Writing inspired by the SWC creative writing prompt:

Metal Fish, Falling Snow.  Take inspiration from the above seemingly disjointed book title (by Australian author Cath Moore) to come up with a title for your creative writing piece.  Create the most intriguing word combination which must include a material, an animal and nature in motion.

Ceramic Tiger, Driving Rain

By Connie Phlipot

Back in the day, I mean really back, the map of Europe was divided into a few big swatches of colors. These huge pieces of land were  empires, ruled by kaisers or tsars or kings — who amassed fortunes by pillaging other civilizations. They competed with each other in the ostentatiousness display of these fortunes. At first they built fabulous castles perched on high, windy peaks with their riches but after awhile the cold, bare, echoing rooms bored them. They sent their emissaries across the globe to gather art and artifacts to fill the empty rooms. The castles overflowed, so they created special buildings, museums, to show off their finds.  

Soon even the most provincial capital had its treasure chest. The emperors needed to be grander than a third rate prince in a fourth rate province. The wealthiest rulers gathered their assistants and instructed them to find something extraordinary to exhibit. Something to dazzle the subjects of the neighboring regimes.

Gregor Gregorivch was such an assistant. He had been born in one of the most remote corners of the empire, in a village of less than a hundred souls, tucked so deeply in the folds of the velvety mountains that the inhabitants saw the sun only a few hours in the middle of the day. Gregor was prepared to follow his father’s trade as a shoemaker, ruining his eyesight, as had his father, by working long hours by candlelight. 

One mid-day in spring he was working by the window to take advantage of the sunlight, tapping a heel onto a pair of boots, the leather so worn it could barely sustain the weight of its sole. Gregor looked up at a long shadow crossing his doorway. High glistening boots at one end of the shadow, a peaked hat at the other and in between a richly woven fabric, the color of fir trees in deep winter. The figure took a limping step forward. Gregor saw at once that the problem was not the man’s legs but his boots.

“Sir, can I repair your boot for you?” Gregor asked. The man stopped, removed his hat and bowed.

“My good man, how brilliant you are. These boots have been torturing me for days.”

Gregor put aside the worn out footwear he had been repairing and took the offending boot in his hands. He ran his fingers over the soft, rich fabric and sniffed the sweetness of well-tanned leather. He quickly surmised that the cobbler had fastened the sole with cheap nails that pierced the fine leather.

“Can you fix them?”

Gregor nodded, pulled out the appropriate combination of tacks and tools and finished the job before the sun had retreated from the window. The man smiled as brightly as the mid-day sun when he put on his boots. He took a few half-running steps around the workshop.  

“My dear, dear cobbler. You are much too accomplished to live in this crevice of a village. Come with me. I am the emperor’s envoy for collection. With your keen eye and perception you will be a marvelous help to me.”

Gregor had no idea what a collector was, let alone an envoy, but he packed up his tools, put a closed sign on his shop and followed man out of the village as the sun slipped behind the mountains.

Indeed, Gregor had a knack for finding interesting, unique contributions to the Emperor’s collections. He rose among the ranks, eventually replacing the envoy who had hired him. Nonetheless, when he heard that the emperor was bored with the statues of armless goddesses, rare stones and gold jewelry, he was dismayed. What else could there be? A squirrel chattered at him from the tree branch above, as he sat on a bench reading the Emperor’s decree. Gregor threw an acorn at the squirrel, sending him scampering across the branch and onto a neighboring tree.

Life— motion— sound. That was missing from the Emperor’s collections. Animals were needed — unique species from around the world, more interesting and curious than any dead artifact. Now mind you, the idea of exhibiting animals was a strange concept. Animals were either to be eaten, ridden, or feared. But Gregor presented his concept to a delighted Emperor. 

And thus the Royal Zoo was born. Beginning with small birds and mammals, the emperor’s assistants under Gregor’s direction brought back to the capital a menagerie of exotic creatures — monkeys, tigers, tapirs, elephants and finally a panda. When Gregor himself tired of the travel, he was given command of the zoo’s administration, which he pursued until his retirement, at which time he turned the job over to his daughter, an accomplished zoologist.

 Over the years, zoos became a standard in every capital city. Empires collapsed, but zoos continued. Each tiny burg boasted a least one mangy lion or timid monkey. Until the great war destroyed them all. Across Europe lions, tigers and elephants died far from their native lands, hit by inaccurate missiles or driven out by the terrifying crash of bombs. They wandered into cities and villages dying of hunger or shot by frightened farmers. 

After the war, Gregor’s great-great-great-grand daughter Anita and her friend huddled under an umbrella, as rain whipped around the sodden ruin of the first Imperial zoo. She hadn’t followed her ancestor’s profession of zoo-keeping, but had become a sculptor. 

“Never again should we torture these animals in enclosed spaces or leave them vulnerable to mans cruelty,” her friend said.  

“You’re right, but I want to remember these animals that gave joy to people. And to honour my great-great-great grandfather.”

Her friend shook her head and suggested they have a coffee in one of the newly opened cafes in a bombed out building, but Anita decided to returned to her studio.  She spent the afternoon sketching a tiger — handsome, not fierce, but proud. Satisfied with his form, she pondered the materials. He had to be blue, a stunning, dazzling, lapis lazuli blue, but of course, she couldn’t afford that stone for such a large sculpture. The next few days, she wandered the building renovations warehouses that had sprung up after the war. Most were very utilitarian, basic concrete slabs, cement blocks, window panes. At the edge of the area, she found someone who was trying to recapture the beauty of the city. He had an array of materials for re-fashioning the once whimsical ornaments of the city’s structures. She told him what she was after and he helped her find the right stones, paints, dyes. 

The tiger stands there to this day, almost one hundred years after Anita sculpted him. A tiger the color of the sea at dawn. Visiting children don’t question his fantastical color, that he doesn’t look at all like the tigers in their books. They stroke his mane and believe that anything is possible. 

Connie Phlipot

Connie Phlipot

Sunday Writers' Club Member

Connie draws upon her experiences as a former U.S. diplomat in her short stories, flash fiction and creative non-fiction.  Her novel-in-progress is loosely based on her grandparents’ lives as Belarusan immigrants in the coal mining community of early 20th century America.  

 

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