Charlie knew cats well enough to know that you can't take them for granted, ever. And he was downright nervous about the lions. Lions are different. Lions are wild--even if they are trained. Lions are big. Lions are the King of the Jungle, the King of Beasts. And then there was Maccomo, the unnaturally calm lion tamer. Sorry, trainer. He was quite unnerving, too. Charlie could not keep away from the lionchamber, but he approached it with respect and trepidation.
And that is one reason why he was so surprised to find one of the lions--a male, quite young though no longer a cub--just standing on the deck behind the lionchamber, not far from the door, all alone, gazing out to sea with his whiskers down and a strange expression on his face. Surely the lions would be locked up? Surely the trainer wasn't so powerfully calm that he could let his lions wander about the ship?
Without thinking, Charlie came up beside the lion and said, in Cat: "Hello."
The lion turned swiftly to him, his sad expression changed in an instant to amazement and--yes--fear. How could a lion be scared of me? thought Charlie. I'm just a kid. But the lion was scared of him.
"What?" said the lion.
"I said hello," said Charlie.
"I heard you," said the lion. "It's just--you're talking Cat."
"I know," said Charlie.
"Humans don't talk Cat," said the lion.
Charlie had never come across this before. All the cats he knew at home knew him and knew about his peculiar ability. He'd learned not to mention it to human strangers; but he hadn't thought that a cat stranger--a lion stranger--would be just as surprised.
"I'm sorry," said Charlie. "I didn't mean to surprise you. I've always known Cat."
But his friendly words had the opposite effect. The lion folded his front legs down, lowered his head, and looked as if he were about to cry. Charlie was appalled--"Oh, look, I'm sorry," he said. "Please, I didn't mean to upset you." He bent down and stroked the lion's sad head while murmuring kind words, and after a moment the lion raised his head and said: "Sorry. Haven't heard anyone else speak my language for a long time." But suddenly his voice changed. "Oh, no. Oh, no..." he muttered urgently, and began to scowl and growl. Charlie looked up.
They were being watched by an audience of amazed and silent sailors and circusguys, their mouths open, their faces filled with disbelief.
The lion growled a bit more and pawed the ground a little--for show, Charlie thought, but the audience seemed frightened enough.
"I only came out for a second," hissed the lion. "Didn't mean to stay so long. Now they'll think I've escaped, and it'll all be horrible."
"What can we do?" said Charlie quietly.
"Don't know," said the lion. "I have to carry on being threatening or they'll think I'm weak. GRRRROOAAAWWWWLL!"
"Tell you what," said Charlie, seeing Major Tib forging his way through the crowd. "Let me calm you. I'll take you back in and make something up. Come on, just pretend. I know I couldn't calm you really, unless you wanted me to."
The lion, who had been beginning to enjoy his show of fearsomeness, shot Charlie a sideways look, then said: "All right--in a minute." And he gave a roar--a huge roar, which made everybody jump back and Maccomo, who had just come running up from the hold having heard of the drama, raise his long whip. Then the lion turned to Charlie, laid his head at his feet, and started to purr. A lion's purr is quite something, and for a moment Charlie so enjoyed the heavy, rhythmic reverberations through his feet that he didn't want to move. Then he remembered himself, and put his hand gently first on the lion's head, then on his thick chain collar.
Copyright Zizou Corder 2003. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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