How Peter Found His Purpose

Submitted into Contest #242 in response to: Write about an art thief who is struggling to commit the perfect heist.... view prompt

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Fiction

“Look at them,” Peter said, “They mock us.”

Po sat next to Peter but didn’t respond. Instead, he arched his back into a stretch and yawned. After scratching his stomach, he reached down and grabbed a lush bamboo branch and stuck it in his mouth. He crunched down on the shoot and then looked up at the brilliant sun, appreciating how it heated the stone platform he sat on to a comfortable warmth. 

Peter stood rigid at the edge of the platform, his front paws curled over the side as he leaned over the edge, teasing a fall down the grassy slope to the thick bamboo forest below. Small dirt footpaths carved their way through its shaded interior and one led to a clear pond on the other side of the enclosure which was fed by a bubbling stream. This is where Pam liked to be when it was hot and humid and she swam through the water, kicking her yellow and red ball along with her. 

“Po?” Peter asked, “Are you listening?”

Po looked down at Peter, wondering what all the fuss was about. He followed Peter’s gaze to to eastern viewing platform and all the people that gathered there behind a thick wall of glass. Po sighed. If any panda was supposed to be comfortable around people, it should have been Peter. Both Po and Pam were rescues from the East after their home was destroyed by deforestation while Peter was born here, in the zoo. Yet it was Peter who spent so much of his time caring about what the people did when Po and Pam tuned them out. 

Po grabbed another bamboo branch and offered it to Peter.

“Come,” he said, "sit and share a snack with me.”

Peter didn’t move. His brown eyes darted between the people on the platform. Po shrugged and nibbled at the leaves of the branch he was holding.

“Don’t mind them, Peter,” he said as he chewed, “They will always be there. Don’t be their prisoner. Enjoy the day. Enjoy being a Panda.”

Po lay back and let the sun warm his big, furry belly. The people pointed and awed. Po closed his eyes and fell asleep with a smile on his face, holding a half-eaten bamboo branch to his chest.

* * * *

Peter jumped off the stone platform and rolled—head over butt—down the slope (a maneuver he coined as the “Panda Roll”). The people laughed, a cackling sound he detested and when he reached the bottom, he ran to the concealment of a large bush and hid there. Through the branches and leaves, Peter’s focus bounced between the people, observing the colorful clothing they wore before looking down at his plain black-and-white fur. An anxious feeling of self-conscious awareness built in his gut.  

If I could just get my paws on some of that color, maybe they would stop laughing at me.

Peter always had a fascination with color, though he never knew where this interest came from. Even as a cub, he was always scheming to snatch colorful items away from the zookeepers. First, there was Ted’s big, yellow hat. Ted was tall, so Peter made a mess in his enclosure and, when Ted bent over to clean it up, Peter ran up to him and swiped the hat from his head. Ted quickly grabbed it back, but Peter held onto it with surprising strength until it ripped. 

There was Susanne’s pink-beaded anklet. Peter got her to lower her guard by acting playful and, when he saw an opportunity to do so, wrapped himself around her ankle with a cuddly hug. Susanne laughed and waddled with him attached to her leg. By the time she figured out what he was up to, it was too late. Peter wedged a claw beneath the anklet’s string and pulled. It snapped, sending beads flying in all directions. 

Then, there was John, who wore blue, high-top sneakers. He was always careful around Peter but Peter was patient. He hid in the tall bushes, waited for John to turn his back, and then got his Panda Roll going. He built up speed and knocked into the back of John’s leg, making it buckle and sending John to the ground. Before John could get up, Peter was tugging at one of his sneakers, leaving deep scratches on its glossy surface. 

Despite his schemes, Peter never succeeded in getting what he wanted. The zookeepers always took back what he tried to steal and that only made him crave what they had even more. He just wanted to add a little color to his dull body, as the people did, yet this desire was always just outside his reach. 

“Do not let your desires get the better of you,” Po had told him once, “They are dark masters. Be content with being simple.”

But Peter rarely listened to Po and Pam's advice was just as vague. 

The current Zookeeper was Jane. She was nice and had beautiful red hair that hung down to her shoulders. Peter could spot her through the bamboo trees way before she could see him and his eyes were always drawn to her vibrant shirts. He desired to have one, but every time he made a move at her, Jane was always one step ahead of him. If Peter tried to drop on her from a tree, she would step out of the way at the last moment and he would thud to the ground. If he tried Panda Roll her, she would hop over him and he would go rolling off into the brush. 

“Oh, Peter,” She would say, “You’re so goofy.” 

After each failed attempt, Peter would run off to plan his next attack, eyeing Jane from a distance.

Today, he left a large bamboo stick in the middle of one of the footpaths, hoping that she would trip over it so he could make his move. However, his plan failed when Po passed by and saw the bamboo lying on the ground.

"No, Po, don't take that!" Peter cried, "Don't. . . "

But Po grabbed the bamboo in his mouth and walked off to his eating spot without a care in the world about what Peter was growling at him for. This is when Jane happened to walk by. She saw Peter in a fluster and said, “Oh Peter, Peter, Peter. What is it that you want?"

Peter ran away from her but tripped over a loose root and tumbled. The people on the platform laughed and Peter felt hot anger build at the back of his neck.

"Come on, Peter," Jane said, "Let's play!" 

But Peter ran off through the forest until he found himself up on the stone platform, sitting next to Po.

“I just want to be colorful like them!” he said, “Why am I cursed to want what I can’t have?”

Po chewed as he thought, staring off into the distance yet looking at nothing in particular. He held that pose for a long time, letting the light breeze tickle his coarse fur.

“Art is always in the eye of the beholder,” he said, “Some dedicate their lives to a craft. Others steal.”

Peter rolled his eyes and shook his head. Po chuckled and passed him a shoot. 

“Come, eat with me. The sun is especially warm today.”

“I don’t want your dang shoots. I don’t want to sit up here doing nothin’ all day. I want that shirt. I want to be colorful! Not the dull black-and-white thing that I was born as. The people laugh at my simple appearance. It’s so embarrassing!”

Po scratched his stomach and sighed. 

 “They serve their purpose, and we serve ours.”

“Well, I don’t want to sit around and nap all day.”

Po chuckled and placed a bamboo branch between his rear canines, held it there for a second, and then bit down to the tune of a satisfying crunch. Oh, how he loved that sound. He looked down at the pond and saw Jane and Pam passing the ball back and forth. Po smiled, finished chewing, and said, “You’ll figure it out one day, young cub.” 

Peter shook his head and watched Jane as she played with Pam. Her shirt was a deep violet today, which complemented her hair, ever so beautifully. Peter could not take his eyes off her.

I must have it! he thought. 

He waited until she was away from Pam and then he got up and walked over to her with a playful smile. Jane looked at him, laughed, and said, “It’s about time you come out of hiding.” 

Peter continued at her with a steady pace. Jane knelt with her arms out wide. 

“Let’s play!” she said.

Peter suddenly quickened and lunged at her with his paws, knocking her over. Jane cried out in surprise as she thudded to the ground. Before she knew what was happening, Peter grabbed her shirt in his mouth and tugged. He underestimated how light she was and jerked her body toward him. The people on the platform screamed but Peter kept tugging. Jane’s face twisted with horror.

“Peter, Stop!” she cried. 

She pushed against his head as the shirt stretched to an impossible length, exposing the pale flesh of her stomach. 

"Give it to me!" Peter growled.

He suddenly felt himself hoisted up by the back of the neck. Pain shot through him, making him let go of the shirt before he felt his body flying through the air. He hit the ground hard and tumbled until he was stopped by a tree. Peter quickly got to his feet, shook himself off, and wheeled about to see Po standing between him and Jane. Behind him was Pam who tended to Jane.

“No, Peter!” Po growled, “Not okay.”

Peter sat and stared. It was during this momentary pause that Peter’s desires lifted and he saw what he did. Jane was crying. The people on the platform murmured among themselves. Po and Pam were angry with him. 

What have I done? 

Jane sat up and hugged Pam’s wet neck before getting to her feet and walking with Pam to the exit of the enclosure. All of it was too much and Peter hid the rest of the day. 

He didn't see Jane for the rest of the week and someone else filled in for her who kept his distance from Peter. Peter said little to Po or Pam. Instead, he sat by the pond and stared at his black and white reflection that rippled upon its surface - brown eyes drooping.

Why am I this way? he thought. 

Pam kicked her ball to him a couple of times, but Peter didn’t touch it. He was in his own world, a furry ghost.

The next morning, when it was time to leave the sleeping quarters, Peter stayed behind, not wanting to move. Despite the zookeepers doing their best to get him out, he stayed put, so they let him be and brought some bamboo for him to munch on, though he didn't eat much. Instead, he stared up through the skylight window and at the clear sky beyond. That night he dreamed he was up there, amid an endless sea of vibrant blue.

When he awoke, he found Jane standing nearby. The moment he saw her he immediately sat up but kept his gaze low, unable to look her in the eye and afraid to acknowledge the pretty green shirt she was wearing. She knelt beside him and said, “I figured it out, Peter. I know what you want.” 

She led Peter out of his enclosure and he followed her down the hall into another room where there was a large canvas perched on a stand. Beside it was a long plank of wood with different color paints and a metal pale of water. Jane sat Peter down in front of the canvas. 

"Look," she said as she stuck her hand in blue paint and slid it over the blank canvas, leaving behind a streak of color. 

Peter’s eyes widened with amazement. He immediately stuck his paw in green paint and copied Jane’s movement, leaving a green streak under the blue that reminded him of a skyline.

“And when you are done with that color, do this.” Jane dipped her blue hand in the water bucket and scrubbed it clean. Then she stuck her hand in the red paint and placed it on the canvas, leaving behind a handprint. Peter stared, washed his paw, and copied her movement except he used the yellow paint. Jane laughed.

"That can be your autograph," she said but Peter wasn't listening.

His hands moved with minds of their own, mixing and spreading colors for hours until the canvas had nowhere else to paint. When he was done, he looked at what he created. It was an explosion of color.

“It’s beautiful,” said Jane. 

Peter smiled. 

March 22, 2024 01:10

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