I took the lead as I rounded the curve. I passed the African elephant enclosure, my nose detected the reek of dung long before I saw the giant mammals now far from the vast ranges they once roamed, trading the savannas and grasslands for the concrete of the human-made structures. Far from the raging thunderstorms, the pelting rain cracking the hard, dry exterior of the earth; or the powerful lightening strikes igniting wildfires that raged, fanned by brutish winds. I gazed at their leathery hide caked with mud, tails swishing, flinging to the left and right swatting at the thick swarms of flies.
Passing the habitat of the tallest land mammal, I glimpsed a giraffe as it extended its long, slender neck, the small head thrust forward at fourteen feet high, mouth stuffed full of green leaves, remnants of a twig protruding from its lips. Its gentle eyes behind long lashes took no notice of me as my feet propelled me forward and adrenaline surged. My body protested with the exertion, panting in short spurts.
My throat felt dry. The heat of summer was stifling. I was soaked with sweat that stuck to my skin and clothes. I didn't bother looking back, hearing the faint sounds of running shoes behind me. I ran so fast that I passed by the crowd pointing and jostling to catch a glimpse of the magnificent, black-maned lion resting under a shade tree.
I stopped, grabbing the fence as I scanned the small enclosure of the wolf compound. My nine-year-old grandchild was the first to catch up. "Grandpa!" Jeremy joined me, running his fingertip along the metal plate as he read the words out loud. "Maned Wolf." He stumbled over the scientific name, Chrysocyon brachyurus, and finished with "from the grasslands of South America." I thought I had heard wrong. I peered at the plate. My eyes caught sight of the words, "neither a fox or a true wolf", and the photo of a fox-like creature with thick reddish coat.
I stood there, stunned. Where was Shana, the gray wolf?
My shoulders dropped. I half-turned, as if lost, as if I didn't know whether I wanted to stand or sit. My knees shook.
"Look." The excited voice of my grandson erupted on my eardrum. I followed his pointing finger toward the far corner of the enclosure. I caught a glimpse of red fur.
I shook my head, knowing Shana was no longer there—she, who I came to see. I had waited too long. But I didn't go until now, when my son flew back into town with his family, and we all went to the zoo.
I stood there; while my family chattered and gestured, even leaning over the fence slightly to get a better look. I knew, with a sinking heart, that I was too late.
"Grandpa, are you alright?" A tiny girl's voice brought me back to the present. Janice slipped her hand through mine, instinctively trying to pull me into her world, away from the darkness that descended and surrounded me, one I couldn't shake for years.
I looked down at her, the innocent angel-like face, a furrow of worry casting a blemish on her smooth, wide brow. "Janice," I managed to say before I choked back my tears. I didn’t want her to know I was sad. I felt protective of her, of her innocence; yet she was wise beyond her years. "Don't you worry," I said, my thumb smoothing her frown. She reminded me of my mother, my long-dead beautiful mother.
She patted my hand. "It's okay. I love you, Grandpa."
I raised my head, toward the heavens, and I saw the blue sky as far as the eye can see. Clear blue sky. I knew my mother was up there now. My lips parted as I said a silent prayer. I licked my trembling lips, and then I turned my gaze once more to the enclosure. It had changed, with more room to roam, and rocks and terrain more akin to their wild habitat. Gone was the tree in the center. Gone was the circle, the groove in the rocks, worn down by the countless zillions of steps Shana, the she-wolf, had trudged around and around in a circle. A circle of hell with no beginning or end. A once vibrant life, driven to insanity, with no escape except death.
"C'mon, Dad," my son Paul Allan said, his arms gently tugging mine. "We'll take you back and have cake at your place."
"You brought me a birthday cake?"
"Just the way you like it. Luscious dark chocolate with white buttercream frosting."
"Two candles, a 'six' and a 'zero'," said my son.
We got to the car. The five of us managed to fit in. I sat in front, while my son drove. His wife was in the rear with the two children. On the drive back, I barely uttered a word. My heart was heavy, my eyes moist.
At the house even the sound of voices singing "Happy Birthday" failed to cheer me up. I smiled, but it was joyless.
We sat around the kitchen table. I thanked my family for the cake and asked for coffee; someone poured me a cup.
My son was sitting next to me. He was all grown now, with a family of his own. No longer the young boy. "I took you to the zoo, once, a long time ago," I said.
He was quiet, looking at me as if he was the father, and I the child. "I was about Jeremy’s age."
"You remember Shana?"
Paul Allan stiffened in his seat, shifting his body. "She never looked at us, but I wanted her to..."
I sighed. "I thought I'd find Shana here today. Even after so many years, I still see her, as if it was yesterday; her head down, resigned to a fate worse than death. Her life reduced to a circus show for strangers to gawk." My voice trembled, tinged with anger, sadness and guilt.
Paul’s chin quivered. "Dad, it’s haunted me to this day! I couldn’t get her out of my mind," he said, grimacing. "I kept drawing pictures of Shana, fenced inside a small area, walking in circles, as her once-soft padded paws trudged on the hard surface of the rock until she wore it down and carved a circular depression in the rock."
"You were a very observant boy," I said. "Shana was a prisoner in body and soul, sentenced to forever circling the tree, left with no meaning in life. No joy, nothing."
"Dad, you said she’d gone crazy," he said in a voice that tried to console me, alternating between soothing and paternal. "She's in a better place now. She’s free."
I nodded, eager to believe she was free. Yet I knew that, in the zoo, there was no escape, no going home; no more running in the wild with the wind blowing, kicking up the dust when the land was dry; or inhaling the scent of fresh rain watering the parched earth.
Had Shana found the ultimate release at last? From her tortured soul, her broken down body, and her mind driven insane?
"Dad, she inspired me to study zoology. I’m sorry I couldn’t help Shana. But I lecture around the world now, and I tell Shana's story."
"It's too late for her, and the others like her," said my son, gripping my shoulders, his intense eyes locked on mine. "Man's cruelty to animals... it's too late for Shana, but her life and death weren’t in vain. She lives in the stories and in our hearts—a hope for a better world."
My old rheumy eyes fell on the fading yellow-tinged calendar, the red circle on my birthdate, her picture above it.
The knock on the door sounded, barely a second before the door opened. The woman in white uniform walked in, carrying a small paper cup. "Clay, it's time to take your medicine."
My eyes glazed over. I looked around the sparse, antiseptic room. I didn't know how long I had been here. I only saw the calendar on the wall, flipped to July, the red circle. Shana, the she-wolf. I whispered, "I'm coming."