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No Longer Burning


Soon after the bells repeated, announcing eleven o'clock, the last group of visitors appeared: a male adult and child and a female adult and child. They smelled like a family and chattered as much as a flock of currawongs. Conspicuous for being few, they wore pastels and whites bright against the gray walls and dusty trees. The girl paused to pick up a long, curving eucalyptus leaf; she stuck it in the ribbon around the crown of her hat. Then she raced a few yards to catch up with the others.

"Oh, he's beautiful," Helen said, breathless from her dash.

"Actually, it's a she," Uncle Ted said.

"It looks like Gretel," Jack said, swinging toward the cage from the handrail.

"Who's Gretel?" Uncle Ted asked. He lifted his panama hat and wiped his bald head with a handkerchief.

"Our neighbors' German shepherd," Mrs. Donnelly said. "A nuisance, really. Barks at everything."

"No, she doesn't," Helen said. "I mean the—what do you call it?" she pointed at the animal in front of her. It was stretched out on the cement floor of the cage, the roof an open grill letting in sun and rain.

"Thylacine. Some people call it a Tasmanian wolf or tiger."

"Yes. She looks more like a tiger, not a dog," Helen said. A gust of hot air tilted her straw hat. She put a hand up to settle it. Talk about a nuisance. The hat was, but her mother said wearing it would reduce the freckles on her face. "Yes. A sad tiger."

"Well, she has nothing to be sad about," Uncle Ted said. "She has a place to live, food and water. Waited on hand and foot. The bounty hunters won't get her here."

"Bounty hunters?" Helen said. "Why would they hunt thylacines?"

Jack rolled his eyes. "Stupid, they get money for them." He dodged a cuff on the shoulder from his mother.

"Don't talk to your sister that way."

"But why would they kill them? They don't eat people, do they?" Helen's eyebrows jumped up.

Uncle Ted laughed. "No, and we don't eat thylacines. But thylacines like to eat sheep and other livestock." He adjusted the brim of his hat. "Actually, there's a new law against shooting thylacines. The bounty hunters have done such a good job that they aren't a problem anymore."

The thylacine appeared to be asleep, as it did most days. The September morning was too hot for moving about the cage, a fenced and barred box with dirty straw piled in one corner and a water bowl in another. When she was a cub, a hunter had trapped her mother, and while she and her brother and sister searched the forest for their mother, he snared them, too. He sold them to the zoo, where they had lived ever since, but the mother had died years ago. The siblings had survived longer; now she was alone.

"With those stripes, they must make a lovely rug," Mrs. Donnelly said. She fingered the piping on the hem of her pink jacket. "Like a tiger skin."

"Mother." Helen wrinkled her nose. "What an awful idea."

"Where do you think your shoes come from?" Mrs. Donnelly looked from her daughter's face to Helen's black and tan saddle shoes.

"Not from tigers."

"No, we get leather from cows. Animal skins have lots of uses."

"Your crocodile purse," Jack said, pointing at the bag under his mother's left arm.

Helen frowned. This was different. Cows weren't pretty; crocodiles were scary. The thylacine's fur was a striking pattern, but why did people use animal skins as rugs, walking on them? It was as odd as a trophy head mounted on a wall.

"Australia used to be full of thylacines, but they're only found here in Tasmania now," Uncle Ted said.

"She must be so bored," Helen said.

Mrs. Donnelly tugged the girl's copper-colored ponytail. "Animals don't get bored, sweetheart. She's just having a rest. She's on holiday, really, like we are."

Helen shook her head. "She doesn't get to go anywhere or see anyone."

"The zoo gives her a safe home. A place to raise a family."

What family? Helen knew the thylacine couldn't have babies by herself. There had to be a daddy thylacine, too. She didn't say anything but wondered why adults lied so much. Animals didn't lie. They didn't hide their feelings.

Jack had found a newspaper and rolled it into a cylinder. He poked one end between the bars. "Tiger, tiger," he said in a singsong voice.

"Now, Jack," Uncle Ted said, pulling the boy's arm back. "Don't tease the beast."

Jack dropped the paper on the ground. "She's no tiger. Gretel is more ferocious."

"Thylacines are marsupials," Uncle Ted said. "Do you know what that means?"

"It means they have a pouch for their babies," Helen said. "Like kangaroos." She looked at her uncle and smiled. Helen had overheard her mother call him a "know-it-all" more than once, but wasn't it better to know things than to not know?

Jack hopped about, his hands held up to his chest. "I don't see hers."

They all looked at the thylacine with her abdomen pressed against the floor. "Notice her large head," Uncle Ted said. "Its Latin name is Thylacinus cynocephalus, which means pouched with a dog head. But thylacines have much more powerful jaws than dogs."

"What's the use of a Latin name?" Helen asked. "My teacher said Latin was a dead language."

"Latin is useful to scientists. It's part of a classification system, putting things in order."

"She hasn't moved at all," Jack said. "I want to see the bandicoots." He tugged on Uncle Ted's wrist.

Mrs. Donnelly sniffed at the mention of bandicoots. Rats, really, that's what they were. But she followed her brother-in-law and son toward another cage. "Come on, Helen."

"No, I want to see her walk around."

"Come along, now. I don't want you getting lost at the zoo."

"I won't get lost. I'll stay right here. I don't want to see the bandicoots anyway."

"If you promise not to go anywhere."

"I promise." Helen gave her mother an I'll-behave smile. She watched her mother walk away. Adults were so bossy, always making rules. How could she get lost? The zoo was laid out like a village with paths between the cages and signs pointing which way to go to see the birds or reptiles. Everything was labeled, even the trees.

"Where's Helen?" Uncle Ted asked when Mrs. Donnelly caught up with him.

"She's waiting for the thylacine to move. She'll have a good long wait. It doesn't look very lively."

"No, I think thylacines are only active at night." He looked back at the girl. "She'll be alright on her own."

"I suppose so." Mrs. Donnelly noticed how shabby the grounds were. Only the weeds were thriving. But she kept quiet. Mustn't complain. Still, no wonder there were so few visitors. Catching her reflection in a dirty glass pane, she checked that her stocking seams were straight. A Latin name for bandicoots; she sighed. What she really wanted was a cold drink.

Helen pressed against the handrail, willing the thylacine to look at her. She squinted and whispered, "What's your name, Mrs. Thylacine?" The animal's ears flicked forward. Helen repeated her question and added, "Where are your children?" When the thylacine raised her head and eyed Helen, the girl took a step back and then smiled. "Come say hello."

Among the zoo staff, the thylacine was called Benjamin They knew she was a female, but what did it matter to the solitary animal? She dragged her head back from her front paws, the way Helen had seen cats stretch. The girl held her breath. It was going to get up. "Come say hello," she whispered. She had asked for a kitten or rabbit for her birthday every year since she was three, but her father said no pets. Children were a handful enough for a household.

Sometimes Helen took Gretel for a walk, but the dog didn't cooperate—it was all stop and go, sniff and sprint. She liked the dog best when it would sit still and let her pet it. Helen wanted to pet the thylacine. It looked gentle, standing at the front of the cage, facing the girl, its large eyes the color of chocolate sauce and honey. Thick lines of black outlined its eyes and the vertical bars of the cage framed its head.

"I'm sorry you have to live here," Helen said. "You're so pretty." She leaned over the handrail to get closer, then tipped forward and somersaulted around the bar. Her hat fell off and she twirled again, enjoying the dizziness and knowing that her mother wouldn't approve.

The twirling girl prompted the thylacine to begin pacing across the cage. A few strides, and it turned. A few more, and it turned back. The girl looked for a pouch, but as slowly as the animal moved, she couldn't see one. Helen noticed patches of golden fur missing on the thylacine's backside, as if from sitting too long. Perhaps the thylacine was sick or old, but its walk was steady. Back and forth, a restless tread slowed as if to delay the need to turn frequently. Helen watched the rise and fall of the animal's shoulder and hip bones, the slight swing of its long, narrow tail. She swayed along with it. The thylacine stopped, its ears pricked, alert.

"Hello. Here it is," a young man said, stopping before the placard that identified the animal. His right arm was around the waist of a young woman. They smelled of bay rum and gardenia. The young woman sipped lemonade from a paper cup. Helen noticed that her nail polish and lipstick were the same bright red. The girl glanced at her own hands and remembered playing with her mother's makeup. The lipstick tasted funny and the nail polish smelled terrible. The bright colors hadn't camouflaged her freckles, as she had hoped. She'd asked her mother why men didn't wear makeup. But Mrs. Donnelly had only laughed and said, "Imagine mascara on your father." It was another of those behaviors that you didn't question.

"This is the only zoo that's got one of these," the man said as if he had captured the thylacine himself.

"Really?" The young woman looked impressed.

He nodded.

"Why? Are they so hard to catch?"

"Hardly any left. We've nearly killed them off." He drew her closer. "You're about as likely to see a brontosaurus as one of these."

"A what?"

"A dinosaur, silly." In his left hand was a hot dog. He tore off a piece and tossed it toward the thylacine. "Here's a treat, old boy."

"It's a female," Helen said.

They turned and noticed her for the first time.

"So it is," the young man said. Helen bent to pick up her hat. She was about to add that you weren't supposed to feed the animals, but it was a stupid rule. Surely the thylacine was hungry. Or did the brown stripes outlining its ribs make it look thinner than it was? The meat and the roll bounced off a bar and landed outside the cage. The young woman laughed and her drink slipped from her hand, splashing her open-toed pumps. She laughed louder.

"Butterfingers," the man said. "I'll get you another." Helen watched them stroll away, hand in hand, smiling at each other. They didn't even glance at the platypus pond.

When Helen was alone again with the thylacine, it stopped pacing and gazed at the rest of the hot dog on the ground. "Would you like this?" Helen asked. She picked up the roll and aimed carefully at a gap in the bars. But it fell short of the cage. Helen picked up the meat; this time she would throw harder. Then the thylacine opened its mouth with a loud howl. Helen backed up as though the sound pushed her away. She slipped on the cup and fell to the pavement. As she scrambled up, the huge jaws snapped shut.

"Helen. What are you doing?" Uncle Ted's voice boomed across the path. "You're not to feed the animals."

"That noise," Mrs. Donnelly said. "What an awful sound."

It was awful, Helen thought, not because it was loud but because it belonged in another world, like an elephant's trumpet. She remembered one of her teachers asking, if a tree fell in a forest when no one was there to hear, did it make a sound? Crashing with a boom. And then silence.

"Where did you get that?" Mrs. Donnelly asked. She glared at the food scraps in Helen's hand. "Throw it away." She pointed to a trash barrel. Helen walked over to it, held her hand over her head, and dropped the food like a rock.

"That'll do. I told you to stay here."

"I did." Helen sighed. She saw the grin on her brother's face and stuck her tongue out at him.

"Come along. It's time for lunch." Mrs. Donnelly frowned. "And take that leaf off your hat."

Jack chattered about the bandicoots as they walked away. Helen slid the leaf in her pocket and turned once for a final look. The thylacine could devour Gretel in a few gulps. She shivered at the prospect: dreadful, wonderful, impossible.

The rest of the day, Helen's fingers returned to the supple leaf in her pocket: her souvenir from the zoo, the scythe shape of the leaf echoing the stripes on the thylacine. When she got home, she would place it in a book to save it.

One day she would come across the leaf, brittle and faded gray-green, and wonder why it was there.

First appeared in E2K, 2003