The Peaceable Kingdom
“Even when love isn’t enough, somehow it is.”—Stephen King
The day dawned beautiful and windy, but by the time Fred pulled away from the curb at Casa Hector, most of the blue above had been obscured by clouds—the predicted snow was coming.
Arriving at the tan Victorian at 9:50 and buzzing the apartment, he found Constantia already waiting in the lobby, and upon bursting out into the chilly air, she threw herself into his arms. It felt good. His real, solid girlfriend was back, and in his arms and he felt strangely nervous, or maybe excited.
“Hello Constantia,” he said grinning down at her, tapping the tip of her nose playfully.
She shook her head dolefully. “Oh Fred, you’re such a goof. Will you kiss me, please?”
So he did. It was a really great kiss, too.
Breaking away with a laugh, Constantia skipped ahead of him to the car and let herself in. She had mittens and a matching beret, white, of course, to go with her hip-length, shiny blue parka. Fred wore his CPO collar up and had wound a thick black scarf around his neck. He even had gloves with him, in case. He suspected he wouldn’t need them.
She was bouncing in her seat as they turned onto Butler from Highland, the wide silver Allegheny River on their right; they were close.
“I was a kid the last time I was at the zoo,” she said, laying a hand on Fred’s arm.
It seemed he had made an excellent choice.
The weak sun did not last long. Fred paid their admission at the gates and they rode vertically up the hillside on a sluggish escalator as children’s songs about animals jangled around them.
“I hope all the animals aren’t hiding in this cold,” Constantia said.
“There’s always the Rain Forest House and the Aquarium, if they are,” Fred said, stealing a glance at his date. Her cheeks were aglow from the cold.
All he’d really hoped for was some time to walk and talk, to try to mend the damage he’d done. And in his favor, few people were braving the flurries; one or two scattered families, and a group of Asian exchange students. They’d have the zoo to themselves.
“Constantia,” Fred began, when they reached the first exhibit, a young tiger cub lolling playfully on a rock, a broken stick in its gigantic, padded paws. “I’m sorry I made you so angry at me, about the—party—and about you being at the Casa.”
She frowned for a second, too absorbed in the big cat’s play to be really upset.
“That—woman—what is she to you, anyway?”
Ike was right: it was like jumping pieces on a checkerboard, one minute you are safe in your corner and the next, she is quadruple jumping across the board. How’d they get here? He took a steadying breath.
“Esmeralda is my friend, and she has no interest in me; she made that clear Day One. She’s involved with an Australian landscape sculptor.”
“A what? Oh, never mind!” Constantia said, with a happy lilting sound, looking into his face. “Let’s go see what’s next.”
When they were looking for the puma—a little girl in a pink parka had pointed up at the rocks—Fred mentioned that he had bought another lottery ticket—to bring him luck today.
“That’s a little backwards, isn’t it?” she said, scanning the tree branches, when the rocks revealed nothing.
“It worked the last time.”
She giggled. “Give me the numbers,” she said, and as he read them off, 3-1-2-0-4, she jotted them down on the back of her hand.
“Why do you always write on your hand?” Faded marks were visible from some previously important fact.
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “It’s just how I remember things.”
The puma turned out to be huddled by the gate to his compound, probably waiting for dinner.
Little bits of snow that felt almost like rain beat into their faces. As they followed the trail around the bend, a frolicking rhino came into view. Fred laughed with his companion at the sight of this half-dinosaur beast dashing about like a foal.
“Does she ever see him?”
“Who?” Fred said, blinking at the rhinoceros. It was female?
Constantia sounded exasperated. “The Australian sculptor!”
“Oh. To my knowledge, not recently.”
“That’s a shame. It’s hard to be away from someone you care about. When you’re alone all the time, you start to feel unlovable.”
He was about to say that Australia is a bit far away to be making house calls, when he realized her rules had changed again. He’d been studying the board to find a way to maybe take a couple of her checkers on his next turn, only to find the squares covered with bishops, knights, pawns and menacing queens.
The zebras were frisky, too. He steeled himself.
“You, Constantia Andreolakis, are a most lovable woman. However, there are moments—and please do understand this is only my perspective, as I cannot begin to fathom yours—there are moments when you latch on too tightly, when you expect too much. You are half way down a road I first saw exit signs for only a moment ago. It looks interesting, I’m definitely going, but I’m not there yet. Give me a little time.”
“I don’t know. We could proceed at a more leisurely pace, be somewhat more, shall we say, circumspect. See what happens.”
“I know what’s going to happen.”
“You do?” he said, unable to withhold the skepticism from his voice.
“Yes, I do,” she said with an air of comically injured pride. “Just like I know what’s going to happen with Ike.”
He blinked. “Wait. Something’s going to happen to Ike? We should stop it!”
“Oh no, I don’t think so,” she muttered with light contempt. Reading the incredulity in his face, she turned her attention back to the zebras, who had for company a flock of peacocks and a lone ostrich. She tilted her head one way and then the other as she watched them. “They aren’t exactly curled up in neat rows like on my card, are they? But they do seem to be coexisting very nicely.” She shook her head at Fred’s vexed expression. “Nature must take its course.”
Fred was lost; Constantia was headed into the desert this time. If they weren’t playing chess anymore, maybe it was Risk? “I don’t understand—I thought you liked Ike?”
“Don’t be silly, of course I like Ike!” She glanced at Fred through her lashes. “Aside from being a bit clueless, he’s a good catch, you know?”
He only vaguely did, more concerned now about borders, intrigues and alliances. Could he shift them toward dominos maybe, or Go Fish, something simpler that he could follow, so all it would take would be a few matching numbers and some innocent laughs?
Constantia was enjoying herself at least, so he found himself smiling again as he held the red door for her into the monkey house. In the warm, muggy interior, a few creatures were lazily grooming, the gorillas were eating yams and broccoli, and the rest were asleep. Constantia laughed at the shaggy blonde two-toed sloth, curled into the tight space of a plastic milk crate. For some reason, Fred thought of Ike, and he chuckled, too, but didn’t share his reason. Did she really know things about people? Fred rather fancied he might be an ostrich.
From the ape house, they made their way to the Aquarium. Fred was especially keen to see it, so they toured it thoroughly, from clown fish, moray eels and seahorses to penguins, turtles and sharks, though Constantia had already glimpsed the polar bears at the outdoor pool, playing with their toys at the water’s edge, and that was where she wanted to go. She had jumped and clapped her hands at the sight, much like the younger, muffler-wrapped children who skittered around them, and Fred was grateful there was no ultrasonic screech attached to her moment of rapture.
At last they returned to the polar bear enclosure; one bear pacing back and forth on dry ground, while the other lolled about and then dove in the water. Constantia stood rapt, she would have stayed the rest of the afternoon, but Fred found them ungainly and dull. Reluctantly, she agreed to move on to the far livelier sea otters which appeared to be showing off for their human visitors or, with the boons of cold weather, water and lithe bodies, simply reveled in being alive. Fred much preferred them, and left grudgingly as his hand was tugged onto a downward path.
Here they entered the polar bear tunnel, which, even without polar bears, was ethereally beautiful, the curved Plexiglas above and around them aglow with weak sunlight filtered through the wavering green water. It seemed as if every family they had seen all day was lined up at a standstill within this tunnel.
Then a communal ululation shimmered under the clear vault as first one and then the other gigantic white body launched into the pool. The massive creatures floated, spun and dove through the watery element as if they were weightless spirits cavorting in air. Even their wet fur looked as if it might have been a downy covering. Their graceful bulk was part of their magic, and the rare pleasure of seeing the expression of a wild creature, almost face-to-face, in its moment of innocent joy.
Fred was locked in place, except to pivot and turn his head to follow the bears at play. He and Constantia moved as one, and what she was pointing to, had captured his attention as well.
“I like these guys best of all,” she whispered.
“You would,” he said, smiling up at them. Constantia gazed up at Fred, watching the way he followed the floating bears, but he didn’t see her. His face was lit by the green glow of the water, his expression, by a childlike wonder. He believed he would dream of these angel-beasts for the rest of his life.
“If they can fly, we can fly,” Fred said breathlessly.
She reached up for his coat collar.
“Frederick,” she said, and when he looked down at her then, her hands holding him close, all he saw and all he felt melted together. That the light in her eyes was for him alone, that she should feel that—that he was beginning to understand it—was like being lifted into the heart of the sun. If he breathed, he did not know it, for all the world breathed, and for the duration of that moment, he and Constantia, radiant with warmth and light, became stars of amazing magnitude for such tiny bodies.
No one in the tunnel noticed this, of course, for it is not love that is blind.
Read Chapters 1-21 here.