The lion

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic

The lion
Sometimes it just so happens that in this world a tiny detail means everything and an insignificant event can change someone`s life. It`s like a shout or a minor movement of a little stone can cause an avalanche. That is what happened to me and my friends.
It seemed like I had known them all my life. We stood up for, helped and supported each other, and in that time, it seemed to me, everything we got was a common achievement. Now I understand how wrong I was.
There were five of us then. We met in law school and found a little law firm after graduation. We took as many cases as we could, and with only one condition: Don`t be a criminal. Four of us represented clients’ interests during hearings in court. But the fifth, let`s call him ‘Steven’, was the one who preferred to be unknown.
He was the one who discussed hard cases with clients, planned, went through evidence and created all of the strategies. His ideas and plans were made real by us in court, during negotiations and some other cases. He was incredible at his work, but if you ever met him outside the little room he called his office, first you would feel sympathy, a little bit later, pity, and eventually you would be disgusted.
There was nothing special about him: height – medium, body build – thin, his face looked as if it had no features at all. The only thing that you might find curious were his eyes- seeming almost black because of his pale complexion. For a short period of time he could get attached to total strangers that just talked to him, and then he would sit around with a broken heart when they left him, minding their own business.
He was shy and distracted outside of the office, but literally a chess-computer when it came to legal practice.
His wife, Megan, was a unique person in her own way. I could never understand how they got married in the first place. The word ‘loyalty’ meant literally nothing to her. She cheated on him with all his friends. As she was beautiful, nobody could say no to her- except me. I just couldn`t betray my friend. Sometimes, during dinner, one of us would leave the room with her on ridiculous excuses such as, “Could you help me with the plates please?”, or, “I wanna talk to you upstairs.” Sometimes she didn`t even specify who she wanted to talk to, allowing my friends to compete for her.
I wasn’t sure what went on once she and her ‘chosen one’ had left the dining room. And I didn’t want to know.
Steven was the only person who had never seemed to notice. He just smiled apologetically, like nothing ever happened. It was obvious that he was afraid of her, especially when her mood changed and she looked at him with her scary look. That only fact made the whole idea of Steven arguing with Megan impossible. She could just look at him in her special way and all his courage, intellect and will would vanish.
And if at first you could pity him, and feel indignant toward him, later you would despise that miserable clerk, who allowed himself to be treated that way.
He was despised by all of his friends, whom didn`t even try to hide it. To me, his life looked like an everlasting path of humiliation that he had been enduring with no objections. For some reason, he never noticed how we all treated him, or just didn`t show us that he did.

But every time someone asked him for help, he would become totally different. In that moment, a larva would turn into a butterfly and scattered stones would turn into a fortress. He always was good at law- adding up all possible variations for success, and not just legal, but psychological as well. For example, sometimes he attended hearings and just watched the judge, the jury and our opponents. After that, we got detailed instructions including not just things we should say, but how to say them, and where we should look in that moment. And so we reaped the fruits of his labor. It was unbelievable what he did; and for four years in business, we lost only 3 cases, but only because we didn`t follow instructions.
And this genius was a man of few means. The only thing he had was his intellect. His time, money and soul he willingly gave to others, never thinking of getting something in return. And even if you tried to reward him somehow, he would blush and refuse to accept your gratitude, and he would provide you with some gift instead.
Even though there were always people around him, he was lonely. He never told us about his private life, thoughts and dreams. Of course, we had never cared enough to ask. Thus, he got on with his unhappy and lonely life.
Every time I tried to talk to him about his life, he got scared; he claimed that there was nothing to talk about. Later I would find him dead-drunk in a dirty bar near his house, with a couple of bruises and out of money. And then I would accompany him home. It looked like that home had never been his and he was trying to stay away from it as long as he could.
It was hard to tell how long he would endure that. We thought sometimes that he was on the edge and almost ready to take his own life. But it just so happened that one of our good clients presented us with an extra bonus for legal services- a two-week vacation package for every one of us to one of his houses in the African prairies.
At first, we were going to take Steven`s wife instead of him. But after some debating, I persuaded everyone that we should take him, as us winning the case was actually his achievement. Besides, regardless of our hubris, we understood that our successful firm could stay like that only as long as we had Steven on our side. And while we were all gone, it would be so easy for our competitors to win him over. Because no matter how hard we tried to conceal that, it was well known who the mastermind was of our firm.
And they all tried to get him, that`s why we could never leave him alone.

***

Our guide met us in the airport. He brought us to a mansion with small terrace steps and a rickety roof. At first, we thought that the mansion was either too old, or it was built based upon a flawed project. A miracle was the only reason we could think of that it hadn’t already collapsed. But the guide swore that soon the mansion would be fixed.
Thus, our vacation began.
Safari, long nights, trips to the city, bars and so on. During our morning breaks from active rest, the guide drove us into the wild to watch primordial nature. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to hunt lions because lions were on the edge of extinction. The government was busy with restoring the lion population here. The whole area was turned into a national park and it was forbidden by law to kill lions.
The guide hinted that we shouldn`t underestimate local laws, because as a punishment, the guilty one might be eaten. Literally. No one wanted to test if he was kidding.
Once the guide drove us to a river to look at hippopotamuses. There we saw the lion. She had been laying on the far shore when we got to the river. It looked like she was resting, reluctantly watching us, but she ran away once we were out of the car.
Since that day we met her everywhere. It seemed she followed us wherever we went, watching us from afar but never hiding. We spent many hours contemplating why she did that. The guide told us that some of the lions were bought from circuses. It was ironic because selling lions to circuses was one of the main reasons the lions were almost extinct. Grown lions were killed, and kittens were sold. Now, some of them could return to their homeland whom had been gotten rid of a long time ago. She was the first and only lion in this area for now.
My guess was that she knew who destroyed her pride and was just waiting for the right moment. Steven argued with me, noting that she had never hid from us, and for some reason showed if not friendliness, neutrality.
Nevertheless, the lion became a constant member of our cohort, accompanying us everywhere. We even gave her a name, ‘Milady’ (honoring Milady from Dumas`s novel, because our guide agreed with me).
Soon she found where we lived. Once, we found the lion`s spoor around the mansion. We also found marks of the lion`s claws on the garage door and terrace.
The guide refused to supply us with firearms. He also claimed that if something happened to Milady, he would inform the authorities. Besides, all lions are marked with some kind of tracking device, and the authorities would notice it anyway. He advised us to bar all of the doors and windows.
For the last week of our vacation, we almost never left the mansion. We also agreed to have someone on watch during the night. Steven willingly offered to take that duty, and since that day, Milady didn’t scratch any doors with her claws. I also took a couch downstairs in case he needed some assistance during his watch.
One of the nights I couldn`t sleep. Not having anything else to do, I stared outside, contemplating the future of the firm and our sentinel. Only then I found it curious that Steven insisted on being the only one on duty during the night. That only fact confused me more than ever when I started analyzing it. We all considered him a coward, a push-over, a man with no guts. And he was the first to offer his candidacy for the night watch. I realized that I had no idea about what kind of person he was. Even though I had known him for years, I didn`t know him. He was just like a closed book, opening only to those who deserved his trust. I doubted that there were a lot of trust-worthy people in his life.
Suddenly, I heard the door opening. It was Steven, sneaking out of the mansion. I followed him. After walking for couple of minutes, he seemed to have heard me, as he turned around and motioned for me to come closer.
“Do not make a sound, do not make sudden movements, and don`t even think about running. You do what I say. We have been being watched. Got it?” He whispered.
After I nodded, he led me to a little forest near the mansion. As we got into the wooded area, he switched off his flashlight, and there we stood for a while looking around. Then Milady showed up. She came out of nowhere, and after staring at us, went away. I was scared to death. She likely had been watching us the whole time and had never betrayed her presence. For the first time in my life, I was hunted.
“Now, slowly turn around, and we will go back. Do not run, she might attack” I heard him whispering. He was quiet and obviously didn`t share my fear of being killed by a lion.
Once we got to the mansion, I barricaded all the doors with furniture. Steven was quite amused with my efforts. He waited for me to finish my fortifications but didn`t help. Once I was done, he said,
“Don`t be so scared.”
“What was that?” I tried to stay calm, but my trembling voice betrayed my uneasiness.
“Milady likes to visit us.” He laughed a bit and then added, “Once I figured that out, she stopped ruining the mansion. Don`t be so scared.”
“I am not scared, just surprised. In fact, I would like to see her again. Can I go with you next time?” I asked, secretly wishing him to refuse.
He was looking at me for a while, as if judging if I`m good enough to be prey. There was something different in his eyes when he was looking appraisingly at me, something new and scary. He looked at me in the way he might look at a pawn in chess- measuring if he should sacrifice this one to an enemy.
“Sure.” He said. “Just one more thing- do not try to get closer to her. She is not a cat, and she chooses the distance that is enough for her to make a decision if she should run or attack.”
“How did you…” I stopped for a moment, choosing the right words. “Become friends with her?”
“I just went to the woods once.” He paused. “She was kind of watching me, but didn`t attack.” He paused again. “I found it interesting.”
The way he talked and the pauses he made indicated how carefully he was mincing his words. Though it didn`t exclude my next question.
“Why would you go there in the first place?”
He didn`t answer, just gave a wave of the hand and went to bed.
Since that day, I was his fellow sentinel. We met Milady almost every night. Even though sometimes she didn`t show up, Steven joked that she was watching us and just didn`t feel like talking.
Sometimes she came to the mansion and spent some time near the window, allowing us to take a close look at her. I was scared of that the most because the only thing that protected us from her was just a window. And I had no doubts, that in case of Milady`s attack, she wouldn’t even notice the glass. Ironically, I felt more secure when we met her in the forest. Sometimes, I think I may have even heard her purring, although it still made me nervous because her purring was more brutal than the growl of any dog. And just like always, she chose the distance. I was charmed by the scene: lion and my friend, just watching each other. And I started considering his words about ‘talking to her’. It looked like they did, in some way.
Two days before our leaving, I wanted to do something I could remember. So, I took my camera and tried to take a picture of her sitting 10 meters from us.
Once I took out the camera, she got nervous, but I didn`t pay attention because I wanted to take the picture. The flash startled her at first, but then she rushed to us. Steven made a couple of steps towards her, covering me. The next thing I saw was him lying down and Milady growling at him, with her paw’s clutch on his chest. He was surprisingly calm.
“Do not move.” He whispered to me. He was just looking at her, waiting for something. The lion didn`t kill him, she just darted into the bushes faster than I could follow her with my eyes.
The whole scene lasted less than a minute, but to me it felt like a year. We ran away to the mansion before other predators could smell the blood. As we tended the wound, neutralizing infections and wiping away all the blood, I could see the four-lined scar on his chest. After applying a bandage to the wound, he said that he would see a doctor once we got home.
Milady didn`t visit us anymore. He never said that he hated me for what had happened. He didn`t have to, because I hated myself anyway. Every time I looked at him, it looked like he was broken inside, even more than he had ever been. I couldn`t endure his rare, but reproaching look. He got more silent than ever.
I had a dream during the flight. The guide drove us to the airport and Milady was just watching us from afar. Then, she was running after the plane, and even when the plane pulled up, she was following us, stopping only on the coast of the ocean. Looking up into the sky, she bid us farewell with her growl. I don`t know if her following us was real, because I hadn’t even noticed her watching us in our first meeting. Steven could say, but he was ignoring me.

***

In the two days after we returned, we all had dinner at Steven`s house. Megan was overly excited about our return. She couldn`t stop flirting with everybody, while Steven was trying not to notice that, scratching his chest sometimes. I hated her for that. It seemed that she drew pleasure from humiliating her husband.
Everything was going on as usual. As usual she was the queen of the night. As usual she got herself involved in every conversation, flirted, made jokes, laughed, and made some hints about the dessert for her chosen one. We all knew what it meant. Soon she would ask one of us to join her in the kitchen or upstairs for some time.
“Could you please help me serve the dessert?” She asked me.
I was confused with her choice, as I had never ever gotten close with her. I didn`t allow her to make me join ‘the club’, and nothing she ever did could shake my resolve not to betray my friend. So why me? As I was speculating, I forgot to answer her, and was just absently staring ahead. One of my friends slightly tapped on my shoulder, breaking my musings. He was smiling; they all were smiling.
“I think you can handle dessert by yourself. You must be too tired. Besides, what`s the point in serving dessert that wasn`t even made?” Said Steven.
“What?” She hissed angrily. She was so mad that she leaned over him, burning him with her eyes. “What have you just said?”
“You heard me.” He stood up, looking in her eyes. “I am leaving you.”

***

For two months after that, we didn’t hear of either Steven nor his wife. He didn`t come to the office, didn`t visit his favorite bars and never was home. Megan refused to let any one of us in, and turned down invitations for dinner or walks.
Then, we found out that their divorce case was over.
He came to me one night, presented me with an envelope and asked me to give it to Megan. Answering the question I`d never asked, he said, “I am leaving soon.”
“But what about the firm, the clients? What about your family?” I asked and couldn`t believe the stupidity of my questions.
“I think you guys can handle the firm without me. And family…” He paused for a moment gathering his wits. “She was my family, but she left me a long time ago. I was just too slow.”
“I still can`t believe you divorced her.”
“Neither can I. You know we talked a lot recently. For the last couple of months, we talked more than in all these years. And she changed. She actually was trying to fix it, make our marriage work. She asked me not to go away, imagine that! Why would she need me?” He smiled sadly.
“I think she loves you.”
“Maybe she does now. Maybe she did during all these years. But it had never stopped her from cheating on me. She bent me to her will. You know they say that wind might break a mighty oak, but not wheat. Because wheat bends under wind`s gusts and oak doesn`t. I always considered myself a wheat ear surviving all the faith`s gusts. But as I think about it now, nobody looks in rapture at a wheat ear. We find a mighty oak more inspiring because it doesn`t bend, stands proudly and resists as long as it can. I`m tired of surviving, and I want to live.” He wanted to say more but stopped. “Those are my last words for Megan in that envelope. Please give it to her someday. My flight is tonight.”
“Where will you go?” I asked.
“I think you know. I spent all my money to make sure I will have something to live on in Africa. Maybe I will convince Milady that I am not mad at her. Don`t look at me like that. You know why she had never attacked us. The guide told us that she was the only lion in that area. I think she was just lonely and looking for some kind of company. Don`t forget that she used to be a circus lion.” He smiled again and was about to leave when I asked my last question.
“Why did you go to the forest alone the first time?”
“I think you know that too. It had to end there one way or another.” He was going away and my last words reached him on the threshold.
“Please write us sometimes.” I asked him.
“My friend, the only way of talking that both me and the world around me find the most convenient, is through silence.” He laughed and went away.

***

Six months later I got a letter from him. It was a picture of a lion lying on the terrace under a rickety roof. There was only one word written on the reverse side of the picture, ‘Home’, and four vertical lines reminding me of the scar on Steven`s chest.
I often dream that I went after him. My journey starts from the airport, and then I`m going on foot through the savannah, crossing the forest and ending up at the mansion`s terrace. I get closer to the mansion, and see Steven sitting in the chair on the terrace with a book. He is sleeping, just as Milady is, lying at his legs. I know that if I wake them up I`ll ruin their peaceful life once again. So, I`m just watching them, smiling, almost laughing through the tears. When I realize that I`m sleeping and it`s all just a dream, I wish that I would not wake up again.

 


Submitted: November 16, 2020

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