one another, even while looking elsewhere. 

“Of course not.” 

I stepped away from the exhibit and felt their eyes follow me. Jack’s too. To soften this I quickly added: “In those trousers you could be an orang-utang.” 

He laughed and lingered in front of the monkeys. It gave me a moment to pause by the lion exhibit, one row behind the wolves. I wasn’t interested in the male lion, lounging centre stage in the fiery ring of his mane. It was the female that snared me, standing beside, one paw less than a centimetre off the ground. Her head had been tilted and her brown eyes were downcast, fixed on something. Her mouth was slightly open, not wide enough to show her teeth but the intention to. She had spotted her prey. If I stared long enough without blinking, I could see her nostrils flare with scent, the hairs in her ears quiver as she picked up a sound I could never hear. I was not a lion but I had gone after what I wanted last night. A successful hunt. I was drunk, as was he, but I had intent. Didn’t I? What else would explain the impeccable timing? Waiting until Maud was vomiting into one of the many bathrooms of her dad’s house in Dalkey. Striking as the alcohol took hold and lifted us off the pub’s sticky dance floor. The floorboard creaked beside me. 

“What else is there? You seem to know the place inside out.” 

I looked back at him. He was smiling. He thought I was a wolf. He was completely in love with Maud. He didn’t look at her like he did at me, kindly, passively. 

“I used to come here a lot with my dad. I think I’ll head, actually. I need to get back to the library.” 

“Okay. Will we go to the pharmacy now or…” 

He trailed off. 

“I’ll get it later.” 

He nodded. For a moment, I could see him struggle with how to manage offering me the twenty five euro to cover the costs of the morning-after pill. There was something inherently unequal about me paying for it. Biologically. Socio-economically. But the thought of going to the pharmacy with him right now was excruciating. I felt something close to pain even imagining it. 

I turned to leave before he could say anything else. On my way out, I passed the lioness. I wondered idly whether she had been hunting when she was shot or whether she was later stuffed and set in a pose, subject to the quiet harms enclosed in taxidermy. I hoped they had exhibited her as they found her. But I forgot all about her as soon as the warmth outside enveloped me once again.

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