by Lila Rabinovich
Of all the animals in the zoo, Peter’s favorite was Vulcan. Vulcan wasn’t a white tiger, or a young and athletic tiger, or even a particularly big tiger. He was just a common tiger who wouldn’t stand out in a pack, unless it was a pack of extraordinary tigers and he was the only run-of-the-mill one. He was named after the Roman god of fire, not because he himself is especially fiery-looking, but in honor of his mother, whose fur was a beautiful, incandescent red-orange, and who died right after giving birth to her pup.
Vulcan’s mother was the zoo’s resident tiger before he was born. After her death, the zoo had him and his brother, Mango. They were one of the main attractions in this small zoo of very limited prize stock. In addition to the tigers, the zoo’s other bragging rights rested with a pair of aging gorillas who once famously copulated in full view of visitors, in the missionary position, for a good twenty minutes. Parents covered their children’s eyes for propriety’s sake but couldn’t tear themselves away. They just stood there and watched, likely somewhat turned on by the scene, but pretending their interest was purely scientific.
They giggled uncomfortably, and said things like “oh, honestly” with faux disapproval. Some of the adults felt a weird affinity with the style of love-making, a sense of intimate recognition that sent a shudder of shame down their spine. The female gorilla lying on her back, the male thrusting his hips in and out, in and out, and when he was done (which took a bit longer for the animal than was usual for the humans watching him) he stood up, arched his back as if stretching, and walked away without another look at his mate. The female sat up and stared vacantly ahead, past the crowd, her long fingers resting on the ground and slightly curved into a demi-fist.
Peter had been positively, irrevocably smitten with Vulcan (but not his brother) since the day the tigers were born. Vulcan was a bit smaller than his brother, and the stripes in his face gave him a scowl. He sat defiant while his brother whined, and kept his blue-gray eyes open when he was bottle-fed. He stumbled in his enclosure, testing the ground with his outsize paws, and looked around curiously while Mango played or slept.
To Peter, these were all signs that this particular tiger was extraordinary. This was not uncommon; most zoo staff members had their favorites, and would visit them occasionally and sometimes even carry pictures of the animal in question in their wallets. But over the years, Peter had quite a bit of time in close quarters with Vulcan, which was unusual for staff at the zoo who were not zookeepers. Lonnie, the tiger’s morning carer, was a young, indolent guitar player with a terrible garage band to which he was deeply committed. He let Peter feed Vulcan from time to time, even though this was strictly against zoo regulations. He could have lost his job for this transgression, so Peter was grateful. Feeding Vulcan was a magnificent experience. He and his brother were kept in separate sections of their enclosure at feeding time, so Peter got Vulcan all to himself. He was so close Peter could smell his breath through the railings, and the dense scent of the tiger’s damp fur. The first time Peter fed him, Vulcan was already almost his full size. The human’s heart raced as the animal approached. Vulcan sniffed the food for a few seconds, ran his tongue over it once, twice, then tucked in heartily, shredding and swallowing whole pieces of raw chicken and pork chops. For a moment, watching him eat from about six feet away, Peter worried he might get an erection.
One morning Lonnie told Peter that Vulcan was exhibiting signs of illness. The tiger hadn’t eaten, and kept walking around the enclosure’s perimeter slowly, deliberately, as if checking for ways out. Peter briefly wondered if Vulcan could be depressed, then remind himself that this was probably not a recognized diagnosis for a big cat. No one seemed very concerned — Lonnie, the vet, the other carers — but something was obviously amiss with the tiger.
The next day Peter got to work just after dawn and went straight to Vulcan’s enclosure. Lonnie let him in, then went out to get himself some coffee. He was, strictly speaking, not allowed to leave unauthorized people unattended with the tigers. As he’s walking out the door, he turns and says, “Hey, Pete, don’t do nothin’ stupid.”
In the quiet space, Peter could hear Vulcan’s rugged, distressed breathing. He called, “Vulcan, sweetheart.” But the tiger didn’t move. Peter called again, and again, moving closer to the enclosure, wrapping his fingers around the iron bars. Finally, the tiger lifted his head, looked around. He stuck his long, parched tongue out and licked his snout. Peter knows where everything is on this side of the enclosure. The medications, the rubber balls for playtime, the rakes and shovels and buckets, the bowls for water, the knives and screwdrivers and outsize brushes. The keys to Vulcan’s side of the enclosures. There’s no one here yet, no witnesses, except the surveillance cameras. He will go in, check on his Vulcan. He’s going in.
Lila Rabinovich is a public policy analyst who writes in her spare time. Her fiction has appeared and is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Burnt Pine Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, and High Plains Register. She grew up in Argentina and lived in England before settling in Northern Virginia. She lives with her husband and three kids.