LION TAMING: AN INTRODUCTION
The Ringmaster traded a dancing girl, a barrel of red wine, and on old carburetor for Lucille the lion. When his counterpart from the other circus learned the Ringmaster didn’t have any experience with lions, he threw in, gratis, a pamphlet called Approaches to Taming Your Lion. In the months to follow, the Ringmaster set to work.
APPROACH #4: THE CHAIR
Holding the lower side of a chair or stool in the face of a lion will cause disorientation. The lion will try to focus on all four legs at once and enter a state of confusion, thus making the creature susceptible to instruction.
The Ringmaster had adopted the lion as a project. Idle hands were no good—his life prior to taking over the circus had been proof enough of that. He’d thought at times if he only stuck to a hobby like collecting coins or lifting weights or bird watching, he might have infused purpose in his life and been happier for it.
He’d never been good at taking care of himself. Frozen orange chicken and Johnny Walker—these were the meals he subsisted on, left to his own devices in his old life. A multivitamin when he remembered it. He stretched his budget around these things. Stay drunk enough and you didn’t need much.
Lion taming, now, was a daunting task.
He avoided Lucille those first couple days, and in the process forgot to feed her. He rationalized the choice, after he’d realized his mistake the second night, thinking maybe the lack of food would make the animal weaker and thus easier to corral. He just as quickly second-guessed this line of thought. Hunger could make a creature weak, but it wasn’t it just as likely to make her angry? Desperate for anything she might eat? Starved for flesh?
So, the Ringmaster found a folding chair.
Lucille wasn’t his only stressor. Before he joined the circus—let alone took it over, the Ringmaster had avoided the spotlight. In school, he’d been the sort of student to feel intense anxiety before delivering a presentation, right up to his more apathetic teenage and adult years, when he overcame fear only to the extent that he stopped caring about much of anything at all
Joining the circus, let alone in the Ringmaster’s coat meant needing to not only speak in public, but perform. He’d affected the identity of a Chinese man who spoke only broken English, and had since struggled to decide which words to omit, which grammar to flub to not only play his part, but convince an audience of this identity. He had all of that to consider, not to mention managing the logistics of a circus—charting which towns to travel through, and how to ration ticket sale revenue into gasoline for the trucks, and three square meals a day for the entire traveling crew.
The Ringmaster went to Lucille after a particularly draining performance—one for which he felt certain he’d slipped and spoken too properly, blowing his character for the both the audience and the circus performers. He thought this exhausted state might numb some of his fear around the lion. That had to be an advantage, didn’t it?
Lucille advanced on him when he got in the cage. So he lifted the chair, showing her all four legs.
He hadn’t slept well since he took over the circus. He recalled the old days of drunken stupor when he’d sleep away whole afternoons and wake just in time to eat and drink some more. That seemed like heaven—the good old days, regardless of how miserable he’d felt in the moment. Before all of the corners of his life collapsed in on him. Everything distracted from everything else until his legs were too weak to support him, his head too heavy to carry.
And though Lucille was transfixed on the four legs at first, the effect only lasted so long. She picked one leg and clenched her jaw down on it. She couldn’t sink her teeth into steel properly, but she could tear the chair from the Ringmaster’s grasp.
He escaped the cage just in time. As he lay on the far side of the cage door Lucille stared him down, growling, pawing at the bars. His heart pounded.
He had had not tamed the lion that day. Far from it. But as his pulse throbbed in his neck and his adrenalin surged, he felt roused, alive, untamed himself.
For one night, perhaps that was a good thing.
APPROACH #14: THE FISH
While lions’ traditional cuisine consists of other animals native to the jungle, don’t underestimate their taste for fish. Like all felines, the natural protein and oils are appealing and nutritiously valuable in moderation. As a treat, fish can be used as a training implement.
The circus set up camp by a lake. The Ringmaster had come to recognize the value of water like this—not for a picturesque setting, but for the opportunity to bathe and wash clothes. An opportunity to fish, too.
He felt reticent to eat anything Claude, the Strongman, and the Wrestler caught while spearing fish, uncertain of what fish were safe to eat, and all the less confident that the three of them could prepare the fish appropriately—the cook would have nothing to do with them, but let them borrow a frying pan for the night. The Ringmaster did, however, recognize an opportunity to try out Approach #14, and so asked if he could have two of the fish. True to sycophantic form, Claude volunteered the two biggest, best catches—a long fish with silver scales, and a fatter yellow-orange one, dead eyes frozen in surprise. The Ringmaster brought them to Lucille.
Like most pieces of lion taming, The Ringmaster lacked sufficient information to really know what he was doing with the fish. The book offered more concepts and generalities than details, in a way that continued to suggest even the authors didn’t really know what they were talking about, writing more our of guesswork than practical experience.
The Ringmaster ripped loose a piece of the fatter fish and, from the far side of the cage bars, lobbed it toward Lucille.
The lion approached and sniffed at the chunk of flesh before snatching it up between her teeth, chewing tentatively, then swallowing. The fish was unfamiliar to her, but clearly, the stench and disgusting goop that coated the Ringmaster’s fingers hadn’t turned her off. She approached him, and he threw her another piece, a mere foot away from the bars.
They continued like this. Lucille sat in a way The Ringmaster would have liked to have called obedient. With her hind legs resting, he could imagine her pouncing in an instant, and felt quite certain she would if she thought it would get her the fish sooner.
Maybe he was on to something, though, if only in proving himself as Lucille’s provider. Someone she ought to like, if not respect. Someone she ought to work with.
The first fish gone, Lucille licked the cage floor where one of the juicier chunks had been.
The Ringmaster thought he might fetch a cooler to store the other fish to give Lucille another night, maybe with a better plan in mind for how to bridge the gap between fish and taming.
But then he thought of practical matters, like the stench of day-old fish and whether it would be safe for even Lucille to eat after that time, stored without refrigeration.
So it was that The Ringmaster came to toss her pieces of the silver fish as well. It was rubberier, harder to tear such that the pieces wound up bigger or smaller than he meant, with little hope of refining them after they were freed from the larger mass. He tossed these pieces with less regularity, such that Lucille jumped up for them, or chased after pieces outside her reach. Like play. Finally, he threw all that was left, two-thirds of the fish in a final throw.
Against his better judgment, The Ringmaster put his fishy hands between the bars, over to Lucille’s side of the cage. She approached, and even in that moment he entertained visions of her sinking her teeth into his wrists, ripping entire hands free. He imagined life without hands, assuming he could survive the resulting blood loss.
But Lucille did not bite him. She licked his fingers, and then his palms, tongue rough as sandpaper, but gentle in its lapping. She purred.
The next night, Lucille might not remember this. The Ringmaster held no illusions she was tamed. But, if only for that moment, he’d offered her his hands and she had not made him regret it.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Georgia with his wife and son. His hybrid chapbook, The Leo Burke Finish, is available now from Gimmick Press and he has previously published work with journals including The Normal School, Passages North, and Hobart. He works as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.