For The First Time

       It couldn’t have been summer, because I’ve been to the zoo during the summer and it’s awful. It’s hot and busy, the smells amplified and crowded. That doesn’t fit into this memory, so it must have been during the spring or fall. The seasons seemed less abrasive then, but I was eight and had other things to worry about.
       I remember waking up excited, as I already knew the day’s plans. My mother had set aside the day for just the two of us. We were going to cross the river into DC to visit the National Zoo, one of my favorite places back then. The animals were amazing to me. I loved them and the trips my mind took as a child were often filled with them. I wanted to know what they were thinking, where they found the power they seemed to have so much of.
        We crossed the bridge, parked and made straight for the Invertebrate House. It had become our standard first stop after a memorable visit the year before in which the giant octopus that was housed there attempted a great escape. We had been standing in the near darkness watching the octopus pluck morsels of squid and crab from a jar that a handler had dropped into its habitat. In the middle of the feeding the huge creature suddenly abandoned the jar and began lumbering out of its tank, using its suction-cups on the glass. It nearly made it over the edge before the keepers could get a broom and push it back into the water. As someone who spent most meals waiting to be excused, the octopus had since become something of a hero to me.
       The thrill of the attempted escape was fresh in my mind as my mother and I wandered through the different rooms, admiring the orb weavers and the leaf-cutter ants and saying hello to the beloved octopus. I remember standing in front of a large backlit aquarium full of glowing jellyfish. All of my young thoughts were taken completely apart by the movements of those spectral creatures.
       Next, we made our way to see the reptiles. I am sure of this, because the Great Cats exhibit is still located along the path to the Reptile House. Usually the lions and tigers stay out of sight during the day, leaving little to entertain. We walked past each habitat, looking in to see if we could spot one.
       I heard the sound of the tiger before I saw him. He was making a sound that was horrible and guttural, that developed and grew from his middle. He trotted around the enclosure, sounding as though he wished very badly to roar, but was in too much pain to allow it. It wasn’t until after the sound had fully affected me that I realized how old the tiger was. He was thin, his coat a worn rug draped over his protruding ribs. His enormous head looked like it had been made for a different animal. My mother and I had stopped completely, absorbed in the beast’s struggle. I remember reaching for my mother’s hand, but not finding it. I turned to my mother, looking for her hand to hold. I found it, and turned back to the tiger to find it lying on its side, dead.