This morning, Nikki had asked if I’d come into the sanctuary again. Therefore, I got ready in a hurry and scampered out to the kitchen.
“I’m sorry, Mrs Roberts, I’m going into Healesville today,” I told her, while she dried the dishes.
“That’s alright, is Nikki driving you?”
“Yeah, yeah, she is.”
I was looking forward to the day at Healesville, even though a brief glance out the window didn’t promise much.
“Alright, I’ve got to go. I’ll see you later.”
“And remember, Kate’s boyfriend’s coming over for dinner tonight,” Mrs Roberts called after me.
I paused in the doorway.
“Do you need me to make sure that I’m home early?”
“No, as long as you’re home for dinner,” Mrs Roberts answered.
“Don’t worry, I will be.”
As I raced out to Nikki’s car, my phone rang.
“Hey, Isobel,” I answered the call. “How are you going? Are you at work today?”
“Yes, I am,” Isobel confirmed, as I slipped into the passenger seat of the car. “What about you?”
“Yeah, I’m on my way to Healesville now.”
I fastened my seatbelt across my chest and offered Nikki a grin.
“Oh, Joel’s sent me a text, if you were interested, he’s told me more about Erin’s prognosis.”
I felt my heart beating faster within my chest.
“She’s going to have to have ongoing therapy for her hand,” I explained. “Physio and the whole works, it’s going to be a really challenging road. There’s hope, though, that she’ll be able to come back to work at the zoo.”
“That’s really good to hear.”
We arrived in the carpark at Healesville. Nikki turned off the ignition, causing waterdrops to accumulate on the windscreen.
“Alright,” she eventually said. “We’re going to have to brave this.”
We got out of the car and rushed for the wildlife hospital. From the safety of shelter, Nikki locked the car, and I shook myself off like a wet dog. I eventually followed her inside the hospital proper. The interior of the body felt somewhat cozy, and a part of me hoped we wouldn’t have to venture out. Unfortunately, the wish was granted, by a wallaby who had come in overnight. Her fate remained unknown, after examination. The wallaby was moved into the rehabilitation ward, to rest and recuperate. In the quiet, my mind wandered straight to Tullamarine, and the likelihood that Violet did get on that plane, without her husband, regardless of his feelings on the subject. Despite it being none of my business, my heart ached for them to experience resolution.
“Well, that’s my work with the animals for the moment,” Nikki declared. “If the keepers need any help, you’re more than welcome to track them down and ask for something to do.”
“Yeah, sure,” I agreed. “I’ll see you later.”
I departed the wildlife hospital, rain jacket like a shield. Darting across the path, I reached the next shelter, adjoining the tree kangaroo exhibits. A rainforest species, Taro and Salsa were unafraid of the deluge.
“We’re planning an evacuation drill today.”
Therefore, I returned to the wildlife hospital to pass on the message.
“I mean, I’d say let’s not do this in the rain, but--.” Nikki sighed. “I get that these things can happen in the rain, for sure.”
Evacuation plans would be another aspect we would need to consider. I made a note on my phone, to speak with Mum and Dad about that later, although it would probably be delayed by having dinner with Kate and her boyfriend. It was lovely that the Roberts family were including me so wholeheartedly during my time with them. As the rain eased, Nikki found herself with another task – heading out to the Tasmanian devil breeding area, a shaded area behind their on-display enclosures. Boggy with the rain, we reached a holding area containing five devils. The two of us peered over the barrier, where they were peering up towards us. They were very cute, not at all living up to their name.
“So, Maggie had the four girls in January.”
The little devils must have grown rapidly since then, fast approaching the size of their mother. They followed her around, but seemed to be becoming more independent, branching out to find their own food and enrichment.
“And you’ve got to give them vaccinations?”
“Yeah, this will be their first vet check. We sexed them when they were younger, but that was very quick, a very quick check.”
I was mindful of wanting to keep my fingers. Nonetheless, I trusted Nikki. I followed her into the enclosure, while Maggie, the mother devil, tried to make a break for it. This seemed to happen far too often. Thankfully, Nikki was the ultimate professional who ensured we would be losing no animal on her watch. She jabbed each of the four youngsters, then we safely exited.
“Will they be moved out soon?”
“Oh, yes, they will be. Devils breed pretty young, so it won’t be long before they’re paired with a male. There was a litter at Monarto born just a few days after, and there’s a male in that litter, so he’s likely to be their breeding partner. That’s the plan.”
Just after we left, the bell sounded. I was glad to be with Nikki, so that we could head to the wildlife hospital together for the evacuation.
“All non-essential personnel need to muster in the carpark,” she outlined. “Those with critical patients can stay.”
Derek remained. Perhaps that was the flaw of the drill – in a real life-or-death situation, decisions wouldn’t be quite that easy to make. I followed Nikki outside with a couple of the rehabilitating possums in their pouches, hand-knitted by volunteers. We make sure to reassure the guests that there was no cause for alarm. Disgruntled visitors milled about near their cars. At least the benefit of conducting the drill on a wet weather day meant that the sanctuary hadn’t been that packed to begin with. I noticed Annie peering up into the tree-line.
“You know, it would only take one ember, one spark.”
She shook her head. Annie could have been old enough to have been working at Healesville during the fires. Satisfied with our performance, Margie finally called off the drill. We were let back into the sanctuary, which decelerated my heart-rate. I ensured that the possums were settled again. Then, I asked Annie what I could help out with.
“Well, there’s always food prep that needs doing. That’s something you’re not going to be able to get around.”
We’d do a lot of the work within our own kitchen at home, cutting down the need to build additional infrastructure. Therefore, I got to work. Nikki swung by the feed shed.
“Are you alright? You were excellent this morning.”
“Yeah, I’m fine, thanks. It was fine, honestly, it’s something that I’ve got to get used to, another thing to think about.”
“Would you like to help with some food prep?”
“Why not?” I replied.
I was surprised, because surely Nikki had enough work of her own, but she also struck me as humble enough, that she wouldn’t consider keepers’ duties beneath her. Menial tasks offered me peace. Due to the weather, the bird show didn’t run. While I completed my other tasks, I could hear the call of the birds. Nikki and I chopped up watermelon, while we could gaze out the window. Precipitation commenced again. Thankfully, the rain had lessened, spitting rather than slobbering.
“You know, back at Melbourne Zoo, we would give these to the elephants whole, they would love them, smashing them with their feet and eating them.” I placed the knife down on the bench. “Can I have a word, please?”
“Yeah, of course,” I agreed.
Nikki shut the door.
“I’m sorry,” I apologised. “I know that I’ve started to develop something of a reputation, so I didn’t mean it like that.”
“That’s alright,” Nikki assured. “Is there someone in particular that you’re concerned about?”
“No. It was just a bit of a thing at Melbourne Zoo.”
She studied me, like she was urging me to go on.
“I did a lot of my own thing when I was there, because Reuben encouraged it. Just before I left, I heard that some people didn’t like that.”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“I’m not going to tell you not to worry,” Nikki mentioned, “but I think you’re just fine. You’re a hard worker and you seem to be a nice person, unless I’m just the fool.”
I laughed, grateful for her vote of confidence. We returned to the sanctuary kitchen and washed, dried and packed away the knives and chopping boards.
“Alright, I think it’s time to make tracks,” Nikki announced.
We collected our bags, then left. The car trip home was a little quieter than usual. I couldn’t stop thinking about Kate’s boyfriend. He might have been joining their family, although not mine. There wasn’t an extra car out the front when Nikki dropped me home. Therefore, I gathered that Kate’s boyfriend was yet to arrive and, heading inside, I was proven correct, but Mrs Roberts had cooked most of dinner. While I offered to help, there was little I could do. Therefore, I indulged myself in the opportunity to head back outside again, once my bag had been put away. Removing my shoes and socks, leaving them on the veranda, I sunk my toes into the wet soil of Wurundjeri country, fingers splayed out to catch the gentle evening rain. Finally, I heard a car’s gentle rumble. I owed it to the Roberts family to go back inside, plus, my clothes were starting to feel a little damp. Locating a towel on the veranda, I dusted the drips off my feet and the rest of my body. Kate led Alexander into the house, giddy through the introduction of this new love, to her loved ones. He struck me as the sort of short-back-and-sides haircut young man who would fit in just as well in the country or the city.
“Alexander, this is Mum, Marie, and Dad, Mark,” Kate introduced them, “and this is Jumilah, she’s staying with us for a little bit.”
“So, Kate tells me you’re from Healesville.”
“Yes, I’ve been doing work experience at the sanctuary, but I’m from Tasmania, actually, I’ll be heading back there in just over a month.”
“Ah, right, that’s cool.”
We sat down for dinner. Food, drink and conversation flowed. It was well past half past nine by the time I realised that I hadn’t yet called home today. I was almost tempted not to, to send a text and leave it until the morning. Mum and Dad would want to hear from me, so I made the call.
“Hey. Sorry it’s so late.”
“Are you alright, Jumilah?” Dad checked.
“Yeah, everything’s all good,” I confirmed. “We had company for dinner, Kate’s boyfriend. He’s nice.”
I waited a beat to see whether he required explanation. Dad made a mumbling noise of affirmation which indicated to me that he recalled Kate’s identity, from my previous anecdotes.
“How’s everything going?”
“Yeah, we’re getting there. The islands for the gibbons and the siamangs are pretty much completely finished, which is good.”
“Your mother’s really happy with them. She thinks we’ll be able to open by the end of the year.”
“That’s great. I love you, Dad.”
He told me that he loved me too. We ended the call, so I placed down my phone and fell asleep.
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.