The Hippocampus and the Menagerie

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At the center of my memory is the image of a horse, a horse the color of orange cream, rearing up, and glancing at me, with an oceanic glint in her eye.  She has wings.  She has fins.  She is fast.  I remember.  She was fast.  Slicing through the water like a ray of sunlight.

So I don’t know how it could have happened.  But I have to do something.

I must free the hippocampus.

There are no guards here. 

There is no need. 

I would not betray the collector.

I will not free the hippocampus.

I’ve resisted the pleas of the others.  I will resist hers as well.

It’s not within my power to free them anyway.  I’m only a servant, a lowly assistant.  I hold no keys.  It is my duty to polish the glass globes.  It is my duty to find a space for any new orb that the collector brings to the chamber.  It is not my duty to listen to the creatures inhabiting the globes.  I don’t serve them.  I serve the collector.  I don’t owe the creatures any debts.  All my debts are owed to the collector.  For what if he hadn’t found me and brought me to his castle, where there is always food in the kitchen, and never muck and grime on the walls of my bedchamber?

***

When first the collector brought me to the chamber, there were only three glass globes.  They were set in alcoves along the wall.  I had thought that they were only static souvenirs at first.  I was startled into hiding behind the collector’s robes when I saw the purple-black tentacles writhing in one of the globes.  The collector coaxed me forth, and I obeyed. 

I stepped toward the globes, each one the size of my head.  The tentacles belonged to a cephalopodic creature with seething bulbous eyes.  A second globe contained a honey-yellow light that flitted against the boundaries of the glass.  Every now and then, the light would grow still, and it would dim, and I would see the figure out a tiny winged mouse within.  The third globe contained a fish that was shaped exactly like a human hand up to the wrist bones.  The finger-like fins fluttered in the globe’s water.

These were not souvenirs.  This was a menagerie.

“They are alive,” I whispered.

The collector instructed me to polish the globes once a day with a polishing potion that he had devised and kept in stock within a cabinet beside the chamber’s entrance.  There too were clean rags for my use.  I asked what and how I should feed the menagerie.  The collector peered down at me through his monocle and informed me that the creatures required no food.  So long as I polished their globes each day, they would survive.  He admonished me to check for cracks in the glass, and if ever I should find any, to fetch him right away.  The creatures would live if they remained in glass.  But if the glass should crack or shatter, most if not all of them, would die.

I obeyed, thinking that the collector would eventually give me other tasks to perform, sweeping the hallways, cooking his meals, tending the garden, and so on.  I didn’t know how to tend a garden, but I hoped he would teach me.  But in the following days, weeks, and months he gave me no other tasks.

I soon came to learn why this was so.

The menagerie grew.  At first it grew each day.  And as it grew, so grew the duration of my labors.  Soon, I was polishing dozens of glass globes a day.  I started after breakfast and would not be done till dinner.  And I would be so tired that I would fall asleep shortly after I ate.

Sometimes I was not so tired that I did not have time to think of my labor, what should have been tedium and drudgery.  But it was not so. 

By the end of my first year with the collector, there were a hundred glass globes in the collection.  Every alcove was full, and some of the globes stood free on the great granite table in the middle of the chamber.

Before I lit the torches in the darkened chamber each morning—for there were no windows—I would let my gaze pass over the globes.  Some of the creatures glowed from within, like fireflies.  Some of the watery creatures would luminesce.  Light of many colors suffused the chamber, glinting off the surfaces of nearby globes.  The creatures slept when I slept.  And I would find some of them already awake and some just beginning to wake. 

I had discovered by chance that if I lit the chamber before going to breakfast, the creatures would be awake and calm when I came to start the day’s polishing.  Before I started that practice, I would find some of the creatures sluggish and grouchy.  And their mood would spread to me.  When I had only a handful of globes to polish, I could tolerate a sluggish start to my day.  But long before there were a hundred, I realized that I had to polish at a spry and steady pace to finish by a decent hour of the evening.

***

Long before there were a hundred globes, one of them reached out to entreat me to release them.  Then another reached out, and another.  They did not speak to me with the speech of sound.  They spoke to me in my dreams when I slept, and then when I went down to polish for the day, they watched me—those who had eyes—or they reached to me—those who had limbs.  And I tried to convince myself of coincidences.  And I succeeded in convincing myself. 

Until the next time I dreamed.

One day, I spoke aloud to one of the globes, the cephalopod whose tentacles banged against the glass so hard that I spent extra time each day checking that globe for cracks. 

“Do you want something?” I asked.  “From me?”

Purple-black tentacles writhed.  I had a notion that the cephalopod was angry.  “You look the color of an eggplant.  Shall I call you ‘Eggplant’?” I teased, recklessly, for I expected the cephalopod to surge forth against the glass in another attempt to tip the globe over. 

Instead, the cephalopod calmed, all tentacles coming to a gentle rest at the bottom of the globe.

I found this quite unsettling.

Deep within, I had realized it.  Long before I had admitted it to my conscious mind, I had witnessed it with my dreaming mind.

These wondrous creatures were not simply creatures.  They were beings with sense and feeling.

***

I asked myself if the collector knew, but I did not ask the collector.

Sometimes when I was at my work of polishing, the collector came within the chamber and took a few globes with him.  Perhaps he was studying the creatures, or loaning them out to be studied.  I asked once, and he said that is indeed what he was doing. 

He did not tell him the aim of his studies.  But they must have revealed what I had just learned.

He surely knew that some of the creatures at least had conscious thinking minds as he did, as I did. 

He surely knew that it would be cruel to hold such beings in captivity, to study them, to trade in them, against their wills. 

He was not cruel to the creatures, not in the way that I would name as cruelty.  He did not jostle them.  The creatures did not bear marks of mistreatment when returned to the chamber.  The collector often returned the globes to their place with a smile and a gentle hand.  And a few times, if it was evening, he even took the polish from me and offered to polish the returned globes himself while I went off to an early dinner.

I mustered the courage once to ask the collector if he planned to release any of the creatures in the menagerie.  After asking, I held my breath.  But the collector did not frown down at me through his monocle.  He did not send me to bed without supper.  He only said that releasing the creatures would be dangerous, certainly to the creatures, but also to me and to him, and any others who might encounter the creatures.

Then he reminded me that soon enough, he would grant me leave to go to town and to finally meet the other inhabitants of the castle. 

I had lived in the castle for half a year by that time.  And no matter what time I went to the kitchen for my meal, there would be no one there.  But there must have been cooks, and they must have just left, for the food was always hot and fresh.  And there must have been other servants—or assistants—for the castle and the grounds were kept clean.  But I never spotted or encountered any other soul besides the collector.  And though I had always preferred to be solitary even when I was very little, I missed the presence of other people—at least the sounds and the sights of other people.  And I longed to walk in the forests to the east of the castle.  Or even to visit the ocean to the west, so close that I could hear the waves crashing at night.

But the collector must have warned all others, as he had warned me, of the dangerous menagerie.  And perhaps he had chosen me to tend to the glass globes because I was not as valuable a servant as a cook or a groundskeeper. 

***

The next day, I broke one of the globes.  I summoned the collector right away and I swore to him that it was an accident.  But afterwards, I wondered…

It was the globe that contained the many-tentacled cephalopod.  One of my oldest friends, Eggplant.  The cephalopod grew to my size, then bigger and bigger—having escaped the mysterious constraints of the globe.  I jumped up on the granite table, careful not to knock over any of the globes.  But tentacles reached around me, and gripped other globes with their suckers.  I felt the muscles in my arms flexing and tightening as if they too were tentacles.  I felt a surge of wrath rising from within me.  I curled my fingers into fists as the tentacles gripped a dozen other globes and raised them in the air. 

But the collector had arrived.  He cried out to the cephalopod, saying it would do no good to smash the globes.  The cephalopod was lucky.  Of all the creatures contained in the collector’s collection, there were few who could survive outside of their globes, and the cephalopod was one of those few. 

The collector offered a bargain.  If no other glass globes were damaged, he would release the cephalopod to return to a dreary existence in the world, instead of aiding the collector in his profound research.  The cephalopod seemed to consider the collector’s words, tentacles frozen in place.  For a heartbeat, I feared that the collector had somehow cast some enchantment to freeze the cephalopod’s motion.  The collector had no such powers to my knowledge, but till that moment, I had not known that the glass globes could constrain its inhabitants’ true size. 

I worried that when the collector said “release,” he meant “kill.”  I longed to ask if I could follow the cephalopod to the ocean beyond the castle walls.   But I expected that the collector was in no mood to grant me any favors.  To my surprise, he ordered me to drag the cephalopod to the ocean.  And when I returned, I was to continue my work of polishing. 

I had never walked beyond the castle grounds before.  I had never been expressly forbidden to.  I had just assumed that I was not to go because I was not allowed to go to town.  But I found a path that led straight to the shores of the ocean, a strange ocean whose waves curled in separate directions.  I had expected the cephalopod to be heavy, but the burden was light and bright. 

A seething rage broiled within my chest, transferred to me, no doubt, from the cephalopod.  But if that rage was the danger that the collector had warned me of, it did not seem to be that great of a danger.  Perhaps if I let myself feel anger sometimes, I might have the courage—or at least the recklessness—to ask the collector all the questions that I never dared ask, for fear that he would perceive them as challenges and not just questions.  For fear that I meant them to be challenges and not just questions.

When I returned to the castle, the collector was waiting in the menagerie chamber.  He informed me of my punishment.  I was to have no food for a week.  My water was to be limited.  I was still to perform my duty.  I feared that by week’s end, I would be so faint from hunger that I would drop another globe.   But I did not. 

I never broke another globe—or another plate or glass or anything—ever again. 

***

Another half a year passed.

One day, the collector entered the chamber bearing new globe containing a most mesmerizing creature.  I had seen a few birds with elaborate plumage.  A peacock once wandered onto the castle grounds, fanning his glorious tail in a futile display.  Parakeets gathered in the trees lining the path that led to the forests east of the castle.  But I had never seen a sea creature bearing such finery.  This creature, floating in blue waters, whose front half appeared like a horse, had a flowing mane the color of tropical waters.  Wing-like fins extended from her back, and instead of back limbs, the back of her body was a long tail bearing branches of flowing fins.  She was the color of orange cream.  Her fins bore large purple spots.  Her body bore dark orange and bright yellow stripes.  And when her black eyes turned toward me, they bore a watery glint.

The collector likely did not go to much trouble to capture this creature.  For with all that ornate “plumage,” the water horse could not have been a fast swimmer.

I gasped, for I felt a sudden and keen emotion that I was certain was not my own.  I felt insulted and fiercely defiant.

The collector took my gasp to be an expression of delight and pleasure.  He handed me the globe and told me to enjoy myself when I polished it. 

As soon as he left the chamber, I heard a voice…

You are human.  What is your name?

…speaking in my mind.  I set down the globe with the water horse and peered at her.

I will not give you my name until you give me yours. 

She was floating in water, contained in glass, and her lips had not moved. 

Don’t you know your own name? she asked.  For I knew that it was she who had asked. 

“Surely, I am imagining it,” I said aloud. 

If you have any imagination left, then I am pleased to hear it.

I backed away from the globe, deciding that I would polish it last.  I was only a third of the way through my polishing for the day.  I moved as far away from the water horse’s globe as I could.

Do you know what kind of creature I am?

Her voice, being in my head, was as clear and loud as it had been when I had stood right next to her.

I am called a ‘hippocampus.’  Have you heard of my kind?

I had not heard of any such creature.  And I did not wish to hear of it then, or ever.

Is there any sense in my entreating you to help free me from this imprisonment?  From across the chamber, her eyes glinted.  And perhaps not only me?

There was no sense in it.  I had freed one creature once and had starved for it.  I bore no ill will toward the cephalopod.  But I had seen how the collector had handled the water horse’s globe.  I knew which creatures he cherished above others. 

***

When I remembered swimming in the ocean, not with hands and feet, but with winged fins, and a long powerful tail undulating behind me, I was not asleep.  It was not a dream.

It was a memory.

I felt no fear of drowning.  I had no delicate lungs to worry over.  The ocean held no darkness for me.  No danger that I could not outrun. 

I was not slow and lumbering.  My fins were not burdensome plumage.  They were like limbs within limbs, spinning and spiraling to drive me through the water.

But I remember too how I had felt the wrath of the cephalopod. 

It had felt like my wrath.

And now, these must have been the memories of the water horse.  But I was remembering them as my memories, even when I was far from the menagerie chamber.

The cephalopod had been strong enough to live outside of the glass globe, long enough to reach the ocean. 

I had never returned to the ocean since the day I carried the cephalopod to freedom.

I had always thought of doing so, but had never done so.

I wondered if the water horse was strong enough to survive outside of the globe.  She could not have been. 

In the days following her arrival to the chamber, she greeted me the same way when I approached to polish her glass prison.

Tell me your name, and I will tell you mine, if you ask.

I did not tell, and I did not ask.

Do you know your name?

“Of course I do,” I said.  I considered telling her that I knew she was trying to influence me with joyful memories of her swimming.  But I wasn’t sure if she was able to share her memories on purpose, or if it was a reflex.  Anyway, the memories were harmless so long as I remembered true hunger.

I would not betray the collector, for I would not betray myself.  And the one led to the other. 

And yet, I began to take extra rolls of bread during meals, and hide them in my chamber.  And I began to take a few blocks of cheese and try stowing them in the coldest place I knew of, the menagerie chamber just inside a stone I had loosened in the farther and coolest corner.  I checked for mice and insects regularly.

***

The next few days, I found myself feeling tired, even as the collector introduced a few more globes.  One of them contained a canary made of gold.  Another contained an entire town upon which sand—not snow—was falling.  I thought I spotted movement within the almost-indistinguishable buildings of the town.  I busied myself with polishing, and tried to ignore the memories.

The memories of the hippocampus were not my memories.  And yet, I never felt so exhilarated, so…blissful. 

It made no sense that I should seek to free her.  If I kept her in the menagerie, whenever she remembered happier times, I would remember them, and I would feel them. 

Yet I found myself on the path leading to the ocean one day, with a glass globe in my arms.  I stopped to pick up the heaviest stone I could find, and I slipped it into the pocket of my robe.  It was a cold day, but the ocean was near. 

I expected the hippocampus to be chattering away at me the whole time, asking me my name, offering me hers, nervously asking me if I meant to free her.  But she was silent the whole way.

When we reached the ocean, I stood in the chill waters as they surged gently toward shore, and I placed the glass globe in the wet sand.  I shook my head at the stone I had picked up, certain it would not break the globe.  I wondered if I should return to the castle, and drop the globe on the stone walkway, perhaps from a height just to be sure.  And then I could carry the hippocampus to the ocean, as I had carried the cephalopod.

But I did not think the hippocampus would be light.  I could not count on coincidences or guesses. 

I raised the stone, and the hippocampus finally spoke.

What will you tell the collector?

I smiled.  “I’ll tell him you entranced me into freeing you.  He’ll believe me.  By his reckoning, I am fairly dim.”

He is wrong.

“Maybe so.  But it’s not a lie really.  You did entrance me.”

I raised the stone and slammed it against the glass globe.  After a few tries, I saw a crack forming, and water leaking out. 

“Brace yourself,” I said to the hippocampus, as I struck the globe one last time, shattering it. 

The hippocampus grew, just as the cephalopod had grown.  She grew to the typical size of a mare, and with a leap and a flutter of her wings, she dove into the water as the tide retreated.  I jumped back as her tail whipped and fluttered past me.  And as her final thought struck me.

My name is Adamaris.

I gasped as the chill waters swept over my feet. 

***

I trudged toward the menagerie chamber.  I had stopped halfway through my polishing to free the hippocampus.  I hoped that the collector would not stop by that day, giving me time to devise a better excuse for explaining why one of his precious globes was missing.

I swept a gaze over the other globes.  Some of the other creatures had entreated me in my dreams to free them.  I owed them to at least face them and explain why I could not free them all.

“Even one,” I said, “even one cannot be missing.  He will know.  How can I possibly free any more?”

Illusion, said a voice.

My eye shifted toward a globe in a high alcove.  I fetched the stool that I kept beside the cabinet full of polishing potion, and climbed up to look at the globe from which I was certain the voice had come.

Within the globe was a fish shaped like a human hand. 

I can create illusions to fool the collector.

“Have you spoken to me before?” I asked.

I sensed laughter.  Yes, but you’d forgotten how to listen.  She reminded you, didn’t she?

Other voices murmured in the chamber. 

There is a problem though, the hand-fish said.  I can no longer see.  And I need to see to create my illusions.  I once had eyes that saw what does not exist and cannot exist, or what once existed but is nevermore.  My eyes could see beyond what the eyes of other creatures could see, but I was separated from them.

“Do you know where they are?”

The hand-fish fluttered from side to side, and I took that to mean that she didn’t.

I descended from the stool and began to search the room.  I polished every orb every day.  I knew there was no pair of eyes in the chamber.   But I also knew that there were many pairs of other things in the chamber.  And I found one of them, a floating pair of orbs that turned amorphous when I approached, like a pair of amoebae.  Then they formed into pyramids.  Then one became a cone, and the other a cube.  And all the while they were shifting color and texture.  Purple scales became black fur became orange wrinkles. 

I fetched both globes and put them next to each other on an empty space on the granite table.  The amorphous pair of things could not speak—either to me or to the hand-fish.  I could not confirm that they belonged together. 

My heart began to throb.  I had planned for days before freeing the hippocampus.  I had acted as if on a whim, but in truth, I had thought of it for days.  I had hidden food and practiced acting confused and dumb when caught by the collector. 

But it was a true whim that drove me back to the path leading to the ocean with two glass globes in my arms. 

***

I set the globes in the water.  I slammed my stone against the glass, breaking both globes easily now. 

Swirling in the water, both creatures did indeed come together, and they surprised me by transforming into a different creature altogether, a worm or serpent with glittering glass scales and glowing eyes that shifted between all the colors that there were in the world.  

The serpent bowed to me and thanked me.  And then she instructed me to hold up a handful of sand, close my eyes, and think of the glass globe that had contained the hippocampus.  This I did, and I felt the sand squirming on my palm, and when I opened my eyes again, I held a replica of the glass orb containing the hippocampus.  It was perfect, down to the glint in the water horse’s eye.  I set down the orb and picked up another handful of sand.  And the illusion worm created the two glass globes I had just taken from the chamber.  The hand-fish.  The amorphous pair of things.

I will return to this shore, once every morning, to help creature illusions of any more globes that you bring out, the illusion worm said, before descending into the water. 

***

I carried the false globes back to the castle.  They were much lighter than the real globes, though still unwieldy.

I had had enough of whims for one day.  With my heart still pounding, I resumed my work of polishing.  A few voices pleaded for me to free them next.

“If the illusion works,” I said, “I will heed your pleas.  I will try to free you too.  But you must be quiet, and let me calm down and speak to the collector should he visit today.”

The collector did not visit.  In the beginning, he would make daily rounds and ask for my accounting of the chamber’s contents.  But he had come to trust me, or perhaps he trusted my fear of punishment.

The following day, he did come.  He glanced around the chamber and asked for my accounting of the contents.  I bowed and told him all was well, as I always did.  And had I polished each globe, he asked.  And I told him that it was so.  He told me that there may be a new globe arriving soon, and that I should ready a space for it. 

Then he left.

I heard sighs of relief from some of the globes, but I myself was not convinced that I had managed to fool the collector.

Indeed, I began to spin dark scenarios.

He may have seen through the illusion and deigned it necessary to devise a more profound punishment than a reprimand and a week without food.  He may have been so enraged by my attempt to fool him—to make a fool of him—that reason and unreason both were overwhelmed, and he was left with only empty calm.  An empty calm that would soon be filled with vengeful wrath. 

Before, I would have worried and brooded in my bedchamber.  Now, I spoke my fears aloud to the glass globes.  They needed my help.  But perhaps they could help me too, as the illusion worm and the hippocampus had helped me.  And even the cephalopod, by showing me the way to the ocean for the first time.

“How may I discover if he was truly fooled?” I asked.   “Or if I have just doomed myself to worse than a lifetime of servitude to a careless master?”

Uncertainty is the only certainty in our situation, the glowing winged mouse said. 

She was right. 

And though I was wavering, as if I still had the choice to continue as I was, I had already decided.  My conscious mind just had to catch up to my decision.

I would free every creature who wished to be freed.  After that, I would free those who could not speak.  I would reunite any who needed reunion. 

In the following days, I smuggled out more and more globes, freeing the creatures within into the ocean, and bringing back illusion globes to replace them.

The first time I returned to meet the illusion worm, I was greeted by an old friend.

“Eggplant!” 

The tumultuous tide seethed with the movement of her tentacles, but they did not move with wrath. 

She warned me to be careful of the collector.  And she offered to return with me to fight him if need be.  I feared for her if she should return to the castle.  But the offered gave me heart all the same.

Soon, I was greeted at the shore each morning, not just by the illusion worm and the cephalopod, but by other creatures whom I had freed: a braggadocious turtle whose shell was the color of a twilight sky, an argumentative two-headed porpoise, a silent sea scorpion whose exoskeleton was black from claw to tail tip, and that glowing winged mouse, among many others.  They all offered their help.

Each such reunion bolstered the strength of my will.  Each such reunion filled me with solidarity. 

But I noted one absence.

The hippocampus. 

I searched the distant waters for her each morning, but never saw her.

***

The collector did not seem to notice that his collection was vanishing.

After I freed them all, I too would have to vanish.  I had asked if any of the freed beings could carry me to another place.  But none could do it.  They each had their talents and powers, and freely offered to me what they could.  But they could not offer what they did not have.  And none of them had the strength to carry me.

I did not understand why this was so, only that it was so.

The more creatures I freed, the more talents I gained.  I soon learned the languages of all the creatures, and none were silent to me.  I learned to observe the creatures who were returned after the collector studied them.  I had thought they bore no marks of mistreatment.  But I was wrong.  I learned to see the marks. 

The first time the collector took one of the illusion globes for study, I braced myself to be discovered.  I had learned how to hear the collector coming long before he reached the menagerie chamber.  I stayed ready, but when he returned the globe, he only seemed puzzled and disappointed. 

The illusion held.

***

One day, I freed the golden canary, and after I did, I felt a sudden burden on my wrists and ankles.  I was shackled and chained.  The canary told me that she had seen the shackles from the moment she entered the chamber, but until I freed her, she could not reveal them to me.

Now I understood why the collector never feared that I would escape.

Even as I felt dread settle in my stomach, I felt calm in my mind.

I decided to tell the menagerie to leave at last, after I freed the last one.  I was shackled, but they were not.  And knowing they were free, that I had foiled the collector’s plans, whatever they might be, would help me to bear whatever punishment he wrought on me when he finally discovered my ruse.  He most certainly would, in time.

***

I freed the last creature, and then I checked all the globes to make sure that I had not forgotten any one.  They were all illusion now.

Then, I returned to the beach one last time.  I would stay the night.  I would be there in the morning when they came.  I would speak my thanks and my farewells.

I sat on the sand with my knees drawn to my chest, letting the water push me and swirl around me.

There was one fear left within me.  One creature I feared I would not see again.

Resigned, resolved, I asked, “Adamaris, where are you?”

My eyes grew wide as I spoke the name aloud. 

Of course! I thought, as I realized where Adamaris was.  As I remembered who Adamaris was.  I rose to my feet.

“Here,” I said.  “I’m right here.”

It was midday.

The sea began to broil with the coming of my menagerie. 

I sensed him approaching from behind.

I turned, and the shackles on my wrist sprung open and fell to the sand. 

I stepped toward him, and the shackles on my ankles sprung open and fell behind.

I stepped toward the collector.

And there was fear in his eyes.

I did not glance behind me.  I knew they were all there.  The cephalopod, the illusion worm, the black scorpion, the golden canary, the winged mouse.

The hippocampus.

 

Copyright © 2020  Nila L. Patel

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