I woke up early, checked my watch, then rolled onto my side. The morning light hadn’t yet crept in through the slither beside the curtain. I could have gone back to sleep. Yet, I sensed that I wouldn’t, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy once I reached for my phone. I scrolled through Instagram for a little while, then got up. After getting changed into work clothes, I migrated to the kitchen. I made coffee, presuming that Mum and Dad would want some too before they left for work, and produced a fourth cup for Tallulah. She arrived on time as accepted then, taking our coffees with us, we moved out to the worksite to start for the day. I squirted some paint onto the dirt. Can in hand, I paced out from what will be the wall to the entrance kiosk.
“I kind of wish that we didn’t have to build things for people.”
“I’ve always said that you like animals more than people.”
“I definitely like animals more than people,” Tallulah assured us.
“Will you two be alright here if I go to work?”
“Yeah, of course.”
Dad farewelled us with a wave. He left for work.
“What are your parents planning to do once the zoo is open?”
“We haven’t really talked about it. I think that Mum would like to walk here, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
I briefly glanced up to the sky.
“Are you thinking about your grandfather?”
“Yeah,” I admitted, “I am. I keep wondering what he would think about this. Would he be happy? Do I make him proud?”
“Of course, he would be proud of you.”
“Thank you,” I replied, then we got back to work.
Our plans for the entrance kiosk are rather basic. It’s only a kiosk, barely a building. Really, it’s a kiosk with a counter. There will be an awning to shield from the sun. To the left will be the gate and turnstile, for entering and exiting the zoo. The materials for that will need to be sought at a later date; I wouldn’t even know where to start. Do you buy a turnstile all in one piece and simply plant it? Is it like a Lego set or a kit from Ikea, where you get given the pieces and then have to work out where they all fit together? Would you have to purchase the materials separately? I gathered that I’d find out eventually. I kneeled down and dug a trench in the soil. Tallulah handed over the bricks.
“I’m pretty sure I’m trying to get the bricks straight and the render even,” I explained. “Apparently that will make a good building, a solid building.”
“Yeah, right,” Tallulah replied.
I didn’t blame her for being quiet. We reached the end of the foundations along the trench I’d already dug.
“Would you like to have a go for the next bit?” I offered, extending the shovel towards Tallulah’s hands.
“Yeah, alright,” she agreed, and took the shovel.
Tallulah started to dig.
After that, I didn’t say anything further for a while. I just handed over the bricks and played my part. By letting her take the lead, I figured that I was doing the right thing. Tallulah expertly smoothed the render. She seemed to have more of a delicate touch than Patrick had done, when the two of us were working on the nocturnal house building.
“Alright, let’s talk,” Tallulah eventually decided. “Tell me something, tell me anything.”
“I went to the doctor on Monday, I’ve got a prescription now for tablets which are supposed to help me,” I told Tallulah.
“And have you gone to the chemist to get them?”
“Yes, I have,” I answered. “I’ve been taking them for a couple of days now.”
“I really hope it helps you.”
“So do I,” I agreed.
I could hear my heart beating. So far, the tablets didn’t seem to be making that much of a difference. I put down my rapid heartrate to the exertion of the manual labour. We continued building – digging, then laying bricks. Breaking a sweat in the middle of winter wasn’t that bad after all; it certainly meant I didn’t feel that cold. I could see what Patrick and I had constructed the day before, proof of what could be achieved. Tallulah’s watch buzzed, indicating that her phone was ringing.
“It’s alright, go inside,” I urged. “Find out what’s happening.”
I pressed back a wisp of hair from my face.
Tallulah scampered away.
“Hello, Tallulah speaking,” she answered, not going all the way back to the house.
I didn’t want to be nosey and listen in, but I couldn’t help myself.
“Right, right. Thank you.”
She returned to me, heart thumping all of a sudden.
“Eight-thousand, six-hundred and fifty dollars,” Tallulah said.
She turned around to face me.
“Eight-thousand, six-hundred and fifty dollars. That’s how much they fined him.”
Tallulah shook her head.
“He would have earned double that for a Test match.”
The corners of her lips twisted upwards in relief, but her eyes remained glazed with outrage.
“Oh, Tallulah, I’m so sorry.”
I waited for her to reach out, before finally giving her a hug. The last thing I’d want to do was violate Tallulah’s autonomy again, even in such a small way. My chin dipped down into her shoulder. Finally, we parted. Tallulah’s chest seemed to cave in. Then, she breathed out and raised her shoulders. Shame could be, and would be, undone, and called out as the fallacy that it ultimately is.
“What needs to be done now?”
I consulted the plans which were pinned down with a spare brick to stop them from blowing away, although of course that did little to stop them from becoming dusty.
“We can work on the external walls,” I suggested, so that was what we did.
The process of working made me think, the manual labour providing space for my brain to tick over.
“I like the idea of the humans feeling like they’re the ones who are caged. It kind of flips the script a bit and, I don’t know, I appreciate that.”
I smeared render, laying bricks while Tallulah listened intently to me.
“But, I suppose, the humans are the ones doing the caging as well,” I mused. “I’m not a hundred per cent sure how you demonstrate that without just replicating the same thing and making it invisible.”
I’ve always been an animal person, not an architect, perhaps owing to my upbringing on the farm. I climbed back down the ladder and took a moment to ponder that idea. Fatigue was starting to creep in. Just when we got back to work, my phone rang.
“It’s alright, take it.”
I removed my gloves and answered the phone.
Patrick didn’t say anything.
“What’s the matter?”
“Frank’s sentence has been handed down.”
My heart thumped faster, while I waited for Patrick to disclose it.
“It’s a joke, he can get parole in fifteen months.”
I stretched my back, trying to alleviate the tightness in my spine.
“How’s Sloane holding up?”
“It’s hard to get through to her. It’s like there’s a wall up.”
“I’m sure you’re doing your best.”
My hand curved around my hip, the other gripping the phone tighter.
“She’s pregnant. I don’t quite know how she feels about the while thing, but it would be triggering for her regardless.”
Patrick and I finally finished on the phone, so I put the device away and returned to Tallulah.
“What’s the matter?”
“That was Patrick. Frank’s sentencing has come through. He’s been sent to prison. He’ll be out in about fifteen months.”
It felt like the strangest parallel, to have both decisions handed down on the same day.
“Well, good riddance. Throw away the key, I say.”
Tallulah handed me a bottle of water.
I removed the lid and took a sip.
“I’m so sorry that Kyle didn’t get sent to prison.”
Tallulah shrugged her shoulders.
“Oh, he got convicted. I suppose I should be grateful for that.”
“You don’t need to be grateful for anything.”
Tallulah looked me in the eye, although her shoulders remained hunched.
“I’m serious, Tallulah.”
I breathed out. Perhaps, on my behalf, silence was the better option. I couldn’t truly understand what she was going through.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Tallulah set down her water bottle. “At least I will be. Let’s get to work. I need to do some manual labour.”
At least that was something I could provide. We started to lay the bricks, for the walls of the entrance kiosk. Even though that’s not a piece of animal infrastructure, it’s necessary in order to have a functional zoo. The intention will be a not-for-profit organisation, but we will still have to have gate takings to pay for the upkeep for the animals. That means that, one day, I will no longer work at Woolworths, but that’s still a way away. Our kiosk isn’t planned to be large. All is needs is a desk and an awning, extending beyond the counter to shade the public. From the counter you would pass through a gate on the right – on the left if you’re behind the counter, and from there enter the zoo and curve around to enter the exotic nocturnal house. Ideally it would be nice to have an exhibit there one day, in between. We’re building for a future which we don’t fully understand. Sure, there’s a plan which was put together with the Zoo Aquarium Association, in which we would house some of Nanek’s animals and a handful of birds to start off with. These are the exhibits which we will be building in accordance with our planning permission. They must be completed before we can get a licence. Before we can have the inspection for a licence, the council needs to be satisfied with our construction. It’s very easy to be overwhelmed by all of this – I definitely am, to be perfectly honest. I didn’t realise that achieving my dreams would be so terribly stressful. Tallulah and I completed what we could of the entrance kiosk, before I pointed towards the structure Patrick and I had erected the day before.
“We’re going to have a waterfall at this end of the macaque exhibit,” I explained. “I’m going to hook it up so that it’ll catch rainwater off the roof and recycle it in the moat.”
“You’re not doing that,” Tallulah insisted.
“We don’t have the money to get someone in to do it,” I pointed out. “I’m not going to do it today and I’m not going to do it alone, but I’ll do it.”
Tallulah narrowed her eyes, but didn’t say anything further.
“Oh, did I tell you that we’re going to Adelaide in a couple of weeks?” I mentioned, to both placate her and change the subject. “Nanek’s coming too.”
“That sounds great,” Tallulah responded. “I’m sure that you must really miss being able to see her.”
We headed inside for a very late lunch, and I glanced towards my watch.
“I’m going to have to call it a day if I’m going to join the carnivore TAG meeting soon,” I admitted, over our sandwiches. “You could join, if you like.”
“That’s alright, I’ll head off.”
“Are you still good for Patrick and I to park at yours?”
“Yeah, of course,” Tallulah agreed.
“Thanks for coming today,” I told her, “and thanks for that tonight. I know it must be hard sometimes.”
“Thank you so much for having me,” Tallulah replied. “It’s meant the world to be here.”
“Well, I’m grateful to take advantage. Will you be back here tomorrow?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Tallulah saw herself out. Everyone was punctual to the carnivore TAG meeting. I came on time, and I was the last to arrive. Joining on mute, I sat back to watch.
“I’m not going to wait until reports. I want to talk about the future of the tiger program at Mogo,” Bill began. “I don’t think Julie can be trusted with another breeding recommendation.”
I couldn’t help but pull a face.
“We’re not even talking about this--.”
To fill me in on something which happened when I was an infant, Reuben private messaged me the story, about an unauthorised litter of tiger cubs being produced. While the discussion took heated, I took a laboured breath, unwilling to see a woman slandered for no good reason.
“Julie took a risk. She took a gamble. Rather than doing nothing, Julie decided that she would do something.”
My heart was thumping within my chest.
“You should not have introduced those tigers. Still, it was a long time ago. I think we can get over it.”
Nobody knew what to say. I put myself on mute, because I’d said enough.
“Right, let’s have studbook reports,” Bill decided. “Does anyone have any questions?”
“Bill, I have a question for you,” Sam spoke up. “What are your bear plans?”
“We’re not planning on breeding sun bear again. We are wanting to house the species into the future.”
“May I ask how that fits together? Are you looking at importing more rescue animals?”
“It’s challenging to import rescue animals now. As part of reusing habitats, we are going to be utilising shared spaces between Sumatran Tigers and sun bears in our next masterplan. There will be rotational exhibits between the tigers and the bears, it’s very enriching for both species.”
“Well, that would put a kibosh on any breeding plans.”
“It’s a beaut of a design, though,” Bill insisted.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but amen to that.”
Truth be told, it sounded pretty good, and very enriching for the animals and public alike. I found myself dreaming, about what we could build. The thought of rotational exhibits was something we could be able to integrate into our existing design.
“Look, does anyone else have any more studbook questions?”
Nobody did, so we were able to move onto the reports.
“We’ve confirmed through the studbook keeper, as you’d know, Bill, that we’ll be receiving a male lion from Perth Zoo in a couple of weeks. It will be really exciting for him to go into the new exhibit. This is a real silver lining for us.”
“And I can confirm,” Sam chimed in, “that the animal in question is the male Mwenyezi.”
“We’ve also been in contact with the EEP to submit our application to join, so that we’ll be able to be part of the Sri Lankan Leopard program,” Harold added. “Thankfully, the process has been smooth.”
“Surprisingly,” Reuben remarked, now with his camera on, and I wondered if he spoke from experience.
“We’ve had another litter of four Maned Wolf puppies over the weekend. We had to deliver them via C-section.”
“Unfortunately, we needed to euthanise one of our African Wild Dogs.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Bill responded. “What has that done to the makeup of your group?”
“He was one of the subordinate males, turned out that he had a skin cancer which had spread to his stomach. We’re monitoring the welfare of the rest of the pack for now.”
“There was a fire near the zoo. Thankfully, it didn’t reach our property.”
“That’s good that there wasn’t any damage,” I commented.
“Yeah, we got real lucky.”
“One of our young lionesses is pregnant.”
“That’s great news, mate. I’m really pleased. It’s a beautiful silver lining.”
“I take it this is one of your tawny lionesses?” Bill enquired.
“Yes,” Raffa confirmed.
“Look, I’m willing to toe the line, but there’s not necessarily anything wrong with breeding white lions. They are purebred South African Lions.”
“That would be a question we can explore more fully another day.”
“We’re going to try again with trying to breed our fishing cats.”
“No, naturally. We can’t do AI at the moment, Doctor Andy Hope isn’t available to assist right now.”
“Fishing cats almost serve as a bridge between Asian rainforests and Indian grasslands,” Sam mused.
“Are you considering replacing your elephants with one-horned rhinos?”
“Well, that would be a discussion for another TAG. I’m sure that we’ll sort things out in due course, on both fronts.”
“We’re receiving a male lion from Darling Downs. Once he arrives, we’re planning on performing a castration to minimise aggression. It would be ideal to be able to house him close by, if not with, our breeding male.”
“Castration is a particularly significant procedure. Surely a vasectomy would be better if you want permanent contraception for an overrepresented animal,” Des pointed out. “Besides, it’s technically reversible.”
“Only technically,” Harold reminded.
“My problem with castration is the loss of sex characteristics,” Raffa mentioned.
“Which can be cosmetic.”
“Both for the animal and the animal’s display value, I still think that a vasectomy is preferred.”
“So, you don’t support this procedure, Raffa?” Monica checked.
“Personally, I don’t,” Raffa admitted, “but maybe my own manhood is getting in the way. Without wanting to be too obtuse about it, I would appreciate Monica’s perspective on this situation.”
She had trouble maintaining eye contact. Admittedly, I also wanted to look down and away, even though it wasn’t strictly sexist to solicit a woman’s opinion.
“I mean, from a medical perspective, either way, it’s an operation--.”
“Castration reduces aggression,” Bill reminded. “That’s important.”
“Please don’t interrupt me, Bill.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he apologised, raising his hands. “Please, carry on, Monica.”
“The points that have been able about the contraceptive impact are valid. That said, I don’t anticipate a vasectomy reversal on this lion. He’s well-represented and has a brother who has already bred. Still, a vasectomy won’t cause him to lose his mane. Cosmetic considerations are lower priority, but physical impacts aren't worth nothing.”
Gershon, from Hunter Valley, nodded.
“Alright, it’s decided, we’ll do a vasectomy and then we’ll wait and see.”
That was decided. While on mute, I took a breath, grateful for the heat to be over. That’s part of the purpose of these meetings – to collaborate, discuss and find a solution.
“We’re sending three male capybaras to Taronga Western Plains next week.”
“Nothing to report this meeting.”
“National Zoo and Aquarium?”
“During the week, we performed an ultrasound on our lioness and we were able to confirm a pregnancy.”
“That’s great news.”
“Taronga Western Plains?”
“Our lion cubs are two females and a male, which is really exciting. You don’t want to be too picky about these things, but it’s exactly what we would have hoped for.”
“Have you decided on names for them yet?”
“No, not at this stage. We will consult the keepers and consider the personalities of the cubs.”
Once the TAG meeting finished, I checked my watch and sat up straighter with a jolt. I needed to have a shower before Patrick was going to turn up and be at my door and take me out for the night, just the two of us in this big wide world. As I scampered off to the bathroom, I removed my shoes, my watch, my shirt. I jumped into the shower and quickly washed off the day, before switching off the water. As I stepped out and reached for a towel, I heard someone at the door. Footsteps, then Patrick called my name. I could feel a blush creeping into my cheeks. I walked out into the loungeroom, towel around me.
“Hey.” Water dripped off my hair and onto the wooden floor. “I didn’t realise you could let yourself in.”
“Your mum told me where the key is.”
I nodded my head, eyebrows raised.
“I’d better go and get dressed.”
I scampered off to my bedroom, where I quickly dried myself. Once I changed into clothes for the night, I walked back out to the loungeroom.
“Oh, Jumilah, I think your phone is ringing.”
I noticed it still on the table, switched to silent but buzzing with a call. The FaceTime call was from none other than Nanek. I answered the call, offering Patrick a smile, although not positioning him within the frame of the camera’s view.
“Hello, Nanek, how are you?” I greeted.
“I’ve been looking up online about what you’re doing. It sounds very impressive, just like your grandparents. It’d be lovely to hear more from yourself.”
“Of course,” I promised her, then told her I loved her, in Bahasa.
“You are my favourite granddaughter, after all.”
“Oh, I’m sure that you say that to all of us.”
Aisha, Mum’s youngest sister, poked her head in. I switched over, out of selfie mode.
“Hello, Jumilah,” she greeted me. “Oh my, is this your beautiful boyfriend?”
“Yes, he is,” I confirmed.
Patrick stepped into place behind me. I switched back the camera view, to display both of our faces in the call.
“We’re going out tonight.”
“Well, have a lovely evening.”
We ended the call. I dropped my phone into my bag. Smiling up at Patrick, I was ready to leave and spend the evening with him.
“It’s alright. I don’t mind talking to your grandmother.”
Patrick kissed me on the lips.
“What did you get up to today?”
“We had a good day today,” I reported. “Tallulah and I, we built stuff. We built the entrance kiosk. I’ll take you out to have a look.”
“Sure,” Patrick agreed, “although I noticed it when I was coming in.”
“Right,” I replied. “Would you like to make tracks, then?”
I nodded. We headed out to the car, locking the house behind us. Sitting in the passenger seat of Patrick’s car on the way into the city, I found myself twirling my black hair around my fingers. He glanced over to me and noticed, but didn’t say anything, even though I would have liked him to.
We parked out the front of Tallulah’s place, then wandered down to the pier.
“Your last name, is that your mum’s name or your dad’s name?”
“It’s Mum’s name,” Patrick told me. “I was given Dad’s name when I was born. When he left I started to take Mum’s name, and that stuck when I started school.”
I nodded my head. The ferry arrived and we climbed on, floating down the Derwent while the sun set. As we walked up from the pier, hand in hand, mirrorballs scattered light over the path. I couldn’t even tell what held them up. Maybe they were hanging from trees. Perhaps the mirrorballs were strung up in between poles. I started to hear chirping noises. The sounds increased in volume, making themselves noticeable over the chatter of the growing crowds wandering around. As Patrick and I turned the corner, we happened upon large animatronic birds – a little freaky, and styled slightly like the Twitter logo. They were lit up in various neon hues.
“We’ve got finches, lorikeets and fruit doves promised for birds.”
“And the finches are going to go into the aviary which you’ve already built?”
“Yeah,” I confirmed, nodded my head. “We’ll have two aviaries – the finch aviary and the lorikeet and dove aviary.”
A grin came onto my lips.
“Oh, that reminds me.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Oh, I just thought of visiting my grandparents when I was a kid. We went to an aquarium.”
We bought some loaded fries from a food van and found somewhere to sit down on a low retaining wall and share them. I flicked through the camera roll on my phone, including screenshots of indoor plants.
“Is that for the nocturnal house?”
I plucked out a chip, scooping garlic aioli and fried shallots.
“We really want to have live plants.” I ate the chip. “Well, I really want to have live plants.”
Once we finished off our food, we found a bin for the container – composting for contaminated cardboard. The two of us explored the next set of light installations. A light box, the size and shape of one of those power boxes you’d find in the city, was covered with an array of bulbs. They slowly changed colour. I read the blurb on a nearby sign, which explained how you should close your eyes as you pressed your frame against the installation. Patrick stepped into the light. I giggled, snapping a photo of his silhouette from behind. Even feeling the chill of the night, I beamed. Patrick withdrew from the light box and I snuggled into his side as we walked around the bright lights, as happy people. We ambled around the loop of installations, eventually reaching the end of the displays.
“Shall we call it a night?” Patrick proposed.
“Let’s go home,” I agreed, steering him back to the pier, where we’d arrived just in time.
Patrick and I stepped back onto the ferry. Even though it was chilly, the two of us sat down outside on the deck. We motored across the Derwent River, back to Bellerive. I reached for Patrick’s hand.
“Thank you for tonight,” I told him. “It’s been beautiful.”
“Thank you for coming with me.”
The lights in the houses on the shore glittered. The ferry reached its destination, then Patrick drove me back. Once I re-entered the house, I crept through the house, so as not to wake Mum and Dad. I slipped into my bedroom and changed, dumping my previous outfit onto the floor. Getting into bed, even after a good day, I still felt tightness in the pit of my stomach.
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.