At the same time, Esther gave a nervous start and looked around.
“What is it?” he demanded of her sharply. He had the feeling that if he once acknowledged the strangeness, the sickness, in his own mind, it would only become more powerful.
“I don’t know.” The tone of her voice was hard to interpret.
Doing his best to be casual, Jubal said, “No need to be jumpy. No one minds if we stand here looking at the animals.”
And he thought the animals seemed to have been affected too. The leopard backed into a corner of its cage, and the lion began to cough out a series of odd sounds, almost like the beating of a drum. Almost, but not quite.
Esther was saying, “It’s not that. You heard it too?”
“I heard something.”
“It’s just that—well, I thought I heard something like that earlier today. And I saw some strange sights, too.”
“Strange sights like what?”
“Oh, never mind.”
They started strolling again, leaving the suddenly noisy lion behind them, and leaving the zoo by a different footpath than the one that brought them there. But the new way only led them back in a great loop, to the upper-level esplanade, close to all the mansions, great and small.
“Here I am again,” said Esther in a faintly puzzled voice, coming to a stop.
“Nothing. Just that somehow I seem to keep coming back to this place, and I find myself looking at these stupid statues.”
Jubal hadn’t really taken much notice of this particular group before. Compared to the dozens of life-sized figures in white marble that were scattered around the grounds, these were very crude. But now the more he looked at them the stranger they appeared.
Water from a small pipe-fountain trickled into a little pond that was more or less surrounded by the four dark, staring, leonine faces carved of stone. Two of the four statues were little more than heads, the other two included slender, human-looking bodies, tall though portrayed in a sitting position. These two were marked as female by rounded breasts, carved under light stone draperies. Their arms were bent at the elbow so their hands lay flat on their skirted thighs.
“What are they supposed to be?” Jubal wondered. “They all four look alike.”
“I asked my father, and he found out. It’s an Egyptian goddess called Sekhmet.”
“Huh.” He couldn’t find anything more intelligent to say.
Just as the young people were about to turn away again, Jubal thought he heard a kind of heavy, grating sound that seemed to issue from one of the versions of Sekhmet, he couldn’t tell which.
“What was that?” he demanded. Now he wondered if someone was playing jokes.
“That squealing sound? I heard it too. It’s not the lion or the leopard.”
“No. And I wouldn’t call it squealing, exactly.”
It turned out that their two sets of ears had heard two quite different sounds.
All the faces of Sekhmet looked as strange as ever, but no stranger than they had looked before.
One of the statues had full womanly breasts, represented by two spherical stone bulges of unattractive regularity, half-covered by stylized rolls of hair, or mane, or head-dress—Jubal could not be sure which. The lower half of the body was clad in a long, carved skirt or kilt, below which thick leonine ankles showed, and bare human feet. The wrists and forearms were heavy too. If the stone body was ambiguous, of some uncertain and imaginary species, the head was all inhuman predator, and he had no doubt that it was meant to represent a lion.
Walking back and forth before the trickling fountain, Jubal sized up the statues first from one angle and then from another. Something about them bothered him… but he couldn’t say what. But the something was connected with his odd feeling of a few minutes ago. It wasn’t the real lion that had brought the feeling on. No, it emanated from these stone figures here.
“Jubal. Let’s move on.” Esther had her arms folded now, as if she could be cold in the mild late evening. “Really, I don’t like this.”
“In a minute.” There was a kind of fascination, and the more he looked, the more it grew.
“I’m moving on,” Esther said in a softly frightened voice.
He could hear her high heels tapping on the walk. And a moment later, he had finally wrenched himself away from Sekhmet and joined her. He wasn’t sure how much of his own odd feeling was just something that he’d caught from his companion.
Whatever it had been was over now, the world around them sane and stable once again.
Esther, sounding worried, said, “You must think I’m very timid. Actually I’m not like that at all.”
“I guess you couldn’t be, and be an actress. I know I get stage fright, if I have to stand up and do anything in front of folks.”
Hearing that admission from Jubal seemed to make her feel better. “Different people are bothered by different things,” she told him soothingly.
And then somehow, before they knew it, their aimless stroll had brought them back again, standing before the black statues, listening to the trickling fountain.
This, Jubal thought to himself, is getting ridiculous.
A couple of minutes ago there had been four Sekhmets here—but now there were only three. One of the carved stone chairs, standing slightly above and to the rear of the other figures, was empty, the image that had occupied it gone. Earlier Jubal had assumed that each figure and its support were carved in one piece, but obviously that was not so.
Esther had stopped beside him, evidently coming to the same conclusion.
“Weren’t there four of them here only a couple of minutes ago?”
Jubal tried to adjust his memory to fit with what he saw before him now. The effort was complicated by the unpleasant feelings the place had aroused in him earlier.
“I thought so—but I don’t see how there could have been,” he said at last. “One of those things must weigh a ton, it couldn’t have got up and walked away.”
The young couple were just ready to move on when they heard strange noises out in the cool night fog—the “high fog” that he heard Californians talking about, when Jubal would have called it simply clouds.
“There it goes again—what was that?”
They had just seen that all the predatory animals were secure in their cages. Anyway, the sound wasn’t a roar—it was more like the whining mewing that a housecat could sometimes let out, if you could imagine a full-grown lion trying to imitate the noise.
“Mountain lion?” Jubal hazarded. “Is there anything like that around here?”
“I don’t know. But that didn’t even sound like an animal. I don’t know what it sounded like.”
They listened some more, but now there was only silence.
“Wish we had a flashlight,” Jubal said. The alabaster spheres that served as streetlights provided a lot of illumination, but between them now there seemed vats and reservoirs of darkness.
“This place is weird,” said Esther, more in admiration than in fear. Then she had another thought. “You know what? Maybe it was bagpipes. I’ve heard people at the studio playing bagpipes.”
Jubal was still thinking of mountain lions; he had heard wild ones make some pretty screechy sounds. If he had lived all his life in the flatland back east, where he had spent his early childhood, he would have been willing to accept these rolling hills as mountains. But the fact was that he had spent his last couple of years growing up in the Rockies, and so his attitude was somewhat different. He would not have felt too ill-at-ease prowling around these hills by night or day. A mountain lion wasn’t normally going to attack a human; though of course it was not impossible.
Jubal left Esther at the door of the guest house in which she and her parents were housed. “See you for a swim in the morning?”
“That sounds like a good idea.”
“Maybe take another walk tomorrow night?”
Jubal was walking around early Saturday, sizing the place up on the first morning of his weekend visit, when his attention was caught by a group of workers who had surrounded something on a grassy slope, about a hundred feet from the walk where the Sekhmet statues stood, and slightly downhill.
Somehow he thought he already knew what the men were looking at, before he got close enough to see it.
And when he got close enough, he saw that he was right. The workers were trying to get the statue of Sekhmet back where it belonged.
Something is really wrong here, Jubal told himself. But I don’t know what. He thought it would take more than two men to drag the thing back up the grassy slope where it had somehow, unaccountably, come tumbling down. And somehow it had been hoisted over the stone balustrade that stood between.