DayBreak Fiction: “The Courage of the Lion Tamer” v2

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The Courage of the Lion Tamer

by Anya Martin

Back in 2006, I did an almost coast-to-coast trip in the US when I went from Anaheim (after LACon IV) to Atlanta (for Dragon*Con), rental car loaded with tons of Interzone copies (and various TTAPress releases). In Atlanta, and at Dragon*Con, Anya Martin — whom I’d already met both at Interaction and LACon IV — and her husband Phil showed me around. They were fantastic hosts.

I also vividly remember Phil complaining — well, it wasn’t complaining, more like ruefully wondering — why Anya wasn’t writing fiction anymore (as a journalist she was and is writing plenty of non-fiction). After I returned from the madness that is Dragon*Con (and I spent a few days winding down with Anya and Phil), I tried to entice Anya into writing via a few emails, but — seemingly — to little or no effect. Until this summer, as she sent me “The Courage of the Lion Tamer” about ten seconds before the Shine deadline closed, noting in her email that she had actually used this as a way to force her to finish a short story and actually send it out.

I quite like “The Courage of the Lion Tamer”, but when I was making my final selections for the Shine anthology I chose two stories also set in Africa that I thought worked and fitted the sensibility of Shine just a bit better. Nevertheless, I’m very happy to publish “The Courage of the Lion Tamer” here at DayBreak Magazine, and I certainly hope that she will keep (and have some info that she is) writing more fiction.

For now, enjoy this reminiscence of a near future that, on the one hand it needs to be rewilded, but on the other hand might need to keep in touch with the latest developments at large, as well.

(Note: and the day before I’m putting up this story I find out — via ecoworldly — that a small part of it is already happening: Living with Lions: Lion Guardians. To avoid a minor spoiler, it’s probably better to check these links after reading Anya’s story.)

“Fear an ignorant man more than a lion.”

—Turkish proverb

I could hear Simba grumbling behind his bars—at least it sounded like grumbling—a raw guttural noise that he often makes not dissimilar to the tones uttered by a dog I once had when he was trying to get comfortable and rubbing his back against a wall. One of the three lionesses also made a faint growl, and another echoed her. Probably Simba was rearranging himself or maybe just a particularly loud snore and the others responding. But it was my job to ensure they were all right at all times, so I rolled out of my cot and into my sandals, splashed water on my face from the faucet, grabbed a dressing gown and flashlight, and slipped out of the tent.

As I stumbled in the direction of the cages, a red-tailed monkey dashed across my path, and shining the flashlight up on another of the tents in the camp, I spied the white jowls and ruffs of two more running across its roof. Maybe the lions’ noises were just triggered by their movement. I rounded the tent’s corner, and as the cages came into view, though, I saw the cause of the disturbance—the grayish-brown outline of a warthog standing about 10 feet from the lions, and Simba on his feet, glancing at it, pacing, a mix of fascination and—I hoped—hunger in his eyes. The lionesses also had their eyes locked. They would need those natural instincts to kick in soon if they were going to survive.

Warthogs wandered the camp freely, and one of them even laid down almost literally at my feet yesterday. Were it not for its tusks, I almost dared reach down and pet it. Would have thought the lions would make the little guy, from snout to tail about four foot long, nervous, but I guess he could sense the bars that separated him from being a late night snack. Kind of like the housecat that stares down a dog that’s going crazy to chase it but is confined to a leash.

“Shoo,” I said, almost a whisper, trying not to wake my teammates slumbering in the surrounding tents, and ran towards the warthog. My tactic worked and it scuttled into some underbrush.

“Well, how about that, Simba?” I added, now turning back to the lion. He was looking me in the eye, and I wondered if he was disappointed I had sent the fascinating distraction away. “Do you like this new place, oh, Jungle King?”

I teased him about his name all the time, but his brown eyes remained shiny, enigmatic in the dim light, unaware of my joke. All lions in captivity were named Simba or Leo or Aslan or—with a touch of irony—Daniel. I knew I was not supposed to touch him, had been taught in veterinary school that lions in captivity still can be unpredictable. But I had known him since he was a cub barely longer than my arm when he and his mother, Regina, had been acquired by Zoo Atlanta, and he had never bitten me.

I reached my hand slowly into the cage and stroked his mane lightly. He purred softly and licked it tenderly, so obviously comfortable in my presence.

After I withdrew my hand, Simba circled the cage and laid back down. The lionesses also seemed to be settling. In a moment, he was on his side, his chest slowly rising and falling, the excitement over. The king of the beasts passed into a heavy slumber, and me, not able to take my eyes off his handsome splendor, thought how unlikely it was that I was here, he was here, at Kichwa Tembo on the edge of the Masai Mara.

*☼*☼*☼*

The alarm on my handheld rang out “Talk to the Animals” in Rex Harrison’s affable English voice at 6 a.m. Yes, since I was a kid, I’ve been a sucker for that silly old movie about a singing veterinarian. Maybe it’s why I embarked on the path which led me first to chief veterinarian at Zoo Atlanta and ultimately to Kenya now—well, that and “Born Free.” Imagine animals being born free in the wild. Even the monkeys and warthogs at Kichwa Tembo were dependant on humans for their scraps and trash.

I showered quickly in the little plastic portable unit in my tent. Kichwa Tembo had once been one of Kenya’s most popular tourist destinations, allowing visitors to stay in canvas tents that simulated a safari camp with the added amenity of running water, of course. Robert Redford, the actor turned environmental hero, and his co-star Meryl Streep had even stayed here while filming “Out of Africa.” As the animals dwindled, more people grew worried about violent tribal disputes surrounding Kenya’s elections, business dropped way off, and safaris eventually were officially banned. But now the camp was racking in the profits again as the chief launch location for Project Mara, one of Africa’s biggest locations in the Great Animal Return.

By the time I emerged from the tent around 6:30, my hair still wet and dressed like Karen Blixen or Joy Adamson in white shirt, khakis, and hiking boots, the early sun was streaming in between the trees.

“Hurry, Diana, they are moving Simba into the truck,” called John Kidongi, foisting a coffee mug into my hand, a teenage boy by his side.

“This is my son, Subira,” he added. “I brought him along to see what his father does.”

John was dressed in the army green shirt and shorts that were the uniform of the Masai rangers who patrolled the park to fend off poachers and tend to any sick animals. Subira was in a white T-shirt, jeans and sneakers with a bright orange and green beaded bracelet on his wrist.

“Nice to meet you Subira,” I said, savoring the robust flavor of the Kenyan coffee and making a mental note to buy plenty to take home with me. “I like that bracelet. It’s a traditional Masai one isn’t? I’ve always wanted to have one.”

“This one is just for warriors,” the boy said.

“Is it now?” John said, smiling and ruffling the boy’s hair. “You know, there are no warriors any more. Now we are caretakers of earth’s greatest treasures.”

Subira shrugged and then gave a faint smile, although whether it was just to please his father, I could not tell.

In two minutes, I was at the cages and watching the crane slowly lifting Simba onto the flatbed truck. Like my dog in the car, he was standing up, rather than reclining like I would prefer for his safety. Had he grown used to all the moving by now? Back at Zoo Atlanta, he had his own rock kingdom to climb on and grass where if he couldn’t truly run, he at least could walk freely. It seemed like an eternity ago when we laid raw meat in the cage and coaxed him inside. Now he had been in it for days, loaded onto trucks and one gigantic airplane and trucks again, not knowing that after this short stint in tight quarters, he would have more space to run than he has ever known.

As soon as the cage was settled onto the flatbed, John and I climbed up beside him.

“Great king, you need not be nervous,” John spoke softly as if to a baby. “Very soon you will be free to roam as your great ancestors did on the mighty plains of God’s country.”

Simba came up to the bars and licked his hand.

“Subira,” John called in practically a whisper. “Come, boy.” The teenager seemed nervous, but he obeyed his father and ascended the truck.

“Meet Simba,” John continued. “Simba, meet Subira. Even if this lion was born faraway in Atlanta, Georgia in the United States of America, you are both children of Africa.”

Subira kept his distance from the cage even as John stroked Simba’s mane.

“Hello, Simba,” the boy said, nodding politely.

John slipped his hand back from the bars, and I noticed that Simba was looking at Subira as if to acknowledge the introduction, too. John definitely had a way with the lion. In moments like these, I wondered whether he would remain such a gentle giant in the wild. Would his three ladies hunt for him? That had been the way, but they had never lived anywhere but a zoo either.

I pulled out my handheld to check the tracking chip I had surgically inserted between his shoulder blades before we left Atlanta. The blinking red light on the screen clearly showed him in Kichwa Tembo. Cameras had also been placed all over the reserve. We would be able to find him to deliver meat until the lions learned to hunt for themselves, and we would be able to check if he had been injured. The lions from San Diego, Los Angeles, Cleveland, London, Paris, and Helsinki were doing fine in their hunting grounds on the Serengeti. The lions from Miami had simply been unlucky. They were the first and we caretakers were naïve in thinking that we didn’t need electronic surveillance fences to lock out everyone who didn’t agree that the animals returned to the wild should be preserved. The last truly wild-born lions, cheetahs, rhinos, giraffes, and so many other animals had become extinct—not just thanks to poaching but also to well-meaning tourists disrupting long-established feeding patterns and hunting grounds.

Now people did not have to take jeeps into the wilderness since cameras could broadcast live real-time footage of the animals to anywhere in the world. I tuned in from home, but virtual viewing of the animal-return movement had created an entire new enthusiasm for zoology in schools. The American Museum of Natural History in New York renovated its old IMAX theater into a 24-7 viewing room, set to switch between different preserves around the globe as different animals went on the move, and more and more museums were following suit. The heartfelt moments of returning animals to the wild proved the biggest hit. Hopefully watching them stay and learn to survive there would be just as big a hit.

“I’m going to ask the driver to move up so that the next trucks can move in and pick up the fillies,” said Marcus Blake, the middle-aged director of Project Mara. Born and raised in Kenya, he’d watched the animals disappear firsthand, and his only downside was that he harbored a bit of racism after having fought when he was younger to get a corrupt tribally-divided government to prioritize conservation until it was too late. Maybe decades of disappointment had taught him how to down the dozen gin and tonics I saw him consume last night without seeming tipsy.

“Simba, we’ll be back in a few,” I said.

John, I, and Subira climbed off, and Muigai Kibeki, our Kikuyu driver, hopped into the cab.

“That lion is like a child to you; you will miss him,” John said. “But do not worry, Diana, you are attractive and smart. One day you will have a husband and your own boy.”

I started to protest—after all, a woman did not need a man to be successful, and I’d already tried quite a few that I didn’t want to spend my life with—but I stopped myself. He was just giving voice to his own beliefs. In Masai culture, women were strong, but they still did not make it on their own. At least polygamy was now banned by law.

“Do you have any other children in addition to Subira,” I asked instead.

“No, Diana, God has not blessed me so,” John said. “I and my wife Nkirote, we tried to make a child for ten years before Subira was born. That is why we chose his name. It means waiting a long time or ‘patience’ in English.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, regretting the question.

“No matter, Subira is my great joy,” he said, hugging the boy’s shoulder and making him wince a little—what teenager acknowledges that he enjoys that kind of affection from a parent? “Now, we have three lionesses to load.”

The caravan left the gates of Kichwa Tembo at about 8 a.m. and headed into the dense forest surrounding the camp. After a brief argument with Marcus, he let me ride in the cab with Muigai rather than in the jeep with him, John, and Subira. I really wanted to be on the flatbed with Simba, but even though the truck would not be moving quickly, the drive across rugged terrain was too dangerous without seats and seatbelts.

About a quarter of a mile later as we were about to leave forest for the grassy plain, we arrived at the electronic security fence. It was invisible, apart from the metal towers that powered it spaced about 100 feet apart as far as I could see in either direction. John got out of the jeep and pointed a long black key device in their direction. I could see him punching in the password sequence. A green light flashed above his fingers, and he motioned for us to move forward.

“He will set the electronic charge in this gateway to be off for two minutes to allow us to pass through, and then it’ll repower,” Muigai explained, following the jeep as it drove between two of the towers into the Masai Mara reserve.

The drop-off point was just three miles away—far enough that we hoped the lions would not wander back to the camp, but close enough that we could reach them easily in their first few days and weeks if any problems warranted our intervention. Marcus had also selected this particular location because of its close proximity to a small river which would not just be a water source for the lions but also hopefully would encourage hunting since it was a known gathering spot for impalas and Thompson’s gazelles.

The ride itself was one of the most memorable moments I’d experienced yet in my life. Previously the most exotic place I had visited was Alaska with its snow-capped mountains and rugged tundra, but the pristine blue of the sky, the grasses billowing in the morning breeze, the graceful acacia trees in the Mara felt like a different world to me—like stepping back into the ancient past of my earliest ancestors who hunted and gathered here before any other place on earth. Documentaries about the Leakeys watched as a child came back to me. I suddenly was Joy Adamson, taking three Elsas and my beautiful-maned king on the final journey back to nature. Not “Born Free,” but “Live Free.”

And then I saw my first animals. A small herd of wildebeests was nibbling grass about 30 feet to the right of the track. Thompson gazelles on the right. Two zebras! I wondered if these were some of the lucky few that never saw their last species members die out. Or were they resettled animals from the world’s zoos? Did it matter? I looked back at Simba. He was on his feet, his head turning back and forth. I could sense he also knew the other animals were close by. Was he getting excited, too?

The truck dipped down a slight slope, and I could now see a grove of acacia trees and a stream ahead to the right.

“We’re here,” Muigai said, as the jeep carrying Marcus, John, and Subira pulled to the left of the trees. Muigai parked a little ahead of them, and the other three trucks fell in behind.

“Where’s the camera?” I asked Muigai.

“There are several in the trees,” Muigai said, raising his hand with a grin. “And yes, if you wave, millions of schoolchildren around the world will probably wave back at you.”

So I waved, too, as I got out of the truck.

“You should probably stay inside the cab for your own safety,” Marcus said, coming up to me.

“Simba’s known me since he was a cub,” I said. “I think I’ll be OK.”

“Up to you,” Marcus shrugged.

I climbed onto the flatbed. Simba was watching me.

“Well, this is it, Simba,” I said, suddenly at a loss for words and feeling a tear slip down my cheek.

I reached my hand in and stroked him one last time.

“All right, I’m ready,” I said as Marcus, John, and Subira climbed up.

Marcus motioned me back to the rear of the flatbed. The other teams stood poised on the lionesses’ flatbeds. Marcus then said loudly: “One, two, three.”

John opened the lock on Simba’s cage.

“Four, five, six.”

He slowly opened the door until it was wide with us standing safely behind it.

Simba looked at the open cage door. Then he looked at me.

Regina, his mother, had already jumped to the ground, and Natasha was out of her cage and gazing down. Then she was out, too. Leia went next in one graceful leap like an Olympic diver. They rounded the trees and were heading towards the stream.

Simba watched them, and then he, too, took his leap—a perfect arc of muscle soaring through air. Upon the ground, he broke into a run as if he was worried that us humans would take back the gift he had been given. About 20 feet away, he stopped suddenly and turned. Was it his way of waving good-bye and saying thank you before he entered the great wondrous unknown we had given him? We. Us. People. Imagine that.

Marcus urged everyone back into the trucks as quickly as possible. Apparently previous experience had taught him that animals used to a life of captivity will return to their keepers if they stay too long to observe. Besides we could watch the lions on our handhelds so there was no reason to stick around. Well, no reason except that I missed Simba already.

This time, I rode in the back seat of the jeep with Subira. I switched on my handheld and adjusted it until I had the lions firmly in my view. They were playing.

*☼*☼*☼*

Back at the security fence, John handed Subira the key device and I smiled as he let his son do the procedure, remembering the first time my father let me open the car doors with his remote key. Of course, Subira was much older and this task held much greater responsibility.

We pulled in front of the lodge at Kichwa Tembo around 10 a.m., and Marcus, John, Subira, and I headed to a late breakfast in the open-air dining hall. The place already was crowded with Project Mara team-members, a handful of tourists seeking the romanticism of staying at a tented camp, and locals who stopped by to view the latest release on a giant screen mounted on the back wall.

“Simba and the lionesses are moving slowly through the grass, sniffing as they go, occasionally raising their heads as if to taste the breeze and their newfound freedom,” declared this morning’s announcer.

Everyone clapped as we walked in. Then the maitre d’, dressed in a white suit—some formalities of the colonial era had never gone away—guided us to a table on the edge where we also had a prime view out into the reserve. On the horizon, I could see the distant silhouettes of two giraffes approaching a tree.

Marcus ordered a bottle of champagne and by the time that our full English breakfasts had arrived—fried eggs, thick bacon, and kippers—conversation about a job well done was in full swing. An elderly couple from Manchester, England, came by to congratulate us and tell me how they had once visited Zoo Atlanta and saw the famous long-deceased gorilla Willie B. Of course, Simba had not even been born yet.

Subira stayed quiet throughout, so remembering how shy I had been at his age, I thought I would engage him in conversation.

“So Subira, do you plan to follow in your father’s footsteps and be a ranger here at the Masai Mara?” I asked.

“He is going to go to the best American university so that he can choose whatever he wants to do,” John said, cutting in immediately. “Maybe after his year of service, you can help him study in Atlanta.”

“Of course, I’d be glad to see what I can do,” I said. “Although I don’t know how much longer I will be needed in Atlanta. There aren’t many animals left. I’m thinking I might apply for a position on the veterinary team here.”

“We’ll be needing a lot of vets here, so let me know if you are interested,” Marcus said.

“Thanks,” I said. “But Subira, you haven’t said anything. Do you want to go to Atlanta?”

“I am a Masai and this is my home,” Subira said, looking down at his near-empty plate.

“Subira, the world is too big now for you to work even here without education,” John said, sounding a little embarrassed. “He has a close relationship with his grandfather who is very traditional, and the old man puts ideas in his head about what it is to be a Masai.”

“Do you follow golf, Diana?” Marcus jumped in suddenly, obviously hoping to cut the tension.

“It is good the animals are coming back to Kenya,” Subira said, his voice rising for the first time and looking his father in the eye. “But they should be for us, not for some big-screen Webcast.”

“The animals should be for all the world to enjoy,” Marcus said. “You people are the reason we’re in this mess.”

“And what about the great white hunter?” Subira asked.

“Well, he did his bit, but the sad fact is most of the poachers we’re keeping out are Kenyan,” Marcus said.

“Marcus, you know that Kenyans have rallied to this cause,” John said. “We’ve never seen so much money in our country until the Westerners started paying us to resettle the animals and these broadcasts started.”

“Touché, John, you’re a good man, and I wasn’t talking about you,” Marcus said. “But you should have a talk with your son.”

Silence descended on the table for a few minutes, then Subira excused himself, saying he wanted a swim in the pool. A few minutes later Marcus retired to the lounge for a gin and tonic. John stayed with me for a while, and I asked him questions about the reserve and the other animals he’d helped resettle. Then he, too, headed to an afternoon nap.

For me, though, I was content to sit all day in the dining hall. After all, I was saying goodbye to an old friend. Maybe John was right. Simba was like a son to me leaving home. Only unlike sending a child to service or college, I could spy on him and know what he was up to, even if it was only sleeping in the shade like he was right now on the big screen. How could he be in a place so new and exciting and want to rest? Maybe that was what separated us from the animals. Human beings, so restless all the time. Is that why for a billion years, the earth was home to so many diverse species, but we’re barely here for one million and we can destroy just about all of its other inhabitants? Well, actually, most of that was only in the past few hundred years.

The afternoon passed slowly, comfortably with lots of coffee. While the lions slept, I could see from the tracker at the foot of the screen that the worldwide feeds had switched to other animals—elephants in another part of the Masai Mara; polar bears in Alaska; even emus in Australia. But the lodge kept the main footage on the Atlanta lions since they were the newest arrivals here at the reserve.

For most viewers, after the excitement of the morning’s release, sleeping lions were a bit of a bore. So the room quickly cleared as people went off to the pool or to enjoy their own afternoon siestas.

The lions occasionally stirred, and at one point, I was excited to see them drinking from the river. The feed kicked in, and the announcer reported with glee:

“The Zoo Atlanta lions are taking their first sips from a river in the Masai Mara. Does the water taste different to them? Is it fresher? Is it like a fine wine?”

Whatever. A few minutes later, they were back to sleeping under a different shady tree. Maybe who could blame them? It had been a long trip, and the temperatures had climbed into the low 80s Fahrenheit, even if that was at least 10 degrees less than the average in Atlanta at this time of year.

*☼*☼*☼*

Marcus joined me again around 5 p.m., a gin and tonic in hand and offering to buy me a drink. I told him one of those great South African pinotages would be super, so he ordered a bottle. I was relieved to hear he hadn’t been in the bar the whole time. He and Muigai had driven up to the main reserve office where he’d been making some preparations for the next animal arrival—hippos from the Milwaukee County Zoo.

John came in soon after and ordered a Tuska beer and some chips—what we Americans would call French fries, which I nibbled with him. The two were asking me about Atlanta—and yes, hard to believe, in this day and age, still whether it was like “Gone With the Wind”—when I looked up at the screen and noticed that Simba suddenly had gotten up. He stood, staring for a long moment, as if he’d just seen something.

The movement triggered the worldwide feed to snap onto him again.

The announcer echoed his movements, “No, Simba, the lion released into the Masai Mara just this morning, is not ready to sleep tonight. Does he see something in the distance? Is it an antelope? Is it a zebra? Will he be making his first kill on his first night out in the wild?!”

I felt a tinge of excitement. It was early to imagine him hunting, but seeing him recognize his future dinner would be a positive sign.

“Or could it be another predator ready to challenge Simba for dominance of the Masai Mara?” the announcer continued, clearly trying to play up the drama.

I doubted it. We had been careful to place the lions far from any of the other resettled prides, and thanks to the implanted chips, I could see that none of the returned lions, cheetahs, leopards, or even black rhinos who had the ability to injure a lion with their horns were anywhere in the vicinity. Even all new cubs and all animal babies were captured and chipped.

Simba began to walk slowly away from his consorts.

“He’s on the move. Simba is on the move.”

“Can we pan the shot wider so we can see what Simba is seeing?” I asked Marcus.

“Yes, those kids from Stanford built in all sorts of capabilities into the cameras,” Marcus said. “Pretty neat stuff.”

He touched an icon on his handheld and began to move his finger slowly across it. The image on the big screen expanded, Simba, still on the move, flowing to the right side and the left opening out.

“What would we see through the lion’s eyes?” The announcer boomed. “Scientists in Kenya are expanding our view so that you can see everything, just as if you were the great beast itself.”

“It’s not going wide enough,” Marcus said. “We’re going to need to move to the next camera. The announcer will get pissed off if we break the suspense and switch away on the main transmission, so let me adjust the image just for us. Ok, pan left and…”

I glanced down at my handheld and saw—

Subira, draped in the orange mantle of the Masai, layers of beads around his neck, with a spear poised in his hand and aimed in the direction of Simba.

John felt his pocket for his security device and let out what I could only describe as a wail of sorrow. The penalty for killing any animal in a reserve would be years in prison. Some had wanted it to be death.

“He must have taken my…”

“God-dammit, John,” Marcus said, smashing his glass on the floor, rising to his feet and pulling out another of the key devices from his satchel. “Sweet Jesus. We spend millions of dollars trying to return animals to the wild, and put up a giant electronic security fence to keep out the poachers, and now you people start up your prehistoric rituals again.”

“What if Simba kills him…” I started, although truthfully, I was more worried about the lion than the boy.

“Hell, if Simba kills him, he’s a maneater and has to be put down,” Marcus said, already halfway to the dining hall door with us trailing behind him. “Let’s see if we can get there before any of that happens.”

“The whole world will see…” I started again, chasing after him, John on my tail.

“No they won’t. I just cut the bloody fuckin’ broadcast,”

I looked up and saw the main screen turned to black.

“I apologize we’ve lost the feed from Project Mara,” the announcer was saying. “Let’s switch to Rathambore Tiger Reserve in India where two Bengals from Germany’s Stroehen Zoo were released last week. Mickey and Minnie…”

“How far away is he?” I yelled at Marcus as we passed through the lodge lounge.

“About half a mile south of the drop-off point,” he replied as a valet rushed to open the front doors.

“Muigai, get the car,” he yelled, now out in the driveway. “John’s crazy boy is trying to kill Atlanta’s lion.”

Muigai, obviously startled from a cigarette break, ran to the jeep which was parked about 20 feet away and fired it up. When he drove up to the door, Marcus ordered him out.

“I’ll drive,” he said, keying Simba’s name into the GPS unit on the dashboard to access his chip. The screen instantly provided a map to his location. John had barely jumped into the passenger seat and me into the back before Marcus had the vehicle in drive and out of the camp. The sun was low on the horizon, but thankfully it was not dark yet.

We hurtled down the bumpy dirt road, but my eyes were glued to the handheld. Subira, clutching the spear, was walking slowly. I shifted back to Simba who was advancing, too. Soon I’d be able to wide zoom and see them in the same frame. Could I watch John’s son plunge the spear into my son? Could I watch my son wrap his jaws around John’s son’s arm, leg, neck? Would they both be lying bleeding when we got there?

Marcus did not even get out of the car when he reached the reserve’s entrance this time, thrusting the key out the window and hitting the keys with one hand, then revving the jeep onto the plain.

“What’s that boy doing?” Marcus yelled, following the tire tracks from the morning drive and startling a clump of impalas.

“He’s not doing anything yet,” John said.

“And that lion?”

“He’s watching.”

Simba had stopped. Sibura has stopped. And they were both in the same frame now, staring each other down.

We pulled over the first ridge, and Marcus checked the GPS again.

“Another mile to go,” he said. “At least we don’t have any traffic to worry about.”

He had a point, given that Kenya was known for jams that lasted entire days, but if he was trying to lighten our moods with a joke, nobody laughed.

Simba started advancing again. The arm with which Subira held the spear had begun to shake enough to be seen even on the small screen. Then Subira pulled it back and let loose the projectile. I closed my eyes.

“He threw the spear, Marcus,” John said in a weak voice.

Then a few seconds later.

“He missed.”

I opened my eyes not certain whether to be relieved.

“The lion, he is coming faster.”

“Is he attacking?” Marcus asked, the jeep’s bumpiness increasing as he accelerated past 70 miles per hour, pushing the limits of the vehicle on the rough terrain.

The lion opened his mouth. I switched back to the boy who was now backing up slowly and slipped out of frame. The lion advanced and then also disappeared. I tried to adjust the shot with my finger, but it stayed frozen on the place previously occupied by boy, then lion.

“What happened?” I cried out. “Why won’t the picture pan?”

“Maybe they moved beyond the range of the cameras,” Marcus said.

“I thought that wasn’t possible,” I said.

“In theory, it’s not supposed to be. In practice, it’s damned hard to place cameras all over miles and miles of nature preserve.”

“What good is that?”

“But we’re almost there.”

Marcus whirled the jeep around a thicket of acacia trees and other shrubbery, and we saw them.

The boy clearly on the ground, the lion on top.

“Oh, my lord God,” John said, putting his hand over his mouth.

“Diana, grab the rifle out of the back,” Marcus yelled.

“No,” I whispered.

“Diana, don’t be sentimental,” Marcus said. “If that stupid-ass boy is going to have any chance, I’m going to have to get that lion off of him. And when I start coaxing him, who knows whether he’s going to like me very much.”

“Let me try first,” I said. But Marcus was already out of the cab and heading round the back himself.

I jumped out of the jeep and started running towards Simba.

“Diana!” Marcus yelled, but I didn’t stop.

Simba raised his head and his body.

“Simba!” I cried. “Run!”

I could hear Marcus cocking the rifle behind me, when I heard Sibura’s voice.

“Don’t shoot,” he said.

“Stop, Marcus,” I screamed, turning back to see him starting to aim. “The boy’s all right.”

Marcus slowly lowered his gun as John now came up next to me.

“Sibura, son, are you all right?” he said as if he could not believe it.

The boy sat up next to the lion.

“Father, I was going to kill him, and when I missed, I thought he would kill me,” Sibura said. “But he licked my cheek. His tongue was so heavy and I was so surprised that I fell down, and then he licked me all over.”

“John, tell the boy to get up slowly,” Marcus said, rifle down but ready to raise if the lion made any sudden movement.

“No, father, he will not hurt us,” Sibura said, standing now and stroking Simba’s mane. Simba rubbed against him, then he slowly pulled away and came to me, brushing the length of his body against mine.

John reached Sibura and embraced him.

“Why did you do this crazy thing?” he implored his son.

“Grandfather told me all the stories about how to really be a man, you must kill a lion first,” Sibura said. “He said even you killed a lion, father. I could not be less of a man than my own father.”

“I did kill a lion, Sibura, when I was very young,” John said, a tear flowing down his cheek. “But as I have told you, the times are very different, and some men like your grandfather may just be too old to accept that change can be a good thing. Lions are precious in another way now. We almost lived in a world where there were no lions to keep or to kill, so to preserve them must be the new test of manhood.”

Simba laid down at my feet, and I thought I heard him purring.

Marcus finally recocked the rifle.

“I don’t know if that’s one stupid tame lion or one smart one,” he said with a grin.

“I’d say he’s a genius,” I said.

As the lavender hues of twilight draped the sky, I planted a soft kiss on Simba’s mane and we all headed back to the jeep. As Marcus pulled away, Simba rose and gazed after us as if he was thinking about following us.

But then a roar erupted from behind. The three lionesses had gone in search of their king and were calling him back to the pride. Were they jealous of his bond with me, with people? None of them had ever been friendly to me, and I would never have dared touch them except under anesthesia.

Simba looked back at them, at us, and then at them. Then he turned and headed in their direction, his tail swinging slowly. When he reached them, they all nuzzled him. Then one’s ears perked up and her head shot to the side. Some impalas were heading towards the water, unaware of the predators so close by—or maybe simply used to living in a part of the Masai Mara without predators.

The females crouched as if ready to stalk towards the tiny deer-like creatures.

“We should get back before dark if we can,” Marcus said.

I nodded and he revved up the jeep.

As we drove away, I wondered how long Simba would survive in the wild if I had tamed him so much that he could not recognize the worst enemy of all—mankind?

The lionesses encircled one of the impalas, and within a few minutes they and Simba were sharing their first kill in the wild under the full moon.

At least he had his women—them and me—to watch over him. And if I had any doubts whether my call to service would lead me back to Atlanta or to stay here, they had been answered by the call of the wild.

“The Courage of the Lion Tamer” by Anya Martin. Copyright ©2009 Anya Martin.

Picture credits:

Anya Martin is a freelance writer and journalist who has written widely about science fiction, fantasy, and horror in books, art, comics, and music for both mainstream and genre publications. She has a B.A. in cultural anthropology from Smith College and a M.A. in journalism from Georgia State University. When she was growing up, “Born Free”—movie, book and TV series—were all among her favorites. She traveled to Kenya in 1998 and has followed both politics and wildlife issues in that country ever since. She lives in Atlanta and has a dog named Max who is the lion king of collies.

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