It’s creepy to be alone around caged animals. They pay more attention to you, they ask you with their eyes to please be let out, and a part of you wants to do it. But another more rational part of the mind is terrified of this freedom, particularly in regard to carnivores like Roger. I have no idea if it’s true and I’d never try it out of anything other than necessity, but I read somewhere that if a large cat is about to attack you, you can hold it in thrall by gazing into its eyes. Unfortunately, the cat might as well be holding you in thrall, too, while one of its brothers or sisters creeps up behind you. Even if there is some truth in this, I doubt it applies to solitary hunters like tigers.
“Christ, you scared the crap out of me. Where were you?”
“I was just washing up. What were you doing staring at Roger?”
“Nothing. Just checking on him. Saying hello.”
“Right.” Phil smiled and gave me a look like he knew I was up to something. “Anyway, I got your text about calling a local vet but I don’t think it’s necessary. He was just a bit dehydrated.”
“The cooler worried me. That maybe his meat had gone bad.”
“The standards set for that cooler are for humans. If he was hungry enough, Roger could eat 100lbs of rancid meat, nap for a few days, and eat another 100lbs of rancid meat. A tiger’s stomach is basically a toxic garbage disposal.”
Roger was looking terrifyingly healthy. The water and the few hours of fresh air had puffed him up and woke him up. His fur was immaculate. He sat on his haunches like a giant house cat, staring at us. I wondered what he’d look like in his jungle environment, if he would continue to grow stronger and stronger the closer he came to his natural element.
“Do you ever think about setting him free?”
“I don’t think Roger would function well in the wild. He’s spent too much time away from other tigers. He has his instincts, but he’s never been taught how to hunt properly and worse than that, he’s never been properly socialized. Imagine being snatched away from humans during your formative years, never learning how you’re supposed to communicate or act.”
“It isn’t that hard to imagine.”
“Then imagine being caged, whipped, and put on display, forced to perform in front of hundreds of people, the last place a tiger or any cat wants to be.”
“Let’s not be overly dramatic. It’s more like dozens of people.”
Phil gave me a searching look.
“Roger is relatively well off here. I take good care of him, no one abuses him.”
“Except for Leon.”
“Leon may seem harsh with Roger, but it’s the only way. Roger would be more uncomfortable if Leon wasn’t as firm and Leon would be dead.”
Phil appeared to reflect for a moment.
“What is it?”
“It’s probably nothing. You know how people say their cat loves them or their dog is depressed? Researchers, vets, zookeepers, basically anyone who has to deal with animals professionally, is taught never to anthropomorphize, that animals are not people. Treat them like people and you’re liable to get hurt or worse. But this isn’t to say that nothing is going on inside.”
As he said this, Phil’s eyes moved to Roger. Roger blinked his implacable yellow eyes once before yawning and stretching. His massive muscles rippled beneath his fur. He started licking his asshole.
“Anyway,” said Phil, “you coming to dinner?”
I nodded and we headed off toward Leon’s quarters.
The walk to Leon and the performers’ area passed through the grounds crew’s area, which was already a minefield of dog turds and empty beer bottles. These people kept the entire circus clean, they cleaned up after the performers, the animals, the crowds. Maybe by the time they got home they were fed up with cleaning. You clean things all the time, it takes hours a day almost everyday of your life if it’s your job, and when you wake up the next morning all of it is even worse than it was to begin with. Our grounds crew had learned the secret. There is no point in cleaning or fixing anything, at least not while anything alive is anywhere near it just waiting to turn it into garbage. Or maybe they were just a bunch of lazy, drunken slobs.
A warm yellow light emanated from Leon’s tent. I could hear laughter and general merriment and was hesitant to enter, but the prospect of free food won out. Leon was at the head of the table telling stories and making jokes. He seemed to have recovered from whatever had been occupying him earlier. Surrounding him were The Flying Sweeney Sisters, three ripe blondes just exiting their youth. Their parents had been with us up until around 10 years ago. They had decided to retire off to some rural hamlet in Minnesota. Their faces had grown old, but their bodies were still well muscled and taut from years of aerial acrobatics. Six months after they retired, the Flying Sweeney Sisters returned to us without them. Whatever happened, only Leon knew for sure.
Leon was in the middle of a story when we arrived.
“My hand to the heavens, the gentleman was half fish and half man, and the crowds loved him. But one day, he refused to come out of his tank and perform. My father spoke with him. Giles, or The Fish Man as we called him, I know it isn’t very original but capturing the public’s imagination was more important in those days, being direct.”
Leon paused to sip from an old prop goblet.
“Anyway, my father asked Giles what was troubling him, and Giles told him that he had had a disturbing dream. You see, because of Giles’ physiology, he was unable to be with a woman. I have no doubt that he had dreamed of women previously, our women performers tend to be extremely beautiful, especially in the main tent. In any case, in this dream, he was able to see inside the women during their conjugal relations and all he could see were fish, endless schools of fish swimming within their loins. Ah, Scotty, Phil, please come join us.”
“Finish the story!” said Sue Sweeney.
“Yeah, finish!” said Sarah and Samantha.
Leon waved his hands in an appeasing fashion.
“The story will be continued at the farewell dinner.”
The Flying Sweeney Sisters flashed dirty looks at Phil and I and pouted. We sat down off toward the foot of the table in our customary seats. We left the other seats open so if Lulu, Hector, the Duggans, or Garbageman Mike straggled in, they would know that they were always welcome, that their places had not been taken. Leon warmed everyone up and dinner proceeded pleasantly. Something passed between Leon and I. His eyes told me he didn’t want to talk about it and mine told him I didn’t want to hear it. What would be the point? The Sweeney sisters left after about an hour, Phil and I left an hour or two after that. No one else showed up.