A fantasy story in a series of 'Fairy Tales of the Old Zoo' by Nika Bathen
See illustration here https://invir-lazarev.livejournal.com/2593.html
The cat Manka had lived in the zoo for a long time. Once, when she was still a little wet kitten, she had been dropped into a cage of the fierce she-wolf Fury. Even the zookeepers were afraid of the she-wolf - she snarled and lunged at people, attacked the bars of the cage and had escaped twice. The kitten seemed to be doomed to die, but not long before that, the she-wolf had given birth to four squeaky gray fur balls. Fury did not notice that there were more cubs in her lair at first, and then she licked the fluffy foster child and fed Manka as her own.
The numbers of visitors to the zoo went up. Both adults and children watched with delight as the wolf cubs played with the nimble tabby kitten. The young wolves went down on their front paws, growled and tried to catch their playmate by her tail.
The amazing family was photographed, they talked about it in the newspapers and even tried to record them on film for a local TV channel, but Fury lived up to her name and tore the operator's pants to pieces. The idyll did not last long - the matured wolf cubs were sent to other zoos and the she-wolf suddenly died from some kind of lightning-fast canine infection.
Manka stayed at the zoo. She lived free-range, walked around the paths and cages, dignifiedly accepted offerings from guests and masterly dodged those wishing to stroke her luxuriant spotted fur - life in the cage made the cat unfriendly to people. She also had her own night house behind the pavilion of the forest-dwellers. There, in a wooden house with a secure roof and a bedding of fragrant hay, Manka had kittens twice a year. All her kittens were beautiful, strong and grew up into excellent mouse-catchers. That was her job. She was caring, gentle and wise, and she gave plenty of milk. Therefore, together with her kittens, she fed foster-children of various breeds as well. Manka fed the orphans without a murmur: funny little hedgehogs with naked bellies and soft spines, fat fluffy rabbits, striped raccoons, cute squirrel pups and even a little wolf cub - he was born weak, and the she-wolf had abandoned him. The zoo staff called Manka “Heroic mother”. They praised and pampered her. The cat was perfect mother - she licked the offspring, taught them to take care of their fur, to use the litter box, hiss at enemies and look scornfully at the human race. She got really good at it.
She found her new foster son while doing her regular rounds in the incubator. Eggs of emus, cassowaries and some other exotic birds had been brought to the zoo about a month before, and chicks could be coming any day. Manka didn't care about the birds, but she heard a squeak and reacted quickly.
He was a black, wet baby animal of an unknown breed, a little smaller than the cat itself. His skin gave off heat like a furnace. He opened his mouth pitifully and clearly wanted to go to his mother. Without hesitation, Manka grabbed the baby by the scruff of his neck and dragged him to her house. The kittens were not too happy with their new brother, but their mother explained the rules of behavior to them with a slap.
Soon they realized having a new foster brother wasn't all bad. His black sides warmed the house better than any heater and it was very pleasant to sleep nestled against his warm scales. The food in their bowls no longer froze. In addition, fleas, terrible hairy-legged spiders and angry rats with gnashing teeth who lived in distant holes, immediately disappeared somewhere. The kittens enjoyed playing with their brother. He was clumsy, hulking and so funny. He jumped around heavily with his mouth open, trying to catch the little imps.
It took the zoo staff quite some time to understand what kind of creature had been added to Manka’s family.
The night watchman Palych, decided that the cat had brought the puppy from the scrapyard and did not tell anyone. The zoo trainee, Lipochka, was glad that the clever cat had saved the guinea pig from the terrarium. The vet, Korkia, thought that a mini-pig had been dropped to poor Manka as a joke and decided to see what would happen.
The truth became clear when the whelp was got stuck in the cat's house. His screams could be heard throughout the whole zoo. Palych had to saw through the roof, fighting the panicked Manka off.
The rescued baby had four clawed paws, a toothy mouth, a long tail with a thorn at the end and two tubercles on his back which looked very much like future wings.
“A dinosaur!” Palych gasped and sat down straight in a haystack. The only thing that could save the old man from shock was a bottle with mysterious contents stored in his apron pocket.
“The Dragon!” Lipochka breathed out and fainted.
“We have before us Draco magnifica, ladies and gentlemen,” the educated vet stated. “An undiscovered species.”
The meeting in the zoo about the incident dragged on until the next morning.
The zoo director was an old-fashioned and cautious person. He feared that the dragon would grow up and smash the cage to pieces. The marketing director assured that ticket sales would grow two and a half times, not to mention sales of souvenirs and calendars. The development manager promised to exchange the grown dragon for a white elephant, a tiger, or at least a bear. The chief accountant was worried that someone would certainly try to steal the rare animal.
They had heated debates for a long time. Finally, they decided collectively to leave the little dragon in the zoo, but be on guard. The little dragon was immediately relocated to a large personal cage in the backyard. They did not dare to show the mysterious beast to the public.
The kittens were taken from their mother to be given away. There were always many people who were on the waiting list for Manka's children.
They also wanted to separate the Manka cat from her stepson, but the orphaned dragon lay down in the corner of his spacious cage and cried like a human child. They had to return Manka to the little dragon as a companion.
Contrary to the everyone's fears, the dragon grew in size very slowly. Six months later, he was the size of a shepherd dog; a year later, the size of a horse. His wings had grown, but they were still not suitable for takeoff, and the puffs of smoke from his nostrils did not turn into fire breath. But his scales did have a metallic sheen, and formidable fangs glittered in his mouth. His eyes turned golden amber with sparks of flame in their depths.
Despite his size, the beast was meek and obedient. He didn’t try to break free. He did not shake his cage or try digging under the concrete floor.
The dragon considered any shiny things to be treasures. He hid them in his cage and guarded them jealously. Beyond this, he behaved well. He did not snarl at the keepers, allowed them to clean his cage, water the floor with a hose and even poke a needle in his paw — the vet, Korkia, did tests twice a month, studying Draco Magnifica as well as he could.
The warm-blooded dragon was not picky about his food. He never turned down porridge with meat scraps, rotten fruit, potato peels and fish heads. But best of all, the dragon liked corn flakes with milk — he hugged his bowl with his front paws, purred with joy and smoke rings came from his nostrils. He always saved a little of this delicacy for his adoptive mother and did not go to bed until the cat returned from her night wanderings. The cat, Manka, in turn, was so attached to her adopted son that she stopped breeding. She brought mice and sausage skins for the dragon; she licked his muzzle, dozed between his paws, and hissed at everyone who approached the cage. But suddenly Manka really had something to worry about.
Starting to feel his advanced age, the old-fashioned zoo director retired, and another man was sent to take his place. New Lord, new laws. The new zoo director had a reputation as an effective manager. He fired half the staff, cut all the salaries and reduced spending on the animals. The exotic birds, chimpanzee and tigress were sold, as they were too expensive to keep.
Booths with brightly-coloured snacks and toys "made in China", shooting games and dance pavilions appeared on the pathways of the zoo. Animals became simply an addition to the more profitable entertainment - no one wished them harm, but they were no longer of interest.
Manka was the first to lose her meal allowance. ‘The effective manager’ found it unprofitable to nurse weak cubs. The dragon was put in a cage between the reptiles and predators. ‘A Draco Magnifica’ sign was hung up and a photographer was assigned to the cage in order to take pictures of guests with the monster in the background for all who might wish to see him. The dragon was not pleased with this attention. He hid in the far corner of his cage, howling piteously. His scaly belly was always trembling. The zookeepers had to push him closer to the visitors with their brooms, but the poor beast was scared of his own shadow. Only Manka could calm her adopted son — the dragon behaved relatively quietly next to the cat. The vet, Korkia, twice made reports to zoo management, demanding they provide comfort for the rare animal, but they paid him no mind. “Never mind that the beast is not eating much and looking a little sickly. It is winter now, vitamin deficiency. He will get better by spring. If not, the stuffed dragon will look equally impressive.”
The trainee, Lipochka, broke into the director's office and made a scene, threatening to call Greenpeace. The poor naive girl was fired immediately without pay.
The night watchman, Palych, never complained. The old man knew that to argue with his superiors was more trouble than it was worth. But Palych had a good heart.
At night, when there was not a soul in the empty zoo, Palych used to open the cage and bring out the dragon. They used to walk along the paths and the dragon used to go down the slide in the playground. They also went to the frozen pond. Palych fed the dragon with fish, throwing the prey into the air, higher each time. At first, the dragon just flopped down with his scaly belly on the ice and screamed with anger, but soon he learned to catch food on the fly, and by spring, he had started to fly heavily up to the sky. Manka, the cat sat on the shore of the pond, eating her personal sardine and purring into her whiskers. Her precious adopted son grew and gained weight.
It was all over in March. A company of drunken mobsters decided to have some fun, that was, to hunt the defenseless animals in the zoo at night. The thugs broke into the zoo under cover of darkness. They threw firecrackers into a cage with wolves, poked a bear with a stick. Then they got the idea to catch and fry a swan, which was everybody's favorite and had been wintering on the pond for several years in a row. And they would had done it… but they didn't expect to see the dragon. The frightened beast belched flame for the first time. The uninvited guests survived, but lost their hair, expensive clothes and gold chains. The dragon picked up their golden trinkets with his claw and dragged them into his cage - to guard them.
The next morning, the scandal broke. The journalists didn’t get into the zoo, but the police visited the zoo office. The dragon was recognized as dangerous and they threatened to officially close the zoo. The zoo director (whose goal was to be effective) took a split-second decision to put the dragon down. In reply to a direct question from the zoo director, the vet, Korkia, said that he had no idea how to kill the beast. The gamekeepers from the hunting farm refused to shoot the weird animal – some of them out of pity, the others out of cowardice. They had to call a hunter from the capital. While they waited for him, the cage was screened off, and it was strictly forbidden to approach the monster; the feed was tossed over the bars with a pitchfork so that the beast would not go mad with hunger.
The dragon was blissfully happy about being alone. He purred over his bowl, basked in the spring sun, and joyfully squinted his amber eyes. But Manka was going crazy. She wandered along the paths of the zoo, meowing nasally and looking into the eyes of passers-by. If the cage were closed with a simple latch, the cat could get in, but she could not open a lock that required a key. Of the zoo inhabitants, only the chimpanzee, Tarzan, had done such a trick, but the jack-of-all-trades had already been sold.
The vet, Korkia, went on vacation to Cyprus without waiting to see how bad it would get.
He had grown attached to the unlucky beast.
The trainee, Lipochka, went to Amsterdam to the head office of Greenpeace, but while waiting for her turn, she got into tantric yoga courses and dropped off the radar.
Palych, who had been drunk for the second week, had no doubt that he would lose his job. He kept the spare set of keys for all the cages in his gatehouse. To free the beast meant to take the fall, but not to free him would mean to live with the guilt for the rest of his life.
Palych hesitated. He twice walked around the perimeter of the zoo, listening to the cries from the monkey house, the wolves’ howls, the barking of foxes, and the laughter of a bow-legged hyenas. It was past midnight when the watchman made up his mind.
The stupid dragon did not want to leave the cage - even a fish and a bowl of fresh milk did not tempt him. He bit the broomstick in two and shook his head cheerfully - Great, let's keep playing! In the dim light of the lanterns, Palych could see that the smooth scales of the dragon glowed from within with the heat of a fire. "What a wondrous, fiery beast!" Palych thought, looking at the dragon with admiration.
Manka helped him. She, with one jump, clamped her sharp teeth into the dragon's ear, bent his stubborn head down and dragged him to the exit with all her might. The poor fellow grunted, but did not resist - his mother-cat always knew best.
When the dragon got outside the cage, he immediately cheered up, sniffed the air, shook his head and spread his wide, webbed wings.
All they had to do was make the dragon take off. Palych, sobering up, understood that he was taking a big risk. If the dragon were simply to breathe on him he would change from savior to kebab. "Eh, hit or miss!" Palych thought and fired from his shotgun into the starry sky. The frightened dragon hiccupped, dropped a steamy, stinking dump and only then took heavily to the air. Poor Manka was sitting on the head of her adopted son, still holding on to his ear with her teeth. She did not have time to jump off the dragon.
The dragon's awkward flight quickly leveled off. Maybe the dragon was mesmerized by the full blue moon in the sky or maybe he had finally grown enough — he was flying away on his wings smoothly and easily. The dragon made a farewell circle over the zoo cages, then made a meowing sound and flew resolutely towards the city park. Palych crossed himself.
News of the monster's appearance circulated in the newspapers for a couple of weeks. The dragon was seen in a garbage dump, in the backyard of a fish factory, on a horse farm, in a jewelry store and in a supermarket. There were no human casualties, but the dragon caused massive destruction. He ate, among other things, twenty-eight kilos of red fish, two Rottweiler dogs and one expensive drone. Then the news stopped coming, and after that, the fate of dragon became unknown.
The watchman, Palych, escaped dismissal. The story of the dragon attracted attention from a special commission to the zoo and the misappropriation of resources came up, so the zoo director was sent as a supervisor to a hunting ground on the Indigirka river in Yakutia.
Palych worked for more than a year and went on to retire of his own free will. Some time before this, Manka returned to the zoo. Traveling on a dragon hadn’t improved the older cat's personality. She became grumpy and restless and reluctant to take any delicacies from the hands of people.
You don't believe me? Go buy a ticket and visit Manka. Don't forget to bring a piece of smoked mackerel or sausage. Her house is still hidden behind a pavilion of forest dwellers, the floor is lined with fresh hay, and a glass screen separates the cat from curious visitors. Today she is feeding two lynxes with tassels on their ears, spotted fur, and adorable short tails. She brings them up strictly, but fairly. Manka the cat is a perfect mother.
How did the dragon egg get to the zoo? I don't know. Take it up with the supplier of exotic birds. How do I know what they got mixed up there?
(Translated into English by Invir Lazarev 2021)