The Richard Basehart Issue



     by Debbie Ann Ice

     Marcy likes this section of the zoo— the herbivores. Verdant fields teaming with life that require only vegetables to survive. Animals mingling freely in eclectic playgrounds. Social beings able to empathize with all other vegetable eaters. A giraffe lopes around trees filled with birds, lizards, insects; elks saunter among grazing zebra herds. It does not matter where the species originated, if it does not kill another animal, it can live with all animals at a zoo. They trust each other, they don't run, nor do they growl, or put on obnoxious displays of aggression to impress other meat eating foes. Carnivores are located in the northeast corner of the zoo, all species segregated from each other for obvious reasons. The isolation of carnivore species results in anti-social personalities. Aloof, alone, snarling, dyspeptic.


     Marcy eats vegetables, fruit and some grain, not much, just some. She is therefore thin and supposedly healthy, although she is always tired.


     Marcy is not here for the herbivores, though; she is here to see the carnivore field, which has a new viewing building with safety glass walls. She has visited the carnivore fields before, of course, back when she had her son, who was fascinated by the blood- loving animals. Back then, everyone stood across the moat and stared at the animals who stared back. The animals sometimes chewed on carcasses, other times simply lumbered around the field. In those days, the lion's area was contiguous to the grizzly bear area, barely separated by a small ditch. Marcy assumed cash flow was tight, land area small; therefore, management tossed a few carnivores together and hoped for the best, choosing the lion and bear because who would ever imagine a lion eating a bear or a bear eating a lion? Everyone used to laugh about the potential battle of lions and bears. Cameras were always ready to catch a fight. One roar near the ditch and the crowd would run, huddle at the edge of the moat and hope a bear would charge across. Then one night a few bears did charge across the small moat while humans slept. No one had to speculate about the winner of the lion bear fight any longer. Two lions were cremated the next day. Now the fields are separated by electrical wires. All carnivores live only with their species, no one else. Alone. Forever.


     Marcy does not believe in forever. They crawl over fences. They dig tunnels. They reach through wires with their long tongues. They will always find another to kill.


     There is a small dome shaped building in the cartilage between the lion area and chimpanzee area, around the corner from the dreaded bear area. Marcy can see the powerful glassed sides from where she stands. A lion can maul this glass wall endlessly without consequence. Parents flock there by the thousands, dragging toddlers, babies, elementary children, encouraging them to provoke the creatures. "Oh don't worry, it cannot get you, sweetie." The small child laughs, all trusting, enthralled with the idea that they are protected by something that does not seem like protection, and this confidence allows parents to click pictures of their laughing offspring standing before a roaring lion. Images of carnivores desperate to suck blood from babies bounce from iPhone to iPad, competing with other images.


     From where Marcy stands—atop a hill right off the giraffe area— she can see the sun glint off the sides of the carnivore viewing dome enclosure. If she had binoculars, she could study the small round faces smashed against the glass, staring at the lions in the distance. Marcy figures the lions have become so accustomed to the human's failed efforts at provocation—children making faces, adult parents waving arms, screaming, making fists— they have ceased visiting the area. Instead, the lions lope around an area between a large rock and a deep moat.


     Protections just make the predator hide for a while. Only a while.


     Marcy walks over to side of the field hidden from the dome building. One lion, sitting close to the moat, yawns, revealing large incisors and a bright red tongue. She wonders about the color. Is it red due to a recent bloody meal? Is blood flowing furiously into the tongue due to hunger? What do they feed the lions? Meat is very expensive, and Marcy knows from recent local news articles that this zoo is having financial difficulties. It would be less expensive, and quite easy, to simply kill a few herbivores and toss the carcasses over the moat at night. Of course, it's all probably regulated — the elk and deer properly identified and tattooed. Marcy imagines regulators dropping by, checking tattoos, perhaps noticing a missing tattooed deer, then confronting the owner who insists the deer has simply died of a virus, it's corpse cremated to prevent spread of disease. 


     They all lie to cover their sins. If the lion is hungry, they give the lion a deer.


     If you were to ask Marcy why she took a day off from work to visit the zoo, she would not be able to answer. Her child no longer needs the entertainment of a zoo. The one who survived lives far away with her father. Marcy drives by the zoo daily en route to work, and rarely has a desire to see anything beyond its large enclosure visible from the highway. But one night, while drinking wine, she viewed several YouTube videos of babies sitting before a large glass wall that was so clean, so clear, it resembled magic air separating babies from roaring lions with mouths open, eager for a meal.


     Marcy enters the dome carnivore building. The corridor is crowded with children and adults who are either parents or teachers. Marcy follows them around the circular path. She regards how adults handle their smart phones. If the smart phone is in ready mode— held by both hands, waiting for that one moment when lion roars behind small child— then the adult is most likely a parent. Teachers probably don't take pictures.


     Teachers don't think the scene is funny. They are realistic. There is always a first time a safety zone will break.


     The lions look bored and unimpressed, despite the flow of children around their territory. Cheerful children scream, wave, provoke with no concern. Nothing can penetrate the "magic air" that separates humans from lions. They know this to be true because their parents have promised them.


     If you provoke a beast, it will roar and leap, it's energy will become kinetic, exponentially more powerful. Teachers know this. Parents do not.


     The parents —smart phones at their faces—encourage the children to gesture, scream, wave, bang on glass. Bring the beasts to us so we can all be entertained! Bring the beasts to us so we can distribute their beastly behavior around our quiet social circles, where they will spread, like cold viruses, capturing the attention of click bait sites that will offer us a few thousand bucks.


     Sometimes the world wants to be entertained by beasts roaring at children. Click bait sites. Breaking News cable TV. They all want this.


     As Marcy approaches the glass, she feels her heart quicken, her sweat cool upon her skin. A child bangs the glass, it bounces slightly. The child appears hyper. Marcy suspects some sort of attention deficit issue, or maybe too much sugar, perhaps too many sodas.


     Three adults now have the smart phone up to their faces. They laugh, which will make the video a bit shaky, interfering with its marketability. The lions notice the hyper child who is disordered or has eaten too much sugar. A female lion steps towards the window then sits and stares, the way females do as a warning to unruly children when the beast is near. Marcy can see the sclera of the lioness— clear, sober— as its eyes shift from the child to Marcy. The lioness stands but does not walk away, only moves over to make room for a male lion, who appears suddenly. Well, his appearance is not really sudden, because he has been slowly walking toward the dome. No one has noticed him.


     No one ever notices them.


     The male's eyes focus on the boy who continues to pound. The male lion roars so loud the speakers shake.

     The lion is now leaping towards the glass.

     "Don't face him. Run. Run!" A hysterical voice.

     The lion hits the glass with such force it shudders.

     "Run! You must run! I said run!" The voice again.


     The child faces the lion, and all the adults face Marcy, as if she were a lion. The glass will splinter, then fall away, the boy's head will slip inside the lion's mouth, the lion will taste the boy and walk the field, displaying his prey to other predators.

     The child is screaming, loud, hysterical. The other voice is screaming.


     Everyone always screams. They scream because no one can believe this is happening.


     A small woman in a tube top puts her hands on Marcy's shoulders, looks into her eyes. Another woman, a teacher perhaps, squats before the boy. The male lion watches. He seems to have lost all appetite. All of the roar in him is gone. He sits and stares, amused by the mothers and teachers who are no longer laughing and taking pictures.

     Marcy realizes, as she did long ago, the screaming voice is hers. The touch of warm hands on her shoulder reminds her of the Governor's warm voice in the gym the day a male human, transformed into a lion by an AR-15, ate her boy. Her sweet boy who thought his parents, his teachers, the entire adult world always protected him with magic air.


     There is no magic air.


     The boy no longer screams. The silence competes with the violence in the air— a competition Marcy is familiar with.


     Silence will be overtaken by breath and whispers, but violence will stay right there, a spectral existence.


     In the distance, the lion yawns, then growls, the sound rising like the rumble of a diesel engine in neutral, gears ready to shift.

Debbie Ann Ice's work has been online and in various small print publications, notably, elimae, Smokelong Quarterly, Adirondack Review, Armchair Shotgun, to name a few. Her novel, FIND SAM, will be published by Bedazzled Ink in September 2019.