- Lion Queen (Ode to a Dying Lioness) Cat Kidd
Ode to a Dying Lioness
Is hope lost Lady? Pride abandon ye by the side of the road,
lioness dying alone. On your face still traces of predator grace,
never losing your feline refine even as flies encircle your crown like vultures.
They pluck out even the eyes of the blind. But I too am a scavenger here,
gathering scraps of this ravishing culture ‘til my eyes are filled, spill over
and still can’t believe what I’m seeing –
a dying lion – no surprise I’ve never seen one,
but neither do I wish to be the very last thing she sees.
We slow the rented Go, windows rolled down letting russet dust
settle equally on all of us – two Canadian aliens, one South African lioness.
We don’t choke the engine though, now it’s growling at the tattered cat
and it doesn’t feel right, listening to the life rattle out of her like a gate chain
locking out the night. Not long ago she was top of her game, top of the food chain
now slowly consumed by consumption. Lying low to the ground like a pup tent,
skin stretched thin over bony ribs, black lips mutter back to her heart ‘til the very last beat,
when the fire in her lion eyes freezes in the heat, and her sight sinks like shiny sunstones deep
in river-beds beneath her lids. The arid air throws dust over my vision and I swear
I see her leaping at the sun, where long ago she must’ve come from.
Yet none so young deserve this, to wither of illness, invisible nemesis crippling dignity.
She may be a mother with youngsters to feed, like any other hunter gathering food for
her brood of hungry cubs. But who’d bother to let the local pride of lions know
that the flesh of those Cape buffalo contains a fatal dose of bovine tuberculosis?
And that this tenacious germ had recently learned how to leap to her species easily?
So it seems our Lion Queen is being eaten by something she ate.
There may be no greater tragedy, but in the state of nature it’s consumer beware:
even on the savannah, it’s a jungle out there. Did she feed poison kill to her children as well?
Was she guilty of involuntary regicide, when the King of her pride laid claim to the lion’s share
of the prey, leaving behind just the nasty bits only hyenas would eat anyway?
But therein lies the irony of infectious disease –
Viruses couldn’t care less about social hierarchy,
given equal opportunity, diseases will eat every body equally.
But look, how the eyes of the lioness suddenly widen awake!
She’s taking us in, never taking her glittering focus from us.
In better days we’d have been breakfast.
I’ve heard certain prides have acquired a taste for us homo sapiens –
maybe fancy apes make a tasty break from antelopes such as
those skinny impalas, shy-eyed and nubile like a herd of schoolgirls,
knobbly knees even wider than their thighs. How inviting they look
to those guys higher on the food chain, who’ve got nothing to lose
and nothing but a little time to kill.
See, how their prey stand stalk still like fear were the devil it is –
a bush fire taking no prisoners, finding no sacrifice too great to feed its fever
if even at the price of a few insignificant lives.
But I heard of this pride who’ve acquired a taste for human meat;
specifically the flesh of young refugees from Mozambique,
who get caught trying to sneak over the border through Kruger
in hope of seeking South African salaries. We met two of these guys on the road.
Like young lions, they were walking not driving, with nothing but a bottle of water between them.
What kind of poverty must they be fleeing, to risk being torn limb from limb by wild animals
for the slim chance of advancing their financial situation? What else but desperation
would make a man lay his life on the line that way, settling the wager at all or nothing?
I saw those shadows of human misery all around me,
it likely surrounded on all sides, I didn’t have to look for it
but what I generally found was the opposite –
generosity of spirit, easy humour even where you’d expect
to find bitterness. Maybe I was blessed in this. Yet the question I kept asking is,
Can it be true the most important thing to do is to somehow die while alive
then keep living right through the new day, just to sit by the river
laughing away like a baby hippopotamus?
There’s a certain laughter seems to surface when you believe completely
what you’re seeing, as though it were being shown: youthful, buoyant, joyous
as school children in kaNyamazane, who can’t stop cracking up at the
two Canadians who came to visit them. Yet, concrete walls of bubble-gum pink
surround their elementary school compound, laced on top with razor wire
and emblazoned with hand-painted slogans celebrating freedom and warning
against the spread of HIV. The deputy principal asks me to perform a poem
in the centre of the courtyard, where stands a spreading tree, now youngsters
gather beneath it in clusters like fruit.I choose a poem about meerkats,
how they babysit each other’s kits while a watcher keeps a watchful eye
for sneaking snakes and swooping eagles. The watcher stays awake
to keep the young from harm – when a dangerous stranger comes near,
it’s the watcher who sounds the alarm – but the rest of the time when the coast is clear,
she sings a little peeping song, so they’ll know she’s still near and they’ve got nothing to fear
as long as they can still hear another peep out of her, and then another.
Kids in blue uniform clap at the end of the poem, then the deputy principal
takes a turn of her own at story telling. It’s clearly her calling, her hands spread
wide as branches over the circle of children, sweeping them up in her tale
of two Canadians who came from far away to visit them, friendly and sweating
and smiling all teeth like two white mice with sunburns. Then the buzzer sounds
like a fire alarm, and young boys race to shake my hands like they’d take home
some alien germ, while little girls lace fingers through my hair as though it were
falling water. I falter in my place then, to see in their faces the fire of their powerful
heredity look up at me through laughing eyes, and I shy before their growing shadows
reaching past me toward the sun where young lion kings and queens of long ago first came from.