The runner surges forward along a dirt track. It takes him between a patchwork of wheat and rapeseed that ripples and sways beneath the kiss of a light breeze. With less than half of his run complete, a rough ‘v’ of perspiration has already soaked his t-shirt and his shorts cling to his thighs like a second skin.
His pounding feet snap branches and kick back foliage as the track leads him out of the fields and into a small wood. The drop in temperature below the canopy cools him through his wet clothes and, when he exhales, miniature clouds trail out behind his head. They swirl in the air before dispersing as if they were never there at all.
After several minutes of uneven, sheltered running the track takes the runner back out into the morning. He squints against the light and throws a hand up to shield his eyes. Leaving the treeline he continues his run through a meadow of tall grass, heading towards the tree at its centre. His halfway point. A few hundred metres and then he’ll circle the tree and begin his run home.
Movement. The keeper’s mouth freezes mid-bite, the half-eaten apple clamped between her teeth. She scans the scene. Nothing. A glance at her watch tells her it’s time and so she tosses the apple and lowers her eye to the rifle scope. A gloved finger hooks around the trigger in preparation. The keeper finds the opening in the treeline and then moves the rifle right. Trees swipe past in a blur. There. Its outline flashes between tree trunks, flicking in and out of view. She holds it within the scope for a few seconds, matching its pace, and then she tracks ahead of it and returns to the break in the trees. The keeper waits, perched in the tree at the centre of the meadow.
A handful of nesting birds are disturbed and launch free of the meadow, chirping a protest as they go. “Bingo!” the keeper mutters to herself.
Through the scope, the keeper watches as it bursts into the meadow and heads straight up the path towards the tree, just like it’s done for the past three mornings. A creature of habit.
The keeper draws in a long breath, holds it down and draws the rifle into her cheek.
She waits and watches. It pushes against the slight incline of the meadow, gritting its teeth and pumping its arms and legs. Then it glances up at the tree. It doesn’t see her but in that moment their eyes meet through the scope. She squeezes the trigger. It lets out a yelp when the dart hits its torso.
The keeper exhales and looks over the rifle.
It’s stopped running and is looking down at the fluorescent dart protruding from its stomach. It looks up and around at the tree, confusion on its face. It claws at the dart and yanks it free, then it pauses. Its head flicks right, then left. It drops the dart and sprints into the tall grass.
The keeper sighs. She watches it run through the meadow, leaving a trail of flattened grass in its wake. It zig-zags for several minutes until the tranquilizer takes affect and then it collapses. The keeper doesn’t move until its arms and legs have stopped thrashing, then she reaches for her radio.
“Got it. Get the truck,” she barks.
The school children push and shove to gain the best possible view into the pen. It’s a two metre wide steel box with a reinforced glass front and is identical to the other five in the row. The back wall contains a small square hatch and a thin mattress is pushed against one wall. Straw is scattered sparsely across the stone floor that’s mixed with the food and water from its upturned bowls.
“That’s it. Come on. Make room for everyone. Right then. Here’s our newest arrival,” announces the guide.
Some of the children flinch as it charges forward and pounds the glass with its fists. Two of the sillier girls squeal louder than they need to do. Spittle hits the glass as it shouts, but the pen holds onto any sound that it makes. Blood smears and scratches mark the inside of the glass.
“Miss. I think it wants to get out,” a boy calls from the back.
“It’s only been here a few days,” points out the guide, “it’s still getting used to its new home.”
It runs to the back of the pen, grabs a bowl and hurls it at the glass.
“Do they eat what we do?” asks one blonde girl. The metal bowl clatters silently to the floor.
“Oh, yes. They eat fish. Or chicken. And lots of fruit and vegetables. The local supermarket donates all of their bruised food,” the guide replies.
“Even sprouts?” asks a boy. The group start giggling. Some stick out their tongues and make vomit noises.
“Maybe one or two at Christmas,” jokes the guide, raising more titters from the group.
“Do they have break time like at school?” asks another boy.
“That’s a very good question,” replies the guide. “Yes they do. We let them out into the yard for an hour every day. That way, they can all play together. We want their new home to feel just like they’re living in the wild.”
A version of this story was originally published on twistedsisterlitmag.com in July 2017.