A short story
It is a hot day. Flies buzz around my ears.
I am lying on a hot rock, swatting at the flies with my paws.
The life of a lion is full of ease.
When I roar, it's the roar of an animal that cares about nobody. The highest on the food chain, other animals and humans tremble at my roar. Sometimes I roar just to hear my own voice bouncing back at me from the rocky cliffs.
Today, like other days, I can take my rest on the flat rock on top of the hill. From here, I can see into the distance, where the grass is dancing in rippling mirages. There is only the meagre shade of the hta naung tree. The rock is getting too hot under my flanks. The shade of the hta naung is shifting, but I am too tired, too full, too sleepy, and too lazy to move. I yawn and it's a big yawn.
How easy, how easeful, even boring, to be a lion.
One wants a little excitement sometimes.
Too sleepy, too lethargic.
Today, like other days, the three lionesses do all the work – all the stalking and the skillful, instant killing, the culling out, the harvesting of all the weak and malformed.
Today one of the lionesses, the youngest and the best stalker, also my favourite in that way – you know what way – the mother of all four of my youngest lion cubs, killed a big sambar buck.
She did not choose to hunt down the sickly and the marginal on the edges of the herd, as my older lionesses do. She went straight for the biggest, the most beautiful buck, with his antlers of eight points on each side, the velvet falling off like bloodied skin. By doing this, she established herself as worthy of being my favourite in this pride. She fed not only our children but all her children's half-brothers and half-sisters and their mothers too.
That's real dominance, and rightful dominance too.
Because of her, there is fresh meat. No one has to eat the offal. The innards can be left for the hyenas and the vultures. I am proud of my pride, proud of the harmony in my pride.
If I reward my favorite lioness with my presence the most often, I am doing it with the knowledge that she is a worthy consort.
So I yawn, and it's the yawn of a happy, contented lion.
That afternoon though, something keeps me from my snoozing.
She says I snore. That I have to do something about the pieces of rotting meat between my teeth. I see no need for it.
I hold my mouth open, and the white paddy birds sit tentatively on my forearms, peck nervously at my teeth and get things clean.
Sometimes they hit my gums or the insides of my cheeks with their little pointed beaks, but I tolerantly hold my mouth open longer than it's comfortable to do so.
What use is it to a lion to snap at small birds?
Let them eat their share.
Only sometimes do I bring my jaws slowly, slowly together just to tease the sweet little white long-legged birds.
The alarm with which they pull back is quite amusing.
They make high-pitched sounds that I can only call squawking.
Their knees buckle.
Their legs get tangled up, and they fall down.
The smaller white and brown birds fly in panic out of my closing mouth like fluffs of puffed corn.
So that day, as I said, I was sleepy and full, but not really falling asleep, though perhaps on the point of doing so.
Then my youngest lioness says, "Husband, there are humans in the grass."
"Eh?" I ask stupidly. "Are there? What are they doing?"
"Very strange," the youngest wife says, "I've never seen anything like this before. There's a whole line of humans, but no drums or other sound-making things that these creatures love so. They're sneaking around in the grass, approaching the rain tree in the middle of the plain. Yes, the rain tree."
She swishes her tail to emphasise how sure she is.
"Who can understand humans," I sigh, just for want of something to say. "They're an entirely different species."
"Oh look," the youngest wife says. "They're bringing a woman on a palanquin. Must be a princess or something."
The youngest wife cuffs me under the chin with her right forepaw, her claws carelessly un-retracted.
"Hey, watch it," I shout. "One of these days you'll take out your husband's eye.
Surely you don't want a blind lion for a husband."
"Males," she snarls. "So vain. I can't believe it."
She moves away, shifting her haunches.
I look at the grass blades waving in front of my eyes. I look at the dry grass, but I see her.
The other two lionesses are discontent and unhappy. In her guttural voice, one of them murmurs to me, "Oh look, the humans are setting the palanquin down and helping the woman out.
"She must be a real princess.
"She looks so helpless.
"Those are really fine clothes.
"Silk, from the way they shine in the sunlight.
"Oh look, she's turning sideways.
"Obviously so," another lioness growls dryly.
I open both eyes to look down at the plain below me.
True enough, there is a woman, quite slender, but for the bulge of her belly, like the letter gna in Burmese, like the letter C, standing somewhat bent over.
Even from this distance, I feel something emanating from her: pain and sadness.
I think idly, how strange. I've stalked and even eaten humans now and then, but I only saw them as food or as another species before.
I never felt any empathy for them.
Now I feel sad because this woman is sad.
I get up and circle around my rock, which has grown slightly cooler. The sun has sunk a little lower from its highest point. As I go around in one, two, three circles, I watch the woman carefully, swaying my head to get a better view.
The sun is still too high, making me squint to see her face properly.
She's standing against the sun, talking to a man who came with her.
Besides, she's too far away.
I sit up in my alert pose with my two arms rigid in front of me, my shoulders square, my hind legs folded under me, and watch what's going on down there on the plain.
The people are carrying in a bigger and more lavishly decorated palanquin, glittering with gold brocade.
They set it down near the pregnant woman.
The slaves run around and help a richly dressed man out of the red-curtained door on the side.
It must be a king.
How his subjects bow down to him!
They even try to bow down in the grass that reaches almost to their knees to pay obeisance.
When the woman sees the man step out of the palanquin, she cries out in a shrill voice. She seems to be begging or explaining something. The man turns his face away, and starts giving orders to the people who have been marching behind his palanquin, bearing bundles on their heads. He is telling them to set the bundles around the woman in a circle. As he walks around outside the rapidly completed circle, the princess keeps turning towards him, kneeling with her hands clasped together. It looks as if she is still trying to plead with him. She holds her right hand out, and her lips move. She is asking for something.
His whole body is stiff.
His face is turned to one side. His neck is twisted.
He will not look at her.
All my lionesses and even the cubs are all silent, watching the drama below.
Then we all realise simultaneously that the king and all the courtiers and servants will leave the princess behind in her circle of bundles, right here at the edge of the savanna.
"Oh," my little cubs cry, "oh."
Then, "do you think there are clothes and food and things to play with in the bundles," one of my cubs asks. "Is there city food in there?"
"Perhaps," I reply absently.
Now all the people are getting ready to trek back to their city.
The princess lets out a long wail that floats straight up in the air and burns my ears.
She bows lower in the grass so I can hardly see her; she pays her respects to her father who is abandoning her.
They all form a line.
The king climbs back in his palanquin.
None of them says goodbye to the princess.
Only one or two of them at the very end of the single file glance backwards.
The princess' empty palanquin is right at the end of the line.
It sways as the bearers trot away.
I may be imagining it, but it seems to me that the bearer at the back, on the right side, is stronger and taller than the others. He jerks his head back towards her. As he does so, his topknot unravels and his long black hair falls on his bare back, tattooed with dark blue inn protection grids.
The princess is crumpled up in the grass.
Her shoulders shake as she sobs.
The tall palanquin bearer must be the father of her child.
It looks like the bearers can go much faster, now that the princess's palanquin is empty and much lighter.
But they have to stay in their assigned place and cannot overtake anyone in front of them.
The tall palanquin bearer jerks his head angrily, but as his hands are not free he cannot knot up his hair, which bounces on his back as he runs.
Sons of bitches.
At least if they had left that contraption behind, she would have some shelter against the elements.
As the humans disappear into the distance, my wives and the children get tired of watching.
I go back to my rapidly cooling rock.
The princess lies on her back in the grass, her hands folded across her tummy. Now and then she kicks her right leg, as if she is extremely irritated. I cannot tell if her eyes are open or closed. She makes no effort at all to take stock of her surroundings.
I wonder whether I should wait till the sun has set completely or I should go now?
If I go when it is dark, even with the new moon these days swelling nightly like her belly, I might still frighten her.
I do not want to do that.
No, that would not do.
Not at all.
She might lose her baby.
I can see her unborn child is very important to her, important to the world.
Best to go right now.
The sun is now a red orb just on the verge of sinking behind the tamarind trees in the distance.
I get up from my cold rock, stretch purposefully and start downhill without saying anything to anyone.
I am the King of Beasts. I don't need to report to anyone.
"Where are you going, husband?" Wife Number One, then Number Two, then Number Three echo behind me, but I don't turn to look.
I know I have to go to this princess openly and make a lot of noise going down the hill.
This is against both my instinct and my training.
Even though I have no need to hunt for myself now, I still have the hunter ingrained in me.
I can't go stalking this woman who is lying there, crouching down and then springing on her.
As for their sense of smell, I know from experience that humans are pretty hopeless in that respect.
They are purely visual, but then again, they cannot compare to eagles in the matter of sight.
I swish my tail, scratch at an old tree trunk and make some grunting sounds as I come downhill, careful to dislodge a lot of small stones and pebbles as I approach.
They roll down the slope in front of me to warn her of my coming.
I purposely go very close to the nest of a brooding francolin.
The bird flies upwards in a flurry of thwacking brown and gold wings.
I see the princess at last sit up and look in my direction.
Then she stands up.
I can't see her eyes as the fading light is behind her.
I leap a few feet in the air and bound a couple of yards so she can see me better.
She does not seem afraid at all.
She just stands there calmly looking at me.
I come up to her as quietly as I can.
This is a novel way to approach a human – to talk to her, to neither scare her nor kill and eat her.
Afterwards, I wonder if she didn't run or scream because she would rather die.
I see her bend down and pick up her long silk scarf, which she drapes ceremonially around her shoulders as if she is getting ready to greet a king from another kingdom, which is exactly what I am.
I wonder at her actions.
"Princess," I say carefully when I am about five feet away from her and she can hear me, "I can help you. You can stay with us until your child is born and also afterwards. There is nothing to worry about. Trust me. I will take you to a cave where you will be perfectly safe."
She listens carefully, staring at my face as if to gauge my intentions.
Then she follows me quietly as I amble towards the gentler hills to our right, where I know there is an old limestone cave that will make a perfect home for her.
Four months later…
The princess had a baby boy soon after she came to stay with us.
My wives grumbled each time they had to bring fresh meat and firewood for her, but the princess always spoke to them graciously and thanked them.
During her confinement, I was a little worried and sat on a cliff overlooking her cave, while my two older wives, at my orders, waited and stood watch near the entrance of the cave.
I did not think it wise to assign any duties concerning the human princess to my youngest wife.
But she took it upon herself to sometimes take food to the princess also.
The princess made no demands on me or the other members of my pride.
She ate what she was given to her and breastfed her child, and later, when he was weaned, she chewed meat, took it out of her mouth, and fed it to her son, whom she named Thiha Bahu, Strength of a Lion.
I was pleased that she included my name in her son's name.
None of my lion wives liked it, but I spent more and more time in the princess' cave and found it comforting to watch her go about her daily routines.
She fetched most of the contents of the bundles bit by bit from the field.
She brought the sticks used by the slaves to carry the bundles and burned them as fuel in the cave.
She also brought the wrapping cloths, strings and ropes back to the cave, so that a few days after she had had the baby there were no signs left in the grass of humans ever having been there.
"Hmm, this woman is smart," my youngest lioness conceded grudgingly.
I think the princess wanted all her human family and subjects to forget her and forget where they had abandoned her.
I think the king, her father, must have killed the handsome young palanquin bearer a few days after they left her here.
I think the princess must have known this, because when she thought I was not looking, she would gaze at the moon, say her prayers and cry secretly, wiping her eyes with the edge of her sarong.
She had a lot of clothes in her bundles, but she used most of them for her growing son and all I ever saw her wearing was the gray watered silk, which over the years became more and more threadbare.
She hand-threshed the wild rice she found in the marshes and stored, pounded and cooked it for herself and her son.
Some of her bundles contained pots and cooking utensils.
My cubs grew as fast as Thiha Bahu.
They always wanted to find out what was in the bundles, but I firmly forbade them and their mothers from visiting the cave.
When Thiha Bahu began to walk and then to talk, his mother told him to call me "Father."
She also formally asked me for permission for Thiha Bahu to play with my lion children and to be educated in the same way as they were.
So I took Thiha Bahu and my other sons out and taught them all I knew of forest lore.
Thiha Bahu fed himself and his family as well as any lion.
When he was six, his mother gave him a scaled-down bow and arrow to play with.
The arrows were deadly and tipped with poison, and I told him and my other sons: "You are to be very careful with these, you understand."
So they'd get the message and remember, I purposely shot a doe that they all thought beautiful and let them watch it die a painful death.
"There," I thought, "now they will never forget not to play with life and death."
I sent all my sons, the human one and the lions, out on dangerous missions together so that they would bond and not turn against each other.
I treated all my sons and their mothers, including the princess, with absolute fairness in everything.
But all three lionesses were now always mumbling together whenever I went near them, and now and then Thiha Bahu sulked and I could find out nothing from either him or his mother.
"Have I been unfair?"
"Have I inadvertently slighted you or your mother in some way?"
And then he walked away.
Sometimes, beginning from his sixteenth birthday, he went away for days at a time, but when he came back home he always brought back a stag he had killed.
My youngest lioness had aged too and, since she did less hunting now, everyone was glad of Thiha Bahu's hunting skills and his ability to keep us fed.
All those years, few humans came near us.
We lived in near isolation.
I was proud to see Thiha Bahu's growing strength and prowess.
He now looked like one of the stone statues of kings carved on the walls of the lost temples engulfed by banyan trees that we sometimes saw as we walked through the jungle.
One of the temples was built of red stone, exquisitely carved, and called the Temple of the Women.
On Thiha Bahu's eighteenth birthday, I think his mother told him something.
He changed in a way only I could sense.
When I awoke from the wild dreams of my afternoon naps and looked at him, he bowed his head and looked away.
I had a secret feeling that he knew he was different from his brothers and he was somehow ashamed of me, his lion father.
But he said nothing and his mother said nothing.
Then the second unforgettable day came.
As the sun emerged above the rock shaped like a monkey's head, the princess suddenly sat up straight in the cave and said, "They've come, at last, they've come. The king has died."
She shooed me out of the cave as if I was some household pet, and woke her son. They both put on clothes with wing-like flounces edged with gold thread on the shoulders, which I had never seen before.
Then they sat on the flat rock in front of the cave and spoke to each other in low whispers.
The princess walked up the hill to me on my rock.
She brought many fresh cuts of meat in a large woven bamboo tray, from our son the hunter.
Included were large red haunches, the blood still fresh, of sambar doe and antelope, that she must have stored in the cold, freezing recesses of the cave.
She sat down on the swept earth, bowed towards me, and thanked me formally for looking after her and Thiha Bahu.
"I would have died, and Thiha Bahu would have died in my belly, if you had not saved us."
There were tears in her eyes and mine. I knew we were soon to part.
"But now, the king, his grandfather, has died and they are coming to fetch Thiha Bahu to be crowned king. I have to go back too to guide him and to be with him and my own people."
"I'm sorry we are not humans," I murmured, a lump in my throat. "I'm sorry I am only a lion – I cannot be anything but an old lion."
"No, no," she cried, "never apologise."
Thiha Bahu himself did not come up to thank me or to say goodbye.
It's all for the better, I thought.
Let them go back to their own kind.
The people came with all their noise-makers and carried away my princess and our son.
We lions stayed far away where we could watch but not be seen.
Before she climbed into her new palanquin, my princess turned in the direction she knew we were hiding and clasped her hands together in a sign of respect and gratitude.
My lionesses snickered. "That's what comes of helping those two-legged creatures."
My lion sons looked sad, shook their heads and went away.
I did not bother to wipe away my tears.
Before she left, my princess must have given orders to her servants to clean up the cave.
They left behind no traces of human occupation and even swept the floor of the cave with coconut-frond switches.
Ten months later…
A reddish-brown dove called Ambar Gulay brought word that Thiha Bahu wished to see me.
My lion wives and lion sons told me not to go to see the son of a bitch, but like all fathers, I was foolish and went to the stream's edge, to the meeting place.
My son Thiha Bahu shot me with his poisoned arrow in the mouth as I roared in pain and grief.
Mercifully, I died quickly.
King Thiha Bahu had a constant, splitting headache and could not sleep.
It went on so long that he asked the white-robed Brahmin what he should do.
"You killed your father. You must make a statue of your father the lion and bow down and beg his forgiveness."
"Me, a king, not only a king but king of the universe, bow down in front of a statue of a lion, an animal? Never!"
The Brahmin could not prevail upon Thiha Bahu to do what he needed to, and so he raised his head slightly from the floor of the audience chamber, moved the edge of his white robe away from his ankles so as not to trip on his own clothes, and crawled backwards out of the room.
Once outside, he stood up and walked away with a look of disgust on his down-turned face.
King Thiha Bahu could no longer stand the headaches.
To save face, he had statues of his father the lion made and placed at the bottom of the steps leading up to the holiest of shrines in the kingdom.
He bowed down as if paying his respects to the Buddha, but in his mind he begged his lion father for forgiveness.
The headaches stopped.
And that is why there are always two massive lions, their red mouths open and their teeth and tongues showing, their manes flaring, beside the steps to all the major stupas in Southeast Asia.