(Note- this is actually a story idea I had probably a year or more ago- but I was reminded of it during our trip to the zoo today.)
"Auntie... Struh- um, Stre-ga's... Traveling... Men... Men-a..." the little voice grew frustrated.
"Is that even English?" demanded Sallie. At seven (and-a-quarter) years old she was quite proud of her reading skills, and the idea that someone might be sneaking in foreign words to thwart her progress was rankling.
"Yes, sweetie," her mom smiled. "It means a collection of animals."
"Like a zoo?"
"Yes, like a zoo."
"Can we go?"
"Zoo! Zoo!" crowed Zeb from the car seat. He was two, and inordinately fond of words that began with Z. As far as Sallie could tell, Zeb seemed to think that his name somehow gave him exclusive rights to all things Z-related. Furthermore, he had once heard someone refer to pizza as “za”, and ever since had refused to call it by its proper name. It drove Sallie crazy. But then, so did a lot of things about Zeb.
“Very good, honey! Zoo!” Sallie’s mom caught Zeb’s eye in the rearview mirror. He flashed his tiny, fierce teeth at her and laughed. Sallie scowled and poked at one of her front teeth with her tongue. It stayed firmly put. In the front seat her mom shook her head. “Probably not today, Sallie-girl. But maybe this weekend? Daddy might like to come too, you know,”
Sallie perked up at this. Daddy was always more fun to go do stuff with than Mommy- he tended to ‘let things slide’ (as he put it) more often than Mommy ever did- plus he could always be counted on to appreciate what a difficult thing it was to be an older sibling. Mommy (herself the youngest of two) seemed to think it was a great deal more wonderful to be the oldest than it actually was.
“That sounds like a very good idea,” Sallie said.
That weekend turned out to be a very fine one, indeed. The sun was so hot that Sallie could see the air shimmering, but there was enough of a breeze to keep things feeling pleasant. Sallie wore her favorite sun dress (the white-and-purple one that Daddy had brought her from Hawaii) and had allowed Mommy to gather her white-blonde hair up into two high pig-tail. Zeb was stomping along in short brown overalls and an orange t-shirt, an outfit that Sallie herself had picked out for him. Mommy was wearing a dark blue swirly skirt with a white tank-top, and Daddy had on a pair of khaki shorts and a light blue t-shirt with the letters U-S-A-F-A on it in white. All in all, Sallie felt her family was looking quite presentable.
Men-a-ger-ie, she sounded out silently to herself. The banner was strung up on the fence that surrounded the expansive fair grounds. It was normally empty at this time of year (county fair time was still at least a month away) but right now it was filled with an assortment of wagons and brightly-colored shelters. It smelled of straw and animal dung, and every once in a while Sallie could hear a bray or a bark from further in.
She wondered what sorts of animals might be in a menagerie. Would they be exotic, like giraffes and tigers? Or farm animals, like cows and pigs? Not that she would be disappointed with farm animals! Truth be told, Sallie had seen more hyenas in her life than horses, and she knew from television that livestock (unlike their wild kin) were animals you were actually allowed to pet. So either way, she knew she’d have a good time.
Of course, there was always the chance that a menagerie might consists of animals she had never even heard of, but thinking too much about that made her breathless with excitement, so she tried not to get her hopes up.
Daddy paid a bored-looking teenager for their tickets, and the family moved into the fair-grounds.
“Where to first?” asked Mommy, nabbing Zeb by the back of his overalls before he could take off after a pigeon. She was pretty quick that way.
“Well, they didn’t provide us with a map,” Daddy said, “So I guess we’ll have to do this systematically. We’ll start to the left, and keep on ‘til morning!” Sallie felt her eyes get wide.
“Are we going to be here overnight?” she asked.
“No, sweetie,” Mommy made a face at Daddy. “He means we’ll just keep on in that direction until we come back to the beginning. We’ll make a circle around the perimeter,”
“And then tackle the interior!” Daddy concluded. “Now let’s hop to, little soldiers!”
It turned out that a menagerie (or this one, at any rate) had a nice mix of animals- there were clever little monkeys and giant, brilliantly colored birds (Daddy said they were called ‘macaws’, and spent several minutes trying to get one to sing a naughty song with him while Mommy was in the bathroom with Zeb), and even a breath-taking pair of rhinoceroses in one sturdy enclosure. There were also goats and sheep that the children were allowed to pet, in addition to chickens and a few snow-white geese. The geese, in particular, caught Sallie’s attention, although it took her a while to figure out why.
Finally, it struck her- they had blue eyes! She had never thought of birds as having blue eyes before. But sure enough, every one of those geese had baby blue eyes- and once she noticed that, she couldn’t help but notice that all of the other animals had blue eyes, too. From the family of rust-colored foxes to the dark, slippery otters- all of them had eyes of varying shades of blue.
So that’s what makes it a menagerie, she thought to herself.
As they walked back to their car, Zeb started to sing “Zeebie, zeebie, zeeb-rah!” as he swung from their parents’ hands. He had somehow managed to pick up the tune to the naughty song Daddy had been singing earlier, and Daddy was trying to avoid Mommy’s narrow-eyed gaze.
“So, kiddo,” he asked Sallie with a grimace, “What did you think of the menagerie? Good times?” Sallie thought for a moment before answering.
“I… I’m not sure, Daddy,” she said. “They just… most of those animals seemed kind of… sad. Way more sad than animals we’ve seen at the zoo.” Mommy nodded in agreement.
“I noticed that, too, sweetie. Even the monkeys weren’t really playing the way you’d expect them to. I wonder if the proprietors are taking proper care of those animals.”
“Maybe they just don’t like being in a cages,” Daddy offered. “I know it would be more than enough to depress me.”
“Still,” said Mommy. “Maybe I’ll contact someone in the morning, just to make sure.”
But the next morning they forgot all about the traveling menagerie- because the next morning, Zeb had vanished.(Too Sad to Rhyme[noceros])