• Vol. 06
  • Chapter 12

The Zookeeper

Once, we met a woman who was a glutton for the humiliation of others. We didn't notice it at first. It was only at the end of our customary Friday night dinner, when we all sat heavy and sated, that her hunger presented itself.

One of us was holding forth about bad tattoos; how could someone be so careless with their own skin? That's when we noticed the glint in her eyes, as sharp as the tip of a blade; the sideways smirk slashed across her face. That's when she slapped both of her legs on her table, rolled down her stockings, and revealed her menagerie. She was covered, ankle to thigh, in cartoonish scribbles. There were peacocks in crowns; sailors with bubble muscles; lopsided hearts skewered with arrows. Each tattoo, she explained, was a totem; each totem, a person; each person, a lover.

Those greedy eyes drank in our astonished expressions. We laughed a little too loudly, praised her ingenuity. She rolled her stockings back up slowly. The elastic snapped against her thighs with a satisfying smack. Nobody's eyes had left her legs.

We drained our drinks. Someone produced gin in a dark, squat bottle, that was being saved for a special occasion. It sat sharp in our full stomachs, but we didn't care.

One of us got up to change the music, selecting something with a honeyed melody, something irresistible. We found ourselves heading toward the middle of the room. We started slow, our toes scuffing the carpet. Our guest led from the hips, and we dutifully followed; soon, we were gliding like oil. And hands! We seemed to remember that we had them all at once. We clicked, clapped, dipped our partners. We laughed – at this time, we'd usually be in cabs, train carriages, beds. Yet here we were.


The Zookeeper

As we spun each other around, we fantasised about what our totems might look like, if we printed on her thighs. A long-necked bird? A rusty dagger? A pair of clown's shoes with untidy laces?

Eventually, we began to wilt. Some peeled away, sipped drinks, but weren't ready to give up and leave – not just yet. Soon our guest slumped too, unfurling herself on the couch. Those of us still standing shimmied through one more song, letting our gazes rest on the curlicues and scribbles faintly visible through her stockings.

Then, we shuffled into our coats, rewound our scarves around our necks. We all softly confessed what a pleasure it had been, and that we hoped to see her again, soon. She was equally lovely to each of us in turn. We fumbled with our laces, blood beating hot in our ears. We hatched plans to shake the pack and walk our guest home, alone – to be well and truly totemised.

But she had already opened the door. She offered us one last smile- that same blade-glint smirk, icy and knowing. With a simple "Goodbye," she turned, plunged into the darkness of the hall, and vanished.