Monday, July 23, 2012
Annabella and the Lion - Writing Challenge Piece
I wandered the park all afternoon, waiting for nightfall. I made my way to the top of Prospect Hill and sat down, watching everything from above. The zoo keepers kept the ground around the lion's cage swept remarkably clean. The balloon man chained his cart to a pole and wiped his brow with his sleeve. The carousel lights came on, the sound of the calliope music reaching me on the wind in distorted bits and pieces. The penguins slid on their bellies down an iceberg made of glass, their enclosure lit from below so that the blue-white ground glowed softly.
I had been coming to the zoo since I was a child. My mother and brothers used to accompany me, but they all lost interest years ago. I had three brothers, all of them older. One of them was away at school on a football scholarship. The other two drove race cars. I wrote stories. My mother stuck one of them to the front of the refrigerator door, once, but I knew she'd never read it. My mother was a ballerina in her youth, and now she attended dinner parties while my father was away.
My father was a collector for the African display at the museum. He brought me the skeleton of a gaboon viper on one of his rare visits. "This is largest viper in the world," he'd said, carefully placing the glass display case in my lap. The bones coiled around and around themselves. Looking at it was dizzying. I placed it on a shelf above my bed, but couldn't sleep. I hated it, the shape of its gaping mouth casting a shadow on my wall in the night, so I took it into the yard and buried it while everyone slept.
Sometimes, I rattled a stick on the bars of the lion's cage until he paced and bobbed his giant head up and down. Once, he became so agitated, he roared; so fierce and loud a sound that a crowd of people gathered, begging me to make him do it again. I couldn't bring myself to bang on the cage with everyone looking. The truth was that I only busied myself with the lion so that I could stay in close proximity to the carousel. She loved the zoo, too. She only came at sundown, just like me. She always wore a red ribbon in her hair.
That evening, she was riding the pink and white pony, the one with shimmering gold reigns. She wore a white dress cinched at the waist with her hair tied into an impossibly neat arrangement of curls that cascaded over her shoulder and tumbled down her breast, the red ribbon holding them into place. She smiled at me. I waved my lion stick at her, feeling like a child. As the carousel turned, she looked for me, meeting my eyes and licking sticky cotton candy from her fingertips.
No one ever spoke to her, but we all knew her name. Her father was a billionaire who collected airplanes as a hobby, and they lived in a house with white pillars that sat grandly alone on the top of a hill that overlooked the city. Her mother died in childbirth, or at least that was what was rumored. She had no siblings and seemingly not any friends, but a different young lady attended her almost every time I saw her, both of them dressed impeccably and carrying parasols and fans on warm days. Only, Annabella Clare let hers droop at her side, her fan trailing behind her in the dirt, fastened to her wrist by a long string.
I loved her impossibly. Sometimes, I lay awake all night talking to her, pretending that the shape of my pillow might be her body, close to me and warm in the dark. She was the only person in the world as lonely as I was. I saw it in the blue green of her eyes, the same color as the wavering light beams on the floor of the aquarium at night.
I knew how to sneak into the zoo after it closed.. Or rather, I knew how to hide so that I would get closed in with the animals after the parrot lady and ape scientists went home to their families. I told her so, the only time I'd been brash enough to speak with her. As the carousel stopped spinning, I crashed impulsively through the hedges that surrounded it, leaning over the iron fence and calling to her, "I need to talk to you."
I startled her and she gasped, but there was something of a smile on her lips. She glanced over her shoulder for her attendant.
"I'm sorry," I said, "But I have something I'd like to show you. In the zoo, at night, after everyone has gone away. I know how. I can sneak us in."
She laughed then, and I thought my heart would break. Her teeth were so white and neatly lined up; the sound of her laughter was like the tinkling of a field of glass flowers in a breeze.
"If you would come with me..." I said, my voice breaking and trailing off.
She sat still atop her pink horse, looking at me for what felt like hours, my confidence diminishing with every passing second. A branch was sticking me in the seat of my pants. I spit out an errant pine needle. "What's your name?" she finally said.
"Andrew," I answered.
"Find me the next time you are here, Andrew," she said, jumping from her horse and disappearing around the bend of the carousel.
That was a week ago, and I hadn't seen her since. I thought that I might have scared her away, that she would steer clear of this place, from now on. The lion was asleep in the corner of his cage. I stepped over the chain, looking around to make sure no one was looking, and reached through the bars to pet his mane. His eyes fluttered open and regarded me for a moment, before they closed again and a low purr emitted from his throat.
"What are you doing?" came her voice from behind me.
I felt suddenly too nervous to look up at her. I wanted to stay like this, crouching next to the lion and feeling the wild heat of his fur. In a rustle of skirts, she stepped over the heavy chain and knelt next to me. She smelled like honey and soap. "Will he hurt me?" she asked, extending her hand toward the bars.
I looked up at her; into the beauty of her porcelain face and remarkable blue-green eyes. She smiled at me. "I don't know," I said. "I don't think so. He's never hurt me."
She took a deep breath, and reached for my hand. I locked my fingers with hers. A hot urge to grab her and crush her against my body passed through my veins and settled there, not quite extinguishing. Her hand was small and warm in mine. She wrapped her long fingers lightly through the lion's mane and scratched behind his ear. He groaned a little bit, a soft cat sound, and purred for her, too.
This piece is an entry in the Trifecta Writing Challenge. This week, we were given 333-3,333 words to write whatever we wanted. I wanted to write about an enchanted zoo.