Black Lions

 
 

Lions of the Orinoco.

 

Pillars of moonlight wash through stratified vegetation turning his fur white, his colour purged. The pride look on, their velvet blackness veiling them but for the movement of foliage as they circle, neon gazes trained on his still form. Their tails flick from side to side, their heads hanging low. Their fear for him is one unakin to any with which they are familiar: death, desiccation and starvation; the booming sky that frightens their cubs, the flashing light that holds the promise of flame. Under the fur, and skin and muscle and bone; somewhere under the gaze and presence; under his command and lust and hunger; the pride knows that he has been remade to be no longer like them, no longer one of them. They halt as the Alpha scanning the jungle void meets with eyes that disengage. The pride remains frozen, their gestures stuck between aggression and placation.  Throwing back his head, he challenges the darkness.

A young male steps forward, swimming through the opaque night, careful to avoid the veragations of silver light flecking the rainforest forest floor. The Alpha spins, his paws kicking up sweet smelling detritus, his pearlescent coat rippling the fabric of night and crashing through broadleaf plants and narrow light hungry saplings, he scatters the pride. All but the young male flee before the Alpha’s wrath, his eyes fixed on the old lion. Bringing his bulk low, the Alpha’s body vibrates, rumbling a warning. The white lion flexes his bulging and contacting mass, his muscles baited, he sinks into their familiar tautness. Movement jostles the undergrowth behind him. The young black lion begins to move on the Alpha, the pride following with guarded steps. His movements quicken, gathering inertia as the pride fan out to once more surround the Alpha. The young black lion leaps, his being consumed by the anticipation of the action and reaction to be mirrored and reflected, the merging of their perceptions that will yield only one remaining existence. The young lion roars.

For a moment the noise of the jungle cease, the din of small animals disappearing to leave nothing but the sound of wind coursing through leaves. The young lion’s crumpled body warms the earth with its wetness, the white Alpha’s jaws having cut through muscle and sinew and cartilage. The Alpha moves to the edge of the ring, breaking through the ranks of what had once been his pride. Their burning stares shadow him until he stands alone. They mill, clumping together in twos and threes and in unison they roar. Without turning to acknowledge them, he walks, knowing they will not follow. When he is no longer in sight, the pride will consume the young lion, his body a sacrament and gift. Here, in the jungles through which flows the Orinoco River, the white lion is alone.

He wanders aimlessly through the tar of  jungle night, and as the cacophony of dawn replaces the nocturnal clamour, the white lion rests in front of a hut, his eyes fixed on its flimsy vine woven door. He does not know why he is here, or what drew him to this purgatory where saplings grow replete with light, splaying their leave with languor on this land that had once housed great buttressed monoliths felled and razed by naked men shod in fibre cords with ochre red skin and then white men with brown manes and steel. This land of despair where only the most noxious of species thrive: be they the sucking grasses, or suffocating vines, or dull domesticated beasts. He shifts as watery light peaks through the spears of grass that surround him, striping his white coat with striations of grey and pink and gold. Even in this foreign landscape, this threshold between order and wild, he recognises a volition which yawns in the centre of his existence. He hungers.

In the hut a man and woman lie asleep, their soft breath fragrancing the laden air. The white lion licks his snout, their scent beguiling him. He breathes deeper, allowing their essence to travel to his core, stirring him, arousing the fur on the nape of his neck - no, this is more than scent. The capybara, peccary and deer give off scent, foul animalic odours that confess the rude simplicity of their drives; basal wants and unconditioned needs: to rest and mate and eat. There is something more profound in these creatures, a substance that will sustain him far more deeply than that of the beasts from the forested depths. It is a substance he does not understand, one more manifold and abstract than any with which he is familiar; forged not merely by the appetite of flesh on flesh, or desires rooted in the banality of the moment; theirs is one as complex as the tributaries of the mighty river, and ever changing as her banks. The white lion knows that in their consumption, the consumption of their entire being, he will be made whole, once more to hold sovereignty of his dominion.

Tensing, he feels the man stir, roused by the thin light percolating through slatted window. The white lion closes his eyes and within the abyss colours conjure and fold upon themselves, forming the shape of man. Disembodied within himself, the lion seeks the man, merging and flowing through the proto-conscious tide of his presence until before and within him exists the man. He is the man.

The man has stayed with the woman for two nights though this morning will be his last. He is a merchant and sailing the river he pedals sugar, salt and bullets; taking loads of exotic fruits, gold and medicines in return. Rolling over in the cot he slides his arm into the warmth between the woman’s arm and body, placing his hand between her breasts. He knows that he must be home by nightfall but the prospects of their separation rests heavily on his mind. He does not know when he will return. He considers leaving tomorrow but the reality of spoiled cargo and financial loss dispel his longing. The man opens his eyes and looks at the woman. She is Yanomami, he Mestizo. What did he care for what she was? He told himself that he would love her and be damned with the consequences. And yet, how could he love her?  

She had been stolen from her tribe, her captor forcing himself on her. Her body bore the marks of his will, the cut of the machete, the glistening raised welts of the branding stick. He had dominated and broken her and only in her supplication did her captor make the woman his wife. The merchant sighs, stroking her shoulder. She had told him that captor, her husband, had died while she was still with child, stricken with an illness the shaman could not cure and the child too had perished while still in her womb. The elders of that village feared her for the shaman had said that she bore the touch of spirits, and then she was to be traded, her body worth not more than a sack of rice. But who would touch one such as she, and so they forced her away from their collection of palafitos to live close to the beasts, lest they too fall to the wrath of the spirits that beset her.

He had laughed at their superstitions, but in in hushed tones she told him of the lions that guarded the forest. He asked if she had meant to say jaguar. She remained silent for a while, then reprimanded him saying that he had learned Spanish from the missionaries in her youth. They had shown her pictures of animals on stained cards. She told him that lions had manes, that they lived in Africa but also here by the Orinoco.

The merchant asked what she had seen and she told him of the lions, black as night, roaring like thunder. They were of both worlds: of this, and that of the spirits. She laughed. If only her captor knew that the lions had shown themselves to her as a child, that she too was not of this world. And fate, what fate to bring her here between the worlds of the lion and man, for them to force her closer to that which she was already apart. The merchant did not speak. She leant closer to him and stroked his face. You need not worry about the lions, she said, they do not hunt humans, their souls are too pure. Where they are black on the outside we are black here, she said touching her breast, and if they were to eat us and our souls, then what of theirs? They would cease to be.

The merchant replays this memory. He wonders if there are truth to her words about lions, and spirits. The woman stirs under his touch but her breathing remains deep and even. He wonders when he will see her again. He knows that he will have to begin traveling along other routes in search of new settlements; the communities on this stretch of river having already stockpiled is wares, their isolation preventing the free flow of commerce that defined those situated along the busier tributaries. Perhaps weeks, perhaps months. Fuel is expensive, but love? Well, love is cheap. He hates himself but now, under the timelessness of the mosquito nets, wrapped in the warmth of the woman, he can escape. For now, in this instance of pink liquid light suspended between the reality of commerce and pain and shame, he will commit the woman to memory: her gentle slopes and savannahs, the caress of her breath, the smell of the river in her sex. Maybe even if only in remembrance, he vows to always be with her. And one day god be willing he will return to take her away far from the tribe, far from this jungle, far from those black lions.

The man grasps the woman breast and kisses her neck. He brushes aside her hair grazes her ear with his lips. She moans, her breath growing heavy. He heaves, pressing himself against her. Her dream of his touch coalesces with dawn’s reality and she reaches to stroke his arm. She turns to kiss him.

The lion opens his eyes, quivering. He could feel bodies cloaked in mosquito netting. He could feel their warmth as his own. Their every caress passed a shudder down his bulk, penetrating into his being. Somewhere, beneath his skin, and muscle and bones; beneath his gaze and jealousy and presence; he feels the void of his hunger. Over the jungle din he hears them moan. Their ecstasy excites him.

The lion breaks through undergrowth, moving through dappled light onto the hardened red earth path. He drifts, his actions deliberate, silken. His hunger is overwhelming, the yearning for consumption fraying the edges of self. He does not know who he is but knows what he must have. In the hut, the man and woman quicken in their passion. The lion’s tongue lolls, his breathing fast, shallow. He closes his eyes and feels their slick, their heat, their thick breath. His breath is thick. Their flesh and bone and redness. Sourness. Musk. Finger pulling hair. Skin torn. Voices. They cry out. He cries out.

They hear his roar and they scream.

The lion opens his eyes to see the man standing naked before him, the dew of effort and excretion of terror combining to coat his body with its stinking varnish. He holds a weapon that he levels and fires without inhibition or awareness of the figure before him, the truth of his aim thrown by tempered haste and the woman crouched behind him; her fear blinding him with panic. With his finger moving to the second trigger and eyes still scanning the blankness, his mind is unable to realize the white expanse of lion leaping to reveal the blue and pink and white and red and brown of viscera. The woman screams. The lion enters the hut, his coat sprayed with the colours of man. She falls trying to escape him, her hands and feet frenzied in backward motion that tears the skin on her buttocks and thighs against the coarse earthen floor leaving smudges that bleed into the pool of her piss. The lion shakes his head dislodging the slaughter caught in his mane, splattering the woman’s lover across rude twine lashed furnishings. She sobs, her mewling muffled by hands that mask her face against the inevitability of a fate foretold by a curse self-wrought. The lion lowers his head to drink her reek.

He stops as something inside him stirs. Once more he closes his eyes, searching for the connection to the abyss. For what seems an eternity, he looks at the blackness and finds nothing: no shapes, no scents, no sensation. He feels her breath against his own and opens his mouth to taste the salt and grime that crust her flesh. He tastes that same ambivalent vastness that fills his own being, her hunger and jealousy and pain; loss and knowledge of loss compounded by that same quixotic yearning for fulfilment. Within the great halls of the lion’s unconscious, within the void that lays hind his closed eyes some drop of essence falls to strike against the emptiness, filling the immeasurable hollows and niches with its subtle sound. The lion drops his body to the floor his nose against the woman’s face, his form humming with the vibrations of realisation that she had stepped into their realm and stolen their medicine not to give, but to take the life the of her captor and his spawn; poisoning him and herself to be rid of her shackles, cursing against her gods, blighting them with the blame of her misdeeds. It was she that had planted the seeds of fear among the elders of her captors, using the esoterica of the shaman and the worming words of missionaries to blaspheme against the gods, saying that they had cursed her. She had used the lions, thrown aside the sacred gift of their protection, and falling into the conceit of her oppression and despair and rage had sought to bridle their power as her own. There would be a price, and he the white lion would be the avatar of vengeance.  He opens his eyes and staring at the cowering woman knows that she will not sustain him.

Tears streak her face as her hands grasp at stained dirt looking for escape from the fear and anger and futility. The lion turns to look out the entrance of the hut, the door having been ripped off its thonged leather hinges. The wind carries the scent of men angry and afraid, their voices accompanied by the same acrid odour of the dead man’s weapon, the same sharp retort. He knows that it is no longer safe. Stepping in the open he grabs the man’s corpse and makes to dive once more into the cover of the undergrowth. He moves up the path and turns to look once more at the hovel. In the doorway, the woman stands with the weapon and once more the air is filled with smoke. The lion drops the dead man as blood bursts from the where his lower jaw had existed. His attempt to roar amounts to nothing but gurgle and foam as blood mixes with the air escaping his lungs. The blood of lion and man mingle on the clay, forming rivulets as they course along the small channels carved by rain to pool in shallow eddies.  The woman drops the weapon and sinks to her knees falling forward and finally coming prone, caught by the gore soaked earth.

The white lion bounds into the undergrowth. He will keep running until he come to the river. He will be carried by the slow water of the Orinoco where washed onto some nameless bank he will be found by the pride, his white fur once more blackened; caked with silt and blood. Surrounding him, they will once more accept him, his body to be offered as both gift and absolution. From the edges of the broad leafed plants and thing light hungry sapling, from where the great buttressed trees canopy the jungle, two new eyes cautious and curious will peer out, their velvet darkness veiling them in the jungle abyss.