The Two-by-Two Zoo rolled into the county fair, its long wagons and carts brightly-painted and hung with cheap gingerbreading, the giant draft horses hung with garish barding and the handlers dressed in bright, archaic finery. They were a spectacle parading through the center of the small town, a loud and cheerful eye-catcher, the ringmaster hanging off the edge of the main wagon, shouting to one and all to come see the wild beasts! The endangered animals! The strange creatures found deep in the twisted zones, where few dare to tread and fewer come back out!
Those that do come out, of course, are said to have left sanity far in the distance. Looking at the ringleader, with his elaborate get-up out of some old book, one could believe it. Looking at his stage girls, in their top hats and tails and not much else, one could believe the other rumors about circus folk, too. But excitement like this only comes to this small town once or twice a year, and so, mad or not, alien or not, the zoo, with its bawdy wagons, was well-attended as it rolled through down.
“Do you have lions, mister?” asked a little girl, jogging to keep up with the horses.
“No lions this year, sweetie, but we’ve been looking. We do have something even more neat, though.”
“Elephants?” She bounced up and down. “My grandma says elephants are real, but I’ve never seen even a little one.”
Her grandmother could probably remember back before the devastation, then. “No elephants. I’d need a bigger wagon for that!”
“They’re just a story,” a boy tagging behind her scoffed.
“Ah, who can say, now, what’s a story and what’s not? I know a man down in the Carolinas who has a full skeleton of an elephant in his barn. It’s a sight to behold, let me tell you.” The ringsmaster smiled at the children, and at their parents, pretending not to be as eager as the young ones. “But no, I’m afraid I have no lions and no elephants.” He gestured towards the covered cages.
“What I do have is a pair of snow leopards, creatures that were nearly extinct long before the war and whose very existence now hangs on these two beasts! I have alligators dredged from the swamp of Florida! I have squirrel monkeys, macaws, and a pack of coyotes! And, ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, I have…”
The crowd, all together, held their breath. Life wasn’t as hard now as it had been in the years just past the devastation, but lives were a lot more limited than they had been at the turn of the century, and their entertainment simpler.
“…but you’ll have to wait and see, won’t you?” The girls capered behind him, taunting the crowd, who moaned much as they had caught their breath, as a single organism. “Just after dinner, folks, down at the fairgrounds! Bring your barter goods, make Ella and Emma happy girls!”
They’d be there, they’d all be there. Not for the snow leopards, proud and beautiful and very nearly actually the last of their race. Not for the dragon skull that Aloysius was hawking four carts down, or the trade goods from far-away Saskatchewan and Dallas, but for the unknown, the exotic, the mysterious. And they’d give it to them, wouldn’t they?
“Is this gonna need a runner?” The wagons had been parked in the fairgrounds in two long rows, their solid sides to the outside to shield their contents from view; down this aisle, the ringmaster walked with his twin companions. Their voices were low; no-one outside their round-up would have heard them.
“I think we’re good,” one of the twins answered. “They’re intrigued, but there’s none of that dark tension we had over in Erie. They barely believe in elephants, Jack; they’ve already lost some of the fear of the exotic.”
The other twin giggled. “We’re more likely to get rocks thrown at us for our skimpy costumes than for… that.”
That was in the cage they were standing at right now, the piece de resistance, the center-stage freak show, the wildest of the wild animals. That was listening to every word they said from behind the thin plywood wall, and couldn’t help but chuckle at their conversation.
“I think your biggest concern is that they will try to rescue me again, like those children in – where was it? – Roanoke?”
“Hush, Anaca,” the ringmaster scolded, and I hushed. But I’d gotten his attention. He and the twins unlocked the side door and entered my cage.
They were always so cautious about it, so careful that it make me laugh. They’d be no less careful with the snow leopards, or with the alligators. As if I was some vicious creature who would bite if provoked. As if they hadn’t chosen me for my dull, un-frightening teeth and flat, un-threatening claws. As if I’d run the moment they opened my cage without precautions.
Well, all right, I might. If only to see what they’d do.
“It’s time to get ready for the show,” the ringmaster told me, as if I didn’t know that already. Sometimes I think he listens to his own propaganda a little too much. But I just nodded at him. He’d already hushed me once tonight. No need to get him annoyed this early in the evening.
“Hold still,” he said anyway, and I held still as he put the horrible leash on the horrible iron collar around my neck and locked it to the ring in the back wall. He left off the shackles for now, and stood between me and the door, looking pointedly away as the twins got me ready.
Ella brushed my fur and braided my hair, her clever fingers gentle. I could do for myself, of course, but not as quickly or as easily as she could. Besides, if they were going to keep me in a cage, the least they could do was wait on me a little. Emma swept the cage tidy, shook out the blankets, and brought ne fresh clothes from the cupboard they thought my flat-fingered, thumbless hands couldn’t open.
They let me change myself, at least, the backless, sleeveless shirt covering my four mammaries, the tiny shorts settling below my short, stubby tail. Enough to suit those who were prudes about such things, while still showing very clearly just how different I was.
“She’s ready,” Ella told the ringmaster, and he came back with the shackles. I hissed at him, showing my useless teeth. I could no more not complain than I could stop breathing.
“Shh, Anaca,” he coaxed. “You know we have to. You know they riot if we don’t. You remember what it was like.”
I did, indeed. Being lit on fire is no fun at all. “I know,” I complained quietly, “but I hate them anyway.”
I didn’t make him hold me down to put them on me, though. Some days I have to. Some days the memories won’t allow anything else… and on the very bad days, all four of us are bruised and bleeding and crying by the time they lock me to the wall of my cage. But this night, this night I could hiss at him and allow the indignity.
They left me there, then, tethered and chained and caged, locked down so much more than even the poor snow leopards, and went out to begin their show. I sat in my fresh hay, chewed idly on a carrot, and waited.
I heard them coming, of course. It takes the crowd a long time to work down to my cage. They ooh at the alligator and they aah at the snow leopards and they aaw at the tiny little monkeys, but they’re always looking forward, looking at the curtain covering my cage. It would be flattering, if it had anything to do with me.
It doesn’t, of course. It’s all the ringmaster’s brilliant showmanship. And it is, really, an amazing display of psychological prestidigitation. He’s set this whole show up, the sad animals in their sad cages, the exotic, wild and still non-threatening, the last of their kind. All of it to build a mood, a mood of sympathy, of interest, of titillated compassion. And, if he’d played the crowd right (He didn’t always. He’d misread them in Erie, overplayed them in Roanoke), when they got to my cage, they’d be tuned perfectly to hear what he had to say.
“And these are squirrel monkeys; a gentleman adventurer of my acquaintance went all the way into the rain forests of South American to bring these back, and aren’t they adorable? Please keep your fingers away from the cage, folks; they may be cute but they do bite.”
“And now we come to center stage, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. This one can be a little shocking, so I urge you, if you have a weak heart, please bypass this exhibit.” No one moved, of course. “I myself found this creature, deep in a twisted zone, denning in a cave, living like a common animal, found it, captured it, and brought it here for your viewing pleasure.” All of that was technically true. All the crowd heard, though, was living like a common animal. The murmurs started. What was he hiding behind the curtain. Someone whispered dragon. The ringmaster’s voice rose up louder.
“You have heard the stories of the monsters from the time of devastation. Those creatures would not have been held by a cage, ladies and gentlemen. Those creatures were monsters of mythic proportions.” The twins grabbed the curtains and pulled them away, revealing… me. The crowd gasped. I hissed back at them. The murmurs rose. The ringmaster’s voice rose higher.
“But, like your housecat is a cousin to the lions and the leopards, those monsters had smaller cousins.” I looked nothing like a cat; if anything, my ears and tail made me look more like a rabbit. “Annie here is one of those smaller cousins… don’t worry, folks, she can’t hurt you. Collar and bars and chains all of good solid iron.”
Like a rabbit, I’m not all that scary once you get a look at me. People who had pulled back originally crowded close to my cage again, as the ringmaster continued. “These smaller cousins, these wild fae, have been hunted nearly to extinction, due to their unfortunate resemblance to their malevolent older relatives.”
It was a good lie, better because people wanted to believe, better because the oversized collar and shackles made me look small and pitiful, like the snow leopards pacing back in forth in their cage, better still because time enough had passed, two generations and more since the devastation, that the monsters he was speaking of were myths to most of these people. The twins brought the little children up to pet me through the bars, and I sat docilely and allowed it. I like being petted.
It was a good plan, the ringmaster’s. Tell them enough that this is not a monster, that’s just an unfortunate resemblance, and eventually they will believe you. Show them the harmless and let it seem like that is all there is, and eventually they will stop being afraid of the monsters in the night. Show them me instead of the godlings who had wrecked their world…
“Hey, mister.” The little kid had petted me for a moment, his hands gentler than I expected from someone his age. “She’s lonely. Everyone else in your zoo’s gotta mate or a pack or something… it’s the ‘Two by Two Zoo,’ right? When you gonna get her a boyfriend?”
From eseme's prompt of "endangered animals, snow leopard."
The Faerie Apoc universe is the setting for Addergoole and Wild Ones' Blood.