As a special online supplement to the Spring 2007 issue, the editors present the prizewinning story from the 2006 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest.
A wide book rather than tall. The image must be a lion, given the title, though mostly we see eyes framed by orange mane on either side. The eyes appear distressed, bookended by telltale cartoon semicircles, the whites scarred with jagged red bloodlines. The title at the top ("A Crisis for Mr. Lion") and name of the author/illustrator along the bottom ("Cilla Oryx"), both embossed in black on yellow fabric, diminish the space available for the illustration, thereby heightening its intensity. It is as if the page were not large enough to fairly represent our protagonist, or as if he were hemmed in by the circumstances of publication.
In a large italicized font, it reads, "For the generations."
Mrs. Lion washes dishes, her golden headseen from behindendowed with a thin corona by the surrounding brightness from the kitchen window. Her left paw holds a single dish while her other paw wipes a blue cloth across the white plate. Like a succession of moons, the edges of several plates rise over the horizon of the countertop drain.
Mr. Lion, robed in red-and-black plaid, reads the newspaper at the round kitchen table. His legs crossed, the robe parts to show a bony knee. Helical weavings of steam rise from his coffee mug, a plain, bone-white container seemingly too small for him to grasp comfortably.
"Just what I need after a week of work: a calm Saturday morning," Mr. Lion announces in a highly readable typeface running beneath the picture. Certainly he's speaking to his wife, though he faces into the paper whose headlines we, the readers, cannot make out.
Mr. Lion's mouth gapes in amazement. Whereas on the previous page his eyes viewed the newspaper from beneath half-lowered lids, now his gaze is wide and fixed on his wife, turned from the sink. We see her face, recognizably kind but with deep-lodged and serious brown eyes, the mouth wryly set.
The newspaper, forcibly unleashed from Mr. Lion's grasp, is flying apart in the air between husband and wife.
Mrs. Lion has said, "We're going to have a baby."
The lowered head of Mr. Lion half obscures the pale green tablecloth. His mane, fallen forward, hides his face.
Mrs. Lion's head is bowed as well, her eyes on the faintly patterned floor tiles. The tiles gleam with wax, though now they are littered with the separated sheets of the morning paper.
"Well," she says, "this is what happens, you know."
Grass flies like dark green confetti into the pale sky, propelled by the blades of Mr. Lion's lawnmower. His scrawny legs poke out from red shorts, his paws surround the machine's push bar, and his mind is elsewhere. Over the hedge, Mr. Sheep's smaller head and an arm in need of shearing appear as he waves for Mr. Lion's ungainable attention.
"Hey Lion!" he calls, unheard. "Your wife told my wife the good news!"
The elevator is packed with well-dressed representatives of the animal kingdom, the artist supplying us a view from a position high on the elevator door. Arrayed in front stand, in bipedal fashion, an antelope in a short dress, a fox sporting a blue hat that matches his suit, a pair of relatively statuesque white cats in identical pinstripes, and Mr. Lion wedged in tight among them. The heads of other businesscreatures bulge vaguely behind this foremost group.
The cats are talking. "I don't see the point any more. I made a killing yesterday, but half the money goes to taxes and the rest goes to feed all those mouths at home. And now the little lady is pushing for a new kitchen."
His companion responds, "Sounds like somebody's whipped."
Mr. Lion's eyes look upward, seeing what we cannot: the number of each floor lighting then darkening as the elevator rises through unchosen destinations.
Mr. Lion walks into his house, back hunched as if his briefcase contained a mass equivalent to that of his entire body. His wife greets him.
"Look what Felicity Zebra dropped off! Isn't it adorable!" She holds up an infant's yellow sleeper outfit.
One paw on his hip, the other supporting himself stiff-armed against the wall, Mr. Lion looks with dulled eyes upon his wife, who has evidently continued to expound for some time on the changes required to transform the room depicted into a suitable nursery. She has one clawed digit pointed at where the wall meets the ceiling.
"And we could have a lovely stencil of, oh, I don't know, clouds in various shapes, or maybe plane trees . . ."
Mr. Lion and his wife appear small in one corner of this scene, viewed obliquely from far above, the only instances of color. The restthe figures of other shoppers, racks and tables of clothing, appliances, paints, bicycles, fitness equipmentis gray and black in a department store whose limits extend beyond the edges of the page. The Lions stand at the head of an aisle lined with strollers, high chairs, car seats, and other baby apparatuses.
"So which one should we get? And don't tell me you don't have an opinion," says Mrs. Lion.
"A stroller is a stroller," says Mr. Lion resignedly. "Some cost a week's wages, some don't."
"Yes, absolutely," Mr. Lion is saying into his office phone. His face is inches from a tiny computer screen displaying, against a dark background, small rectangles and triangles linked by bright lines. "I assure you that won't happen again. We stand by our commitments, and I personally guarantee I'll follow up on your order. Because here at Linnaeus Corporation, the customer is king."
The dying day outside the picture window frames Mr. Lion in reddish hues. His great paws are crossed behind his back as he looks out onto his street and the lawns and houses of his neighbors. A couple pushes a stroller along the opposite sidewalk, near a far corner. They are giraffes. Their long necks extend beyond the front of the stroller, and their child has twisted its neck around to look up at them. When they reach the corner, they will turn behind a hedge and be gone.
Perhaps Mr. Lion is thinking how a street is nothing like a veldt, how a landscape of houses and cars and structured landscapes frustrates the eye's need to take in a vast perspective. On an African plain, even while standing motionless in the languorous heat, there is the freedom to let one's gaze wander widely, to spy something of value across an unbroken distance, to fly in pursuit over the flat expanse, to close such a pursuit with satisfaction.
The scene is utterly without sound.
His wife sleeping soundly, her head turned away, Mr. Lion stares up at the ceiling, which hangs in view. The bedroom--including the heads of the couple, emerging from the moon-white sheets--is all shades of gray, so that it must seem to Mr. Lion, awake alone at this exsanguinated hour, that real life is comprised of layers. In daytime--when the sun bathes the earth, and colors emerge, and creatures move, and voices speak to and around him--brilliant designs overlay this bottommost layer, the layer least hospitable to a soul awake. The sounds of his wife's long breaths ("Hhhhhhhh . . . fffffffffff . . . ") might be coming from the distant stars visible through the bedside window.
It is a Sunday morning, and Father Ox, clad in the brown, cinctured surplice of his calling, stands behind the pulpit at the launch of his sermon. Below him sit the Lions, the Bears, the Raccoons, and others, dressed in their finest. Mr. Lion sits next to the aisle, and looking past him we can see Mrs. Lion. She is partly obscured, but her belly nearly touches the pew in front. Mr. Lion's eyes are rolled to the side, observing Mrs. Cougar, a sleek and stunning creature, on the other side of the aisle, nearer the reader. She faces forward, and something in her posture suggests she is aware of his gaze, perhaps wearily so.
Father Ox says, "Today's lesson is from the Book of Aesop . . .," but looks to one side of the book. He has preached on this lesson too many times.
On the steps leading out of church, Father Ox has buttonholed Mr. Lion. "Perhaps you and I could talk," Father Ox says paternally, one hoof emerging from his vestments to touch the sleeve of Mr. Lion, whose eyebrows are raised higher than physically possible in order to depict the level of his befuddlement.
One step below, Mrs. Lion is walking away from this exchange, her eyes lowered knowingly. "I'll wait," she says.
The males walk leisurely through what appears to be the rectory garden. Roses, pink and red, bloom along the path that runs across two pages, the low bushes concealing the legs of Mr. Lion and Father Ox. They eye the flowers, but they are speaking of other things.
"We all play roles," says Father Ox. "We all clothe ourselves in the habituements of our culture. Do these hooves strike you as those of a gardener, or seem capable of extending a blessing over a kid or colt? And don't you think I could choose to do something else? We are free creatures, after all.
"Our ancestors engaged themselves in other occupations. The world has changed, though we bear the imprint of our past. But we adapt. If we don't adapt, well, we might as well fade out like the dinosaur."
"I thought it was a meteor that took them out . . ." Mr. Lion adds unhelpfully.
Paws set primly in his lap, Mr. Lion is clearly uncomfortable sharing the garden swing with Father Ox, framed by bright roses and a lilac bush of vivid purple blossoms. Mr. Lion's eyes, looking desperately away, indicate that he finds the setting suspiciously romantic. His companion sits with one arm on the back of the swing.
"You feel trapped now, caged. Am I right? Believe me, it will take you by surprise, the love you'll feel for your child. You will discover that love is the secret at the heart of the world. It is what we do for the next generation."
The argument between the Lions must have begun before they even left the parking lot. From above, we peer down into the car's front window. The stiffness of Mr. Lion's arms suggests that he is applying a terrible grip to the steering wheel.
"I thought talking to Father would help you get in touch with whatever's troubling you," says his wife.
"You thought," he replies.
Home again. A tremendous stillness grips the living room. Mr. Lion fills his favorite chair, his paws covering the ends of its arms, his shoulders hunched as if he were about to rise. The lamp is lit beside him, so we know the afternoon has come and gone. Mr. Lion's mane appears charged with static.
A growl builds in his chest, in small type: "Rrrrrrrrr . . ."
Only a moment has passed, but a furious action has torn the scene. Mr. Lion's clothes hang in tatters, bits of cloth clinging to his upraised claws. His mouth opens in the extreme to reveal, deep inside, a red uvula overhanging a black hole.
Mrs. Lion allows only her head to peek from behind the stairwell wall. Her pupils are tiny beads in the enlarged whiteness of her eyes.
Standing amid the remains of the evening and his clothing, Mr. Lion mutters, "I'm going out."
The reader is in the place of the mirror we know must be facing Mr. Lion and Mr. Skunk as, above a darkly gleaming mahogany bar, they hold their drinks centered along the width of their bodies. To the right, his wide-mouthed face partly obscured by the white edge framing the picture, sits a frog in the company of half a glass of beer and eleven empty shot glasses. Black X's have replaced his eyes. The background, drawn as if through smoke, colored dimly, is devoid of other patrons.
"You ever feel like you're the only one of your kind?" Mr. Lion asks, his lids at half mast.
"More and more," says Mr. Skunk, the tip of whose striped tail has joined his elbows on the counter. "And don't get me started on the females."
The car drives directly toward the reader, Mr. Lion at the wheel. He's in his business suit. A dark gash on the right side of his face represents a dyspeptically twisted mouth. Just edging into the picture from either side are the fronts of other cars.
The words of a radio news reader, printed in italics to distinguish them from typical speech, are the scene's only narrative. "A two-car accident on the highway off-ramp is causing some major delays heading into downtown . . ."
Mr. Lion in close-up holds the telephone against his ear. Though his whole side of the conversation is given, the artist--who can illustrate but a single moment--has chosen to give us the concluding emotions of the exchange, the frantic shouting into the phone, every hair on Mr. Lion's head and paws standing up as if his fur were quills.
"Of course I'm in the middle of something. What? You're sure? How many minutes apart? Is that a lot? So I should leave now? Is that what you want? No, no, don't ask Felicity for a ride, I'm coming to get you. Yes. Yes! What was that sound? Are you all right? I'm on my way!!"
Have lions ever traveled so quickly? The car hurtles across the page. The window of Mr. Lion's car is open, his mane whipped back by velocity, making him appear even more anxious. Our angle of sight into the car allows us a view of his wife as well. Her eyes are squeezed shut. Sharp teeth appear from under her curled lip. She has one paw on her stomach and one on the dash.
Mr. Lion urges the world to comply with his needs. "Hurryhurryhurry . . . nopolicenopolicenopolice . . . ohpleaseohpleaseohplease . . ."
"Ungggggg . . .," moans Mrs. Lion.
In a brilliantly white hospital room, Mrs. Lion lies abed, beaming at Mr. Lion. Bedraggled, his mane unkempt, his shirt half-untucked, he wears a smile crooked with disbelief. Next to his head hovers a blue balloon tied to the foot of the bed. Perhaps he purchased it in the gift shop downstairs. He holds their new child, wrapped tight, concealed, in yellow blankets.
"A male," he says, his eyes focused where the entire scene is focused, angles and shadows of the room and the attitude of the adults all bending intently toward the child. "We'll call him Daniel."
Mrs. Lion has come home. Enfolding her bundle, she stands in the doorway, surveying the living room.
"Look how your daddy kept the house tidy while I was away, Daniel. Such a sweet daddy you have," coos Mrs. Lion. Mr. Lion looks uncharacteristically humble. His smile, tucked toward his chest as if he could hide it, betrays how pleased he is at the compliment.
Naked and on four legs, Mr. Lion majestically straddles the peak of his roof, illumined by the night's bright bodies. Other roofs are visible in the distance, and hazy yellow streetlights. As in the earlier nighttime scene, the palette is reduced. Cold yellows and blues, a reminder of the unseen moon which gives Mr. Lion his shadow, prevail.
Below the level of the roof, one window is lighted, the scene within colored in the vibrant tones of day. We see Mrs. Lion sitting up in bed, one shoulder of her frilly nightgown lowered, the swaddled Daniel tucked against one hidden breast.
Mr. Lion's eyes shine damply.
The steps of the church teem with well-wishers as the Lions arrive for another Sunday morning. Mr. Brown Bear extends one digit to tickle the chin of little Daniel Lion, who is being shown off by his mother. To one side, Mr. Lion takes the hoof offered by Father Ox. He smiles in a charmingly off-kilter way, bedazzled by his own good fortune.
"Thank you for your recent words of encouragement," he says to Father Ox.
"Do you think," said Father Ox, "that you're the only lion in this congregation?" And Father Ox winks as he says it, involving Mr. Lion in his wider confessional knowledge of the animal hearts he serves.
Content, a glass of ice-water on a nearby portable table, Mrs. Lion lounges on a patio. Sharing the shade of the large umbrella--a pale green affair, affixed to the middle of a round table and reaching the full width of the picture--is Mr. Lion, who holds Daniel before him in joyful reverie. His lips are pursed and his eyes somewhat bugged, demonstrating how playful he has become with the child, finally revealed as a miniature version of his father. Daniel's head is easily half of his body length.
"Who's my good boy? Who's my good boy? Is it you? Is it Daniel? It is?"
"I think he's getting the message," sighs Mrs. Lion.
The scene at the park is certainly meant to remind the adult reader of Seurat's famous painting. The animals stand arrayed at the familiar positions on the grass, looking out over a body of water, the ground dappled with shade. Two figures among the various creatures gathered, Mr. Lion and Mrs. Lion, stand alongside their navy blue stroller, inside which, we assume, lies Daniel. Mrs. Lion tugs a picnic basket from the stroller's underbelly, while Mr. Lion, his hand on the push bar, cocks his head critically.
"I don't think this thing's too sturdy. Let's get Daniel a better one. Did you see the number those raccoons were pushing down by the bridge?"
"Whatever you want, dear," purrs Mrs. Lion.
Mr. Lion is turned away from his computer screen, leaning back a bit in his chair, regaling several office workers who stand clustered in a knot at the far left of the picture. The wall behind him is covered with framed professional photographs, each mantle-portrait size: blanketed Daniel; Daniel with a spoon near his mouth and wet oat-colored cereal on his face; Daniel crying--here the artist has drawn a wide open mouth that is the entirety of the face, lines projecting outward from that mouth like photon trails; Daniel laughing; smiling; looking blank. All are baby pictures.
Mr. Lion's winning smile and effusive gesturing are not reflected in the rounded shoulders and weary expressions of his coworkers, unmoved by this disproportionate display.
"His little paw already has an amazing grip," says Mr. Lion. "He's going to be powerful . . . and pretty massive too, I'd say."
Daniel toddles on the back deck, arms uncertainly out to steady himself. A blurry quality to the lines of his body suggest his shuddery progress toward his father, who kneels in a lionish way, double kneed.
"That's it . . . that's it," Mr. Lion encourages.
Behind him, overseeing this event, Mrs. Lion leans reflectively on the deck's wooden railing, dark green gardening gloves on her mitts.
"He's getting big," she says, squinting slightly as if to better take in the scene.
At the playground, Daniel, passively still and wide-eyed, arms straight at his sides, stands in line for the slide. A ram, heavy-headed with curved horns, sits expectantly at the top while an eyeless mole flies off the end. Other animal offspring ride swings and swarm a multilevel wooden construct. The Lions take up a bench at the far left. Mrs. Lion leans forward to deliver a shouted message to Daniel.
"Don't let those other children cut in front of you!"
Mr. Sheep stands timidly on the picture's far left, holding the end of a hose whose origin is beyond the page. One drop of water is mid-fall between the hose mouth and the grass at the curb. Mr. Lion's car is parked in the street, a monstrous vehicle that towers above both Mr. Sheep and Mr. Lion, who beams at the vehicle from the sidewalk. Arms crossed impressively, he faces the reader, his eyes cocked to the side to both take in the view of the car and bask in the admiration of his audience.
"That must use an awful lot of gas," Mr. Sheep comments.
"A tremendous amount. And you know what it burns? The bones of dinosaurs. I'm putting a thousand extinct species to good use!"
In the background stands Mr. Lion's house, featuring the wide front window and Mrs. Lion framed within. She wears an unreadable, inward expression.
Mr. Lion and Daniel sit together on the sofa facing the television, angled helpfully to let us see the baseball game in action. A bag of chips the size of the child rests on Mr. Lion's lap. He wears a sleeveless t-shirt that's marked with crumbs; some crumbs have landed in Daniel's hair.
At the bottom of the stairs, Mrs. Lion pauses to speak to the inattentive males.
She says, "I'm going out," her mouth tiny and off-center, as if she does not wish to be heard.
Chandelier lights above the dining table glow white and reflect in the table's polished dark surface. Mr. Lion sits upright and expectant on the right. At the center is Daniel in his high chair, though his head is turned in profile, one sharp tooth visible, extending upward from his lower jaw. Daniel joins his father in a fixed stare at his mother, at the picture's other extreme. Her body twists away from them, half out of the picture, clearly concealing something, though her face, mouth wide, is towards them.
"I made my big males something very special tonight!" exclaims Mrs. Lion.
She has untwisted. Mr. Lion's eyes have physically exited their sockets; young Daniel has risen to stand in his chair. Both males have somehow, in the intervening moment, snatched up forks and knives. Heaped atop the tremendous plate presented by Mrs. Lion lie steaming long legs, a torso, what must be neck--given the evidence of a short mane--all starkly striped, black narrowing stripes on a white background.
"Zebra," she says, proudly, giving the moment the awe it is due.
It must be later that evening when we join the Lion family lounging on their front lawn. The sky shines with the barest blue; the clouds--thin, soft-edged parallel extrusions like lines of shaving cream--are shaded pink. Seated in a nylon lawn chair, Mr. Lion places one contented paw atop his swollen belly. Mrs. Lion lies curled on the grass with Daniel.
"Howdy ... urp," says Mr. Lion to a passing family of giraffes. Walking two-legged on either side of their child, they grant Mr. Lion an uneasy look, their necks parenthetically retreating. One hoof of the mother's clutches her son's hoof; the other hugs his far shoulder, gathering him close for safety.
A season or so have passed. Mirroring the book's first scene, the morning kitchen is depicted, sun-washed and tidy. Daniel, appreciably older, stands at the sink, atop a step-stool, to stack the dishes his mother washes. Mr. Lion holds the paper, but his eyes are turned upward, brows raised, in reaction to his wife, who speaks into the tower of suds in the sink.
"I have some . . . news," she says.
This time, no paroxysm of paper assaults the air. Instead, Mr. Lion stands at his wife's back, his enormous head above hers and Daniel's below them both, a tableau in which the angles establish the relationship and the bright comfort of the morning reaffirms this world's established order. One of Mr. Lion's paws lies atop his wife's shoulder.
He says, "I hope this one's a female."
Mrs. Lion's eyes press shut against the praise.
About the Author
"Cilla Oryx spent her entire life in the Heartland, carving out a successful career as a cartographer. Briefly, she flirted with aviation. Late in life, she turned to illustration and writing. What you hold was her only completed manuscript at the time of her death."
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