by Galloway

It was the last hour of quiet before the world woke up and began to shake off sleep, before anyone else arose, complained uselessly to the alarm clock and made coffee. He would get up in the morning and drive to work, getting into his car just before dawn, enjoying the luminous milky light that suffused the sky in the hour between darkness and the cresting of the sun over the horizon. False light, false dawn. The zoo was across town from his apartment, an oasis of green amid the endless corridors of concrete. The few trees that lined his street were stunted, shriveled, as though the frustration of growing in such an environment had made them sulky. The streets were empty at that time, and when he got out of the car, he could always smell it, the verdant scent of green things growing in the sterility of the city air. Even though his job had certain monotony to it, it was always something he enjoyed. Feeding the animals, washing down the back alleys to quell the pungent stench of urine. They had just changed his assignment, from the ape houses to feeding the big cats.

That first morning it was still raining when he left. The asphalt ribboned out in front of him. The water sluicing down the street shone in the headlights, glittered in the dimming light of the streetlamps. When he turned off the main street and into the parking lot the whisper of water along the wheels broke his early lethargy. He walked back into the supply house. He unlocked his cart and began loading the large plastic containers that sloshed redly, full of horsemeat and bones thick with gristle. He pushed it along the narrow pathway behind the enclosures that housed the big cats. He could smell them before he could see them, and was certain that the reverse was true. Boots crunching along through the gravel in the narrow alley, he could hear them starting to wake, the heavy groaning murmurs, stifled growling and yawns that evolved into half-roars, the rich coppery smell of meat alerting them to his presence as much as his man-smell and heavy step.

The tigers were first. The big female pressed her striped flank against the grating, the white spots on the backs of her ears winking at him. Her long tail flicked through the bars, thwacking against his thigh as she moved. Impulsively, he reached out and stroked her lean rump. She pivoted so quickly that he was stunned, caught like a small deer in her intense green gaze. Her lips drawn back over her teeth, the red of her tongue visible in her furry face, she sucked in a draught of air and made a soft chuffing noise as he began to put the meat into the concrete trough under the grate. Kittenishly, she swatted at it with her paw, and then hooked it out, drawing it into the gaping maw. Chewing meditatively she wandered further into her enclosure. Jaguars, panthers, cheetahs, then at the end of the row, the lions.

In the pale gray light of false dawn he could hear them starting to roar, and the sound raised gooseflesh along the backs of his arms, made the downy hair at the back of his neck stand on end. He watched through the grating for a moment as two of the lionesses lolled about in the tall grass, stretching their powerful limbs, plumed tails flicking. Splayed, and blinking lazily they made no motion to rise as he began to pull out yet another trough full of thick slabs of flesh. He watched as out of the shadows of the man-made cliff the third lioness stalked forward through the tall grass, her proud head low between her shoulders, her powerful flanks swaying slightly as she moved. Her eyes were intense, almost lambent in the cool pre-dawn light. As she approached he felt the nervous prickling of his skin, the rush in the blood that was both fear and excitement. A strange, dark longing overtook him. He didn’t initially realize that he was still holding the meat in nerveless fingers until she stretched out one languid paw to swipe at the chunk of flesh. When it hit the back of his hand, the velvet force of it burned but did not cut his skin. When she tilted her head to take a bite of the meat, her hot breath on his hand stirred him with a sudden and nearly palpable force. She tugged the haunch away from him and retreated into the enclosure.

His trance was shattered by the bounding of the huge lion that overtook the graceful creature that carried the dripping meat with her. He snarled half a roar at her and swatted the horseflesh from her jaws. Murmuring her displeasure she swatted at him, her black claws glistening in the dim light. Chuffing then, she retreated into the gloom of the enclosure, but not before looking back at him over her angular shoulders, her amber eyes gleaming with a light all their own. He shivered and poured the rest of the gore into the trough, the last, long bone making a dull clunking as it rattled against the concrete and then was still. Entranced yet he watched the beautiful lioness begin to lick her wide paw and stroke it slowly over her face, behind her ear. He wondered what it would be like to feel that broad tongue on his chest. What her dark muzzle would taste like if he ventured to kiss it? Something dark and sanguine? Something wild? Finally, he grasped the handles of the cart and drew it away down the path before he started the remainder of his morning ritual. He locked the cart, and began to uncoil the heavy black hose. The sharp stream of water broke his thoughts, washed them away from his immediate consciousness, but not before he was aware of how his uniform suddenly didn’t feel right against his skin, the seams coarse and somehow misplaced as he moved.

The following days moved in much the same pattern as the ones before, like putting together a puzzle whose shapes were so familiar that one didn’t even need to look at the pictures. One moment interlocking with the next, a repetitious sameness like the drone of bees in the distance. Feed the tigers, the leopards, the panthers, the cheetahs, then finally at the end of the row, the great beasts, the lions. And always, always her with her golden hide and supple grace, gliding silently over to him through the tall grass, her gleaming amber eyes never leaving his face. His heart would start pounding almost before he reached the final cage. Initially, she was shy of him, aloof. Then, the memory of that first meeting seemed to make her bolder, almost flirtatious, with him.

She would sidle up to the grating, pressing her slim hip to the bars, sashay past him then pivot and return, pressing her cheek against the creaking metal, winking suggestively at him. She would take the proffered horsemeat delicately in her mouth then turn and prance, her tail, like her head lifted, then retreat back to her favorite patch of grass to eat. He would watch her depart, that long tail aloft, coyly revealing herself to him. Emboldened by her display, he would sometimes reach out as she stroked her face against the bars, caress her cheek. He would watch her eyes close and feel the heaviness of her head as she leaned into him. Sometimes, when she came up to the grates she approached them head on, and pressed her black nose slightly between the bars, sniffing at his groin, her breath making a deep almost chuckling sound. It would leave a damp imprint on his uniform, the gentle force of it leaving him erect, nerves flooding with mingled terror and passion. One day, when she again pressed her muzzle against his stiffening penis, her great pink tongue flicked out and swiped the length of him through his trousers.

Their subtle flirtation continued, morning after morning. One day, when the sun had just barely crested over the horizon he made his way back to the lion cages, hurried along by the sound of throaty growls and short, sharp roaring. He turned the corner and gazed through the bars, unable to move, unable to do anything save watch. She lay half crouched on the ground, her graceful hips lifted, her long tail swaying slowly, then flicking up suggestively. When she twitched her tail higher he caught a glimpse of her furred sex, the usually secretive lips now flushed, parted and inviting. Every now and then she emitted a low, murmuring growl, her mouth barely opening as she swiveled her hips yet again, her plumed tail sweeping in slow, sensuous arcs. He was not the only male entranced and aroused by her display. He watched the lion approach her, his mouth opened, sucking in great gulps of air over his tongue, tasting her on the wind. As he watched them he thought he could smell it himself, the sharp muskiness of desire, of need. Grabbing hold of the bars he leaned up against them as the lion suddenly sprang at her, gripping her small waist between huge paws, teeth closing on the nape of her neck as he mounted and drove into her in a single tearing thrust. The lioness roared sharply, its pitch strange and ululating. The lion’s pelvis ground against hers in short, rapid jerks and his own penis throbbed in sympathetic lust as the huge beast suddenly let go of the nape of her neck and growled a long, moaning roar. Then, half turning from her reclining pose, she roared fiercely and batted him sharply across the muzzle, her claws leaving his nose dripping blood.

The metal was soothingly cool as he leaned against it while he panted, listening to her queer half swallowed roaring. He closed his eyes for a moment, imagining the feel of her furry flanks against his thighs, the way her tail would curve up against his chest as he thrust into her, the intense heat of her body engulfing him as he drove towards orgasm. Lost, in his daydream, he never saw her approach, never heard her moving through the tall grass, until she touched him. The press of her cool muzzle against his aching penis sent a delicious eruption through him, making him grasp the rails, his sudden moan punctuated by her throaty chuffing. Her rough tongue scraping over the fabric stretched over his groin, as though she wanted to lap up his semen through his clothes. Without thinking he stroked her sloped brows, her velvety ears, sighing. She murmured her assent and then wandered back into the enclosure, dropping to the ground and rolling onto her back. Still, her eyes never left him; her stare penetrated him to his very core. She knew.

Later, as he was preparing to end his shift, his radio buzzed. He almost ignored it. He was hungry to be home to his meal of rare beef and thoughts of her rough tongue laving over his erect member. He was already imagining her furry limbs wrapping about his hips, the sharp sting of claws in his flesh mingling with the pulsing flame of orgasm in a single stunning conflagration. They wanted him at the vet station near the lion house. Shutting his locker, he ran down the back pathways, the gravel grating underfoot. When he arrived he saw his lioness stretched out on the steel examining table, her breath slow and labored, her beautiful amber eyes open, but unfocused. He overheard the vet saying that she was sedated; they just needed someone to hold her head while they cleaned her teeth. Nodding dumbly, he walked around the table, and stroked the sharp angle of her cheekbone and watched as her eye closed slowly, her exhalation almost a sigh. The doctor left the room to get his implements. He caressed her face, and as the door to the examination room closed, leaned down and kissed her muzzle, her breath against his cheek molten and full of the metallic tang of blood. He stroked her chest, the soft fur of her belly. Wrapping his arms around her chest he lay his head against her ribs and listened to the distant thunder of her heart, the force of her breathing lifting his body as her chest rose and fell.

He slid his hand along her belly, between her hind legs and up towards her tail. One of her hind paws twitched slightly. Another deep, leonine sigh. He rose and walked around her again stroking her magnificent muscles through her rough fur, watching her limbs stretch out, her paws dangling loosely while her chest rose and fell. He went home, tossed his keys on the table, fixed his supper. He wondered what it would be like to just take the keys, open the grates and come to her, press his naked and tender flesh against her hairy frame. It burned, that thought, firing along his nerves leaving him distracted, unfocused. The scent of charred flesh brought him back from his thoughts of the imaginary veldt to his now smoky kitchen. His dinner was tasteless, the over-cooked meat bland and gritty between his teeth. Pacing the confines of his apartment the walls became the bars of his own cage. He flicked on the television, trying to drive the image of her lean, muscular movement from his mind. The flickering light and the noise of the inane sitcoms and pointless blather of the news only drove his thoughts further into their loop. Finally, he pulled on his coat and walked down the street, gulping down great lung-fulls of cool air. His feet found their way to the pub at the corner. He entered and pulled up a stool at the bar and ordered a beer. Staring into the foamy depths of the glass, he watched the people gather and prowl. Men with hot eyes, nostrils flaring as if scenting for the right woman, women preening to attract their stares.

A young woman with light brown hair sat on the barstool next to him. She smiled and laughed, tossing her glossy tresses over her shoulder. But when she smiled her teeth were too flat, too even. Her eyes held no light for him, no fire: they were the soft, docile eyes of a heifer. Her own woman smell lost under layers of powder and deodorant, the thick smell of expensive perfume that made her smell somehow soured, like overripe cheese. He missed her, with her luminous eyes and supple gait, her long tail swaying languidly behind her. He paid his tab and left, the yeasty scent of beer clinging to his skin, making him uneasy. He went home and shed his clothes walking down the hall to the bathroom. Standing under the hot shower he scrubbed the last vestiges of his evening at the bar from his body, trying to eliminate from his pores the powdery scent of the girl who sat next to him. As the water streamed down his back he could catch the last wisps of her scent: the pungent smell of a cat in heat, the fertile scent of estrus.

The sulfurous light of the streetlamps drowned the moonlight as he got back into his car. The old engine coughed into life, belching exhaust into the cooling night air. The car seemed to know its own way along the roads to the zoo, making the turns and stops almost without his intervention. He wasn’t surprised to step out into the parking lot and hear the shift of the gravel beneath his boots; he was only surprised that it had taken him so long to arrive. He had been there all evening in his thoughts, in his fantasies. The back paths were devoid of human life, his sapient presence unique as he hurried down the long muddy path behind the big cats. The great tigress muttered as he stalked past, her green eyes flickering like will-o-wisps in the moonlight, her striped flanks fading into the background of dense foliage, her coughing roar breaking the stillness, heralding his approach. The lion’s den in moonlight seemed alien, the tall grasses like silver statues whistling a soft atonal tune. There, in the midst of the glinting grass she stood, a statue of gold, her only movement the expansion and contraction of her ribs. He unlocked the grate. The iron bars creaked faintly as he pushed the door inward, the hinges pulling it closed behind him. She never moved from the small rise, her beautiful head high, her nostrils flaring as he walked closer.

She only blinked before she turned and walked slowly into the enclosure. She dropped to the grass in front of him, her slender backside half lifted, her lovely tail swishing against the tall grasses, lifting subtly at the end of each stroke. The buttons seemed to part on his uniform of their own accord, the tan work-shirt and trousers falling into rumpled heaps as he approached her. He reached out and stroked her delicate flank, and she wrapped her long plumed tail behind his head, tickling him under one ear. Her musky scent distinct, even amid the tall grass, his erect penis shuddering with his heartbeat. She growled an assent as he wrapped his arms loosely around her narrow hips and entered her. Her flesh boiling hot as he began to move, the scrape of fur against his thighs strange yet rapturous. Her deep, sonorous voice sent vibrations through her body, tantalizing and driving him ever closer to climax. His fingers were clenched in her golden hide, and she looked back over her shoulder at him, her amber eyes reflecting instead peerless blue in the moonlight.

He cried out sharply as he came. Her black lips pulled back over her sharp, white teeth and she gave an abbreviated roar, her great paw buffeting his head and neck. The red blood spurting black as his testicles pumped the last bit of fluid into her heaving recesses. Then he was falling. He couldn’t seem to catch his breath. Funny. The lioness twitched her long tail, then rose and snuffed at his neck, her warm breath in his ear. He closed his eyes, their last image her burning gaze through the silvered grass.