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Fierce Kingdom

by Gin Phillips

Hardcover, 288 pages, Viking, List Price: $25 |

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Fierce Kingdom
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Gin Phillips

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NPR Summary

The zoo is nearly empty as Joan and her four-year-old son soak up the last few moments of playtime. They are happy, and the day has been close to perfect. But what Joan sees as she hustles her son toward the exit gate minutes before closing time sends her sprinting back into the zoo, her child in her arms. And for the next three hours—the entire scope of the novel—she keeps on running. Suddenly, mother and son are as trapped as the animals. Joan's intimate knowledge of this place that filled early motherhood with happy diversions—the hidden pathways and under-renovation exhibits, the best spots on the carousel and overstocked snack machines—is all that keeps them a step ahead of danger. An exploration of motherhood itself—from its tender moments of grace to its savage power—Fierce Kingdom asks where the boundary is between our animal instinct to survive and our human duty to protect one another. For whom should a mother risk her life?

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Fierce Kingdom

4:55 p.m.

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?"

"Who wouldn't?"

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. She prefers the ones where he invents his own characters. He's concocted a villain named Horse Man, who turns people into horses. His nemesis is Horse Von, who turns those horses back into people. A vicious cycle.

Joan is half-aware of Lincoln's voice changing tones and inflections as he takes his different characters through their paces. But she is pleasantly drifting. In the mornings these paths would be crowded with strollers and mothers in yoga pants, but by late afternoon most visitors have cleared out. She and Lincoln come here sometimes after she picks him up from school-they alternate between the zoo and the library and the parks and the science museum-and she steers him to the woods when she can. Here there are crickets, or something that sounds like crickets, and birds calling and leaves rustling but no human sounds except for Lincoln calling out his dialogue. He has absorbed the patter of superhero talk, and he can regurgitate it and make it his own.

"There was a secret weapon on his belt!"

"His evil plan had failed!"

He is vibrating with excitement. Every part of him is shaking, from the balls of his feet to his chuffy fists. Thor bobs through the air, and Lincoln bounces, and she wonders if he loves the idea of good conquering evil or simply an exciting battle, and she wonders when she should start making it clear that there is a middle ground between good and evil that most people occupy, but he is so happy that she does not want to complicate things.

"Do you know what happens then, Mommy?" he asks. "After Thor punches him?"

"What?" she says.

She has perfected the art of being able to listen with half of herself while the other half spins and whirls.

"Loki has actually been mind-controlling Thor. And the punch makes him lose his powers!"

"Oh," she says. "And then what?"

"Thor saves the day!"

He keeps talking-"But there's a new villain in town, boys!"-as she curls and straightens her toes. She thinks.

She thinks that she still needs to come up with a wedding present for her friend Murray-there is that artist who does dog paintings, and one of those seems like a thoughtful choice, so she should send an e-mail and see about placing the order, although "order" is probably an insulting sort of word to an artist. She remembers that she meant to call her great-aunt this morning, and she thinks that maybe instead-she is solving problems left and right here, having a burst of mental efficiency as Loki gets buried in sand-maybe instead she will mail her great-aunt that hilarious paper bag monkey that Lincoln made in school. Surely the artwork is better than a phone call, although there's a certain selfishness to it, since she hates to talk on the phone, and, all right, it is a cop-out-she knows it-but she settles on the paper bag monkey regardless. She thinks of the squash dressing her great-aunt makes. She thinks of the leftover plantain chips in the kitchen cabinet. She thinks of Bruce Boxleitner. Back in junior high she was slightly obsessed with him in Scarecrow and Mrs. King, and she has discovered that the show is available in its entirety online, so she has been rewatching it, episode by episode-it holds up well for a 1980s show, with its Cold War spies and bad hair-and she can't remember whether Lee and Amanda finally kiss at the end of the second season or the third season, and she has six more episodes to go in the second season, but she could always skip to the third.

A woodpecker hammers somewhere nearby, and she is pulled back to here and now. She notices that the wart on Lincoln's hand is getting bigger. It looks like an anemone. There is that beautiful shifting of shadows on the gravel, and Lincoln is doing his evil villain laugh, and it strikes her that these afternoons with her son's weight on her legs, the woods around them, are something like euphoric.

Thor falls against her foot, his plastic head landing on her toe.

"Mommy?"

"Yes?"

"Why doesn't Thor wear his helmet in the movie?"

"I think it's harder to see with a helmet on."

"But doesn't he want his head protected?"

"I suppose sometimes he wears it and sometimes he doesn't. Depending on his mood."

"I think he should protect his head all the time," he says. "It's dangerous to battle without a helmet. Why do you think Captain America only wears a hood? It's not good protection, is it?"

Paul gets bored with this superhero chatter-her husband would much rather talk football formations and NBA lineups-but Joan doesn't mind it. She was once obsessed with Wonder Woman. Super Friends. The Incredible Hulk. Who would win in a fight, she once asked her uncle, Superman or the Incredible Hulk? He'd said, Well, if he was losing, Superman could always fly away, and she'd thought that a blindingly brilliant answer.

"Captain America has his shield," she tells Lincoln. "That's what he uses for protection."

"What if he can't get it over his head in time?"

"He's very fast."

"But still," he says, unconvinced.

"You know, you're right," she says, because he is. "He really should wear a helmet."

Some sort of man-made rock forms the back wall of the pit, beige and bulging, and a small animal is rooting around behind it. She hopes it is not a rat. She imagines a squirrel but makes a point not to turn her head.

She opens her purse to peer at her phone. "We probably need to start heading toward the gate in around five minutes," she says.

As he often does when she says it's time to stop playing, Lincoln acts as if she has not spoken at all.

"Does Dr. Doom always wear a mask?" he asks.

"Did you hear me?" she asks.

"Yes."

"What did I say?"

"That we're about to leave."

"Okay," she says. "Yes, Dr. Doom always wears a mask. Because of his scars."

"Scars?"

"Yeah, the scars he got in the lab experiment."

"Why would he wear a mask because of them?"

"Because he wants to cover them up," she says. "He thinks they're ugly."

"Why would he think they're ugly?"

She watches a bright orange leaf land. "Well, they made him look different," she says. "Sometimes people don't want to look different."

"I don't think scars are ugly."

As he's speaking, a sharp, loud sound carries through the woods. Two cracks, then several more. Pops, like balloons bursting. Or fireworks. She tries to imagine what anyone could be doing in a zoo that would sound like small explosions. Something related to the Halloween festivities? They've strung up lights all over the place-not here in the Woodlands but all over the more popular pathways-so maybe a transformer blew? Is there construction going on, a jackhammer?

There is another bang. Another and another. It sounds too loud to be balloons, too infrequent to be a jackhammer.

The birds are silent, but the leaves keep skittering down.

Lincoln is unbothered.

"Could I use my Batman for Dr. Doom?" he asks. "He wears black. And if I use him, can you make him the right kind of mask?"

"Sure," she says.

"What will you make it with?"

"Tinfoil," she suggests.

A squirrel scrabbles across the roof of the dirt pit, and she hears the soft whoosh of its impact when it leaps to a tree.

"And what will we use for the scarves?" Lincoln asks.

She looks down at him.

"Scarves?" she repeats.

He nods. She nods back, considering and replaying. She gives herself over to deciphering the workings of his brain: it is one of the bits of mothering that has delighted her all the more because she did not know it existed. His mind is complicated and unique, weaving worlds of its own. In his sleep sometimes he will cry out entire sentences-"Not down the stairs!"-and there are windows to his inner machinery, glimpses, but she will never really know it all, and that is the thrill. He is a whole separate being, as real as she is.

Scarves. She works the puzzle of it.

"Do you mean the scarves on his face?" she asks.

"Yes. The ones he thinks are ugly."

She laughs. "Oh. I was saying 'scars'-you know, like the one on Daddy's arm where the water burned him when he was little? Or the one on my knee from when I fell down?"

"Oh," he says, sheepish. He laughs, too. He is quick to get a joke. "Scars, not scarves. So he doesn't think scarves are ugly?"

"I don't really know how Dr. Doom feels about scarves," she says.

"He doesn't have them on his face."

"No. Those are scars."

She listens, half considering whether she could have handled the idea of scars more tactfully, half wondering about gunshots. But they could not have been gunshots. And if they had been, she would have heard something else by now. Screams or sirens or a voice coming over a loudspeaker making some kind of announcement.

There is nothing.

She has been watching too many battles.

She checks her phone. They only have a few minutes until the zoo closes, and it is entirely possible that they might be overlooked back here in the woods. She has imagined the scenario more than once: camping in the zoo overnight, maybe even intentionally hiding back here, going to visit the animals in the pitch-black of midnight-children's books are written about such situations. It's ridiculous, of course, because there surely would be security guards. Not that she has ever noticed a security guard here.

They should get moving.