Darlings... Leave them animals ALONE
The boys darted through the vestibule, fleet-footed, nimble, all three of them shrieking with puerile ecstasy. Around their deftly sprinting figures bold rays of midday sun slanted through high casements, waltzed and scintillated upon floors of gleaming, bronzed marble, set the mansion’s veritable maze of brass halls alight in hues of copper gilt. They were amid a most noble grandeur but not one of them could have known it. They quite simply did not belong to the more, ah, pensive breed of children. They had leapt a fence, stolen through acres of garden, found the establishment’s massive oaken doors felicitously ajar. What more need be said?
On they went, deeper into this noble, silent labyrinth, not a thought to consequence or contingency residing within their young skulls. Amusement was the sole object; something to be had above aught else. Perhaps it could not have been otherwise. They were, after all, children. Eight-year-olds who fought and screeched and kicked and screeched and yelled and screeched and got dirty. They were at that stage when serenity had not yet caught up with their egos. They were each of them kings of the world.
Ere long they came upon a part of the dwelling which was a good deal dimmer than wonted. Here the pillars were obsidian, the frescoes ghastly-pale, the glass of the skylights tinted, it seemed, with wintry gray. This change in atmosphere seemed to have excited a semblance of wariness, for the trio began at last to ease off on their erstwhile concert of collective, unintelligible yodelling. They slowed to a walk, hunkered down a little, stuck closer to the walls – courtesy of the bestial instincts accorded them by their human descent.
There was a smallish door along a passageway suffused with especial gloom. Upon its black, panelled surface was a message printed in white: no entry.
They went in.
The first kid – why would his name matter? – was a couple inches taller than the other two and thus the leader by immutable right. He emerged after ten metres of corridor into a hall reminiscent of an enormous greenhouse. There were few walls – it was glass which reigned here, held in place by a vast intricate framework of black iron. The place should have been dazzling bright but the panes seemed to be barring all but light’s palest, coldest spectra.
The trio were paying no attention to all this, though, for it was the hall’s contents which bore the brunt of their undivided attention. Perhaps it was the massive ivory skeleton suspended from the ceiling – a behemoth serpent, ribs thick as oaken boughs, coils thrown casually about in the air… fully seventy feet long. Perhaps it was the rows of pristine cabinet packed with labelled jars – within which, suspended in chemical brine, hosts of specimens stared with eyes unblinking as the ages rolled on after them. Perhaps it was the taxonomic charts adorning the low gray walls, the trees of life illustrated and played out in all their timeless, ruthless glories… or even the worktables with their rows of microscopes, test tubes, potted creepers and sundry apparatus.
Or perhaps, of course, it was the legions of ornate tanks and enclosures – ah, let us not leave those out. There were hundreds of them, of every fashion and elegant design conceivable. There were gilded cages, open paddocks and vivariums, misty tropical biospheres built into the very walls of the place. A steel ladder led to an elevated gallery hosting an array of racks and shelves, each of them thronged with jars and little aquariums.
Every last one of this imposing multitude of receptacles housed live organisms.
The boys stood and stared. Their eyes widened, slowly. Their jaws slacked, their breathing quickened. Raucous, impish grins were formed and exchanged. And then… and then they were off.
It was like they’d struck gold. They were dashing about the room from enclosure to enclosure. They couldn’t name or recognise more than a fraction of the creatures but they remained intensely interested. They peered, knocked, sniffed, made faces through the glass. All little boys love animals – but precious, precious few of the lot come equipped with the mental faculties to love them for what they are.
These three lads, now, could not appreciate this place. Their acquaintance with the natural world had been narcissistic and limited. They were the sort of kids who pulled the legs off grasshoppers and fought spiders for extra copper. They also lived and behaved like apes of old – one need only consider their pecking order. The Big One led on mere account of his greater stature – he reigned over his lesser minions because he was physically imposing, because his genes were on his side… because he had the confidence borne of his relative bulk.
And oh, how the Big One led! He flipped the resident tortoise over and spun it like a top. He tried feeding the piranhas with chum but his hand slipped and the whole bucket went in. He got Minion One to time him with a stopwatch while he ran along a row of tanks rapping each of them once. Minion Two shrunk from touching the snake but he said ‘this one’s not poisonous’ with scornful certainty and yanked it out by the tail. The distressed serpent set off along the floor in swift looping curls; Big One managed to stomp its tail before it vanished beneath a paludarium.
To their credit, however – it must be said – his minions were not entirely to be outdone. Minion One was a small kid with an attitude, with something to prove; he was bitter about his smallness and wanted to make up for it instead of go around with the quiet ones. Up to this point he had shaken up several formicariums, had dropped a mantis in with a tarantula (and watched it lose), had chased the jungle fowl around their free-roaming pen and made all nine hedgehogs curl simultaneously up. In the course of his endeavours he had procured as souvenirs one mantid forelimb, three iridescent rooster feathers, one goanna egg and two (live) millipedes. These articles he stuck in his voluminous pockets. He was looking to acquire more when he clapped eyes upon one of the largest tanks in the menagerie.
It was an aquatic habitat thirty feet long and six high. It was tucked away in a corner and so dimly lit you could barely see the great submerged forests of fine-leafed waterweeds waving slowly about within. One need not squint, however, to discern the primary occupant. It was a huge glowing cloud, car-sized and drifting placidly about in the boundless dark. Upon closer inspection it was comprised of infinitesimal dots of eerie, luminous green, and the better part of a minute elapsed before Minion One could figure them for what they were: fish. Countless, diminutive little creatures, each less than an inch long and all sporting a tiny, lamp-like arc of neon above each eye. And the glowing nebula drifted on through the gloom, leaderless, pilotless, taking with it the inconsequential wills of many thousands of souls.
Looking through the glass, there passed a moment when Minion One could well have begun to acquaint himself with the concept of true beauty. Not mere prettiness – no, true beauty, the kind suffused with the quiet majesties of serenity and sorrow. The boy’s conscious failed to grasp the notion, however, and the moment elapsed leaving him none the wiser. Thus, a half-minute later he was running from end to end of the habitat chasing and herding the cloud of fish. It had condensed into a ball less than half of its original size and shed every bit of its erstwhile calm. The petrified individuals were darting like miniature rockets in every possible direction; the conglomeration’s flanks boiled and seethed with angry, dazzling patterns of light as it streaked with surprising speed about its dark and silent world. And everywhere it went the boy chased, nose to glass, hands on hips, face pulled into a wily smirk.
He was coming up with a more impressive way to interact with his discovery when he perceived that Minion Two – halfway across the hall and dangling a chameleon by the tail – had frozen stiff, jaws clenched shut, numb terror etched into his countenance.
Minion One quite naturally followed the direction of his companion’s gaze until his eyes came to rest upon…
The spectre at the doorway.
It was worn and grizzled, stooped over and exuding menace from every inch of its frame. That it was a man – or even a human being, actually – was not immediately obvious to the children, for the features were so distorted and the hump upon its back so broad and massive that the being could well have been hefting a carapace. It was clad in a stained shirt and tattered pants, and looked more out of place in the confines of this fantastic hall than the boys did themselves.
Minion One did his best to look the apparition in the eye. To that end he brought all of his not inconsiderable experience to bear – the tutors he had induced to resign, the priggish governors he had reduced to tears, the many times he had eyeballed the headmaster until the man just had to look away.
This time, however, he failed. The countenance leering from beneath its sullied cape was too ghastly to abide. There was but one eye – the other was swollen shut – and though it was reddish and filmed over it darted about within its socket like... like the fish in the tank. After awhile it came to rest upon Big One, who clearly hadn’t the faintest notion that he was being watched. The brow housing the eye beetled, and the gaze that came through was fell and cold.
Big One persisted with his mischief for a good half-minute. He had every intention of protracting his labours but it chanced, simply, that he wished to apprise himself of his Minions’ current occupations. And so he looked up: and Death looked him back.
The spectre before him had pulled out a hefty, engraved shotgun. The twin muzzles were trained upon his chest. It looked like no force within the circles of the world would dislodge them from their purpose.
The Curator took a step forward. The stock of his weapon was solid oak; it rested snug in the hollow of his shoulder as he considered the little brat-beast within his sights.
The Curator looked, first, at the boy’s face. In the depths of those bright eyes he perceived no hope for sense, reason, or (least of all) empathy. There could be no explaining to him. The boy would never comprehend why he shouldn’t maim and torment and molest the animals. Released into his menagerie, a child like that would be liable to display but the most superficial of interests. Bestowed access to hosts of fantastical specimens from the far reaches of the globe, his most pressing concern would be to seek every conceivable means by which he might badger or unnerve them; to endeavour to prove, perhaps, that he had the evolutionary upper hand.
And what would become of these children, in the ripeness of time? When their voices cracked and deepened, when they burgeoned in stature as the garden weed does, when they began to rut like boars and assert their youthful superiority in the world of men? The very instant they bettered their superiors in height they would begin to look upon the world with smug, presumptuous contempt. Those like the Curator would have lost every jot of power they might once have had over them, and…
O, he loathed all that he saw. For once he gave his corporeal pains the mastery; he released the floodgates of his mind’s control and allowed his afflictions, his rotting sores and tumours and hemorrhages and septicities, to get the better of his restraint.
Thus it was that the spectre at the doorway gave vent to a snarl that seized at all three delinquent throats at the same instant. The faces which regarded it now were pinched and livid with terror.
But the Curator; he was not one to let it go at that. He lowered the gaping maws of his shotgun and strode insidiously, purposefully forth – strode ’til he was but twenty feet from Big One’s cowering frame.
And then he raised his weapon again.
‘…No, no…’ Big One managed to squeak. His voice did not do his moniker justice. It was meek and entirely subservient.
The Curator said nothing. There was murder in his eye; the single orb blazed with a mad and crimson hate. The steel of his gun’s barrels glinted brutal cold in the wan light.
Big One was backing away. He didn’t go far, though, because his back found a wall.
‘No, no…’ he essayed again, louder this time. (He was becoming excruciatingly conscious of his own mortality, and he also wanted very much to pee.) ‘You can’t do this sir, you can’t…’
‘Oh, can’t I.’ growled the Curator. He eased the blunt stub of his index finger over the trigger.
‘I’ll… I’ll have my dad…’
There was a searing crack as the gun fired. There was a flash of wispy smoke and echoes which clapped deafeningly about the hall.
The two minions’ eyes fairly started out of their sockets, and they decided at that point to make a run for it. They made off across the floor with all the vigour of pent-up terror. Let us at least applaud their efforts… though they be in vain.
The Curator pivoted with disconcerting calm. It took him two seconds and two taps on the trigger. When the echoes faded away a further two crumpled frames joined the first, all of them sprawled upon the floor in poses most painful to behold.
He stood there for a while as the last of the smoke curled from his weapon. The wrath deserted him shortly, and his hideous frame sagged. He kept the shotgun and limped over to the nearest of the bodies. He hauled it off the floor like the trash-bag it was, and slung it over his shoulder – but not before bending to pluck the three-inch sedative dart from its neck.
The Curator, sentinel of Lord Priesborne’s Menagerie, reached into his pocket for his leper’s mask. Having replaced it upon his visage, he trundled towards the door. Glistening strings of boy-drool trailed in the air behind him as his burden slept, mouth agape and rascal mien scrunched into a grimace.
* NOTES *
- The causative agents of leprosy (M. leprae and M. lepromatosis) are rendered incapable of communicating the affliction after as little as two weeks of treatment. The Curator can therefore handle the children without infecting them. As to his ability to handle a weapon, we can surmise that the peripheral nervous damage engendered by his ailment has not been unduly severe (or, of course, that his variant of the disease does not cause much in the way of nervous damage).
- Kyphosis – the medical appellation for the spinal disorder that hunchbacks suffer from – is not associated with leprosy. It appears that the Curator had the ill fortune to have been visited by both maladies.
- Relax kids... this trash was written just for fun :)