Hospital

Shlomo the Fool’s friend was wounded. He went to the hospital to visit him.

The corridors were crowded with mauled animals. How? The animals once lived in cages at the city zoo. An orangutan was transferred from a provincial zoo to mate with females outside its tribe. But the orangutan did not mate. Instead, it introduced new ideas. Thoughts from a distant hotbed, the outpost of its solitude where an elder dominated, and hoarded the females. First casually, a snatch of a song sung through the bars, then larger and larger groups, gathering to listen to scenes of life in the wild.

Some animals were born in captivity, others in transit, the last in the wild. What the orangutan said agitated in the hearts of each, but especially those conceived in captivity. Their bodies, idle in disheartened lassitude, were always a source of confusion and rage. Galling them. Their unsophisticated gaze strained ceaselessly to a frustrated object. Did the orangutan know what it was saying? Later, the animals who survived spent hours debating his intention, which remained ambiguous. In the last account, it went with him to the grave, packing house of mortal treasure.

The orangutan’s images of life in the jungle, on the plains, were so vivid the animals felt them on their tongues and in their limbs. They reached into their depths. Larger and larger audiences of trembling beasts passed along the visions from cage to cage. Only repeating himself, the orangutan began to reorganize the zoo’s conception of itself. A tolerable, mysterious situation became a prison. The meaning of freedom went from meat to freedom. The zoo, intended as an opportunity to learn and praise, the animals reflected, was now a debasement, from which love was banished, replaced with fascination and avoidance.

The animals debated revolt and escape. They spent days in planning, weighing possible routes and tactics, most nights scrapping the plans of the night before. The orangutan, they later reflected, kept out of these discussions, only rising regularly to describe again the taste of a gazelle’s convulsing flank eaten while the animal was still living, or the light-eyed autonomy of swinging from vine to vine above a green river where red blossoms floated, trailing tendrils in the current.

The animals debated. The cages opened only during feeding. Three crews of keepers divvied up the zoo: reptiles and birds, big cats and primates, bears and creatures of the night. Their final plan was three synchronized escapes in an afternoon feeding. The trainers approached. The animals feigned sickness in a far corner to lure them in. Others hid behind the door. The songs of the orangutan hummed in their ears, as the future-illuminating commands of a leader on his deathbed. The keepers entered, the animals rushed them, hurled dishes of food and excrement at them. At last, they slid out the door, shutting it behind them, imprisoning the trainers. The animals, roaring and screeching through the zoo, every living creature howling, shook with the sensation of advancing freedom. Spilling through the paths, the force of freedom opened cages and enclosures. Visitors caught at the zoo were trampled, and hit with rotting vegetables and dung. Children cried. A father ran to make a complaint at city hall. An unwed mother left a newborn in a monkey cage.

The last of the wranglers lay unconscious next to scattered nets and tasers. The animals exulted.  The plan was a success. They realized it, and began to fight. In the joy of liberation, they made brutal attacks on each other, tearing and clawing, crushing each other beneath their agitated hooves and talons. Mysterious, the orangutan who, according to the animals, sparked the entire movement, remained in his cage for the whole revolt, repeating out loud the same visions of the wild as before.

In the chaos, city animal control swept in, rounded up the escapees, and corralled them to the hospital. An officer reached up, and cracked a giraffe’s nose with a riot baton from sheer unaccountability. Outside the emergency room, the rebellion’s wounded survivors leaned up against the walls along the hallway. They moaned, licked the plaster or bent their vertebrae, scratching up and down them with their claws. Injured bats flew back and forth above their heads, boa constrictors curled up in the corners like fire hoses. The floor was littered with teeth.

The animals looked around, and understood: following emergency medical treatment, they would return to the zoo. They tasted imagined freedom only as aggression and anxiety. They moved too fast, defended without appreciation. A sense of dissipation descended. The real freedom was still lording somewhere in an open plain, where one bird sang before there was law.

A few animals, however, struck out on their own, foregoing treatment. An alligator slunk down the sidewalk. Two squealing boars overturned a hotdog stand. The vendor ran down the block shouting for his father, who taught him to fan cooking smoke to entice customers. The alligator helped itself to dozens of spilled hotdogs, and felt a disorienting combination of joy and disgust. Everything it felt was new. It never went back to its cage.

Against this backdrop, Shlomo the Fool visited the hospital for his friend. The night before, his friend was mugged, hit in the back of the head with a bat. His skull was fractured. He lay on his side, looking out the window of his room at the evening over the city. He could call only some of the words he knew to his mouth. In his light gray eyes, Shlomo saw confusion, betrayal, and guilt. Did his body shrink? Shlomo reached out, took his friend’s hand, and told him the story of the two automatons.

The first automaton, Shlomo began, had a mechanical flaw which made it think the second automaton was itself. The second automaton had a mechanical flaw which made it think both itself and the first automaton were itself. The two automatons stood entangled in the doorway of their maker’s workshop, swimming in each other’s eyes, cycling eternally in each other’s selves, unable to dislodge themselves as they passed back and forth an explosive thought within their fused heart.

Shlomo’s friend squeezed Shlomo’s wrist, as the city raged orange.

Days later, the animals learned the orangutan was himself born in captivity, and had based his descriptions of astonishing vitality—the same that inspired the desire and audacity in his co-prisoners—on scraps of overheard dialog, or his own limited sense impressions.

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