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The Zoo - Jean Gismervik

“What are we going to do about the crocodiles?” Elseid’s bluntness was often unnecessary, but this time he was not wrong in his priorities. The Nile Crocs had become invasive in the Bronx River, decimating the otter and beaver population, not to mention some of the last remaining white flamingos in the borough. “Whose stupid fucking idea was it to let them out of Jungle World anyway?” asked Gio. “What else were we going to do with the hippo, pendajo?” ask Yonnelis. “That carcass was over 3,000 pounds. Were you gonna lift it?” “I could do it,” said Elseid grinning and kissing his biceps. “Ay, jabalador!” “What? You know why you never see a crocodile on Pelham Parkway? Because there are too many Albanians.”

“And what secret does an Albanian know about getting rid of crocodiles that we don’t, because my cousin Franky saw one just the other day in Morris Park eating a fuckin’ calzone!” said Gio. “That’s an excellent question, my little qofte,” answered Elseid, standing up to demonstrate. “First, if the crocodile is female, she will be instantly struck by the handsomeness of the average Albanian man-” “And what if she’s a he?” asked Briana “Well then, one glance at this uncircumcised anaconda, and he will become paralyzed with jealousy.” “You do know that a male crocodile’s penis is always erect, right?” interjected Roisin. “That gnarly old wizard’s finger? Please!” said Elseid, pulling his face into a grimace. “Okay, please go on,” interrupted Briana. “Well, either way, male or female, that croc is going to take one look at the handsome, monster-cocked, Albanian and freeze in his tracks. Then, because Albanians are born with the strength of five adult men at birth, all we have to do is pick that gator up by the tail and throw it over our shoulder to take home to gjyshja who will chop it up and bake it into a delicious little byrek!” “Bro…” said Gio, shaking his head. “Can we get back to solving the issue at hand, or have ya more stomach for yer man’s load of bollocks?” asked Roisin. Kojo had been listening quietly in the corner, as he often did, and raised his hand slowly, “Racoons eat crocodile eggs.”


~ Briana’s mother had told her the story of how she crossed the Rio Grande every time things got tough. “They used to steal children while they were playing,” Tepi remembered aloud. “And what did they do with them?” “They wanted their organs. They sold them.” She told Briana how her own mother would warn her as she would run an errand or play with the neighborhood children. It became a casual fact, a warning congruent with the evils of spending too much time alone with boys, or lying about brushing your teeth. Then Arturo did not come home. Arturo was nicknamed “the mayor.” He was only nine-years-old, but carried an easy charm and a great memory for names. He always helped the abuelitas carry their laundry and ran errands for the man who ran the loteria. Tepi was older than Arturo by six years. Every time she walked by, Arturo would halt, mid-sentence or mid-stride, and watch her, silently, like a moving goalpost. She brushed off the attention as performative until she noticed him under the corrugated roof across the Avenida Independencia staring up to the window of her room. Arturo’s frame was small and dark against the chipped and faded Coca-cola mural painted on the cinder blocks, pasted over in peeling advertisements. He said nothing, but his eyes didn’t flinch as they met hers. Under his gaze, his small hands moved diligently. She could see in the dim light that he was crocheting. His family made little, vibrant dolls and serapes that they sold in the city. He nodded at her recognition, but kept staring and continued his needlework. The days and nights went on like this, until one morning, Tepi noticed a string of yarn stretching from the door of the market and meandering down the avenida. Three drops of blood


and a fallen needle provided the only clues to the struggle. The yarn ran down the Calle Hidalgo and the Corregidora, before it gave out in a field on the outskirts of town. Six months later, when Tepi’s period was late, she sold the gold crucifix she received on her confirmation and headed to Puebla. There she worked as a domestic for seven months before she saved enough for the coyotes to take her and her unborn child to Texas. “Three days I did not drink anything. You don’t think of Mexico being cold, but the nights were freezing. I spoke to you when I couldn’t sleep and I thought of your future,” Tepi told Briana as she brushed the hair from the side of her face and across the pillow. Tepi braced herself against the New York winters, tightening her flimsy coat under the snow flurries while crossing Morris Avenue. “I knew no one, but I knew I would always have you.” Briana found the urban ecology program through her school counselor. She thought it would help her get into University. But people had stopped coming to the zoo for years and that was 80% of the operational budget. It didn’t close down so much as it just stopped writing checks. The zoo hired more kids from the Bronx than anyone else, and Briana supposed they didn’t feel obligated to go through HR to inform a bunch of teenagers they were out of a job. Some of the animal keepers stayed on for a bit. They showed Briana, Elseid, Gio, Yonnelis, Roisin, and Kojo the basics of how to care for the animals, but eventually they left too. In less than a year, six kids found themselves the wardens of a forgotten menagerie. What they didn’t know, they looked up. When the time came to make hard decisions, they made them together. ~ “We can’t feed them all,” Yonnelis said, throwing a pungent herring at a barking seal. “We are already running out of the frozen reserves.” “Well we can’t buy food,” Gio said, turning to the rest of the group.


“Maybe we could go out to the community and get donations?” pleaded Briana. “Fecking hell, Briana. You think people who can’t afford meat for their own table are gonna hand it over to us to feed a couple of tigers?” Roisin asked. “What if we sell them the animals?” asked Elsied. “Oye, Elseid, I’ve seen plenty of chickens on 169th, but no one’s keeping a giraffe on Fordham Road,” said Yonnelis. “My uncle knew a guy who kept a tiger in his apartment,” said Briana. “I heard about that guy!” said Gio. “Hey, do you think he used a litter box?” “Jaysus Christ!” Roisin threw her hands in the air. Kojo looked at them all and then slowly stood up. “We keep the animals that we can use for food, the ones that graze. If we keep the populations low enough, we can sustain it,” he said. “And what do you suppose we do with the rest, genius?” asked Elseid. “We feed them to each other until there’s nothing left. “What the fuck, Kojo...” whispered Briana. “Who decides then?” asked Gio. “Who decides who lives and who dies?” “We do.” ~ The Mouse House was the first to be cleared out. The residents of the World of Birds were released into the wild, but not before they were fed the snakes. The sea lions were fed one by one to the big cats and the brown bears. The hardest to kill were the monkeys and so they released the little ones in Van Cortlandt Park and left the gorillas until they were skin and bones.


“Happy” the elephant died of natural causes, relieving them of the burden. The African wild dogs were sold to someone who knew someone who knew Elseid’s brother. ~ “The Bison herd looks smaller,” said Kojo as he opened the doors to the Butterfly Garden, releasing a bouquet of flitting color batting erratically against the twilight. “The bison?” repeated Briana. “What makes you think that?” “There is a calf that always follows me when I check the fencing. Last week she wasn’t there, so I checked the herd. She was gone.” A peahen squawked and flapped her way violently to the pavement from the roof of a concession stand. “So I started to count them every day.” “And?” “And we are down another one.” “Are they getting out? Maybe we lost one, transferring them to the other grazing pasture?” “I checked all the fencing. Nothing is broken or loose. And we didn’t lose her.” “Then we need to see for ourselves.” ~ That evening the six broke off into pairs to stake out the buffalo. From their perch below the House of Birds, Elseid and Yonnelis could hear the Amur and Malayan Tigers chuffing and groaning in their enclosures. Their feral sonar banked against the tinny rhythm of the cicadas. Aye, que suicio, Elseid!” Yonnelis whispered as Elsied slipped down the side of the mound they were squatting on, plowing a chunk of sediment onto her shoes. “It was an accident!” he whispered back, vigorously brushing dirt from his shorts. “How long do we need to stay here?


“As long as it takes, querido. Now cayate!” On their walkie they could hear Gio and Roisin who were camped out closer to the fountain circle. “Anyone hear anything? Over,” asked Gio. “Nothing but some tiger farts down here, bro,” answered Elseid. “All’s quiet on the Riverwalk,” added Briana. It was already past midnight. Kojo wondered if they were going to catch anything tonight. Suddenly the sound of a motor, quietly making its way through the Riverwalk Parking Lot, could be heard over the soft gurgling of the Bronx River. Kojo motioned for Briana to be quiet. They must have already turned off the headlights. There was the sound of hard wheels on the pavement and the snap of twigs as something large and heavy made its way through the brush. Kojo and Briana moved carefully towards the sound until they heard a distinct splash a few yards off. “Something’s in the river, over,” said Kojo over the walkie. “We’ll try to see what it is, over,” answered Roisin. Making their way through the dense bamboo, Roisin and Gio could make out the profile of four men rowing a dinghy across the river. As they landed on the opposite shore next to the bison paddock, they dragged the boat through the wooded area and onto the asphalt next to where the herd was sleeping. “What da fuck they think they’re doing?” asked Gio. “One of those things is like a thousand pounds.” “Not that one,” said Roisin, watching as one of the men aimed an air rifle at one of the calves. “She’s less than a hundred.” Roisin was still about 50 yards from the men when she stormed into the pasture, “Oi! Oi, you cunts!


The man with the rifle, jerked to attention, finger slipping and pulling the trigger shooting a dart into the arm of his friend who let out a sharp cry. The noise awoke some of the buffalo who began to grunt the rest into attention. “What was that?” insisted Yonnelis, grabbing the walkie from Elseid. “Four men, they’re in the paddock!” yelled Gio, trying to chase after Roisin, but tripping in the darkness. “She has them running back to the river.” One of the men loaded another dart in the air rifle and shot the calf. They were struggling to load him into the dinghy as the fourth man started to feel the effects of the tranquilizer, his arms sloping as he pulled away from the work. The calf was still alert enough to cry for his mother who had begun pacing around the men. The herd gathered slowly at first and then made a couple of movements past the scene like short gusts of wind before lowering their horns. One of the men took out a machete and began to hack at the half sleeping calf. Two of the men, sensing danger, started to drag the dinghy over the wooden fence and back towards the river. The other two men dragged the bleeding and moaning calf by the hindquarters under the fence and through the woods. Collectively the herd began to push and ram against the fencing. “Let them out!” yelled Yonnelis to Elseid. “But how are we going to get them back in?” Shaking her head, Yonnelis jumped up and ran to a nearby tram car. Turning the ignition, she drove it through the railing. “This way!” she yelled at the bellowing beasts, but they ignored her. Elseid ran down to the river calling to the others on the walkie. “We need to corner them on the river. Don’t let them escape!” Two men were in the dinghy with the two others dragging the calf wading in the water behind them. Blood was gently seeping in the river and caked the sides of the boat in smeared


handprints. The calf was still too heavy, so they gave up and dragged it behind them. The shore was only yards away, they thought with relief, until light flashed in their eyes. “You’re not going anywhere,” said Kojo on the east bank. “We have you surrounded,” Elseid echoed from the west. It was hard to tell how many people were in the woods, but the poachers could make out a few bodies. They hesitated, drifting silently down the river. The calf bleated and jerked twice in the moonlight. “We’ve got all night mother fuckers,” yelled one of the poachers. No you don’t, thought Briana as she watched them drift toward a small cataract 20 feet in front of them. They should have heard the angry noise of the water, but the sounds of the herd, or perhaps the beating of their own hearts in their throats, masked the foment until it was too late. They caught briefly on some underwater debris before tipping over slowly. The calf pitched head over tail behind them, landing with a bounce off the side of the boat and frantically fought to tread water back to shore. By now the tranquilized man was struggling to stand up in the chest deep water. His friends varied their attempts to pull him up. Splashing and disoriented, they neglected to notice the audience that had been drawn by the blood and commotion. Eight Nile crocodiles serpentined their tails towards their prey, yellow eyes floating menacingly above the water. “What the fuck is that…?” whispered one of the poachers, pointing to a splash in the darkness. Suddenly the tranquilized man was yanked from the arms of his friends and submerged under water. Coming up briefly, he called to his friends in a garbled howl, but was dragged below the surface in a violent thrashing. His blood began to mingle in the water as his friends scrambled to right the boat and climb inside. Screaming directions at each other, they finally coordinated flipping the boat. Two were inside and pulling up the third when a croc launched a


his hip. A tug-of-war ensued until another croc took the man by the legs and the fight was over. Without a paddle or a tiller, the remaining men drifted into the darkness. “They won’t make it past 181st,” said Briana. “There’s another cataract at the Asia Gate.” Across the river, Elseid was knee deep in the water trying to help the calf through the overgrowth. Yonellis was behind him and together they managed to pull his front legs onto the shore where he fought to find footing with his hind legs. “Come on little guy,” urged Elseid. Mira!” yelled Yonnelis as a Jurassic jaw lunged at the calf, crushing one of its hind legs within its teeth. “Holy fuck!” yelled Elseid, falling back on his behind and scrambling up the embankment. Yonnelis darted her eyes from Elsied to the wailing calf and took off her sandals. Grabbing them in one hand, she rushed at the croc. Vene aqui, mamaguevo!” she screamed, thrashing her flip flops at his eyes. The croc took the beating for a moment before turning its terrifying jaws toward Yonnelis. Before it could strike the herd came crashing down the embankment, scattering the predators. The two friends ran from the chaos, only stopping when they ran into Briana and Kojo at the ticket window at the Bronx River Gate. Roisin and Gio were fast behind them. Out of breath, Roisin panted, “Is everyone alright?” “We saw what happened,” followed Gio. “Bro, I thought you were done.” Elsied was still in shock, but tried to warm the moment over with a shrug of his shoulders and a coy laugh. “Nah, son,” said Briana. “Don’t even play like that. You know Yonnelis saved your ass.”


“That’s right, bitch,” said Yonnelis. “You don’t fuck with a Dominicana and a pair of chancletas.” Eying him up and down and with a flourish of a manicured nail she added, “And your big, Albanian dick can thank me later.”

 

Jean Gismervik is currently the Director of Special Education in Westchester County, NY. She has previously been published by RollingStone.com, URB magazine, and St. Mary's Press. In her free time, Jean enjoys extrapolating the way it all will end, throwing impromptu parties, and going on haunted walking tours in new cities.

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