genre: inspiration/children’s fic
Beauty upon beauty. Legend upon legend. The menagerie was more than a zoo, more than a place to keep and display wild animals. It was her home. She’d grown up there and never left the confines of its walls. She couldn’t imagine a better place to live and play, and Lola was certain there wasn’t such a place in existence.
The queen of Boringale was Lola’s favorite guest to the menagerie because the antics of the animals great and small never failed to bring delight to her face. And the transformation it brought to her visage always amazed Lola in her sheltered innocence.
Boringale was purported to be the most bland place in the whole world, and the queen had married in to its rule without knowing how blah it would be. People from everywhere came to see the menagerie, and Lola had overheard all the stories. It served to reinforce her belief that the menagerie was certainly the best home for her, and she had no desire to leave.
But there was something different about the queen on this visit. She did not light up with wonder as she strolled along the meandering lanes of the extraordinary home to beasts of every fantastical dream or nightmare.
No. Not this time.
Lola watched her with growing discomfort twisting tiny knots in her belly. Where was the queen’s smile? Her bright white teeth lined up so prettily in a perfect row? Where were her deep dimples and the sparkles dancing in her eyes?
Lola’s heart had never felt this before, and she wondered what it was that pulled down at the corners of her mouth and drew her eyebrows together in the middle. She didn’t recognize her own face in the reflection of the little pool by the banyan tree, but still her heart was filled with curiosity over the queen of Boringale.
In her quest to uncover the reason for the queen’s strangeness Lola slinked through the bushes and brambles, her eyes ever trained on the bland face of the raven-haired royal. It was difficult to draw near but never be seen, yet she persisted in her curious pursuit.
Her eyes went wide and she froze still as the great rock at the center of the menagerie when the queen’s eyes met hers in a sudden and unprecedented way. Lola wanted to run, to hide behind the leg of the great grey elephant who lazily pulled leaves from the branches above her head, but her legs wouldn’t obey.
“Who are you, child?” the queen of Boringale asked, her voice the most melancholy sound to ever flutter into Lola’s ears.
Lola stared, her mouth open as if to speak but at a loss for words. She’d never spoken to a guest at the menagerie. She’d never made a peep above a whisper and then only to the residents of these very trees and rolling hills. What did one say to a queen when one did not know what was proper to say to the keeper who brushed the trails clean?
“Come to me, little one,” the queen said, her voice commanding but not unkind.
It seemed prudent to obey the soft voice of the queen with dull eyes and down-turned lips, so Lola stepped from the shadows and placed her bare feet on the gritty dirt of the path, a swath of light slanting across her face. She hoped that this feat of courage would reveal to her the reason for the queen’s missing wonder and delight.
The queen wrapped her fingers in her skirts and lifted them out, settling them about her in a soft cloud of satin and lace as she lowered herself to look Lola in the eye. With one hand she reached, slow and gentle, toward Lola’s face and laid fingers on her cheek with the softness of the moss dangling from the branches of her favorite ancient evergreen.
“Are you alone here?”
The queen’s question took Lola a moment to consider before her eye brows shot up and she shook her head from side to side, the queen’s hand dropping away with the clipped movement. Lola was never alone here. She had the other animals of legend and lore to keep her company and the beauty of the menagerie to occupy her time.
“Oh, you are lucky, then, sweet child.”
The queen sighed and stood to her full height, twice that of Lola who tipped her head back to stare at the shimmery wetness formed along the bottom lids of the Boringale queen’s eyes. She longed to know what robbed the softness of smile and twinkle from her regal face.
As if she could hear Lola’s thoughts, the queen tilted her head down, letting the droplets of water slip down her cheeks, and said, “I am not so lucky. I am alone.” Her eyes drifted to the elephant and then to the forest beyond the small pond. “I do not have such a beautiful place to grow or such astounding and wonderful friends to play with each day. I do not have branches to swing from or the freedom of lazy afternoons napping by the pond.”
Now she understood why the queen did not smile in delight. She was lonely. Lola’s heart was heavy for her, but she didn’t know how to help. It seemed beyond her ability to give the queen what she wanted. Without thinking, she took the queen’s hand in her own and looked up at her downcast fast.
Words didn’t come. Words would never suffice, but in the midst of the menagerie, the home of legend and beauty, beasts beyond imagining, Lola knew words were unnecessary. Here, there was wonder and magic enough, even to share with the queen of Boringale.
She looked up at the face of the queen and witnessed something she had no idea would happen with a simple act of kindness. A growing smile and the missing twinkle of wonder shimmered under the sheen of tears. In that instant, the weight in Lola’s chest lifted, replaced by a burgeoning warmth, and she wondered if maybe until that very moment in the magnificent menagerie of her life she had been alone and lonely too.