23. A Cage of One's Own Making

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Jugger knew things were different. Before the Awakening, she understood almost nothing of what her handler said. She had three handlers actually, but was most fond of Annie, who’d been there from the beginning. Before the Awakening, she hadn’t even known Annie’s name but now everything was a lot clearer. First, Jugger had begun to understand some of the meaning, then specific words, then whole sentences and now most of what Annie said. And what she said on this particular morning wasn’t good:

‘Listen, Jug, there’s a lot going on outside these walls. Things are changing every day. Some kind of sickness. The hospitals are full. You remember David, my husband? He works for the city and they’re not even telling him much. My mother is so worried. The kids too. I’ve stopped them from watching the TV – it’s just too upsetting. It was difficult to get into work today. The soldiers are everywhere, it took me more than two hours. Sorry – that’s why your breakfast was late.’

Annie rubbed Jugger’s trunk, which was resting over the gate of her pen.

‘I saw the director this morning too. He’s very worried. There are only a few of us here today and still so many animals that need looking after. The birds are acting strangely – they always seem to know when something’s wrong. On the radio they keep talking about “prioritizing crucial infrastructure” and I’m pretty sure that doesn’t include the SL Zoo.’

Annie sighed and pushed a strand of curly hair away from her face. ‘I know - we humans talk too much, don’t we?  What I’m trying to say, Jug, is that I’m not even sure if I’ll be here tomorrow. Not because I don’t want to … but … god, what will happen to you all?’

Annie wiped her eyes. ‘I have to go, Jug, I’m supposed to feed the hippos and the rhinos and the antelopes and the gazelles. I’ll … I’ll come back if I can.’

Jugger never saw Annie again. Since the two males had been moved some time ago, she was the only elephant at the zoo. The pen was very large and she had plenty of water, straw and food; Annie had made sure of that. But the gate that led to the outside pen was shut and so Jugger was stuck.

Darkness came; then light; then darkness again. She could hear the cries of other animals and she wondered if they were trapped too. There was also a strange tapping sound that came and went. She couldn’t work out what it was.

Jugger began to think about the outside: the comfortable earth, the cool water pool and the refreshing wind. And she thought of her true home too; where she’d been surrounded by other elephants; where there were no people or walls. Then she thought of her parents: the sight of their bloodied, lifeless bodies. Gripped by sadness and hopelessness, Jugger slumped down on a pile of straw and eventually drifted into sleep.

The tapping awoke her once more. She realized it was coming from one of the high windows, which were covered by wooden shutters. By stretching high with her trunk, Jugger was able to grip one of the slats then pull the shutter open. Moments later, a white, feathery (and very inquisitive) face appeared.

At last! I was wondering if you had died.

Jugger looked up at the bald eagle. I can understand you!

Yes, and I can understand you. Strange, isn’t it? It seems that everything has changed. There are no humans left out here. Just us animals. My handler set me free but … well … I only know this place so I didn’t go far. But I’ve been flying around and there are many of us still here. The animals are scared. They need a leader. No one’s going to listen to a stupid bird. But an elephant …

Jugger still felt sad that she would never see Annie and the other people again but she’d always wondered about the other animals that she’d glimpsed from time to time. She wasn’t sure about being a leader but she certainly didn’t want to be left alone.

I suppose I should introduce myself, added the eagle. I’m Athena.

I’m Jugger.

The eagle tapped its yellow beak impatiently against the shutter. What do you say then, Jugger? Are you going to join the rest of us or do you want to spend another night alone?

I’m trapped. I can’t get out.

The eagle squawked with laughter. Ha ha! You’re an elephant. A massive African elephant! The biggest creature in this place. Don’t you see – that’s why you’ll make a good leader. Other animals respect elephants. You’ll knock that little gate flying!

Jugger wasn’t sure about that. It was a long time since she’d fought or really used her strength. But she wanted to get out. Now.

Jugger lumbered towards the gate then stopped and lined herself up.

Very good! cried Athena. Yes, take a good run up. I’ll meet you outside.

With a mighty roar, Jugger charged.