Maya was just six years old when a woman with red fingernails pushed her into a lion enclosure. The woman’s name was Antonia Shepherd, she had shoes that clacked, and long fingernails that could, and often did, cause Maya to wince with pain. Maya’s father was in love with this woman: maybe because she smelled like a department store, or maybe because she had an adorable freckle on the end of her nose. Maya often longed to peel that freckle off, but she never got the chance, and she didn’t have any freckles of her own to practice with.
“Honey, Maya and I haven’t had nearly enough bonding time. What if I took her out somewhere, just the two of us?”
Maya listened from the living room, her heart beating loud against her t-shirt. She scooted closer to the door, further away from the TV that was always on, singing gibberish cartoons at her. Antonia said the TV kept her quiet, but the TV was so much louder than Maya could be. Sometimes she wrapped a blanket around her head and pretended she was being kidnapped to get away from the noise. Today, she eavesdropped instead.
“I know that little girl of yours is a handful, and most women wouldn’t want to take their boyfriend’s daughter out like I do, but well, you know I adore her. I just want her to know it.”
“What did you have in mind?”
Dad sounded much less concerned than he should have.
“Oh, I don’t know, ice-cream, the zoo, the hairdresser?”
Maya clutched her long braid with fear. No. She loved to swing her braid and feel it slap against her face, and she hated the sound of the hair-dryer, which Antonia used every morning. She especially hated the hairdressing cape. Wearing it felt like being in the belly of a big black fish with her head poking out of its lips. No! She would not go get a haircut, especially not with that woman.
Antonia walked in, scratched her long fingernails against Maya’s scalp, and invited her out, just the two of them. Her fingers stopped Maya from turning her head to look at Dad. She could sense him though, lingering in the doorway. Her only choice was to say yes.
“Only, I don’t want a haircut.”
Antonia’s nails tightened a fraction. “Someone’s been eavesdropping,” she giggled.
Maybe, if Antonia had taken Maya to the hairdresser, things would have been different, but she didn’t. She took her to the zoo instead.
Outside, the sun was pale yellow and sweat-inducing. Maya lived in a small city in the middle of the desert, and though it was winter, it was still hot. Maya and Dad used to live in another country, but she could barely remember it. When she and Antonia got into the car, the woman blasted the A.C. until Maya was blue-lipped and shivering. Antonia saw the goose-bumps, but she didn’t turn the A.C. down and Maya refused to ask for relief. Instead, she wrapped her hand around her braid like it was a snake she could throw into the driver’s seat. They arrived at the zoo.
“Where would you like to go?” Antonia asked without looking at her.
But the entire reptile house was closed. From the sounds of it, a small boy had climbed into the iguana enclosure and was refusing to come down from a very high box in the top corner. The iguanas were whipping their tails at any keeper who tried to come in and get him down. This zoo was not like most others.
Maya liked the big, ferocious animals. She had no interest in the timid gazelles or the tortoises chewing leaves of lettuce with their big grandpa lips. She liked animals with teeth much sharper than her own, and claws much sharper than Antonia’s. If she couldn’t see crocodiles, lions were the next best thing.
Maya and Antonia walked over to the enclosure, and Maya felt a shiver of joy when she looked down and saw their hulking shoulders and thick paws. She wished she was a lion. She roared quietly. They were separated from the lions by a glass barrier that reached Antonia’s chest, and a gorge that made it impossible for the lions to leap up to them.
“Why don’t we take a picture to send to your Daddy?”
Antonia took out her phone and began fixing her hair in the camera. Maya looked up at her, watching with amusement as one curl stuck down stubbornly, creating a swirl on the woman’s forehead. She started to giggle until Antonia’s murderous eyes flashed down at her and swept the smile off her face. When the curl was finally smoothed back, Antonia knelt down and pulled Maya towards her so they were cheek to cheek. Maya didn’t smile.
“Why aren’t you smiling?” Antonia said, straining to keep her voice light.
“Well, I took you here to be nice to you. The least you can do is smile.”
Maya smiled. Until Antonia pressed the button, then she quickly frowned. Antonia huffed.
“Look. Look how nice I look there, smiling. Why can’t you be a good girl and smile?”
Maya puffed her cheeks out like a blowfish in the next picture. Then crossed her eyes. Right before Antonia pressed the button, so that she wouldn’t see what she was about to do. Maya was very quick. The curl returned to Antonia’s forehead and stuck there. She dug her nails into Maya’s arm, clutching her ever closer.
“You—will—take—this—picture—nicely!” she shook the girl with every word.
“Sorry, I just don’t want to look like you,” Maya giggled.
“What?” Antonia snapped, dropping her arm, “What did you say?”
Maya wanted to take it back, Antonia’s eyes were bulging slightly.
“I just… I don’t want to look like you.”
“Why?” Antonia burst, “What’s wrong with how I look?”
A woman wearing a tennis visor and yoga pants pulled a wagon full of kids past them, and paused to give Antonia a raised eyebrow. Antonia tried to smile at her; her cheek twitched. When the woman was gone, Maya built up the courage to ask something she’d always wanted to. For once, she was having fun with Antonia.
“Can I peel your freckle off?”
Maya had been staring at it, and the urge was burning in her finger. She couldn’t hold it in any longer, her finger inched towards the woman’s face. Antonia swiped it away with a furious hiss. A stream of words came out. Maya didn’t understand much except for the end.
“—and everyone. I mean everyone. Tells me how ADORABLE. My freckle is. So, so.”
Antonia took a deep breath. She smiled like a crocodile.
“Let’s take the picture, Maya.”
Antonia lifted Maya so that she was standing on the barrier in front of the enclosure. It was sloped, not a good place to stand, not enough room for her feet. Maya tried to say so, but Antonia was lifting the phone to get both of them in the picture.
I’m not sure if Antonia intended to feed Maya to the lions from the beginning, or if it was an idea that dawned on her when she saw their yellow teeth. She loved her boyfriend, but something about his child unsettled her. Maya was always alone in her room, and Antonia could hear her, talking with different voices, thudding, shouting war-cries. Plus, who doesn’t like TV?
Maybe she didn’t mean to push her into the enclosure, or maybe she did. Either way, Maya felt a sharp elbow smack her knee, and then the ground was out from under her. She saw the sky, the glass barrier trembling, her own arms reaching out for something to grab onto. Her scream rang through the big cat section of the zoo. When she landed, the wind was knocked right out of her. Her head smacked the grass painfully, and for a moment, everything went black. She opened her eyes and squinted up at Antonia, who was peering down at her, safely behind the glass. Maya couldn’t get up, everything hurt. Then she felt the hot huff of lion breath.
When Antonia saw Maya stirring, she glanced around to see if anyone had seen the girl fall. The zoo was not busy, since it was a weekday afternoon. Nobody was around. Antonia clacked over to the pizza stand, ordered a slice, and chewed while she contemplated her next move. She rubbed her lower belly and tried to glow, the way women in her condition were supposed to. The pizza server asked if everything was okay, watching her demented smile with trepidation.
“Is the pizza not agreeing with you?”
Antonia started to retort, then simpered, “Maybe the little one doesn’t like beef-pepperoni.”
She rubbed her belly more conspicuously. The server backed away.
Antonia nodded to herself, this was as good a time as any to tell him. She clacked over to the zoo entrance, smiled at the attendant, got in her car and drove home.
Meanwhile Maya had started to regain feeling in her arms and legs. She could sense the lion nearby, but didn’t dare to look at it. Should she move? Play dead? Try to run? Before she could do anything, she felt jaws closing around her ankle. She froze. She was certain that if she screamed the lion would start to eat her right then. Her braid dragged behind her as the lion pulled her into the fake den, and down into the concrete pit underneath the enclosure.
“Hello sweetheart, I’m back!” Antonia sang at her boyfriend.
“Hey, you’re back soon, how was it?”
How that man loved that woman we’ll never know, but he did, truly.
Antonia smiled sweetly, “I have something to tell you!”
“Well, she didn’t want to leave the zoo, see. But I had to tell you something and it couldn’t wait,” Antonia rubbed her belly in anticipation.
“You left my six year old daughter at the zoo, alone?”
He was getting hung up on the wrong detail. He wasn’t noticing her glow.
“Well yes, but–”
“I cannot believe this,” his face looked like thunder, “my daughter. My only daughter, who do you think you ARE?”
Maya was scratched all over from where she’d been dragged against the concrete. The light was dim and her heart was pounding. If they were going to eat her, she hoped it would be quick. The lioness had dropped her like a rag-doll and was greeting an old lion that was lazing in the corner. The lion stood up, and both of them loomed over her with drooling jaws.
“What are you doing in our enclosure, human?”
The lion. It was speaking.
“Y-you can talk!”
The lion huffed, “Yes, and they never drop live meat into our enclosure, so I have to be sure. Have you been laced with poison? Is this how they finally get rid of me?”
“I hope I haven’t been poisoned. I fell in accidentally. Or, I guess, I was pushed.”
Maya told the old lion about Antonia, her clacking heels and her department store smell.
“I hate when humans wear perfume,” the lion growled.
Maya nodded, “Me too.”
There was a long, almost awkward pause. Maya felt the need to break it, the lions still looked angry.
“Wow, it’s pretty dark down here.”
“Dark, really? Do you see that light in the corner? It’s always on, always flickering and irritating my eyes. We’re mostly nocturnal you know,” the old lion said.
“Can’t you tell the zookeepers that it bothers you?”
The old lion snorted, “All they hear when I talk is growling. I learned to talk from my first owner. A girl who was a little older than you.”
“What happened to her?”
So the old lion told Maya the story of how he ended up in a zoo in the desert. Poachers came for his pride, in a place far away, with long grasses and wide open space. He heard gunshots and he tried to run. He got left behind. The poachers put him in a cage, and the cage went on a plane, and the plane landed here, where a man kept him in an apartment and fed him cat food, which made him feel very sick. Finally, the man put the lion in a cardboard box with holes, and when it was opened, the lion saw the smiling face of a girl in a party hat.
“You got me a lion cub?” she squealed.
The girl had never been so happy, and neither had the lion, except for during his days in the wild. But he was growing too fast, and one day the girl’s Dad put him in the back of their car, and walked him on a leash into the zoo.
“I’m not the only one. All the lions here have a story like me. And the cheetahs too.”
Maya felt anger bubbling in her stomach. She was so angry that she forgot the scrapes on her skin and the aches from where she’d fallen. She sat up and felt her head spin.
“This isn’t fair! We’ve got to do something.”
The lion roared his agreement, and Maya heard the echoes of other lions roaring back. There were at least thirty lions down there in cages, hidden from the public.
Maya’s father sprinted through the zoo, calling her name. The girl was nowhere to be found. Antonia trotted reluctantly behind him. She didn’t see why he would miss Maya when she was providing a brand new kid for him.
“Where did you leave her?” he growled.
“By the lions,” Antonia said.
They arrived in the big cats section, and Maya’s father skidded to a stop, unsure of where to look. Then, both of them heard a squealing child who was standing in front of the lion enclosure, looking in.
“Look Mummy! Look!”
“Look, look, there’s a girl!”
The child’s mother let out a soul-tearing scream when she saw Maya cartwheeling for the lions. The scream was so loud that Antonia was sure Maya was done for, and hurried over, doing her best to look concerned.
When she saw Maya riding on the back of a lion, she knew she was toast. She let out a shrill little scream of her own. Maya’s father was pale, and swayed like he might fall over. Maya looked up at them, smiled and waved.
“Don’t worry Daddy, I’m okay!”
Maya returned to the lions as she grew older, and told the zookeepers their grievances with the food and the lack of space. In exchange, the keepers let her play in the enclosure after visiting hours. They called her Maya The Lion Tamer, and though she hated Antonia, Maya loved her new baby brother when he arrived.
Maya also befriended the boy who lived in the iguana enclosure… but that’s another story for another time.
Artwork by Icinori