Thinking the Lions
by Briane F. Pagel
It was hot. Infernally hot, and still, despite the soft-stirring breeze that ruffled through the tall brown grass surrounding our land rover. The movement of the grass, in spite of the breeze, made the field look as though it had a life of its own. It was a clock-ticking kind of quiet, although I wasn't wearing a watch; this was to be a time away from such things.
Along Samantha's cheek a trickle of sweat had paused, stopped in the act of flowing by the overall atmosphere that surrounded her and me. I watched the tiny wet spot, a mere speck of water in all the dryness and heat, and felt as if the constant flicking of my eyes toward her had created a small breeze of my own that she could sense. I tried to make myself stop looking at her, but I didn't. I would look to my left, to the immense and twisted baobab tree that reared out of the plain like a geyser of gnarled wood, but it couldn't hold my interest for long. From the tree, my eyes would sweep across the field in front of me, slowly at first but gathering speed, until finally they just jumped all on their own to look at Sam. She was waiting for the lions. I was waiting for them, too, but not as much as I was waiting for her. Our guide, sitting in front, seemed to be waiting for the both of us. He was the first guide that she and I had hired this trip, and this was our third country. In Zaire, they had said to see the lions, you have to go to Namibia. In Namibia, they said to go to Kenya. Here in Kenya, they said nothing much, and our guide said less. He took Sam and I out here, where he had seen the lions many times before, under this empty sky. But he hadn't spoken since we had set out that morning. Nobody had.
The only sound was the grass. Rustling and hissing, but in a soft way. I had to strain just to hear it. It stirred slightly, all bending in the same direction, toward us in front and away from us in back, as if leaning away from all the nothingness we faced. Out here, though, the nothingness was spectacular. The sun hovered close, gigantic, too near me even at noon, or especially at noon, until the light and the heat felt like an actual weight upon me, a weight gently pushed down out of an ocean of sky. The sky was all blue to infinity, and it made me thirsty just to look at it. Not a dome, like the sky seems to be normally, but more of a wash, a pool of air that had descended to fill the emptiness usually found between earth and the heaven.
Our guide, directly in front of me, cocked his head slightly to see his charges in the back seat. He had a crook in his mouth that may have been a smile, but it was hard to tell, because everything about him was understated and subtle. Soft, the way mannerisms can be when they don't have to compete with civilization just to be noticed. Except his eyes. His eyes were bright as he looked at us, and alive.
This morning, as the sun was coming up while we prepared to leave on the safari, he had asked me what we came to Kenya for.
“To see lions,” Sam had answered before me. “We've seen about everything else, but no lions yet.” I hadn't answered, and he turned his crooked mouth and sunlight eyes upon me.
“How about you?” He asked in a voice that hardly seemed loud enough to reach my ears. “You too want to see lions?” I nodded, and my eyes had glanced toward Samantha. He followed my quick peek, and his mouth had bent a little more. “I will show you to them,” he said.
So I ended up out here, in the middle of almost nothing, with a tree, and grass, and Samantha. The guide watched us: her, looking for lions, and me, looking at her. But he didn't say anything. Every now and then his mouth would go straight, which I thought might had been a frown on a regular person, and he looked about to speak, but he didn't. There had been no voices since we stopped earlier.
Now I cleared my throat and spoke. My voice sounded like a shot breaking through all that accumulated quiet, even though I was trying to keep it down.
“Are you sure that we'll see lions out here?”
“I hope so. Today is our last chance,” Sam put in, and her voice had the same loud quality. What she said was true. Tomorrow, we would be taken back to the United States, back to telephones, back to taxicabs, and work, and the hundred other things that made it impossible to do what I was trying to do out here on this plain. Back to the world that was loud enough for our sounds to blend into and prevent us from being heard. Today was it, and it didn't look like this gamble was going to work. I probably shouldn't have brought her here, I thought.
When it had been quiet, just before I spoke, I could hear my pulse, my heartbeat, in my ears. How often does that happen?
“They will be here. We will wait a bit, and you will see them.” Unlike my own voice, and Sam's, our guide's was natural sounding, not clashing with the peace around us but somehow adding to it. His voice was just a slight pressure on your ear while he talked. You had to be consciously listening for it.
“Why do they come here?” I asked, trying to emulate his tone. I didn't--it seemed as if the grass nearby swished with the words. “It's just a big field, a prairie.”
“Ahead, by the tree, is water.” He gestured to point out the tree with a minute flick of his hand (as if we couldn't pick out the single tree). He seemed to get the most effect out of the least effort. He went on: “Hidden by the grass, so most don't know about it. The lions come here to rest, to mate, to be alone, because there is nothing here to bother them. They come here because here they can be free.”
His words hung on my mind as I tried to see the pond. I couldn't. My eyes rested again on Samantha. As I watched her wet her lips, I knew how those lions felt, what they were thinking when they made their odyssey to this dry hot plain. Sometimes you have to remove everything around you just to find out what you're thinking. When there are no distractions, your mind can float around until you realize some things that would have never occurred to you before. At least, that was my theory. It's what I was hoping for when I asked Sam to come with me. Here there were no distractions. No confusions. Just her and me, the grass, and the tree, all folded in by the sky. And, if you are lucky, there were lions.
I'm not lucky, but I was counting on the lions to work where nothing else had. We sat some more, letting the brief conversation drift away into the blue. The sun rolled further behind us, still bright enough to spotlight the field which faced us. The afternoon finally began to drift off, slowly. And we sat still.
It was a long time we sat there, but not boring. Before I could get bored, I was captured by the beauty around me, the simple plainness that became lovely only when you reached out to embrace it. And, for me, there was Samantha, too, so motionless that she was like a part of land, and also beautiful. I wanted to embrace her, too, but I could throw my arms around neither the plain nor Sam. Merely watch and wait.
Now, behind the blades of grass there was shadow. The sun was in back of me, and the contrast between the blue sky and the plain, with the light going only so far to illuminate the field now, gave the world a surreal look, as if everything were slowly fading into everything else, as if things were merging. There was expectancy in the air, in the shadow, in my head.
“They will come soon. They will be here. It was good to wait,” intoned our guide.
“How do you know?” I asked, in my thunder-tone.
“You can think them.”
“Think them?” Sam repeated his words, whispering loudly.
“In your head. You can think them in your head.”
“How?” We both said.
The guide turned to face us, in his mouth still crinkled up a bit at the one corner, his eyes reflecting the sun he now faces. “Think. Relax,” he said while gesturing for us to close our eyes. I wondered if this was a joke he played on tourists, but closed my eyes a moment after I saw Sam shut hers.
“What do you see?” I heard him ask, barely. I didn't answer. I didn't see lions, though. My mind remained focused on Samantha, mere feet away and closer than she had ever been before. What could I do? I tried, but couldn't get her out of my thoughts. I opened my eyes again. Next to me, Sam was just opening her eyes, with a look of someone who had been snapped into a trance. She blinked several times. A strange look. “What did you see?” asked out guide again.
“Not lions,” I mumbled. Sam nodded.
“Neither did I,” she said. Her voice had lost a little of its volume.
“Perhaps you did see them, but you didn't recognize them. They were there, wanting to come here, but to see them, you have to believe in them. To want them. This is not so easy, but it must be felt. The lions do not come where they are needed.” His eyes shimmering at me, promising magic, danced over a mouth that was an actual grin now. “Try again, but do not work so hard at it. Lions never work hard. Let them come to you, because you cannot force them. Close your eyes, and let your mind roam. Like the lions. Feel them here, think of their grace and of their power. Of their beauty coming from within them. You must open to them, to their strength and their fierceness. You must think them... think the lions”
I closed my eyes as his voice trailed away into the wisps of sound. Again the only thing I saw was Samantha facing me. I saw her lift her face up into the sunlight, her hair tinted a red-gold now and brushed with the colors of the sunset, which is to say all the colors there are. She was there in front of me, and this time I didn't even try to not think of her. I drank up the picture of her that I held there in my thoughts. I forgot about the lions, and reached out in mind for Sam, saw myself reaching for her, thought out to her. In my imagination, she was doing the same, her eyes closed, facing me.
“I know why you brought me here,” she said. With an ethereal quality in her voice. Had she said it, really said it? I opened my eyes and blinked in the faded crimson twilight.
They were there, walking all around us.
On either side, in front, and coming up to us from behind, from the space the grass was bowing to, came the lions. I saw them behind Samantha as we sat together finally and they seemed to just appear from the dusk, growing out of the shadow in the grass. One moment they were nowhere, the next they were everywhere, silently filtering along. Not disturbing the fragile blades of grass they walked through, but just shifting them aside, altering their position for a moment, regally.
All around us were the lions. They surrounded us but paid no attention to us, knowing that we had no power which could affect them. Indifferent to how they acted on us, how they affected us, but affecting us just the same. They moved slowly but lithely, passing from shaft of light to shaft of light, on their way to the water, and whenever the sun caught one of them full on, it was glorious. The lions looked at us with poignant eyes. They were powerful and unknowable, and we felt them as much as we saw them. They came upon us, and then were already sweeping past before we really knew they were there, and swept us along in their wake, and we were immersed in their strength. They knew, too, why I had brought her here. And why they had come.