Lion Taming

Art by Jasmin Small

1794, France.

My breath comes out in puffs of frozen mist, dispersing through my squashed snout in an undignified rasp as my paws clatter across the snow-blanketed ground. Lilou giggles. Bursts of joy crackle in my chest like sherbet lemons eaten in early spring. As we wind through side alleys and muddy streets, I can taste the crispness of the winter wind on my tongue. As we enter the bustling market the snow turns to sludge beneath my feet and the flakes on my nose turn to nothing. I am hit with a wall of smell, my nose twitching, readjusting after the cool whiteness of the park. My nose catches red fires burning, steam as pink flesh heats, the rank mossy smell of wet wool drying. I try not to catch the sticky plum scent of blood splashed across the cobbles in the square after the guillotine has done its violent work. Paris. 

When we make it home, Lilou’s mother offers her a bowl of soup and a hunk of stale bread softened in the broth. It barely tastes like meat for all the times those old mutton bones have been boiled. After swallowing my own morsel in one bite, I lie with my empty belly against the stone ground, the warmth from the fire bleeding through my fur. I watch Lilou’s father knead loaf after load of bread, and I allow myself to think, just briefly, of my Mary. Of how she used to work, with the same single-minded concentration pinching her brow, but instead of a rolling pin and dough as her tools, a quill and ink.

Her publisher gave me to her in 1787, just after she had written her first book. To such a practical woman, I must have seemed utterly ridiculous with my wrinkled face and curled tail. Dogs were meant to be useful, and I certainly was not. Mary was a writer. I used to be able to see the thoughts clattering around her head as she paced around our small room, stepping over my stout body when I got in the way. She would write for hours, and I would feel the hunger settle into the pit of my stomach like a stone. I used to wind my body around her feet like a cat and yap at her heels until she stopped and breathed. She would blink, looking around the room to reacquaint herself with her surroundings before finally looking down at me. She would scratch behind my ears and walk to the kitchen to prepare our dinner. Every night, I sat under the table as she fed me off her plate, curled around her feet, keeping them warm in the winter and turning them sticky with sweat in the summer. 

When Mary’s fellow revolutionaries dined with us, they would talk for hours with frenzied excitement; honey-scented wine poured endlessly into glasses while honey-scented words flowed endlessly from their mouths. 

Now, I long for the taste of candied figs, buttery and crunchy, eaten from ink-stained hands. Although there are different, simpler pleasures now. When Lilou’s family piles into one bed, flesh on fur, sharing heat, everyone’s scent intermingles. Those large hearts beating. I always used to sleep on the floor when I was with Mary. 

As soon as Vindication was published, Mary was racked with a need to experience the world and an absolute hunger for the tumultuous politics of revolution. She was a hyena in petticoats snapping at the heels of change. Endless talk with her friends turned into plans to travel to Paris. The day of the journey was the worst of my life. As we crossed the Channel, the rolling of the waves made my stomach revolt. My only reprieve was that Mary sat with me, stroking my head as time crept by in a haze, perforated only by the sharp, acrid smell of vomit and sea air. 

Mary and I stayed with her friend from the French National Convention for a few months. They talked, plotted and planned, spoke with excitement and rage, ate, drank, and wrote. But soon, the great change they loved so much turned against them; they were no longer radical enough to keep up with a revolution that demanded the blood of her own children. And so Mary fled in the middle of the night, leaving me behind as she went. Late at night, when everyone is asleep, I like to think she was sad about leaving me, that she might regret it dearly, and that she truly believed that one day she would come back for me. 

Sometimes, I catch tension in the air, the brief moment where everything seems to stop, just like it did before Mary left. The air shakes with it, the molecules stilling as sideways looks are exchanged, eyes are narrowed, and words are whispered. I catch it sometimes when Lilou’s mother and father stay up late more and more frequently, a single candle illuminating the worry etched on their faces. 

I know Lilou’s father has been hoarding grain and keeping bread for the family. I know that one day the tension will spill over and people will know. When they turn their revolutionary ire on this family we will all be swallowed up. I think about leaving in the night and finding a new home. Then I feel Lilou’s chest rise and fall next to me. I smell her warm breath, and I know I won’t flee, not like Mary. I will stay here with my Lilou. Just maybe I will show the courage of my lion-hunting ancestors, and I will keep her safe. But for now, I lower my head onto the bed, close my eyes, and sleep another night.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.