The reporter was there to cover the construction of the wall, he told me, but he told me this at the zoo, where he came almost every afternoon. You don't have to keep paying, I said, as he took his wallet out one Wednesday by the ticket stand, already about to start moving his lips as he counted the currency. No, no, it's not a problem, he said, fingering through the coins in his palm, but I had already stepped back, too far for him to give me the fare. The animals are dying, I said, this is not a business.
Aren't you going to ask me about the wall? I asked him. He shook his head. Whenever you try to speak our language you look miserable, I said, and yet I suspect that in your own language you're an optimist. What do you want to tell me about the wall? he said, looking as miserable as ever. If you want, I said, I could say things like: it is nice to think that all the construction will end, and that we will be able to begin to pretend the wall's not there. You could write this down.
That evening I took the long way past the lioness's cage, walking faster than she paced, which was very fast these days. I had to use both hands to carry the bucket of food for the buzzards, which was heavy and rank. I thought we should let them go, but the bird woman insisted—over the phone, long since emigrated—that this would be dangerous for them. They are dangerous for us, I said, and told her that my pinky nail had never grown back. You shouldn't have touched them, she said. He touched me, I said.
That wasn't how it happened, not really: I had come upon Ephraim as he stood by the cage, as he liked to, cooing to those huge things, softly fingering a red gobble. The only lover of vultures, I said, and he ran a feather along my cheek. When I reached toward the bird myself it lurched, blood everywhere. Ephraim was the quickest, putting my finger in his mouth. It was that day that I noticed he was just shorter than I am, and I am not tall. A small man, I thought then and years later, when I found him at the black market after an air raid, ersatz coffee spilled over his red chest. No one at the zoo believed that I'd carried him back myself, but I told them: he's small.
The reporter came to the zoo to see me, I knew this after only a week, he always found me wherever I was, mucking or just sitting and listening to the lioness brush against the bars. I wanted him to say, I brought you something, although when he brought me things, I neither kept them nor sold them, always gave them away. Come, I said to him, and we went to the tree above the snow leopard's cage. In the twilight the snow leopard got whiter and whiter. If I dropped a leaf through the webbing her tail lashed for minutes. The reporter and I made love there, in the crook, uncomfortably, doing a lot of work with our hands. She hardly moves, he said of the snow leopard when it was dark, now she lay, not quite sleeping. She is probably dying, I said, or at least, she is starving. It would be kinder just to kill her, he said. Almost everyone says that, I said, sliding my nailless pinky into my mouth, a new habit.
Ephraim had said other things, in the bat house, in the air raids. As soon as the sirens started, he would pull me down there, through the inner door, the bats already frantic against the glass. They'll take out our eyes, I said. Close your eyes, he said, and the wings hit and hit.
The reporter took pictures of all the empty cages. Would you like me to make them look more poignant? I said. How? he asked, his surprise not unlike happiness. No, no, I said, I can't, that was my point. You were making a joke, he said, sounding disinterested, trying to decipher the placard about the natural habitat of the zebra.
The lioness is named for you, he said. No, I said, it is a very common name. I haven't heard it before, he said, and added, She likes you. Even though he was there, she was licking my forearm with her rough tongue, as she did in the afternoons, if I stood close to the bars for a while. She likes salt, I said, and she knows I like her.
And it is a common name, I added, you just only know the two of us.
Later, he said: I don't like your language because I learned the wrong dialect. Before I came. I learned the dialect for over there, he said, the wrong side of the wall. He shook his head.
I think he thought I would laugh, but I didn't, just to see him look surprised.
One day as we passed what had been the rhinoceros cage, he said, as though he had often thought of it, There was a rumor they were used in the war. Led charging into the enemy troops, through a side street, into the marketplace. But they couldn't distinguish between the troops, of course, so it was a bloodbath, people say. Yes, I said softly: None of them survived. Don't tell me it was true, he said, that didn't really happen. Everything you've heard about me is true, I said, but I said it in the other dialect, the one I thought would make him more comfortable. He didn't seem to notice, nor did he laugh.
"Cage" is one in a series of pieces on journalists & journalism. Others may be found [here] and [here].