The intruder consults his gift shop map, jumps the fence, skirts the sleeping security guard and then cuts a path through the zoo to his final destination. Lethargic animals tucked away in their enclosures raise their heads, flick their tails, flutter their ears, wrinkle their noses and then lose interest and settle back down. Only when the intruder passes the nocturnal exhibitions do orb-like eyes pierce through the darkness, following his every move. He pauses, gazes into each shimmering pin swirling through the surrounding constellations, falls into the screaming, smouldering souls, the fallen angels, the alluring temptations, and imagines embracing the flames as if he were a lump of coal feeding the furnaces of existence.
He is lost. Hopelessly lost.
But wait! A trick! A trap! He hears footsteps approaching, hundreds, maybe thousands, possibly millions, accompanied by slithering voices, swirling voices, writhing, conspiring, conniving whispers, constricting his soul, dragging him towards damnation.
The intruder shakes the parasites from his spinning head, pounds faith into his pulsing temples, slaps strength into his twitching cheeks and then hunches over and mumbles his convictions. Screeching, the voices recoil from the holy light that shines from his soul and take refuge in the shadows. But he knows the steady hiss swelling in the peripheries indicates that they are merely building up steam for the next deception.
He must hurry. How much more can he take?
The intruder examines the map beneath the faint red glow from a nearby snake tank. The snakes stare through the glass, wearing his reflection over their primordial faces, flicking their tongues between their fangs, between his teeth, tasting his fear, tempting him with forbidden fruits and carnal delights. The intruder's stomach rumbles so fiercely that a warm itch spreads down his guts and seeps into his groin. He has not eaten in days and has not washed in months. He hurries onwards. Purification awaits.
By the time the intruder finds the enclosure he's been looking for, searching for, desperately craving his entire life, the moon has broken through the clouds and bathed the sleeping creatures' den in a faintly overbearing essence. But the scene is empty. Only the gaping cave at the back of the enclosure speaks, whispers and beckons him closer with divine secrets. The intruder looks down at his map, touches the grinning cartoon lions on the page and then vaults over the railing into their enclosure. He approaches the cave's maw, raising his face to the heavens and his arms into a cross as he follows the cascading voices inside.
By morning, the growling, snarling, chewing, snapping, slurping, rending and swallowing has subsided. The only sound that cuts through the crisp air is the single piercing scream from the soon-to-be irrevocably traumatised zookeeper tasked with tending to the lions' gruesome den.
Reverend Daniels rifles through the newspapers scattered across his desk and prays that the words he's been seeking will finally align into the painstaking eulogy that's been evading him for weeks. Instead, the same headlines and phrases he now sees even when his eyes are closed shine through like neon lights penetrating dense fog:
Body Found In Lions' Den - police baffled - an unidentified male - mutilated - zoo under investigation - Patient Escapes From Escobar Asylum - several doctors injured - still at large - name of Simon Kennedy - paranoid schizophrenic - Officials Connect Escapee With Gruesome Lions' Den Death - on the run - partially eaten - medication for severe paranoia - prescription found in victim's pocket - Accidental Suicide Suspected In Lions' Den Death - keepers deny any wrongdoing - reopens to public - Hotel Employee Sheds Light On Lions' Den Death - religious paraphernalia found - strange drawings - biblical quotes on the walls - heard voices - Officials Rule Simon Kennedy Entered Exhibition On Purpose - mentally unstable - suffering religious delusions - inadvertently ended his own life.
Reverend Daniels collapses back into his chair and massages the grooves his glasses have cut beneath his eyes. Same old story the tabloids have been chewing on for weeks, chewing on like the remains of a paranoid schizophrenic in a lion's… No, stop that! But why? Because self-pity will get us nowhere. Well, nothing else is getting us anywhere, so why not give this a chance? Because that poor kid's family expects us to say something nice about their dearly departed son. Given the circumstances, what could we possibly say that would sound sincere? Nothing we haven't said a hundred times before. Please, we know full well why this is not nearly so easy. Well, who knows, maybe do unto others as we would yada-yada-yada…
Reverend Daniels sips his tepid coffee, glares at his blank notepad and idly taps his pen to some internal hymn. Okay, maybe we're just overthinking things. Exactly, what's one more eulogy? Still, the context makes it a little… tricky. Oh, sure, but never forget that under his wings we will find etcetera-etcetera… Of course!
In a fizz of inspiration, Reverend Daniels clears some space on his desk, slams open his bible and then hungrily scans the dog-eared pages, relentlessly flipping back and forth, his fingers numb to the tiny cuts the stiff paper rends from his flesh:
John 10:27 - my sheep hear my voice - follow me - Deuteronomy 13:4 - walk after - fear him - obey his voice - serve him - John 16:13 - guide you - he hears he will speak - truth - Ezekiel 43:2 - sound of his coming - sound of many waters - Matthew 13:20 - seed was sown - rocky places - man who hears - Mark 4:16 - seed was sown - rocky places - hear the word - Matthew 13:22 - seed was sown - among the thorns - man who hears - choke the world - Hebrews 4:12 - the word - two-edged sword - intents of the heart - John 5:25 - I say to you - hear the voice - those who hear will live - Timothy 4:17 - stood by me - through me - proclaimed - rescued from the lion's mouth.
Reverend Daniels slams his bible closed so furiously that he flips it from the desk, sweeping the stacked newspapers into a flurry and drawing the attention of his studious trainee, still pacing incessantly outside his office.
'Reverend?' the young Vicar calls. 'Is everything okay?'
'Everything is fine!' Reverend Daniels barks. 'Isn't there something more constructive you should be doing? The procession is due to arrive any minute. For Christs-erm-goodness-sakes.'
'Please, Lord, give us the strength to…' the Vicar's prayers fade away as he shrinks back into the church.
Reverend Daniels sighs. Come now, that was a little harsh. Yeah, the poor boy is just trying to help. Oh please, aren't we the ones always saying that the Lord helps those who blah-blah-blah? Yes, well, speaking of… Reverend Daniels leaves his splayed bible on the strewn newspapers like a dead bat frozen atop dirty snow. Instead, he opens his laptop and types eulogy templates into a text generator, silencing his internal conflict by clicking his pen as the page loads.
As far as Reverend Daniels' country town was concerned, Simon Kennedy's very public death was only overshadowed by the news that the missing boy had clearly (until recently) still been alive and kicking. Only when hungry journalists, flaunting blank chequebooks, started pouring into Reverend Daniels' sleepy rural parish did the townsfolk suddenly seem to remember that troublesome little soul who had vanished into the bush all those years ago. Coincidentally, this was around the same time his congregation began dropping hefty stacks of cash into the collection plate and asking for forgiveness whenever Reverend Daniels condemned the sin of bribery in his sermons. He resorted to this rather on-the-nose tactic when snippets from the townsfolks' private conversations started appearing in national headlines. These included off-handed remarks about poor Simon Kennedy's lacklustre upbringing, barely credible stories about the sorts of deranged mischief he caused the town, gossipy quips about his mental condition's less desirable quirks and legally palatable speculations about his sudden disappearance. One editorial repeated virtually verbatim an over-the-counter conversation with the local butcher (now driving a sporty new ute). According to him, the previous Reverend, Darren James, had treated Simon's paranoid delusions as demonic possession and probably traumatised him further with an impromptu exorcism.
Made particularly incredulous by this last defamation and intending to bring shame to his unscrupulous congregation, Reverend Daniels sought the former Reverend's side of the story. But rather than a stern dismissal, Darren James gave a somewhat unrepentant admission that these were indeed the facts and that if the current Reverend would be so kind as to keep them hush-hush, then he should consider his next meal at Daz's Dine N Dash truckstop on the house. Darren James had apparently traded his cassock for an apron.
Meanwhile, the Kennedys, still in the local area, working farms and shearing stations and just generally getting by, were either unavailable for comment or too genuinely (so it seemed) grief-stricken to face the cameras.
Reverend Daniels waited until the media circus collapsed its tents to visit Simon Kennedy's parents. He was particularly touched to find the boy's room still fully furnished and awaiting his return. There, Reverend Daniels learned that the family had long known that Simon was wavering between deranged wanderings and brief stints within public institutions but had chosen to keep their son's survival from the town. They never stopped loving Simon or praying for his safe return, but the increasing severity and frequency of his escapades made it impossible to track where he was in God's creation.
Reverend Daniels listened patiently as Simon's mother and father recounted their son's schizophrenic pilgrimage through society's many cracks. One parent would lapse into silence mid-sentence, intensely fascinated by a speck of dust on the coffee table or a cloud floating by outside, whereupon the other would seamlessly take up the story until the same happened to them. And so Simon's tale was told...
Once Reverend Darren James' exorcism had double-distilled Simon's demonic delusions into a potent if unstable brew, spicing his parables with exorcisms and pious paranoia, the crusades in the young boy's head took a righteous turn.
Simon came to believe that he was in direct communication with God, that his every move was a - more often than not - failed test of faith. Reverend Darren James took this as a great success until God (et al.) started telling Simon to purify his soul while saving the souls of others in public displays of - call it what it was - insanity.
One day, after a particularly lurid sermon outside the mayor's office, Simon's parents awoke to find that he had skipped town, taking nothing but the once-white bathrobe he now exclusively wore and a copy of his bible. They called the police, filed the reports and then waited anxiously by the phone for nearly three years. Finally, they received a long-distance call informing them that a homeless man matching Simon's description had been taken into custody outside a brothel in a notoriously sleazy city very far from home. Simon had apparently assaulted one of the patrons with his bible (now taken as evidence) and then led the police on a back-alley scavenger hunt.
What followed were years of expensive medications, sporadic therapy, hospitals with bars on the windows and a few brief stints in prisons with no windows whatsoever. Simon occasionally, almost reluctantly, came to his senses and conceded that while mental health disorders did, in truth, exist, the fact that his trials mirrored such symptoms was merely an unfortunate coincidence. And that, if anything, the symptoms were perhaps even another test from above. And so the delusions would rain back down, the deluge of uncertainty sinking his sanity and starting the cycle anew.
'Tell us, Reverend!' Simon's father broke in, addressing him directly for the first time. 'Do you think there's any chance that Simon… I mean, you know, could he really have been speaking with God?'
Choking, spluttering, Reverend Daniels dribbled his tea back into his cup and then slurped it up again with what he hoped was a thoughtful expression. Well, go on, they're waiting for us to say something. Do we suppose it's possible he was talking to God? Should we just say he was? Would that make them feel better? Sure, then, for our next trick, we can place our finger on our lips and go burrbahburrbahburr!
'Oh, for Heaven's sake!' Simon's mother snapped before he could speak, which was admittedly not going to be any time soon. 'I'm sorry, Reverend. Please excuse my husband. He knows that's simply insa-possible. Impossible. Yes. Which it is.' She leered between them. 'Isn't it?'
'What about all those folks in the bible that said they heard God, then?' Simon's father growled. 'They can't all have been crazy!' Then, murmuring at Reverend Daniels, as if the comment were a mouthful of tobacco and the Reverend an uncomplaining spitoon: 'No offence.'
Reverend Daniels sat in contemplative silence while Simon's parents fell to bickering over just who, or exactly what was to blame for their son's demise. Could they all be crazy? Don't be ridiculous! Does that make us crazy? No, simply a little test of faith. Like Simon's? Come now, judge not lest ye be and-so-on-and-so-forth.
'Reverend?' the Vicar peeps, knocking gently, sending Reverend Daniels diving for his upended memories as if they were cocktail glasses tumbling from a precariously balanced tray. 'I'm terribly sorry to bother you, but I believe the deceased's family is starting to arrive.'
Reverend Daniels skulks to the window and then peeks through the blinds. Sure enough, Simon's mother and father are ambling through the car park, shrinking within their threadbare Sunday Best attire, pausing only to lock their equally weather-beaten station wagon.
Reverend Daniels snaps the blinds shut as their gaze wafts towards his office. Did they see us? Does it matter? Reverend Daniels hears the telltale sound of a hearse pulling into the loading bay, in this instance, a hearse with a conspicuously roomy coffin. Closed casket this one, of course. Jesus Christ, are we seriously making jokes at a time like this? Best to always leave them laughing. Hysterically, when possible. Just have a little faith. This will all be over soon. Even though we pass through the valley of the yeah-yeah-yeah. Standing on tiptoes, Reverend Daniels takes the sour-apple vape he saves for emergencies from above the bookshelf and suckles at the plastic nipple, inhaling a deliciously relaxing cloud of flavoured calm.
'Reverend?' the Vicar calls.
Coughing, waving away the evidence, head spinning slightly, 'Yes, yes. Coming. Just adding some final touches.' Reverend Daniels scowls from his discarded bible to his blank notebook to his glowing laptop. Without sitting, looming over his laptop, he draws from the vape with one hand while tilting the screen with the other. He skims the first eulogy template the generator loads with more optimism than attention, decides it's perfect and then buzzes impatiently around the printer as it spits out his saving grace.
Standing at the pulpit, with Simon's entire family assembled in the pews, a mishmash of sombre attire and empty seats, like a chess game in full swing - a sniffling, shifting canvas of genuine grief and sheepish awkwardness - Reverend Daniels shuffles the one lousy piece of paper between his trembling hands as if there were more. Pointless! He tosses it down, then clears his throat way too close to the microphone.
He readjusts it as if this were all an elaborate test and then makes a show of opening his bible at random. Luckily, this is, after all, The Good Book, so whatever passage he lands upon will be the passage he needs. Surely, as a man of God whose devotion has never wavered (much), his blind faith deserves a celestial seeing-eye-dog now and again. Reverend Daniels raises his finger authoritatively, waits for total silence, then jabs it into the page and begins to read.
'Whoever is of God hears the words of God…' Oh, Jesus, was that inappropriate? Oh God, we are so stupid. No, not us. That's right. You, Reverend Daniels, you are so fucking miserably, irredeemably stupid. Why don't you just hang up your stupid robes, then hang your stupid self and follow Simon into the wilderness? 'The, uh, reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.' Nope, much worse. Why hast thou forsaken you exposition-exposition-exposition. Yeah, Reverend, why? He asked you a question! Yeah, she's talking to you! Would you hurry up and answer them? God fucking dammit, you stupid piece of shit. Say. Speak. Stop. Start. We're coming. Calling. Cackling at you and you alone. 'Pardon me,' Reverend Daniels murmurs, shakily closing his bible as the church fills with judgmental whispers. 'Wrong page.' Wrong person, more like. Someone more capable would have done this easily. 'Shut up!' he snarls. The mourners exchange concerned glances. 'Now, uh, if we could all lower our heads in prayer.' Just look at him! He's going to piss his pants soon, I'll bet. Splash splash splash. Reverend Daniels shakes his head as if trying to shake water from his ears. Next, he seizes the template again, still warm from the printer and struggles to raise his voice over the others.
'The parts in…' deep breath, shout, ' CAPITAL LETTERS!' What the hell is this? What have you done? Why are you reading this? What are you doing to us? No, stop reading, you fool!
Stuttering, Reverend Daniels continues, 'Are headings that indicate, um...' God almighty, stop! Stop everything. Breathing, to begin with. Amazing he even gets that right, amirite! 'That is to say, the parts in capital letters are headings that indicate the template's structure and are, ahh, like this introduction…' Maybe Daz's Drive N Dash is hiring? 'N-not to be included in the speech.' Your speech, you mean, don't put this shit on me. Or me. Or us. Who? You! Me?
Reverend Daniels glances at the mourners, expecting to see a canyon of stone-cold faces, but instead finds them nodding somnolently along to the sombre hymn swelling from the young Vicar's lips. The young Vicar shoots Reverend Daniels a subtle yet encouraging thumbs-up before diving back into the rhythm. Has them in the palm of his hand. Like your big wet penis. Bet you wish you could put that in the palm of his hand. Tug tug tug. Look at them all, humming along. Like a big wet penis in the Vicar's soft, moist mouth. Him and his pious pied-pipering. Puts you to shame. Wash-up. Wash-out. Watch out.
Reverend Daniels clears his throat, adjusts his glasses, adjusts his loins and tugs at the little white noose around his neck before half-heartedly joining them in song. He should never have called her!
'Hello, yes, is this Doctor Veronica Nguyen's office?'
'This is Doctor Nguyen speaking, yes.'
Reverend Daniels stood up, sat down, stood up again and then drifted around the empty church like a fly looking for an open window. 'Sure thing. Well, thanks for taking my call, Doctor Nguyen.'
'Of course. Now, I believe you left a message with my secretary. Let me see…' Sound of no doubt very important papers rustling around her no doubt very professional desk. 'Ah yes, here we are. Mister Daniels, was it?'
'Well, Reverend, actually, but-'
'I understand you had some questions about Simon Kennedy, Mister Daniels, is that correct?'
Reverend Daniels looked at the phone as if it were a pulsating slug. 'Yes, that's correct,' he replied, aiming for a heated tone but with his uneven voice croaking nonetheless. Why should he feel intimidated by someone who dealt exclusively with minds when he had the much graver task of shepherding their souls? No, maybe not intimidated. Perhaps it was just cold in here. That would explain his apprehensions. He stepped into the warm glow seeping through the church's stained glass windows, ascending with the dust particles, seeking solace and salvation - seeking anything, really. 'Uh, you see, I'm supposed to be delivering young Simon's eulogy, and, well, given the circumstances…' his voice melted into shadows as a cloud covered the sun.
'Hm, well, as I'm sure you understand, considering confidentiality laws, the particulars of our discussion will be rather, how to say, limited. But, yes, given the circumstances, as you say, I can certainly see why this may be causing you some… distress.'
Is she analysing us? 'So, were these voices-'
'Yes, regrettable symptoms of the patient's condition,' Doctor Veronica Nguyen broke in. 'Nothing more.'
'Naturally,' Reverend Daniels hissed. Have we already turned this cheek? 'Well, and, uh, nevertheless, regardless of the patient's, as you say, symptoms, Simon was clearly a very devout soul. I'm wondering, did he exhibit any other symp… that is to say, traits that could be set aside from his, uh, condition?'
'Mister Daniels, I believe you may have the wrong impression about Simon's illness entirely. For instance, while the media has added a comical spin to his story, the reality is that Simon was an extremely unwell, unpredictable and tormented young man. He didn't simply jump through an open window when he escaped. No. He slashed two patients with broken glass, then fractured one of my nurse's vertebrae, all while shouting that he was on a mandate from Heaven.'
Geeze, a simple yes or no would have done the trick. 'Hm, I see,' mumbled Reverend Daniels.
'Simon Kennedy's beliefs, no matter how noble they may seem in his clinical details, are entirely secondary to his condition. Had religion not been such an influential force during his childhood, something equally compelling would have taken its place. Schizophrenia does not discern. It merely adapts.'
Reverend Daniels assumed that Doctor Nguyen's silence was actually a chance for him to defend both himself and his entire vocation. But all he could manage was to express how interesting this was by saying the word out loud.
'Personally, I find it more tragic than interesting. Incidentally, may I ask how literally you interpret the word of God, Mister Daniels?'
'I'm not sure I follow,' he stalled, following entirely.
'Well, do you treat the bible as a historical or a metaphorical text?'
'I've never really… Sorry, what does this have to do with Simon?'
'Possession, madness, mental illness. Simon's condition has had many names throughout the ages, yet those like him are still being fed to the lions, both metaphorically and literally, it seems. I'm simply curious as to whether you believe things may have turned out differently had he seen a member of my profession before a member of yours.'
'You're asking if I think there's a possibility that God really spoke to him?'
Well, get in line. Take a number. Three numbers, to be precise. All starting with S and ending with X. Are you saying you want to have sex with Dr V.N.? No, idiot! Six! It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. Good, but not great... 'I suppose, uh, that it could have been both.'
'Maybe, I mean, it's possible that Simon really did hear God, in some sense, but that his condition mistranslated what he was, you know, actually hearing. Big coincidence, see?'
'No, I don't think I do see. Please, elaborate.'
She's playing with us! 'I'm just saying that if patients sometimes mistake their symptoms for the voice of God, then it stands to reason that sometimes we, as a society, just might, occasionally, get spirituality mixed up with insanity.' Keep going. But does this make any sense? Sure sounds like it does. 'Everyone speaks a different language when it comes to healing. Yours is from a textbook, while mine is from the bible. I suppose Simon just never found one that made sense amidst the madness.'
Long but seemingly less certain pause, 'Interesting thesis, Reverend.'
You say thesis. I say theology. We say. You say. Who are they?
'Incidentally, did you know that the Greek word psyche from which we get psychiatrist originally translated as the soul?'
'Hmm,' Reverend Daniels mused, trying to sound noncommittal.
'Maybe we lost our way. Then again, maybe religion refused to follow us down the correct course. Who can be certain?' However…'
Just hang up, honestly. Who cares. Just stand there on the day and say that Simon was a lovely but troubled soul this-that-and-the-other and then roll credits. Yeah, who knows, maybe someone less complicated will croak and give us a chance at a comeback.
'While spirituality may replace something within the brain that schizophrenia removes, I would argue that parables are no match for prescriptions.' Is she still talking? 'Perhaps when taken together, the effects can be positive, but offering one without the other seems… irresponsible, in my opinion.'
Reverend Daniels whirled around the church for inspiration, only to come face to face with his Sunday School's colouring competitions, a (relatively unhelpful) psychedelic smear of religious revisionism pinned to the noticeboard for the open applause and secret scrutiny of their parents. Reverend Daniels inspected each stencil as Doctor Ngyuen continued her lecture.
The base stencil depicted a relatively cartoonish Jesus preaching to a small crowd of thoughtful disciples. The children had applied various artistic techniques and interpretations on this blank canvas, ranging from grotesque to interpretive. Jesus with green skin, disciples wearing brand name cloaks, Jesus wielding a crudely drawn machine gun, completely Pollock-splattered pieces showing outright contempt for the lines and a few suspiciously precise renderings from children with notably competitive parents. Despite the bewildering selection, Reverend Daniels came to fixate on an unassuming entry half-buried beneath the others. The child had left Jesus as an uncoloured outline while his disciples were awash with jagged crayon streaks that had torn through the page, the colours clumping into an indiscernible brown sludge.
'Furthermore,' Doctor Nguyen continued, assuming she possessed Reverend Daniels' full attention. 'We, unlike the church, are a public institution.' So many colours. Too many colours. How does that work? It doesn't, obviously. 'So when Simon Kennedy escaped our care - and make no mistake, what we were trying to administer, free of charge, was nothing but the most comprehensive possible care, the tabloids treated his incredibly unfortunate demise as a failure on our end rather than a hole in your narrative.'
Holes? Stigmata? Nada! Oops… 'I beg your pardon?'
A long silence, a sigh, 'I didn't mean to… My apologies. It's been a stressful few weeks. I should say that I don't blame you or even the church for any of this. But as I'm sure you understand, anything I have to say about Simon will be influenced by his condition and therefore comes from a clinical rather than a spiritual perspective. However, I will say that had Simon been capable of accepting my help while sticking to your teachings, then chances are things may not have ended the way they did. Now, if you'll excuse me, just as you have souls that need saving, I have patients in need of attention. All the best with your speech.' Click.
Speech? Hello? 'Ah, Doctor Nguyen?' Attention? Anyone? Reverend Daniels kneeled before the colouring submissions with his phone pressed between his palms and prayed to the drawings for guidance.
'Sometimes it can be difficult for us to see the bigger picture even when it is right there before us!' Reverend Daniels, overcome, inspired, possessed, yells a little too aggressively. 'While the circumstances of his passing are understandably quite distressing, what we should focus on today are the circumstances of his life.' A quick glance at the mourners and their unreadable expressions. Reverend Daniels avoids their expectant eyes by turning to Simon's coffin, inadvertently making direct eye contact with the photographs perched between the flower displays. But as Reverend Daniels gazes at the pictures, the deceased's inauspicious features collapse into the reality beneath. Rather than a slightly dishevelled and sheepish small-town farm boy, he sees the menacing yet transfixing curbside doomsayer waiting to spring from his box.
Reverend Daniels shivers. It really is cold in here, though. 'Simon Kennedy heard voices,' he heard himself say. Simmering whispers bubble through the church. 'And honestly, who hasn't? I mean, come on! I'll bet everyone here has a few little voices in their heads, whispering away.' What's in your pocket? Temptation? Salvation! Repent. Repeat. Just put it between your lips. Suck. Blow. Reverend Daniels places the sour-apple vape to his lips and then puff-puff-puffs away. 'Yep, I'll bet those internal monologues of yours are saying things like, what's that crazy Reverend talking about, and this sure is awkward, and I sure can't wait to get out of here, and what does he think he's doing smoking at a time like this?' The little red light at the end of the Reverend's vape flashes as he inhales, giving him a clownish nose that causes some of the younger mourners to giggle. 'Well, you know what? I've got voices inside my head, too. Chat-chat-chattering up an almighty storm. Hell, they've been in overdrive ever since Simon's little safari.'
Simon's mother bursts into tears.
The Vicar tugs urgently at Reverend Daniels' sleeve.
'Vicar, please, some decorum. This is a funeral, after all. No, excuse me, Vicar!' Reverend Daniels shrugs free, draws deeply from the vape and then grins as the smoke obscures the agitated mourners. 'What's really crazy is that had Simon done this a thousand years ago, we would be reading about him in this here book, probably singing songs about his sacrifice and using his example as a parable to get the kiddies eating their veggies.' Reverend Daniels pauses as a figure emerges through the haze. 'Ah, Mr Kennedy, I presume you would like to say a few words?' Reverend Daniels attempts to hand Simon's father the microphone.
'Now listen here!' Simon's father barks, swatting it aside, sending a screech through the church.
'Demons!' Reverend Daniels cackles, cupping his ears and ducking theatrically.
But before he is out of range, a fist materialises through the vape smog and sparks his vision. His jaw seems to spin around his entire head several times before snapping back into place. Teetering, he stretches out his arms, flaps like a bird, a little birdie going caw caw, then opens his throbbing mouth to offer a rebuttal but staggers backwards into Simon's casket, bringing down the flowers and photographs.
Meanwhile, back at the zoo, a lion and lioness sit at opposite ends of their recently renovated enclosure, grandly perched atop rocks imported from their native country. They flick their tails and leer disinterestedly at the scores of gawking, pointing onlookers while remaining oblivious to the camera shutters and taunts raining down from behind the newly heightened railings. While the zoo's administration feigns sadness, ever since that lunatic turned them into celebrities, entire families have been crossing state lines to glimpse the man-eating lions. Cha-ching!
Oos and aahs fill the air whenever the animals so much as stretch. But eventually, the onlookers realise that no gory headlines are forthcoming and shuffle along, with a slew of new faces replacing them right up until the creatures prance into their den at closing time.
By then, only a small boy who has evaded his frantic mother and exasperated zoo security remains. He hangs over the railing and watches as a keeper shovels lion shit into a specially marked forensics bin, the local police evidently still sifting through the evidence, flesh made whole once more. When the keeper vanishes, the little boy takes his fingers from his ears and lets the voices in. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.
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