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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Zoo

Category: Issue 19



My name is Phelan Burke. 


Not the most macho or fashionable of names is it?  But I always thought it better than one of those bland no-nothing-names like Joe Johnson or Paul Young and whatnot. 


My grandfather was from Dun Laoghaire in Ireland but he came across the Irish Sea in the thirties in a fishing boat and I grew up in the north of England near Liverpool.  Not near enough that I picked up the scouse twang much, but I did support the football team and my granddad took me to Anfield for a fair few games – standing at the Kop end.  I would replay some of those games over and over in my mind later in life and it would become an important staple of my self-made entertainment system.  You see my story, unlike my name, is extraordinary.


When I left university in 82’ I had a fair few debts and after several months of unsuccessful job searching, misery, depression, binge drinking and subsequent poverty; I came up with a quality plan.  Like many graduates, I took off to work in a far-flung land - looking for adventure, romance and of course; a little money.  But I didn’t choose the road well travelled like Japan or Spain like some of those other little-imaginative dullards.  Oh no, I found a place where few had heard of – I’d searched with a frantic fervor before I’d found it.  It’s a quaint little place called Krackatile Island.  You might have seen it on the Discovery channel, no?  Everyone is unusually short and has bright orange skin pigmentation because of all the beta-carotene products they eat.  I swear – they look like little umpa-lumpas!  They have carrots with everything: pickled, boiled, mashed, mushed, frozen, juiced… you name it; they have it.  It’s the national pride – the humble carrot.  Who’d have thought it?  Anyway, so that’s where I went; to teach English on this small, little-known pacific island.


Perhaps one of the reasons why not many people know about Krackatile is because it’s so infuriatingly hard to get to.  I made three connecting flights just to get within close proximity, and from there, I took a bus, a train, and a ferry; and finally I made the last leg via a humble fishing boat. 


Before reaching my destination, I envisaged the sun to be shining on my back when I arrived and I’d bask in the glory of the beautiful, picturesque spectacle before me.  I would quickly immerse myself in the exotic culture, assimilate with their way of life and write back home of my amazing adventures.  Unfortunately, reality did not mirror my somewhat naïve imagination— The truth is, it was pissing down with rain all the way and the choppy waves made me hurl over the side on no less than four different occasions!  My head pounded and as I stepped out onto good old, stable, unmoving land, the Captain of the boat got some rumpled paper from his back pocket—


“Welcome to Krackatile.  Have carrot!” he said brightly and with immense pride, handing me the familiar root vegetable.  I thanked him for his hospitality and he shrugged unknowingly as I went on my way.


The locals seemed a friendly enough bunch right away but they had an odd way of doing things that is for sure.  No cars for one thing: just public transport systems and boy, were they punctual.  I even got to having a preoccupation with time myself after being there for a few weeks.  It was quality – no pollution or noise.  I thought it quite utopian actually and I went around with a smile on my face in those early days.  As for my diet, carrots were still carrots – however they sliced them and diced them; and after a while I started to quite miss a bit of home cooking; especially one of Grandma’s famous Irish stews with the added Guinness stout.  I sent a postcard back to the UK every week in an attempt to quash my homesickness, but the delivery service was slow and sometimes it took weeks for a reply.   


I quickly learned a lot about the quirky island ways.  I heard that the French used to send missionaries down there in the early 1900’s.  However, the church never really took off.  They all worship the Sun God and measure their karma in the amount of yearly vegetable produce.  Jesus turned out to be no match for the iconic status of the humble carrot!  Legend has it that the first baby grew on Krackatile with the help of the Sun God, and he plucked a carrot from the earth for his very first meal. His name is Gee-lah and He can be seen all over the island in different forms – statues, paintings, and ornaments – most commonly adorned with fine jewels and gold plating.  They even have a big festival every year and people dress up as all kinds of veggies.  It’s an organic society all right and a charming one at that.  For a while there, I really enjoyed myself.


Now, I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’d never heard of the place before I found that little newspaper ad I’d replied to back home.  Then again, my geography is not that strong to begin with.  Ask me where Yemen or Jakarta or Bali is and I wouldn’t have a clue.  Don’t get me wrong with all this talk of carrots – it’s not a backwards society by any means, but it’s like they’ve evolved on a completely different line than the rest of the world.  Not the people, the society I mean.  Let me explain…


Now this is just one example as it will be the main focus of my story.  There are hundreds of odd and bizarre customs and institutions on Krackatile but I don’t have time to go into all that now.  So I will just tell you this one unusual aspect of their society so I can get on with my tale.  It is this— quite simply: they don’t have any prisons. 


It’s not that there’s no crime – there is; and I heard that the crimes that occur there are often extremely violent.  Of a population of around one million, there were 1763 convicted criminals on the Island, of which 86 were murderers.  So where do they put all these dangerous criminals you might ask?  Are they hung or fried or burned like they have been throughout western history?  Not a bit of it.  Capital punishment has never been legal at any time in Krackatilian history.  Criminals used to be put to work on farms as slaves; but now, with improvements in technology and production - that has all changed.  Now, the prisoners are all put in zoos!  Yes, that’s right – zoos.  I found it hard to take in too, but that is what they do.


It’s a very popular day out amongst locals – especially to see some of the more notorious and violent criminals.  You can even throw things at them if you are so inclined (I’m ashamed to say that I once joined in this ritual with a bunch of school kids).  But of course, like any zoo, you must not pass food to them through the cages as some of them bite.  At first I thought – wow, I bet it would be a right laugh back home.  Just like the good old medieval days when people would be locked in stocks and forced to take the brunt of potatoes and onions and… carrots!  Quality. Not that carrots are thrown in Krackatilian zoos.  They are much too precious and it would be a welcome treat to the relatively pale-faced inhabitants there.  Sticks and stones are the main projectile objects of choice.  You probably think it’s a bit barbaric but seriously, are criminals really punished back home nowadays?  I mean, isn’t it all a bit too comfortable?  I bet some Ethiopians or Mongolians would love to have a good roof over their heads and food on the table every day.  Some of them would probably happily do a crime just for the privilege.  However, despite my continued approval of their punishment system – it’s a legal system that is fatally flawed, as you will see.


My first 5 months on the island went relatively smoothly and I even made a few friends.  They were all local of course as not many foreigners came to Krackatile.  In fact, I only ever saw three foreigners during my stay and one of them was an alleged serial killer at the zoo.  My troubles started six months in when I met a girl called Shab-Shab.  She was just so lovely.  She kind of reminded me of my Aunt Daisy before she went completely barking mad, minus the orange skin of course.  Actually, I didn’t even see the orange pigmentation anymore and I was often surprised when I caught my own white reflection in a mirror.  It’s funny how your environment becomes the norm after a while. 


I won’t go into too many details about our relationship because, well, I accidentally killed her.  There I said it – quick and easy.  There’s no point in stuttering over these things.  It wasn’t my fault - it was a freak accident and my fate was sealed in that split second.  I guess I should tell you about it.  It all happened one day at my apartment.


The thing you should know about my apartment is that it was a seventh floor affair.  One day, Shab-Shab was stood at a wide-open window (you see where this is going right?), getting some fresh air and I’d come running in because I was excited to get a letter from my sister.  It was the first one she’d sent as she usually left the writing to my mum.  I’d planned to open it with Shab-Shab but I tripped on a loose wire on my way in and I completely lost my balance.  I had no control; I lunged forward and hit Shab-Shab right out of the window.  If she’d not been there to block me I guess I’d be dead myself.  I even heard the sickening noise when she’d hit the ground.  My emotions went from clumsy embarrassment, to remorse, and then fear all in a second.  At least, that’s the way I remember it.  I didn’t grieve her as much as I should have. I didn’t love her you see and the truth is I hardly knew her.  The memory is all a bit milky now but of course, I still feel the heavy guilt of taking another person’s life.  That is something that will never go away.


I called the authorities without even thinking about it and they took me in for questioning.  The damned thing is, when it went to trial the following week I was found guilty of murder and they took me off to the zoo.  I put a request in to my embassy but they said it would take time for the appeal – and time it did take.  I spent four years at Horacket Island Zoo; and I have the scars to prove it.


*


My first day in the cage was the most vivid and my last the most visceral.  In-between that I experienced four years of boredom and the basest of base instincts.  I became, for all intents and purposes, an animal.  This is the condensed version of the story of how I survived 1493 days in a 24ft by 12ft cage.


Now, I have to admit to you from the offset that this story is one that maybe twisted and intertwined with, what I think of as bubbles in reality.  That is to say – some of it might, in an observable and verifiable sense, not be what you would call actuality.  What I mean by that is, there were times when I was most certainly not normal and some of the more painful memories may have become diluted over time.  I often made up stories in my head to get me through the day – some of which I really began to believe.  Unfortunately, there is nobody else to triangulate my story; but it is my reality of what happened and that is the only reality I know. 


On that first day they walked me down to a concrete block building at the zoo and with the help of an incompetent interpreter, they took me through some of the rules and regulations.  The rules for inmates to adhere to were as follows:

1) No speaking to other inmates or visitors.
2) No fighting if you have to share your cage.
3) No climbing the bars.
4) No digging.
5) No throwing of food, feces or other objects.
6) No non-verbal communication.
7) No masturbation during opening hours.
8) Keep your cage tidy.

Punishment for any breakage of these rules will be administered at the zoos discretion, but will include mild electrocution, confinement in the holding cell, and/or a reduction in privileges, including food and water.

I was made to sign an agreement concerning these rules and others in small print; and all my belongings and clothes were taken from me.  Then they took me off to my cage, where these rules were also visible on a poster, and I was left naked and alone to sit in the dirt like an animal. I was mentally and physically exhausted; so I lay flat on my back and looked at the heavens.  I watched the sky slowly turn dark blue and I dreamed of sleep— And eventually, sleep I did.


*


I woke up curled in a ball and found a family of four locals staring at me through the bars.  I couldn’t make out what they were saying because I hadn’t learned much of the local language in my first five months on the island – but I instinctively knew who they were from their demeanor.  It was Shab-Shab’s family. They spat, shouted and even threw things and me; the mother and two children eventually started crying hysterically and then the father consoled them and they all left.


After that, I spent most of my first day being embarrassed about being on public display with no clothes on.  I covered myself the best I could and never once relieved my twitching bowel - despite the proliferating pain.  Nerves always made me want to go like that.  It was pure hell, really.


On the second day I tested the limits of the agreement I’d signed and I tried to communicate with one of the visitors.  The man I spoke to didn’t seem to understand a word I’d said and only looked at me with a vile curiosity.  Within seconds, one of the guards came in and hit me with a stick.  The stick had an electrical charge and pain seared through my body.  He hit me with it several times before I fell to the floor and then he dragged me into my holding cell, put a collar on me and locked the door.


I spent one whole day in the holding cell and quickly grew to hate it.  It was dark, claustrophobic and the worse thing was that I couldn’t stretch out so my limbs got really stiff.  It was also infested with ants that feasted on my naked body, so I couldn’t even get much sleep.


By the fifth day I’d almost gotten used to the nakedness and stopped trying to hide myself.  It was quite liberating actually and I became quite comfortable in my own skin.  The food I was given was unidentifiable and bland at best.  I ate with my hands and washed it down with water.  I tried to eat everything I was given to keep my strength up but I had little appetite in those early days. 


I got my second electrocution through the collar they’d put on me about a week in because a visitor threw a rock at me and after having lost my temper – I threw it back at him.  He must have complained to a guard because a few minutes later I was back in the holding cell in semi-darkness.  As I’d guessed, the collar was evidently administered to control bad behaviour.


For the next few weeks I kept myself to myself and simply tried to bide my time until my embassy got in touch.  I eventually got a letter from them around 6 weeks in which said they were currently processing the paperwork and they’d get back to me soon.  Soon turned out to be another 12 weeks, by which time, my mind was becoming dull.  I ate and slept and that was it.  I had no communication with anyone and my only entertainment was watching visitors come and go.  I got depressed soon after and I stopped eating for a while.  I must have lost ten or fifteen kilograms because I began to feel the spaces between my ribs; but I didn’t much care.  I was just hitting rock bottom when one of the guards came and took me back to the concrete block building that I’d signed the agreement in several months ago.  For a few minutes I thought I was leaving.  I felt like a castaway who’d just spotted a ship.  They gave me a robe to put on and sat me down across from a Caucasian man in a business suit who had a briefcase and some papers.  It was a member of my embassy – at last.


“Hello Mr. Burke, my name is Josh Hobbes.  I’ve been assigned to your case.  How are you doing?” he said without much emotion.


“What’s taking so long?” I asked, rather too abruptly.  I’d hardly spoken a word in the past few months and my voice was hoarse and raspy.  Mr. Hobbes seemed slightly perturbed by my response.


“I understand your frustration Mr. Burke, but these things take time.  Now, before we can proceed with a retrial and get you back home, the paperwork must now go through the local system, which I have posted on to the judge who sentenced you.  This could take approximately another 6-8 weeks, after which time I will be in touch.  I wanted to talk about this in more detail, but the guard in charge here only gave me 5 minutes to talk to you and he’s signaling for me to stop even as we speak.”


“What?  Come on, you can’t go now… I’ve been here for a few months already.  They’re turning me into a fucking animal here!  Have you seen this shit?  It’s a fucking zoo!  What about humanitarian rights and all that?  Isn’t this all over the news back home? What the hell is going on?”


“I’m sorry Mr. Burke.”


“Wait… I…”


Mr. Hobbes hurriedly threw his papers into his briefcase and left without even saying goodbye.  I got a few more letters from the embassy but I never saw Mr. Hobbes again.  The retrial never happened and two years later, I had given up hope; and hope didn’t return for many, many moons.


*


I counted the days by scratching lines into one of the metal bars with a stone.  There were times when I wanted to kill myself, times when I was plunged into the deepest, unending, blackest of black abysses – devoid of all hope; but then I would see a sunset or a bird to keep me going that little bit longer.  I gorged on the simple pleasures of nature and went through the motions of life. 


I survived.


My saving grace was Nine Toes.  That’s what I called him in my mind because quite simply; the short, orange-skinned inmate who was one day put in the cage to the left of mine had precisely that - nine toes.  I noticed his missing digit within hours of him being put there and I invented stories about what might have happened to him.  My favourite was that he was a criminal mastermind who was an expert escape artist.  I fantasied that in his last prison; he’d cut off his own toe and chiseled a master key right from the very bone.


One day I spotted him picking some dead skin off the soul of his foot and right then, in an unexpected flash of insight, it hit me.  If I didn’t get my brain working and make a plan to escape – I was surely going to die right where I was sat, surrounded by my own feces. I suddenly felt that my fate was in my own hands and for that – I was truly thankful.


Instead of feeling sorry for myself like I had been doing for so long, wallowing in pity and despair, I started to observe the behaviour of the zoo more scrupulously.  At first, I found it hard to concentrate as my mind had atrophied.  I found it exhausting and I had to sleep a lot to recover.  But soon, I felt the synapses in mind brain begin to fire again, and I rediscovered my authentic mind - I started to have ideas again.


I discovered that it was usually fairly quiet at night.  There were teams of guards who worked in pairs and if there was any trouble, one guard would administer a punishment while the other one stood back and observed; on standby in case anything went wrong I supposed.


While I got my teeth into this preparation work for my escape, making crucial observational mental notes, Nine Toes proved to be a regular troublemaker.  Pavlov would have been fascinated – he simply never learned.  Shock after shock he got and still he misbehaved; he was vocal, he shouted at visitors, climbed up on the cage – everything he was not supposed to do.  I started to suspect that maybe the zoo had cut off his toe as a punishment.  They certainly seemed to be losing patience with him.  He acted more and more like a mad man every day, his behavior getting increasingly extreme as time passed.


About three weeks after he was put in the cage next to me, Nine Toes suddenly spoke to me… and he spoke to me in English!  It was a quiet night and the guards were nowhere to be seen – which was odd because there was usually at least one pair sat around.


“Hey – white man.  Over here.”


I was stunned.  He seemed to change into a different person – his demeanor, expression, body language and gait – all transformed before my very eyes.  It was as if a spirit had just entered his body and taken control.


“We shouldn’t be talking… shhh.”


“The guards are playing a card game tonight.  I overheard them arranging it this afternoon.”


“No offence, but I thought you were insane.  You’ve been acting like a mad man.”


“I know. I just want them to think I’m crazy – so they get careless with me.  If they get sloppy I might get a chance to get out of here.”


That instantly got my attention.  My brain felt like it had just been injected with Ritalin, such was the transformation from my sleepy lethargy to full lucidity.


“What do you have in mind?” I asked.


“I’m not sure.  I’ve just been waiting for an opening.  But I’ve been watching you watching them and I know you’re planning something.  I want in.”


I thought about it for a few seconds and then I had an idea – an exciting idea that got my adrenaline pumping.


“It’s funny you should say that.  I’ve been working on a way to split a pair of guards up and I think you might be it.  I think if we work together, we could have a real chance to get out of here.”


That got his attention.  The two of us knew we might not get the luxury of another chance to talk, so Nine Toes quickly inched closer to listen to what I had to say.


And in that fashion, we began to hatch a plan to get out of Horacket Island Zoo. 


*


We knew it wasn’t going to be easy.  The odds were against us, but what else was there to do but try?  If I stayed there for much longer, I knew I was going to lose my mind – irreversibly and completely.  I had to get out of there.


Nine toes waited until just after sunset when the guards were changing shifts.  I’d observed that some guards went home a few minutes before their replacements arrived and this meant that, for a small window of time, fewer guards were on duty.  On this particular night there were only two guards visible from our cage and one of them was overweight and busy munching on a carrot stick-snack.


I gave Nine Toes the signal by spitting on the floor as we’d agreed and he went nuts— shouting, climbing the bars and throwing dirt out of the cage.  The two guards came running over and Nine Toes threw some of his own faces, hitting a guard on the arm, angering him.  The other one entered Nine Toes’ cage, shouting and brandishing a baton.  Nine Toes made sure that he was pressed up against the adjoining bars separating our cages when he was given the shock therapy.  That meant the guard was within my reach when he started to pull Nine Toes towards his holding cell.  I hit the guard on the head with a small rock I’d dug out of the dirt and he went down, stunned.  I grabbed his keys.


The other guard came running, as expected, blowing his whistle; but he hesitated about which cage to attend to first.  I had the keys and Nine Toes was quickly recovering from his electrocution and getting to his feet.  The overweight guard activated both of our collars in quick succession, just as I’d got the key in the lock— I managed to turn it and stagger out, struggling with the searing pain. 


Nine Toes saw me and we shared a moment.  It had become clear that we weren’t both going to make it and he knew it.  It wasn’t supposed to go down quite like that.  We were banking on there being a key to get the collars off too.  It wasn’t the best plan but it was the only one we had. Nine Toes started hitting the unconscious guard so the fat one would go to help his friend while I continued my painful walk to freedom.  It is an act of altruism, a sacrifice, which I will never, ever forget.


*


I made it to a small forest, which aligned the zoo, and by that time all kinds of whistles and alarms were going off.  Luckily, the collar must have had a sensor range because when I’d made it several metres it stopped shocking me.  Then I ran— my legs were withered and my body light, but I ran like I’d never run before; it was a primal run for freedom.


And then all of a sudden, I stopped in my path.  I really couldn’t believe it, but right there in front of me was some kind of reptilian creature, alligator-like but with a bigger and rounder head.  It was terrifying and it looked right at me, it’s eyes penetrating right into the very essence of my soul.  I heard shouting and people running behind me so I snapped out of it and cautiously went around the creature, continuing my run to freedom through the trees and foliage. 


I came out at a muddy river and quickly waded across.  I heard men getting closer and I realised my weakened body was not going to get far so I made a choice which proved to be vital.  I saw some hollow cane-like grasses growing at the side of the river and I realised I could use one to breath through while I was underwater.  I’d seen it done in a film when I was younger and I was glad that I had.


I grabbed one of the canes and let my body float along the dirty river, knowing it was my best and only ticket to freedom.  My main fear was that there were more of the reptilian creatures that I’d seen earlier swimming in the river; but I knew the men would catch me if I was out in the open and I was much more afraid of going back to that zoo to be honest.  It was a chance I was prepared to take; but it was still terrifying.


Eventually, I came out close to the sea and I could no longer hear the shouts of the guards following me.  I realized I was naked so I stole some clothes from an isolated house’s washing line.  After dressing, I raided a moneybag at a nearby snacks stall.  Luckily, nobody saw me and I headed to the beach to see if I could hitch a ride on one of the fishing boats. 


It didn’t take long before I was sailing away from Krackatile Island, the zoo, and all of those carrots. 


At last, I was going home.

***


A Note from the Author:

I’d met him in a pub in Warrington – The Tudor Inn just behind the bus station on Old Oak Road.  He was one of those lonely types sitting at the bar, trying to strike up a conversation with whoever was ordering drinks.  He looked grubby, sporting long greying hair and patchy stubble.  I’d gone up for my drink and he’d flashed me a tired smile and asked me how I was doing.  Then he started to tell me his story – a story that I just could not pull myself away from.  The preceding story was a first-person account of what, as accurately and authentically as I could write it, the man at the bar had said to me that night. 

I often went back to the Tudor Inn to see if I could catch up with Phelan again.  The landlord, Tom, knew him pretty well – said he’d been drinking there for years.  But strangely, Tom hadn’t seen Phelan there since the night he’d spoken to me some weeks earlier.  I asked around but nobody seemed to know where he worked or lived. With Tom’s permission, I recorded my conversation with him on an old Dictaphone.  The following is a selection of the talk we had.

April 7th 2008 – The Tudor Inn


Author:  So, what does Phelan usually talk about?

Tom: Oh, you know – the usual stuff.  Small talk; football, news and that.  Sometimes he tells stories.

Author:  Yeah I know – that’s what this is all about.  He told me a story too – an unbelievable one.

Tom:  He been talking about orange people again? (Laughter)

Author:  Yeah – as a matter of fact, he has.

Tom:  Most people don’t take any notice – but he can certainly spin a yarn.

Author:  Yes, he certainly can.  What do you know about him Tom, or more specifically, what do you know about his past?

Tom: Well, I know he did a fair bit of travelling when he was younger.  I met his sister once and she said he’d never been the same since he came back from Florida.

Author:  Florida?

Tom:  Yeah – he did a bit of work over there, at a zoo I think; and stayed for a fair few years. Apparently, he got a girlfriend over there but she died in a car accident and he blamed himself because he was behind the wheel.  I believe he had a breakdown after that and spent a few years in a mental hospital over there.  It’s a sad thing, it is.  His sister was a nice girl too.

Author:  I see – that is sad. 

Tom: Well, I’m afraid that’s all I know… Can’t tell you anything else.  Now, if there’s nowt’ else, I’ve got people to serve.

Author:  Well, thanks very much Tom - you’ve been very helpful.  Say ‘hi’ to Phelan for me when you see him will you?

Tom:  Aye, will do.

END

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