2016 Contest: Fiction Runner-up TELL ME A STORY ABOUT LIONS by Abby Horowitz
Abby Horowitz’s work has appeared in Memorious, Slice, and Superstition Review, among other journals. She is a winner of the Goldenberg Fiction Prize from the Bellevue Literary Review. Abby graduated from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and lives in Decatur, GA, with her family.
2016 fiction judge Sofia Samatar selected Abby Horowitz as the fiction runner-up for her story, “Tell Me a Story About Lions.” Sofia says:
“Tell Me a Story About Lions” is a fairytale with teeth. It brings together the figures of the mother and the carnivore, pitting care of the self against caring for others. The results are gripping, unsettling, and delicious.
Tell Me a Story About Lions
by Abby Horowitz
That as my body spilled out of itself, the boy was born, that he should have surfaced from the river of blood that poured out of me. A miracle, Lazar assured me. A miracle, that the boy survived.
Lazar slapping the steering wheel in delight as we finally left the hospital. A family of three! he said, Now and forever.
In the back, lying in the footwell beneath the boy’s car seat, was the fourth passenger, seen only to me—her ginger fur lighting up the car’s dark interior, the black tip of her tail pressed against the door handle, already searching for a way we might escape.
Before I was a mother with a son, I was a poet who did not eat meat. My life then was like a poem I would not have trusted had I found it in a book: the stocky red-cheeked butcher with the head of curls (Lazar) married to the long-haired, long-skirted vegetarian poet (myself), our life the story of the lion laying down with the lamb. My motto was: Peace unto all creatures, my poems were whispers. It was true that my mildness would melt when the butcher’s blood-stained fingers were inside me, it was true I made him always go on top, because (then) I loved the feeling of almost being crushed. But still, I was certain: I was the lamb.
Three days had ticked past the child’s due date, then four, then five, then six. I was never in a hurry for anything and the arrival of the boy was no exception. But Lazar grew restless. On the eighth day, he suddenly cried out, Enough! and he rushed to the foot of the bed, where I lay propped up on a mountain of pillows, my book spread like butterfly wings across my rounded belly. He put his hands on my puffy ankles, and tugged my legs apart.
Wait—I said, uncertain of what he was about to do, startled by the strength with which his hands slid up my calves. Was this the grip he used each day to touch his deadly sacrifices? But he did not wait. He peeled down my underwear, which beneath my giant belly seem to have shrunk into only a suggestion of underwear, a covering that would have been sufficient for a doll. He flung them to the floor. Then he dove his face into the crook of my legs so that I felt his lips, his beard against me. How long had it been since I had felt that touch; my body began to soften. But then he took a breath and roared inside me: Come out of there!
Startled by this harsh command, my body froze. Lazar stood back up, laughing merrily as he wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his flannel shirt.
I did not laugh with him, still feeling the echoes of his words reverberate through my body. Then, in my stomach, seemingly in time with my husband’s hearty laughter, began the first squeezes of the boy’s descent.
About his birth, I remember nothing.
Lazar asked later: Didn’t your heart just explode with love when you came to and saw his sweet face?
But the first thing I remember when I awoke—after the delivery where I created life and the hemorrhaging where my own life almost bled away—was the butcher’s voice telling the doctor in a kind of syrupy awe: I have never seen an animal lose so much blood and still live.
Once, before I was a mother with a son, I had read a poem where a lion ate her baby cub.
It was a poem I had not trusted.
We were returned home from the hospital, and yet it was no home. Our rooms became dark caverns, cramped with all the things we had bought for the child. The light made my head pound, so I kept all the blinds closed. Everything was washed in shadow, except for the blood, rich and red, that still dripped from between my legs, and trickled from my breasts thanks to snapping of the boy’s toothless gums.
Night and day folded into one fog. Morning-time was marked not by the sun’s rise, which I fought against with the pulled blinds and closed-shut curtains, but Lazar singing the child’s name like a cuckoo clock as he got ready for work, grabbing from the stack a crisp white apron that he had bleached the bloody handprints from the week before.
I never joined in Lazar’s song, the child’s name would not pass my lips. When I had to speak of him to Lazar, I called him “the baby,” but in my mind I called him “slug,” wrapped so thickly as he always was in his animal-print swaddles. When I looked at him, I did not see the moony cobalt eyes that Lazar gushed about, or the tiny nose that Lazar swore was no bigger than his pinky nail. When I looked at him, I saw only his flat pink lips, gatekeepers of the mouth that would at any moment stretch open and howl for me to place my breast inside.
The slug’s open mouth a knife that I went under so many times a day.
And when I did, he sucked and sucked, draining me not just of milk but of whatever life I still had trailing through my veins after the trial that was his birth. As if he was not yet satisfied with having tried once already to take my life.
From a delivery with so much trauma, recovery might be difficult, the doctors had warned.
Now, these were the noises of my days:
Ringing out again and now again and yet still more: the slug’s cry, the wails that sawed into my skull.
The silence of my own heart.
The rumble of the lion in my room.
Her nose was the color of old brick, and her left ear was notched, as if someone had taken a jagged bite. She watched me, sometimes, but mostly she slept, curled by the changing table, or stretched out beneath the window. Sometimes she lay splayed out on her back, like a dog, showing me the twelve inky black teats nested in the white fur of her underbelly. (If the lion had cubs, I never saw them. But I was sure that those nipples had been tugged on, that she had been used.)
Once or twice, I even thought she might be dead, so still she lay. Then, a tremor in her tail, or a small twitch of her whiskers, and I could relax again, knowing she still kept me company. When she looked at me, her leonine face stayed flat, impassive. I imagined mine looked the same. And the rumbles that issued now and then from somewhere deep inside her sounded like the start of something I could feel roiling deep inside my own gutted body, my own ruined self gearing up to roar.
The strange and faulty logic that Lazar droned nightly into the slug’s ear: Your mother, she almost died for you, that’s how much you’re loved.
We had to talk, the butcher said. The slug was in his arms. He was coming from the pediatrician’s visit, which he had, again, taken off work to attend since I still refused to leave the house.
The doctor was concerned with how little weight gain there’s been, Lazar said. He said we have a case of “failure to thrive.”
Failure to thrive! In the shadowy dark of our bedroom, my laughter came out off-pitch and shrill, rusty from disuse. Lazar frowned. The lion lifted her head off her paws and glared at me until I let my laughter trail away. The doctor is more of a poet than he lets on, I said.
I’m sorry to ask something else of you, Lazar said. But if he doesn’t gain six ounces in the next week, the doctor said there will be interventions. He held the slug out to me.
But I fed him right before you left, I said. See, he’s sleeping now, we shouldn’t wake him up. The slug lay there across Lazar’s outstretched arms, the red flannel of his shirt casting a pale pink scrim over the slug’s white swaddle. I imagined tilting down Lazar’s arms just a few more inches so that the slug would roll off and down to the floor.
The doctor said around the clock, Lazar said. I’m sorry.
Still I made no move to take him. My hands rested palms up on the bed, not so that I might receive the slug, but so that Lazar could see the bruise in the crook of my arm from where the IV had so recently been pulled. But Lazar gave this no heed. When he saw I would not help him, he placed the slug next to me on the bed. He raised the hem of my shirt and took hold of my sore breast with his calloused, death-granting hand. Squeezing my breast between his fingers, he tickled the slug’s mouth with my nipple until the slug’s jaw opened and he began to suck.
Lazar looking at the battlefield of my breast after the slug pulled off. The purple-silver ridges of puckered skin from the way my flesh had overgrown its own casing, swollen with so much milk. He touched his finger gingerly to the wound on the tip of my nipple, where the skin was raw. The slug fed so often, there was never a chance for a scab to form.
You must be doing it wrong, he said. I’m sure it shouldn’t hurt so much.
But there was no hurt. There was only darkness. There was only blood.
Two noises then, to mark my days: the slug’s piercing cries and then the blare of the alarm clock that erupted at regular intervals, reminding me to give him more milk. Beyond that, the silence of the house during the day, the butcher gone to do his butchering, the slug milk-drugged and swaddled, the mother in her bed, already slaughtered.
One night, as I returned the slug to his crib after he had finished sucking, the lion brushed past me and headed to the door. Never before had I seen her leave the room. I followed her quietly down the hallway. I watched the metronome of her hips switch right and left as she walked down the stairs. She turned left at the bottom: the kitchen. I pushed after her. The tiles were ice against my bare feet, and even in the dark, the steel appliance fronts glittered like knives.
The lion stopped in front of the refrigerator. She rested a leg on its door, leaving greasy streaks from the pads of her paw as she pulled away.
When I opened the refrigerator, the light that streamed out turned the lion’s fur to gold. I looked at the shelves for a Tupperware with a pink lid, because once there was a time when I cared so much as to request we keep our leftovers in separate plastics. I had chosen pink to stand for meat, because I had thought that pink was the color of blood.
I peeled off the lid: a sea of meatballs in some thick brown sauce sat inside.
When I held one out to the lion, she stared at me unblinking, her dull black lips pressed shut. Then she stepped forward and licked my hand, not the one that held the ball of once-live flesh, but the one that hung empty at my side. Her pink tongue licked all around my hand, the hooks of her tongue scrubbing my palm, each long finger. She licked and licked until I understood the message she was spelling into my skin, that she was not the hungry one, that I should go ahead and eat.
The meat was like a bullet in my mouth. I closed my lips around it, and then my teeth sank down.
Lazar was delighted; Lazar thought me healed. He came home from work each day with a different cut of beef, and then sat on our bed with a board book about cows that someone had given us and pointed out where on the animal our dinner had come from. He made me hamburgers, beef stews, steaks that, on my request, would release a stream of watery blood under the pressure of a knife. He urged me on to seconds, he said: Soon your cheeks will be pink as mine! And it’s true, a healthy flush had begun to recolonize my dulled skin. I took off my blood-stained, milk-marked t-shirts, and put on cleaner clothes. I could feel my body mending itself as I chewed through all this flesh; the pounding of my head replaced by the rush of blood in my ears.
Lazar would often tuck a book of poetry onto my tray, sliding it under the rim of the plate where a napkin might be. I left my greasy fingerprints on the covers of these books to make it look like I had opened them. But I did not touch them. Instead I watched the lion as I ate, I chewed ferociously as she tore through her own carrion. And when I finished eating, I painted my lips with crimson lipstick so that my mouth might look like the lion’s bloody muzzle after she had finished her meal.
As my heart grew stronger, the lion too seemed to come more and more alive. I left the confines of the bedroom often now, and she slunk after me, not with the casual ambling of before, but with her chest slunk to the floor and shoulder blades jutting to the sky. Her amber eyes tracked my every move. I no longer needed to turn on the lamp in the middle of the night when the slug wanted to feed; now I could always depend on the gleam of her eyes in the dark to light my way.
I was not afraid. My heart had been scraped raw, and nothing new like fear or worry had been replanted. Not even when traces of her bloody feasts began to appear throughout the house: tucked between the toilet and the tub, the licked-clean skull of some small animal; the striped carcass of a zebra piled by the back door. When I took a shower—something I no longer had to be cajoled by Lazar into doing—the shower curtain would suddenly tremble from a swat of her paw. In the night, I woke sometimes not from the slug’s cry for food but from the sound of the lion sharpening her claws on the rug in the corner, getting ready for some hunt.
Her roar woke me, a deep and thunderous sound that sent tendrils of vibration through my sleeping body.
I scanned the room, looking for the creature who had produced that booming, that sound of something being crushed to bits.
Inside the slug’s crib, a hulking shadow turned to me with glowing eyes.
Lazar did not stir as I left the bed. The lion’s roar turned into pulsing snarls as I crossed the room. She sat upright at the foot of his crib, the rails of the crib pressing into her bulk like the bars of some too-small cage. At the other end of the mattress, the slug slept.
The lion hunched down. The tendons of her paw contracted and out shot her razor nails. She bellowed again as she dragged her paw down the soft fabric of the slug’s swaddle, which shredded under her knived touch.
At that moment, the slug’s eyes fluttered open. How many times had I listened to Lazar call him “Blueberry Eyes” while I had burned inside with anger, that I should feel half-dead while the creature who put me in that state was smothered in love? Now I saw the blue planets of his eyes, and that his fine hair was almost the same honey brown as the lion’s tawny fur. And the skin on his forehead, it was so thin, stretched so taut, that I could see the rivers of the veins that ran beneath, the insides of his body so exposed, his blood so ripe for taking—
But the lion was impatient. The vise of her mouth sprung open: there were her dagger-teeth. Her pink tongue rolled out from her mouth’s cavern like a waterslide as her head moved closer to the slug. Her eyes stuck firmly now on him, but in the heavy panting of her meaty breath, I heard the command she gave me, or rather, the command she gave to that mother-self buried somewhere inside me who would at any moment surely move to save my slug, my son: Come out of there—
The throb of my heart, as it began its answer.
Then the silence of my footsteps on the rug as I stepped closer to the crib.
The flayed edges of his torn swaddle draped over my arms, fluttering against my skin each time the lion exhaled. My son’s blue eyes fastened onto mine. I clutched him closer and then he and I, we waited.
Did my heart explode when I came to and saw his face?
A miracle, the butcher said, years later, standing over our sleeping son, remembering the boy’s bloody beginnings.
I licked at some grease left on my lips from that night’s dinner, then bent down to kiss the boy’s cheek. He shivered a little in his sleep from the imprint of my lips.
Yes, I said.
Beneath the bed, the lion settled her head between her paws and went back to sleep.