By Justine Hyde and Jane Rawson
Edited by Veronica Sullivan
Jin sat on her apartment’s kitchen floor, which was also the dining room, living room and bedroom floor, and looked at her bird. It was a blackbird, which she knew because its feathers were black. It had lived with her for 47 days, and now it was dead.
The blackbird was dead because Jin had taped its beak closed the night before. Every evening as the sun set, the blackbird would begin its beautiful song, so every evening just before dusk, Jin would carefully wind the tape around its beak. Once the light was gone she would untape it, but last night she had forgotten.
There were not enough animals to go around. That’s what they said. Last year, Abe had had a lizard in his apartment. He had no idea where it had come from – nothing normally came in but the terrible heat and the blinding light – but there was this little lizard, and Abe had decided to keep it. Three days later, maybe four, the men from the Special Animal Forces had stormed in with their guns and taken Abe and the lizard away. Jin had never seen any of them again. She wanted to see Abe again; wouldn’t have minded seeing the lizard; but she definitely didn’t want to see the men from the SAF, which was why she’d taped the blackbird’s beak.
She got up from the kitchen floor, cupped the little body in her hand. She wrapped it in a cotton handkerchief and put it in her pocket and walked down the 27 flights of steps to the door which opened to the street.
She would go to the zoo. Every day, she went there to listen to the animals inside. She could hear the birds sometimes. Twice, she had heard a big cat roar. The elephants made a sound you could hear even from her apartment. Today she would go to the Zoo and on the way she would stop in the park opposite and bury the body of the little bird who had shared her home. Then she would press herself against the zoo’s red brick wall until they told her to leave, which they always did. Sometimes it was right away and sometimes she had fifteen or even twenty minutes alone with the sound of the animals.
Once, people had been allowed in the Zoo; that’s what she’d heard. She had never known such a time. The animals were not for regular people to know anymore. There simply weren’t enough animals for everyone. If you needed to see an animal for some reason, there was always YouTube and old Attenborough docos.
Jin didn’t know what the animals did all day in the Zoo, but she supposed they probably did animal things. Human guards came and went, and trucks and vans and all kinds of machinery and also people she supposed were scientists. And when there was a famous sportsman in town, or a representative of some big foreign corporation, they would go in too. Aside from the blackbird, Abe’s lizard (once), rats (most days) and cockroaches (nothing could keep them out of her apartment), Jin had never met an animal.
Today there was no way into Royal Park and no way to get into the Zoo.
Every road was blocked and the red brick wall was covered in barbed wire and security cameras. Jin watched as a big, shiny car made its way past one of the roadblocks, followed by five more big, shiny cars. Clouds of drones buzzed past and hovered above a small stage. Jin climbed a dead tree so she could watch.
‘Today is an historic moment in Victoria’s history,’ the man on the stage announced as he adjusted his tie and smiled into the cameras. Jin thought he was the Prime Minister, but he might have been the captain of the Melbourne Victory; she always got them muddled up. ‘Today we release the first megafauna from our breeding program at the Royal Melbourne Zoo into our fine city,’ he said. ‘Today will be remembered as the day when this government took a monumental step towards ecological repair in our State by officially launching our Rewilding 2020 strategy. As you can see,’ the man – was he the Premier, she wondered – waved his arm at the newly installed fortifications, ‘we have built an impermeable barrier that will restrict the megafauna to Royal Park during this trial period. The introduction of their dung and grazing practices to this once-beautiful park will nourish the city’s flora and create a rich ecology unseen since before European settlement. We are making Victoria great again!’
‘You!’ a guard shouted, ‘Get out of that tree! You’re not allowed to be here.’
Jin was used to this. With her last look from the tree branch, she saw that they were opening the Zoo gates. She inserted the bird’s body into a small hollow, climbed down and decided to walk to the supermarket for a Gaytime.
Jin saw her first wild animal a week later. She’d have recognised a rhinoceros anywhere, but this one was much bigger than she had imagined. She sat down on the ground, because suddenly her legs had no choice. In the head-on accident between the creature and a car on Royal Parade, the car came off much worse. The wreckers showed up and took the car away, and an ambulance arrived for the driver. Jin listened: there was a siren, and another and another.
She went back to her apartment. When she got there, Abe had returned. He had been gone for months. He looked different, skinnier and was very quiet. ‘I’m sorry about your lizard,’ she said. Abe shrugged. She hugged him and knew not to ask any questions.
They sat down to watch the news together but there was nothing being reported, not even the Premier (or was he Essendon’s full-forward?) making an announcement.
Even without the media’s involvement, the word quickly got around: the animals were back.
On the weekend, Jin and Abe caught a tram north to Coburg Lake, where the great herds of water buffalo had set up house. They spread out a picnic blanket alongside a family and watched the animals; some grazed on the grass and others lay in the shade of trees. A baby buffalo and its mother wandered down to the water’s edge. A kid near them started cheering as a crocodile emerged from the lake to swipe the baby buffalo. They watched as it at first evaded the jaws of the predator, before it was torn from its mother and rolled beneath the water. The little boy cried in his mother’s arms, ‘Mummy, will I die one day too?’
Jin started hearing stories: all over inner Melbourne, giant creatures were turning the city’s habitat to their own ends.
Under the Fairfield Pipe Bridge, a family of elephants had set up home, wallowing in the Yarra mud. Reduced to a diet of mainly gum leaves, they had become koala-like: lazy and grumpy, barely bothering to lift a trunk when a passing rower prodded one with his oar. Flemington Racecourse, which had shut down when the horses had finally lost the will to live, was now a dusty vacant lot where zebras and okapi frolicked then took off with bursts of speed as voracious monitor lizards lunged from the undergrowth in pursuit. Intrepid locals gave odds. In West Melbourne, close-quartered neighbours had their peccadillos revealed to one another as a slow-moving band of giant pandas devoured the city’s bamboo privacy screens before moving on to consume the latest Ai Weiwei installation at the National Gallery of Victoria.
It was a warm Autumn evening. Jin and Abe were heading home after a pizza and a movie, walking along Nicholson Street past the gated community of Fitzroy. Jin knew that the Carlton Gardens were a no-go zone during the day, since the pride of lions had moved in. They lazed in the sun on the lawns outside the now abandoned Exhibition Building, and meandered down to the fountain to lap the cool water.
‘I miss going to the museum,’ Jin said. She turned to Abe for a reply, but he was gone. Without pausing to look behind her, Jin ran as fast as she could, a deafening roar filling her ears.