by Eric Therkilsen
“It was never intended to be this way,” Lionel groans with the shake of his head; his thick mane rocking side to side. His best friend, Gus, hovers behind him, fearful of the surroundings they find themselves in.
“What are you going to do about it,” Gus asks.
There’s no response from the motionless body shielding him. Lionel is focused on a rival pride, as they poke and intimidate the animals in the cages, some of which are injured by traps. One of the cages, no more than eight feet by eight feet, houses four zebras. Another cage is filled up ear to ear with antelope. An old elephant, chained to a nearby tree, lets out a moan of displeasure.
“There is hunting for food, and then there is this? This is wrong.”
Lionel lets out a ferocious roar and stalks out from behind the thick brush. The brush and Gus disappear behind him. He stares over the pride who halt and stare back. Their heads slowly lower into the grass making them invisible.
“Leave or die, traitor,” comes a low voice from a close, but concealed location. Lionel recognizes the voice all too well.
“Let’s get out of here, Lionel,” Gus whispers into his ear, making sure not to poke him with his horns. “Those are very specific orders.”
“You go, Gus. I need to stay and have a word with these animals.”
Being a good listener, Gus wastes no time and bolts. Lionel watches him as he disappears into the jungle, making sure he doesn’t get chased or trapped. He looks back to discover several lions creeping toward him. He temporarily holds his ground, but when there are too many to count he decides its best he depart as well. A calm departure eventually leads to a panicked sprint.
Running along, unsure of what’s behind, he gets distracted by circling vultures. He leaps over and maneuvers around the dead carcasses along the trail. Some are fresh, others are just piles of bones. At times the flies are so bad he’s forced to run blind. Lionel ignores the rotting remains of the dead and focuses on home.
He finally arrives, his legs throbbing from the sprint. He pants desperately as he shares a watering hole with his friend, Jackson. The water can’t get in fast enough.
Jackson, a big-eared fox, doesn’t show any fear of the giant just feet from him. They drink together, neither saying a word, until the hole is nearly dry.
“You made it back,” shouts Gus as he trots over and rubs up against him. They are about the same height, and Lionel returns the affection with a head nudge that nearly knocks his frivolous friend over. He finds shade and falls to the ground, immediately gnawing on the grass patch. A giraffe hoof comes and goes.
Life here is harmonious, but that hasn’t always been the case. Less than a year ago, Lionel attacked this very village killing a zebra mother and her baby.
That was the last meal of meat for this now herbivorous lion.
The scream of the mother zebra, watching the slaughter of her young, has haunted Lionel since. It changed him and, for once, he saw a living being and mother, not a meal. He was disgusted with himself. Raised to believe he had to eat meat, along with the pressure to hunt, left Lionel with no choice but to comply or be killed by his own.
He desires a different life now; a life that doesn’t eradicate, but instead cares for and protects those he shares the land with. He falls asleep in the 90 degree heat, the shade providing little relief.
As nighttime emerges, the village animals burrow away, hiding from the nights visitors. As they fall asleep, Lionel stays awake. He watches over the area, ready to use his roar to deter unwanted or hungry guests. The moonlight beats off his side, displaying his scars. There is the long baboon slash which lies just above the hyena imprint. Under his eye is a scar from the back hoof of a zebra. Most of his scars aren’t from being attacked, but from attacking. Lionel licks them each day as a reminder of what he’s done.
In the middle of the night, the village alarm, also known as African toads, sounds off. Lionel rises up quickly, but is quiet as to not let the night visitor know of his presence. He’d prefer a sneak attack as he’s not as strong as he used to be. A pack of wild dogs slowly make their way through. They are normally harmless to lions, but will go after Lionel’s friends. Little Chase sleeps nearby and would be an easy meal for these dogs; the antelope and gazelles too. Not tonight, however.
Lionel confronts the pack, pacing back and forth to show them his still impressive frame. The surprised dogs let out deep barks as they lower themselves, the hair on their backs standing higher than their heads. The village wakes up, showcasing some of what is available to eat. The dogs scatter. Lionel charges the biggest one, burying his teeth into the rear of the dog. The painful yelp distracts the other dogs and brings them back, one sinking teeth into Lionel’s back leg. Lionel releases his enemy and they surround him. He stands motionless, ready for battle. The village goes back into hiding as Lionel keeps the danger away for the time being. He doesn’t want to kill these animals, but he will if it means protecting his friends. Three minutes into the standoff, the pack of dogs back down and disappear into the dark.
It’ll be a sleepless night for Lionel as he gently licks another wound. This is his mission, his purpose, these days; to undo all the wrong he’s done and keep his friends alive. It’s getting harder, however, as he ages and his frame and muscle decreases with his new diet.
Morning time arrives and Chase, as always, is the first to greet Lionel. He plops and licks the fresh wound on Lionel’s leg.
“That’s enough, Chase,” he says before the skin is licked raw, displaying his bone. Gus walks over and nudges his son along.
“You know, Gus, the name of your boy isn’t all that fitting, you being wildebeests.”
Gus chuckles as he lies down as well. “When he was younger he always chased his brothers and sisters, rest in peace. And so his name became Chase. But you are correct; we are the ones being chased.”
Lionel grunts as he struggles to raise himself up, eventually getting to his feet. He needs to eat and wanders down to the river looking for some yams or cowpeas along the way. He finds a patch of yams protruding from the ground and pulls them out. They give him a terrible stomach ache, but he holds them down. Drinking from the river he spots a herd of wildebeests just across the water. They are out in the open, vulnerable to the carnivores lurking in the shadows. He turns and heads back to the village before he is forced to witness the slaughter.
In the midst of a nap, Lionel awakes to the sound of the daytime village alarm, also known as the baboons. He lifts his head up as a dust cloud moves through. A familiar face, scarred and stern, emerges amidst the dust leading a group of weak and defeated zebras. Lionel stays low not wanting to be seen by the convoy. The leader, and his brother, violently shakes the flies off his thick mane. The caravan is extensive with lions at the sides and rear. They move through uninterrupted, not seeing the village zebras hiding just yards away.
Lionel cautiously emerges after the threat vanishes and the dust settles. He’s exhausted and starving, but he hasn’t told his friends this; until now. Realizing he wouldn’t have been able to save them, he calls them together.
“I would stay here forever if I could, but I’m weak and I can’t sustain myself on plants much longer. It isn’t enough for my body after all these years. I am sorry my friends.”
Stripes, an old zebra, hobbles over and lies down at his feet. “I am giving myself to you, so that you can eat and gain your strength back.”
Lionel shakes his head and lowers his face to him. “I won’t do that.”
Gus and Chase emerge from the brush. “Lionel, my friend, there is nothing more honorable than dying for what you believe in. I speak for everyone when I say thank you for your friendship and security. It was never your job to protect us.”
Lionel walks over and rubs his nose into Gus’s. Chases sniffles and looks down, avoiding eye contact. Lionel turns and slowly walks away, stopping almost immediately. He turns around and looks at the somber eyes of the inevitably doomed village.
“See you in a better life.”