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Candles

“Happy birthday.”


Jamila swooped in and kissed Whitlam on the cheek, as he continued to turn the pages of the paper.


“Is it your birthday?” I demanded.


“Well, yeah,” Whitlam admitted.


“Oh, wow, happy birthday.”


I felt a little sheepish that I didn’t know. Whitlam put the newspaper away, and we headed towards the door to leave. I breathed out heavily, mind racing.


“Are you alright, Jumilah?” Whitlam checked.


“I’m perfectly fine,” I insisted.


I continued out to the car as a gentle sprinkling of rain fell against my face.


“Alright,” Whitlam assented.


He unlocked the car and I climbed into the back seat. I fastened my seatbelt across my torso. We left the house, in pursuit of Werribee. The zoo wasn’t a terrible place to spend a birthday. On the way into Werribee, the traffic was slow. It didn’t take long to realise why. There must have been an accident up ahead. The thought of it brought a shiver of foreboding over my body, despite the rising temperatures.


“Alright, flash game,” Jamila decided, as she turned off the ignition. “Name all the cheetahs around Australia.”


I threw my head back.


“Oh boy. I don’t know if I know that.”


“Well, we have Kulinda,” Hamish chimed in.


“Monarto had some cubs not so long ago, didn’t they?” I recalled.


“Yes, yes, they did,” Jamila confirmed.


The traffic eventually cleared up. Finally, we arrived at the zoo. Whitlam and Hamish burst from the car.


“Are we going to be doing anything for Whitlam’s birthday tonight?” I asked Jamila.


She shrugged her shoulders and retrieved the keys from the ignition.


“I don’t know. He’s a low-key kind of guy.”


I nodded my head. We both got out of the car, Jamila locking it behind us.


“You know, we never finished your game.”


“That’s alright,” Jamila assured. “Another time.”


We walked through and signed in for the day, then she glimpsed her watch and sighed.


“What’s the matter?” I enquired.


“Oh, we need to feed Kulinda. She has her carcass feed this morning.”


“Yeah, right, aren’t we going to do that together? You know, I think that it would be really cool to watch that.”


Jamila chucked me her keys.


“Find someone to go with you, I have a meeting to be in.”


Jamila opened her top desk drawer and fetched her headphones, putting them on.


“Or do it yourself, I don’t mind.”


A smile came onto my lips, Jamila’s keys in my hands. This felt like an important vote of confidence, even though the denial of my autonomy in the past hadn’t been a reflection of opinions of my ability. I felt a little like I was on the run. Keys in one hand, I walked over to the freezer shed, hoping to find someone else on the way who would be able to accompany me at a carnivore exhibit. My chest tightened, like squeezing a kitchen sponge. I unlocked the freezer shed and fetched the allocated meat. When I turned around, I startled, not anticipating Hamish’s presence.


“Sorry.”


“It’s alright,” Hamish assured. “Are you OK?”


“Yeah. Have you got a second?”


“Yeah, sure.”


I held up part of the carcass.


“Jamila needed to go into a meeting, so would you be my companion to feed the cheetah?”


“Of course.”


With the assistance of the wheelbarrow, we lugged the carcass out of the freezer shed. On the way to the cheetah exhibit, we encountered Whitlam walking in the other direction.


“Ah, the birthday boy,” Hamish greeted him, as a blush crept into the ungulate keeper’s cheeks.


“What have you been up to?”


“Oh, I have a bunch of admin work to do, but I’m really trying to avoid that for the present, if I can at all help it.”


“Well, it is your birthday.”


“You know, different zoos will make different decisions, and that’s OK, that’s factored into our regional planning as well.”


“Right.”


“Case in point, some zoos choose to focus on bongo, others have gone for nyala.”


“Yeah, I see.”


“Male nyala are in surplus in the region, I suppose like many species,” Whitlam noted. “Even elephants.”


He glanced out towards the horizon, from where we could faintly here the construction noise.


“Well, I’d better be off. See you later.”


“Bye.”


Hamish and I moved briskly to the cheetah exhibit. Upon our arrival, we lowered the carcass into Kulinda’s area. She devoured it slowly, paws crossed over. Kulinda is such a dainty cat, without losing her ability to be fierce. On the way back, I dropped into the toilet. Feeling like playing by the rules, I made sure to use the staff toilet. After I’d relieved myself and washed my hands, I ducked into the Werribee shop, to find something to buy for Whitlam’s birthday. Relatively quickly, I located a pair of fair-trade socks. The elephant pattern didn’t quite reflect Whitlam’s specialty, but it was close enough. On my way to the register, I grabbed a plantable card. I figured that it could be something the house might remember me by. I paid for both, then returned them to my backpack, for safekeeping until I would be able to get home and give them to Whitlam. As I emerged from the staff quarters, I checked my watch, concluding that I would have a little bit of time before the carnivore TAG meeting. I headed out to the lion exhibit, observing a tree standing about ten metres from the viewing window. I noticed claw marks on the trunk. Until it was time for the meeting, I stayed there underneath the shelter, then headed back to the offices. I got my laptop set up, not sure where Don would be joining the video call from. The review of the Goodfellow’s Tree Kangaroo program gave me fond memories of my time at Healesville.


“Earlier in the week, we performed a pouch check on Salsa,” Margie divulged. “She’s given birth and has a joey in her pouch, which we’d estimate is only about ten days old.”


I beamed, recalling her and Taro in their exhibit. Hopefully Salsa will be a good mother. Margie didn’t share a photo.


“That’s great news for the regional breeding program, Margie,” Sam mentioned. “It’s still a little strange that tree kangaroos are lumped in with carnivores.”


“We, of course, used to have a Papua New Guinea Fauna TAG. That group was disbanded after we phased out Matschie’s Tree Kangaroos. Then, the Goodfellow’s program was amalgamated with the carnies TAG.”


It made sense to me to have a separate TAG, although maybe less so for limited species.


“You know, perhaps we should revisit that idea,” Margie suggested. “It’s not like I don’t want to be here. Things have changed again now. Earlier this year, this TAG committed to a greater range of PNG species. If there’s ever a time to recreate that TAG, then now would be the time, and I would be willing to lead it, even if temporarily.”


“That sounds good,” I affirmed.


I thought about our nocturnal house and the potential of housing tree kangaroos there in the future, to allow for temperature-controlled exhibits, which otherwise might be a little bit more challenging to provide in Tasmania, with the potential for cold winters. With a tentative commitment given, the conversation rolled on.


“We can’t have all the small cats we want, at least not at the moment,” Angelique reasoned. “It’s not possible to house them alongside big cats, as you all seem to want.”


“Well, it’s just a matter of practicality, especially in city zoos.”


“Or, we could phase out Sumatran Tigers.”


“I’m sorry, I disagree with that,” I blurted out.


“As do I,” Sam noted, providing me with support. “It’s absurd to consider that our region would phase out Sumatran Tigers, it’s plainly absurd.”


“They are plentiful in other regions. We can’t save them if there is no habitat left. It’s just something we need to consider.”


Being part of the robust discussion felt like watching a car crash. I didn’t know what to do, yet couldn’t flee.


“When are we going to talk about this, though?” Sam challenged. “It appears that some members feel this way. Is this how decisions are being made?”


“There is a bit of a problem with pacing,” Stefan noted, “or so I’ve heard.”


“I agree that pacing can be a bit problem, but we don’t see it that much in our exhibits.”


“Let’s move onto the member reports. Bungarribee?”


“We’ve received Cape Porcupine.”


“Oh, that’s nice, where are you housing them?” Gerard wanted to know.


“In one of our meerkat exhibits, we’re down to one meerkat exhibit now.”


I wondered where they’d come from. The species seemed like one which was growing in the region. I gather they breed relatively easily and aren’t too difficult to house, plus they look kind of strange.


“Is that the one near the entrance?”


“Yes, it is, the smaller, longer one.”


“Gilead Wildlife Sanctuary?”


Angelique sat forward in her chair and pressed her glasses up her nose.


“Too often, I feel there are assumptions made, and while I would be reticent to say that they are in bad faith, I believe they are unhelpful.”


“Hunter Valley?”


“We’ve had some sad news during the week, one of our lionesses has died.”


“I’m sorry to hear that, Gershon,” Gerard responded.


The TAG meeting ended and I shut down my laptop. It was already dark by the time that we got home. I got out of the car and approached the house carefully, the driveway slippery under my feet. There was a heaviness in my head as Jamila unlocked the front door, although nothing a Panadol couldn’t fix. I needed something to eat, then I needed bed and a restful, early night. As the others prepared dinner, I headed upstairs. I showered and changed, then came downstairs for that Panadol. I heard a knock at the door, so I went to answer it.


“Hi.”


Ella grinned, holding what I presumed was a birthday present for Whitlam.


“Hey, Ella,” I greeted her, in an airy voice indicative of my exhaustion. “Come in, Alex is here.”


I stepped back, so that she could pass through the doorway.


“Thank you for having me.”


I noticed Ella’s ring sparkling as she tucked her hair behind her ear.


“Thanks,” I replied. “This isn’t my house, though. I’m just borrowing it.”


We walked through into the loungeroom.


“Speaking of houses, how is your new house?”


“Close to here.”


“Nice.”


I got comfortable, pulling across a pillow onto my lap.


“So, how much longer are you in Victoria for?” Ella wanted to know.


“I go back to Tassie on Saturday, actually.”


Before long, a plate of chips was rested on the pillow in front of my nose.


“Sorry, it’s just chips.”


I sat up a little bit, so that I would be able to eat.


“Thank you. Just chips is lovely.”


I started to eat, washing the heat and salt down with beer. Alcohol proved enough of a drug. The others started to chat about the upcoming move of the elephants to Werribee.

“I mean, I think that we’ll all miss the elephants, but it’s the right thing to do.”


“Do you think that Taronga will phase out their elephants too?” I enquired.


“Well, they’ll have to eventually,” Whitlam pointed out. “It’s the way things are going. That’s a good thing. Hopefully they’ll be able to join the one-horned rhino program like Melbourne. Between Dubbo and Perth, and likely us, things are looking up for that species in the region.”


“Even I’d love having Indian rhinos, they’re like living tanks,” Hamish mentioned, sipping his beer.


“I love those Nanek’s dearly, absolutely, even though I barely know them.” Anxious, I nibbled on a flap of skin near my thumbnail. “It’s not like I don’t worry about that.”


“Jumilah, I don’t know if this is helpful advice or not, but I think you’ll be fine. It’s not the same as being best friends, and you’re learning everything you can.”


“Thank you,” I responded, her answer making me feel better.


Ella finished her chips, shifting the plate onto the coffee table. I looked at Whitlam.


“I’ve got a birthday present for you,” I mentioned, then I fetched it and handed it over. “I’m sorry, it’s not much. I didn’t know until this morning.”


“Oh, thank you.”


Whitlam opened the present. He flipped open the card and read the message I’d written.


“Thank you, Jumilah.”


“It’s a plantable card,” I noted. “Just something to remember me by.”


“Aw, thank you.” Whitlam closed the card. “That’s very kind of you.”


He placed the card on the table. I wanted to suggest that we could plant it before I left, but I refrained from doing so.


“There you go,” Alex remarked. “You can become Werribee’s very own Jack and the Beanstalk.”


Whitlam laughed.


“I know I was read that when I was a kid.”


“It’s a metaphor for erections,” Jamila chimed in.


That I couldn’t confirm, but I wouldn’t have been surprised. The guys wandered off to elsewhere in the house. Maybe they’d play darts, get out the jigsaw puzzle, or fetch more food and beer. It was a party of sorts, but I don’t think I would have been able to cope with raging. I felt a tightness in my chest, like my ribs caving in as if they were being demolished, coming onto me most unexpectedly.


“Do you reckon that Melbourne will join the De Brazza’s program?”


Ella shook her head.


“I don’t think so, personally.”


She took a sip from her beer.


“We’re pretty committed to colobus. Personally, I’d rather Taronga and Adelaide used their spaces for colobus.”


Ella’s phone buzzed. She instinctively pulled a face as she checked the message.


“What’s the matter?”


“Oh, it’s Beth.”


Ella sighed and put her phone down.


“To tell you something for nothing, I think she makes herself the permanent victim. You can’t really say anything back to that.”


She ran her fingers through her curly hair.


“But maybe it’s just that she’s grown out of being socialised just to take everyone else’s indifference.”


Ella shook her head, then sighed.


“Perhaps I’m just so conditioned to accept what everyone else dishes out.”


She repositioned her posture, like she couldn’t get comfortable.


“I don’t think it’s a big deal, but I’m not her.”


Looking Ella in the eye, I admired her willingness to empathise with Beth. Perhaps I hadn’t fully grappled before with the difficulties of the working environment at Melbourne Zoo.


“Acting like Isaac and Reuben and Ara and everyone are permanently putting her down really doesn’t get her anywhere,” Ella mentioned. “They just end up thinking she’s a problem.”


A memory came back to mind of Isaac and Beth arguing at Wild Sea, and I didn’t want to get in the middle of that one.


“But I don’t know, maybe that’s what has to happen.”


Ella pinched the skin on the palm of her hand.


“Maybe that’s how you actually get to be treated with respect all the time.”


“But she isn’t.”


“She claims that she loves him, and then she constantly complains about him. I mean, she can’t expect him to fall in love with her if she never lets him be honest with her. It’s a bit exhausting, but maybe that’s just my internalized misogyny talking.”


Ella looked me in the eye.


“It’s not like you need to be burdened with this either.”


“It’s alright.”


“I just think when you’re dramatic, you attract drama, but some people don’t.”


“Oh, tell me about it.”


“She ends up backing people into a corner where they fully support her and are still made to feel like the bad guy. We’re not all mind readers, although she gets in your head.”


I didn’t mind Ella venting.


“But if you don’t stand up for yourself, you just get walked all over.”


“That is true,” I affirmed. “That’s very, very true.”


My eyes bulged.


“What’s the matter?”


“Oh.” I pointed. “There’s a spider.”


“Where?” Ella squinted. “Oh.”


She rose to her feet and fetched an empty glass, which she handed to Jamila.


“Right. How are we going to go about this one?”


They engaged in a short standoff. Finally, Jamila seized the spider, underneath the glass. Next we had to flip it over and ensure that it didn’t crawl out while she trapped it with a plate. This was a sort of animal wrangling which I hadn’t bargained for getting to learn in Victoria. Jamila safely escorted the spider outside, then closed the door. Crisis averted, so we could return to the loungeroom.


“Anyway.” Ella sat back down. “I feel like I just have to keep it all in because if I don’t, I think it just descends into petty whinging.”


She ran her fingers through her curls.


“Still. The rest of us are entitled to have feelings too.”


“This is really mean, but I think that she expects everyone, especially Isaac, to worship the ground she walks on, and when he doesn’t, she acts like she’s been wronged and it should have been the most obvious thing in the world.”


“I wanted to say that she’s self-absorbed, but maybe you have to be to not just get walked all over.”


The whole situation didn’t make me feel particularly comfortable.


“At the end of the day, other people don’t care either because they don’t have skin in the game or they just don’t take responsibility for the things they didn’t intend,” Ella outlined, “and because Isaac isn’t completely soulless, he ends up being the bad guy and in the middle of it all.”


Even this conversation wasn’t immune from the drama.


“At the end of the day, just try your best and treat people nicely. That applies to everyone.”


“Too right.”


“For what it’s worth, I called it.”


“About Ara, Beth and Isaac?” I checked.


Ella nodded.


“It’s nice when she gets excited about something else. She’s actually very kind and very good at her job.”


I agreed, considering that I had worked with Beth a little bit.


“The drama is mentally exhausting. It sucks the energy out of the place. No wonder I didn’t want to get into everything with Alex with everyone.”


I’d known about their relationship from relatively early on, but only because Ella had confided in me. We’d bonded in the primate section. Ella took a laboured breath. I couldn’t help but think that we were all making a mistake. Suddenly, I didn’t want to be part of the conversation.


“I’m close with Ara. Everyone is. I have skin in the game in that way. I don’t want to keep defending everyone other than Beth.”


“It’s just complicated. The whole thing’s complicated.”


“How do you deal with the drama at Werribee?”


“We’re country kids. We don’t have drama.”


“Of course, country kids have drama.”


“I also think I wouldn’t treat Alex like that, so I suppose it’s almost a form of jealousy, but that’s not a healthy relationship if you’re just accepting everything your partner says and does.”


“Well, it’s not like I didn’t know already you felt that way,” Jamila remarked.


“Yeah, you’re not wrong,” Ella conceded, with a smile and a sip of her drink.


“I would be mortified if everyone at Werribee knew about my personal business.”


I wondered what secrets Jamila might have been keeping close to her chest.


“Sometimes when people talk I just have a set series of responses which I alternate between.”


“Oh, I can relate to that.”


At times, I’d seen it as a symptom of my PTSD. I found myself fiddling with the skin on my knuckles.


“I can see this as a common theme, but it’s not like I’m perfect. There are plenty of skeletons in my closet."


"I wish I had the strength of character within myself to speak up for myself.”


“You seem to be a little bit quiet, Jumilah,” Jamila noticed.


“I’m alright,” I assured. “I’m just tired and there’s a lot swirling around in my head.”


I didn’t feel like I had to elaborate on that statement and, thankfully, I wasn’t pushed. Therefore, it made me feel a little bit more comfortable to share my experiences.


“I’ve had one boyfriend, a guy I worked with at the supermarket back home,” I divulged. “Well, I mean, I still work with him.”


“You told me,” Ella reminded me. “He’s the guy that you broke it off with.”


“Yeah.”


I ran my fingers through my hair, then leaned back against the cushions.


“To tell you the truth, I have no idea what that’s going to be like once I get back.”


I didn’t really want their advice, or even their reassurance. Thankfully, the conversation tailed off following my admission. Ella was scrolling through her phone. I could almost have fallen asleep.


“Are you going alright?” I checked.


“Yeah, yeah, I’m just looking at potential wedding invitations.”


“Nice.”


“Here, do you mind me showing you?”


“I’d love to have a look.”


I shifted the cushion off my lap, so that Ella could shift a bit closer. She presented to me the screen of her phone.


“Nice,” I praised the invitation, with a teal, watercolour background. “So, you’re getting married on the twenty-ninth of December?”


“Yeah, that’s the date we’ve set,” Ella confirmed. “I’m really excited, really looking forward to it.”


I beamed, then Hamish walked into the room.


“We’re going to do birthday cake now, if that’s alright.”


“Sure.”


Jamila brought the cake across. She carefully lit the candles, one by one, the tiny flames flickering. I placed my hands together like I was saying a prayer. Maybe I was, grateful for this place and these people.


“Happy birthday to you,” we sang, “happy birthday to you.”


Our versions of the rest of the chorus differed, and we burst out laughing before Whitlam blew out the candles. Jamila produced a knife and sliced up the cake. As she handed me a slice, I thanked her, then felt a phone vibrating, instinctively reaching out for it and finding out it was mine. I answered the call from my parents.


“How are you, Jumilah?”


“Really good, thanks,” I answered. “Good to hear from you. We’ve just been having a little birthday celebration for Whitlam.”


“Oh, lovely. Well, I won’t keep you, then. I was just ringing to hear your voice.”


We ended the call. Ella brushed cake crumbs off her mouth.


“I’m also trying to decide how I’d like to do my hair for the wedding.”


She fetched her phone again. Ella showed us some inspo photos she’d pinned to Pinterest.


“I usually wear my hair down, but look at her, she’s flawless.”


Like Ella, the model had rich brown skin and curly black hair. Her braids were arranged in an updo.


“I do really like the flowers in her hair.”


“Yeah, I might end up doing that. I’m not super fussed about a veil.”


She yawned, as Alex approached.


“Would you like a coffee or anything?” Jamila offered.


Ella stood.


“No, we’d better head off.”


She linked hands with Alex.


“Thanks so much for having us.”


“You’re welcome.”


They both briefly hugged us goodbye, then departed. I walked upstairs to bed, the birthday boy following me and lingering outside my room. Whitlam and I made eye contact. For a moment, I thought that I could have leaned in and kissed him. Maybe that’s even what I wanted to do, to thread my fingers into Whitlam’s curls. I felt the temptation to press my forehead against his, but we didn’t lean in, we both withdrew.


“Goodnight, Jumilah.”


 

Abbey Sim is the founder of Huldah Media. She is a creative writing, law and theology student who lives on the lands of the Dharug people in Sydney, Australia. Abbey has long had a passion for the weird and the wonderful of stories, sport and zoo animals. 'From the Wild' is her first anthology.


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