In the space between fact and fiction, the truth is always buried somewhere in between.
Both of them in fresh diapers, they hugged one another under the covers in their tiny basement bed.
“Tell me another story, please,” her sister begged, her voice gentle and neither pushy or annoying.
Their mutual breathing made it hot under the covers. She was tired, but felt compelled to comply. What else could she do? The two sisters could not have been more different, though they looked dreadfully alike. Both had long, dark hair and rather pretty faces, but where she was continually sunny, her sister was much more dark and somehow much, much thinner. She could feel her smaller sister’s ribs as she pressed her closer; she felt so sorry for her. Of course she would tell her sister another story. There was not much more she could do for her.
“Well, there once was a bean,” she started.
“Ooh, I love this story!” her sister cooed. Her head nestled against her heartbeat, tiny, like a bird.
“This was no ordinary bean, though,” she continued, “for this was a magical bean.”
“Can you tell me something different?” her sister interrupted. She seemed restless; she turned the gold heart-shaped pin she had been holding in her small hand when she came to bed round and round in her small fingers. Perhaps earlier tonight had been particularly rough. Twins, they were both barely eight years old, and already they were in the habit of never sleeping well or through the night. She clung to these stories from her sister; she loved them. It was strange for her to interrupt one, especially a favorite.
She paused, taking the moment to think of something new. Her habit was to mix fun fact with fiction, with the truth buried somewhere in between; inadvertently, she was a very adept storyteller. Stroking her sister’s smooth, straight hair, she started “Elina’s Story”:
Many, many years into the future, in a land far, far away, there once lived a magical snow leopard who was known to her people as “Aq-Bars, the Queen of the Bishteks.” In the 5th year of her reign, Aq-Bars was tricked into leaving her winter homeland to visit a foreign land too warm for her and her beautiful thick and spotted white fur, and she was woefully unhappy there.
In this strange new land, her proud hosts brought her to their capital, which was known as either “Washington” or “Dee-Sea,” and even set her up in a palace they called “Woodley Park Zoo.” As a further sign of their affection, her foreign hosts dubbed her “Elina” and then promptly forgot about her, thinking she was satisfied.
Elina prowled restlessly within the confines of her disappointingly small new kingdom. She stared coldly at her strange new subjects on the rare occasions when they came to visit. Whenever she closed her glittering green eyes to sleep, the first thing she dreamed of was home.
There was nothing to make Elina happy in her new kingdom. She did not understand their gibberish or their customs; she questioned whether they had any culture at all.
She did not like her new palace, the so-called “Woodley Park Zoo,” which seemed to be filled with imbeciles and nothing she was apparently free to eat; in particular, her strange new subjects. They were tantalizingly close whenever they came to visit her; yet they were always kept apart from her with iron bars and glass.
What were these strange creatures? How did they get around on only their hind legs? And, were they edible?
Initially, she had sniffed at the glass when they visited, and wondered.
But, mostly, it was the Dee-Sea weather that made Elina suffer the worst. This foreign capital she had been brought to by those tricksters in the 5th year of her reign was only comfortably cold enough for her a few days out of the year. The rest of the days, she was always hot, wet, and miserable.
Elina was fiercely proud of her thick white fur, with its pretty black florets, but the hot and humid Dee-Sea made her wish she had been born naked. Often, to her eager visitors, she seemed bored and maybe lazy, but, really, she just felt too hot to fruitlessly sniff them through the glass.
This final summer was proving to be especially intolerable. The heat that rose up from the tarmac and beat down from the sky was unrelenting; neither cover of night nor shade in the daytime provided any respite.
As Dee-Sea edged deeper into August and the temperature continued to rise, Elina decided the time had finally come to end her extended stay in the most miserable capital on earth. And, she was certain she could do it with the help of a skinny, two-legged creature called “Linus,” who had recently been assigned to feed her. He walked tall around the Woodley Park Zoo on only his hind legs, just like the rest of them, and threw her meat to eat since she wasn't allowed to hunt; this was how they met.
Linus used a long metal claw to drop hunks of red meat at her feet. Elina purred soundlessly and chewed her meat while staring at him without blinking. He stood on the other side of the iron bars that ringed her throne room, utterly transfixed by her gaze until she finished eating. This is how their courtship began.
On the day Elina decided to be free at last, she began her game laying down, with a few playful flicks of her thick, furry tail at Linus as he tried to feed her. He dropped the metal claw he was holding. Then, up on all fours, she padded close enough to him to wrap her long, sinuous tail around his left leg, pulling him into the iron bars that separated them, until the tip rested high up on his inner thigh. She could feel his heart pounding through the pulse her tail-tip found there. Not once dropping her intense green gaze from his, Elina slowly stroked the warm pulse in his thigh with the tip of her very agile tail.
If Linus had a girlfriend, she was bound to be jealous.
He stared into her beautiful green eyes.
She lazily flicked the humid air between them with her wet, pink tongue.
Tall and skinny, the two-legged man-creature stared at her, transfixed by her hypnotic green gaze.
Suddenly, with her long, sinuous tail still wrapped around his left leg, she pushed herself up onto her hind legs.
She dropped her forelegs onto his shoulders, one resting heavily on either side of his head.
With a frightened squeak, Linus dropped the pail of bloody red meat at his feet and wet his pants.
Her head was now level with his; their noses were almost touching through the iron bars.
She opened her jaws, so wide he thought his head would easily fit inside her huge mouth.
Ignoring the scent of his frightened piss, her pink tongue darted out, tasting his face.
Linus squished his eyes closed, waiting for her teeth to crack open his skull.
But Elina had other plans, and this one had no meat on his bones anyway. Linus was much too skinny to be worth eating.
Instead, she gently butted her nose against his, patiently, until Linus squished his eyes back open and stared deeply into hers.
Her hypnotic green gaze was soothing, and calmed him.
Elina gently licked his face again, but made no move to eat him.
Patiently, with her piercing green eyes, she gazed deeply into his soul.
Finally, as if he understood, Linus nodded.
Abruptly, Elina relinquished her gaze, released his left leg from her tail, and dropped back down on all fours. Curling up around the raw meat Linus had dropped, Elina began to eat as though nothing had happened.
Linus stumbled backwards, but managed to remain standing as he slowly backed away from the snow leopard at his feet.
In a few hours from that magic moment, possessed by a powerful desire much greater than himself, Linus would release all the animals trapped inside the National Zoo at Woodley Park, setting off a chain reaction in the capital, Washington, D.C., that would change the nation forever.
The lives of several D.C. residents were about to be turned completely upside-down.
And all so Elina could be free.
“Hey, sis,” she interrupted herself, “I have to pee.”
“Ooh, okay. Please be quick, okay?”
“I’ll be right back,” she promised her sister, jumping out from under the warm covers. The floor was ice-cold beneath her feet as she dashed to the bathroom. It was pitch black in the basement, but she did not dare turn on the lights. In the bathroom, terrified of the shadows and whatever was outside the single window that had no curtain, she peed as quickly as she could.
As she dashed back to the bedroom, anxious to close that door again, she tried to ignore the gaping black hole under the stairs. During the day, it was harmless storage and it held no fear for her. With the bare bulb above turned on for light, she had once gone rummaging in there and found a brown glass bottle with liquid still in it. On a dare, she and her sister had opened it. The liquid inside had reeked and burned their nostrils, but they were unafraid in the daylight and took a swig anyway. How much they had coughed, and then laughed.
At night however, a monster crawled out sometimes and grabbed at her ankles, trying to drag her back down with him. She never told her sister about it though; this was one of those stories she kept to herself.
“Ready for more?” she teased her sister as she snuggled back under the covers with her.
“Ooh, yes, please, please,” she replied, hugging her again, “I’m not sleepy.”
‘Neither am I,’ she thought as she continued “Elina’s Story”:
Free at last.
If anyone had told her in that magic moment she would never go home again, Elina would not have believed them.
She was Aq-Bars, the Queen of the Bishteks, and made me of magic.
She had just made a miracle happen.
She could go anywhere and do anything.
She would go home and resume her rule, as if she had never left in the 5th year of her reign.
If only she had realized her power sooner, she'd be home already.
But, first, she wanted to eat.
She stretched out her limbs, excited to hunt again, though she would have enjoyed it much more if it were not so hot. There would be snow again in her life soon; she closed her eyes, imagining snow and mountains surrounded her.
And then she took off.
Her first bit of prey had been a two-legged creature that had swept by in running gear at the precise and most-unfortunate-for-her moment all the gates of Woodley Park Zoo had swung silently open. Elina had chased the blonde, ponytail-haired creature into the nearby woods, pounced on her with relish, snapped her neck with all due haste, and lapped at her blood with an indecent lust she’d not experienced since her first kill.
After being denied the hunt for so long, that first chase had been immensely satisfying, but these two-legged creatures were not to her taste. They were too slow, lacked real fur, and smelled weird. Many of them were fat enough, but Elina hungered for a tastier creature of the four-legged variety.
Her homeland was a snowy wonderland; this strange kingdom was the opposite. Even on the few days of the year when it was cold enough in Dee-Sea, snow rarely fell. Today, no breeze stirred the thick, humid air. After that first chase in the woods near the Zoo, Elina climbed up into a tree on 16th Street to rest, feeling too overheated to move.
Beneath her, she saw rivers of black asphalt and patches of brownish-green grass. There were other trees too, but the most common feature in the predominantly residential neighborhood was a variety of houses and apartment buildings. Without realizing it, Elina had already crossed from the woods of Rock Creek Park, where the ponytail-haired blonde had met her most unfortunate end, to the D.C. neighborhood of Mount Pleasant.
Of course, some local residents would argue that Elina was actually in Columbia Heights, since she was in a tree that belonged to the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, with its magnificent dome that made it look like a basilica from Old Europe. This church was on the Columbia Heights side of 16th Street. If Elina had climbed the tree owned by the charter school on the opposite side of 16th Street, she would have been in Mount Pleasant. It just depended on which local resident you asked.
Opinions regarding neighborhood boundaries in D.C. are strong, and the opinions of students, hipsters, and other non-locals need not apply.
It is precisely this lack of clarity regarding neighborhood borders that made the snow leopard's movements so difficult to track after her disappearance from the National Zoo. At least local reporters were aware of the territorial disputes, and thus their breathless and excited location updates could be counted on with a limited measure of confidence. Once news of the prison break went national, however, all bets were off.
CNN, NPR, and MSNBC simultaneously placed the snow leopard in three completely different neighborhoods at the same time. Watching the news for updates on the snow leopard and the other animals that escaped from the National Zoo became like watching an episode of “24,” when it was set in D.C., or “Homeland.” Everyone knew they were talking about D.C., but locals knew better.
Elina was blithely unaware of this controversy and how much it was helping her. Gazing at the dome of the basilica, she supposed it to be a mountain, although unlike any mountain she had ever seen. Up in the tree on 16th Street, she was more concerned with the types of prey that might be available to her to eat. Her extended stay at the Woodley Park Zoo had lowered her confidence regarding both quality and quantity.
A large number of her two-legged subjects were running around the neighborhood, wailing with high anxiety as though they were being attacked. Elina could not see what was attacking them. There was no apparent blood; just lots of yelling and sharp, popping noises.
What strange creatures.
Elina also saw several different types of four-legged animals, a few of which seemed familiar to her and might prove to be tasty.
Elina licked her chops, looking forward to a taste of home, finally.
“What is she going to eat next?” her sister interrupted, her voice round and incredulous, just like she imagined her dark eyes must be under the covers.
“Well, I don't know yet,” she teased her sister, “What should Elina eat next?”
“Have her eat another blonde,” her sister muttered sourly, the volume of her voice barely above a whisper.
She gave her thinner sister a comforting squeeze. They would surely burn in Hell for harboring such horrible thoughts. This was another fear of hers that she never spoke of out loud. A few years later from now, while sitting in a café with a future former friend, she would make her first break with Heaven, when she abruptly realized:
Hell was a place on Earth.
But now was not that time. Now was the time for the opposite of the examined life, for stories told in the dark of night, in the presumed safety of a warm bed. Now was the time for the short attention spans of childhood, where whole memories could be erased before adulthood came to play its own unique tricks on the brain.
She would be a different person in seven years.
She didn't know why she remembered like this; she had a tendency to get lost in the future.
“Let's have Elina eat a zebra!” she said to her sister quite suddenly, back in the past.
“Would a snow leopard eat a zebra?” Her sister sounded doubtful.
“Snow leopards will eat almost anything,” she reassured her with a smile her sister could hear, “even roadkill.”
“Ew! Yuck!” Her sister giggled softly. “That's gross!”
“All the animals are free from the National Zoo now,” she whispered back, “And Elina is hungry...”
“Does it have to be a zebra?”
“Yes, I think so. Because there's one standing under Elina's tree right now...”
Her sister gasped. “Really?”
Rather than answering, she gave her thin sister a reassuring squeeze. She was wide awake, but they would need to be asleep soon. Aware of the late hour, she swept past several chapters of “Elina’s Story”:
But before Elina pounced on the zebra; before she had even climbed up into that tree, with the blood of the blonde jogger still moist on her muzzle; before she silently bled out to death on an anonymous sidewalk in Columbia Heights, unable to voice her utter despair in dying so far from home, Elina had several legendary adventures in Washington, D.C.
Official news reports and locals' stories from that chaotic, long and hot summer varied widely. The national news reports would go on to be largely disbelieved and dismissed, but the locals' tales, passed repeatedly from one to another, would persist until Elina became an enduring urban legend. With the marked passage of time and knowledge, Elina would go on to become a national myth, on par with Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and King Gilgamesh of the Euphrates.
Not long after the events of that historically hot summer, the statue of the hippopotamus, which had stood unmolested on the GWU campus in Foggy Bottom since 1996, was replaced with an enormous bronze statue of the snow leopard. Standing proudly at the corner of H and 21st streets, the placard at her feet proclaimed:
“Here lies the magical snow leopard Elina, known to her original people as Aq-Bars, the Queen of the Bishteks. In the First Official Summer of the Post-Glacial Period, now known as Year Zero or Year 0000, Elina ruled Washington, D.C., and our hearts.”
GWU students today actually believe that her remains are buried underneath her statue, and affectionately wear official, GWU-branded gear emblazoned with “I know you're in there,” a phrase associated with Elina's adventures in the capital now considered essential during hazing rituals and local Halloween festivities. Both D.C. residents and students inaccurately call her “Elina Aqbar,” an unfortunate play on “Allah Akbar,” especially since Elina was actually the end of a mighty line of Khanate rulers who could trace their lineage back to Genghis Khan.
As the last air she would ever breathe left her bleeding lungs, with little bubbles of blood clinging to the fur around her nose and mouth, Elina closed her once bright green eyes and dreamed of a blinding white snow, driven by a blizzard wind that made the whole wide world pass into a white nothingness.
It would never snow in Washington, D.C., again.
“Can you really never go home again?”
Her sister was crying.
She didn't answer, because she was crying too.