BEFORE THE INVASION—before the soldiers and rockets, before the snare-drum rattling of automatic weapons—our uncle walked us to the zoo. He woke us early in the morning, and after we finished breakfast, my uncle and I sat together as my sister got ready in front of the vanity in her bedroom. She closed her door while we waited, and though I knocked every ten minutes or so, she was seven and stubborn. She couldn’t be rushed. She emerged around nine o’clock, her face coated with the lipstick and eyeliner that once belonged to our mother.
—Can we go now? I begged. We’re both ready.
Our uncle took his hat from the coatrack and opened the door. We ran to the hallway, and as our uncle locked the door of the apartment, we hurried down the stairwell, pausing at the landings so our uncle could see us. He nodded at us to go on, and by the time we left the building and reached the street smelling of coriander, we had to restrain the urge to sprint.
As always, our uncle trailed behind. As a younger man, he’d studied philosophy. Our relatives remembered him as a brilliant scholar who’d won acclaim for his studies, but we knew him only after he’d experienced his breakdown. He still looked like a scholar then. His hair was never combed. He wore the tweed jackets his mother bought him when he started his studies over a decade before, though some of the jackets were fraying along the sleeves. We looked back as we ran and saw him glancing, bemused, at the street and its buildings. Sometimes he paused to read the signs placed in shop windows. On other days, he purchased fruits at the market and put the fruit in his pockets, or he listened to the men who smoked cigars in the streets as they talked about the pending invasion.
The zoo entrance was three blocks away from our building, but with our uncle’s dallying, the walk felt interminable. We reached the gate, where we waited for him. My sister’s make-up was smeared. Wiping the sweat from her face:
—Where is uncle? she asked.
We fanned ourselves with our hands, and when our uncle appeared, we rushed toward the ticket seller. Our uncle met us there and paid our admission, and after we passed through the turnstiles, we went at once to the capuchin enclosure near the front of the park and watched the primates climb through the trees.
The zoo is empty now, and though it’s been many years since I went through its gates, I remember it well—its colors, its scents, its design. The route we traveled never varied. We began with the capuchin monkeys, my sister’s favorite. She was a year younger than me but was eight inches shorter, and because the walls of the enclosure were too tall for her to see beyond, our uncle raised her to his shoulders. We stared at the monkeys until the weight of my sister became too difficult for our uncle to bear. When her feet were on the ground again, we passed the raptor cages and then went on to the cats. We searched for the shy Siberian tiger and looked at the long-limbed cheetahs licking themselves like housecats. We watched the dingoes and wallabies, and before we went to the simulated savanna, we sat around a fountain shaped like an orangutan. Sometimes the peafowl, which traveled freely, begged for treats from our uncle, but he saved the fruit he’d smuggled for the savanna zebras. We visited the petting zoo on our way to the exit, and last of all, we saw the bears. They were bumbling, big-bodied creatures whose movements amused my younger sister.
—Look at him! she said as the largest of the males began to roll in the dirt.
—In the wild, I told my sister, he’d crush you. See how large he is? If he smacked you, he’d tear you apart.
My uncle put his hands on my sister’s shoulders.
—I don’t think so, she said. I think he’d like me.
I looked to my uncle. He’d correct her, I thought—would explain to my sister that these were fearsome predators, not companions for little girls. He smiled, though—nothing more—and we stood together, the three of us, observing the bears in their habitat. Then we walked to the gate and went home.
This was our childhood. From the day we were placed under our uncle’s guardianship until we first heard gunfire, our trips to the zoo were a daily occurrence—were so common, in fact, that when our uncle kept us home one morning, we thought he was tired of us and planned to give us away. My sister and I cried in the bathroom, and when our uncle discovered us there, he sat beside us on the floor tile. He listened as we told him our fears, and when we finished, he put his hands on our heads.
—I wouldn’t leave you, he promised. But we can’t go to the zoo. It’s too dangerous now. We’re at war.
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CASEY MCCONAHAY is a graduate of Miami University’s M F A program. He lives in northwest Ohio.