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Midnights

I was plaiting my hair in the kitchen while Mum was cooking breakfast and insisting I eat some before starting work out in the zoo. She stashed a hash brown and fried egg into a bread roll, lathering it with barbecue sauce.


“Thank you, I do appreciate this.”


I accepted my breakfast, taking a bite despite the steam rising from the filling. Wordlessly, Mum prepared a glass of water and handed that over as well. I took a sip, grateful for its coolness. Once the egg and hash brown weren’t quite so piping hot, I ate my breakfast, washing it down with the rest of the water. I stepped out into a picture-perfect Tasmanian summer’s day. My first destination would be the nocturnal house, to provide food for the tarsiers. Being housed indoors, there’s little difference between their on and off-exhibit housing. Still, it’s important to include variety in their lives. That’s what Kakek would have wanted, for creatures still wild. Belitung and the females tucked in, so I exited the house. I arrived at the dhole exhibit and ensured that food was provided within the outdoor enclosure, then removed myself from the space so that the animals could have at it. With a grin on my face, I watched them eat, but the noise of the macaque troop called me to my next task.


“How are you going?” I greeted them. “Last day of 2022, hey.”


I unbolted the doors which separated the macaques, in their night dens, from their outdoor exhibit. Dad provided a scatter feed, which beckoned the animals. The males were first. They tucked into their breakfast, my job complete. Next year, we plan to breed. Generally, the preference is to breed females. However, there are many more females than males in the current troop. Therefore, baby boys would be just as welcome.


“Alright, where are we working today?” I asked Dad when I encountered him again.


“You choose,” he told me, with a shrug of his shoulders.


“You’re not making this any easier for me.”


“It’s just a suggestion,” Dad reminded.


The zoo opened for the morning. Mum was responsible for the entrance kiosk, while I wandered around the grounds. My phone buzzed within my pocket. Fetching it, I answered Reuben’s call.


“Hello, hello.”


“Hey, how are you?”


“Good,” I answered.


I smiled.


“I’m just walking around the zoo, I’m heading up to the aviaries now.”


I sat down outside the finch aviary, so that we would have a little moment to chat.


“What are you up to?”


“Well, I thought I had the day off, but the Department wants to talk – about ungulate importation.”


“There’s no way,” I protested, then I tilted my head to the side, doubting myself. “You’re not kidding, are you?”


The silence confirmed my changing mind.


“Anyway, I’d better get back to it.”


“Bye.”


I sent a message to the group chat I still had with Whitlam, Hamish and Jamila. Besides wanting to wish them a happy new year, I had to process the news with them.


Have u heard the ungulate news?; came through the text from Hunter.


Yep; I replied, with two grinning emojis.


I did have work to do, so I stood and dropped my phone into my pocket. Walking back through the zoo, a man approached me.


“Hello, can I help you with anything?” I offered with a grin.


“Are you Jumilah Fioray?”


“Yes, yes, I am,” I confirmed, then my smile faltered, as I realised that maybe I shouldn’t have so readily offered my identity.


The man thrust a leaflet into my hands.


“I really hope this was printed on recycled paper.”


He furrowed his brow for a moment, like he hadn’t been anticipating my attempt at humour. I studied the contents, outlining the reasons why animals shouldn’t be kept in captivity.


“Can I ask you an honest question, please?”


“Yes, of course,” the man permitted. “This is what this is all about. I’m just asking questions.”


“I understand that we have different views on this,” I reasoned. “I’m happy to respect that. What I wanted to know was whether you paid your entry fee.”


“Yes, I did. Of course, I did.”


“Thank you, I appreciate that,” I responded. “We have a predator-proof fence, but that’s more about keeping livestock out. The neighbours were a little bit concerned.”


“I take it you’re not actually calling me a predator?”


“Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.” I ran a hand over my hair. “You know, it’s not your fault, but I’ve spoken with some other people who hold similar views to you. A number of them don’t want to pay the entry fee. It freaked me out a bit that you were inside.”


I froze.


“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.”


I waved my hands around, with no point in particular.


“It’s not your fault I’m a chronic overthinker.”


I breathed out. Surely we could reach some sort of truce.


“Would you like the scoop?”


He shrugged his shoulders.


“I’m not some reporter.”


“I wasn’t saying you were.”


“Tasmania Zoo has just taken on a snow leopard--.”


“Yes, I’m aware.”


“Is that something you’d consider here?”


“Well, sure. I’m not promising anything, of course. I mean, I don’t know whether you think that’s a good idea or a bad idea, anyway.”


He nodded.


“Sounds good to me, there’s a slightly better climate here. Right, I’ll better be off, then.”


I knew I hadn’t made a good impression.


“You’re more than welcome to stay,” I reassured. “You can take a look around.”


“It’s alright.”


We walked back to the carpark, where he slipped back into his car and left. I listened to the screech of tyres on gravel, even though the car itself was quiet. I returned to the entrance kiosk, to speak with Mum and regain my composure. I’d welled up a little with tears, mostly from feeling overwhelmed.


“Are you OK, sayang?” she checked.


“Yeah.”


I noticed a nearby water bottle.


“I’ve just been speaking with an animal rights guy. He seemed nice enough, he even paid the entrance fee.”


“Well, that’s generous of him.”


There was a hint of sarcasm in Mum’s voice. I grasped the drink bottle. Removing the lid, I took a swig. On a warm day, a drink of water was just what I needed, especially after an anxiety-inducing encounter, even if he was nice enough.


“We did talk about snow leopards. He acknowledged that Tasmania would be a relatively suitable climate, if he feels there is one.”


“Well, that’s good that he agrees on that point,” Mum responded, “not that we have to worry about snow leopards at the moment.”


My mind was being changed as I pondered.


“I reckon we should do it.”


Nodding my head, I reinforced my own idea. The terrain would lend itself to a good snow leopard exhibit, like they have at Melbourne Zoo.


“OK, I’ll qualify that. I reckon we should do it after tigers, and if or when Melbourne Zoo breeds again.”


I laughed.


“Or we could import,” I suggested.


“Speak with Reuben about it,” Mum urged, “and see what he says.”


“Alright,” I agreed with a smile.


I figured that I didn’t have to straight away, as I had already spoken with him in the morning. Reuben would be busy with his discussions regarding a possible return of ungulate importation – a massive development if pulled off. New visitors arrived and Mum processed their tickets. I set down the water bottle, still half-full, then farewelled her when she got a free moment. While I felt a bit bad about it, I did recycle the leaflet from the guy. Nanek would have been somewhere, but before I could cross paths with her again, my phone buzzed within my pocket. I thought that the caller might have been Reuben. However, it wasn’t.


“Hi Isobel, how are you today?”


“Yeah, I’m good.”


I could faintly hear birdsong in the background.


“I am in Perth right now.”


“Wow.”


“I’m actually here for an animal transfer. Two female ring-tailed lemurs will be going from Perth, up to Monarto.”


“Ah, nice.”


“Perth is downsizing their collection with the construction planned. I’m a primate keeper, ultimately, so I was happy to help out.”


“What are your plans for tonight?”


“I’m going to take a deep breath, listen to some tunes, and see out the year,” Isobel declared. “Probably with an early night.”


“Take care, my love.”


“You too.”


We ended our call. I ducked back into the house. There would be a little bit of time to make a coffee. After preparing the beverage, I called Tallulah. She didn’t answer, so I left a message – she was probably at work, and hopefully we’d be able to talk later. I then prepared a coffee – just one for me, as I was the only person home. Stepping out onto the back deck, I looked over to the nocturnal house. My forearms leaned against the flat surface at the top of the barrier, which had been added to the house when I was a toddler. We would easily have space to expand our facilities. That, after all, had been factored into our initial plans for construction. Expanding the zoo could be next year’s task. I finished off my coffee, then returned into the house. After sliding the door shut, I padded through to the kitchen. I rinsed out my mug, then placed it upside down on the dish drainer. Departing through the back door, I moved out through the gate, which separates our private space from the grounds. I noticed a man across the zoo, outside the siamang exhibit. A shiver went through my body, because I thought that I recognised him. I stalked across the concrete path, until he just so happened to turn. He wasn’t Frank, of course he wasn’t Frank. Frank is in prison, he’s not walking around our zoo, and it surprised me that I misrecognized the poor gentleman. I ducked home, to have some lunch. It felt so quiet inside the house. Ella had posted some photos on Instagram of the wedding. While I ate the salad sandwich I’d put together, I double-tapped the post, then mindlessly scrolled through my feed. Just when I was about to put my phone down, Reuben called, so I finished my mouthful of lunch and answered him.


“Twice in one day. It seems like we’re making a habit of this.”


Reuben gave a laugh. I didn’t need to ask – he knew what I wanted to know.


“It’s looking like limited ungulate importation is going to be allowed.”


“That’s great news,” I gushed, perhaps a little too loudly.


“Yes, it is. Also, we got Mali’s bloodwork. She’s about to go into labour.”


“That’s really good.”


“We have thought of some names for the calf, even though that’s a bit presumptuous.”


“Alright, what have you got?”


“Thang Yaw means ‘long way’, as we wanted a name which reflects the idea of being on a journey in some way. The second name is Run which means ‘generation’, although everyone would pronounce it run, not roon.”


“Yeah, unfortunately.”


“If the calf is a female, I like Dokmi, which means ‘flower’. I’m not sure how we’d spell it, though.”


I sensed Reuben was turning to me for advice, even if he wasn’t intending to.


“You know, I’m not an expert in Thai--.”


“Oh, I realise, we’re liaising with the Embassy. They often help us pick names.”


“I like that,” I replied, then Reuben grunted.


“What’s the matter?”


“Oh, the other day it was Ara leaving to take up the new ungulates job at Kyabram, and now Isaac’s telling me that he’s taking on a bird role there.”


On one hand, I felt sick to my stomach – on the other, I was ready to burst out laughing.


“So, both Ara and Isaac are at Kyabram now?”


“Yes, it’s a shame for us, but a boon for Kyabram, we’re all meant to be happy families now, but I didn’t realise they’d take all my staff.”


It would have been betraying confidence to say anything, right?


“Well, I’m sure they’ll always be welcome back.”


“Yeah, of course.”


Our call came to an end. I sent a message to check in with Tessa, although I doubted she’d answer. In no way did I hold that against her. I could only begin to imagine Tessa’s pain. Heading back home, I checked my emails, noticing that my certificate from the wildlife course had come through.


“What’s that you’re looking at?” Dad asked as he approached from behind me.


I glanced over my shoulder, about to answer him when I spotted his grin.


“Oh, that’s great, Jumilah,” he praised me, recognising the certificate on my phone. “You should get that printed out.”


Mum came into the house.


“Jumilah’s got her certificate for her course.”


“Oh, that’s great.”


Mum approached the sink and rinsed off her hands.


“You should print that out,” she suggested, turning off the tap.


I smiled.


“Dad said that too.”


Therefore, I printed out my certificate, while Mum tracked down a frame which wasn’t being used. She flipped it over and removed the cork on the back. I slipped the certificate in, face down against the glass. Then, we needed to decide where we were going to put it, and an unconventional location came to mind. We walked through into the bathroom.


“I knew there was a reason we never tiled the whole walls,” Dad remarked.


“At least this will give us something to look at.”


I hung the frame on the toilet wall, then stepped back with pride. Leaning to the left, Mum’s shoulder was there to catch me, affording me a kiss to the temple.


“I’m so proud of you, sayang.”


I thanked her, filled with joy. As promised, Tallulah called me back.


“Happy new year,” she wished me. “How are you today?”


“Yeah, I’m good. Have you been at work?”


“Yes,” Tallulah answered. “We had a fur seal come in, actually.”


“Is it going OK?”


“Yeah, he’s thriving. We’re going to be able to release him back onto the beach and into the water this afternoon, all continuing to be well.”


“That’s really good news.”


“Have you been mainly doing zoo stuff?”


“Got it in one,” I confirmed. “Do you have any plans for tonight?”


“Yes, I do,” Tallulah responded, “with Gemma. Sorry, I wasn’t going to say anything.”


“I never want you to have to feel like that.”


“I’m sure Gemma wouldn’t mind if you came too.”


“Thank you, Tallulah, but it’s fine. We’ve got family coming over. Mum’s a bit worried about the animals and the fireworks.”


“And you?”


“I’ll be fine.”


“Hopefully, but just take good care of yourself.”


“Thank you, I will.”


I swallowed. Humidity coated my cheeks.


“It’s weird, I know the Hurricanes are actually playing tonight, in Adelaide. I know exactly where he is.”


Not wanting to ask unwelcome questions, I left Tallulah with space.


“Vanessa’s probably there, with Jye.”


There was a hint of exhaustion in her voice.


“I hope they’re happy, I hope they’re having a good time.”


“Oh, I love you, Tallulah,” I reiterated, to make sure she felt it.


“Thanks, Jumilah, I love you too. I suppose that I’ll see you next year.”


I giggled.


“Yeah, see you then.”


Tallulah and I finished on the phone. I wandered over and encountered Mum. The two of us paused in front of the dhole exhibit.


“I’m just a little bit worried about the fireworks,” Mum admitted. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with the animals. I’m worried about you.”


I shook my head.


“You don’t have to be worried about me.”


Mum gave me a hug. When we pulled back, I studied her face for grief.


“I’ll be OK.”


I flashed a smile to reassure her.


“What are we going to have for dinner?”


Mum asked me what I reckoned we were going to have, which confirmed the answer. I smiled and nodded my head, then asked when Uwak Andrew and Kem would be coming, which Mum promised me was soon. In the meantime, we needed to go over to the aviaries, to feed the birds and ensure that they were as clean and tidy as they needed to be.


“Do you reckon we’ll fill this all up?”


“If we breed the finches, then hopefully we will, that’s the plan.”


I smiled towards Mum, then checked my watch. We needed to head back to the house, to start preparing for visitors. Uwak Andrew and Kem arrived over, just after zoo closing time. We greeted them with warm embraces, then took them out to see the animals. We entered the exotics nocturnal house, the animals still in their on-display areas. As Uwak Andrew approached the glass, Belitung leapt onto a close-by twig.


“They really don’t spend that much time on the ground.”


Self-doubt filled my chest like smoke. I considered speaking with Uwak Andrew about our plans to breed, but even Kakek and Nanek had not managed to breed tarsiers before, so I didn’t want us to get ahead of ourselves. We eventually moved on, to where the Tasmanian devils had been put away from their outdoor area.


“To be perfectly honest, I used to think that they’d be a lot bigger than they actually are,” Kem mused, peering through the glass.


“Have you ever seen a Tasmanian devil before now, in real life?”


“No, I haven’t.”


We exited the nocturnal house and looped around the zoo.


“What’s next?”


I laughed.


“Your grandmother gives us that face all the time. You’re the spitting image of her.”


I took a deep breath. Uwak Andrew assured me that I have the tenacity of both of my grandparents. Kem headed home ahead of the two of us. I briefly showed him the aviaries and the island exhibits for gibbons and siamangs, reuniting him with the animals and reacquainting him with the new ones, including the baby named for his mother.


“I had my doubts about this place, I’ll tell you,” Uwak Andrew admitted, “but I think Bapak would have been proud of you. He always missed you, being so far away.”


I nodded my head safely.


“You know, once there was an elephant which came to visit back home,” Uwak told me.


We returned home, the back door closing behind us with a click. Passing through the kitchen, Mum was placing dinner on the table, bowls of soto padang.


“Oh, my goodness, this smells delicious,” Uwak Andrew gushed. “Thank you so much for cooking for us, Karti.”


“My pleasure,” Mum replied, beaming at her brother’s use of her treasured childhood nickname. “You know, we had a thousand people through the gates today.”


“Really, that’s incredible,” Uwak Andrew gushed with pride.


He reached for his glass and took a sip.


“I’m sure they’d love to see an elephant.”


“What’s this?” Mum enquired.


I told her, in Bahasa, that it was just a little something we’d been talking about more, and she smiled knowingly. We finished off our dinner. My mind fell back in step with all the changes this year had brought. I couldn’t help but ponder what the next lap around the sun would bring. I scrolled back through the photos on my phone. The dholes, my eighteenth birthday, adventures in Melbourne, Werribee and Healesville – all this year.


“What word would you use to describe this year?” Mum pondered, once Dad had passed a glass of wine into her hand.


“Change,” I spoke up, my mind drawn back to my earlier musing, and I didn’t need to elaborate.


Changes didn’t have to be all bad. Mum glanced towards her watch.


“It’s nearly nine o’clock.”


Therefore, our conversation was cut short. I stepped out the back, dressed in plain clothes. It was just dark. In the distance, we could just see the fireworks. I listened to them along with my racing heart, checking on the animals, hoping and praying they would not be alarmed. In the quiet following the nine o’clock fireworks, I wandered into my bedroom. I dropped onto the doona and felt the softness of the cotton on my skin.


· Add Sumatran Tiger to the Acarda Zoo collection – most likely through importation from Indonesia and Nanek’s contacts

· Further develop nocturnal house, including tapir, binturong, clouded leopard and maybe golden cat depending on availability (perhaps otter, they could fit in between entrance building?)

· Form an elephant herd, one day


That last point was purely in Uwak Andrew’s honour. I closed the notebook and turned off the light. Mum had talked about putting together an African savannah display and I wasn’t opposed to that idea. I walked out to the loungeroom, so that we could drink more, and watch the midnight fireworks. While I know that I saw the turn of the new year, I nodded off shortly after that.


 

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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