YOU ARE HERE
Outside the Hattiesburg zoo it is very still. No wind, no other people in sight, though there are many cars already here. At the front gate Tristan, my fiancé, points out a swan. It's not a live swan, just a cheetah-patterned, flamingo-painted swan sculpture, one of many. We ask, “What's up with all the swans?” but not to each other, not to anyone specific. We'd looked it up already, we just never knew what else to say. The swans are part of an art venture "designed to cultivate tourism and economic growth while promoting culture," but really I think someone just thought the opportunity to hide a giant swan smoking a cigar downtown was too funny to pass up. I'd read about a similar installation in London, where artist Patrick Murphy placed flocks of pigeon statues all over the city and colored them neon, only he did it to instigate questions of belonging and existence. On our trip to Europe earlier this summer, I didn't see any pigeons in London, much less neon pigeons, but I bet it was a spectacular sight, the jarring pinks and greens frozen, littering the pavement, while the real pigeons went freely about their business. Though the real swans seem small and ungraceful compared to the tidy curves of the sculptures, they are also more interesting for it. I especially like the scalloped feathers that look surprisingly like sharp scales, the dive of their crooked necks, the general meandering.
We see a small railroad track that runs the perimeter of the grounds. The girl behind the ticket counter, who looks my age, bored, a little sweaty, asks me if I want to purchase a ride on the train, but in the parking lot I'd already heard the laughing and screaming and other half-articulated sounds that kids make on rides. I just pay the five bucks for adult admission and move along, taking a map. A little rebelliously, we stop on the tracks a couple of feet inside the entrance to unfold it, next to the sign that says “Please Keep Off Train Track.” Looking further along the line, there's only a pine-needled trail. Very briefly I think of laying my head down on these tracks, and of Anna Karenina, as I always do around any train-like thing (even miniature toy train sets, oddly) then head on to the exhibits.
There are carved tribal masks around the wood-fenced emu cage. The emus hang back in the shade of a hut, and we watch for several minutes as a large tortoise rhythmically takes bites out of the patch of grass in front of him, stretching out his neck each time instead of moving his bulk forward. However the exhibit quickly degrades into a cheap, abandoned version of the Lost set. There's a plywood box marked EQUIPMENT, rusted barrels with plastic labels, a jacket hanging in a tree next to a prop rifle. We see an ostrich pecking at the ground then neurotically pacing the length of the fence each time I lift my camera. Up close the zebra just looks like a small horse, tail swinging clockwise at flies. Seeing my first oryx, it is disappointingly not like a unicorn at all, and not slender and mysterious, either, like the character in Oryx & Crake. Then I feel bad for being disappointed, because after all the experiences of the bony, odd-shaped animal are far more real than the experiences of the novelized girl. I take extra pictures of it, as a peace offering.
We see a monkey who resembles an old man with his hunched shoulders and patch of white fur extending over his mouth, continuing down his belly. The sign says he mates for life, but there aren't any other monkeys in the exhibit. He sits at the bottom of the cage, fingers wrapped around the chain link fence. He drops his head when another couple comes up to look at him, suddenly shy. I'm reminded of how much I hate the zoo. I ask Tristan why we're even here, even though I know it was my idea, wanting to try out a new type of film. Instead he points to the cage across from the monkey where a serval cat is curled into a ball inside a log, and he makes a joke about our cat, who is terrible and fierce and often sits curled inside a log-shaped cat toy thing. I laugh, but inside I don't know what to think. It feels immoral to keep these animals here, even for education and conservation reasons. They're all solitary, inactive, probably depressed. And I feel immoral being here, engaging with the process, but also like I should maybe get my money's worth.
We move on to a feeding exhibit with farm animals like pigs and sheep. I catch two black and white goats nuzzling each other and take a picture. A mom puts some round pellets of feed in her son's hand, he's probably three or four, and all of the goats are suddenly his biggest fans. He stumbles back and just stares at them. Everyone should have this experience, I think, where you look up and there's a crowd, but it's okay! Everyone is buddies with you. Ha ha, you were never alone. Wow, what were you thinking? He sticks his hand out for a brown goat that shoves its way in and cringes as its lips move over his hand.
The prairie dogs turn out to be a prairie dog, singular, and it has a mound of sand to itself with constructed tunnels and scattered circles of grass. A concrete hole outside the exhibit leads to Plexiglas domed windows rising out of the lawn, so kids can pretend they are prairie dogs too, I guess. I picture all the faces that have pressed against the window between them and the sky, all the breaths that have clouded the glass. Toddlers crawl in the tunnels while I take photos of the prairie dog sunning himself. I try to keep the kids out of the picture, as well as the domes and the railing, to give the illusion of wilderness.
We walk by a gate lined on the left with more swan sculptures, some patriotic, some flowered and lunatic. On the right, a solitary swan stands as gatekeeper, dapper in a three-piece suit. His curved neck looks coy and awfully sly. He's instantly my favorite. The dark blue of his suit is like the small sapphire in my engagement ring, which still feels loose on my finger. The first ring I got from a boy was when I was sixteen, and I stayed with him for six years, wearing it though I didn't love him. There was the chance I did, though, because why else stay that long. Anna Karenina has a line that goes something like “if so many men, so many minds, certainly so many hearts, so many kinds of love.” I know how strong yet false ties can be, and, even worse, true yet weak. So I hear “ring” and picture a metal enclosure, steel or silver or gold, a cage all the same though. I see a container, circumscription, circles of captivity. At best, hoops to jump through, something to float through like a ghost. But I try instead to think ring, as in what a bell does. I remember the deep, resounding chimes of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, five kilometers or so from the proposal off Rue Bagnolet. That's three miles, standard, just a short morning jog away.
I never expected to come back from Europe with another ring, but now that I'm wearing it, I find it's not so hard to make lists of the ways this is right. Of course, some days I find I still can't, even with his hand softly touching my back, like now.
We debate whether the crocodile is dead and whether we should notify a zookeeper and raise a fuss about animal rights and humane treatment until minutes pass and finally we catch the slow imperious blink of his eyes.
There are three lemurs sleeping on a little stone house at the back of their exhibit. One climbs up to the fence in front of us and puts on an elaborate show of casualness, standing akimbo, swishing his tail then sitting with his legs splayed, arms propped on the fence, tail limp. He sits there happy to pose until a family comes up. He climbs down and goes over to one of his lemur friends and they run to where the family is standing, tails straight up in the air as they get in a leap frog position. I'm looking at the third lemur still sleeping when I hear the kids asking, “What are they...” but the parents are already pushing them down the path.
I say, “So they were just...”
“Yes,” Tristan says laughing, and takes my hand.
Next, at the bird area, we go fast past the cute but brutal kookaburra that bashes its prey to death, the red-tailed hawks, the birds that look like peacocks but without the fanned tails for show. A white swan, two black swans. They don't move much, as the sun is directly overhead and heat blankets over everything. I find myself paying more attention to the animals than I do the people milling around, but then I guess everyone does in zoos. I feel more connected with the animals though and the people seem ridiculous with their loud shorts and louder voices. But I see myself as ridiculous, too, here, next to these animals, with my camera and sheath dress printed with minimalist art pattern, carrying the knowledge it is really only thin metal that gives the illusion of separation.
The big jaguar exhibit is just made of one jaguar, who we find sleeping against the side of his cage, head resting on his crossed paws. On the opposite side, there's a crude stone statue of a big cat, with blank circles for eyes and even rows of teeth. Further down, the howler monkey hides his eyes behind his tail. The llama sits in the shade, blankly staring ahead, chewing, chewing. The capybara wakes up, looking like a big sleepy hamster.
At the entrance, small Buddhist statues and Tibetan prayer flags surround pagodas, along with lots of bamboo. The idea of the tigers seems most exciting to me, though when trying to articulate the excitement I can't think of the reasons. I just say hurry up. But when we climb the stairs to a wooden deck overlooking the exhibit, there's only water, a tiny man-made lake, and a ball sitting in the water with a tire swing overhead. Lots of trees. The tiger ends up being on the far side of the exhibit, sprawled along the fence line. His belly doesn't move, but we're sure he's sleeping. His back feet are huge, and curled, much the way our cat curls her feet when she naps, and one of his front paws drapes over his face to block out the noon sunshine. The scene reminds me of a line from The Last Samurai, a book I have read and reread so much the cover has gone soft and lined like an origami diagram: “There are people who think death a fate worse than boredom.”
When we leave, it is easy to pretend we are the last couple on Earth. The parking lot is quiet and still and the sun is very hot. I remember the first zoo we saw together, in Atlanta, which covers about three square blocks of the city and is always crowded with waves of people. And I was queasy there, too, because the elephant exhibit is sized like a backyard and the panda munches on bamboo in a narrow enclosure only about fifty feet long. The black mamba, eight feet long, is given seven feet of a fish tank and a short tree limb sprouting out of a plastic pipe.
Outside it is very still, but inside is another matter entirely.
TRACIE DAWSON is a Master's student in the Center for Writers at The University of Southern Mississippi. Her thesis, Nine Exits, is a collection of short stories; her poetry can be found in Rabbit Catastrophe Review.