The Zookeeper is one of those many short stories I kept somewhere. I think I wrote this three years ago.
Read, tell me what you think, share.
Happy New Month!
The zookeeper is a crazy man. He lives in my neighborhood, in the same compound as the woman who fries the salty akara in the morning and sells the oily moi-moi at noon.
Some call the zookeeper Baba Friday. But I see no Friday around or even a Mama Friday. Just the old man himself, and only on Sundays. I hear he is too busy at the zoo to stay home during the week. I figure it is because of the many animals he has to take care of. Maybe that is why he is crazy. From my window on many Sunday evenings I have watched him walk up and down the hilly slope of our street. Up and down. Up and down. Talking to himself. My sister says he is not talking; he is praying. My brother says he is not praying; he is preaching. That is why he is wearing the long, white robe with the red sash around his waist and ringing that bell.
“Is that a dictionary in his hand?” I ask.
“No, it’s a Bible,” my brother answers and my sister clamps her hand around his mouth. We are not allowed to mention ‘that book’ in our house. It is a bad book, so says my atheist dad who likes to read a whole lot of other books while smoking a long, brown cigar that never finishes. We are also not allowed to go outside. Not allowed to play with the other children in the neighborhood or they might corrupt our logical minds.
“What is logical?” I ask.
“Check your encyclopedia,” dad says.
“Don’t you mean dictionary?”
“The encyclopedia is the elder brother of the dictionary.”
I like the encyclopedia because of the pictures but I hate the dictionary. I hate to read. I like to see things, instead. That is why I watch so many movies. But I’m tired of movies. I want to go out. I want to go to the zoo. So I ask dad on a hot Sunday afternoon when I see the church people with their big Bibles coming back home.
Dad considers my request and calls my brother.
“Take your younger ones to the zoo.” He hands him some money. “But don’t talk to anyone on the way, especially not those church people. And especially not that nut job.”
The nut job is the zookeeper. Baba Friday.
I am very excited to be out of the house. Funny thing, we have been caged in like animals too, dad being the zookeeper. My brother and sister and I dress up in our Sunday best and we head to the zoo. It is just a bus ride from our neighborhood. As we walk down the street to get the bus, I look around for the old zookeeper but I do not see him. I pray he is at the zoo. I have always been drawn to him, although I have never had the chance to say hi. I tell my siblings that his eyes remind me of dad’s. My sister laughs and pinches my cheek.
“Everybody looks like daddy to you.”
“That is because you don’t go out,” my brother adds.
We get to the zoo, pay our gate fare and follow a crowd of people in. There are so many of them, like a party is going on. I hop ahead. I want to see the long, black python I have heard so much about and maybe watch it swallow a goat. I want to see the dirty hippos to know if they’ll disappear under muddy water as I have seen them do on TV. But above all, I want to see the lions.
“The lions here are so hungry,” my know-it-all brother says. “They are like cats.” He laughs.
I run ahead, ignoring my sister’s calls. There are more people as I run further down. I don’t know where the lions are but I know I will find them soon. There are small signposts everywhere. Sure enough I find the post that tells me a pride of lions is to my right. I follow the directions but realize the crowd has increased now and I have to bump into people’s backs and squeeze through small spaces to move further.
I find myself in-between a fat woman and her fatter son and just as I am about to squeeze through them I hear the crowd shout a loud “OH!” in unison.
My heart beats faster. The lions are giving a show maybe. I push forward. I need to see. I need to get closer. But the crowd is getting thicker and movement is harder.
I begin to hear shouts.
Oga, don’t do it!
Abeg o! No try am!
Somebody call the police!
This man must be mad!
Doesn’t he have a family?
By now I have come so close to the large cage where the lions are kept. I am panting my little heart out and my vision is a bit unclear. I blink a few times to see better and finally a get a glimpse of what is before me.
I count three big lions. My brother has lied to me. They are not hungry. They are very big like the ones in the Ghost and the Darkness. They are beautiful too. I push further and get to see them more clearly, being pressed to the metal fence in front of me by the fat woman behind me. But I don’t care. I raise myself to stand on my toes and it is then I see why the crowd is so excited. The zookeeper is inside the cage with the lions. He has his white robe, Bible and bell. He is reading to himself from the Bible as he holds it in the air.
I think he is so brave. The lions don’t seem to mind about his presence or maybe he has calmed them. I want to be like him and not like dad. To be able to tame the lions just like he is doing. Maybe his secret is in the Bible and the bell. When I grow up I will buy a Bible and a bell. I don’t like the white dress though. It looks like it will sweep the ground. I will also get sandals. The streets are too hot to walk on without them.
“And Daniel said ‘O king, live forever!” the zookeeper shouts out and the crowd is silent. “My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, so that they have not hurt me!”
Dad says there is no God but now I know dad is lying just like he lies about the woman who comes to see him every night. She is not his cousin. She is the mother of the two mean girls who always tease me in school.
I think I like God, whoever he is. If he can help the zookeeper shut lion’s mouths, he must be a superhero.
The sound of the zookeeper’s bell goes off. “Just like God delivered Daniel from the lions’ mouths, God has delivered me today!”
The biggest of the lions yawns and roars.
“You see?” the zookeeper continues. “He can shout but he cannot do me anything! Oluwa Jesu!”
He rings the bell seven times and many people in the crowd begin to chant things with him. I believe they are church people. Some are clapping, many are singing a song about the Daniel he spoke about. But only a few people are warning him.
Me, I am happy to see it all. The zookeeper is dancing now, raising small dust from the ground he is standing on, his Bible and bell in the air. I am excited too. I want to dance but my eyes are on the biggest lion. He has this angry look in his eyes. He is looking at the man. He is growling a lot.
There is more shouting from the crowd, more singing and dancing. Dad would spank me if he saw me with them. But I want to watch so I can tell my classmates at school tomorrow. That lion growls again but it looks like only me is noticing. He is moving up and down.
“You see? Even the lions are dancing in praise to God! Praise Master Jesus!”
The crowd shouts louder. Nobody is warning the zookeeper again. He is jumping now. The lion is moving around faster. The man shouts louder. The lion answers even louder. The man raises his hands up but allows his eyes lower for a second as he looks straight into my eyes. I back away and bump into the fatty behind me but she pushes me forward.
I grip the railing and catch the loud shout the zookeeper throws out…
In a flash, he is silenced by the sudden leap of the lion who goes up in the air and lands hard and angry on him. The crowd is immediately quiet and we all watch him fall down to the ground, Bible and bell flying into the air.
“JESUS!” somebody screams and a chorus of screams follows.
The other lions join in the feast and stop me from seeing my precious zookeeper. Tears fill my eyes. I don’t know what death is but I know I have seen lions kill smaller animals on TV. I know the zookeeper will become red meat soon.
Where is the God of Daniel he called on? Why can’t the powers in the Bible save him. Why can’t God, the superhero come and save him? The woman behind me is crying. Her fat, soft stomach bumping on my small head. Other people are crying too but no one wants to go away.
“Juwon?” I hear my sister’s voice behind me. Her hand is on my shoulder. She drags me away. We are pushing the crowd to get away. We find our brother where the people are not so plenty. He is with dad. Dad is talking to a policeman. I’m afraid that he would spank me for being with the church people. Maybe he has called policemen to arrest them. He once did so to the pastor that liked to stop by at our house to preach to him.
My sister and I walk towards him and stand aside.
“We sympathize with you, sir. This is a most tragic event,” the policeman says. “May his soul rest in peace.”
Dad makes a face, the type he makes when my sister tells him she doesn’t want to ever go to the university.
“Mr. Friday,” the policeman continues, “was your father ever treated in a mental institution before he started working here?”
Dad shakes his head, takes my hand and my sister’s. “I never had a father, officer.”
“But they said Baba Friday is your father.”
“Look,” dad stabs a finger at the policeman, “I don’t know why anyone called me here. I thought my kids were in danger; that’s why I came.”
Dad is very angry. I can see the two veins like lightning that come out on his forehead every time he is talking to that woman on the phone my brother suspects is mom.
“If you’re referring to the idiotic zookeeper that just killed himself in that lion’s cage, I have no idea what you mean. Just because he impregnated my mother doesn’t make him my father!”
He jerks us and starts walking away.
I am staring back at the policeman who looks shocked and at the people who are deciding it is time to leave the zoo, having been entertained enough.
I ponder on everything. So the zookeeper was the grandfather my dad said died years ago. Or was the policeman lying?
“This is why I never wanted you people coming here!”
Dad is scolding me in particular but I don’t care. More tears are in my eyes as I try to remember the man that always kept me glued to my window most Sunday evenings. I will never forget the bell and the Bible and the way his long white robe swept the street as he walked. But most of all, I will never forget all the times he turned and stared straight into my eyes and smiled. It was the same smile he gave me just before the lion pounced on him.
He had dad’s eyes.