The Lion

13 February 2018

Though he wears a rich coat burning brighter than the sand of any desert, the twinkle in the lion’s amber eyes has long since faded.

Children lick at ice-cream seeping from soggy cones, ignoring the strands of fairy-floss caught between their fingers. Speakers crackle as they broadcast coaxing, jubilant voices. Applause thunders in the distance.

And the lion? He is in the middle of it all, gawked at and pointed at by sticky fingers. He does not roar in complaint so much as he yawns from boredom, his canines dripping with stringy saliva. He is like a flag, a display of gold against a tide of red, promotional fabrics. Yet without a breeze to lift his heavy mane, he makes for a disappointing display.

His cage jostles. The lion cocks his head to one side slowly, lazily. It’s only the groundskeeper, steadily sliding a tray of raw meats into his enclosure. The human’s face sags with boredom, though his pockets grow heavier with each passing hour. A glint of gold attracts the lion’s eye to the groundskeeper’s wrist. He peers closer. The man smirks, clasping his hands behind his back as he walks away.

The lion rests his head against his paws. A child stares at him. The lion blinks, sweeping his tail from left to right. Once, he lived camouflaged by statuesque reeds, pawing at rich soil and tracking wild footprints. Now his limp fur begs to be bathed in soapy suds, to be massaged and rid of its knots and tangles. There is nothing to do but wait.

Trumpets sound. Their calls are loud, elephant-like. The lion stands on all fours. His mane brushes against cold metal, though he doesn’t feel it. The child runs, screaming for its mother. Something blossoms inside of the lion’s broad chest, like a lotus flower opening to the world: its layered fingers yearning to touch, to play, to intertwine.

A ramp is mounted against the cage. The lion pads forward, his hind legs aching dully. He no longer requires assistance from ropes, hands or chains. He has made this journey many times, and knows the path by heart. As he walks, small clouds of dirt stir up around him and enter his nose. It’s a dry, smoky smell, though he can taste the life growing beneath it.

The lion strolls into a circular, tented room. His claws sink into the earth, as though searching for life in its barren hardness. Red and gold stands spin and blur around him like dizzying wands of fire, transforming their delighted occupants into faceless spectators. The lion stands a little taller, presenting his chest to the crowd, his hackles raised.

Nothing in the ring can compete with the stars. Though enhanced, superficial, they fascinate the lion: how do fleshy, human hands bend the wills of these sterling stars, forcing them to beam over their audiences? The lights ride over the ground, spotlighting towers of rising dust. It caresses the silk unravelling from the tents’ centre like a web, from which muscular women step like fairies from tulips.

A volcanic shudder and mountainous groan erupts from the stands. The lion is suddenly cocooned in light. Popcorn kernels spill to the trodden grounds. Fists are raised, and eyes gleam like new coins.

His master, the ringleader, steps forward. He carries a spectacular hoop alive with coils of hissing fire. The lion tenses, his energy collating, and springs forth, readying his claws to capture the head of his prey before him. The ring of fire collects him, collaring itself around his neck.

The lion lands expertly on the other side of the burning hoop, earning ecstatic cheers from the audience. It’s all around him—their love, their admiration and respect. Dizzying torrents of flowers fall before him. Dimes sparkle before ricocheting off his back like ill-aimed bullets.

The ringleader stands before his lion, blocking his view of the audience as he bows towards the praise. It is his show, after all.

Gloved fingers collect fallen coins. Bruised roses are snatched up and thrown away to bleeding hearts. The lion returns to his cage once more, his chest wilted and leaden. An ant crawls over the gritty terrain beneath him, its joints clicking. Perhaps it’s heading for one of the drinking fountains, which patter like steady waterfalls.

The lion closes his eyes as the last of the sun touches his face, like the tentative hand of a child caressing its mother’s cheek. The warmth is soon replaced by the metallic breathing of cage bars.

Tomorrow, he will leap through another flaming hoop. The next day, he will perform the same act, and the day after that, he will mimic it. Darkness falls and the lion rests his chin against the cold stomach of his enclosure, yearning for something more.

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