Bird of Prey
I fly back and forth, back and forth, high above New York City. You wouldn’t believe the things I see. No one ever looks up. A buzzard flies by me. Pace much? he says. Shut up.
My cage at the Central Park Zoo was a cage in name only. My keeper, Elizabeth, built it in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright with an escape hatch built in the northern wall. When I returned from my jaunts Elizabeth used to clean the blood off me and smooth my feathers. “You’re back,” she would whisper, “now pretend you never left.” She was always planning new additions: a Japanese soaking tub, an herb garden facing south to catch the sun, a veranda.
Those stupid fucking monkeys and their dumb ideas. I did not need to be liberated. I was already, and always, free. And they didn’t even realize their whole plan didn’t work because they picked the wrong day. See, this is where being able to fly comes in handy. They were so busy chanting and protesting and making signs and pins that they didn’t see the sky looked funny. And that two very tall buildings downtown were burning after planes had slammed into them. All they cared about was their so-called liberation movement.
All that happened a week ago. I can’t help myself, I have to go back—if only to confirm that my cage is gone. Flying back to the zoo is familiar; It’s a path I’ve traced a million times. I hover at fifty feet. There is a dark blur on the park where the zoo used to be. They burnt down the zoo and now my beautiful cage is gone. Now there will never be a Japanese soaking tub.
Elizabeth is sitting on a bench, knees bent, hugging her legs to her chest, doing what smaller animals do to make themselves invisible to predators like me. The space looks smaller without all the buildings, animals, children, and noise. Everything is grey cement, brown and black burn marks, and yellow tape. There’s a bored-looking policeman.
I look up. A monkey is waving at me from a nearby tree. Fuck you, monkey. Also, don’t hello-comrade me. I am a predator. I am not your friend or neighbor. I haven’t come here to visit and drink tea and reminisce about the old days. Zoo rules no longer apply.
Maybe if those stupid monkeys had a cage inspired by a giant of modern architecture, they wouldn’t have set the whole place on fire. I heard the rumblings but never thought it would come to pass. Sometimes I feel guilty. I could’ve prevented this. But zoo animals are not great at getting things done. They are spoiled and complain and scheme for hours until it’s lunchtime and they forget everything. I didn’t think the fire would actually happen.
Elizabeth, my keeper, looks cold. Her arms are wrapped around her bent legs, her gloves ratty with holes. If I was a bunny, or a dog, or even a pig, I could sit next to her and put my head in her lap. I could say, Feel better, don’t be sad, I’m here now. And she could pet me.
I turn around and gain elevation so I won’t be tempted. It’s her turn to hunt.
Half of the flock is staring at me, beaks open.
You’re crazy, an old man grandpa pigeon says. Then quietly, so nobody else can hear, brava, bravissima; All because I saw a freshly wounded squirrel lying on its side and went for it. It’s awful that squirrels from the zoo are more vulnerable than the city squirrels, but I couldn’t help myself. I have a taste for meat and these city park pigeons think hunting is eating cold, thrown-away French fries and sandwiches from the trash.
Teach me! says a little boy pigeon. His mother pulls him back.
Join in, I say.
His mother pushes him away and that’s fine by me. More food to keep me full longer. They’ll learn if they want to, and when they need to, and not a minute before then.
At the zoo, we were inside the water, and they, the humans, were outside the water. Separate. There was thick glass between us. Then the zoo burnt down and we swam to freedom. Now, we know real water—river and ocean water—is full of people and old shoes and cans and boats and cars. Mixed together, always.
First Monkey won’t shut up, Wasn’t the strike of the match the most beautiful sound you ever heard?
No, it wasn’t.
The flames were so beautiful, nothing smells better than a burning prison, he says. Somewhere in the park—not sure if it’s close by or far away—someone is playing music. I wish I had my drum so I could try to play along. My drum disappeared in the fire along with everything else. First Monkey hated that they made us play nursery songs for the children. He thought it was demeaning. But I loved it and I tried to make each performance a little bit different from the day before. On the day of the fire, I played my drum as loud as I could, but I’m not sure that the turtles, the sloths, the older animals, and the babies made it out in time. Run, craw, fly! I yelled. So many animals died that day. Yes, but they died free! First Monkey said. Maybe they didn’t care about freedom. Maybe they just wanted to eat and sleep and scratch themselves.
Now, we are in a tree overlooking the remains of the zoo. There is yellow tape and a policeman. Nobody cares whether we have food and water or if we are protected from the bigger animals or teenagers in the park at night. First Monkey is laughing and smiling.
Go tell Aunt Rhodie the old grey goose is dead? Not anymore, fatsos! Now she’s flapping her wings and running free, he says. I try to listen for the tune the breeze blows. Sometimes, it sounds like an invitation to a party, sometimes it’s a low, lonely mating call. Today, it sounds like a monkey who woke up from a nap and can’t find the other monkeys.
First Monkey is chewing on a twig. I can hear his stomach rumbling. Are you hungry? I ask. Maybe now he will admit his plan had some flaws. Of course not! he says.
I’m hungry. Below us in the park, there are men standing behind carts with steaming trays of hot dogs and pretzels studded with salt and ice cream pops in freezers. I could easily swing over and steal a handful of hot dogs. But then what? I might be captured. I might be killed. I miss my drum. I miss the songs we used to play together: London Bridge is falling down, Twinkle twinkle little star how I wonder what you are, and Michael row your boat ashore, hallelujah.
Why don’t you get us some food? says First Monkey. What? He’s the one who put us in this predicament in the first place! And now he’s asking me to go out and hunt while he grooms himself! Yet I climb down the tree.
The day the zoo caught fire and I looked up and saw a flock circling the city getting ready for the long journey southwards. Oh hey, they said when I joined in. Nobody asked me what my name was, where I was from, how I was doing. I tried to tell them, I come from the zoo, it’s on fire, but they were more interested in the burning buildings downtown and two cats having sex in an alley. Our migration path is the Atlantic Flyway—I learned that from the guide who talked to students about us at the zoo. “It begins far up north along the coast of Greenland. It’s a treacherous passage,” the guide used to say. But no one in the flock asks me about my time at the zoo or how I escaped. If I mention it they nod and then immediately go back to the previous topic; usually who foraged what for dinner, how to avoid getting eaten, and how gentle and sweet the breeze blowing off the Gulf of Mexico will be when we get there.
The waitress, holding her tiny dog, Baby, bursts into the break room where I’m sitting patiently in my cage, just like always. Quiet and well-behaved, but I never get any credit because I’m a lion, a “scary monster”. Nobody seems to realize that I was born at the zoo. I’ve always lived in the city, I’ve always been fed other people’s game, and I’ve never killed another living being. I willingly came to The Gallery, entering a cage even smaller than the at the zoo, and let them shut the latch behind me.
What else was I supposed to do?
What good is a lion with no hunting skills. Nothing to be proud of?
Every night since the fire, I dream the same dream, waking up at four in the morning, shaking and sweating. I hear noise from downstairs—drunk businessmen screaming with laughter, flirting with the waitress, spending money—and I have to remind myself that I am here at The Gallery, an exclusive nightclub in the Alhambra Hotel in New York City, and that the zoo is gone. In the dream, the zoo is burning—just like it really did—and my mother and the elderly women of the pride are there. I yell, Fire! Danger! My mother looks at me and smiles. Oh don’t worry, she says with a flick of her tail. We’ll catch up, you run along. I try to tell them, you have to leave right now, listen to me, but they shoo me away. I start to run.
“Did you know, lions can run up to fifty miles an hour?” The guide at the zoo used to say to the children who came to see us. I look back and she’s there, waving at me, smiling with frozen eyes…
Baby runs in circles and yips and touches and smells everything.
“Don’t worry Baby, Mommy will protect you from the mean, bad lion,” the waitress says, scooping Baby up to kiss her. Baby doesn’t need protection. She has full freedom of movement, comes and goes as she pleases. I’m the one who can barely stretch out my limbs.
Every night on stage, the clown shows his breasts and penis and pretends to pee on the audience members. They scream. It’s just an ampule of water he holds in his hand, but they don’t know that. The lizard lady in her leather bodysuit slides down a pole. She crawls across the stage on all fours, her forked tongue darting in and out, eyes alert for predators. Me. The waitress walks between the tables bringing drinks, taking orders, collecting tips. The lizard lady dances and peels off pieces of leather. My cage is lowered from the ceiling. I roar. The audience screams again. People are afraid of me, but they should be more afraid of the waitress pickpocketing them, stealing their credit card number, or sleeping with their boyfriends.
The door opens again. It’s the clown and the chef carrying a tray. Dinner. My mouth
waters, stomach grumbles. I come forward.
“Don’t worry, if he tries to hurt you, I’ll kill him,” says the waitress, looking like all she wants to do is empty a gun into my head. I roar at her, an automatic response. I can’t help it.
The lizard lady has already gone home, so chef gives me her portion. The clown wants the chef to cook his burger more.
“Why?” says chef, “Isn’t it dead enough already?”
I agree with the chef. Dead is fresh-killed meat. This is flesh that has been cut away from the animal, ground into small pieces, then burnt in a fire. The waitress feeds Baby cut up pieces of hot dog from a spoon.
“I want it brown on the inside, black on the outside,” says the clown. “I don’t want to fucking get botulism.”
The chef grabs the burger back from the clown and throws it into my cage.
“The lion doesn’t complain,” he says, nodding at me.
Well, that’s not exactly true. Maybe I don’t complain out loud, but I would if I could. For example ,we pool tips but I never get my fair share. And also I would like fresh, bloody meat, not ground into little pieces, baked in an oven. At the zoo, we always had fresh meat and the children came to see us. “Did you know, lions are very family-oriented?” The guide would say. My mother was captured when she was a little girl. Tell me about home, I would say, and she would shrug. Look around you, she would say, This is our home. I remember dry ash burning the inside of my eyelids and nostrils, coating my teeth and throat, sticking to my fur. There was a pounding drum beat and everyone was running like they had somewhere to go.
Chef is back. “It’s your lucky day,” he says. He has to tamp down all the meat so it fits in the food drawer. There are rib bones, each one connected to a pawful of flesh, covered in a sticky sweet sauce and a whole chicken with crispy skin. I step forward. The chef nods. He knows I appreciate his work. That stupid Chihuahua Baby sticks her head through the bars. I flick her away. Mine. Only at The Gallery, where everything is upside down, would a tiny dog try to eat a lion’s food. At the zoo, they would have never let Baby near us. At the zoo, we at least pretended wilderness rules applied.
“We should release him,” says the waitress, grabbing Baby, looking at me with those shining, hateful eyes. “We shouldn’t have a lion here. It’s animal cruelty.”
It happens so quickly. The waitress screams and I look up.
I’m holding Baby in my mouth. I guess she tried to eat my food again. I can feel her torso trembling. No yipping or barking now. I could crunch right through her. Just one bite.
I guess I do know how to kill. The waitress is right, they should release me. Animals in captivity are still animals. I open my mouth and Baby drops out and scurries away, whimpering. A small dog should never try to eat a lion’s food. A lion shouldn’t be kept in a cage.
I was starving, so I climbed down out of the tree and followed the beautiful tune I heard until I found a man on a park bench wearing a hat with a feather playing a shiny yellow elephant’s trunk. There was a plate filled with notes and coins next to his feet. “Hello monkey,” he said, “I’m the jazz man. Come sit next to me. You’ll be good for business.”
And you know what—I was good for business! Now I shake a coin cup or tap my foot to help keep time. I’m in the band! I have a little hat with a feather to match his. We’re a team—me and the jazz man. At night he takes me home with him to his one-room apartment and we order take-out and I sleep on a pillow on the floor while he smokes a spicy cigarette. If First Monkey could see me now, he would say, See comrade, see what freedom has brought you, and he would be right: this is paradise, but I hope I never, ever, see First Monkey again.
When we play music, the jazz man makes the notes shoot straight up and catch the air and float away. Sometimes, we chase each other, trying the trick each other by going faster or slower. Sometimes, we play like we’re just wandering through the park and sometimes like we know a secret we just can’t keep to ourselves.
Susanna Goldfinger lives in New York City where she builds brands by day and writes and illustrates by night. She regularly posts illustrated short stories at instagram.com/first_and_york.