Don’t be fooled by the leisurely pace of the beginning of Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips, published by Viking. These few pages are the only restful reading you’re going to get. And don’t start reading right before bedtime. It’s not that the book is scary in the monster sense (though life itself is pretty scary these days); it’s just that you’re going to want to keep reading, thus destroying any chance of a full night’s sleep.
FOR A LONG WHILE Joan has managed to balance on the balls of her bare feet, knees bent, skirt skimming the dirt. But now her thighs are giving out, so she puts a hand down and eases onto the sand.
Something jabs at her hip bone. She reaches underneath her leg and fishes out a small plastic spear—no longer than a finger— and it is no surprise, because she is always finding tiny weapons in unexpected places.
“Did you lose a spear?” she asks. “Or is this one a scepter?”
Lincoln does not answer her, although he takes the piece of plastic from her open hand. He apparently has been waiting for her lap to become available—he backs up, settling himself comfortably on her thighs, not a speck of sand on him. He has a fastidiousness about him; he never did like finger painting.
“Do you want a nose, Mommy?” he asks.
“I have a nose,” she says.
“Do you want an extra one?”
His dark curls need to be cut again, and he swipes them off his
forehead. The leaves float down around them. The wooden roof, propped up on rough, round timber, shades them completely, but beyond it, the gray gravel is patterned with sunlight and shadows, shifting as the wind blows through the trees.
“Where are you getting these extra noses?” she asks.
“The nose store.”
She laughs, settling back on her hands, giving in to the feel of the clinging dirt. She flicks a few wettish grains from under her fingernails. The Dinosaur Discovery Pit is always damp and cold, never touched by the sun, but despite the sand on her skirt and the leaves stuck to her sweater, this is perhaps her favorite part of the zoo—off the main paths, past the merry-go- round and the petting barn and the rooster cages, back through the weedy, wooded area labeled only WOODLANDS. It is mostly trees and rocks and a few lonely animals back here along the narrow gravel paths: There is a vulture that lives in a pen with, for some reason, a rusted-out pickup truck. An owl that glares at a hanging chew toy. Wild turkeys that are always sitting, unmoving; she is not positive that they actually have legs. She imagines some cruel hunter’s prank, some sweat-stained necklace strung with turkey feet.
She likes the haphazard strangeness of these woods, which are always shifting into some halfhearted try at an actual attraction. Currently a zip line is strung through the trees, although she never sees anyone zip-lining. She remembers animatronic dinosaurs here a couple of years earlier, and once there was a haunted ghost trail. There are hints at more distant incarnations: large boulders that she assumes are real but possibly are not, plus split-log fences and a pioneer cabin. No obvious purpose to any of it. Empty cement pools might have been watering holes for large mammals. There are occasional efforts at a nature trail, random signage that makes a walk feel less anchored rather than more—one tree labeled SASSAFRAS while the twenty trees around it go nameless.
“Now, let me tell you something,” Lincoln begins, his hand landing on her knee. “Do you know what Odin could use?”
She does, in fact, know a great deal about Norse gods lately. “An eye store?” she says.
“Yes, actually. Because then he could stop wearing his eye patch.”
“Unless he likes his eye patch.”
“Unless that,” Lincoln agrees.
The sand around them is scattered with small plastic heroes and villains—Thor and Loki; Captain America, Green Lantern, and Iron Man. Everything comes back to superheroes lately. Pretend skeletons lurk beneath them in this sand pit—the vertebrae of some extinct animal protrude from the sand behind them, and there is a bucket of worn-down paintbrushes for brushing off the sand. She and Lincoln used to come here and dig for dinosaur bones, back in his former life as a three-year-old. But now, two months after his fourth birthday, he is several incarnations past his old archaeologist self.
The dinosaur pit is currently the Isle of Silence, the prison where Loki, Thor’s trickster brother, has been imprisoned, and—when questions of extra noses don’t arise—the air has been echoing with the sounds of an epic battle as Thor tries to make Loki confess to creating a fire demon.
Lincoln leans forward, and his epic resumes.
“The vile villain cackled,” Lincoln narrates. “But then Thor had an idea!”
He calls them his stories, and they can last for hours if she lets them.
From Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips, published on July 25, 2017 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © by Gin Phillips, 2017.