By Margrét Helgadóttir
The story “The Lion” is one of the first stories I wrote. It was first published in Shapeshifters. Fox Pockets volume 2, anthology from Fox Spirit Books, November 2013.
The deep sound vibrated through Jon’s body. Goose bumps rose on his arms. He closed his eyes for a moment and swayed his naked body back and forth in the chill, feeling happy. The lion roared and raged against the foreign night smells, the city noise, the humans, the loneliness, the despair. Jon imagined what it would feel like when he could finally roar like that too, when he could make a sound so powerful it would shake the humans out of their sleep and out of their beds, frightened of the wild and unknown lurking in their midst.
The lion whimpered and became quiet. He heard the animal shuffling around, followed by a thump and a heavy sigh, as it laid its large body down on the concrete floor. Jon smiled and opened his eyes. It was time.
Stars hung above him. Mist glided along the ground. The row of cages loomed dark in the meagre light from a couple of street lamps. In the distance he heard the thin metallic sounds of music from the radio in the guard’s room. When he’d looked through the window earlier, the guard had been snoring heavily in a soft arm chair, despite the loud music and the man outside the window. It’d been easy to steal the keys from the hook on the wall.
Something big moved around in the darkness inside one of the cages, scraping its claws against the hard floor. Jon shivered, clutched the bundle he was carrying, and hurried past it. A flickering bulb was the only light in the lion’s cage. He could see the lion in the corner, its thick tail hanging out between the iron bars, its massive head resting on the forepaws. Flies hissed around a few shreds of raw meat in a metal bowl on the floor. Jon wrinkled his nose in disgust.
The lion raised its head as he came closer, its broad nose up in the air, sniffing, but it didn’t make any sound, just watched him calmly. The eyes glimmered yellow. Its tail swung lazily from side to side, slowly, causing small currents of air to brush lightly against Jon’s face. He held his breath against the rank odours of urine, dirt and rotten things, which grew stronger with every step he took towards the animal.
Finally, when he stood as close to the cage and the lion as he dared, Jon stopped and just stood staring at it in wonder. It was huge, much more so than he’d dreamed. Its head had to be at least three times larger than Jon’s. He imagined that the massive paws with their long claws could easily rip a man’s head off his shoulders. He could see that the lion had long been neglected. Its odour was overpowering. Its matted mane was caked with dirt. Ribs stood out under dirty fur. Old scars crisscrossed its body, overlaid with fresh wounds. Jon eyed the long, bloodstained sticks on the ground outside the cage, and wondered if the lion-handler used them to keep the lion at bay when he had to enter the cage. Avenging this animal would be Jon’s first priority once he’d changed.
The lion had not moved. It lay watching him. Despite its shabby exterior and miserable condition, Jon felt awe. He sensed greatness in this animal, something old and majestic. Underneath the stink of captivity and abuse, there was something powerful and wild lurking. He wanted to set it free. Jon could picture the lion in the shadows of heavy baobab branches, studying the animal flocks that passed, seemingly lazy, but alert, ruling over the African savannah. He smiled broadly towards the animal, pleased that he’d chosen it for his change.
‘Don’t worry,’ he whispered. ‘It’ll soon be over.’ He studied the lion. ‘You’ll be free.’
The lion cocked its ears, as if it understood what he’d said. Then it growled deep, making the hair on Jon’s skin bristle. He swallowed loudly and rubbed his arms, which had started shaking. Eventually the lion quieted and yawned. Jon stared at its large sharp teeth, glinting in the dim light. His stomach suddenly felt heavy. Was he crazy doing this? Then he remembered what Torje had said. “A man will be paralyzed with horror when meeting the beast, but when overcoming that fear, the man will respect the animal even more and honour its memory when he has changed.”
Torje. His mysterious new neighbour. Jon had seen him at the local hardware store, resting his lean, muscular frame against the counter and chatting with the manager. As he spoke, he kept pushing his heavy rust-brown hair back from his eyes. From the fragments Jon heard, he’d understood that Torje was a writer of some sort and a researcher in occult matters. He’d been about to disregard him as a lunatic when he’d glanced up into the tall man’s eyes as he left the shop. They had been strangely yellow. Torje had looked at him as if he could see all his thoughts, as he knew Jon’s past, present and future. Jon still shuddered at the memory. In the months that followed, Jon studied his new neighbour, following him at a distance when he walked in the park or to the library. He noticed his peculiar graceful, rolling gait. Torje often went to the zoo. Jon had seen him stand in front of the cages, talking to the animals. Sometimes it seemed as if they understood him.
He’d read Torje’s work. He even went to some of his evening lectures. Now and then Jon would feel Torje’s intense eyes on him. At first he had thought Torje’s ideas belonged in a fantasy world, but after a while he’d started to believe him. He couldn’t explain it, but it made sense. Torje spoke about old myths and folk tales that said a man could take an animal’s shape by killing it and wearing its skin. As the months passed, Jon found himself more and more tempted to try it. It’d sounded so easy and convincing. When he heard Torje talk about the new lion in the city zoo, Jon made up his mind. He was meant to be a lion. “The Lion Jon.” He giggled at the thought.
He took a shallow breath, then another deeper one, calming himself, then put his bundle down on the ground and took out the gun and the knives. He picked up the keys. The first two didn’t fit in the lock on the cage door. The lion stood now, alert, watching. Finally Jon found the key that fit. The metal hinges creaked loudly. He hoped the guard was still asleep, and looked around cautiously before opening the door wide. As he fumbled with the gun, he heard the slap of running feet against the concrete floor, fast approaching.
The two men stood outside the cage, its door wide open behind them. Swarms of flies hissed over a huge pool of blood on the floor. The air was thick with the smell of it. The naked man picked up a gun from the ground and turned it over.
‘He never had a chance,’ he said and laughed softly. He put his hand on the other man’s shoulder, looked into his golden eyes. ‘Thank you, Torje.’
Torje smiled, returning the gaze. The naked man’s eyes shone yellow too. ‘It’s good to see you freed, Leo. Now let’s find you some clothes and I’ll introduce you to this city.’
The other man nodded. ‘Sounds excellent. I need to get used to this furless body.’ He swayed a little and chuckled. ‘I need to get used to standing on two legs.’ He rolled his eyes. ‘I never thought he would dare to open the door. He seemed so scared, standing there, staring at me for so long. Stupid humans.’
The two men laughed. In the distance a radio clicked off.