- Zoo Prayers
Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place. Susan Sontag
Benign. Be well. Be born. Be night, benothing. Be not darkness or at least bedusk, Arkansas waving goodbye to the dayas it does with an indigo sky. Benign. Benope, be not yet, be a night forsleeping, for love, for morningsurely there. Be crepuscular, pacingearly, up with the black rhinoat this zoo, how astounding the onlyof his species all the way down hererises with the first fog though there is noother of his kind to teach him so.Be the highway humming not farfrom his enclosure—the ceaseless creaseof hurry, all those on their way to workexcept me. Be the hiss of his urine on the hay,the steam rising. Be his caretakers.They say, Morning, Jo, and arrivewith treats, reaching their hands intothe soft womb of his open mouth. [End Page 18]
Benign. Be the birds. Or better,the bear—the old grizzly—rising too.Though it's December she isn'thibernating today. Besides, she hasn'tsmelled the crisp of realwinter since her mother was shot;she was a cub then, drugged and packedin the back of a pickup across the Deltato here. She is nearly thirty-five now, herslop of spit thick, her white tonguelicking her reflection in the plexiglass,perhaps all she knows. Oh, and she knows,she can see it from her cage: That trafficnever stops. Especially at this hour, the rushedging this zoo. I ask her: What do you makeof that ceaseless static, that almost-oceansound, that exhaust carried by the stiff breeze?Do you understand the direction of those streamsof lights—one flowing white, the other red—one headed your way, the other already gone?Or is it true what I read, that once an animal knowssomething is not a threat, to that animal the thingdisappears?
The other question is this: Will that happenonce I get the news if this cancer isnot a cancer at all? Will I forget what it is to bethis close to it? And can that lonelyorangutan about to diefrom cancer herself be told? Today I can't tellif she plays hide-and-seekunder a bed sheet or if she's trying to pullthat white cloth up over her flat face togo away from here; she raises her armslike the mighty oaks they are, drippingwith the Spanish moss of her fur.Her pelvis is extended, and I've been told:the zoo expects she only has a few weeks.Can she see the grief on my face?Or does she notice me at all? Am I rudelygawking too long, or worse, just anotherspectator, already disappeared? [End Page 19] Surely the drivers on the other side don'tthink of this dying ape, imagine what'scaged behind that stand of bamboo. Certainlythey don't know they're inhaling the loud yellowroar the old grizzly just let out, don't thinkto turn down their car radios enoughto hear that otherworldly echo ofsiamang gibbons, a loud throbbingI can hear clear to the other side of this park,a clean, ululating howlbeat from the stretch of their ballooningbullfrog throats.
With my fingers hooked in the chainlink, I taste the high-fructose squabbleof countless rainbow lorikeets, and later,with a quarter in a red slot machine,I catch a palm's worth of feedmeant to tempt the searching barbelsof countless koi, coax their sex-wetmouths up to the dangerous air to kissmy fingertips. I squat near the pond,and like the crazy lady I've become,I talk to the fish, tell them I was...