The zookeeper was eaten on a Monday. Nobody noticed anything had happened at all until, on Wednesday, the lioness looked dazed, acted lethargic and finally started throwing up. First it was a button, then a sock, and finally a pair of khaki shorts with the belt still in the loops. Her name was Luma—the lioness, not the zookeeper—and she was an Asiatic lioness, from northern India. The zookeeper had, apparently, been in the lion habitat late at night, tripped on something, went down hard and never woke up. He became an easy meal for the hungry Lioness.
It fell to Claire, the PR manager for the zoo, to explain to the public what had happened. At first, she delegated the task to the intern but he’d run off stage and threw up behind a curtain. An hour later, Claire was there in front of the cameras reading a statement the zoo’s board of directors had written for her.
“It is obviously a terrible tragedy and the Woodland Park Zoo is doing everything it can to understand the nature of the accident,” she said. “Safety, for both our staff and our visitors, is a top priority. We will be launching an investigation to determine where, exactly, our safety protocol failed and how we can strengthen it in the future.”
Claire then opened the floor to questions and lobbied a couple for a few minutes. The reporters asked for details to fill their third-page stories and their blog posts: time of day, name of the zookeeper, next steps. Then, during a momentary lull in the barrage, a reporter she noticed was wearing jeans and a branded golfing polo, stood up. He looked bored, annoyed and immediately irked Claire.
“What’s going to happen to the Lion?” he asked.
“The lioness,” Claire said.
“The lioness, then. What’s going to happen to her?”
It hadn’t occurred to Claire that anything at all should happen to the lioness. The lioness hadn’t been fed at the proper hour—which is why the zookeeper was there so late to begin with—and was doing, exactly, what a lioness would, and should, do. Claire hadn’t thought that the lioness would or should be punished for what was, ultimately, a matter of instinct.
“I don’t suppose anything will happen to the lioness,” she said. She closed her eyes tightly, the way she did when her husband or her kids or her in-laws asked her a bothersome, stupid or unfair favor. “She’s not a rabid dog. This isn’t a feral cat that keeps dropping dead mice at your door. This is a rare and endangered Asiatic Lion. There’s no kennel to put her in, no pound to abandon her at.”
The room was silent for a moment. It was too late to walk back her tone. But tact be damned. The reporter was still standing in the back while the others blinked at her from their folding chairs.
“In other similar circumstances,” the reporter continued, “the animal would be euthanized.”
“Well,” Claire said. “There’s no way in hell that’s going to happen here.”
When she got home late that night, she threw her keys onto the catchall tray just inside the front door. The house was dark and silent and the clink of the keys seemed to ring out for minutes. Her husband—he went by Chaz, though his name was Chester—had been staying at a condo he was renting downtown while he and Claire weathered out their separation.
When he first moved out, they were both sure it would be temporary. Both were pragmatic, smart professionals and understood that, after fourteen years, a marriage just needs some space. On the morning he made the final move, they had kissed each other on the cheek and made plans to see each other that weekend.
But it’d been nine months now. They were still on good terms but perhaps too good. Without the frustration and the fuming, there was no more longing. There was only space. And she wondered what that could possibly say about the previous fourteen years.
The kids were away with her in-laws that week on the peninsula so she had nothing left to do but pull the white wine out of the back of the fridge and go over the closed-circuit camera footage of the lion’s den. Her cell phone had pinged for hours after the press conference, both with inquiries from the press and texts from the board of directors. They were going to support her, no matter what, but the blogs had already deemed her Callous Claire and called her, in the way only the internet can do, a man-eater which, Claire thought was a weak pun.
Callous Claire goes wild over wild animal nightmare.
Callous Claire eats up reporter over lioness eating zoo staffer.
PMSing PR girl is P’d off with reporter.
Zoo executive takes bite out of reporter in the wake of Lion’s gruesome meal.
She scrolled through them all on her phone. At one point, Chester texted her: rough day? Go get ‘em tiger.
She didn’t find it funny.
It was a lioness she texted back.
The footage was grainy, shot at a high angle over the staff entrance to the lion’s den. She sipped her wine and fast-forwarded through three hours of night vision darkness and of the felines grooming, circling, sleeping and grooming again. At around 11:30 pm, the zookeeper waddles in on spindly legs holding a piece of raw meat. All at once, the lions and the lioness—Luma was the only female—slowly and insouciantly turn their giant, golden heads in the direction of the off-balanced man. He’s obviously drunk and approaches too fast. The lions rear up, unroll from their front paws to their haunches, their backs rippling to readiness like a coin in its last moment spinning on the ground.
Claire sipped her wine and checked her phone. The Zookeeper approaches the lions and all but one backs away at the man’s erratic behavior. The lioness: she inches forward. Luma’s shoulders drop as she carefully and surely slides, one paw at a time, head low, jaw forward, toward the steak the zookeeper wags around. She’s beautiful, Claire thought, confident and inquisitive in the face of this silly, pockmarked man. He finally goes over when he catches his heel on a rock. Luma circles him slowly for twenty minutes. Every now and then she’ll nudge him and growl away one of the males who crawls too close. Finally, she lays next to the knocked-out man and begins to nibble at the steak still in his hand. Then, she moves to the hand itself, then the arm. The whole meal takes fifteen minutes—bone and all. The lions have none.
One of the things the lioness spit back up that Wednesday was a wedding ring. Claire couldn’t explain to the press about the zookeeper’s drunkenness, his stupid mistake, not when his wife—his widow—might be watching. It was so unfair, she thought: this imbecilic human gets a defense and we condemn Luma for having the misfortune of instinct and appetite.
The next day she woke, fuzzy from the wine, with a phone full of texts. She ignored them all except the one from her mother-in-law. The kids would be getting off the ferry in about forty-five minutes. This was the agreement: their grandparents put them on the ferry on one side and she’d pick them up on the other. This way, the grandparents wouldn’t have to talk to Claire and she wouldn’t have to see them. Luckily, her older son, Jeremy was thirteen and old enough to watch the eight-year-old, Morgan, for the time it took to cross Puget Sound.
Morgan was all giggles.
“We went to a berry patch,” she sung from the back seat. “And grandpa let me play his guitar. Grandma let me bake cookies.”
“She knows you’re allergic to eggs,” Claire said. “Right?”
Morgan looked out the window.
“Snickerdoodles,” she said. “With Hershey Kisses in the middle.”
“And you, Jeremy?” Claire said. “How was your week with grandma and papa?”
“Where’s dad,” he said.
“He’s coming this afternoon. He wants to take you hiking.”
“I have homework,” he said.
“It’s summer vacation.”
“It’s a summer reading list,” he said.
Jeremy looked exactly like his father and acted like him, too. Their ticks were the same, their skin tone and the singularly crooked tooth right there in the front. There was always food stuck there. Jeremy had even begun to grow a wispy little mustache. It was the same as his father’s: an insidious, clear tangle of strings they would both, now, twirl when they were bored. He was an almost identical photocopy of Chester and she wondered when the things that pulled her away from her husband would start to appear in her son, too. She looked for herself in her blonde, fair, rosy boy and found nothing. She pulled the phone from her purse as she entered downtown Seattle and texted her husband that she had both kids in the car and to come over whenever he was ready. She screeched to a stop when an SUV took a right on red and the car lurched.
“Jeeze, mom,” Jeremy said. “Don’t text and drive.”
“Are you OK, Morgan?” she asked.
But her daughter was asleep, her head against the glass, her seatbelt digging a ribbon of red across her neck.
While Jeremy swiped through Claire’s iPad and Morgan napped, Claire caught up on her texts and emails. Her assistant had left a message, too. Apparently there was a group of protestors already outside the zoo. Save Luma, they chanted. Apparently, there was already a call from the press and from regulators to have Luma put down. Claire got on the phone with the board of directors.
“Why wasn’t I consulted? Why didn’t I know about this?”
“You didn’t answer any of our messages or emails or phone calls,” they said.
She was on a conference call.
“Well, we’re not going to put Luma down are we?”
“We’re looking at the best course of action.”
“What does that mean?”
“We have to consider the future of the zoo, of our investments, Claire. We have to consider what’s best for us.”
“What about the future of Luma?”
“If there is a future for the lion— “
“The lioness,” she said.
“It will not be at our zoo.”
Chester showed up at exactly 1 in the afternoon. He let himself in because he still, of course, had a key. He poured himself cranberry juice and soda water. Jeremy hugged him around the waist and her husband gently shook Morgan awake to carry her out to the car. Chester winked at Claire as he rolled down the window and slipped his arm out. He drove off with their kids as she stood on their lawn, her hand across her brow to block out the glare of the sun bouncing off the rear windshield. She watched as he turned the corner, the crook of his arm resting in the open window, bouncing jauntily away with their kids as if nothing could go wrong. Because, to him, why would it?
Claire had taken the job at the zoo when Jeremy was two. She’d taken only six weeks off after Morgan was born three years later. She couldn’t say now why she had been so hell-bent on going back to work, why it seemed so impossible, so unthinkable, to wait until Morgan could at least lift her own head before she went back to the office. But Claire had fought hard for the job: despite her lack of experience in this particular field and her complete disinterest in zoo animals in general, she’d spent the majority of her career in middle-management and when the zoo needed a marketing manager she, simply, would not take no for an answer. Then, they needed a PR director. She’d already clawed her way this far. It would’ve been an insult to herself not to fight for that job. It was just the logical conclusion. It had made sense.
Chet was the same way. He worked in tech, leased cars so as never to drive an old one. While they still lived together, he worked out at 5 am to come back and help wake Morgan and Jeremy by 7. At 8:30, he would be pouring his second cup of coffee—cream first to avoid time wasted stirring—and heading out the door on a carbon fiber road bike in his formfitting jersey. It seemed so pointless, now that she was thinking about it, that they’d owned this large house in one of Seattle’s more desirable neighborhoods, to spend so little time in it. As Chester’s car rounded the corner with Morgan and Jeremy buckled securely inside, she turned to her house—sharp and tall with glass and concrete and, instead of heading back in, took her keys from the catchall in the door and headed to the zoo.
As it turned out, the protest was really just a few older ladies and some overenthusiastic college kids with nothing to do on a weekday afternoon. As she pulled into the parking lot, she thought how pathetic they seemed. How hopeless it was. The zoo didn’t care what they thought and if Claire couldn’t convince her bosses to keep Luma, then these troublemakers certainly couldn’t. Claire had put the weight of the world on her shoulders a long time ago and yet, somehow, she still seemed to influence very little of it.
The zoo was busy. It was a hot, sunny summer day and crowds of families—mothers paired together with strollers and fathers with daughters on shoulders—crisscrossed each other from the reptile enclosures to the bear habitat to the food court. Ice cream melted over everyone’s hands and half-full plastic water bottles caromed on the ground around the untied shoelaces of toddlers.
None of these people, none of these families, were concerned with the developing protest. Neither were they deterred by the death of a zookeeper or the uncertain fate of Luma. To Claire, their carelessness was malicious and aggressive. She found herself livid for Luma’s sake.
Claire’s office was in a new glass building tucked in the far corner of the zoo and when the sliding doors opened she shivered as the sweat built up from the walk instantly evaporated in the over-strong air conditioning. She tried to sneak by the row of cubicles to her desk where she could close the blinds and collect her thoughts before being approached by any member of her team, the media or the board of directors. But as she sped through the hall, her assistant peaked her head out from a cubicle and called her name. Claire pretended not to hear—she sped up, tucked her chin down into her chest—but her assistant was persistent and managed to grab her shoulder.
“They want to talk to you,” her assistant said.
Claire said nothing. Her assistant followed her into her office as she sat down, silently, behind her long Formica desk. Claire dropped her face in her palms and her elbows onto her desk. She focused on the sound of the air conditioning, of the phones ringing and the printers clacking.
“I know this is stressful,” her assistant said. “I’m sorry. But—” then she stopped. “I’ll give you time.”
Claire caught her assistant backing out of the door. Her assistant was classically beautiful, young and obviously ambitious. She was not yet thirty and Claire imagined her dating well-dressed and not-overly-muscled men confident in their mediocrity. She assumed her assistant met with girlfriends for regular brunches and happy hours to complain about their careers. After all, Claire paid her enough to fund a happy lifestyle but gave her the type of work she could hardly be fulfilled by. Her assistant was brunette—Claire dyed her own hair—tall, wore conservative blouses that almost always hinted at the deep purple birthmark situated just above her cleavage. She was the type of woman she imagined Chester would find attractive if they ever, truly, separated. Still, Claire wasn’t jealous. Just curious, genuinely fascinated in what her closest work associate’s life must’ve been like. Claire was, herself, still beautiful. At least, not unattractive. She was stylish and fit and energetic and still liked sex enough to tire Chester out if he were to ever visit overnight.
“No, Miranda,” Claire said. “Thank you. Thank you for everything.”
Miranda blushed a bit.
“Now, who was it that wanted to see me?”
“The Board of Directors. They’ve been meeting in the conference room all morning.”
The board room was occupied by a long, mahogany table around which sat six men.
“Claire,” they all said in unison as she walked in.
“Gentleman,” she said and began before she even sat down. “I am planning on implementing a new safety protocol based on a blueprint I’ve already begun to dev— “
One man held up his hand, displaying a cracked palm and a large watch.
“Claire,” he said. “I know what you’re doing. It’s OK. Your job is safe.”
She leaned back in the ergonomic chair.
“The lion,” the man said. “I don’t suppose you have any plans for it, yet?”
“What plans would I have for Luma?” she asked. “What plans would I need to have for Luma?”
Another man from another side of the table—this one young, younger even than Claire—spoke up.
“It is a liability. And despite how much we don’t want to— “
“How is Luma a liability? Did you not expect her to eat?”
“As much as we don’t want to, we’re going to have to— “
“She’s a lion. She hadn’t been fed, yet. She did what anyone would expect her to do,” Claire said.
“We have to put her down. No other zoo wants to take it and we can’t have it here anymore.”
The room was noticeably loud, filled with the distracting hum of central air. Outside, she heard the sounds of the zoo: children and parents, the faint bleating of goats in the farm corner, golf carts carrying dehydrated grandparents to the medical tent.
She got up and the chair slid noiselessly back.
“I’ll be in my office,” she said.
She walked slowly back down the hallway searching for the source of her anger.
Claire saw the red hair first: an uncombed, knotty mane wrapped around both her face and the chair in which she sat.
“I’m sorry. Your assistant said I could wait in here,” the woman said, shooting into a straight line and shoving her hands into her curls simultaneously as Claire walked in.
“I’m not sure I’m going to be much— “
“Was there anything left?” The woman said.
Claire searched her mental rolodex and came up with nothing.
“The press said that that lion threw up after,” she said. “I guess I just was hoping there might be his wedding ring? I haven’t slept. I’m so sorry. I know this— “
“You’re his wife.” Claire said.
“Fiancé,” she said. “Marie,” she added, and stuck out her hand. Claire noticed, as they shook, Marie was shivering.
She wanted to tell her something but couldn’t quite figure out what. Claire needed to tell this woman something. Claire wanted Marie to meet Luma. To show her, in some way, what her fiancé had done.
“Can I get you some water or, I think we have coffee?”
“It’s not a big deal if you don’t have the ring,” the fiancé said. “I think it stopped meaning anything to him a while ago.”
“Oh?” Claire said.
“In fact, that’s why he was drunk that night. Ever since he knocked me—I mean, since we got pregnant and I told him we had to get married, well—” Marie stopped. “You know how it goes.”
Claire bit her tongue. Claire had nothing in common with this woman and, suddenly, wanted her to know it.
“You know,” Claire said instead. “They’re going to put Luma down.”
“Who?” Marie asked.
“The lioness,” Claire said, perhaps too sharply.
“Oh.” Marie said. “Chuck wouldn’t’ve wanted that. He was a good man. Just a little, I don’t know, misguided?”
“Well, Luma’s going to die,” Claire said.
Marie burst into tears. Full, body-shivering sobs that sent tears spilling over the sides of her hands cupped to her eyes. Claire rushed to close the door. The entire office was gawking now. Claire regretted it. She’d gone too far.
“I’m sorry,” Claire said. “I didn’t mean— “
Marie choked her sobs and caught her breath.
“The worst part,” she said, “is that I don’t miss him. I feel nothing. I’m horrible. This is horrible. I feel, almost, relieved.”
Claire finally found the ring beneath some files and handed it to Marie.
“Why did he come back?” Claire asked. “The night he died. Why did he get so drunk and come back to the zoo?”
“He always liked the lions.” Marie was twisting the wedding ring in her fingers. “If he was upset, you know, had been drinking, I guess he probably went back to see them.”
“He didn’t want kids,” Claire said.
“Neither did I, actually.”
Marie laughed then pocketed the ring.
That’s the true catastrophe in nature, thought Claire, the real imbalance. This woman’s dirt bag boyfriend dies and everyone else still has to suffer his life.
Claire felt guilty feeling so relieved Chester had the kids that night. She didn’t want to see anyone she cared about. Instead, she waited until the zoo closed down for the night and walked, as late as possible, the length of the zoo back to her car. She stopped, first, to see Luma one more time.
Climbing onto the fencing surrounding the deep, concrete moat, she could see the whole pride: Luma and three other males licking themselves in the dim moonlight, thinking only of the relief the night gives to their hot and languid day.
Luma was all muscle and poise, a creature of pure power and intention that didn’t have the evolutionary disadvantage of foresight. By this time tomorrow, Luma would be euthanized and butchered and repurposed as bear and wolf food and had no way of knowing it. At one point Luma looked up and Claire was sure they had made eye contact. But then Luma went back to grooming herself and Claire was alone, again, with the coming light of the next day.
Josh Potter received his MFA from the University of Washington. He was a member of the editorial board of both the Seattle Review and Driftwood Press. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Driftwood and River Teeth. He currently runs a reading series in Seattle’s Ballast Bar and writes reviews for Shelf Awareness