This story is by B.E. Jackson and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Luigi Molinari felt spryer than usual when he got out of bed that morning, despite the falling snow outside. It was as if a youthful tide of energy had washed over him, restoring the last twenty years of his life. His brain hummed, his skin sang, and he felt a renewed kindness for the animals in his care. They had become his whole purpose for living since he’d lost his beloved Maria.
The beasts were strangely silent this morning. As he stumbled around in the dark putting on clothing, he strained to hear the tiger’s growl or the apes’ chatter.
Coming to work at this zoo had been a rude awakening for Luigi. Instead of what he was used to—a vast open landscape surrounded by secure fencing, where visitors could view the animals atop open-air buses—this menagerie was in a medieval-style fortress featuring a courtyard encircling a cluster of stone-walled rooms converted into cages.
When he’d first arrived, the locals in the nearby town had called it The Keep, their mouths twitching with amused disdain. There was an actual tower keep at the center of the structure, but Luigi had quickly decided it was not suitable for human or animal living. Instead, he’d converted one of the cave-like cages into a modest apartment for himself and Maria. It worked quite well, heated by a solar-powered radiator, and with a stove, and refrigerator supplied by his employer. You simply had to get used to the constant smell of animal waste.
Each day, Luigi would open a different cage and let its occupant roam the courtyard while he cleaned and replenished the animal’s food and water. And in this way, a young Siberian tiger, an ancient bear, a pair of chimps, a zebra, and two antelopes all inhabit roughly the same space without devouring each other.
Sitting down just now to put on his socks, Luigi marveled once again at his prowess this morning. Normally, it took his aged body several minutes to perform this task. But when he lifted a foot he saw with amazement that his socks and shoes were already on. He must have done the task while thinking about other things.
Things like his departed wife, Maria. Married for thirty years, he always liked to say she was his better self. Until she wasn’t. Until the day she stood in this very room and screamed at him, “I am a prisoner here, just like these pathetic animals! Let me go, Luigi! Let us go!”
Luigi stood and crossed the room to the refrigerator. He’d awoken from a vivid dream of devouring a roast beef sandwich. Thinking about it now made him ravenous. He pulled the door open and promptly slammed it again. A buzzing had begun in his ears—or had it been there since he awoke? Was that what kept him from hearing the normal animal sounds? He brought a hand up to rub his eyes violently and then poke at his ear. He tried opening the door of the fridge again but something . . . didn’t want him to see what was in there.
Down in the town, Jack was recruiting his friend Frank for a noble mission—to free the animals living captive in the zoo on the hill, the one that crazy zookeeper called “Paradiso Animale.”
“Paradise, my you-know-what,” Jack had muttered the night before. “We need to see what he’s got trapped up there and set them free . . . do what’s right.” It had sounded good to Frank at the time, both of them sipping from leftover rum-filled paper cups and nibbling on stale raisin bran muffins outside the town’s only cafe.
But this morning, the mercy mission didn’t feel as right. Snow was falling. Frank peered out at the sky as Jack twitched in his sleep.
“Stuff’s gettin’ deep out there. Boy, I hate snow.”
Within an hour they were nearing the old fortress that overlooked the town. Snow clung to its tiled roof, looking like delicious icing on a carrot cake, and reminding Frank he was hungry again.
“Could do without this wind,” Jack muttered, stopping to catch his breath by the solitary tree on the path. Then the shrieking on the hill began and they forgot about the wind.
At the edge of town, Jack—the faster of the two—finally slowed and circled back to wait for his buddy. Then they both sought refuge from the blowing snow in an overhang.
“What did we even hear?” Frank asked as he furiously shook snow from his head. “A woman’s scream, or maybe a high-pitched man’s voice. More likely, one of the beasts.”
Jack turned on his friend and snapped, “Those poor animals are in peril—we should not have left!” He began flicking the powdery snow off his chest to calm himself. “We need to alert Constable Briggs.”
The snow was finally subsiding amid the first streaks of dawn when they came to the house where the constable’s cruiser sat in the driveway.
“I don’t know about this,” Frank muttered as they approached the front door. “I mean, what if he’s trigger-happy? I . . . don’t wanna be collateral damage.” Jack nodded and was silent for a moment.
“Hey, I’ve got an idea,” he murmured, turning back to look at the cruiser.
Luigi was no longer hungry. Instead, he focused on his growing anxiety over the animals’ silence. Grasping his front door’s handle, he pushed it open and clambered over an enormous wedge of packed snow before stumbling into the courtyard. He turned and looked back at the mound beside his door. That hadn’t felt like snow as he’d scrambled over it. He walked back and bent down to investigate it further. His hand pushed through the melting flakes to something still, dark, and wetly furry—one of the apes.
Panicked, he felt a strong urge to check the cat’s cage. Of all the animals housed there, his greatest concern was the Siberian tiger. Neither he nor the other animals would be safe if that cat was loose. He hit the floodlamp that illuminated half the courtyard and hoped the solar battery still had some charge. In its faint half-light, Luigi walked toward the tiger’s cage and stopped.
A woman stood beside the big cat in the eerie glow. Her hair hung loose and she wore a pale nightgown with a dark stain across its front.
“Maria!” he whispered hoarsely.
Maria caressed the tiger as if for comfort. Then she raised her voice to a wail.
“Why won’t you stay dead, my love? Why do you insist on keeping pieces of me here?”
And then the screaming began for real.
By noon, the parking lot below “Paradiso Animale” was full of official vehicles. Hikers had called in a report of howls and screeches coming from the hill, and Constable Briggs had deduced “Something ain’t right at that zoo.”
Briggs had been up since 6:00 AM when the alarm went off on his cruiser. The fact that a pair of ravens were crapping on his windshield when he opened his front door had only added to the ominous feeling. Weren’t they harbingers of doom or something?
On the hill, the melting snow was starting to reveal the body count. Five animals dead in their cages. One ape lay outside the zookeeper’s door. The Siberian tiger appeared to be the culprit.
Jack perched on the roof alongside his pal Frank, surveying the activity in the courtyard. He cocked his head to the side and shook out his tail feathers as he watched some workers drag out each of the animals.
“My heart is breaking that we weren’t able to save a single animal,” he murmured. “But my stomach is also growling. And you know what they say.” The ravens soared into the courtyard, landing on the antelope’s bloody carcass. “Waste not, want not.”
Two local men tasked with dragging out the animals were so engrossed in their conversation, they hardly noticed the scavengers.
Townie 1: “You know what’s really stumping me is how the big cat got all those animal cages unlocked. The zookeeper had to have helped him.”
Townie 2: “Him? Naw, I’m no forensic expert but that guy looked to have died a few days ago probably in his sleep. Those animals are fresh kills. And somebody else had been living in the tower keep. The lock was busted and they found the big cat curled up and purring on what looked like a pile of lady things—dresses and such. Didn’t find the gal, but wasn’t that zookeeper hitched when he first got here?”
There was shouting from Luigi’s apartment and the two men dropped what they were doing to run to the entrance. A third townie met them at the door. He pushed past and spewed his breakfast into the snow.
“Dude, you’re not going to believe what he had in that refrigerator!”