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Fiction Winter 2020    poetry    all issues

Cover of Fiction Winter 2020

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French silk sample book

Elisabeth Chaves
The Skin of Things

Daniel Gorman
The Last Lion in Mosul

Esem Junior
The Dueling Plumbers of Harvard

Edward Mack
Cottonwood

Bill Pippin
Texas Swing

Ryan Byrnes
One Last Lemon Soda in Tunis

Brittany Meador
The Eating of Apples

João Serro
The Lesson

J. Williams
False Truth

Janet Barrow
The Crossroads

Kathryn Li
Kingdom of Bees

Jan Allen
Outsourced

Jens Birk
The Church


Daniel Gorman

The Last Lion in Mosul

The zoo I was in before was a paradise, I see that now. I had space to run and a tree for shade, and if the other lions were not monopolizing it, a small pool I could bathe in. I was a prisoner of course, but at least the prison had comforts. Then the men put me in a truck and brought me here, to this squalor. My new cage is filthy, littered with trash the humans throw for amusement. The floor of my enclosure is nothing but hot, lifeless dirt—who would have guessed there would come a time when I would long for the simple pleasure of grass between my paw pads? The only shade from the relentless sun is an artificial den at the back of the cage. Its walls are a gray stone that traps the heat. The zoo is made of these gray stones. I can hear the chimpanzees shrieking for relief.

My thoughts dwell on escape, but this zookeeper respects the strength and power of his new lion and has not allowed me to kill him and flee this place. I will have to be clever and trick him. In the meantime, the best I can do is press my nose to the hot dirt, close my eyes and imagine I am back on the plains of my infancy, watching the antelope graze in the distance, unaware of the danger looming nearby. But in the savannah, there are few sounds: the wind hissing in the tall grass; the squeaking cubs tumbling in the dust; the alpha roaring his dominance in the challenge of another. Here? There is constant noise, and the worst of it comes from the bear.

I hate the bear.

Her name is Lula. She lives in the cage across from me with her two cubs. Her fur is the dull brown of hippo dung, a substance I suspect she carries around inside of her head. When I arrived, she immediately began babbling and didn’t stop until the sun dropped out of sight. I was startled by her lack of deference toward an alpha predator; did she not recognize the danger I might pose to her and her offspring? The bars of these cages cheat me of my proper respect.

“I was in the circus, before I came to this place. That’s where I met my handsome Misha. We were practically famous.” Always she is talking about the circus. “Oh, Marlon, you would be so wonderful in the circus! You have natural charisma. What a star they would make of you! The ringmaster would shout, ‘Here he is, Marlon the Lion, the fierce king of the jungle!’ And then you would jump through a fire hoop!”

What self-respecting lion would perform tricks for human masters? When I learned there were lions trained to follow human commands, I could not believe it. So shameful. Were I enlisted in the circus, the first moment a human turned his back on me, I would kill him. But I wouldn’t stop there. I would slaughter them all in their big top, as the elephants and giraffes watched with gratitude it wasn’t them. I would not perform tricks.

Always this bear is doing tricks. She has a filthy ball which she balances upon. Her two cubs—I refuse to learn their names—they cackle and chirp and tumble over each other in excitement, as though this is the most impressive thing they have ever seen. She does it every day! And of course, it is an excuse for her to tell me more about the circus. But what is most egregious about this bear are her performances.

All day we sit in our cages as soft, dull-eyed humans gawk at us. They must get a thrill staring at superior creatures imprisoned against their will. And Lula, she dances for them! Whenever a human passes between our cages, she stands and shuffles like the great clumsy oaf she is, with her foolish cubs mimicking her, and the humans throw to her scraps of food as a reward. If I cared at all I would teach these cubs not to debase themselves for the promise of a thrown apple, but I do not care. Let them grow up thinking bears are supposed to dance like humans for scraps. I will never be anything but a lion, and these people will never be anything but prey.

Also, there is a lioness here. She was here when I arrived. Her name is Stella. She is okay, I suppose.

Today the zoo is quiet. The early morning crowds were frightened away by a tremendous boom outside of our walls. It was like the thunderclap of some ominous storm on the horizon, only so close it shook the ground and made my ears ring. The screaming humans scattered, like zebras when the lioness breaks from the long grass, as though the quaking earth signified the arrival of some terrible predator.

When the zoo emptied, a silence fell over the park, which Lula has been only too happy to fill with endless blathering about Misha. Misha is her mate, another fool bear from the circus. I am not entirely convinced he is real.

“Misha is the most handsome bear in the whole world,” she says. “He was the star of the circus—he could ride a unicycle and play the accordion! Now he lives across the river in a wealthy man’s home and he gets fed fresh salmon every day, which makes his coat shiny. Except for on his head of course, because he is completely bald. An unfortunate incident with a flame juggler. When he performed he had to wear a beret and he was so dashing.”

I do not know what a unicycle and an accordion and a beret are, but I assume they are human contrivances, and as such I hate them, and I hate this Misha for his mastery of them and Lula for her incessant fawning. Stella tells me to hush when I start to complain. It is quite bold of a lioness to tell an alpha male to bite his tongue, but that is how this lioness has been since I arrived—bold. I offered to explain to her what her place was. She was raised in captivity and not born on the wild savannahs as I was, so she never knew the hierarchy of the pride.

“Do not be ashamed of your poor behavior,” I said. “It is not your fault. I only tell you so in the future, you may act properly when addressing an alpha male.”

“When I see an alpha male, I’ll be sure to remember your advice,” she said to me. Like I said—bold.

“When you were being fed from a human’s bottle, my mane was red with the blood of dead gazelles.”

“You were a cub when you were taken by the men!”

I regret having shared my history with her.

“I will have you know my mane was full and impressive, the envy of all the males in my pride.” This was an embellishment on my part, but I did not want to give to her the satisfaction of thinking otherwise. The next time the zookeeper comes by, I will make obvious my displeasure with my cell mate, and in such a way he will be forced to move her, or me, lest he be down one lion.

I pass the time daydreaming of escaping, and eating humans. I try to pay as little attention to them as possible. To acknowledge them is to encourage them. I do not care if they think I am the most boring creature they have ever seen. Let them think that—maybe the zookeeper will send me back. He will think I am a faulty lion and request a replacement. Then I will be free of this place.

Except, sometimes I cannot help myself. The hunter in me will not be made a fool. There is a barrier between the humans and my bars. The span of a human arm separates the barrier from my cage; I know this because the adolescents dare each other to lean over it and touch the bars. They have invented a game of sitting at this barrier with their back to me, throwing into my face that they are prey and I can do nothing about it. I try to ignore it, but my pride as an alpha demands I display my dominance. I roar and lunge at the bars and remind them it is this prison that keeps them safe. They skitter off, making their hyena noises. Stella says I am foolish for allowing myself to participate in their pranks, but I also see the twinkle in her eye after I have shaken the bars of our enclosure with my bellows. I would never tell her I do this for that twinkle.

Stella is a fine lioness, if one is able to look past the fact she was raised in captivity. She is fond of stretching her body across the front of the cage, where she sleeps while the humans stretch their arms and tickle her fur. Lula’s cubs are a constant delight to her, something I do not understand. A lioness of the savannah would see those cubs and know instinctively the best way of separating them from their mother so they may be killed for the pride. I think she would make a fine mother and a terrible hunter. I tell her this sometimes, to which she responds by irritatingly calling me “Baby Marlon” and grooming me until I must retreat to the stifling shadows of our den.

Lately, Stella and Lula have been talking about the men who have begun patrolling the zoo. They are easy to spot with their stink of grease and metal and a subtle but constant anxiety, like lesser males in a pride who must always be concerned with their status, always snarling, quick to fight until the alpha reminds them where they stand. They carry the men’s weapons of war. It is odd that men would be armed for war in a zoo. Stella says they make her uneasy. I pay them no mind; they are prey, like the rest.

“There are so many of them! And yet none of them ever gives me apples when I dance,” Lula says. “Why do you think they are here, Marlon? Do you think it has to do with the chimpanzees?”

The chimps have a reputation for flinging their feces at the humans, a distasteful practice I nevertheless respect for the spirit of the act. But I doubt the transgressions of the apes would anger the humans such they would dissuade them with threats of war. I suggest to Stella perhaps word has spread of my ferocity, and the men are here to ensure no more silly games are played in front of my cage, lest I break free and slaughter every human in this zoo. She does not agree. Regardless, there are fewer humans walking past my cage, and that suits me fine.

Not all of the humans are worthless. There is a man who passes through the zoo daily. He walks around with colorful birds all over him, as though within him lives the spirit of a comfortable tree. Lula explained to me he is a bird-seller. In his circuit of the park he pauses at our cages, where his routine is to stop and bow to Stella and me. Also, he never gives to the bear any apples, no matter how much she dances. Among the humans, he is worthy of a modicum of respect. When I break free, I will make his death as quick and painless as possible.

It wasn’t long after the arrival of the armed men that the sounds of war followed. At first it was a curiosity, but then the fearsome noises of their fighting became a constant refrain in our lives. For many days, a cacophony of popping and ripping and rumbling has persisted outside our walls. There is no opportunity to relax, no relief. We are under constant duress. I cannot stop pacing. Stella jumps at every blast, every rattle, every human shout. She thinks the sounds are getting closer. I say nothing, but I think this as well.

Today, war entered the zoo. Stella and I huddled in our den as the air outside thundered, as though the men had pulled the storm clouds down from the sky. Lula sat in the opening of her den, blocking her cubs within. The air grew heavy with the acrid stink of smoke, the crisp smell of fresh blood, the shrill screams of men and animals dying. Stella pressed close to me, tucking her head beneath my foreleg.

“Why is this happening?” she asked, but I had no answer. I was terribly frightened, but for her I would not cower.

When the thunder of war passed, we crept from our cave. Smoke hung in the walkways as though the storm had left its clouds behind. Through the haze I could see men lying on the ground in pools of blood. I could see innocent animals in the same condition—the stately giraffe, whose slender neck was a constant feature of my daydreams, lay crumpled in his enclosure, his long neck curled unnaturally beneath him. I could hear the rattling breaths of a rhinoceros as he bled from holes that had been punched in his hide. Death is a way of life; a lion knows this. But it should be on the terms dictated by nature, not left to the whims of careless human captors. I mourned their wasteful deaths.

There are no more visitors to the zoo, only men of war. This morning there was no meat in our cage, no visit from the keeper who removes our scat, nor even the bird man peddling his colorful pets. Only men who are too preoccupied with fighting to care for the prisoners.

Tonight a mighty crash shook the earth beneath me as I slept. I awoke in a panic, for Stella was not in the den. Then I heard her call to me from outside.

“Marlon, come look!”

Stella and Lula with her cubs were all gazing out over the zoo. The sky was ablaze with fire and smoke. A building had collapsed, and the wall at the back of the chimpanzee cage was a smoldering pile of rubble. Men ran all over the place, shouting at each other and dying.

“I think they used a cannon,” said Lula. Her tiny eyes bulged in the half-light. “The cannon in the circus made a sound like that. Only that cannon fired a man into a net. I don’t suppose a man fired from a cannon could do that.”

I was too distracted by the sight of the chimps to rain insults upon her. Those who survived were running, deaf and screaming, across the tops of buildings and into the crimson night. I wondered if the air outside their bars tasted as good as I imagined.

The men are gone. The last of them passed our cages yesterday. Lula stood at her bars and danced, but they paid her no attention. Her cubs stayed in their den; they do not come out much anymore. It has been many days since we were last fed and watered. I can still hear war outside our walls, but it has used up the zoo and moved on.

The air is befouled with the scent of death. The men took their dead with them, but they left the animals to fester in the sun. The smell chokes me, and yet I find myself longing for the carcasses. It is shameful, to find the sweet stench of rot appealing like some kind of scavenger, but I would do anything to quiet the howling in my stomach. And I worry for Stella. She is weakening, though she does not like to show it.

“I am stronger than you, Marlon. When you die, I’ll just eat you,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye. “Or maybe I won’t wait for you to starve to death.”

I can feel on the air the seasons changing. I can count the passage of time in the ribs visible in Stella’s flank. We have only been able to survive through the generosity of humans who sneak into the zoo. The visits are infrequent, as the war is not yet over. The humans move like antelope at the water’s edge, always watching for danger lurking in the tall grass. Yesterday a man gave to us a slaughtered goat. It was a pitifully small meal, but a feast compared to what we have had. To Stella I gave the choicest parts of the animal. It hurts my pride to accept handouts; I am no better than Lula and her dancing. But now is not the time for pride. You cannot fill a stomach with pride.

“Sometimes I think Misha will climb over that wall with a great big salmon in his jaws, and he will drop it at our feet. Do you dream of food too, Marlon?”

Lula stands and watches the hole in the wall of the chimpanzee cage. I think she believes her dreams, and like a fool I find myself watching for this imagined bear with his bald head and his gift of salmon. The lack of food has not slowed Lula’s storytelling. I have begun to wonder if she does this for the benefit of her cubs and Stella, as a distraction from their suffering. When Stella sits, she leans her weight against me; I can barely feel her, she is so thin.

“I worry about the cubs,” she says. The cubs are but bags of bones, their baby fat melted away, leaving only bright eyes in dark caves.

“Do not worry for them, my queen. They are young and strong. Lula may not have gifted them with brains, but their strength is admirable.” I hope I have allayed her fears, even as I know in my heart what Lula will have to do. I fear for Stella’s innocence.

At dawn I left Stella sleeping in the filthy hay of our den. The light was the greyish blue before the sun has crested the horizon, and the air was cool and calm. It was so peaceful, for a moment I was able to forget our hardships. I focused only on the sky and was able to pluck a memory from when I was a cub, of watching the sun rise above the mountains, setting ablaze the only world I knew, a boundless freedom that stretched to the horizon. I remembered the beauty of my home, and my mother’s face, and if only for a moment, I was transported there.

Lula was awake, watching the zoo with unseeing eyes. She said nothing to me when I emerged, and I knew then what she had done.

When Stella awoke, she found me sitting vigil with Lula.

“Where are the cubs?” she asked, though she already knew the answer. I guided her back to our straw bed. The instincts of a lioness are not erased by a life in captivity; they sleep beneath the surface. Though she has never known the ruthlessness of the wild and the hard decisions a mother must occasionally make, the cruel mercies they must invoke, she understood and she never had to ask why. She pressed her body to mine and mourned in silence.

“You will make a fine mother someday,” I said.

Today the bird man returned. He had his birds with him, as though it were just another day, and for a moment, in my hunger deliriums, I thought I had dreamed all of this misery. His birds wore little hoods over their heads, the purpose of which mystified me until I watched him push one of the unnaturally placid creatures between the bars of my cage. Lula and Stella eventually overcame their grief to accept these gifts, but with Stella, it took a great deal of coaxing on my part, and she only ate the one bird. When the birds were gone, the man bowed to each of us and departed. I have amended my opinion of the bird man: when I escape, I will not eat him, but allow him free passage in the domain of the lion and welcome him as a friend.

I wonder what my companions endure, if our experiences are equal, or if we suffer differently. I know how I suffer: my joints ache and I have hardly the energy to move. The emptiness in me is profound. There was a great chasm near where I grew up, where the lions could sometimes corner young elephants frightened from the herd. It was deep and the wind howled through it on summer nights. That chasm now resides within me. I wonder if Stella and Lula can hear the wind howling in their own chasms.

Stella has not been the same since she learned of the cubs. She does not move. She lays beside the bars, where she would when she let the humans play with her fur. Yesterday a man and his daughter brought us two chickens. Stella did not move to eat, and I had to push the small carcass to her nose.

“You eat it,” she said. “I am not hungry.”

“You must eat, Stella.”

“Not now. Lay down with me.”

The sun nestled into the hills, washing the walls of the zoo in purples and oranges. Lula watched the sunset with us.

“What will you do when you are free?” she asked. She is made of much stronger stuff than I could have imagined. I think perhaps she can feel Stella’s spirit weakening, and the maternal instinct to nurture has found a new focus. “I think I will find Misha, and we will climb off into the hills where there are fish in a bubbling spring and maybe a quiet cave, and we can listen to the bees and smell the flowers. But first I will bathe in a river. I would never want for Misha to see me in such a condition. I’m filthy. And the stink! I know how you two smell. I can’t imagine what I must smell like. No, I must be clean for my handsome Misha. I will bathe, then I will find him, and then we will find our cave.”

Lula’s eternal optimism may not nourish our bodies, but perhaps it will nourish Stella’s wounded soul. In my heart I am thankful for Lula at this time.

“When I die, I give you permission to eat me,” Stella said.

“Do you not remember? You are the strong one. You will eat me.” I tell her.

She chuffs at me and nestles into my side. I fall asleep thinking about the chimpanzees, and what they might be doing with their boundless freedom.

The morning’s dawn brought to us a rainstorm and the realization that in the night, my lioness’s suffering had come to an end. I lay next to her the entire day, as the skies opened up and washed the filth from our cages and from our bodies. I did not think the emptiness within me could expand any further. How wrong I was.

“The man who came yesterday, he has been here before, I recognize his scent. I think he is going to rescue us.”

Lula has taken up the notion that every person who comes to the zoo to sneak us food or water is going to rescue us. Meanwhile we continue to lie in our own waste as frail, skeletal versions of our old selves.

“If that was true, would they not have taken us from here yesterday?” The day before, three men visited us. They took Stella and dug a hole in the ground outside my cage and placed her in it. Had I the strength I would have torn them to pieces the moment they tried to touch her, but I can barely get to my feet. They left food and water, but I refused to eat until they left; I would not give to them the satisfaction of seeing me eat after they dared touch my Stella. Now I lay in her customary spot by the bars. I imagine I can still feel the warmth she left behind.

“Maybe they need to figure out how to move us. If you think about it, they probably don’t want to move us together in the same cage. They probably think we’d kill each other. That must be it. Isn’t that exciting? I don’t even hear cannons anymore, do you? I haven’t heard them for the longest time. The war is probably gone. Now they have to figure out how to get us out. I wonder if they will have Misha with them—”

“We are not getting rescued.” In my despair my words have malice and claws, and they seek the hope that still draws breath in Lula’s heart. “You stupid bear. We are going to die in these cages. Just like Stella. Just like your cubs, and your Misha too. Everyone is dead, and nobody is coming to get us. These humans who come to throw us their scraps will soon find two more dead animals to drag into holes in the ground.”

The days come and go. People come to feed us enough to keep us alive, but nobody has rescued us. Lula and I have not spoken for days. I am filled with great shame in remembering my moment of despair.

When Lula got sick, I swallowed my pride and apologized for what I had said. In her grace she forgave me, though I fear the damage is already done. She coughs and wheezes all day now. In the night I can hear her struggling, and I barely sleep out of fear I will wake to find Lula has left me alone in this awful place. Sometimes, when it seems she has stopped breathing, I call to her until I hear her weak voice and know she has not left me. Worst of all, she no longer tells her stories. She hardly talks at all. She just lies there, her chin on the ground, waiting as I do, to see who will die first.

“Lula, tell me a story,” I say to her. There are people around us now. Where did they come from? Lula has somehow found the strength to stand up at her bars. She is so strong, even now. I remember her dances, from before, and I think I see apples raining from the sky. “Tell me of Misha and the juggler. You never told me what happened to Misha to make him bald.”

“Misha is dead, Marlon. Besides, I think we are going somewhere.”

I think this is such a foolish thing to say, even for Lula. Then I feel a sting in my side, and I see bird feathers sticking out of my haunch, and then I sleep.

I dream of being lifted and carried, and long journeys in the backs of trucks; of men arguing and water being poured into my mouth through narrow bars; of Lula in her own box next to me, sleeping or dead, I cannot tell. I dream I call out to her, but she does not answer.

The events of my rescue I shall never fully comprehend. I have been in the new compound long enough to regain the strength to go on walks. My legs do not ache like they used to, but I tire easily. There is room to run here and trees to shade myself in, but I do not let these conveniences obscure the fact I remain a prisoner. I am grateful for my rescue and rehabilitation, but when my strength is fully returned, I intend to break free and make the long trek back to the savannahs of my ancestral home. But for now, I rest and reflect. I am alone in my enclosure, and I am happy it is this way. Though it is big here, there is not enough room for another lion; Stella’s memory takes up too much space.

Lula’s compound is next to mine. On my walks I stop at our shared fence and I watch her. We have not talked. In fact, she has not moved at all. Her new home has a den like we had in the zoo, and she never leaves its shade. I fear she used up all of her hope keeping me alive in that place, leaving none for herself. Every day I expect the men to put her in the back of a truck and drive her to some hole in the ground.

Today the sound of a truck carried across my enclosure. As it backed up to Lula’s pen, the hair on my neck stood up, and dread filled my heart. Suddenly I was back in that zoo, terrified my friend had finally left me to be alone. I stood at our shared fence and I could see the outline of her great head, shaded beneath her cinnabar tree. Then the men opened the back of the truck, and an emaciated bear trundled out. His fur was the dull brown of hippo’s dung, except on his head, where he was completely bald.

For the first time since our rescue, Lula lifted her head.

Daniel Gorman lives in Albany, NY. His stories and poetry have previously appeared in Sixfold (Summer 2020) and in the Trolley journal. He has participated in the NYS Writers Institute workshops for fiction and poetry and hopes to one day become a full-time writer. He also loves talking shop, so if anyone is interested, feel free to reach out at dgor88@gmail.com

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