Showcasing creative writing by university students around the world.

Illustration by Eva Sprecher

Published Sunday, March 30th, 2014

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First Steps

After a year at Chester Zoo, my mother finally showed an interest in seeing my work. We arranged to meet at the Bamboo Cafe on my lunch break. I turned up twenty minutes late because I spent too much time in the staff room changing out of my green overalls and pressing foundation under my eyes, so that she wouldn’t comment on the dark shadows.

After a year at Chester Zoo, my mother finally showed an interest in seeing my work. We arranged to meet at the Bamboo Cafe on my lunch break. I turned up twenty minutes late because I spent too much time in the staff room changing out of my green overalls and pressing foundation under my eyes, so that she wouldn’t comment on the dark shadows.
I had been awake all night because John let me watch one of the births for the first time. I stayed awake for John because he was there for me at the very beginning, when I could only be trusted to clean out the enclosures. He showed me how to navigate the labyrinth behind the display cages, the dark spaces where the real work happened.
John was happiest when he was back there, wading knee-deep in straw and earth, talking about zoo-keeping as if it were as easy as dog-walking. When I saw the new giraffe calf that night, I finally understood why John found it so easy to see the good side of the job – a job that my mother thought I would quit within a week. I realized then that it was all worth it, the dirty green overalls, the long days shovelling elephant shit, the kids who wouldn’t stop tapping on the glass.
The calf was really special because a month back John thought we’d lost him. That’s just the way it goes, he’d said to me, running his hands through the mother’s fur. But the next day, he ran panting into the staff room to find me, then dragged me through the dark shortcut to the giraffe enclosure. He let me put my hands on her and I felt it, the strong kick from the depths of her warm belly. The calf had pulled through. The perks of the job, John called it.
The birth was messy. I knelt next to John, sweat running down his bald head as he crouched next to the mother’s body. He lost his whole arm in her and pulled it out covered in a layer of sticky blue fluid. But after that, there the calf was, like a little alien, all long eyelashes and shaky legs, his mother’s head pressing underneath him, a tiny soft body stumbling over into straw. Even though there were only four of us on the overnight shift, he still called the birth over the tannoy. A male giraffe calf, he said, Oscar, a healthy seventy-five pounds.
After the mother went to sleep I was scared that Oscar would fall and hurt himself. I sat with John and watched him for hours. The first time a tiny speckled leg buckled beneath him I reached out my hand to catch him. John pulled my arm back. You have to let nature take its course, he said.
As I ran to the Bamboo Café, my mind was back in the warm straw with Oscar. I decided that I wanted to show him to my mother like a prize, as if I’d delivered him myself. Then she would know – why I put in so many extra hours; why I didn’t want to join my father’s law firm. We talked about her life and my sister’s life over lukewarm coffee. It was going OK until she brought up the penguin story again.
“We used to take you to the zoo a lot as kids, you know,” she said. “The one at Colchester. It was quite a bit bigger than this one, I think.” I had heard this story before, countless times, at weddings, dinner parties, Christmases.
“Do you want to get going? I wanted to show you something,” I said.
“You know we once lost your sister at the penguins in that zoo,” she said.
“I’ve not got very long, Mum,” I said. The thing that always bothered me about the story was that really it was me. It was me she lost. Back then I thought she left me there on purpose, because I wouldn’t behave. I remembered the legs going by that were not my mother’s, the feeling of not knowing whether to scream for help or sit down and wait. Somewhere down the line, the story got changed so that it was my sister who was lost, and not me.
“It was so funny – we got halfway back to the car before we realized she wasn’t there. Your father ran back and found her, wearing that little pink dress, in front of all those penguins like men in suits,” she laughed loudly. A man passing us stared at her.
“Actually, Mum, that was me,” I said. I didn’t usually correct her, but I wanted her to stop laughing. “Afterwards you made me wear that lead, remember? That ridiculous kid’s lead you bought – so I wouldn’t run off again, you said.” Whenever I brought up the lead, she would stop telling the story.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “You weren’t even born yet.”
“It was me, Mum. You lost me, not Lucy.”
My mother looked at me as if I’d told a joke she didn’t get. Then she stood up. “You said there was something you wanted to show me?” she said.
Sitting across from her and hearing that story again without me in it made me decide I didn’t want her in there after all, in the safe space behind the cages. So instead of the stumbling miracle that was behind the giraffe enclosure, that day I showed her only the surface of the zoo. I displayed my life as if she were a tourist. Because she wanted me in an office, I showed her the zoo as if it was one, and after that I wanted her out, out of my world, where she couldn’t choose who was and wasn’t lost.
“I really have to get back to work,” I said, when we reached the aviary. The vulture cage was empty. They must have taken them into the back for feeding. I liked watching them, the way they would pick at each other, their little shoulders hunched over as if they were grumpy or cold.
We stood side by side in front of the cage for what seemed a very long time. A strange kind of guilt clawed my stomach. Years later, I’d feel it again, driving away from her nursing home for the first time. The feeling would stay with me long into the evening, sitting with Lucy in my mother’s empty house and packing the rest of her possessions into cardboard boxes. Sorting through unopened bank statements and forgotten birthday cards, Lucy would tell me about a newspaper article she had read that day. A local nurse had been fired for secretly hitting the patients who were too feeble or tired to report her. It’s not the same nursing home, I’d tell her…

In the cage behind us, something screeched.
“OK, I really have to go,” I said.
“Sure. Whatever you want,” she said.
“It’s a shame, though,” I said, “if I had more time, I’d show you Oscar.”
“Our baby giraffe. I was there yesterday, when he was born.”
“They let you watch?”
“Yeah. I could show you, maybe, next time. It won’t really be the same, though.”
“What a shame. I would’ve loved to see him,” she said.
“Sorry, I really did want to show you. It was pretty amazing. He started walking in the first few minutes.” I felt like crying.
My mother reached out and brushed loose hair off my face.
“Well,” she said, “at least you got to see it.”
Her thumb brushed the old scar on my chin, where so long ago I had run from her too fast and tripped, splitting the skin on concrete in our back yard. A pink lollipop and a balloon didn’t help erase the memory of rubber gloves holding me down while the doctor pulled three stitches through. The wound healed into a long white line, where my mother’s hand now rested.
It was then that I realized she didn’t need to see Oscar to understand the feeling I’d had that night, kneeling in the straw with John. She had already felt it: the pride of playing a part in those first stumbling steps, the fear of a little body falling. I thought I saw it in her face even then, pride more than fear this time. Gently, I pulled her hand away and told her again I had to leave. I walked away, leaving her alone in front of the empty cage.

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