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Irukandji

It was exciting this morning to get up early and drive out to the airport in the van, to collect our Romeo. As I was paused at the roundabout in Sorell, I crossed myself, to say thanks. This was the sort of work I didn’t realise I was born for. Just before I pushed off to turn the corner, I checked my watch, the date emblazoned underneath the time.


I travelled under a clear blue sky. Since the first time I had undertaken this journey, as an almost adult, I’d been transformed, by trauma, then renewal. On such a beautiful morning, I felt deeply at home in nipaluna/Hobart, and immensely grateful for my vocational work. As I arrived at the airport, I touched my fingertips to Nanek’s cross, hanging around my neck, the smooth wood reassuring me.


I wound down the window of the van.

“Hello, I’m Jumilah Fioray from Acarda Zoo, here to collect the Tasmanian Devil. He should be coming off the flight from Adelaide--.” I consulted my watch. “Right about now.”

“Can I please have some photo ID?”


It seemed like an unusual request.

“Yeah, of course,” I answered, just as the panic kicked in, fearful that I didn’t have it on me.

I should have been more organised. Thankfully, I found my driver’s licence. Once I displayed it, I was allowed through, to where the plane had just landed.


I snapped some photos throughout the journey, to upload onto social media. Inevitably our Facebook page would get trolling, but I felt ready. They were only keyboard warriors. I firmly believed that we had a lot more in common than our differences, as had already been demonstrated in my somewhat uneasy, but developing, friendship with Tanya.


As soon as I saw Isobel, the sun shone more golden. I raced into her arms to embrace her, her hair fluttering into my face in the cool autumn breeze as we hugged.

“It’s so good to see you again,” I gushed.

“Oh, it’s good to see you too.”


We parted.

“Let’s get back to the zoo.”

Romeo the Tasmanian Devil’s crate was shifted from the cargo hold of the aeroplane, into the back of the van.


Isobel’s ring caught the light. I hadn’t realised that she’d still be wearing it, having not seen her in person since December. We thanked the airport staff, then climbed into the front seats of the van. I carefully drove off the tarmac and merged back into the traffic.

“My goodness, it’s such a beautiful day.”


Isobel twisted hair around her finger. Driving behind a learner kept our speed down, not that I minded too much with our precious cargo onboard. Still, I knew I would feel more assured once Romeo was safely in his enclosure. Finally, I glanced into my side mirror and concluded that it was safe to overtake. Adrenaline coursed through my body as I pulled out into the right lane.


I checked the mirror on Isobel’s side. A part of me was bracing for impact, waiting for her to crack.

“You know, I thought it would be cold here, but I might have to take my jacket off.”

“Oh, yeah, we had a little bit of a dusting of snow in November last year. We haven’t had any snow this year.”


During the drive I heard Romeo grizzling inside the crate.

“He’s really got a lovely nature once you get to know him.” Isobel glanced over her shoulder. “Hopefully he’ll be good with the girls.”

His grumbling was shared by my stomach, the coffee I’d had for breakfast obviously inadequate.


Having left the learner driver in the dust, I pulled back to the left.

“So, how are you enjoying being the Senior Mammals Curator?”

“Oh, it’s been really good,” Isobel answered. “Don has offered to me to take on the role permanently.”

We drove through Sorell, then up towards home.


“What do you think I should do?”

My response was delayed by our arrival back at the zoo, and our need to offload Romeo. Truth be told, I didn’t know, despite my claim to being grownup now. When I parked the van, a moment of silence froze me, then I flung open the door.


Dad and Luke met us there. They opened the back doors to the van, allowing the four of us to lift Romeo’s crate out, and into his exhibit. We rigged up a rope, to free him as unobtrusively as possible.

“Jumilah, make sure that you turn off the car.”

I jumped back in and pressed the button.


Disembarking and locking the van, I pulled the rope, opening the crate. We waited. Romeo had been afforded an expansive habitat, which he would share with whichever female he was most compatible with for mating. Yet, nothing. I craned my neck, to ensure we hadn’t lost our devil along the way. No, Romeo remained inside his timber fiefdom.


The humans would have to wait. Laki and Mawar started calling, as if they were beckoning forward their new neighbour. Finally, two black paws appeared. They were followed by a shiny nose and a mauve-pink snout. As soon as Romeo emerged, Laki and Mawar quieted. I checked over my shoulder and both gibbons were perched high in their exhibit, able to see straight into the devil’s lair.


Satisfied Romeo had settled in, Isobel and I turned to each other.

“It’s a different situation for us,” I mentioned, continuing our previous conversation. “I know there will be a downscaling when it comes to exotic mammals. We certainly have some unusual species here, but beautiful ones from our own backyard, as well.”


On a beautiful day like this, there was nowhere else I’d rather be.

“Too right.”

Food had been provided for Romeo by Dad and Luke, which he eventually sniffed out. I’d have to get something other than a liquid breakfast, when I had the chance.


“How’s the African Oasis coming along?”

“Ah, alright,” Isobel answered, although I could tell she was holding something back.

“Do you still hope to have gorillas in by the end of the year?”

“Yeah, yeah, we do. I don’t know--.”


“You’re not so sure?”

“This stays between you and me, but Don’s got these ideas about bringing in a silverback from a non-ZAA site, the Kalgoorlie Game Park.”

That news definitely hadn’t filtered through to the TAG.


Mum scampered over, bucket in her hands.

“How’s the new arrival?”

“He’s going well,” I confirmed.

We shifted back down the boardwalk.


“I was going to do a scatter feed for the macaques, but--.” Mum handed over the bucket to me. “You can, if you’d like to.”

“Of course.”

“Good to see you, Isobel.”


“You too, Catherine.”

Mum returned to the entrance kiosk. Isobel folded her arms in front of her breasts.

“You know, Don loves macaques. He still talks about the long-tails which used to be at Adelaide, he thinks it’s such a shame they’ve been phased out.”


“Well, we could easily breed a group for you,” I offered, “or, send some of the males as a bachelor group. There are plenty of them, that’s for sure.”

In my head I counted the males I could spot, then the females – all animals accounted for, thankfully. Except for young Harto, and one male for breeding, the others could be exported if desired.


“None of the females are pregnant at the moment, that we’re aware of, but we’re intending to breed with Sarita and Setia, and possibly Arianwen again, she’s not contracepted, but it’s just whether or not she’s still capable of breeding.”

Isobel bobbed her head.


“Joel’s father’s coming to visit Adelaide next week. He wants to see me and he wants to see what we’ve done with the money from the estate.”

I nodded.

“It’ll be good for you two to spend that time together. Hopefully it will be healing.”


“Yeah, I hope so too,” Isobel agreed.

I knew where she would want to go first. Isobel had been there when Jelita was born, albeit watching on a screen, like me. Their island was not the most direct next step, but would be the beginning of our tour around the zoo.


“So, how’s Harvey?” I finally asked.

“He’s good.”

Isobel left it at that, so I felt a little bad for asking. To jump from speaking about Joel to Harvey might have been too much for her heart to bear.


We looked across the moat into the siamang exhibit, the surface of the water providing a home for mint green moss. Mum, Dad and I were undecided as to whether or not we ought to clear it. Medan scampered down to a rock near the water’s edge. His throat sac bulging, he commenced his song, with Georgia joining him for a duet.


Jelita was hanging onto her mother’s chest, in full view for Isobel.

“They’re so beautiful. I miss them.”

My heart ached for Isobel. I’d not truly considered that. Medan and Georgia, so by extension, Jelita, had been ordained for Acarda Zoo since before that was even an entity, since they left Sumatra.


Still, they represented another loss in her life. Maybe Isobel and Harvey had already parted ways, their fledging relationship over before it could even begin.

“I’m not sure what’s happening with Harvey,” she admitted with a sigh.

My heart beating faster, I waited for Isobel to elaborate.


“I need to break things off before he falls in love with me. It may be already too late. I just can’t do that, not yet, but I feel awful about it. I feel awful because I know that Joel is dead.”

I bit my bottom lip, to stop me from bringing up parallels. My own life did not compare, me breaking up with Patrick then Patrick breaking up with me.


“I’ve kissed him. We haven’t slept together. I mean, I’m not going to--.”

“Has he met your mother?”

“Well, he has before, you know, we’re friends, we were friends.”

“And now you’ve started dating and it’s tricky?”


I rolled my lips. Isobel nodded.

“Been there, done that. I’m sorry I can’t help, tell you some pearls of wisdom to make you feel better and know what to do.”

“That’s OK.”


We turned our attention back to the siamangs. The other topic of contention was Merah – last I’d heard from Don on Monday, she was off-display.

“I need to make recommendations about the siamang program. Originally I was supposed to do it on Monday, but I need to decide who the next holder of a breeding pair would be.”


“Dubbo would be next, I think, but the decision’s up to you.”

“Do you have any wisdom for me?”

“Oh, no, I don’t, I’m sorry. I don’t have much experience with this.”

Nodding my head, I conceded that was fair enough, rather than avoiding the question.


We squelched back from the siamang exhibit. Isobel noticed me pulling a face.

“What’s the matter?”

“Oh, the ground shouldn’t be this wet.” I breathed out, my shoulders tense. “I hope that water isn’t leaking underground from the moat.”


That was an investigation for another time. Isobel and I returned to the house. We needed respite from being in the public areas of the zoo, to feel like we were just two friends catching up, not work colleagues. The gate clicked shut behind Isobel and I led her inside, even though the zoo extended into our kitchen, vegetables on the bench.


“Do you want a coffee or anything?”

“Oh, yeah, whatever you’re making,” Isobel agreed.

“Well, if you don’t mind, I’m going to grab a bite to eat.”

I opened the fridge, not sure what I’d find.


“Yeah, I’m happy.”

I located some leftover macaroni and cheese which I didn’t think would give either of us food poisoning, so I heated that up while making coffee. Isobel and I sat down around the kitchen island.

“Sometimes I wake up in the morning and it takes me a split-second before I remember.”


I nodded, because I understood.

“It kind of crushes my chest when I remember.” Isobel swirled her fork around in her macaroni and cheese. “Do you ever feel that way too?”

“Yes.”


“Of course you do.”

I finished off my meal, looking Isobel in the eye, urging her to continue on.

“I first met Joel at Adelaide Zoo.” She shook her head. “Boy, I remember it as clear as day. I walked around the corner and there he was--.”


Isobel’s lips curved into a smile.

“He was everything I wanted. At that time, Joel was there for a transfer, actually on his way back from Monarto. His flight got delayed so he was just hanging around the zoo, because that was the number one thing he wanted to do.”


She laughed.

“We had this conversation about a protest in the city he’d been to, in Perth, and some guy swore at him for working at a zoo and fighting climate change,” Isobel recounted. “Oh, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely understand why people feel that way.”


The back door to the house opened. Both of us applied our attention to the doorway. Sure enough, my father entered.

“Oh, hello, Isobel, good to see you again,” Dad greeted her with a smile.

“Have you passed by the devil exhibit yet?”


“He’s settling in well, he was crashed out asleep when I walked past there last,” Dad supplied. “Thank you for bringing him down.”

“Oh, it’s my pleasure,” Isobel assured.

I glimpsed my watch.


“Alright, we’d better make tracks.” I grabbed the keys. “See you later.”

“Bye.”

Isobel and I exited through the front door. We drove Mum’s car back to the airport, considering that we didn’t need to fit a Tasmanian Devil in the back.


“It’s been so great to have you here. I should find a way to come to Adelaide again soon,” I asserted.

“Last time I was in Adelaide, I--.”

“It was two days after Joel’s funeral,” Isobel supplied.

“Yes, it was.”


She sighed.

“I don’t expect you to feel like you shouldn’t talk about it, but I also don’t want you to be trigger. He was your friend, too--.”

“But he was your fiancé, it’s not the same.”


“You’re right.”

Isobel went silent for a moment.

“I do believe that I’ll see him again. In the meantime, we’ll honour his memory. We’ll make sure that justice is done.”


The horizon glowed.

“We’ve been talking and talking about the species we might like to acquire,” Isobel outlined. “I think we might be finally getting there.”

“Right.”


“Snow leopards were a possibility.”

I took the exit towards the airport.

“Now, it seems like the pandas are going to stay. For how long, who knows?”

I pulled into the airport carpark.


“So, pandas means no snow leopards?”

“It’s not on the cards at the moment,” Isobel admitted, “but we’ll see.”

She grabbed her bag.

“Thank you for the lift.”


I put Isobel on the plane back to Adelaide, with a big hug and a wave goodbye, then returned to the zoo. By the time I came back inside, Mum and Dad were sitting in the loungeroom.

“Hello, Jumilah,” she called out. “There’s dinner on the stove.”

“Thanks.”


I dished myself up some pasta, then walked through, noticing the story about the anniversary of a crash.

“I remember that. It was awful.”

I felt sick to my stomach just thinking about it. We watched the pictures on the news, of the community coming together for the commemoration service.


My phone tolled. The verdict from Perth. Guilty. Isobel would still be on the plane. Someone would have to tell her when she arrived back in Adelaide, and I was secretly grateful that wasn’t me. Who had been there when Joel died? The details were starting to fade. Bill, of course, and I wondered if the memory was seared into his mind.


“How do you, um, organise a funeral?”

“What, are you planning on needing one?” Dad quipped.

Mum didn’t look at him. She ran her fingers through my hair.

“I just think it’s something I should know.”


“Darling, I hope you never have to know. Still, it’s important, and what you do depends on the wishes of the person.”

“For what it’s worth, I’d like a funeral Mass,” Dad confirmed, “and I think that’s what Nonna and Nonno would like, too.”


“Well, I’d started to get some apple pie ready,” Mum mentioned. “I’ll just go and dish it up.”

She stood and walked through into the kitchen. For a moment, I considered following Mum, but decided against it, remaining on the lounge. She returned quickly after, handing out the bowls with ice cream, and we tucked into the dessert.


“Oh my goodness, that tastes just like McDonald’s,” I gushed. “Thank you, Mum.”

“You’re welcome.”

I quickly ate my apple pie and ice cream.

“Alright, run me through, what happens next with the devils?”


“We pair up Romeos with the females and hopefully breed.” Mum reached out for my bowl, and I handed it to her. “Nikki said we do have a recommendation.”

She nodded, then scampered through into the kitchen, where she tucked the bowls into the dishwasher. When Mum returned, she ran her fingers through her hair.


“Would you think about adding otters to the collection?”

I must have pulled a face.

“I’m not saying that I’m not keen,” I reasoned, “but I would have to sort out the logistics.”

“That’s alright. You can talk to the carnivore people whenever you think you can.”


“Sure.”

Just as Mum and Dad took themselves off to bed, I decided to do the same, switching off the lights on my way. I changed into my pyjamas, then collapsed into bed. Something felt not right about the sheets, the blankets suffocating.


Not able to sleep, I pulled myself up out of bed, slipping a cardigan over my shoulders to ward off the cold. Rummaging through the drawers, I tracked down a Mothers’ Day card, with Selamat Hari Ibu written in a child’s scrawl, which I had created when we were visiting Nanek and Kakek, when I was about six years old.


My chest filled with sentimentality. For a moment I was tempted to pick up the phone. It wouldn’t have been very late, for me to speak with Nanek. I called her, but she did not answer. Being a Friday, perhaps she’d gone with Aisha’s family to the mosque. I swallowed hard, thoughts of the day and unanswered questions filling my mind.


My footsteps creaked through the house, back to the loungeroom and the television remote. I sat myself down and switched it on, bathing in the glow of a late-night program.

Oh it’s pretty hard apparently; Piper messaged back. We’re just lucky that Raffa was so keen to take us both on and give us somewhere to live


She’d responded to me after a couple of days, which I didn’t blame her for.

We’re also helping out with the irukandji research project

Oh that’s great!; I replied.

The joy settled me a little, and I was able to sleep.


 

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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