A muggy summer night broods over the city. The stars are shining clear, no moon to overpower their glimmering. Tonight, no wash of light rises from the ground, either.
Cars crawl slower than walking along unusually dark streets, local drivers struggling to see with only their own headlights. The lanterns on the lampposts cast no incandescence.
Inside buildings, groping hands flip unresponsive switches, then search for flashlights, matches, lighters, candles. The opening of refrigerator or freezer doors is prohibited.
For the people in frozen elevators, the time spent waiting powerlessly for the power to come back on stretches interminably.
A girl sits with her back wedged into a corner, head down, eyes closed, focusing on just breathing in the dark. I am not going to die here. People do not die from being stuck in an elevator during a blackout. That would be a headline, wouldn’t it? Elevator Found Full of Corpses.
“Since we’re stuck here…”
The girl’s head jerks up, and her eyes open to see only darkness. We all know that we’re stuck. Unless you got service on your phone and can call for help, or you can turn the power back on, can you just leave me in peace to deal with my panic attack?
“…we might as well talk to each other. You know, to pass the time.”
Someone’s phone flashlight snaps on, pointing at the cowering girl and blinding her like in a cheesy interrogation-room scene. I wish they would turn it off. It’s easier to pretend I’m somewhere else when I can’t see where I really am. But maybe not seeing scares them more than seeing scares me.
The light shifts to point at the ceiling. Now the girl can study the person forcing her to see the metal box she’s trapped in. He’s got a scruffy blond beard, and blond hair sticking out from under his backwards baseball cap. His face is ruddy, maybe sunburned. Sweat darkens the armpits of his white T-shirt.
Setting his phone on the floor and settling back against the wall in a crouch, he says, “My name’s Norris.”
“I’m Josie.” The young woman’s black, curly hair stands out from her head like a halo. Silver buttons flash on her denim jacket as she leans into her corner opposite the cowering girl and folds her arms. Then Josie and Norris both pin their gazes on the elevator’s third occupant.
She works a piece of paper out of her pocket and holds it up so they can read it. My name is Lucia. I am mute. Then she presses her face against her drawn-up knees, shutting out sight. Her brown ponytail slides off her back and down one shoulder. She has a phone, she could type it all out and have the automated voice say it for her, but she just doesn’t want to. This has got to be Norris and Josie’s fault. I got on the elevator first, but they had to stop it at other floors to get on, and that slowed it down, and now I’m stuck here.
“I went to the zoo today,” Norris volunteers, glancing at Lucia. No reaction. “What about you, Josie?”
“Actually, I was at the zoo today, too. That free one.”
Norris nods and sits forward eagerly. Light and spoken words are taking his attention away from the constricting shadows. “Yeah, that’s the one I’m talking about. Did you see the lions?”
“Yes! They’re beautiful animals.” Josie frowns. “But it’s sad to see them trapped like that.”
Lucia lifts her head. I was at the zoo today, too. The lions didn’t do much, just sat there.
“Why is it sad? Aren’t they happy, getting to just sleep all day, never having to get up and do anything?” Norris asks.
Josie purses her lips, thinking. How to answer? “Resting and sleeping is part of normal lion behavior, but that’s not all they do. Lions are hunters. They need exercise. It’s not healthy for them to just sit around all day.”
“You mean, they get fat?”
“That’s one problem,” Josie says with a nod. Her feet hurt from her long day of walking, so she slides down her corner and crosses her legs. “In the wild, lions get exercise while hunting and traveling to water. In a zoo, water is right there, dead food gets thrown to them, and they’re stuck in one place all the time.”
I wonder what they’re doing right now… Lucia tips her head back to look at the illuminated ceiling of the elevator. I guess the blackout won’t affect them much.
* * * * * * * *
Within walls, great tawny feline heads are tipped back. One head is adorned with a multitude of long, wiry hairs. This thick mane would defend the lion’s neck and throat from the claws and teeth of adversaries, if he had any. This male has never had a serious fight for life and pride, and he probably never will. He was born in captivity, to parents who had also never been free, and so were his female companions. They have always known the walls, but seldom have they seen stars of any kind.
The stars are shining now, brighter than memory records. For such a long time there have been few, if any, points of glittering light in the sky.
Moving, blinking lights with a distant call, yes.
The light of the moon, yes.
Hazy light thrown up from the ground, yes.
The shining of innumerable points of light in the sky, no. For this lion and his lionesses, this is something new.
Gazing heavenwards with round pupils expanded, their golden irises are reduced to fine rings. This may be new to these great cats, but it is something ancient as well. Their ancestors have always seen stars in the night sky. Different stars in different skies, on different nights.
Nights full of waving, swishing grass, brown or green in daylight, gray in the darkness no matter the season.
Skies of clear blue, or gray rain clouds stretching beyond sight.
Stars scattered across a wide, dark dome, fading into the distance.
Within the walls inside the city, there have always been boundaries.
Night has always been noisy and bright.
The sky has always been a square overhead.
The stars have appeared in all their glory for the first time.
Author’s note: This story was inspired by a poem I greatly enjoy.
The Greater Cats
By Victoria Sackville-West
The greater cats with golden eyes
Stare out between the bars.
Deserts are there, and different skies,
And night with different stars.