Three surprising women, their lives riven by divorce both literal and metaphorical: Ellen Clayton, reeling from her husband’s decision to leave her after twenty years, finds meaning in caring for her teenage daughters and in her work as the veterinarian at the New Orleans Zoo. Her young assistant Camille, preyed on by a series of contemptuous men, experiences bizarre episodes in which she feels herself transforming into one of the great cats in her care. And Elisabeth Boyer, a passionate Creole aristocrat trapped on her husband’s antebellum plantation, finds deliverance in the form of a black leopard, a powerful, merciless ally from the wild. Their unfolding stories blur distinctions of time, class and social construct to reveal the ordinary and extraordinary measures required to make our fractured world whole.
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The contemporary zoo, the "Zoo Eden," is the final irony: a false paradise in which the last representatives of soon to be extinct species are displayed to a public eager to be absolved for their extinction. The expensive exhibits conjure up a world that never did, never will, exist, in which predator and prey gaze stupidly at one another across invisible but effective barriers, while plant life flourishes, water supplies are stable, and all of nature is benign.
Ellen looked up from the magazine. There were more of these essays about zoos lately, and some were in unexpected places. This one was in a magazine Paul had brought her which was usually devoted to articles about the economy or politics. She glanced down to the end of the paragraph to see what the author was getting at. In nature, as in our own society, she read, we will not rest until we have eliminated all possibility of "the wild."
Was it true? Well, it might be true. Lucius stood up on the window-sill and arched his back, gazing on his mistress with cold feline eyes, the domesticated cat, bored by surveying, through the screen, his archenemy, Barker, the over-bred, aristocratic collie. No wildness in this scene.
But what exactly did this journalist mean by "the wild?" The sounds of her husband getting out of bed, crossing the landing outside her door on his way to the bathroom, triggered her fingers back through the pages to the beginning of the article, where "The Great Divorce" was printed in large letters and, beneath that, in smaller letters, the author's name. The title intrigued her, for she had used the word divorce in her own mind to describe the breakup between the human species and the rest of nature, which like all divorces was causing pain in many quarters, even to the couple's dimwitted friends who refused to take sides, like Lucius, who didn't care, or Barker, who followed his nose in the dull hope that everything would turn out all right.
She slipped the magazine back on the shelf. She could make coffee for Paul, tea for herself; they might have time for a quiet breakfast before the girls got up. But as she rose from her chair the phone rang; of course it was Beth. Gina was on her way from Primates with an infant Diana monkey; the mother had bitten off one of its fingers. "How bad is it?" Ellen asked.
"Gina said it's completely off. I haven't seen it yet. I can have a look and call you back."
Paul was singing now. In a moment he would be in the shower. "No," Ellen said, "I'd better come. I'm on my way."
She would get a cup of coffee and a brioche at Mylie's. In the kitchen she wrote a note on the phone pad: Hurt monkey, be back soon. Paul was hitting the high note of Tosca's aria to God: "Perche, perche, Signor."
Why do you pay me back like this?
Last night there had been another phone call. Paul answered, gave his diffident hello, his eyes on Ellen because he was midsentence with her on the subject of a trip to Saint Francisville he would take next week--he really had found an extraordinary old murder case--then he listened. His expression changed, there was the flicker of a smile, his eyes shifted from her expectant face to some middle ground of air between them, and he said, "No, I'm afraid you have the wrong number." He hung up but he'd lost the thread; Ellen had to bring him back to it. So he had started a new affair and she was bold enough to call him at home. This explained his high spirits of late, his enthusiasm for the old murder case, the necessity for research trips. To his credit he would keep the woman out of town as much as possible and probably get the work done as well, for the combination of guilt and energy an affair inspired was a tonic to him; his confidence soared, he was full of good humor and sympathy for all his fellows.
And she would have some time to herself, a few quiet evenings--if the girls didn't have a crisis to deal with--in which she would drink expensive wine, read and catch up on work, go to bed early, and sleep in the middle of the bed.
In the car she considered a title: "The Rewards of Adultery for the Maligned Spouse," and a list: more time to pursue own interests, ebullient, oversolicitous mate, catch up on children, never have to answer phone, no guilt. It was age and cynicism that turned up such thoughts, no doubt. There was a time when she would have exhausted herself trying to figure out who the woman was and how to put a stop to the affair, how to let Paul know that she knew, that he was hurting her, yet do all this without creating a confrontation. The tightropes of yesterday. Now that seemed so much unnecessary drama. If Paul was going to leave her, he would have done so long ago.
She turned the car into the long, tree-shrouded drive to the hospital, her thoughts converging on the world behind the gate ahead. It wasn't uncommon for a baby primate to suffer aggression from an adult; the attacker was usually an adult male, occasionally another female. Yet Beth had been clear on the phone; this infant had been wounded by his own mother. In a way, Ellen thought, the actual injury was the least of their worries. The mother was doubtless a problem individual, neurotic at best, who would continue to cause trouble. Primates adjusted to captivity more readily than most animals, carrying on, as well as they could, their own peculiar and complicated idea of community. But this community could never be what it was in the wild, because it was closed off, controlled. There was no place for the inevitable outcasts to run. Neither wild nor domestic, they existed in a netherworld of human scrutiny and intervention. Ellen was determined to intervene as little as possible. The baby would be returned to the mother, and with luck, if rejected, he would be adopted by another female.
Ellen parked her car and walked quickly to the hospital door. When she entered the treatment room Gina and Beth were standing before the x-ray screen; the monkey lounged in Gina's arms, a limp mass of fur, his impossibly long arms draped about her shoulders, his bleary eyes fixed on her face as she crooned to him, commiserating, "Your mom isn't very nice to you, is she, poor fellow. You haven't got much of a mom."
Paul found the first mention of Elisabeth Boyer Schlaeger, the "catwoman of Saint Francisville," on a microfiche of the New Orleans Item, dated April 30, 1846. As was often the case with his best discoveries, he was looking for something else, some record of a property transfer, and here, tucked away on a back page, was a notice of the public execution of a woman, surely a white woman, for the paper listed her full name as well as that of her husband, whom she was said to have murdered. Paul leaned over the strip of film, his mouth frankly agape. To his knowledge--and not many people knew more about such matters than he did--no white woman had ever been executed in the state of Louisiana. And what was to be made of this cryptic allusion to the murderess as the "catwoman," as if every reader was familiar with the case, as if the town had been following a scandalous trial, when, in fact, he had been over the court records of this period more than once and never seen a word about it?
He sat back in his cold library chair and thought hard. This was what he loved about his work, these moments when his brain seemed to blaze with activity and he remembered scenes he had summoned up from old records, letters, diaries, newspapers, a world he wrested back from the dead. Two thoughts came forward, the first a disheartening one, that the records from 1852 to 1860 were woefully inadequate. There were gaps, weeks at a time, lost in fires, to mice, a whole year destroyed in a flood near the river only fifty years ago. The second was that the name Schlaeger was familiar. He had a list of the owners of every plantation from Pointe-a-la-Hache to Natchez for well on a hundred years, and he felt certain that Schlaeger was one of them.
Paul made a note of the date and the two names, Elisabeth Boyer and Hermann Schlaeger, then flicked off the machine and sat rubbing his eyes, smiling to himself. "The catwoman," he said softly. Did she keep a lot of cats? She was French, but her husband, Hermann, was surely not. Not many Germans owned big houses in Saint Francisville. Perhaps he was an American, part of the invasion, and he'd married a Creole to gain access to the salons of his neighbors. But it hadn't worked. Creole society was inbred to the point of genetic exhaustion and determined to remain so. Mlle. Boyer was probably expected to marry one of her cousins. She'd refused, married a German, and found herself excommunicated from her family and from all the lighthearted entertainments, the gay soirees and riding trips along the levees, isolated on her husband's plantation, where the only French she heard was from her own slaves.
Paul gathered up his notebooks and pens, dropped the microfiche at the desk, and made his way out into the humid air that hung like a drapery between the air-conditioned library and his air-conditioned office. He hardly noticed the heat. It seemed to him he could see the list, the very page on which he had read the name Schlaeger. The records in Saint Francisville were in better condition than those in New Orleans; it wouldn't be difficult to find a notice of an arrest. Unless he was wrong and the Schlaegers were not wealthy landowners but poor whites of unknown origins, living on the outskirts of civilized society, not Creole nor free people of color nor slaves nor rich Americans, but something other and excluded by all, left to their own devices on land even a slave would disdain to farm. Then there might be little in the way of records, and the case would not repay his investigations. His readers had no interest in proletarian violence, the banal passions of the disenfranchised or the poor, though if a wealthy man murdered his slave or vice versa, they might be entertained, especially if the details were grisly, as was often the case with such crimes. What they craved were stories of grand passions, of beautiful women and wealthy, cultivated men, of power, greed, treachery, great successes, greater failures. His subject was a doomed world; everyone knew it and read accordingly, with little sense that their daily newspaper offered them a vision into a similar decline. Paul's heart raced on two counts. The first was a premonition that he had stumbled upon something very fine, a bit of history that would serve as a centerpiece for the large important work he knew he must do, the book that was not just a string of connected historical anecdotes, but a serious meditation on the past. The second was the thought of the long drive to Saint Francisville with his attractive young mistress at his side. Donna might have to take a few days from her secretarial duties, but he felt certain it could be arranged to everyone's satisfaction. Her department chair was a personal friend. It could all, he was confident, be easily arranged.
After the last visitor had filed through the entry gates and the zoo was closed for the day, Camille began the ritual of closing out the night house in the Asian exhibit. She did this each day in the same way, though no day was exactly like the others. First she stopped in the yard and stacked the meat sticks from the ice chest into the wheelbarrow. She carried the bucket of fruit for the sun bears over her arm. At the door she put everything down, beat against the metal with her fist, opened the door, and shouted, "Hello, hello," as she had been taught to do, for one could never be too careful around the big cats, particularly Sonya, who longed to tear apart something that would give her resistance. Inside, she flicked on the lights and carried the bucket to the back cages, then pulled the long chains that opened the outer door to the sun bear exhibit. The three bears came in at once: Jojo, the oldest, always first, moved quickly to the far cage and put his front paws up against the feed tray. His mate Jana and their daughter Kim came in behind, doglike and patient; they made concentric circles on the cement while Camille shoved fruit through the tray for Jojo. She watched for a moment as they shoveled in the fruit, licked out their yogurt cups with their strange long tongues. This was the third day in a row Jojo had left his apples. Kim waited until he moved well away, then swept in the two apples with a single stroke of her forepaw, flipped one into her mouth, and stood quietly munching while her mother took the other. Camille wrote the words no apples under Jojo's name on the chart attached to the wall. Another day and they would have to tell the vet.
She went back to the wheelbarrow and pulled out a few of the meat sticks, which she dropped before each of the cat night cages. Today there were rabbits as well, which made the cats excited; they knew the feeding schedule as well as their keeper. The night houses had all been cleaned during the day, so Camille went about giving each of the padlocks a perfunctory tug. Keeper-trainees were not always reliable.
There were eight cats to bring in, a total of six steel doors to be opened by means of heavy chains and wheels. As she opened the doors one by one the cats seemed to materialize behind each set of bars. First Paolo and Antonella, the lion and his mate, who came in single file, though never without a quarrel, a growling match; Sonya, the white tiger, the star of every show and the most disagreeable of all the cats; the two Bengal tigers, Clio and her daughter Stella, both geriatric now, hard of hearing and overweight, padding in heavily, lumbering like elephants; the clouded leopard, Maxwell, and his mate Flo, both as tame as housecats, approaching their empty trays amiably, with domestic confidence; and finally Magda, the black leopard, sudden and wild, Magda the powerful. Camille had the rabbit ready for her, as Magda knew she would. When the door creaked open on its heavy chain Magda tore across the concrete like a beam of black light, hit the front bars claws out, mouth open, with enough force to break a man's leg. She snapped up the rabbit from paw to mouth in a motion so rapid that Camille was never able to say she had actually seen it, fell back on her haunches for a split second, then landed high on her stone slab, her imitation of a cliff, where she looked down briefly, her yellow eyes twin stones in the impassive black of her long, serious face, her white teeth sunk deep in her dinner, blood welling up to the gum line and running in a thin stream off her tongue. She took the rabbit between her great paws and began licking it greedily.