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This story takes place in a small house, not too different from any other. From outside, the house looks sweet and simple. Made of wood, poppies growing all around. Painted white. Dog on rope. Though plain, this house, like its couple inside, has a charismatic feel. Often people stop to gaze. Day and night they pause and stare and don't know why. Do you want to know? No one else does.
      The girl of the house has built a petting zoo inside. Though the zoo is a secret, not being legal, it lends the house a certain air.
      So far the girl has two laying hens, a miniature pony, a goat and three rabbits. Partitions made of chicken wire separate the animals, yet allow ample socializing. To offset the look of the wire, the girl has painted the walls various shades of pink. She has draped sparkly gauze over the windows. From the ceiling hang strand upon strand of Christmas lights. These electric bulbs have many settings: blinking, fluttering, glowing, traveling, and the chickens' favorite, a syncopated combination of all four.
      Each morning, before the husband comes to breakfast, the girl goes down the basement stairs to feed the pets. At sunrise animals must be fed. She remembers this from school. Patting the goat's head, she admires its melon eyes. Finding the rabbits in hiding, she scolds. "Bad rabbits!" she says brightly, putting them back in their pen. They do have fun. Yet the miniature horse seems unhappy. This worries the girl to no end, because the entire zoo has been planned around his small majesty.
      Each dawn since his arrival she has braided his mane carefully and tenderly brushed his legs. In a closet sits a tiny saddle, which occasionally she places upon him. She perches a stuffed monkey there for rides, she leads him around the room. This takes place in afternoon when the husband is gone. The girl had—and continues to have—plans to construct an exit from the basement to the yard so the pony can get appropriate exercise and exposure to fresh air. But how might she do so, without arousing the suspicions of that kind husband?
      Each day, indeed, the husband is away at work, "litigating" and "trying," and probably wouldn't notice. Of course he pays his girl much good attention. He tells her in an absorbed and charming tone each evening about his cases, which have a language of their own she finds amusing. Slip-and-falls. Emotional claims. Pierces in the corporate veil. Because his work is so involving, the husband never ventures down the basement, the domain of "ironing" and "washing." In fact, the girl has had the washer and dryer removed to make room for a water trough. She goes to the Laundree-Mat on Division Street for all such needs. The Laundree-Mat is a wonderful place, but not a place he'd want her to frequent. There, you exchange your money for tokens. They have pinball machines with women that moan!
      The husband is really a delicate man. But she could get away with a lot more than a petting zoo, it seems. So very mindful inside, he doesn't notice a thing. How chicken feed is delivered each week. How catalogues to order live monkeys pile up by the bed. How the girl daily carries two perfect eggs from the basement in her hands, and takes them to the fridge and pretends to remove them from a tray. Bent over the newspaper, his shoulders droop down.
      No, the girl thinks. A revolving door to the yard, garlands of red roses on tiny wooden jumps, stacks of eating hay? It could take a while, but eventually the husband would look outside, see the frolicking pony and become quite alarmed. The girl would never forgive herself for upsetting the husband's sweet balance. He must try to keep calm, for how else could he daily don a button-down shirt, a checkered tie? Dress in a suit, as if to accompany an organ grinder through town? All he lacks is the little cap! "Look at me! A working man! Yeep! Yeep!" That sound you hear in the primate room at the actual zoo.
      It's just too sad. The girl must help him keep calm as best she can so they can pay for their excellent home, for her wonderful petting zoo, for her petting. The animals sleep well there at night, the animals in hiding. She loves them dearly, sometimes even more than him.

      All good animals have secret lives.



"A Petting Zoo Tale" 2002 by Kate Bernheimer.