In December 1975, only thirty people lived in a city that just months before had sheltered two million.  Twenty-nine were top-level cadres, idealists who lived together in a compound near the river.  The thirtieth was a zookeeper named Bunroeun.  The idealists gardened and studied their political texts and argued, and were completely unaware of Bunroeun’s presence.  When the soldiers were rounding up the others for the forced evacuation to the countryside, he’d hidden in the birdhouse.

Bunroen remained at the zoo, alone.  The isolation was infinite, and on that first evening after the city was emptied, as the glowing embers of light faded beyond the dark and jagged fringe of palms, and bats darted across the icy expanse above, he wondered if he were the last man alive.  The others, his family and friends, the ones he’d known and the ones he’d never known but had always taken for granted, the extras, the faces in the crowd, the jostlers and hawkers, the sellers and the buyers, the crying babies and their mothers, the drunks and the beggars, anyone and everyone, all gone.

For a day or two, Bunroeun believed that he could save the animals, that he could find food for them and sustain the zoo.  But that was only a dream, and he soon understood that if he didn’t let some go, they would all die.  He agonized.  Part of him wanted to keep the cages locked, even if it meant that the animals would starve.  They would die, but at least for a while he wouldn’t be alone, and it was the idea of being completely alone that terrified him.

He set the birds free first, opened the doors and chased them into the sky.  The reptiles too, the snakes and lizards and crocodiles, he drove into the sewers.  The monkeys swarmed into the empty street, climbed trees, disappeared into abandoned houses.

But the meat-eaters had nowhere to go.  Bunroeun watched as the great cats and hyenas and wolves withered and died of starvation.  They dwindled until the skeletons beneath their hides were angry protrusions and their eyes were dull.  They dropped, one by one, and Bunroeun ate the stringy sinews that remained.  After that, the giraffe, by then a mangy tower of bones, and the kouprey, and the bears, and finally the rhinoceros, all died, until only the elephant remained.

Bunroeun spent hours each day searching for fodder, sickle in hand.  He brought the elephant mountains of grass, and the animal thanked him by staying alive, by allowing him to get close enough to feel the warm breath from its grasping trunk and the twitch of muscles beneath its leathery skin.  Its name was Fortress Tower. 
Bunroeun thought that maybe the elephant sensed the emptiness, that it knew they were alone in a forest of empty buildings.  Maybe it smelled the jungle creeping in, vines climbing the walls, trees sprouting from open windows, grass like a shaggy head of hair on the sloping roofs of corrugated tin.  The elephant seemed to take comfort in Bunroeun’s presence.

They slept side by side beneath a mango tree that dropped heavy orange fruit in spring, that now in December offered only shade to the hungry pair below.  Bunroeun placed his bamboo bed as close to the elephant as possible, and huddled beneath a torn mosquito netting.  From time to time, an animal voice cried out in the darkness, wild and lonely, and Bunroeun shivered.  He wished he could lie against Fortress Tower’s strong back and feel the gentle rhythm of the elephant’s breathing.

There were no interruptions, nothing to separate the days, the nights, one moment from another.  The dry soil and the grass.  The empty buildings, white plaster now black with mould.  Empty cages, dry feces still lingering on the bare, packed earth.  Nothing to pull apart the emptiness.  The hours, separated only by the sweeping blade of his sickle beside the road.  Airless days, blue sky so high over their heads that even Fortress Tower could not reach.  The ground so dry a careless step could shatter it to a thousand pieces.

And then, finally, the mornings began with a greyness that swelled until dark anvils formed above the treetops, when the wind thrashed the tiny yard and lifted the mosquito netting of Bunroeun’s bed like a frail ghost.  Then it rained, as if the clouds’ stomachs had been slit open with a machete, and Bunroeun wondered why he’d never realized how violent the world could be.  No end of grass then.  Water from the sky and mangoes from the tree above, until they had no taste for the soft fruit.

Fortress Tower became fat again, and a shine returned to the brown eyes that said so much to Bunroeun as he whispered into the animal’s ear.  He whispered and sang and sometimes he spoke with the elephant about the days before the war, when the zoo was full of animals and full of people.  When the streets beyond the crumbling walls were a river of bicycles and loud voices and the air between the trees was ripe with the smell of cigarettes and trash fires and meat cooking over charcoal.

Sometimes Bunroeun wondered if the voice that whispered was his own, or whether it might be Fortress Tower’s.  It came to him on the wind, and between the raindrops and beneath the waxy leaves of the mango tree, reminding him that somewhere beyond the empty city, out beyond the river, beyond the squares of paddy that were now a snarl of weeds, was life.  There was life out there.  He just had to wait for it to return.  Fortress Tower would wait with him.  They would wait until the sky was heavy and the darkness split open and life rained down, knee-deep, rising to their waists, and then high above their heads. 

Jack Frey lives in Winnipeg with his wife and two young boys.  He plans to walk across Asia, but is still searching for the right pair of hiking boots.  His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Shelf Life Magazine, Rose & Thorn Journal, Jersey Devil Press, and the Last Man Anthology, among others.  Like many of us, he is currently pecking away at his first novel. (



Copyright 2009