Johnson County Library is pleased to announce that James P. has won first place in the 13-19 age group for the Summer 2021 Youth Writing Contest with his piece "When the Caged Zebra Falls."
My name is James P. and I’m a senior at Blue Valley High School. I’ve been writing for about a year; I began last summer as a means of expressing my thoughts during quarantine. Some of my biggest influences are George Orwell, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Joe Strummer. My other passions are soccer, history, and playing the guitar. My story was inspired by the human desire to be led, and our willingness to accept the guidance of false prophets.
Some said it was out of pity. Others, that he did us all a favor by exposing the superficiality of our beliefs, upon which civilization itself depended. A myriad of philosophical paradoxes came to light, but in little time, no one would remain to answer them.
I was inspired to document my thoughts when I found an old work of our city’s greatest artistic mind spray-painted on the Western wall of the city. Beyond it, no evidence of life could be found; or at least, none made its way past the wall. On it, Seneca the Free, as he once called himself, had written:
When the caged zebra falls, so too will these walls.
No one alive today knew Seneca - anyone who did would’ve been in the same firing line as he. As such, his works were shrouded in ambiguity, their ancient message lost on us. Of course, we did understand the reference to the zebra. It lived in the hearts of all who resided in that concrete oasis within the vast American wasteland. Within the vast concrete abyss was an oasis of green and gold: a pasture for a lone zebra.
It mimicked what the scientific minds of the day believed was its natural habitat: large, flat grasslands. It contained a small pond and enough grass atop the artificial soil to support its grazing. It appeared one day in the carefully preserved enclosure, and it was announced that the area was off-limits to everyone. We soon forgot how long it had been there; the only other animals in the city were rodents and pests, and those seemed never to die, so we had no idea how long it could be expected to live. There was a collective paranoia, however, that the zebra couldn’t live long. We clung to its existence like the grime to our skins, feeling that if we were to lose either, our true, monstrous selves that killed the Earth would be revealed in cold, plain sight.
Its thick coat of striped hair was the cleanest thing in the entire city. A story went around that Seneca believed its stripes were a message, in morse code, to the people containing some knowledge that would set them free. That was before he died, his last ravings of wild, eclectic genius. I grew up with the zebra as a staple in my life. I would pass by it every day and arrive late after spending stolen minutes gazing through the fence. Its gait was long and elegant, but failed to hide its fierce frustration at the limited space in front of it as it ground to a halt next to the crystal pond.
I was not alone in my desperate admiration for the creature. Over the course of a day, the entire leeching population of the city might make its way towards the shimmering enclosure, and stop to dream of a distant past in which the world was not the mechanical pit that it was in that moment. Though it was never stated outright, we began to move on from the Gods of old, and instead focus our worship towards the ethereal mammal caged in the center of the city.
And worship we did, for the city deprived us of the remaining facets of our humanity.
Synthetic food, synthetic politicians, and synthetic art filled our stomachs and our minds, crowding out the space where spirituality once blossomed. We existed in perpetual disatisfaction, kept at bay by the glamorous intrigue of the city’s plastic veil. When we threatened to pull it back, the enclosure sprouted up in the only remaining space within the walls that hadn’t been developed, and we forgot our nagging angst.
It was a particularly chilly morning when, once again, I stood outside its enclosure and listened as a deafening crack carved its way through the atmosphere, echoing off the skyscrapers in a jagged route across the city. I watched as the zebra fell, mid-run, and collapsed in a heap, dying not in grace, as it had lived, but swiftly and savagely, the way humans in the city died. Cries rang out. Sobs, moans, gasps for air in the struggle against the onrushing of tears.
I fell to my knees before I was able to look once more at our fallen deity. Confusion reigned, prolonged by the appearance of jagged metal wiring that was made visible by the bullet’s laceration. Sparks of artificial life cackled as the zebra gazed blankly with its mechanical eye towards my direction, its face expressionless, offering a blank canvas upon which the city’s millions would direct their clustered emotions.
“It’s not real! It was never real!” someone cried, her voice trailing off at the end in hopes that fate would contradict her. But the creature did not bleed, and our disbelief blended into rage. The crowd that surrounded the enclosure began to move down the street as people called out, “It came from over there, I saw him!”
Within minutes the perpetrator was found perching in one of the avenue’s plastic trees.
The sea of civilians was impenetrable. The police were nowhere. Justice was ours.
“What is murder, if not the killing of a living thing?” he cried. “And have I not shown you that this thing is not living?” His voice was high and clear as his gunshot.
“You may kill me, but know that you will not feel the satisfaction you seek, for you have not taken life, merely an imitation of it. Can you not see that you, also, are merely imitations?” The tree began to shake. The old man’s crazed eyes darted around helplessly, and it was that expression that I recognized from a graffiti self-portrait, deep in the city’s underground. The owner of the crazed eyes was Seneca.
Soon he was trampled by the mob, and the dust of his bones and the dirt of the city streets blended together, and he was no more. The mob simmered, and collectively agreed to erase the day from memory. But I could not bear the facade. The curtain had been pulled.
Nearby, a crane bore a massive, iron wrecking ball. We were near the outskirts of the city, where the buildings were torn down in order to bolster our defences. I broke in and swung the crane towards the wall. With an immense thud, it struck and it began to break down. I swung again, and again, until I felt the Earth tremble as it collapsed. I waited desperately for the dust to clear, until I felt the baton strike my head, and all was black.
I awoke in my cell. The only sounds were the violent gusts of wind and the steady drip of a nearby faucet. Outside my window I could see only the blank, bleak face of the wall I had tried desperately to destroy. I had no bed, no mirror, nor companion to be found. I didn’t question my sentence; I knew as I attacked the wall that it would be my last act as a free man.
But I find solace in the knowledge that I never was free, and that I have simply moved from one prison to another. I spend my days carving the events of my life into the concrete that surrounds me. I know that soon, it will be time for this building to be destroyed, to enter its next phase in the city’s manufactured life cycle. Until then, I’ll wait for a crow to land outside my window.