I was due to spend the morning at the vet hospital anyway, but I couldn’t help but feel banished. Reuben would be getting a call from Bill Nevill at Perth in the morning and I sensed he preferred that I stayed out of the house. Oh boy, I knew that there would be hell to pay about this, a hybrid orangutan pregnant. The Melbourne Zoo vet block is an old-style building, the exterior walls cream-rendered. It would have been built in the same vintage as the structure where Reuben now lives. There couldn’t have been more of a contrast between the exterior, and the state-of-the-art interior, kitted out with the latest veterinary medical equipment.
“Reuben wanted you out of the house, I take it.”
“More like I wanted to be out of the house,” I corrected. “I’ve got no idea what we’re going to do.”
“First we’ve got to change the lightbulbs.”
I glanced up at the ceiling, not having noticed that the lights weren’t on. Meredith is the one of the head vets at Melbourne, although I can’t pick how old she is. She’s probably in her forties, maybe? That would make her old enough to be my mother, but she doesn’t seem that old. New lightbulb in hand, Meredith climbed up onto the table. She switched them over with ease. Meredith climbed down from the table.
“That was very well done.”
“Well, you’ve got to be handy.”
“So, what’s on our agenda for today?”
“The primate keepers are bringing in our breeding female squirrel monkey, she’s not been well.”
“What do you think might be wrong with her?”
“I don’t know at this stage, to be perfectly honest with you.”
Once the van pulled up outside the vet hospital, I followed Meredith to greet it. The female squirrel monkey was carried through in a pet pack and then transferred onto anaesthetic gas, so that she wouldn’t wake up prematurely once the hand injection wore off. I stroked the back of my finger down the squirrel monkey’s fur, in awe. Meredith performed an ultrasound. As she moved the probe across the female’s belly, the doppler picked up a heartbeat.
With the diagnosis confirmed, we were able to return her safely home.
“Actually, a good news pregnancy.”
“Every pregnancy is a good news pregnancy.”
“Do you believe that?”
“Yes, more or less,” Meredith answered, matter-of-factly.
After Jazz was returned to the exhibit, I headed back to Reuben’s cottage with a hint of trepidation. Likely he wouldn’t have even been home, I knew that he would have preferred to be out in the zoo if he could help it. As I walked back through the door, I thought that I felt the ground shift beneath me.
“Hello,” Reuben called out, confirming he was home.
I walked through into the kitchen. There, I found Reuben preparing sandwiches. It seemed like an awfully domestic task for him.
“Have you been at the vet clinic?”
“Yes. How are you?” I asked on autopilot.
“Ah, good, how was your morning?”
Reuben seemed chipper, almost manic.
“Yeah, alright,” I replied, with a deescalating laugh. “The light blew in the operating theatre so we needed to get up and change it before we could do anything.”
“Right,” Reuben responded.
He sounded a little exhausted
“What have you been up to?”
“We had a special meeting about the Sumatran Rhinoceros.”
“They’re going to go extinct, aren’t they?”
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Reuben assured, then took one of the sandwiches off the plate.
He still hadn’t mentioned Bill.
“Have you got your First Aid Certificate?”
“I’m not sure,” I answered. “I know we did it at school. Seems like a long time ago.”
“It was actually only last year, though.”
Reuben opened his laptop.
“What’s on your agenda now?” I enquired.
“Right, have fun with that.”
I left Reuben’s cottage under partly grey skies. Heading down the Main Drive, I thought that I would check out the carnivore trail. The three dholes will be a big responsibility to care for, and one I’m less familiar with than how to look after primates. Yet, I happened upon Vel, and we got talking outside the reptile house.
“Reuben told me you’re not the biggest fan of snakes.”
“Well, yeah, I will admit.”
“That’s alright,” Vel assured. “We’ll take things nice and steady.”
“Thank you, I appreciate that.”
The two of us entered the reptile house. Glancing up at the concrete ceiling, I thought about our nocturnal house back home.
“This is an Arafura File Snake,” Vel introduced.
I could sense him studying my expression, searching for signs of stress or phobia. Instead, I felt the need to bear witness to these animals. If I couldn’t escape being a witness as my identity, then the least I could do was lean into the reality. Vel and I moved onto the next exhibit.
“We hold the broad-headed snake studbook. That’s these guys.”
I glanced towards the snake, slithering on the other side of the glass. Thankfully, it didn’t freak me out. Up ahead, I spotted the daylight, and I think that Vel could tell that I was drawn to it.
“You know, I know it’s strange I’d be scared of a snake and not a tiger.”
Vel shrugged his shoulders with a non-judgmental grin. We exited the reptile house. Out on the Main Drive, we encountered Isaac.
“Vel, are you finished with Jumilah?”
“I suppose it depends on if she’s finished with me.”
“Well, I don’t know,” I answered with something of an awkward laugh.
“It’s fine, Jumilah,” Vel assured me. “You’ll learn more with Isaac in the bird department for what you need for the time being.”
I thanked him, then we bid farewell. Isaac led me in the direction of Wild Sea. He unlocked the back-of-house areas, quiet given the time of the day. After securing the gate behind him, Isaac and I headed towards the off-exhibit area for Melbourne Zoo’s breeding colony. Some of the birds were still out in the water, indulging themselves in one last swim.
“It’s breeding season for our penguins.”
“That seems a little early,” I remarked, “still being winter.”
“Oh, this is fairly usual,” Isaac explained. “They come out swimming in the spring.”
I nodded my head, a small smile coming onto my lips at the thought. Isaac and I watched as the penguins toddled home. After leaving Wild Sea, we veered through the African rainforest on his way out of the zoo for the night. In between the gorillas and pygmy hippos, construction fences were set up, albeit not blocking the path.
“They’re taking down the ranger station building, to convert it into an aviary.”
I nodded my head.
“When it’s done, we’ll stock it up with grey parrots, firefinchs and silverbills. It’ll be great to have more African birds back in the zoo.”
Isaac beamed. Birds seemed to bring him grey joy.
“I remember African Greys when I first started here. They were in a row of aviaries on the other side of the zoo, just behind where the bear exhibit was.”
Isaac grinned at the memory.
“We’re going to get some for Werribee as well, is the hope,” Isaac mentioned, as we continued on past the gorilla exhibit and out of the public areas of the zoo. “They used to have the African Greys too, back in the day, but I think that they all died.”
I didn’t return home until after dark.
“Sorry, I’m late,” I apologised. “I was with Vel at the reptile house, then Isaac showed me around to the bird exhibits.”
Reuben was grinning.
“My goodness, you’re just like your mother.”
Reuben poured two glasses of wine and gestured back towards the front door. I spun on my heels and walked over, holding it ajar so that he could pass through and it could shut behind us. We sat down, and I felt courage building within me.
Reuben sipped his wine.
“Contraceptive failure, these things happened. We wish they didn’t, of course, but sometimes they come in handy.”
“I meant with Mum.”
Ice cubes clattered in Reuben’s glass in place of a response.
“Reuben,” I pressed. “I’m eighteen, I’m an adult.”
I laughed to diffuse the tension.
“I’m kind of indebted to you right now, anyway--.”
“I loved her, she didn’t feel the same way.” Reuben finished his drink. “End of story.”
My gaze trailed over the edge of the veranda. I could tell that my heart was beating faster than ever by the way that my chest was seizing up, at confirmation of what I thought couldn’t have been true.
“It’s good that you were able to stay friends--.”
“I couldn’t cope.”
“Did you ever tell her?”
Reuben swallowed, not meeting my eyes.
“Not expressly. I gather that she knew.”
“Do you think that my dad knows?”
“I have no idea,” Reuben admitted, “but I generally suppose that he does.”
“It’s not like he can be mad at you. He won.
“Yeah, you could put it that way.”
Feeling the chill of the night, I stood up. I headed back inside, and Reuben followed me, making sure to lock the door behind us.
“Who was the zookeeper we saw out on the Main Drive?” I enquired, changing the subject.
“Ah, that’s Violet,” Reuben told me. “She’s one of our ungulate keepers. You see, on our ungulate team, we’ve got Violet and Ara--.”
“And Ara’s the redhead one.”
“Yes,” Reuben confirmed, “and she’s already heard every joke in the book about getting hair inspiration from the bongo, don’t worry.”
“Alright, I won’t say anything.”
To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t made the connection. When I finally got to bed, there was a message on my phone from Tallulah.
I miss you
Holding the phone against my chest, I closed my eyes. For a moment I thought that I might have burst into tears. I didn’t, though. Instead, I just messaged Tallulah back.
I miss you too
Jumilah Fioray is a recent high school graduate from lutruwita, Tasmania. Her parents, Catherine and Adriano Fioray, met at the University of Melbourne in the 1990s and returned to Hobart after finishing their degrees, where they raised their daughter and worked in agriculture. Jumilah's passion for conservation reflects her grandparents' work running a sanctuary in Sumatra.
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.