Hidden Worlds Petting Zoo & Reserve
Enter a Realm of the Unexpected and Unseen
The ancient barn stood on a field of young grass, crescented on its sunset side by a half-moon sliver of sylvan forest. Filling a dip in the land to its east, a limpid pond, lake-like in its depth and sparkling clarity, cupped the morning sunrise.
Jacketed in planks of enchanted silver oak with a soutache trim of gleaming white birch, the barn wore upon its head a gambrel roof that lent its face the apt aspect of a treasure chest. At the dusty foot of a long, ribboning lane, a painted wooden billboard was the unassuming herald teasing visitors with a suggestion of the fantastic trove the barn secured:
“Hidden Worlds Petting Zoo & Reserve.”
A group of children plundered forward past the sign, needing no encouragement to hurry toward the experience that awaited them. Giddy chatter on the train here had been of nothing but the wonders they would soon be counted among the privileged to have seen. For few in the world could boast of having laid eyes on a manticore, much less testify as to the texture of its bright red mane. Would it be silky or coarse? Was a real unicorn as graceful and beautiful as the ones in the storybooks, or was it just an ugly old rhinoceros, like the girl with the pigtails and know-it-all attitude claimed?
Questions of that sort – How big was a basilisk? Could it really kill with a look? What happened if a basilisk looked at a cockatrice? What color was a wyvern? Did they sleep on gold like dragons? Where did the gold come from? What did a chimera eat? Would a chimera eat me? Could I take home a Pegasus feather? – had flown through the train cars, saturating the atmosphere until one could swat away interrogation points like a cloud of gnats.
There was one boy in particular who had both asked and answered the largest sum of the questions.
His name was Lucien. Among all the children invited to Hidden Worlds that day, Lucien felt himself most destined for the experience. When he was yet unborn, as his mother sat in the garden, a jackalope had appeared and lobbed a radish at Lucien, thus revealing to his parents that their son had been singled out for an extraordinary fate among the world of hidden creatures. Lucien’s first word had been “griffon,” his first steps taken in pursuit of the alphabet learning book “M Is For Manticore”. By the time he could talk, he could rattle off more facts about mythical creatures than any ten adults. When asked what he intended to be when he grew up, Lucien unfailingly answered “animal doctor,” which of course meant veterinarian to the beasts of story and legend.
To say that Lucien had been excited to receive an invitation to the Hidden Worlds Petting Zoo & Reserve would be like saying static electricity was a good approximation of lightning. Even the train ride through the Mystical Mountains, jollily diverting for the rest of the children, failed to distract Lucien from his anticipation of the upcoming experience. Now that the barn was in sight, the enthusiasm bursting from the boy threatened to thunderclap. He raced ahead of the group.
“Lucien, slow down a touch,” Mrs. Fairywings, the children’s chaperone, called out. “Stay with the others.”
The boy dragged his feet until the other children neared, then bounded up the path again until Mrs. Fairywings gave another shout. Despite being forced to proceed in this hare-like manner, Lucien was the first to arrive at the barn. Or so he thought.
His elation floundered a whit as Lucien initially took the greeter for a child who had tortoised his way to the finish line ahead of him. A second glance reinflated the boy’s eagerness, for he identified the overlarge features, metallic skin, and phosphorescent gaze of a kobold.
As the remainder of the group arrived, the kobold farmer saluted them with a jagged-toothed smile that creased his face into leathery folds.
“My name is Humbert.” He slipped his knobby fingers into the pockets of his overalls. In the crook of his arm, the kobold held a wicker basket full of white mushrooms. “Are you all excited to enter the petting zoo?”
The tips of his pointed ears perked up beneath his straw hat as the children responded with an enthusiastic shout.
“Very good. But there is one thing you must all do first,” Humbert told them. “Did you know that human bodies aren’t made to recognize the hidden world? Most humans will look at chimeras and manticores and see lions. They will look at a unicorn and see a horse.”
“Or a rhinoceros?” A boy in a striped shirt nudged the pig-tailed girl. She stuck her tongue out at him until Mrs. Fairywings shushed them both.
Humbert continued, “To most humankind, a cockatrice becomes either a rooster or a serpent, but never the two-in-one that it really is. Human eyes simply cannot sort out how a thing can be more than what it appears.”
The kobold unhooked the basket on his elbow and displayed it to the group.
“To humans, these are merely mushrooms. They look, smell, feel, and taste like mushrooms to you, but all those silly accidentals hide what these mushrooms truly are at their essence: fairy souls.”
“Ah, but you must,” the kobold told the children. “Otherwise you will not be able to see the wonderous creatures that live inside this barn.”
“Ew, gross,” a little boy cried. “I’m not going to eat a fairy soul.”
“Won’t the fairy die?”
The kobold shook his head. “A fairy soul cannot die any more than a human’s can. The fairy will be born through you instead of through the earth. You won’t even notice as it passes through you into the world, but in the meantime, you will be able to temporarily see with the eyes of a sprite.”
Humbert’s luminescent eyes grew round as he warned, “You must never, ever, eat of mushrooms in the wild, for there are other spirits that can live in them, and many of these are evil, seeking to destroy humankind.”
The children each reached out and received a fairy soul, which they ate with a mixture of awe and reluctance.
The basket passed to Lucien. The boy fancied he saw a pale blue glow emanating from the basket. Perhaps it was the reflection of the sky falling upon the white mushrooms; nevertheless, Lucien handed the basket back to Humbert.
“I don’t need to eat a fairy soul,” he said. “It’s my destiny to be here, so I’ll be able to see the creatures without its help.”
Besides, he had never cared for mushrooms. When his parents ordered them on pizza, he always picked them off.
“As you wish.” The kobold turned toward the barn door closed behind him. “And now, children, we are ready to enter.”
“I don’t feel any different,” pig-tail girl murmured to striped-shirt boy.
“Me neither,” he whispered back.
At Humbert’s touch, the massive door swung open as if by a stray breeze. The children gasped in wonderment.
“Lucien, are you sure you don’t want a mushroom?” asked Mrs. Fairywings as the barn’s interior came into view.
“No-” The boy clapped his hands together, and with a hop exclaimed- “I can see them!”
Rafters stretched overhead like the bones of a monstrous whale. Through dormer windows set high in the roof, shafts of sunlight fell as in a cathedral. Dust motes glittered, drifting like specks of gold flake upon creatures penned in stalls stretched along both sides of the wide breezeway. Lucien catalogued the menagerie of fantastical creatures like Noah in his ark: dragon, chimera, unicorn, griffon … he really saw them all.
As they entered, the dog in the aisle lifted its third head. It welcomed the group with a joyful bark, lolling its tongue while its other heads continued to doze upon its black paws. The bottom one snored gently, though its tail whipped furiously. The children emitted a delighted shriek.
“Pay no mind to old Cerberus,” Humbert spoke with mock-dismissiveness, laughter shining in his eyes. “I’m sure you’ve all seen a barn dog before, right?”
The kobold led them to a low pen housing a kitten-sized, lizard-like beast. Lucien pointed to the crown-shaped crest exclaiming atop the creature’s head.
“A basilisk!” he crowed. “They can kill you just by looking at you. I thought they were bigger.”
“Basil is still growing,” Humbert explained. “He’s too shy to look anyone in the eye just yet. And before you ask, basilisks aren’t poisonous until they’re mature.”
Basil’s head remained lowered bashfully as the children each ran a finger along its scaled spine, cooing as it undulated in pleasure, cat-like, under their touch. Lucien could almost doubt Humbert’s assurances about basilisk poison as his finger tingled with the thrill of having touched a real-life mythical creature.
Next, “Here’s our manticore, Magma,” the kobold introduced.
Magma’s unnervingly human face melted into a dopey smile – a mirror of Lucien’s own – as the boy scratched behind its ear. The manticore’s fire-engine mane was soft as rabbit fur, Lucien noted. A dreamlike giddiness threatened to overtake him. His hand crawled with pins and needles, and tears welled in his eyes as they proceeded to the next creature.
“Clide the chimera eats just about anything,” Humbert revealed. “Can anyone tell me why?”
Lucien knew the answer: its stomach section was goat. But the boy couldn’t answer around the lump grown in his throat.
They next gravitated toward a stall glowing with its own ethereal light. Tears streamed freely down Lucien’s cheeks as they approached the unicorn. Stamping a graceful hoof into the ground, it tossed its flaxen mane in greeting. Lucien lost his breath. The boy reached for the unicorn’s velvet nose with a trembling hand. Bumps rose on his flesh. As its breath steamed into his palm, Lucien’s heart swelled. So did his eyes.
“Who wants to see a baby dragon?”
The other children’s shouts resounded an eager affirmative. Lucien, too, wanted very much to see a baby dragon, but he was having a difficult time seeing anything anymore. The boy squinted.
“Lucien, are you all right?” Mrs. Fairywings asked.
“Ah’m gud.” Lucien flashed the thumbs up sign in the chaperone’s general direction. He tried to smile reassuringly.
“Are you sure?”
“Ah-CHOO!” Lucien answered.
“What’s that on your arms?”
Through his dim, watery vision, Lucien saw the other children staring at him as though he’d become one of the barn’s attractions. The pig-tailed girl even stopped in the middle of filching a gold coin from the dragon calf’s stall to gawk at the spots breaking out over Lucien.
With a sympathetic pat on the shoulder, “I’m sorry, my boy. You seem to be allergic to something in here,” Humbert told Lucien. The kobold eyed him up and down. “Maybe everything.”
“I’m fine,” Lucien insisted. His voice sounded like it was trapped on the other side of a brick wall.
“Why don’t you and I wait outside for the others?” Mrs. Fairywings suggested. “We can go down to the pond and visit the Nessie,”
“No, I have to see the jackalope warren. I’m meant to be here. It’s my destiny.”
“Son,” Humbert the kobold said, “your heart can know that, and your mind can know that, but I’m afraid your human body is ignorant of it.”
Sniffling, Lucien allowed Mrs. Fairywing to lead him out of the barn.
“Don’t pick up the Chupacabra cubs,” he heard Humbert telling the other children. “The goblin or I will hand one to you.”
At the pond, Lucien resentfully hurled stones, skipping them for the sea sprites to chase. Maybe the jackalope had been telling his mom to eat a salad. Jackalopes were mean and stupid. Lucien scratched at his multi-colored hives. Almost as mean and stupid as the human body.