The Observable Characteristics of Organisms

800px-Clara_1749_Oudry squareIn the zoo we accomplish many things. The animals are always fed and locked in their cages. Habitats are hosed down well and visitors have a decent view, even though the animals sit completely still most of the time. My daughter has a low tolerance for such things. She is four and has a low tolerance. “The creatures look so sad,” she says. “They are not sad,” I assure her. “They are maybe a little home sick, they are maybe a little lonely, but they are not sad.” Yesterday I went into the penguin habitat. It smelled like chlorine and sweaty feet, so I opened the door a crack to let the place breathe a bit. A penguin squeezed through the crack and ran into the pedestrian path. It was too slippery to catch. I tried to stop it from entering the polar bear cage by throwing a large rock at it. But I missed and in it went. “To be swallowed whole!” I said triumphantly to the gasping crowd, an arm raised for emphasis. My daughter is in the employee lounge right now dissecting owl pellets. Plucking tiny mouse skulls from them. She wants to be a zoologist. “I like to look at things from different angles, Daddy,” she says to me. I am not for or against this idea. I do, however, wish she would find an interest in botany or figure skating, something less repulsive, something not as smelly.  My daughter walks with a disgusting limp. This is why she will always be single, I think. My daughter, the limping zoologist. I will love her anyway. Today we had ice cream at the concession stand near the entrance of the zoo. I watched my daughter eat the ice cream, chocolate all over her nose and cheeks. Even a little smudge on her forehead. Disgusting, I thought, and wiped it off with a wet nap. I took her into the greenhouse to show her the plant life. We walked carefully down the aisles, holding our hands out to brush the tops of the greenery. My daughter sang a song as she walked, something about the observable characteristics of organisms with favorable phenotypes. Afterwards we witnessed the birth of a rhinoceros. It was magical, to be sure, and difficult to watch. When rhinos have babies they tremble, they tremble the way all mothers tremble when having babies I bet. When it was over, the rhino circled her calf, sniffing at it with magnificent nostrils. She lifted it to its feet with her horn. I’ve always wanted to be a mother, if only to tremble, to feel the warmth of the creature leaving me. “It will never happen!” I said triumphantly to the rhinos in their hay-smelling habitat.


Ryan MacDonald‘s story collection, The Observable Characteristics of Organisms, will be published in August 2014 by FC2.  This, the title story from that collection and winner our American Short(er) Fiction Prize, appears in our Fall 2013 issue, out now. Ryan’s solo and collaborative work has been exhibited or performed at Fountain Studios, New York Live Arts, The Continental Review, Flying Object, and St. Mark’s Church, among others.  He is a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and posts things at

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