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The sun rose on Chibi Island in the peaceful morning aftermath of a wicked storm. Now the trees were still, and the debris had settled into whatever corners it could find. Johnny Panda and his young companion Otto Octopode led a team of Chibetans on an island-wide search for survivors and castaways that often surfaced on the beaches of Chibi Island after a tempest. The team broke off into pairs and as Johnny and Otto climbed up the edge of a steep sand embankment on the southmost side of the island they spotted the debris from a shipwreck.

Five large iron cages and a slew of colourful detritus scattered the beach. Balls, torches, hula hoops and tent poles stuck out of the sand at odd angles. White and red stripped tent fabric lapped the shore with the waves.

The rescuers searched amongst the debris for survivors, peering beneath the soggy fabric and lifting the tent poles when they could. They were surprised to find that in each of the iron cages, was a remarkable and rare animal. Jess Rhinoceros was already making her way through the cage door and dragging herself, exhausted and sputtering, across the sand.

“The cages aren’t even locked, right? Just… come on.” she bellowed. At that Erin Crocodile (puzzled at the revelation), Heather Hippopotamus (relieved), and Charlie Monkey (incredulous and visibly concerned) swept open their doors and clambered up the sandy slopes to collect themselves under the palms.

Johnny and Otto rushed to their aid and helped them brush off the sand and shake of the water. The newcomers were grateful to see the island was indeed civilized, though they were startled to realise their boat had capsized, and the captain, ringmaster and crew were possibly still lost at sea.

Barry Tiger remained in his cage, half sunken in the sand at the waters edge. His door was not encumbered, but he paced back and forth growling.

“Come on, Barry.” Jess sighed. “Come get dried off, you goof.”

At this Barry roared and Johnny noted the ferocious beast had no teeth.

“I will not. And you’d be best to return to your enclosures before the Ringmaster himself returns. A rescue party will be back for us imminently, of this I am certain.”

Charlie Monkey sneezed and shivered a bit. Johnny knew they needed more warmth than the thin autumn sun could provide. He looked to Otto who smiled brightly, as always, back up at him.

“We should take them to Verity at the Café!” Otto said, speaking Johnny’s very thoughts. Then he squeaked almost inaudibly “I think they’re in a circus, Johnny!”

“We cannot leave the immediate area!” shouted Barry. “We must be exactly where they’d hope to find us or they might drop us from the roster all together.”

“Well, anyone who wants to, can follow us for some food and a warm up,” Johnny offered, turning back up the beach.

“I need something to freaking eat,” said Erin, tossing aside the props she was pulling out of the sand and following Johnny into the forest. Jess Rhinoceros nodded, Heather Hippo shrugged and they both trailed behind them.

Charlie nervously glanced between growling Barry and the exiting group. He shivered again.

“Come on Charlie,” Erin Crocodile yelled back. This snapped him to and he bounded off after the group, promising to bring back a snack for Barry.

The trek to Forest Noodles Café followed a winding path over the green rolling hills. To the left they took in the astonishing colored anemones of the Jeweled Cove and to the right the white picket fences of the tidy Barnyard Knoll with the volcano rising in the distance. Johnny lead the way as Heather squealed at the droves of tiny ambling turtles on the path. Erin tried to take in the vistas but was caught up reassuring Charlie that it was alright for them to leave the cages. Otto, star struck, fell into step with Jess. Or tried to, he’s a very small octopus and keeping stride with a rhinoceros over land was challenging. Jess noticed him stumbling around a bunch of turtles and offered to carry him. His voice caught with excitement as he tried to reply, so he merely nodded and she hoisted his little cuteness onto her shoulder. Once there, however, he quickly found his voice.

“Do you…do you work for a circus?” he squeaked. She sighed and smiled.

“I do.”

“What’s it like?”

Jess took a deep breath and as she breathed out Otto could feel her shoulders slumping under him.

“In the beginning its like living ‘The Dream’ right? But as soon as you get there they put you in this ‘enclosure’. It’s for your protection, see? There’s a lot of talent theft between companies, not even getting into the actual poaching. At first, it makes sense. You’re protected, taken care of. If you break a tooth, a tusk or a toe someone is there to bandage and splint it for you. And you’re in actual show biz! To be a star. That’s what everyone wants, but I got so used to watching the stars at night from inside my enclosure, because you’re trapped too, right? My routine was tired. Management wouldn’t listen to my ideas so I just kept doing the same boring performance every night. I got restless. One night I kicked the cage door in frustration and realised it wasn’t even locked. So, I could go at any time. But also, then, I wasn’t really protected either, right? But everyone is so thrilled to be there. Barry is a mega star, Charlie wants that so badly for himself, the money is great for Heather’s family and Erin, well Erin says she hates it, but she just likes to be needed I think. I figured I was just missing something, so I stayed. But now, I’m out…I’m not so sure I want to go back. But what else would I do, right?”

Otto smiled and shrugged.

“I mean, what does anyone do, I guess.” She smiled at Otto. “I mean, what does a tiny Octopus do?”

Otto pondered how to answer when they rounded a corner and Forest Noodles Café came into view. It was still early, but Emo Rabbit was already sullenly sweeping the tiny turtle clusters from the seating area and depositing them on the edges of the clearing.

Verity Fox came bursting out of the kitchen and then quickly hopped back inside with a happy squeak when she saw her new customers in the courtyard, murmuring something about being blessed to have known to have food ready.  She hurried out bowls of stew wafting fragrant steam and soon the entire group were seated and happily warming as Emo stared at them in incredulity.

“Circus ship?” he whispered to Otto, who grinned and nodded. Emo broke into a rare smile. “Coooool.”

The stew Verity provided was a nuanced and complex recipe. There was a tendency for each patron to experience it very differently.

For Erin Crocodile it was a bitter, but comforting brew. The undertones of acidity made the sweet and savory elements mingle to perfection.

Heather Hippopotamus couldn’t help but think of her children and how much they would enjoy it. She was overwhelmed with the pride of them and with missing them at the same time.

Charlie Monkey found the exotic and unfamiliar spices exciting and alarming, but also compelling. He asked for seconds.

And Jess Rhinoceros. For Jess the stew was bland and she found no joy in it. She ate a bit anyways to satiate the grumblies in her belly, and couldn’t understand the praise the others gave for the meal. She caught Verity’s eye as she pushed her unfinished stew away.

“Let the boss know we are grateful for your hospitality, right?” she said. Verity looked at her, confused then laughed and shook her head.

“Oh, this is my place. You are most welcome!”

It was Jess’ turn to be confused.

“You’re your own boss?”

“I’m the owner here, yes.”

“How does that work?”

“Sometimes it doesn’t.” she laughed. “It’s hard, there’s more work, but I can help people the way I want and if something goes wrong I know it’s on me. You want something else?”

Jess looked down at her unfinished stew.

“I didn’t mean any offence, you know?”

“Bring your stew into the kitchen and you can spice it how you like.” Verity invited, and Jess followed meekly. From across the patio, Emo and Otto stared, mouths hanging open that Verity would allow anyone to complain about her cooking, let alone invite them into her kitchen. Johnny was not so concerned.

“She knows what the island wants,” he shrugged.

In the kitchen, Jess followed Verity’s suggestions for new spices to consider.  When Jess quietly suggested cumin, Verity encouraged to use her intuition. It was an improvement and Jess was suddenly bolstered to trust her own desires, impulses. Jess re-seasoned her stew until it was assaulting her senses. She marveled at her creation and found herself licking the bottom of the bowl.

Dolly Sheep arrived and announced she had received word via CB radio that a sister circus ship was on it’s way to pick up the company.

“Thank goodness!” declared Heather, wiping her mouth and rising instantly. “We might even make the next show stop. No lost wages.”

Charlie hopped about, convinced they wouldn’t make it back in time. Erin slurped the last of her stew and signed heavily as she stood to go. But Jess stayed sitting.

“Make sure Barry gets something to eat, right?” She asked Erin, who understood immediately.

“Good for you,” Erin replied. “I’m probably going to leave the circus too. One day.”

 Verity brought out a take-out container and Johnny led the remaining company back to the beach. Barry was still in his cage meowing over the grumble of his stomach. Erin tried to give him the take out but it wouldn’t fit through the bars of his cage. Reluctantly, he opened his cage, his hunger temporarily overcoming his over-zealous company loyalty.

Verity had made something very special for Barry. Aware of his humble origins (she was a bit of a circus fanatic) she had found a traditional soup from his tiny village. At first the first scent of this meal, however, Barry recoiled in disgust and backed into his cage.

“I swore I would never eat that garbage ever again,” he roared, slamming the door shut.

“You need to eat, Barry,” Heather warned. But, at that, they heard a horn sounding on the horizon. They had been rescued.

The sister ship pulled up dinghies onshore and Heather, Erin and Charlie easily hopped aboard.  Barry, however was so alarmed over the soup he would not leave his cage and the crew had to drag him, cage and all, across the beach and hoist him onto the boats.

Onboard, Erin noticed a rhinoceros sized shape in the bushes ashore and smiled. One of the ship hands approached her.

“The Rhino?”

“I think we lost her,” Erin said sadly, but smiling.

“What about the tall guy?”

“No idea, he didn’t wash up with us.” Erin said. “If he’s gone though, good freaking riddance.”

Johnny and Otto sat on the shore and waved goodbye as the circus ship sailed off into the distance, to new shows and adventures.

Quite far up shore, in the dappled sunlight of a palm grove, a very tall, very giraffe shaped shadow was also watching, considering his new surroundings and plotting yet another new identity for himself.

But that’s another story.