Shooting the Lions

Two cousins try to revive the family circus with tragic results.

It had been such a long time since God had said anything, so when his cousin Ringling had an idea, Lawrence listened: Ringling's Traveling Menagerie. That was his vision: resurrect the old family circus. Get themselves some animals—an elephant and a peacock; ponies, llamas, and black-horned billy goats; a giant iguana—train them, and take them on the road.

It was 1973, and both men had just returned home to Salem, Oregon, after several years abroad. Ringling kicked a rock across the long, twisting driveway of his brother Gerald's rural homestead at the edge of town, where he and Lawrence were staying for the time being. Ringling had a bit of savings from his time in the Army, and he knew people. It was still possible, he said, to get wagons, animals, canopies. Lawrence nodded. When you're trying to salvage a history, you don't think too much about details. It operates on the level of myth: the trapeze tango, the hanging perch, the contortionist's nimble arc. “It's possible,” Ringling promised. “You can do it—you can re-create the past.”

And Lawrence agreed. He had been a missionary in Chile for seven long years, when, suddenly, a military coup upended his life; foreigners were forced to leave. The change, Lawrence explained to Ringling, was sudden and brutal; by the time people understood what was happening—the government dissolving, politicians and intellectuals disappearing from their homes—it was too late for comment. Public buildings were emptied out: schools, theaters, the National Stadium. Stories circulated about what was going on at those places: fingernails pulled from fingers, knuckles broken, an eye smashed into its socket. People broken, for no particular reason, in the rooms where an orchestra used to tune or soccer players had readied themselves for a game.

“There wasn't anything you could do,” Lawrence admitted. “Not even as a priest. The Church forbade it—I couldn't say a word.”

“Life can get pretty awful,” Ringling said. He had been to war—two of them—in Asia. His Army training had been the same. “We weren't supposed to talk about it, right? They taught us that real good. I didn't think. I just threw a grenade, and then there was one less enemy. They weren't separate, like people—it was just one big idea. A little more, a little less.”

The men bought gear and animals, and took to the road. They mostly set up at rest stops or freeway exits, staking down handwritten signs along the highway: Ringling's Roadside Zoo, Exit ½ Mile. People came in fits and starts: bored families cruising north to Portland on Friday afternoons, or out toward the coast for Sunday drives. Those were long, boring drives along I-5 and Highway 99; people were grateful for an excuse to stop: a place to let the kids run off their energy, to pet a donkey or see a real elephant up close. But after a little more than a year, their hopes amounted to little more than this: exhausted animals and nauseating highway hours; overheated engines and jackknifed trailers; an occasional contract at a used car lot or supermarket grand opening; a summer sidewalk sale; one or two elaborate birthday parties.

And what Ringling asked him to ignore, Lawrence ignored: out behind the vans and trailers, a card table, a certain set of mirrors. When the men stomped gruffly back to meet their wives and kids, having lost half a week's salary in a few crummy rounds, Lawrence didn't question his partner. But even that foolery wasn't enough. There was always gas to be purchased, meat to be bought, animals to be endlessly fed. They couldn't survive. What Ringling had hoped for was useless. The past stayed where it was; it didn't come back.

It was a Sunday in July of 1974. A morning like cellophane: plastic, sticky. The house was empty. Gerald and his family had gone camping out along the McKenzie River. “Do it now,” he had told the two men. “While the kids are away.” By then, most of the animals had already disappeared, drifting off to special collections, animal protection groups, and private zoos. The twin monkeys, Patsy and Elvira, had gone north to a rich couple in Vancouver who bought them as pets for their eight-year-old daughters, and Ringling was just back from another trip to Klamath Falls, where he had sold the elephant to an enterprising farmer and his wife. “Damn people got all these fancy notions,” Ringling barked at Lawrence. “That elephant'll be dead within a year.” Forty-four years old, and the ruddiness of youth was finally leaving him. He looked sallow. There was alcohol on his breath—an odor like fear. Ringling was giving up.

Out in the barn, all that were left were the lions: sickly, unwanted, and underfed. It was a delicate situation. After more than a year in the damp, earth-bottomed barn, the cage's wooden beams had grown soft, and the aluminum meshing was rusted and weak. The lions, Sasha and Sophocles, were each tethered to the ground by a light chain tied to a railway spike and cinched to the collars at their throats. The men knew their job had to be done quickly. One shot—then two. Fatal and brief. Lawrence looked toward Ringling, who was slipping the safety off his rifle. He was a soldier, after all; at least there was that.

But the first shot lodged itself instead into the woodchips just under the sleeping Sophocles' nose. The lion jolted awake, reared back, and roared at Ringling, who stood several yards away. Lawrence's eyes moved to Sasha, sitting farther back in the cage, heat-ridden and undernourished. Sasha's body flinched, but he stayed still. Even in their compromised states, the lions were elegant, imposing creatures. Lawrence envisioned them rising up: twin lions bursting through a collapsed heap of metal and splinters, lunging toward the men in their anger and aching need.

Ringling pulled the trigger, another poorly aimed shot. And another—shattering open the air beside Sophocles and making him wild. The lion roared louder, pacing and tugging in fury at his chain. Sasha's eyes were perked, swimming in their thick pools of paste. Lawrence shuddered, remembering hollow shots in the night along Santiago's La Reina Avenida; each morning, white-washed military vans would come round to collect the bodies. “Ring,” Lawerence turned to his cousin, who suddenly seemed entirely feeble with a gun, “what's happening?” Ringling didn't answer; he fired again and again, his body loose-jointed and shuddering, the bullets pummeling wildly around the lion. Sophocles was screaming now, his matted hair on end, prickling up along the bony curve of his back—stirring that terrible lion stench, which several weeks earlier had already begun to smell like death.

Ringling was bent over his gun, reloading. Lawrence backed away as the cat neared the front of the cage, giving him a low, threatening growl that rattled deep in his throat like a motor full of marbles. He switched his tail, yanking against the chain, his head lowered and ears flat. But the next moment Ringling was on his feet again, pointing the rifle down into the center of the cage and shooting. Sophocles was hit, finally, just below the shoulder. He buckled back, spreading his jowls as far as they would go. Then he leveled his gaze at the men, pawed the ground, growling and screaming in turns. Ringling let the gun go slack; he stood trembling, staring dumbly at the lion cage. How far, Lawrence thought as he shook his head, how far had he come from anything holy?

Another roar, and Sophocles pulled the rail stake from the ground, charging the cage and banging against it with his uninjured side. Ringling blinked and dropped his gun. The men backed away—twenty short, stumbling paces, until the far side of the barn met their backs. Sophocles was yowling.

“Please, Lawrence,” Ringling gasped. “Finish it.”

“But Ring,” Lawrence's eyes were wide, terrified. “I don't know how.”

His cousin shook his head. “You can do it—you can.” Ringling was weeping wildly now. Lawrence stared at the gun a few yards away. It was a bright day, but dim in the barn; the overhead lights had burned out months ago. “Please,” Ringling whispered. “For God's sake, Lawrence.”

For God's sake. Lawrence nodded. He would do what he had to do. Not like his Church, leaving in the midst of crisis: silent, efficient, and without apology. Making a failure of them all. Lawrence picked up Ringling's gun and pointed the long barrel at Sophocles, who had turned his predatory glare on him. The air in the barn was thick and unforgiving—dank and hot and rancid. Lawrence's fingertips slipped against the rifle as he brought it to a shoulder and fired. The gun burst backward in his hands and fell away. The lion roared again. But he reached over and grabbed up the weapon again. Oh God, he breathed. Oh God, oh God.

“You've got to get closer,” Ringling whispered. “To aim.”

Lawrence glanced back briefly at his cousin's face—it was white—and approached the lion's cage, standing five feet from it. As he pulled the trigger again, he felt the full force of the gun. He held on. Holding on—for years and years now. We fail, he thought. Purpose, promise. The world fails us, and somehow we fail to notice.

He moved closer—some old, reckless feeling in him that he couldn't quite identify. Blood was still matted against the cat's shoulder, but there was more of it now, coming from his nose, his ear, his muzzle. Lawrence had hit him in the neck, though he was still fighting: whining and rolling over in the stale woodchips, trying to right himself. Ringling crouched in the corner, crying and begging his cousin to hurry—swearing that the cage was going to give.

Outside, Lawrence could tell a rain was coming: a thick, summertime monsoon rain. Muggy and stale. Sophocles rolled onto his side, but he couldn't stand. Lawrence moved as quickly as he could under the long, awkward weight of the rifle—steadying it against a shoulder and spreading his feet wider apart to prepare for the punch. He fired again, as close to Sophocles' head as he could. It worked. In a clap of bullet, the cat was dead. Shot three times—in the shoulder, throat, and head. Lawrence felt the bile surge up in his throat. His shoulder ached. It was terrible, what they were doing; no god had to tell him that.

Sasha hadn't moved yet, but he sat tense and hunkered down, hind legs drawn under him and the meat of his shoulder flickering. Lawrence walked around the side of the cage, closer to him. The cat backed away, head low and a gurgling in his throat. Without moving his eyes away from Lawrence, he sniffed the body of his compatriot and let out a terrible, human-sounding yowl. God, forgive me, Lawrence thought, and fired: foolishly and poorly, missing him altogether. Then the cat charged him head-on, the spike slipping easily out of the ground and his body slapping against the side of the cage so the structure pressed outward.

“Lawrence!” Ringling was breathless, back still pressed against the barn wall. He moved, fumbling into his front pocket. “Do you need more ammunition?” The box of bullets dangled loosely between his fingers; he made no motion to come forward. Lawrence glanced back fiercely and shook his head. No, he didn't need him, not Ringling, or God, or anybody.

Sasha growled more loudly. Lawrence's second shot hit him. Crazed from weeks of half-starvation, Sasha lunged again, rattling the cage and sending Lawrence's guts into a frenzy. Lawrence fired repeatedly, hitting Sasha once behind the ear. The animal fell back in a roar. “Lawrence!” Ringling was sobbing in his corner of the room. Lawrence ran up to the cage and shoved the rifle between the chicken wire mesh, right at the base of the lion's skull. Sasha's head had rolled into the dirt, but he could still see the gun; he knew what Lawrence was doing. The lion just lay there as Lawrence fired. The gun kicked backward once more, and it was done.

Lawrence dropped the rifle and sunk onto his knees. The smell of gun powder and iron and animal sweat filled the windowless barn so his lungs couldn't inhale anything else. It was repugnant; he breathed through his teeth. “Lawrence,” Ringling had come up to him now, his hands at his back—gentle, worried. He held his cousin up to sitting, and Lawrence collapsed into him, spitting and choking. And they knelt for several minutes more: two grown men, crying over a lion pen. Holding each other and grieving for everything they'd lost or never quite had.


Family, Oregon, The Human Condition


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Also in this Issue

Toward Grace, Strength, and Hope

After the Fall

Goal Control

Where We Live Now

Shooting the Lions


Résumé of Failures