It was as though she knew exactly where she had to go, as though it was an agreed appointment. She raised her arm to take my hand, pulled gently—she did almost everything gently—and I followed her. She led me to her mother’s car (her mother was not around), and I helped her up into the child seat.
“So, off to the zoo.”
“Yes,” she said. “Eagle! Lion!”
The zoo seemed to be empty. Alone, in the middle of the main path, a roadsweeper was pushing a trash cart with rubber wheels. She had let go of my hand, and was running ahead of me along the wide pathway toward the big cat enclosures, and her little shape went in and out of the patches of shade beneath the jacarandas and a majestic flowering matilisguate tree. The path was straight, to begin with; there was no danger of our losing sight of each other. It was mid-morning, a partly bright, partly cloudy morning in late May, and the zoo—I noticed again—was empty. I stopped a moment and looked up (the slivers of sky between the flower-laden branches) and then I looked to my right and to my left. A vast buzzing like the noise of cicadas in the countryside. No great drove of schoolchildren, no families with babies, no couples in love or lovers. To my right, beyond a deep moat, an old elephant was scratching his flank unhurriedly against the trunk of a gigantic tree whose shape suggested the leg of some fantastical bird, hidden behind the low clouds that covered the sky. I turned my eyes back along the path and felt a thousand prickings of fear in my back, in my arms, in my hands. I was completely alone on the black asphalt road speckled with lilac and pink flowers. I half-closed my eyes (I am short-sighted), but I could not see her anywhere. I started to run ahead, shouting her name over and over again. To my left, the herons and the flamingos asleep on one leg, the completely still crocodiles and the hippopotamus remained indifferent to my calls. I tried shouting louder, with shouts in every different direction; toward the monkey cage, the deer, the owls, the bearded vultures and the eagles, but nobody answered.
Being now two and a half—I thought—she was playing one of her first jokes on me. Hiding had been, just before she started to talk (she still only spoke half a language), one of her favorite games. This sudden disappearance had to be—I reasoned—just a game, and I stopped running. I called out to her again. Very well then (I threatened in my shouts), if she didn’t come out straight away I would leave her there. A few minutes later I started begging her to answer me. I kept on walking. With each step I looked this way and that, like a madman, always fighting hard to stop myself from crying. I had reached the western boundary of the park, and I was opposite the enclosure of the Bengal tigers. The fences, I was able to confirm with relief, were high and secure and seemingly impossible to jump. She had been fascinated by the big cats, and the idea that she might have wanted to get too close didn’t stop worrying me. But there was no reason to panic just yet. She would be hidden out there somewhere, perhaps someplace my calls didn’t reach loudly enough. I looked back; on one side of the path there was a row of kiosks, some children’s games, concession stands, photographers waiting at their posts. I walked over to them and circled each one, calling her name the whole time. I took a smaller side track, headed toward the large lion enclosure. There were two or three males stretched out on the grass, half asleep in the white light of the morning that had begun to burn. In the next enclosure, whose outer edge was formed by a deep moat, two young jaguars were playing about on the bank of a pool, perfectly indifferent to my brutish cries. There was nowhere further to go, so I turned back. Barely noticing that I was doing it, drained of all my strength, I dropped to my knees on the damp cement, and cried, I even prayed. But my tears did not last long; I leaped back to my feet and started to run toward the entrance, still looking left and right as I went, still calling her name over and over again.
Now both the main path and the side tracks had filled with people. Gangs of boys and girls crowded up in front of the cages, the mechanical toys, the photographers’ ponies. Mothers and fathers pushed strollers, lovers kissed beneath the trees or leaning up against the fences; nobody had seen her.
I arrived panting at the entrance, where the ticket office was and the railed gateway beyond, where crowds of schoolkids of all ages stood in line to buy their tickets. Making my way through little groups of children I explained at the top of my voice to the ticket-sellers that my daughter had disappeared, and asked whether they hadn’t seen her? There were two ticket-sellers, each of them busy in their little dark concrete houses; the winding lines of people stretched on till it was out of sight beyond the parking lot for the school buses.
They hadn’t seen her, both answered, with professional sympathy. They assured me that, as for getting out, there was only one gate through which she could have done that, and it was constantly manned by a guard. Maybe she was there, I thought, waiting for me. And I hurried over to the exit. But all I found there was an old guard in a lead-colored uniform, his eyes cloudy with cataracts. He hadn’t seen her leave, he said; he advised me, gesturing toward a public telephone, to call the police.
A woman’s voice answered my call at once, but it was fifteen minutes before I was able to explain why I was calling. They would send over a patrol, she assured me.
“She’ll show up,” the old zoo guard said.
I went back through the park again, first down the main path then the smaller side tracks. I was no longer shouting, but kept looking everywhere and was no doubt coming more and more to resemble a madman. All of a sudden, amid a group of Indian kids eating electric-colored cotton candy, her black, round little head appeared miraculously, about ten steps away from me. My eyes wet with joy, I ran across to her, but tumbled back into my despair as I saw that, even though it had been her head (which I thought unique, perfect), the girl wasn’t her. This hallucinatory phenomenon would happen several times from then on.
The light had changed. The May sun was at its zenith, and the gray sky above the treetops was like a huge hot iron that wanted to crush us. The animals that had lately been visible had mostly taken refuge in the cool of their fabricated dens. I don’t know how many times I must have passed the cage of the coatis, the raccoons, the kinkajous—thinking again and again that they were only there because one day, when they were little, they had been snatched away by men, and that, like my daughter, they had disappeared from their own world as if by magic.
A police officer stopped me near the eagles’ cage. Under his arm he was carrying a folder, from which he drew a notebook and a ballpoint pen. Speaking very seriously, his face expressionless, he gave me a formal interrogation. After three or four questions I was feeling responsible for the straying of—as he insisted on calling her—“the minor.” I had to show him papers. I didn’t have a photo of my daughter with me—I never carried one, out of superstition—and this seemed to make him suspicious.
“But she’s a baby,” I said. “She’s only two.”
He wanted to know where her mother was.
“Traveling,” I said.
I didn’t reply at once.
I shook my head.
“She’s gone to a shrine,” I said. “She’s religious.”
“Explain,” demanded the officer.
“She’s really devout. She’s on a pilgrimage,” I explained. “She’s gone to pay a visit to a holy site in Spain. Compostela. Santiago de Compostela.”
“Very well. And, well, she’s really got something to ask for now . . .” he joked. “But have you told her already? You’ve really got to tell her soon, pal.”
“Of course. But . . . I thought you people would help me find her.”
“Yes, Sir. We want to help you. First of all we’ll notify the newspapers, if that’s OK with you. We’ll need a photo of the girl.”
“I’ve got one at home, but I’d rather wait, keep looking now, while the traces are still fresh.”
“Whatever you say.” He paused. “I’ll go fetch the dogs. Do you have anything we could use for her scent?”
I did: a little cloth hat and a pacifier, which I had in my pant pocket.
“Let’s see, then,” he said, holding out his hand to take them. He placed them inside a little ziplock bag, which he put away in the folder. “For the dogs,” he explained. He closed his notebook. He looked straight at me, suspicious. “I’ll be back right away with the dogs. Or will you come with me?” he asked.
“I’m going to keep looking.”
The police officer glanced around him.
“With this crowd . . .” he said. “Good luck. Sometimes they show up, just like that,” he paused, and smiled like an idiot. “In little pieces.”
“I don’t see what’s so funny,” I said.
Looking down at the ground he quickly apologized. Then he gave me his name (he was a sergeant) and patrol number.
“Don’t worry too much before there’s any good reason, and don’t go too far without informing us. If you find her, call us.”
I watched him walk again, quite quickly, and he disappeared into the throng near the ticket booths.
Once again, the light was changing. A cool breeze had started to blow from the north, and the clouds were dispersing, clearing patches of blue sky. I did the circuit of cages again, calling my daughter’s name from time to time, almost mechanically. I looked enviously at the baby deer, the baby monkeys, ocelots, jaguars, and their baby eyes made me think of hers. The wild animals were on the inside, but I was the one pacing back and forth on the other side of the bars, with no awareness of time, like some creature out of a Borges story.
Suddenly there were not many people in the park, and the calls of the birds could be heard clearly over the shouts of the children. Leaning up against the trunk of a ceiba tree, I cried out—somewhere between a roar and a sob—upward, a sound that welled up with all my strength from my very entrails. I took no notice of the surprised or alarmed expressions of the passersby. “To hell with everyone,” I thought.
A little later, the sergeant returned accompanied by another officer, a young, light-skinned man with gray eyes, with two German shepherds on a double leash. They asked me to walk them to my car, so that the dogs could follow the tracks from there. The German shepherds climbed into the car and started to sniff it all over: the floormats, the steering wheel, the seats and the windows, on which the girl had left prints from her sticky hands, and which now bore the trails of wet noses and tongues. Finally the young police officer took the dogs out of the car, and held the little bonnet and the pacifier out for them to smell. He gave a search order, and the dogs, their noses to the ground, led us directly to the zoo entrance. We went in through the same turnstile my daughter and I had passed through earlier.
The park was emptying out, and the shadows growing longer on the dark concrete path. The dogs trotted ahead of us, pulling impatiently at their leashes, and occasionally looking with a strange intensity right and left, where the animals were caged. Suddenly they both stopped, and one of them, the one that was completely black, gave a series of strange howls. The other dog, as though intimidated by something, lay down at its master’s feet, silent, its eyes half-closed and tongue lolling out. The officers exchanged a glance. The sergeant took off his cap, scratched the back of his neck, and finally spoke.
“It’s very odd,” he said. “It seems the trail comes to an end here. Is this the place you saw her last?”
We were standing in the shade of the big matilisguate, the pink petals of its lately fallen flowers, trampled by countless feet, forming a kind of bloody carpet on the concrete. The powerful roots of the trees twisted around the surface of the ground, and had cracked the cement here and there, like in the ruins of an extinct civilization.
“Just here. I don’t understand,” I said, and looked around me, down to the ground and up to where the dispersed clouds were already gathering the colors of dusk. “I don’t understand,” I said again.
The black dog hadn’t stopped circling round and round the place where he had lost the girl’s tracks. The other dog, which was still lying down, suddenly got up and, licking over its muzzle, whined.
“For now, Señor,” said the sergeant, “it looks like there’s nothing else we can do. I’m sorry. Get in touch if anything comes up.” For the first time, I sensed that he felt sorry for me. “We’re at your service,” he added.
“I’m going to stay a little longer,” I said. “Till they close, at least,” I thought.
The police officers said goodbye, and I watched them and their dogs moving off toward the zoo exit. I sat down on a stone bench at the foot of the matilisguate tree, right in front of the place of that inexplicable disappearance. Wondering how long it would be before the guards would come to kick me out (the park was deserted again), I clasped my hands together behind my head and leaned against the bench’s cold backrest. I closed my eyes in order to see my daughter in my imagination. I thought sadly that perhaps this morning, as she ran ahead of me down the path, I had seen her for the last time—but I was wrong, partly.
I recalled words and phrases she was able to say. When I opened my eyes it was almost dark. There was no longer anyone to be seen, and a light had been turned on in one of the entrance booths. The animals’ breathing was carried on a cool breeze through the air. The harsh smell of the carnivores fought with the more benign smell of the ruminants. Then suddenly the sinister happy call of an owl someplace, and a little later the lunatic cry of a nighttime bird I had never heard before.
At the far western end of the path something moved. It was the roadsweeper, slowly pushing his cart. He was walking over toward where I was sitting, with a mane of gray hair that came down to his shoulders, and he was staring hard at me. I have no way of describing what I felt at that moment; if I write “irrational fear” it’s only because I don’t have any more suitable words for making myself understood. As happens sometimes in dreams, I became aware that, however hard I tried, I couldn’t separate my hands, which were clasped together behind my neck, nor turn my head, nor even close my eyes in order to stop seeing the roadsweeper. I wanted to cry out, and I even thought that I was, in fact, dreaming. From my mouth, when it finally opened, not a sound emerged. I could hear the squeaking of the wheels of the trash cart, a hand-built cart—an old fuel barrel mounted on a metal frame, with two cobbled-together wheels of unequal size.
The roadsweeper was wearing black overalls, torn to shreds around the edges, and big rubber boots. His hair, which was very greasy, didn’t look like human hair, and he had the face of an idiot, skinny and unshaven. He had stopped in front of me and was staring hard at me with two little eyes that appeared to be happy. He said in a high-pitched voice:
I couldn’t reply, I just made an incoherent sound. But I got over my attack of involuntary immobility. I sat up on the bench, nodded a greeting.
“Here,” said the roadsweeper, “I’ve got something for you.”
From out his mouth, besides the words, came a smell like hot metal. The roadsweeper walked around his cart. Careful and serious, like an elderly butler, with a big bony hand he lifted the lid of the container.
“Get up,” he said (it was an order, but he said it gently)—“and come see.”
I looked into his eyes. Although it was already dark, I could make out that he was smiling. He looked away, and before turning to go back the way he’d come, he said:
“I’ll go, you can ignore me.”
I saw him move slowly away, and he disappeared into the darkness.
I could feel my heart beating, too hard, and it was a few moments before I got to my feet. Finally I stood up, took two or three steps, and looked into the container.
There was a big pile of dry straw and dead leaves, candy wrappers, little paper bags. I leaned over the container and moved the rubbish aside with my hand, and then saw what I had been hoping to see, what I hadn’t dared to hope: the face of my little girl. Her eyes were closed, but she opened them.
It seemed ridiculous (and it was) finding her like that. I stretched out my arms to pull her from the container, I squeezed her hard against my chest, I felt her little arms circling my neck.
“But my child . . . ,” I managed to say at last, loosening my hug and holding her a bit away from me so as to get a good look: “what happened?!”
Then I realized that she had stretched several centimeters since the morning and she was quite a bit thinner. I sensed that it had all been a dream. I put her down on the ground, and knelt in front of her. She rubbed her face and spoke.
“I’ve come to say goodbye,” she said. “You shan’t be seeing me again.”
I shook my head, then smiled, confused. It was impossible that in just a few hours she should have learned to speak like that; besides, her voice didn’t sound natural.
“Nonsense,” I said, and I wanted to hug her again but she pushed me away.
“Dad, no! You must see, I’ve grown, and I can talk,” she said in that strange voice. “I know it’s not easy but you have to accept it, I’ve been somewhere you haven’t been and where you can never go, and soon I’ll have to go back there,” she gave a quick glance westward. “But I don’t want you to be sad, that’s why I asked to come.”
I wanted to interrupt her, to tell her the whole thing was unacceptable, a nightmare. I took her hand.
“Please, listen to me,” she cut me off. “We don’t have much time, and I know I can’t explain what’s happened or what’s happening but I’m going to try.” She was talking very quickly. (“A recording,” I thought, “she sounds like a recording!”) “I’ve been taken to a strange place by strange beings, a very faraway place with a sky that’s different with no moon and no sun.” She paused. “They need water, a lot of water, water from here, but not from now and before you people use up all the water they’re going to come here and conquer you or destroy you but neither you nor Mom will suffer if that happens because if it happens it’ll be in the thirtieth century and you will have died long before that.”
“What’s this you’re saying, what’s this nonsense you’re saying, child? Come, come on,” I tried to take her in my arms again.
“No!” she cried.
I let go of her hand. I wanted to convince myself that I was dreaming, and I decided to let her keep talking. Her voice seemed human now:
“Please, don’t be sad. Now I’m living in a place just like here, this place where we’ve had so much fun. They look after me. It’s true, I don’t have much freedom, and I don’t like that, but they give me shelter and food. I even have a companion, a boy more or less my age. We’re growing up together, and perhaps one day I will give him a child.”
“Come on, girl, let’s go home, that’s enough of this stupidity.”
She pushed me away again; this time she stiffened, as though something had alarmed her, and looked around.
“Don’t try it,” she warned me. “That was the condition they gave me and I accepted.”
“Condition? What condition?”
“Not to try to go home. And on that condition they allowed me to come to say goodbye.”
I shook my head.
“But I don’t accept it. They’ll have to stop me,” I said, my voice unsteady, “they’ll have to come here and stop me!”
I tried to hug her again but she pushed me off with a strength I hadn’t expected.
“Please!” she begged.
I stood, took a step back, dropped down onto the bench. “In any case,” I said to myself, reasoning it out with no hope left, “something like this was going to happen sooner or later. It’s the fate of every parent to lose their children.”
“Very well, if that’s what you’re asking me,” I said.
“Thank you,” she smiled, and climbed up onto the bench to kiss me on the forehead.
“And what should I tell your mommy?” I thought to ask her. I could feel a pain that was not merely physical.
“Tell her I’m well. Tell her . . .” she hesitated a moment, “. . . yes, tell her the angels have taken me, God’s angels.”
I nodded. I thought: “No one will believe me.”
“And now you should go,” she said. “They’ll be coming back for me.”
“Is that what you want, to go back to that place?”
“It would be pointless to resist,” she assured me.
So I hugged her again and kissed her many times—I kissed her perfect little head, her incredible soft cheeks, her eyelids and, just once, her mouth.
Without crying, and surprising myself at my lack of tears, I stood up. I walked slowly along the path toward the exit from the zoo. Before leaving I turned to look back one last time, but in the darkness the path looked deserted. I kept walking to the car, a step, and then another step—and with each step my feet seemed heavier, as though every moment were a year. When I opened the car door I glimpsed myself reflected in the window, and felt an unexpected consolation as I confirmed that over the course of that long, long day at the zoo my hair, which till then had, apart from the occasional gray strand, been black, had turned almost completely white. It was a kind of confirmation that my daughter had not visited me in my dreams, that her life would be carrying on in some other world.
“Otro zoo” © Rodrigo Rey Rosa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Daniel Hahn. All rights reserved.