The old lion sat not three yards away from the vehicle. The children cranes to see him, impatient, deliberate, longing to forget their fear and replacement with their original purpose. They climbed across Joseph to look at the ancient cat as he shaded himself in the uncomfortable meagre shadow of the thorn bush. The animal’s mane was a shaggy torn example of the king of the beast’s full head of hair. It was not the proud and golden mane that the children had seen in advertisements and on syrup tins. He was not the lion king. The old lion was long and thin apart from his stomach that spread out in the dust in a swollen mass. He had pulled himself sluggishly to his feet when the Land Rover had approached and he snarled half heartedly as Joseph maneuvered for the best view of the car. He stunned his passengers into anxiety as they wondered how much closer he could get before provoking the old stager into an attack. Joseph and the old boy understood each other though. Once stopped, he switched off the engine, and it stuttered to silence. Once again the adult passengers shivered the Land Rover’s engine was another cause for concern as it had not started all that easily that morning, but they were functioning on minimum petrol and so the engine must be silenced so that they could take a good long look at the battle torn lion and head back on the remaining fuel.
Once the status quo was established, the cat settled himself down again and watched the Land Rover. A long blue scar ran down the side of his face giving him the look of an evil gangster, whilst occasionally he shifted position revealing the stiffness of an elderly man. ‘Is there a pride Joseph?’ asked Betty.
‘No, he’s a loner.’
‘He’s a bit shaggy,’ announced Marci.
‘That’s because of the thorn bushes. He’s a desert lion; the thorns tear out his hair. The other lions with the big manes they live in the forest and on the plains.’
‘How old is he Joseph?’ Carl asked.
‘I think may be he is fifteen to twenty years old. He has been here ever since I can remember.’
‘So this is his territory huh?’
‘Does he ever cause any problems with the people here?’
‘Oh yes, sometimes he takes their cattle and they get very angry. They go and hunt for him yes? But he is very clever and he knows when he is in trouble. They have never caught him yet.’ They laughed and sat a while in silence looking at the apparently docile lion.
Jo examined the wild head and body and speculated on the life of the old fellow. What would he have seen in his twenty-year life since Umtata came to power? As if picking up on her thoughts Joseph said reflectively. ‘He has been in many wars. He is like Kinjii, yes?’ He looked at Jo as if for confirmation and she smiled and nodded. Something in that moment did not merit fear.
Craig, mildly disappointed by this lion’s inactivity shifted his position to Joseph’s lap to get a better view, causing Joseph some mild discomfort in the process. Betty saw her son begin to settle himself in the lap of their captor and she almost stopped him, but the confidence with which the boy moved reassured her and Joseph put a protective arm around the child as the lion, spotting the movement, lined up tensed and snarled. ‘Ssh, careful boy, he’s only one stride away.’
‘Wow,’ said Marci, also positioning herself nearer Joseph, and they watched again, as the old lion got up and sniffed at the Land Rover. Joseph wound up his window. ‘Does he eat children?’ asked Marci, now a little doubtful. Joseph did not take the opportunity to scare the children falsely; their fears were real enough. ‘No, no not him. It is against the law to let a man-eater, even a child-eater live.’
‘What does he eat then?’ asked Craig.
‘Antelope, wildebeest, zebra, at one time he could kill an adult buffalo but not now, he is too slow and tired, maybe a sick one though. He has eaten recently, see his tummy. We are lucky if he were hunting we would not have found him.’
Jo looked beyond the lion and his thorn bush den to the scrub and bush land that was his territory. In the setting sun miles of mountains, desolate bush surrounded them all. She could see little green, no water and not other animals, just the rocky outcrops of the hills and the flat topped dry acacia trees. She recalled how, if a fortnight ago, she had known she would walk though such terrain. She would have feared not the guns or the war, but marauding lions, charging elephants and the unseen leopard that will kill for expediency. But in the time that they had walked and run across the Tenda Plain, only briefly had they heard the sounds of animal Africa and only now did they see evidence of it. It was an empty wilderness through which they made their way. The animals were confined to the parks like zoos and as the years went by they retreated from the guns, bullets and buildings of human habitation.
Joseph broke the mood by starting the engine. It choked and coughed a little, and the lion jumped up and backed away, holding them in his sights all the time. Joseph rocked the car out of its track with the experience of his other life and soon they were making their way slowly back to the camp, while sun set in a rage of red over the strange alien country. ‘Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight’ said Tom, but somehow the lightness of their mood had gone with sun, and as they crawled slowly through bush in the gathering dusk, using no lights so as not to attract attention. They felt the oppression of their captivity return and the jollity of the afternoon seemed ludicrous, as the barrack-like tents came into view. Nothing in the camp gave them any cause to feel cheerful, for as soon as Joseph stopped someone ran over to him and called him to a meeting. The tourists were left to unload themselves from the Land Rover, each looking anxiously to the group of soldiers talking seriously and intently around a lamp. They ate more-or-less in silence and retreated with one accord to early sleep and escape, each thinking of the old wounded lion and motives of the man who had taken them to see it.
© All rights reserved by Judith Gunn 2010