A mighty thump, followed by the sound of scattering debris. Zaki knew straight away that another mortar had slammed into the nearby bear’s enclosure, the fifth late afternoon intrusion in less than two weeks. He held his breath, but nothing happened. No bursting in anger? A dud like the others? Thank goodness for the incompetence of those young fools!
The only warning in Kabul’s autumn sky had been a whistling sound, almost tuneful, which in happier times would’ve easily been mistaken for a zoo keeper in a pleasant mood, perhaps someone remembering an old love song. What would it take to bring back those glorious days, when families could walk freely through the grounds?
Zaki crawled out of his hiding place. He moved slowly, careful not to go too far out into the open, but enough to be able to get a clear view and assess the danger. He’d been in the middle of his prayers when the mortar fell and he wondered if that’s what had saved them. Then he remembered that at the moment of impact he’d actually been momentarily distracted from his prayers, wondering if anyone else in the world had ever been forced to live in a hole in the ground.
The mortar was grey and shiny like a large beetle. It had smashed a piece off the top of the enclosure’s back wall and then rolled in behind a log. What Zaki found amazing was that the racket hadn’t roused the bear from her slumber. ‘It’s going to be fine,’ he whispered to his friend, trying not to stretch up too high in case someone spotted him. He knew the words were more for himself. ‘I’ll come over in the safety of the night, when the gates are closed and no one can see me. Stay asleep and keep dreaming of our better days.’ He held out his cold, blistered hand and blew his friend a kiss.
Zaki’s hiding place was a simple underground chamber at the end of a narrow dirt tunnel, just below a fence that surrounded part of the enclosure. Wooden bins, which once overflowed with grain and slops for the animals, partly covered a small grill that opened above his head. The base of a large mulberry tree also provided extra protection, keeping the confines of the tunnel in constant darkness. He called it his “royal palace”.
He settled back down on his sheepskin rug, still damp from a downpour the week before, and closed his eyes. ‘Don’t go sniffing, my dear friend. Please don’t go sniffing. The beetle may look interesting, but it’s actually very nasty.’ He could only hope that the bear’s injured nose would stop her from exploring too far.
As he waited for Kabul’s orange moon to make an appearance, he prepared the long, brittle twigs he would need to remove the danger. He knew he wouldn’t be able to get any sleep, despite a tiredness that was trying to choke him to death. Stray dogs also continued to yelp, and the gunpowder on the wind was starting to sting his nostrils with increasing ferocity.
He finished his prayers and then ate a piece of the stale bread he’d earlier managed to salvage from outside one of the keepers’ huts. Crumbs got lost in his knotted beard of grey and brown, but he made no attempt to retrieve them. There was no one to be tidy for now. Just the animals.
He was also pleased to discover that a decent amount of water had dripped into his rusty mug, having followed the clever river beds he’d cut into the mulberry tree with his pocket knife. He lay back and dreamed he was sucking the soft flesh from the inside of a mango. He left it sitting on his tongue. The sensation of a real, fresh mouthful.
It wasn’t long before he wondered whether he’d made the right decision to wait for nightfall. What if his friend woke up and really did go prying behind the log? Would it not be better to take a risk now, despite the daylight? He sat on his hands and prayed for an answer. Nothing came, though. He remained where he was, the whole time urging the sun to fall faster from the sky.
The temptation of pilaf then drifted in from the run-down homes nearby, a dish that 20 neighbours had probably chipped in to make. Divine smells for impoverished noses. Zaki could make out chicken, yoghurt and raisins, which reminded him of the three years he spent as the chef in a warlord’s residence. Perhaps someone had a bottle of something strong as well, something the soldiers hadn’t been able to seek out.
He thought back to the days before the troubles: before the Russians, before the Taliban, before ‘America’s worst nightmare’, as he’d heard someone describe it on the radio. Would he ever again enjoy a pilaf picnic under the lush mulberry groves outside of Kabul? Would the roads ever be lined again with handsome, leafy trees? Would the children ever be truly free to sing and skylark like they used to?
Someone said the Americans were close to the capital and it might only be a matter of days before they conquered the entire country. What would that mean? Did Americans treasure animals, or was it true what they said on the radio? Just in front of the enclosure the day before, he’d overheard a couple of Taliban soldiers talking about their ‘losing battle’. They’d leaned against the bins and rubbed their feet with some of the balms they’d ransacked from the animal clinic. They hadn’t thought to look for Zaki there beneath the mulberry tree. They’d been searching everywhere, hauling in the keepers to help, knowing it hadn’t been a clever monkey throwing rocks at their comrades the week before. Zaki smiled when he thought about how he’d managed to hit a fat soldier on the head from a great distance, making him dance around madly with his hands on his head.
The bear shifted in her shelter, making groaning sounds, most likely caused by hunger. No sound was more agonising to listen to. He put his head up against the grill and whispered, straining his eyes to see if he could make out her worn black coat. ‘Just don’t go near the log, you crazy big lump. It’s not long to wait now.’
Vehicles could still be heard on the other side of the zoo and he knew he couldn’t risk going out into the open, not until he was certain the front gates were closed. Too many battle-weary Taliban, some as young as 16, had been regularly coming into the grounds to use the water fountains and shower in the old elephant house. Why couldn’t they just wash and leave? Why did they have to hassle the remaining animals, already malnourished and miserable?
What kind of man would bait a gorgeous, innocent bear by getting up dangerously close - an act of bravado in front of his friends - and then cut off a slice of the animal’s nose in revenge for the inevitable scratches? With people like that about, Zaki knew he had to wait for total darkness before venturing out of his hole.
In a letter to his mother, Zaki said throwing rocks at the Taliban soldiers and the guards of warlords was the very least he could do to protest against the terrible things he'd witnessed. As well as being angry about the bear’s nose, he was bitter about the injuries inflicted on Marjan, the greatest lion in the world, who’d lost an eye and part of his mouth when he tossed around something he probably took to be a toy or piece of strange food. The object turned out to be another nasty beetle, a grenade, this one more than willing to express the anger of the sender. The attack had been another act of revenge, carried out by the brother of a man mauled to death after foolishly climbing into Marjan’s enclosure.
Zaki, a grown man of 50 winters, described in his letter how he’d wept when he helped the keepers and a couple of other visitors rush Marjan over to the zoo’s deprived medical clinic. Everything possible was done to try to help, but nothing had been able to fix the damage. As well as losing an eye and his hearing, Marjan lost the teeth he needed for chewing. Someone had to help, and that’s when Zaki decided to secretly dedicate his days to the animals' well-being.
‘Our country’s curse of conflict’, he told his mother, ‘has not even spared these fine creatures who know nothing of the grievances. I have decided to live among them, as their guardian angel. I prefer their company to that of people.’
Two of the zoo’s most popular animals had been injured for the first time in years of conflict. Zaki hadn’t wept like that when news came through that some of his old school friends had been killed in military action. This new grief was over something far more profound: the future of his entire people, his entire culture.
He wondered whether his letter and the terrible story it contained ever got through to his mother, who’d been forced to go and live with her sister in the city of Ghazni. He’d placed his trust in a young Pakistani woodman who often took the trade route from Kabul to Kandahar. That had been weeks before, though, and he had no way of knowing if the letter had actually been delivered.
* * *
Zaki woke to the sound of scraping. He was surprised to learn that he’d actually managed to fall asleep, but then saw that he’d accidentally rolled over and snapped the long twigs he’d put aside. He retied his headscarf and pulled his coat tightly around his thin frame. Had his friend discovered the grey menace? Was she nudging it, and wondering why it wasn’t reacting?
He crawled out of the tunnel and hurried along to the enclosure on his hands and knees, the whole time checking the dusty paths nearby, just in case he’d missed the sound of soldiers.
The voice came from behind. He dared not look around. The moon, now rising, seemed to be shining down just on him, as bright as the spotlight in the local square.
‘Zaki, you old camel! Don’t panic. It’s just me.’
‘You!’ He jumped up and hugged the Pakistani woodman, who seemed much lankier than he remembered. ‘I thought you were a soldier.’
The woodman grinned and handed over a parcel. ‘The dried fruit and canned fish you asked for, as well as a small amount of tobacco.’
‘You scared me.’
‘But I also have some bad news.’ The woodman turned his head away.
‘Bad news? What could possibly get any worse?’
Zaki closed his eyes. ‘Did she not get my letter?’
‘No, I have it here.’
‘But she is in Ghazni?’
‘They said they waited for days but she never arrived.’
Zaki sat down heavily on the dust, his legs folding up as though he were beginning a traditional dance. He put his head right down, almost onto his stomach.
Neither man spoke. One seated, the other standing up. Silence. The moon bright. The wind starting to stir the dust on the paths.
After a while Zaki lifted his head and said, ‘A mortar may explode. In there with our friend. I have to protect her. I can’t lose her too.’
They both found some new twigs and then worked for an hour in silence, slowly coaxing the stubborn beetle out of a groove in the frozen soil. They prayed as they manoeuvred, hoping that the device’s inner workings had somehow been damaged and made useless. Zaki felt as if his breathing were as shallow as that of a toad-headed lizard and he may actually faint from the lack of oxygen. Concentration. Deep concentration. Both men sweated profusely, despite the cold. They kept their eyes on the beetle, willing it with all of their force to stay asleep.
The woodman asked, ‘Is this American, or from the Taliban?’
‘The Americans aren’t upon us yet, so it must be from our poor soldiers, mere babies, still practising how it’s done, still working out the distances, how to target them.’
‘They choose the zoo for target practice?’
Zaki frowned. ‘I like to think it’s not deliberate, but one has to wonder.’
Just as the bear began to groan again, perhaps threatening to start crawling in search of food, they gently rolled the beetle out of the enclosure and onto the dirt. ‘If it wanted to explode it would’ve done so by now,’ said Zaki.
They were still there. In one piece. They said quick prayers and beamed at each other. They walked in wide circles, breathing deeply, furiously rubbing their hands together to try to warm them up. Zaki attached a long piece of twine around the tail of the beetle. Then, after measuring out what he thought to be a reasonably safe distance, he dragged it delicately towards his hidden collection of unexploded and exploded munitions. He had about a dozen mortars and grenades, plus the spent shells from smaller arms. He’d moved them all into a shallow hole and covered them over with sticks and leaves.
‘It’s what I’ve collected over the months,’ he said. ‘Strays that’ve come in here, that I’ve found out in the streets, as well as what I’ve confiscated from those who shouldn’t have that kind of power in their hands.’
‘You’re going to blow yourself up.’ The woodman laughed up into the sky. ‘They could explode at any minute.’
‘Better to kill me than the animals.’
‘What’s so special about them?’
Zaki groaned as he put more leaves over his munitions dump. ‘What’s so special about us that they should die instead?’
‘You crazy old camel.’ The woodman settled down on a tree stump.
‘They represent the spirit of this country,’ said Zaki. ‘They live, we all live. Now, stop making so much noise and help me collect some meat for Marjan and the others.’
‘Don’t the keepers feed them?’
‘They do their best but they’re no longer paid. They can hardly feed themselves.’
The woodman retied his headscarf, using one end of it to wipe away the sweat on his neck. He grinned, flashing three tiny teeth. ‘Where’s your stash of meat then? Who has anything spare these days?’
‘There are people who still have too much. There always is, even in times of conflict. They don’t even know it’s missing.’
The two men crept along in the shadows to the zoo’s perimeter and then effortlessly scaled one of the stone walls, climbing up the long, flowing branches of a willow tree. They made their way to a nearby butcher’s shop, where sacks of meat were always left in an unlocked shed, ready for delivery to those who could still afford it.
‘I did look for her,’ said the woodman, ‘as much as I could. I asked around about her. I tried to follow up any leads.’
‘Thank you. I appreciate that.’
‘You know, she may’ve ...’
Zaki stopped and took hold of the woodman’s hand. ‘We need to be quiet now. The people around here are very alert to strange sounds in the night.’
Zaki emerged from the shed with two large packets of meat and handed one of them to the woodman. Half way back to the zoo, he said, ‘These smelt the worst. It’s probably a tough old goat that no one wanted and now it’s not fresh enough to sell.’
He explained to the woodman how he had to use his pocket knife to cut the meat up into very small pieces for Marjan, to make it easier for him to eat.
Then, just as they approached the section of the wall they needed to climb back over, the light from a torch further down the road sought them out, with the sound of somebody running towards them. ‘Stay there! Kneel down on the ground!’
Zaki and the woodman fell to their knees, pushing the packages of meat behind their backs. A young Taliban soldier, who appeared to be alone, shone the torch in their eyes and kicked the packets to the ground. A rifle hung from his shoulder.
‘We are just returning to the zoo,’ said Zaki, fixing his eyes on the dirt in front of him. ‘It’s meat for the animals. We’re keepers at the zoo. We have no other business in the street.’
‘Why have you not taken up arms, to fight off the Americans?’ asked the soldier. ‘What could be more important than that?’
Zaki looked up into the light, disturbed by the small gasps of fear coming from the woodman. ‘The animals need to stay strong so our children can enjoy them again, when the zoo reopens in all its former glory. Do you not pray for such a day?’
The soldier spat some chewing tobacco onto the ground. ‘You’re a liar! There are no animals left in the zoo.’
‘There are not many,’ said Zaki, ‘but I swear there are still a few. Marjan the lion is still alive. The bear. Some wolves. A few others.’
‘Marjan? He’s still alive? After that attack?’
‘He was badly injured but he is still with us.’
The soldier’s face relaxed and he almost smiled. ‘I remember visiting Marjan when I was a boy. I thought he’d been killed.’
‘He is very much alive,’ said Zaki, discreetly taking the woodman’s hand to stop him from crying.
The soldier inspected the packages, but moved back quickly because of the foul smell. ‘You ought to find some fresher food for someone as great as Marjan.’ He switched off the torch and left, leaving the two men on their knees, hugging each other in shock.
The fear stayed with them, deep in their gut, until they later came face to face with Marjan. They sat and watched the animal’s forlorn face begin to sparkle with the promise of a midnight feast.
* * *
The Americans seemed to think that any number of creatures could be living in Zaki’s long beard and so they made obvious efforts to avoid close contact. ‘We need you to come with us,’ said one of the soldiers, not seeming to care that Zaki didn’t understand English. They took him by the arm, but he noticed their touch was a lot more delicate than usual.
They led him from his cell, down the long, familiar corridors, towards the captain he despised, the one who wouldn’t believe him, who continued to insist that he must be an enemy, a fighter, a hurter of people. A beating this time? Zaki prepared himself for more ridiculous questions, hours of misunderstanding, with mediocre translators who didn’t seem to be getting his story across to the Americans.
He’d told the same story to a different translator just a few days before, an elderly woman who’d presented herself as the wife of a university professor from Jalalabad. He’d repeated, for what seemed to be the 100th time, that he’d lived in the zoo in a secret tunnel for months, acting as the animals’ protector and feeder, collecting meat for them during the night. He totally denied the charges being alleged. He’d looked up at the woman as she repeated his words in English, praying that she would get them right and he could be released. The woman’s pale, round face and long lashes reminded him of his dear mother.
Zaki had repeated his story about Marjan, the bear, the tunnel, his simple existence under the light of the moon, his relief that the animals hadn’t been harmed when the American, British and Northern Alliance soldiers arrived. He’d explained how he had no choice but to stay on in his hiding place because he wanted to be sure the animals would continue to be looked after. He’d also been too afraid to learn the fate of his mother.
It had all seemed to be just wasted words, however. The captain kept saying that Zaki had failed to properly explain his 'nice little bomb factory', or why he’d been found hiding from them, or why he hadn’t surrendered the moment Kabul fell. The captain kept insisting that Zaki must have been a senior member of the Taliban. It seemed he would stay in his cell until he confessed. No confession, no freedom.
Now, though, things seemed to be different. Zaki stood once again in front of the captain, with the same elderly woman translator seated across the room. He saw that a pot of mint tea had been prepared. The captain came around from behind his desk and actually offered him a cup, seeming to smile. Zaki cautiously sipped. Something was up.
The captain spoke and then turned to the translator.
‘He says we have some good news,’ she said.
The captain put his arm around Zaki’s shoulder and continued talking.
‘Some witnesses have corroborated your story. They have come forward to attest to your innocence.’ The translator grinned excitedly.
Zaki was worried that she’d got the words wrong again. He looked back at the captain, but he only nodded.
‘You are free to go home,’ said the translator, tears building up in her eyes.
Zaki trembled as he quietly asked, ‘But who came forward, after all this time?’
The captain offered Zaki a chair. He explained through the translator that the zoo's fragile lion had died, just weeks after being visited by veterinary experts from the West.
Zaki stared straight ahead. He couldn't blink.
The keepers and officials who’d gathered for Marjan’s memorial service had got to hear about the arrest within the zoo's grounds. When the military showed them Zaki's photo, they recognised him as someone who’d been there to help on the day the lion had been injured. Then, during further investigation, other pieces of favourable evidence emerged.
‘Who killed him? Who killed our great Marjan, our last hope?’ Zaki slipped out of his chair, wheezing and curling into himself.
The captain’s words took a while to be translated, with the elderly woman sobbing and trying to comfort Zaki at the same time. ‘It was old age. No one killed him. He wasn’t in the best of shape with his old injuries ... but he’d already reached a very fine age.’
Zaki stopped crying as the words began to make more sense. Old age? Not by a nasty beetle? Not by an evil man? He closed his eyes and tried to think more clearly about what he’d heard. The departure he and Marjan had prayed for. He pictured the lion closing his eyes and taking his last breath serenely, extinguished by nothing more than old age.
Zaki held onto the woman’s arm and put his head against her thigh. ‘And the bear. What’s happened to my beautiful friend?’
The captain said he knew for a fact that she was fine and had been given the name Donatella. She’d begun treatment for the injuries to her nose and the prognosis was excellent. The captain repeated the phrases three times. He even put a hand on Zaki’s shoulder and gently squeezed.
It took Zaki a good 20 minutes before he could stand. He thanked the woman translator for her 'beautiful choice of words' and shook the captain’s hand. He also quietly said a prayer for Marjan, acknowledging his help in winning his release. He turned to the captain before leaving his office and said, ‘Dying of old age is something we should all be able to look forward to.’ He smiled and bowed.
Outside the army compound, the air seemed to have a fresher scent to it. He spent a few minutes watching a group of children laugh and chase one another, and then he wondered which direction he should take. He thought about the hole in the ground, but figured that would’ve already been filled in.
He couldn’t get the image of Marjan out of his head. He also pictured Donatella, lying back and resting, comforted by medication. Just as he decided to shuffle off down a track to his left, realising it didn’t really matter which direction he chose, he looked up and spotted a tall solitary figure by an old cart. He struggled to make out the face.
‘Zaki, you old camel!’ The woodman rushed over, grinning and waving madly. ‘I’m glad they finally believed us.’
Zaki could hardly speak. His lips trembled. ‘You’ve been waiting for me?’
‘We have a long journey to Ghazni ahead of us,’ said the woodman. ‘There is hope, my friend. We have some positive news to chase up.’
© Copyright, 2008. Seamus Kearney. "The Midnight Keeper"
(This short story was inspired by the true story of Marjan the lion, who was injured in the zoo at Kabul during the rule of the Taliban. He died of old age after the arrival of US-led forces. Donatella, the bear, was also an animal at the zoo. But Zaki and his personal story are purely fiction.)