O, this one was a beauty. A brilliant brazen mane, an enormous head, my god the power in those jaws as he licked his paws in the tall rabble of dry grass on the valley floor. He watched the rhythmic movements of the magnificent head as it rose and fell with each caress of its feet, a wide pink mat of a tongue appearing with each forward movement.
David lowered his binoculars and surveyed the small depression for other signs of life. Rocks and dirt and grass blended into a uniform expanse where anything could hide; at its lower end stood a wispy acacia, its umbrella like crown casting a meagre shadow over leafless lower limbs and ground cover below. He saw nothing. He inched as quietly as he could down the low incline to get a better shot – a cleaner shot, that wouldn’t damage the magnificent features of the lion. With each step, strands of grass needled his bare legs. Flies harassed the damp back of his shirt. He kept a keen eye on the lion’s position, lest it be disturbed.
Some little way down he checked again with his binoculars. The lion continued cleaning its massive paws, seemingly oblivious to the hunter’s presence. David thought, my god, those paws are as big as my head.
He raised his rifle and fixed his eye through the scope. The lion was standing now, fully framed, muscular and potent. Its mane cascaded in falls of gold and black down its chest and broad shoulders. Framed in this glorious torrent of hair, its mighty face commanded attention. David studied its features, enrapt. Deep set eyes were yellow and black like its mane, from the charcoal rim of its mouth there extended a fluke of black to the nostrils, and a dense array of whiskers adorned each cheek. He stared at it, captivated. Then it turned and stared directly back at him.
“Hello,” it said.
David reared back. He held his weapon down and looked in the direction of the lion. It was, as before, lying down, attending to its forelegs. A ripple of easy vigour flickered along its luxurious yellow fur.
David breathed in and watched a small grey lizard scamper between two rocks. He chuckled wryly to himself and lifted his rifle. The lion was standing again.
“I said hello.”
Again David recoiled. Again the lion was lying down. David looked about himself. No-one else was present.
Again he raised his weapon.
And again the lion stood. “For the third time – ”.
David lowered the rifle and scrutinised it. A .378 Weatherby bolt action Magnum topped by a Zeiss victory 3-12x56mm scope. One of the best guns available, and a top of the range scope, the ensemble had been a thrilling gift from his wife. He looked over to the lion, lying low in the vegetation still preening itself. He looked into the far end of the scope. Nothing. He turned it the right way around again. Gingerly, he raised it to his eye.
“You have to ask yourself why anyone is here,” the lion, standing, was saying in a deep bass, as if David had been part of an ongoing conversation. “We seek power, the will to power. I have power, but to what end, other than to feed the body. Something we lions are very good at.”
Keeping his eye in the sights, David took tiny steps through the hot grass, feeling through his boots for a stable foothold amongst the irregular fragments of rock.
“Come forward, my friend,” continued the lion. It seemed to smile. “The sky is vast, the sun is not yet full in heat. If philosophy is not your thing, how about women? Do you like women?” David stood still, pinned by the lion’s focus.
“You can answer,” the lion said. “Indeed it is polite to do so.” He lifted his chin and shook his mane in a blaze of twirling gold. He then fixed David with his deep stare and said,
“I’m quite partial to them myself. There’s three of mine over there.”
David swung around and studied the surrounding landscape anxiously. The grass swayed in a slight breeze. Rocks were sometimes visible among the grass. When he looked closely he made out two tanned leonine backs that his previous scan had missed, semi hidden in the grass. Where was the third?
He raised his rifle, for safety as well as a fervid curiosity. He was outnumbered, but had good firepower. He took a step back to take aim at one of the lionesses. Through the scope she was standing, in a clearing amid the pallid grass, her whiskers and wispy little beard proud sentries to the wet pink ravine of her jaws. White canines contrasted sharply with the black rim of her mouth.
“Agnes, darling,” she was saying, “are you hungry?”
He moved his scope to the other.
“Of course I’m hungry,” the other one replied. “I’m pregnant. That Django is unstoppable.”
“But I like him,” said the first. “I think I’ll get him to do me after we’ve eaten.”
“Good luck with that,” said the one called Agnes. “He’ll be asleep after the meal.”
David swung his head to look at the male lion. He was still – frustratingly, nonchalantly – licking his massive paws. David’s face went taut and his heart pounded. Where was the third female? He returned his gaze to the females and raised his rifle to his eye.
“Is there nobility in death?” Agnes was asking. The other replied,
“I’ve heard that. But I don’t think nobility is front of a gazelle’s mind when we have her in the grip. Besides, I’m more of a practical bent. Bring them down, share them round, leave the carcass for the scavengers.”
Keeping his rifle up, David stepped slowly back into the frail shadow of the thorny acacia, hoping to at least cover his back against the unseen third female. He flinched when a sharp twig scratched his neck, causing a thin line of blood to mix with his perspiration and trickle down his back. He turned his aim to the lion, who winked at him. Then he switched to a lioness, who passed a pink square of tongue along the line of her mouth. The one who was not Agnes said,
“I’m hungry too.”
“Then there won’t be much left for the dogs on the hill.”
David looked at the distant ridge above him, and saw a number of dishevelled canine forms moving furtively about the rocks. Why hadn’t he seen them before? He raised his rifle, fully expecting the result.
“Hey boys,” one was saying, “lions have a meal on the hoof.”
“I saw them,” said another. “How many did you count?”
“Good, might be some scraps on the bones.”
David flashed his rifle fitfully from side to side. The lion, one lioness, two. Only three. Where was the third female? Who would strike? From where? He felt heat rise in his collar. A glob of sweat dropped from his brow into his closed eye and ran down his cheek. His shirt clung to him in a sticky foetid dampness. He could feel the rough tree roots beneath his boots. He focused on the weight of the rifle in his hands, and its polished woodwork and smell of hot steel. This he could trust, if he could trust anything at all.
All went very quiet as he swung from lion to lioness and her partner, searching frantically for the third. He heard only the air passing into his lungs, and the blood circulating in his veins. He felt his ribs rise and fall, and the meat on them, the muscle, stretch and release. He turned his sights to the lion.
The lion stared back at him, absorbing him in impassive and remorseless eyes. With David still marked in his stare, the lion lifted his chin and emitted a vast and stentorian roar. The sound kicked the dry branches of the tree above the hunter who felt it rush past his cheeks, all spittled and potent, and encase his hearing in a burst of hot pressure. It spread and swayed the tall grasses and rebounded in the distant hills. It shook the blue distant skies and whipped up a violent undulation into the hot fabric of the atmosphere. It was calling him, summoning him. It was an invocation to his surrender, and his mind grew hazy and fraught with relief and fear. He turned his sights this way and that, unable to see where he was looking or at what. His mind was crushed and he felt the intensity of its splintered parts weigh heavily in his skull like shards of cracked bones. He sank down and closed his eyes, waiting terrified for the strike of the gigantic paw that would dislodge his face, or the crush of red jaws on his brittle throat.
“David!” A woman’s voice – his wife’s – shot across the shallow depression of rock and grass where he and the lions stood.
“David!” it repeated. “You take the male and we’ll get the females!”
David looked up and lifted his scope up to the ridge where his wife stood next to three others from his hunting party, and passed each through his line of sight. He saw hairy, slouching creatures, furtive in bearing and anxious. They were unkempt, their hair a mop of dusty fibres, downturned mouths and eyes that darted one to another with a keen and suspicious intelligence. They were tribal animals, connected by a spirit of guarded co-operation that might, with easy provocation, be suborned to stronger lusts of fear and self-survival.
A volley of rifle shot cracked the air and sent clouds of dust springing from the ground. David saw a lion leap and fall and heard roars of malcontent surround him in the heat. He felt his knees collapse beneath him and he crumpled on to the dirt. He lifted his rifle and with a cry of dark anguish let his shots loose, upwards into the pillow of the sky. More shots rebounded through the trees and grassland. They shattered the air with an unforgiving ferocity, and their blasts echoed across the low plains and vacant earth like a vast and circular scream that enveloped the world, weaving into it a memory of slowly descending fears. When, finally, the sound had spent its energy, all was quiet.
David rose shakily from where he knelt. He saw his wife and companions running down to greet him. A very short distance from him three lionesses lay dead, their bodies like old carpet in a pile. The male had charged the intruders, and lay tumbled on the incline, amidst the hard stones and dust. Dark red blood seeped in fine rivulets from holes in his broken chest.
David rocked a little when his wife flung her arms about him and pressed him to her in an ardent embrace. He placed one arm about her limply, but maintained his gaze on the dead lions.
Still holding him, she pulled back and stared into his face with panicked eyes.
“Oh darling, that was so close.” She hugged him again. He watched the other two hunters bent over, inspecting the corpses of the lionesses. One of them nudged one of the bodies. It did not move.
His wife pulled back again. “You can’t separate yourself like that, no matter how good the target.”
He looked at her blankly, searching for some moment of the vision he had seen when he looked at them through his scope. He saw desperate love, and concern and fear and relief. He felt the weight of the rifle in his hand. He felt the blue sun hot around them. He looked at the lion again, lying heavy on the dry ground.
“I want to go home,” he said.