by Peter Barlow
It was a fine spring day. People were dining alfresco at a café in the leafy Brussels suburb of Tervuren. The approach was so discreet that the diners missed it. It wasn't until an elderly woman looked away from her companion and said, "Oh, my," that anyone noticed the zebra sticking its head over the fence separating the patio from the street. Everyone admired it, saying things like, "That's a fine looking zebra," and, "You don't see things like this every day." A few people took pictures of the zebra, but no one thought to forward them to the media or post them online. The zebra stood for a moment on the pavement pondering the diners, and then trotted back up the avenue it had come down. It rounded a corner and was gone; no one saw where it went after that.
Two days later, a newlywed couple in Bruges were about to take a horse-drawn carriage ride around the city. The bride was holding her bouquet to one side as she and her groom posed for a picture in front of the Gothic Town Hall. Before he could snap the shutter, the photographer gasped. The bride and groom turned to see a zebra nosing at the bouquet. After a moment of sniffing, the zebra chomped at the flowers. The bride shrieked, the groom shouted something meant to scare the beast off, and the photographer recovered long enough to snap a few quick pictures. The zebra, alarmed by the noise, galloped off toward a nearby building and disappeared down an alley next to it. The wife cursed, the husband cursed, and the photographer's pictures were one and all out of focus.
The next day in Ghent, another zebra wandered into the atrium of an office building off the Friday Market Square. No one saw it navigate the revolving door either coming or going, and no one thought to check the security cameras. The half a dozen people there—a maintenance man and some office workers on a break—watched it as it circled the indoor fountain, stopped to take a drink from it, and then left. The maintenance man wondered if there was a building function he hadn't gotten a memo on, and if that function included a petting zoo. Either way, no one followed up on it.
That evening in the nine o'clock hour, there were four sightings within minutes of each other: one in the Bruges Beguinage, one in Brussels near the Atomium, one in Koksijde in the west, one in Hasselt in the east. The one in Brussels made the news if only because one of the anchorpeople saw it personally while stepping out of a restaurant in search of a taxi after having dinner with his mistress. The news coverage there was on its way to being a filler story until the other three towns reported their own zebras. Then it wasn't filler anymore.
As news of the four zebras was being broadcast, Daniel stepped out of his shower to hear someone banging on the door to his flat. He cursed, shouted for whoever to hold on a minute, dried himself quickly and went to the door, wrapping the towel around his waist. As he approached, he heard a woman's voice, panicking, saying, "Let me in, Daniel! Quickly!" He sighed, opened the door, and stood to one side as the woman ran into his flat, dropping her purse and keys and tote bag. Daniel met Liesje three weeks after he moved to Brussels. She knocked on his door with a complaint that there was a panging noise coming from her radiator. A few weeks after that, a question as to why her clothes dryer had stopped working; it had come unplugged. A few weeks after that, resetting the clock on her microwave after a power outage. It was always something, and everything was a five-alarm emergency.
"Have you seen?" she said. Her left hand was grabbing and rubbing her necklace as if it were a rosary. "The zebras."
"The what?" he said.
She found the remote control to his television and turned it on. The news was showing a new video clip: a dazzle of six zebras captured on surveillance cameras walking through the Station Square in Bruges.
"I knew it," Daniel said. "I knew it, I knew it, I knew it. Where's my phone?" His towel dropped to the floor. Liesje screamed again, but he ignored her as he dialed.
A mile away, Inspector Geerts of the Brussels Police was reclining behind his desk, sipping a cup of coffee to help stay awake. Ordinarily his shift would have finished a few hours before, but a colleague was on holiday and somebody needed to be in charge at the station in the event anything happened. On the television in front of him was the picture of the six zebras in Bruges. He stared at the screen for a moment and shook his head. Jesus, he thought. What will these college kids think of next? That was his answer to anything out of the ordinary: college kids.
A moment later his desk phone rang. After a sigh, he answered it. "Inspector Geerts. Hey there, Daniel." He lived two doors down from Daniel in the same building. The two had exchanged pleasantries and some brief conversations, but nothing meaningful. "What can I—okay, calm down. Who is that screaming? Liesje from upstairs? Can you get her to calm down for a minute? Alright, then, what can I do for you? The zebras? Yes, I know about them. They're on my TV screen right now. They're what? They're here to do what? And how is it that you know this? Evidence. You've talked to the zebras, then? I'm not the one sounding foolish, Daniel. Well, I'm trying to take you seriously, it's just—yes, it does sound a bit crazy. But—okay, do you have anything to substantiate your claims? Right, evidence. Okay, listen, I'll be done here in a couple of hours. If you'll still be up—no, it wouldn't do for you to come down here. Much too busy and we're short staffed. Okay, I'll stop by, okay? Alright, then, I'll see you later tonight." Inspector Geerts hung up the phone, sighed, and shook his head. Some people, he thought.
Just then a patrolman knocked on his office door and entered. "Got a second, Inspector?"
"Yeah. Just had to deal with a crank phone call from one of my neighbors. You know those zebras people have been seeing all over the country? Guy thinks they're here to steal the Manneken Pis."
— <> —
Consider the zebra. It shares the Equus family with both horses and asses. Of the three separate types of zebras, two are considered endangered; only the plains zebra is not. It is their stripes that make them so interesting to zoo-goers worldwide, and unique to each other.
Consider also the Manneken Pis. For reasons understood only to Belgians, this two-foot-tall statue of a little boy urinating has become the country's most beloved icon. Indeed, it is so loved that there is more than one. The one in Brussels is the best known, but there are copies or similar statues in Geraardsbergen, Koksijde, Hasselt, Ghent, Bruges, Braine-l'Alleud, and just over the French border in Broxelle.
Zebras and the Manneken Pis are roughly the same age. Although the precise etymology of the word is unclear, the term "zebra" dates to around 1600. The Manneken Pis was crafted and installed by Jérôme Duquesnoy the Elder in either 1618 or 1619. Duquesnoy was Flemish; most zebras are African, and none is native to Europe. Why an animal would come hundreds of kilometers north to capture a small statue has not been seriously considered by all but one of the global population. The fact remained: within an hour of the news report airing, sightings of zebras happened in all eight cities with a Manneken Pis.
At ten-fifteen a honeymooning couple from Northumbria were walking along the canals of Bruges, their second city visited on a three-week-long continental tour. The couple was freshly fed and watered and had consumed between them one and a half bottles of wine, so when the dazzle of twenty zebras approached them, both husband and wife thought they were having a joint hallucination. The wife laughed and approached one zebra, and as she started stroking its mane her husband took a picture and posted it on social media. It was on the news by ten-forty-five.
Five minutes later, a group of teenage boys thought they would try to mount a zebra in Ghent and use it as a means of conveyance. It didn't end well. The one that actually mounted the zebra was thrown and broke his arm upon landing. One of his mates was kicked square in the chest and suffered a deep bruise to his sternum. The remaining boys and zebras scattered, some in the same direction, until finally calm restored itself. One of the boys posted a video of the encounter online with the caption: "Stupid zebras won't give us a ride."
Perhaps the most egregious was traffic stopping completely in both directions on the Brussels Ring after a large dazzle got onto the freeway and stayed there, unmoving. An overhead helicopter shot, aided by some floodlights, showed that the number of zebras there was in the hundreds. Amazingly no cars were damaged.
If there wasn't panic in Liesje's voice before, there was now. "Do you see? Do you see?" She was curled up on one end of Daniel's sofa with a pillow in her lap. Her eyes were large and the finger that she pointed at the television was shaking. "They're coming. They're multiplying and they're coming."
"I know. Damn." Daniel pounded on his cellphone and put it to his ear. A few seconds later he put it on the coffee table, pounded on it some more, and repeated the exercise a few times. "I can't get the cop on the phone."
"He didn't seem to believe you earlier. What makes you think he'll believe you now?"
"I have evidence. I've been doing research on this." Daniel went over to his bookshelf and pulled off a pair of three-ring binders. He put them on the coffee table and opened one to a picture of the fraternity brothers who stole the Manneken Pis in 1963. "This one, the last time the statue was stolen. What the media didn't report back then was that when the statue was found broken in the canal, tucked inside one of the halves was a child's toy, a little stuffed zebra. Every other time the statue was stolen before that, there was an influx of wild zebras into the country."
Liesje listened to this with wide eyes and open mouth. "Why has no one reported on this? Surely this is known."
"That's just it. I don't think it is. I could find plenty of evidence of the Manneken being stolen, but only one or two notations about the zebras. People were more fixated on the statue being stolen than they were the zebras. What little I could find I had to piece together from eyewitness accounts. Also, there weren't so many of them. There'd be a large herd, perhaps, but nowhere near enough to bring eight cities to a halt. The zebras were a curiosity; the statue disappearing was a true mystery."
She flipped through the binder, squinting at pictures of decaying pages with ink that was only marginally legible. "So, what should we do? Go to the Manneken Pis? Try to protect it?"
Daniel looked out the window and beckoned her over. "I don't think that's possible."
Liesje closed the binder, crossed to the window, looked out, and screamed. The street below was full of zebras.
Just then Inspector Geerts was being told the same thing. "The streets are full of zebras?"
"It's worse than that, sir." The patrolman wrung his hands. "It's the pavements and doorways too. Every spot outside that could possibly be occupied is. We can't even open our front door."
Inspector Geerts stared at him for a moment.
The patrolman went on, "The phone systems are overloaded with people calling to complain that they're trapped—at work, at home, out to dinner, all of it. I just took a call from somebody trapped in a portajohn. He was—"
"If you say pissed, you're fired."
"—upset to say the least. What should we do?"
"Any way of knowing how far spread this is? What is the news saying?" Inspector Geerts picked up the remote and turned on the television in his office. The news came up first, showing a helicopter shot of what should have been one of the major thoroughfares in Brussels. The road looked black and white, and as if it was crawling. "For those of you just tuning in, eight cities across Belgium are now overrun with wild zebras. The animals are covering every surface within those cities' limits. Residents in the entire country are advised to stay indoors until further notice."
The television snicked off and Inspector Geerts plopped the remote down on his desk in disgust. Good Lord, what if that crazy son of a bitch down the hall in my building is right? he thought.
— <> —
The zebras left at around four in the morning. Daniel watched them go from his darkened window. Liesje slept on his sofa, still afraid of being overrun by the beasts. As quietly as he could, he turned the television on to an all-classical music station and set the volume low.
The Manneken Pis was gone.
The news had a field day with it. First the zebras, now the statue gone. Nobody made the connection. The foreign media didn't even mention the zebras. The news outside of the country was the national symbol of Belgium getting stolen for the eighth time. Not just Brussels's Manneken Pis was stolen, but all of them were. The zebras had made a clean sweep of the country. Daniel and Liesje told anyone who would listen what they knew, and Inspector Geerts did his best to avoid them in the building hallways.
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