The Good Donkey

By TALIA LAKSHMI KOLLURI 

 

I am not pleased. Paint is dripping down my hoof and the colors are muddled together. I shouldn’t complain. I agreed to it, of course.

Hafiz is putting together a zoo. And he asked me to be the zebra.

“You’re a very good donkey, habibi,” he told me three days ago, “but the border is closed, and everyone says prices for using the smuggling tunnels have gone up. I can’t afford the zebra in Damascus, and the one in Cairo is twice that price.” He gestured wildly, scattering my oats. What a waste. 

I don’t know much about borders, but I would do anything for Hafiz. He is more than a father to me. 

And so here I am, Hafiz painting me in black and white stripes. He has hung two torches from the ceiling with strings, to use when the power is cut, and the one above me swings gently, pitching its light back and forth and making me dizzy. Hafiz has stopped in the middle, and knowing him, the paint will dry unevenly and I will look awful. And then what kind of zebra will I be?

We are in my little stable behind the house when the knocking starts. The door is flimsy. The building is flimsy. And so things around us tremble when anyone raps on it. He should be paying attention to me and to what he is doing, but he goes anyway. It’s always like this with Hafiz and me. I am here. He goes. There is always someone else. He returns. And I am still here. 

This time he returns with several men I don’t recognize. They’re gathered in clusters, some with their backs to me. They speak in low voices, and every so often one of them grunts as though he is carrying something heavy.

“This is the man I was telling you about,” says one of the strangers.

“Masha’Allah, it’s good that you are here and willing to take them in,” says another to Hafiz.

“Yes, yes, of course, bring them in.” Hafiz opens the doors wide. “Alhamdulillah. They are alive; that’s all that matters.”

“Where do you want them?” asks another stranger. This one sounds angry. Or irritated. They all struggle through the main area of my stable, as though they aren’t used to carrying things.

“Over here. Here by my… over here.” Hafiz has led them to me. There is a bed of hay that I like to lie on, and Hafiz has brought them to it. He isn’t sure what to call me at this precise moment. I am half done and dripping paint. I try to catch his eye so I can stare at him pointedly, but he’s busy smoothing the hay—my hay—into a round and even mound. 

I don’t like the way these strangers smell. Sweaty, and a little like gasoline. They crowd near me with two large bundles, several men to each bundle. 

“Are they sedated?” Hafiz asks.

“Yes,” says the first man. He must be the leader, because he isn’t carrying anything. “For the journey. Also, they are tame. They’ve been hand-raised since birth. Like house cats.” The leader puts his hands on his hips as he watches the others, and smiles widely.

“Have they been in a zoo before?” Hafiz stands with the leader and watches the others lay two enormous, rough cloth bundles on my hay. He runs a hand over his beard, in the same measured rhythm he uses when he brushes me.

“Yes, yes. They were in a little zoo in Beit Hanoun,” the leader says. “The zoo was lucky to have them, you know.” Hafiz nods. I walk closer to him and stand at his shoulder. Hafiz reaches back and starts to scratch my chin. We both watch the bundles as they start moving. I smell something musky. Familiar, but I can’t place it.

“The female was stolen.” The leader reaches into his pocket and pulls out a packet of cigarettes. Hafiz watches warily as the man lights one and gestures toward one of the bundles with the lit end. “She was missing for three months. We found her with a bunch of bandits. They were charging families to take photos with her. But, you know, they mistreated her, so she’s skittish. 

 “Actually, they’re both that way now,” the leader goes on. “It was the airstrikes. They hit part of the zoo and much of the grounds were destroyed. 

“You know,” he starts up again, tapping ash off his cigarette, “I was surprised to hear there was a zoo in Gaza City. I thought it closed.”

“It did,” says Hafiz. “I’m reopening it on the old site. It’s just down the road. I used to take my nieces there.” Hafiz glances back at me and then turns to the leader. “Children are still children, you know. Even in times like this.”

The leader nods at Hafiz, times like this being what they are. “I went there, you know,” he says. “To the university. The one just south of the zoo.”

“Oh?’

“Yes, three semesters.”

“What did you study?” Hafiz scratches his nose and looks around. He never went to university, which is fine with me.

“Philosophy,” says the leader, laughing, “which disappointed my father. He wanted me to be an accountant.”

“And you didn’t finish?”

“No,” a pause while the leader smokes, “but, you know, now I do this.” He reaches his hand out in a sweeping motion to take in my stable and me, as if we make up the whole of his life.

“And what does your father think of that?” Hafiz asks.

“My father is dead.” Hafiz and the leader stare at each other until Hafiz looks down. “Come, let me tell you what I know about how to take care of them.” The leader puts a hand on Hafiz’s shoulder and leads him away from me.

 

Eventually, the strangers all leave. Hafiz absentmindedly pats my flank and then goes back to his own house, and I’m left here to figure this out by myself. The two bundles take up every inch of space on my hay. Where am I supposed to go now?

I stare at the two of them. One of them is moving more, and a gap in the fabric has started to pull apart. A large, tawny-haired paw emerges with dusty black pads on the bottom. The paw swipes at the fabric, pulls it away, and reveals an unmistakable head. 

He blinks warily, yawns widely, and then pulls at the fabric enfolding his companion. Another head appears, and they both fully emerge, stretching lazily and kicking the rest of the fabric away to reveal the full length of themselves.

The male has a mane, so he’s grown, but it looks shabby. He’s emaciated. They both are, actually.

“What are you supposed to be?” asks the male.

“I’m a zebra,” I say. I stand up a little straighter, stretching my neck out as long as I can. I flick my tail a couple of times. I don’t know them, and honestly this is none of their business.

“I don’t think that’s true,” says the male.

“Are you calling me a liar?” I ask.

“He didn’t finish you,” says the female. She is so quiet I can barely hear her, but she is loud enough for me to know I’m being insulted. “Your face is convincing enough. He did a nice job, but your back end isn’t done. I can see it. And it’s dripped onto your hoof.”

“Yes, I know.” I look down and see that the tear of white paint that had run earlier has dried. I knew it would be this way.

Hafiz. He forgot about me.

“It doesn’t matter,” I say loudly. “What’s important is that when Hafiz is done, the children won’t know the difference. They will be happy anyway. And that’s what’s important, you know. The children.”

I haven’t seen any lions in years. I wouldn’t say that I’ve missed them.

 

Hafiz is late with my breakfast. When he finally comes in, he is carrying a bunch of oats under one arm and struggling to carry a bucket full of soapy water and a brush with the other. A bag is slung over his shoulder and a towel hangs around his neck.

“We have to wash all that off and start over,” he says without even greeting me.

“Hello,” I say.

“Yes, yes, hello, yes. Hurry up and eat. I need the paint to dry before I take you and your things over.”

“Over where?” I didn’t sleep well. Those lions were snoring. And I didn’t like looking at them when they came in. I didn’t like seeing all their bones jutting out everywhere. It wasn’t nice. Hafiz wets the brush and swoops it down my flank in long strokes.

“The zoo. To the zoo, you idiot. Have you forgotten? You’re the zebra.” He puts the brush down for a moment and reaches into his bag.

“Right, right.” I remember. Hafiz offers me a carrot. When I pick it up, I let my lips brush his flat palm. He said once that he liked that. I like carrots. They’re sweet, and I like the texture. So crunchy. We don’t have them very often. It’s a treat. I must have been good. I know I’m the only one he has, but I really am a very good donkey for Hafiz. I’m an excellent donkey. I’m sure I’ll make a very fine zebra. I’ll do my best. I think if I concentrate on the thought of a zebra in my mind, I’ll be able to feel it in my body. Become a zebra. I think…. “Wait, Hafiz?”

“Yes?” He moves the brush up to my neck and sweeps down to my shoulders. I like the feel of the bristles. They get just past my coat, and I can feel them on my skin. I could fall sleep like this. 

“My things. Why are we taking my things?”

Hafiz stops with the brush and walks to my face. He holds it in his hands and presses his forehead against mine. “You have to stay there, habibi. That’s how it works.”

“Stay? But only during the day, yes? Just when the children are there?”

“At night too,” he says, and goes back to sweeping the brush across my flank. I look down at my front feet and see a soapy grey mess has pooled in the dirt. This is turning my floor into mud. I don’t like it.

“But I live here,” I say quietly. “I live here with you.”

“Think of the others.” He puts the brush down and picks up the towel. He dries me swiftly, as though there is no time to waste. “What would they think if I treated you differently? If I treat you like you are special, then it might make them feel bad, yes?”

“But I am special,” I say, mostly to myself. Hafiz laughs, and now I’m embarrassed. I don’t like when he laughs at me. I’m not meant to be funny. It reminds me of when I was smaller and wasn’t used to the length of my legs, or the time when he put that bow on my tail and all the goats said I was his girlfriend. I remember yelling at them, He’s going to eat you all! “I AM SPECIAL!” I bray, much louder than I intend. I don’t like my voice when it’s loud. To me it sounds like unrestrained honking, and nobody takes me seriously when I do it.

“Of course, habibi. Very special.” I can hear his words spread out the way they do when he’s smiling, as he picks up his jars of white and black paint. Of course I am a joke to him. Let him see me stop carrying things, and then he will know. 

Hafiz walks me to the zoo. It’s just down the road from the small plot of land where he keeps my stable and where we have always lived. The sign for the zoo is actually remade from the old sign. It’s a long piece of wood with a crack that runs the length of it, and Hafiz has tried to cover the old name. It used to say GAZA ZOO, carved into the wood in block letters. Hafiz has painted over the carving in black and done his own sign in bright yellow. It says HADIQAT AL HAYAWANAT FOR SUNNY DAYS. The lettering was done by hand, and the paint is flaking off. The carved letters still show through. I don’t want to hurt his feelings, so I say nothing, but Hafiz could have done better. He could have tried a little harder.

But there is a breeze bringing the scent of blossoms from the olive tree nearby, and the sun is warming my back. This could be nice.

 

My new home is a large pen flanked on each side by other enclosures. I share a chain-link partition with each of my neighbors. I have dry grass, a few boulders, and plenty of space to walk around. Hafiz has brought a few of my things—my long rope with knots, my favorite bucket, and one of my tires (I have three)—and stacked them in a corner. He has made a kind of little house, so that I can feel like I am in my stable. On one side is a row of four large cages. In the one closest to me, he has put the lions. If I trot across my space to the other side, there is another row of smaller cages, and the one next to my pen has a triplicate of peacocks. Hafiz said that the lions like me, and that being next to me will make them feel less homesick, and that it will be good for me to be with them, whatever that means. I don’t know who is supposed to make me feel less homesick. 

I don’t feel like talking to the lions. It’s their fault that I’m stuck here. I pick up my bucket and drop it a few times, and push around my tire just to pass the time. When night falls, I wander into my little shed to sleep. But I can’t bring myself to lie down, so I doze on my feet, dreaming of nothing.

In the morning, before I open my eyes, I almost convince myself that I’m still at home. But the smells are different. The air smells more open. Earthy. And I can’t detect the woody smell of the older boards that made up my stable. And yet. With my eyes closed, I can still imagine myself there. And if I am there, Hafiz will come in to brush me. He will refill my water. Give me oats. Hold out his hand with a treat, since last night I was so good. And everything will feel just like it was before. Then I hear a noise that I haven’t heard before. 

Today is the first full day that I will spend apart from Hafiz.

I emerge from my shed and examine what I suppose I will call the cage to my right. It’s big enough, as far as I can tell. Iron bars, a large tub of water. Some scattered boulders. A large wooden box with a square opening in one end. The same hard-packed dirt that covers my space. And the lions. Tangled up in a snoring lion knot. The female sprawled on her back. The male with his chin tucked over the female’s neck so they fit together like one beast. Like there is no end and no beginning between these two cats. 

“Hey,” I say. Nothing happens. I walk right up to the iron bars and mesh separating our spaces. “Hey,” I say again, louder. They stir. The female’s back legs stretch slowly. Their tails start flipping back and forth, sending flies stirring. The male raises his head and yawns, his mouth transforming into a gaping cave. I retreat a few steps and watch them untangle themselves and roll apart.

The male stands and blinks at me several times.

“Well?” I ask.

“Well what?” 

“What are your names? What should I call you?” I don’t want to call out “Hey” every time I have something to say. 

“I am Sakher, and that is Sabrina.” He looks over at the female who has rolled onto her back again and is staring at me with her head twisted upside down.

“Are you mates?”

“We are brother and sister.” Sakher turns away from the partition and walks over to Sabrina. He licks the top of her head and flops down next to her. “We are a little pride of two.”

“You behave like mates,” I say. All that closeness. All that being-next-to-each-other. I don’t like it. It’s rude when I am here in my enclosure all by myself.

“We have been apart,” says Sabrina. She pushes her head into her brother, rubbing the side of her face on his paw. I look to the side. I’m not sure if I should look at them or not. I’ve forgotten what the rules are for lions. 

“Where are the others?” asks Sakher.

“What others?” Nobody has ever asked me this before.

“The others like you. Your brothers and sisters. Your parents. Where are they?”

“I don’t know,” I say. I didn’t know I was supposed to have others. I look over at my pile of belongings, which seems pitiful and ridiculous now. “I have Hafiz, and also…” I trail off. My whole life I have had only Hafiz. And now also this zoo.

 I don’t know much about other zoos, but I know Hafiz is proud of this one. It isn’t large, but he talked to me the whole time he was putting it together. I know he has peacocks, and two different kinds of monkeys, a porcupine, and a pair of lemurs. And he has a small herd of goats for children to pet. It isn’t big, but I think it can be lovely. He used to walk me through the old grounds, pointing out the new cages and enclosures here and there as everything came together. He is proud that we are not too far from the seaside. Even though I don’t want to live here, I have to admit it’s nice.

“Those men that brought you were strangers,” I finally say.

“They were ours,” Sakher says. “And they searched for Sabrina because they knew we belong together. They found her with thieves in a tiny cage. The tip of her tail had been cut off. The shame.” Here he pauses and licks one of her ears several times. Sabrina looks up at me from under the canopy of her brother’s head. She flips her tail around her feet and it is then that I notice the scarred end, un-tasseled and somehow more vulnerable than what I imagined.

The shame. I can see it now.

At dusk on the second night, I hear Hafiz’s voice murmuring to the lions. I walk to the other side of my enclosure and linger near a fence post. Hafiz isn’t looking at me, but he could see me if he would just turn his head. I’m close enough to hear his voice as he pushes two metal bowls through a low, hinged metal door in the back gate of their enclosure. “I’m sorry,” I hear him say. “This is all I have today.” He stays to watch them eat, and I can hear the bowls scraping the surface of the earth as the lions devour whatever is in them. 

Night falls like a curtain, snuffing out the last light of dusk. Sometimes I can see that things are beautiful here, but when night comes it feels like a shroud. I want to see what Hafiz will do when they are finished eating, so I stay where I am. But all he does is quietly reach back through the door to take the bowls away. When he walks away after shutting the door, he comes inside my enclosure. At first he says nothing. He just reaches out and runs his hand down my nose, pets my ears. I can smell the sea on him, and I know that he went fishing today. And then a memory catches me without warning of a day when Hafiz took me to see the ocean. We walked through the market, and I carried his things. It’s beautiful here, he said that day. What does this beauty mean if I can never leave it, if I can never long for it? I kept looking toward the sea. And all I could see was deep blue extending forever. 

“Habibi, I know you’re angry with me,” Hafiz says now.

“You left me behind,” I say.

“I know—I’m sorry. But I had to.”

“I don’t like being left behind, Hafiz. I don’t like being away from home.”

“It’s just for a little while, habibi. Maybe we won’t always have checkpoints, and maybe someday I can cross the border to bring over a real zebra. And then I can bring you home.” He reaches out and runs his hand down my nose again. “Look: I brought you something.” He slides his other hand right under my lips, his palm open flat. Carrots! He stands with me as I crunch through them. And then he kisses my forehead and walks away. I want to watch him quietly. I want to let him have the evening, but Sakher’s question tugs at me.

“Hafiz, wait,” I call. He pauses and passes his hand over his hair. I watch the breeze gently ripple the fabric of his shirt. I think that he will continue walking, will let the darkness swallow him. But he turns and walks back to me. He stares at me and says nothing. His eyes are the only question. “Hafiz, do I have parents?”

“Do you have parents?” A smile is beginning to spread across his face, and I am afraid that he will laugh at me.

“Yes, Hafiz. Parents. I want to know if I have them.” 

He steps closer to me and places one palm on my forehead and one on the side of my face. In that moment I remember him placing his hands on me this way long ago. I was smaller. The world was bigger. The olive trees were in bloom. The memory is so tattered that I can grasp little else about it. Only his hands.

“Everybody has parents, habibi,” he says, bringing his face closer to mine. “It’s how we are born. I have parents. You have parents. We all have parents.”

“But where are mine?” I search his face. I want him to tell me that they are waiting for me somewhere.

“Habibi,” he says and lets his hands fall from my face. He steps back and looks away into the dark of the night. “I think about them all the time. They belonged to my friend Jaleel.” I keep watching him and listening. We have never visited with Jaleel. None of his friends are named Jaleel. “We were children together. He lived in Jabalia Camp, and his family had two donkeys that would carry things for him to the souq.” Hafiz did not look at me as he told this story. “Building a zoo was something he wanted to do, actually. He loved animals. There was this toy he had when we were small. It was this little model of a lion. And it had a mane that he swore was real fur, but I don’t know. He wouldn’t let me touch it. I teased him every time I saw him. Jaleel and his lion.”

“I don’t know him,” I said. “Where is he?”

“He’s gone, habibi.” I wait for Hafiz to find his words. I’m afraid to know what it means for him to be gone. “It wasn’t a war, really,” he says after a while. “At the time, everyone said it was just an escalation. A drone. Someone at a base just over the border sitting at a computer station who saw him on a screen; some pixels that made up Jaleel on his way from the souq, and…” Hafiz is silent for a while, his hand over his mouth. He looks up at me finally, tears brimming his eyes. “Jaleel, you know, and his two donkeys, they didn’t…” he trails off. “It could have just as easily been me. Tomorrow it could be me. Or next week.”

Have I said that Hafiz doesn’t sleep most nights? 

He rubs his face as if to clean it of his memories. 

“You had just been born. I told his parents that I would keep you for just a few days, habibi. Just to help them. He was their only child. His father always said he would come retrieve you. But a few days turned into a few weeks. Which became a few months. And you became mine. And the truth is, habibi, I couldn’t let you go. You were so stubborn; mostly legs and your serious face. But your parents, when I think of them, I like to imagine they are in Jannah now.”

I can’t hear Hafiz anymore. Instead I feel as though I am living outside my own body. I look over and see myself, a lonely donkey standing before a lonely man. I don’t know what to say. I want to wail, but I don’t, because no sound I can make will match what I feel. I try to remember my parents. I think that I should. They were mine; I need to remember them. But all I can see in my mind are images of my own long face looming over me. I will keep trying to do this for days afterward. That I can’t will be a thing that torments me.

“What about yours, Hafiz?” I ask. “What about your parents?’

“They are in the West Bank, habibi. I can’t see them anymore. I can’t get through.” He reaches into his pocket and retrieves a rectangle of folded paper, which he carefully opens. The paper is fragile at the creases, as though it has been bent along these lines thousands of times. “This is us,” he says, pointing at a spot on the map near the sea. “And this is the West Bank, where my family is.” He draws his finger along a handwritten wandering line up to a point farther up the map. “And that is the road I would take to see them if I could.” 

“When did you last see them?”

“It has been nine years.”

“Do you remember their faces?”

“Yes, Alhamdulillah, I do.”

 

By the third day, I realize that since I won’t be going home with Hafiz just yet, I’ll be lonely if I don’t make an effort with my neighbors. I wander over to the partition and stand for a moment watching them. Their eyes are closed, so I stomp my feet a couple of times and make some huffing noises to see if they will wake. Nothing. I trot over to my things and return with my knotted rope. I fling it back and forth a few times, and the end of the rope hits the partition. Sabrina’s ears twitch once or twice, but neither lion looks at me. I’d forgotten that lions sleep so much. I grab my bucket and drop it on purpose, just to make some noise, but they keep ignoring me. This will take more, I think. 

“So, hello,” I say finally. Sakher’s eyes open slightly and rest on me. He blinks twice, yawns, and stretches his front paws out before rolling onto his back and looking at me with his head upside down.

“Hello,” he says.

“Do you always sleep this much?”

“I need to visit my dreams.” He yawns again, and I see Sabrina open her eyes and stretch. This isn’t easy. I look around. Kick a clod of dirt at my feet.

“Hafiz is my only friend,” I finally blurt out. “I need somebody to talk to.” 

Sakher nods.

“Has it always been the two of you?” Sabrina asks. She has wandered over to the partition that separate us and licked the metal before settling next to Sakher. 

“Yes.”

“And why exactly did he paint you like a zebra?” She is so curious.

“For the children.”

“Yes, so you’ve said. But why not get a real one?”

“The tunnels are closed now. Hafiz can’t get one through.” The lions stare at me wordlessly. “Smuggling,” I say. “From Egypt. It’s how Hafiz got most of them here.” I toss my head in the general direction of the zoo at large. They are silent. And I don’t know if it means I should go on. I’m not sure how to explain how it feels to us to live in this city. The way that it seems that a hand reached down and gripped all of us, squeezing until we couldn’t move. Hafiz would sit late at night in my shed, hay dust hovering around his head as he ran through lists of animals that he wanted but could not find. I want to tell them about the map I saw the other night. How Hafiz folded it carefully again and slipped it in his pocket. How he carries that road with him. What it means to me that I didn’t know. But my tongue feels too large in my mouth. “It’s just something I have to do,” I finally say. “I have to be the zebra.”

“I think you will make a good zebra.” Sabrina walks right up to the partition. “Come here,” she says, looking right at me.

“Why?”

“Just come here. Come next to me.” I walk to the partition and hang my head down near hers. She gets as close as she can and sniffs my face. I feel her breath. Warm. Her dark nose dances around me like a flitting insect. I realize that, from far away, it looks like the silhouette of a cup with a stem. This close, I can see it is damp and glistening. She smells like so many things that are foreign and familiar to me. Earth. The meat she ate earlier. Sakher. And faintly of Hafiz. Of his hands. She stretches her pink tongue out of her mouth and gently flicks the end of my muzzle with it. “I see who you are, then.” She steps back just a bit and stares at me.

“Yes, that is who I am.” And so it is that I have made an animal friend of my own.

 

It is with the lions that I learn to not be afraid of the children. I like the idea of them, but the first time that I see them in person, they dart up to the fence in swarms. Their hands reach out to me. Their eyes are wet. Their voices call out. Alhimar alwahshiu! Alhimar alwahshiu! I am afraid to let them touch me. On the first day, it feels like a thousand hands are reaching toward me. I run to the back of my enclosure and grab my knotted rope. I will throw it at them. And if that doesn’t work, I will bite them.

“Stay back from them!” I yell at the lions. “They are dangerous!”

Sakher is deliberately standing close to them, rubbing his face against his cage, with hardly any distance between them.

“They aren’t dangerous,” Sabrina says, supine in the middle of her cage.

“I think I’m going to bite them!” I’ve decided to stay at the back of my enclosure, and I’m running back and forth across the width of it. I want their thousand eyes to see I am strong and healthy and not for grabbing by all those hands.

“Don’t bite them,” says Sakher. “They don’t mean you any harm.”

Eventually, I return to the front of my enclosure, and when they rush for me again I start braying. Those horrible honking sounds spew from my mouth, and I can’t stop them. But I don’t bite any of the children. This also happens on the second and third days. But on the fourth day, Sakher finally tells me to hush. 

“They love you,” he says. “They think you are a wonder.” 

And then the next day I look at them. Their liquid eyes. Their small hands. I listen to their voices that squeal at everything. The way they flit about the olive grove like a swarm of little bees. Their reaching, reaching, reaching.

They are a wonder.

 

And then everything falls apart. 

 

It is on a day when Hafiz comes to me in the morning and examines my stripes. 

“Some of your stripes are fading, habibi. I need to paint you again.”

“All right,” I say. Secretly I am pleased. I don’t get any time with Hafiz anymore. He walks me back to my old stable, and when I step inside and see the filtered light streaming between the slats of wood, I feel at home. I like that there is a roof. My bed is here. My brush is here. All my things. I inhale deeply. My hay. My oats. The dirt I have pressed hard with my own feet. The smell of Hafiz lingering from the times that he was too tired to go to his own house and slept in the stable with me. Sharply absent is the musky scent of the lions. 

Hafiz retrieves his paints from a corner, and we are quiet as he paints a little white here, a little black here. Coaxing the zebra back into my coat. And then a sound comes. A sound like the sky is a stone splitting from the side of a mountain.

The ground shakes, and Hafiz and I run to a corner of the stable. I drop to the ground and squeeze my eyes shut. I feel a weight pressing on my back. I know it is Hafiz when he starts whispering, “Don’t move, habibi. If we are still, we will be alright.” We stay huddled together as we listen to yelling outside in the streets. The ground trembles once more. After a while, a kind of quiet returns, but it’s different than other times. It feels like the quiet is choking me. Hafiz stands up and walks to where he usually keeps my brush. His hands shake as he reaches for it.

“We can take the stripes off, habibi. You don’t have to go back to the zoo. I will go back later to see what’s happened there.” I stare at him. This is what I wanted. And yet.

“But what about the lions?” I ask. “I need to see them.” Hafiz turns to look at me. Runs a hand through his beard.

“If that’s what you want, habibi. Yes. We can go together.”

We return to the zoo. My paint wasn’t dry when the airstrike came, so my stripes are smeared and there is paint on Hafiz’s clothing. The pathway that winds in front of my enclosure and the two next to mine are littered with debris. I keep stepping over pieces of metal and broken concrete, and clods of dirt everywhere. It is a clear and sun-soaked day, and when I look around trying to understand what happened, I see the olive tree that grew in the little central plaza just across the path has been felled by the bomb. The branches are tangled with splintered wood. An acrid smell merges with the sweetness of the olive blossoms. I look up to see where it all came from, but all I see are two silhouettes hovering overhead. Static in the air, like enormous dragonflies; like dark, angular birds I’ve never seen before. I want to hide from them, and I look toward the olive tree hoping it can still offer shelter, but before I run I hear a sound like metal scraping metal. I turn from the tree and see Hafiz struggling to open the door to the lions’ enclosure. They both lay still on the dirt. They are close to each other. Bodies pressed to the ground. One of Sabrina’s feet appears tucked behind her like she was waiting to pounce. They are pierced with pieces of shrapnel. They must have bled to death. 

Hafiz has forgotten me, and I am suddenly aware that I am out in the zoo the way visitors are. I look at the lions again. The door at the back of their enclosure is twisted and misshapen, and Hafiz yanks at it. He leans back and pulls with the full weight of his body until it snaps open and he falls down cursing. He sits still for a moment. Dust hovers in the air around him. He brings a hand up to his face, and it reminds me of the times I have seen him wipe sweat away with this same gesture. But he leaves his hand there, covering his eyes. And his body starts to shake. 

“Hafiz, you have to go in,” I call to him. He looks up at me. His eyes are red. But he nods and crawls through the doorway into the enclosure and goes to the lions. He gently examines their bodies. The dirt below them is darkened with their blood, and he turns them as best as he can to find all of the places where they have been wounded. I say nothing. I watch him weep and smooth back Sakher’s mane. I knew this would happen when I heard the airstrike. We were all so exposed. But Hafiz is just discovering it. He thought we would be fine. That this place, of all places in the city, would be a shelter.

“What are we to do, habibi? I was supposed to keep them safe here.” Hafiz wipes his nose on his forearm and then looks up at me. I have nothing to offer.

 

I decide to stay at the zoo. I can’t seem to bring myself to go back to my other life. Things have changed. I have changed.

For a week the lion enclosure is empty. All that is left of them are a few dark smears of their blood on the dirt. Their empty bowls. The ground vibrates with the heavy tanks that pass by the road outside the zoo. The sound of them rumbling pierces my ears, and I can see them from the spot in my enclosure where I used to stand to talk to the lions. More strange birds cross the sky. I wish that I wasn’t here by myself. 

And then suddenly the lions return to me. 

I discover this on a bright morning when I wander over to our partition. They are lying splayed on their stomachs, a way I have never seen them before. Their eyes are open and cloudy, and they look rigid and dusty. Hafiz has his back to me and is hovering over them with a brush. He is coaxing whatever shine is left out of their coats and trying to smooth Sakher’s mane.

“What are you doing?” I ask. He looks over his shoulder at me for a moment. Our eyes meet, but he turns back to the lions. 

“I’m trying to make them look nice,” he says. 

“It won’t work.” Every time I look at them, I see dirt clinging to their coats and I keep imagining them dying. Because we arrived too late for me to see what happened. Shrapnel flying into Sakher’s eyes. Slicing across Sabrina’s throat. I know it is my fault. I wasn’t there with them. I should have warned them. Or I could have died instead.

“It has to work.” Hafiz keeps brushing them. “I don’t know what else to do.” He stands up and turns to me, wiping his eyes. “I’m sorry, habibi. I know you were friends.” And then he walks out of their cage without coming into my pen.

I look over at Sabrina. “What will I do without you?”

“You have to make new friends.” It’s her.

“I don’t know how.”

“At first it feels terrible. Maybe you don’t like each other. Then you talk again. And then another time. And then many times after that. And then you are friends without knowing when it happened.”

“Or I could just stay here on this side of my pen and talk to you.”

“But I’m dead. We’re both dead. We don’t have anything for you.” She sits unmoving, with clouded eyes, as her coat collects dirt.

And so I do as she asks. Talking and talking. Starting over again and again. 

But every new friend I make perishes. A boy and his friends bring buckets of water for us to drink, but it’s too late; some eagles die of thirst anyway. Three monkeys starve. A porcupine dies in the same drone strike that kills a visiting family. Red ruffed lemurs, tortoise, all dead. I go to the lions, and they tell me to try again. Hafiz has begun letting the few children that still come walk into the cage to pet Sabrina and Sakher. 

“Try again,” one or the other of them says as tiny hands reach out to touch them. “You should always try again.”

 

But it doesn’t matter. Everyone is leaving me behind. The crowds of children have stopped coming. Only a few families wander the grounds every few days. They don’t seem interested in me anymore. I am lonely, and all I have are the lions. And I’m not even sure about them anymore. They don’t move, and their faces are static. I want them to stop speaking to me. 

 

Let me tell you a thing about tragedy. At first, every one of the missiles is shocking. You don’t know if you will survive. If you can lose anyone else without losing yourself. And then it becomes ordinary. The sound is muffled. The news of the dead comes to you as if from a great distance and hovers around you like a swarm of flies.

 

Until, of course, it comes for you. And then everything changes. Everything changes. Everything, everything changes.

 

And when it comes for me, I remember it all in reverse. There is a crater just outside my enclosure where the path used to be. A jagged bowl in the dirt. I am on the ground with my front legs tucked under me. There is a hum above me. My ears are ringing, and a kind of pressure squeezes my head. Warm liquid runs slowly from my shoulder down to my foreleg. Hafiz drapes himself over my back, weeping. Saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” over and over again.

And then Hafiz lifts himself away from me. Runs backward toward the gate where he usually enters my enclosure. The words he is yelling rush back into his mouth and down his throat. Blood travels back up my leg and returns to my body. A sound that once was loud compresses itself into a small point of nothing and a flash of light rapidly contracts like a flower closing its petals at night. Thin wisps of smoke condense into a thick cloud which then collapses into nothing. An object rises up out of the crater and flies away whole, and the earth tumbles back into the crater in perfect arcs. 

The moment ends with the solid ground beneath me and a clear sky where nothing has ever happened. Where nothing will ever happen.

Tell me how I can learn to live like this.

 

Afterward, Hafiz helps me stand and leads me back to my stable. He weeps as we walk slowly back home. He weeps as he wipes away my bloody stripes and bandages my wounds. He weeps as he gathers a pitiful pile of oats that I cannot bear to eat. He weeps as he makes my bed out of hay. He only stops weeping when he sleeps beside me that night. 

 

Hafiz will close the zoo soon. There is nobody left who needs a zebra. 

It’s just us now. Me, and Hafiz, and the holes in the ground.

 

Talia Lakshmi Kolluri‘s short fiction has appeared in The Minnesota Review, Ecotone, and Southern Humanities Review. She was born and raised in Northern California and now lives in the Central Valley, where she is at work on a collection of short stories and a novel. Her website can be found at TaliaKolluri.com.

 [Purchase Issue 21 here.]
 

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