Poem by Holly M. Wendt
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Archibald Macphederia from Cadiz, who has brought with him a Lyoness of four Months old, it generally eats nothing but fresh meat, and has such a powerful charm over some Creatures, viz Fowles, Catts &c. of which daily experiments are made, that no sooner does she lay her paws upon them, altho’ without any pressure at first, that they instantly fall into such a surprizing terror, that they are not observed to make the least noise, struggle, or resistance, but patiently submit unto her merciless Cruelty.
— From Boston News-Letter, July 11, 1715
She knows the man before her has never stood on any savannah. There is no grass scent on his legs, and the sun’s heat refracts wrongly from his back. Cloth dissipates what fur radiates. She turns circles in her cage and remembers how she has always hated the way it splits her sight. She remembers that once it fit her better, for her tail lately flickers through no matter where she curls herself. It knew that much freedom. She hates her tail, too. If it will not stretch behind her as she runs — and when will she run again? — it only takes up room. Though she anticipates the pain, she bites it anyway. She will not stop. The feeling is the same when a hand tries to touch her ears: bites, then buffets. The pain washes down like monsoon’s breath. She does not remember rain soaking in against her spine.
Macphederia is no more from Cadiz than the she-cub he encounters there, as small as a puppy and the color of sand. She strikes the cage bars and brantles in loathing, but when he stands beside her and talks to the man who brought her here, one sharp-clawed paw bats again and again his belt’s dangling tail. Macphederia remembers the friend dragging the leather through his hands time and again, a boyish tic, his hands musician-fine. The friend is at rest in a sailcloth tomb, dead of a fever before they reached any port. In Cadiz, Macphederia drinks coffee and his tongue is too numbed with sorrow to taste that the milk is bad. For two days, he is sick, but on the third, he understands he is not sick enough. He must go on, or he must stay, or he must go home. He cinches the belt tighter.
The man smells of soured milk and fear and she knows both smells because they have tried to feed her one and she learned the other from bloody rakes in their skin. His hand hangs beside the belt. Flesh is only newest leather and both can be hooked and drawn. She licks and finds salt in the sweating palm. She would bite, but the teeth cannot savor. Hand-shadow covers her ears and she must back away before the strike but salt is something she remembers before being, something in her bones, something not in the ready-slaughtered meat she is given. She watches birds and longs for leaping, for the lap of red pooling. The touch on her ears is like the pressure of a tongue, clean and firm though the scent is wrong. She will rub it away in a moment, but for now, she licks.
Macphederia never reaches Matadi or the winding Congo and never the Kasai. Macphederia buys a lion cub with his friend’s money, spends down his own on pork and chicken and sherry. She eats, he drinks, and the room itself is all the cage she has. She presses her claws against his thigh, affection and danger at once. Macphederia misses his friend and thinks that at least this would be an interesting way to die: a lioness is not grief, a pool of blood and dripping teeth is not the same as failure. But her paws are only remembering a mother’s milk, and the meat she eats needs no chasing. He brings home a young duck, still waddling. It only takes an instant: the duck sees death and does not move. The lioness remembers all of herself. He must not look away from the future when the mirror is held up.
The meat is better but more puzzling. Soon, there are more men who crowd near while a pigeon or piglet is set before her. Hunger and want and boredom replace fear. The animals of men don’t know how to run. Even songbird wings do nothing save catch in her teeth, splinter into bones she cares not for. Once, they place a cat before her, orange and ragged and smelling of air and sun-warm stone. The cat she kills and will not eat, and when someone opens the door, she runs toward the soft draught that whispers in. She’s beaten by several hands, returned to the cage she does not fit. The man no longer touches her ears, but he sits, watches, then eases free the latch, some low, tuneless song in his throat, a vibration like long-past herds, a thrumming hollow into which she presses one paw and feels the world go still.
The 2016 Charter Oak Award for Best Historical
We are pleased to announce this piece as the Third Place winner for The 2016 Charter Oak Award for Best Historical, honoring the independent press’ best writing on themes of historical people, places, events, objects, or ideas. The winners are selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blindly and selects the full list of 12 finalists from hundreds of entries. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final.
Holly M. Wendt is an Assistant Professor of English at Lebanon Valley College. Her prose and poetry have appeared in or are forthcoming from Barrelhouse, Memorious, Gulf Stream, Gray’s Sporting Journal, WhiskeyPaper, and others. She received a Robert and Charlotte Baron Fellowship for Creative and Performing Artists from the American Antiquarian Society and was a fellow at the Jentel Foundation.