[Originally published May 9, 2003.]
Atticus shot the monkey when it refused to dance. Technically, it had not so much refused to dance as refused to continue dancing — it had been doing the soft-shoe for four hours, and it was getting tired. It only needed a few minutes to rest. But Atticus was having one of his moods.
Atticus had long maintained that it was a sin to kill any animal whose sole purpose was to provide delight — his favorite example being the mockingbird. The rest, of course, were fair game. In the six months since he had retired from the practice of law and taken the job of zookeeper, Atticus was putting that principle into action. He had killed eight pheasants, a giraffe, two chimpanzees, six porcupines, all the reptiles, and more blue jays than you could shake a stick at. The smarter of the animals had begun to make themselves useful: the hippos had taken up scrimshaw; the ducks were practicing their madrigals; and the remaining three giraffes busied themselves with digging graves for what Atticus liked to call “my disappointments.” Nobody wanted to replicate the pandas’ mistake. They had a good run for a while with their comical tumbling, but didn’t realize that Atticus had grown tired of their routine until it was too late — far, far too late.
Now, in a desperate effort to keep Atticus amused, the animals worked on expanding their repertoires. The prairie dogs had a new precision-dance routine every Saturday night, and the rumor was that they were beginning to look into some sort of synchronized-swimming thing, but the seals and sea lions were unwilling to help. The polar bears and grizzly bears had their soccer matches, and the penguins — well, the penguins were just so fucking charming, there was no way Atticus was going to harm them. Everyone hated the penguins.
Much later — after the Incident, after the coroners and the reporters and the humane society had gone home — people agreed that Atticus’s mistake had been opening the wood shop. It seemed innocuous enough — the kangaroos wanted to make him key chains and coasters and picture frames, or so they claimed. But who knew that such docile, big-eyed creatures had such rage in them, or even knew how to carve a shank? Who knew — until that fateful night of the talent show — that their pouches were big enough to conceal crossbows? And who knew what could happen to a kangaroo, when it had lost the power to charm?
I’ll never forget the last few seconds I saw Atticus — the talent show’s judge, jury, and executioner — alive. He was scowling as the flamingos wobbled through an especially ill-conceived medley. He’d barely reached his thirty-ought-six when the kangaroos bounded out from the wings and struck, with fury, speed, and precision.
And then, with no one to stop them, they took down the mockingbirds, one by one.
Only later did the police find the note the kangaroos had scrawled and left in their cages. It was a crude note, terse and ungrammatical, and filled with misspellings and typos. It had, after all, been written by marsupials. But its message was simple, stark, and — the jury later agreed — undeniably compelling: Atticus, they explained, had ceased to delight them.