By Elizabeth Luce
Zelda was born with the glorious dream of creating a zoo filled with rare animals, and by age eight, was well on her way with three long-haired hamsters, a nest of baby mice, a chinchilla, a cat, two newts, two parakeets, an aquarium of fish, a bowl of turtles, an iguana, and a box of dirt containing pill bugs. It baffled her parents as to how this had happened. If asked in advance if they would have allowed it, the answer would have been an emphatic “no.” And yet there they were, their home the hub of the neighborhood petting zoo. Zelda was in a holding pattern until she could fill her future zoo with aardvarks, long-legged maned wolves, baby pygmy hippos, deer mice, anaconda pythons, and her favorite, the peaceful, wild-haired orange orangutans. The latter would be rescued orphans, lovingly raised; each with his, or her, own kitten, of course. Wild animal collector, animal behaviorist, and owner of a special zoo; Zelda’s path lay before her like the yellow brick road to Oz.
Zelda had a pet cemetery. This was necessary in her line of work. As needed, she made the requisite funerary preparations, with the small corpse swaddled in a brightly colored fabric scrap, specially chosen to match the occupant’s personality. She would include a piece of paper–written in indelible ink–containing care and feeding instructions, as well as mystery hieroglyphs carefully copied from the encyclopedia. Her long-suffering father, the appointed gravedigger, dug the grave. He found this annoying, not because of the labor–he was a wiry, strong man, but because Zelda embalmed each of her creatures in a glass jar filled with vinegar. Because of this, he felt obliged to dig an exceedingly deep hole, in case he ever wanted to plant a tree over the cemetery.
Zelda buried not only her own animals, but also the gifts of headless moles left by the cat under the breakfast chair, the baby squirrel that plummeted to its death from the top of a tree, and once, a jar of rain-drowned earthworms. Zelda had a tender, yet scientific heart.
Aquatic creatures, however, received a burial by sea. Buttons, the Tyrannosaurus Rex of Tiny Turtles, being one. Quite a crowd assembled for this burial. As word got out, more and more neighborhood children squeezed into the tiny half bath. It’s unknown what Zelda’s father, who frequently had to use the plumber’s snake, thought of flushing a whole turtle down the toilet. As a scientist and engineer, it’s possible that he had already made Spock-like calculations, figuring that the volume and shape of the corpse, combined with the object’s trajectory and the pipe diameter, were sufficient for the task. Or, he simply may not have known what was taking place.
All Creatures Great and Small was the hymn of choice.
Zelda asked Father Bernard if her animals would be in Heaven with her. A pragmatic man, he informed her that “only man has a soul,” so “no.” This threw Zelda into a tailspin of an existential crisis. However, soon pulling her theological biplane up and out of its fall, and regaining the aerial glide of reason, she had an epiphany; everything with a nervous system has a soul. The size of the soul matched the size of the nervous system. A banana slug had a soul, a teeny-tiny one, a spark compared to a human’s incinerating orb of fire–or that of an elephant’s. The facts were obvious: upon death, all souls go back to the same energy pool, and finally, each soul would meet its true end once entropy had drained it to a final sputter. At which point the soul would pop out of the universe. Zelda had recently learned about entropy in science class.
With the change of religious philosophy came a change in burial styles. Pseudo Judeo Christian/Ancient Egyptian was replaced with Uninformed Buddhism. The emphasis was now on reincarnation and rapid disintegration of the flesh, rather than its preservation. Standing in front of the dumpster, Zelda wore her saffron orange T-shirt, and improvised a loud and thrilling blessing over the body contained in a disposable box strapped shut with Scotch tape. There was a butterfly drawn in felt pen on the lid, symbolizing reincarnation. Inside lay the corpse, gently wrapped in paper towels, and including a fortune from a Chinese cookie. Then, into the dumpster it all went; the soul sent on its way, and the ashes-to-ashes/dust-to-dust process begun. Incineration, in the form of a Viking funeral pyre in the habachi, had been vetoed by her parents.
However, the cycle of life and death is not always simple, and the day arrived when there was a true slaughter, one perpetrated by a loveable, but demented, serial killer. Afterwards, not a single corpse remained to be disposed of. As it turned out, Zelda, unbeknownst to anyone, had pulled off an unheard-of feat of legerdemain when she pocketed a young meerkat from the zoo. That night, not only had the furry fury ripped apart the mealworm container, scattering and crunching his way through the contents like a drunken man on a tilt-a-whirl, he had also dragged a leaking bag of bird seed throughout the house, released the crickets, chewed on the Cheetos, and, sadly, demolished the newts. Zelda told her parents that she had forgiven Killer (he now had a name) and so should they. But they did not. He was transported in a heavily armored vehicle–the family station wagon–back to high security lock-up.
Eventually, there came a turn in the direction of Zelda’s path of passion. A slight one really, like a fully loaded aircraft carrier shifting two degrees.
For you see, it was love at first sight, that taxidermy Chihuahua in the Mexican Restaurant. Once Zelda’s eyes locked on the decrepit beast, she would never eat at any other restaurant. She begged to be seated close to “Old Yeller,” as she called him. The thing was bald in spots, with one eye dangling from a string, but to Zelda, it was beautiful. She munched her burrito, bean-goo bursting from the end, while staring blissfully into its lone implanted glass eye.
Zelda asked for Old Yeller as a birthday present. Once her special day arrived, she stared in disappointed rage at the Barbie Malibu Mansion she had received instead.
It was during this seminal period that Zelda came upon the perfectly intact body of a roadkill squirrel. Using the kitchen dish gloves and salad tongs, she retrieved the body and placed it under wraps in the freezer, labeling it “WORK IN PROGRESS. DO NOT TOUCH.” Next, she devoured the taxidermy section of the encyclopedia. She found even more to study in the library, for there, in the row of Boy Scout Handbooks, was a slim volume on Taxidermy, misplaced between Bee Keeping and Book Binding.
The day finally came when Zelda thawed out her squirrel and began the process of Proximal Reanimation, using the supplies from her hitherto untouched Princess Jewelry Kit, as well as her mother’s small, sharp toenail scissors. When she presented the completed project to her parents, they were both appalled and impressed with the lumpy stuffed squirrel. They were also immobilized with indecision about how to proceed, but Zelda wasn’t. This was FUN! She carried on, boiling corpses and reassembling skeletons and skin. Her skills increased. It wasn’t long before she was creating complex scenarios, such as a fox (what a find!) pouncing on a mouse. This thrilling scenario included backgrounds painted on cardboard. Her parents bought a second freezer so they could keep their dinner steaks separate.
For Show and Tell at school, Zelda brought in her best work to date; a diorama of the Sistine chapel. Here, lit by the angelic glow of a flashlight, two squirrels reached out to each other, tiny digits almost, but not quite, touching. God Squirrel hung by clear filaments from the top of the box, surrounded by diapered cherub mice. Adam Squirrel reclined on a bed of blue-fabric sky below.
Zelda was suspended from school for the rest of the week, which was fine by her. She had plenty to do with her time.