In the Pride of Lions

I never would have thought to take his woman when I knew him years ago. He was more successful than the rest of us and thus was something of a leader. "Listen," he said, "you must do like me. Like a lion. You find your zebra, chase, pounce -- and if you come away with only a little blood on your claws, well, you get up and chase another again and do it until you take one down. The lion knows it is a game of numbers. It pounces and pounces until it is fed." I did not like the analogy because I do not eat meat. And never mind that in lion culture, it is the female who hunts.

He was strong, handsome, had a golden mane, and, always in his small one-room apartment, there was the smell of some woman opened up.

But now, after returning to this city, I find him older. His hair short and thinned, the cut of his body blurred by fat, his jowls soft of appearance, his brilliant teeth dulled. He is not a hunter anymore: he has only one woman, all of bones, with red, tangled hair. It is that she belongs to him which makes her worthy. I sit in their living room. She crosses and uncrosses her legs, the calves of which look overly bent. I study her lips, her throat. I sniff for the scent of her but in this room there are old cigarettes and days and days of unopened windows.

She has heard nothing of me from him. She asks me why I left and why I have returned. I tell her my story: that I, am moving from the city of my graduate program to the city of my new job, visiting this old haunt along the way.

There is a nature program on the television. Wild dogs in Australia or Africa. One of them, a loner, clearly starving, comes across three or four begrudgingly sharing a carcass. The loner lopes up and sniffs his way toward the meat, but the others snarl and then leap, snapping at him. He limps away, makes a half circle, is chased again and then turns and walks into the yellow grass. There he stands with his tongue hanging and his ribs shaking, watching the others eat.

"That's very sad," I say. "They should have shot him. Or fed him. Those people making the video."

"Typical of you," my old friend says, "not wanting to let nature be what it is." He smiles at the girl and she appears to study me.

I think of our old arguments and decide against having one of them now. I will not try to make my points: that we are outside nature already, that, in fact, the laws of nature are exactly opposite of the laws of our society -- traditional mating has become rape; maintaining territory, murder; finding spoils, thievery; etc.

I look again at the woman, and then at my old friend and I think: in the natural world, somebody bigger than you and stronger would take her from you, whether she wanted him to or not. That's how it works, in nature.

The narrator tells us it is a hard world. We watch shots of animals starved or killed in long grass, at the edges of muddy water holes.

"Well," my old friend says, "let's go."

We used to play ball. He was better than I, quicker, smarter, with a more natural eye for the basket. We walk down to the courts. His eyes are tired. He is not happy to see me. But walking and dribbling the ball, he smiles. He rolls it in his hand, studies its surface. I think of his woman.

I imagine that from the window she watches us to the corner. "She wants to have a baby," he says.

"She's told you?"

"No. I just know it. Something in her I can sense. She's up to it, to get a baby."

He takes off his shirt and makes a few practice shots. I wait. He's gained soft weight. I used to be nervous playing, but I feel good now. I sense an inevitability to this game. It begins and I see right away that his grace is gone.

He is off-balance. His tits bounce, his underarms wiggle. I win the first game easily. And then the second. He is frustrated. "Christ," he says. "I haven't been playing for a while."

Though he is no longer made of muscle, he is still much bigger than I, and he begins to push his weight into me. Once, drunk, we almost fought, and I was afraid, because I knew from the pressure he applied leaning into me that he would be able to hurt me. He is trying to intimidate me in that way now, but it doesn't work. I shift away. He stumbles, nearly falls, I score. Soon he throws elbows, brings up knees, and I use these mis-motions to my advantage, though, now and then, a shock of blackness rocks my head. Sometimes he knocks me down. Sometimes he falls down.

Regardless, I win again and again. I want to stop, but he refuses.

"One more," he keeps saying.

And then I get the feeling, too, that it's not quite over and that we should go on to some type of end. I think of his woman.

We're both scraped in several places, sweaty. His breath is rank. His eyes wild. At some point, he tries to put an elbow in my gut and misses. I spin. He stumbles a few steps. His back is to me. And it is instinct which makes me leap at the exposure and bring him down. He rolls, I can feel the old strength of him, but I am centered and let him shift beneath me without bucking me. Then I begin to strike, into his face and throat. My hands are numb; his face is bloody, his eyes grow dim -- I leave him to moaning.

As I approach his apartment, the adrenaline keeps my muscles, my nerves, quivering. I know what I am supposed to do. I climb the stairs, dark and smelling of old water. Her eyes widen as I come through the door, but she doesn't otherwise move, staring at me from under the wild of her red hair. A newscaster talks on the television.

The sundress she wears is thin, wavery, nothing. I can feel the bone through her arms, a strong bone, I think, lifting her to meet me. Her hands curl on my elbows and her nails are sharp. If she fights, I imagine, she will hurt me, but in the end, I will win.

About the author:

After teaching literature and creative writing for two years at the American University of Beiruit, J Eric Miller is now an assistant professor of screenwriting at Kennesaw State University. His short fiction has appeared in a wide variety of literary magazines and ezines, and Soft Skull Press is publishing his collection, Animal Right and Pornography in June of 2004.