Feeding the Animals

Amy Bitterman

The monkey poked his tongue around his teeth.  The sweet, crunchy remains of almonds balanced on his tongue for a second and disappeared.  Working his jaws up and down, he chomped on air.  When a small bit of his cheek caught on the jagged edge of his incisor, he chewed greedily and swallowed the spit that coated his lips.  His mate circled the edge of the floor.  Just above her head, the banana fermented in the morning heat.  Its overripe smell blanketed the cage.  Her mouth watered; she stood on her legs and grunted at her meal.

Sunlight crossed to the middle of the cage, but there was still no food.  Heat pulled at the monkey’s arms and legs.  He brought his knees to his chest, bent his neck and closed his eyes, but the growl in his stomach kept him awake.  Outside the cage, crows picked at the keeper’s eyes.  His cheeks were the color of the concrete path, but the keeper’s lips were blue and his hand and wrist were purple.  The monkey sniffed at the bloated flesh.  Biting down on the rubbery meat, he pulled it across the bone.  By the time his mate joined him, only the thumb was left.

Thunder made the monkey look up.  His mate ran from one side of the cage to the other.  When she reached the walls, she hopped up, touched her feet to the concrete and fell on her back.  Breathless, she sat down and rested her head on her chest.  The monkey cupped his paw over her skull, smoothed her wet fur, and pinched the lice out of her hairs.  When his mate curled up and went to sleep, he nestled next to her until her racing heart slowed and her breathing studied. 

The sky darkened.  The rain was soft at first.  Then it pounded.  The monkey stuck his tongue between the bars.  Mouth open, he pushed his head out further and further until the iron bars caught him by the ears.  Water surrounded him, filling in the cracks in the soil, bouncing off the pavement, but the monkey couldn’t get a good drink.  He licked at the moisture that veiled the iron bars and whimpered.

After the rain softened to a trickle, he heard the cries of the other animals.  Howls, whimpers, moans, roars, hoots, mews.  Giraffes, lions, owls, leopard, cranes slowly starving to death.  The monkey drew his lips back and pushed his jaw forward, but there was no one to calm his fear with a pat on the head or a round of applause.  The stink of uncollected waste filled the air.
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The wet patches left by the rain were gone by the next day.  Thirst and hunger carved out a hollow space in the monkey’s stomach.  He walked to the edge of the cage.  The remaining patches of flesh on the keeper’s wrist and forearm were pale gray-green and shaking with flies.  The keeper’s stench burned the monkey’s nose.  He ran to the back of the cage and pawed the dry watering place.  He pissed into the empty bowl and drank his sour, yellow water.  The ache at the pit of his stomach pushed into his throat; his howls woke up his mate.  When they groomed each other’s matted fur it flew off in clumps.  Their coats were as patchy as a newborn’s.  They scratched at the scabs until the skin peeled off and then licked the blood that ran from their sores.

The monkey wrinkled his nostrils to check for rain and breathed in a familiar, sour smell.  He stared through the bars of his cage.  This human wasn’t a keeper; keepers wore clothing that flashed in the sun.  This man was grass-colored.  A moving bush.  The monkey sat on his haunches, scratched his head with one paw and held the other paw out for food.  When the man reached the edge of the cage, the monkey whimpered.

“Stupid, fucking animal,” the man said as he kicked the keeper’s bloated stomach with the toe of his boot.  The flies that covered the body flew off, landing on the sores that ran up and down the monkey’s arms.  He screeched and waved his paw over his head.  When the grass-colored man laughed, the monkey chirped and stretched his fingers.  The man turned and walked away from the cage.  Mouth open, the monkey stared after him until his green and brown uniform disappeared.

Warm, thick air blew through the cage.  The monkey stuck his tongue out to drink the breeze.  Just above his head, the banana dangled back and forth in the wind.  Its skin was black with rot and fruit flies, but its smell was still sweet.

The monkey’s mate climbed to the top of the tree in the corner of the cage and swung to its highest limb.  She hugged the branch with all fours while it bounced up and down under her weight.  When the tree was finally quiet, she leaned back on her legs and raised her arms.  She leaped at the fruit, grazed its swollen skin with her fingers and fell.  As she landed, her right leg slid beneath her stomach and cracked.  She limped to a corner, cradled her twisted limb in her paws and howled.  Instead of licking his mate’s wounds, the monkey balled his paws into fists and struck his chest.
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The next day, the mate’s right leg was twice the size of the left one.  Flies buzzed around her bloated limb.  Liquid ran from her eyes and stuck to her fur.  The monkey ran to the other side of the cage, away from the sickness. 

The sky was heavy with a rain that never fell.  Warm air stuck to the monkey’s skin.  He tried to lick it off, but the clammy smell clung to him the way a newborn hangs onto its mother.  His back itched from the sores and fleas that burrowed into his skin.  He stood on his legs and rubbed against the bars, but his fur slid on the smooth iron.  His aching joints made his eyes run.  

He lumbered to the corner where his mate was sprawled out.  Her sharp smell teased the hollow in his belly.  She pulled herself forward by her paws, dragging the swollen leg behind.  The monkey circled her.  When he stepped forward, she bared her teeth and hissed.  He jumped back and circled her again.  She retreated to the back wall.  Ears front, eyes narrowed, the monkey paced in front of his mate, drawing a line with his body.  Her head rolled onto her chest.  She slumped back, wrapped her good leg around her stomach and screamed.

The monkey bared his teeth and hissed.  He shifted his weight to his haunches and jumped onto his mate.  She let out a bellow of desperation as he forced her to the ground.  Sitting on her stomach, he cut off her air and reduced her screams to a low, steady wheeze.  Holding her wounded leg between his paws, he bit through layer after layer of skin and tissue until he reached bone.  By then, her wheezing had stopped.  Her sightless eyes were fixed on the banana that rotted above her head.


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