First Chance to See
“You bring Simon out on the lead, like this. Not ahead of you, not behind you, but with you.” Dad put the red rope in my hand. “This is like the dog show.”
“OK,” I said.
“Don’t ‘OK’ me,” my father attached Simon’s collar to the rope. “Pay attention. You didn’t do very well at that dog show, remember.”
Simon rubbed his red mane against my neck. He was sleepy and stretching his fangs. I wanted to be like him, yawning through my father’s impossible moments without getting into trouble. I pulled him to start going. We walked the invisible triangle that went from the microwave to the couch to the bed and back to the microwave.
“Good,” My dad said. “Now it’s time for Molly.”
Molly, Simon’s wife, was awake in her cage, sitting up like a little sphinx. Dad opened the cage and she walked up to me. Molly was nice, even letting me ride on her back when no one was looking.
“That’s you done, bitch,” Dad murmured as he attached her lead. “Now try with both.”
I walked Simon and Molly to the microwave, and then walked them to the bed, where we stopped and stood. That’s where the cameras would be. I put my arm lightly over both their necks, and they nuzzled into my armpits and shoulders.
My father is a big man, and the lions look tiny and wild next to him. That’s why I had to hold them.
We stood in front of the bed as dad paced and thought. My stomach growled and Molly butted her heavy head against my shirtfront.
“Alright, let’s feed these guys and ourselves.” My father got up, took Simon’s lead and we went to the stable.
The stable was bigger than our house, and I had my own loft. The lions usually slept in the oak trees by one of the lakes, but the big press meeting was coming up, so they slept inside stalls for the nights. From my loft I could see them roll and play in their pen.
“Good morning, Longfuse Lions!” I’d call down to them in the morning. Molly would get grumpy and roar, then fall asleep again. Simon was better about getting up in the morning and I’d throw him his breakfast of Icy-Mice. They hunted for lunch and usually brought in a rabbit. Blood caked like lipstick around their mouths before they licked it off.
Molly was nicer to me, but I loved the way Simon smelled. When he was smaller, we used to roll around in his pen for exercise. But then he grew up faster than me and didn’t know his own strength. He could only be walked around now so that he didn’t get excited. I wanted to ride on his back to school, so that the other kids would stop picking on me. Then they’d know I was a friend of the first native English lion, and they’d never make fun of me again. But dad said that the news couldn’t get out until the conference. Even then, riding him to school would be out of the question.
But my pictures would be in the paper, and they’d know not to throw my books in the toilet ever again. I ironed my press conference outfit everyday, making sure that the flashbulbs would hit it just right, blinding everyone into loving me and my lion.
After we locked Simon and Molly in, we went back to our house. Mum had unfolded the table and was putting the food out.
“Verne and Raymond from the society are coming tonight. Hope you don’t mind,” said my father as he sat down.
“What did you and Alfie do in school today?” She asked. My dad taught me at home over the summers.
“Ask Alfie, he ought to remember it,” my father said, digging into the potatoes.
“We did Algebra and looked for x, y, and z today. Then I mapped the tarns west of here.”
“Sounds lovely,” she said. “Terrence, did you have anymore luck with Simon?”
Dad shook his head. “Nothing. No sign of interest in her whatsoever.”
Simon and Molly weren’t getting along the way they should have. They seemed fine to me, but my father said that they weren’t close enough to make a baby, and babies were very important to this project.
“But she has an interest in him, of course?” Mum said. “That something.”
“Sure, but it’s not up to her, is it?” My father wiped a stray pea out of his beard.
“Is there a chance…I mean, I know you don’t want to consider the possibility that Simon…” It took Mum a long time to say this, “That Simon just doesn’t like girl lions?”
My father put down his fork, folded his hands and stared into his water. “Don’t tell me we just blew four million on engineering some daft faggot lion,” he said quietly, but I knew he’d get louder. “Don’t even breathe a word of it to me again!”
“Terrence!” My mother said. “Calm down!”
I didn’t know what a faggot was exactly, but it was something I’d been called every time I dropped the ball in rugby, came to school with my sweater too clean, or hit the right notes in choir. But this was the first time I’d heard an adult use it.
“I don’t want the idea in my house, not before the Society meeting, not before the press conference, not even a vibration of that idea between these walls, you hear me?” He pounded his fist on the table. “I didn’t slave all of these years to introduce a daft faggot animal into the world, it’s impossible!”
“Jesus, Terrence, I was just saying—” She started again, but I knew she couldn’t win on her own.
“Maybe Simon likes girl tigers instead!” I said.
My father looked at me. At first he looked angry, then a little confused, then he started laughing. He leaned back in the chair and his fist slid off the table. “Maybe he does. I hadn’t thought of that, son.”
The men from the Conservation Society and the Wildlife Fund had set a date to release Molly and Simon first to the press, then to the world. Until then, dad had to practice.
“Ladies and Gentleman of the British Media: I have come to you today with the opportunity for ecological renewal which must be seized. It’s an opportunity that must be acted upon. It’s an opportunity…that must be cuddled.” He always laughed here, “Let me explain.
“For at least the past two hundred years, mankind’s wanton destruction of animal and plant species in the wild has weighed heavily on the minds of the general public. Aside from swapping our cars for bicycles, turning to a vegan diet, and forsaking air travel entirely, there is not much that the average citizen can do except feel that dutiful pang of guilt when another insect lineage bites the dust.
“But what if we could create a new species, foster it right in our own backyards? Ladies and Gentleman, I give you Panthera leo brittanica, or, as I call him, Simon the Lion!” He always points to me here, and I bring in Simon.
“Simon is part of a new species of lion I have spent many years to generate in my lab. As the son of a zookeeper in a major wildlife reserve in South Africa, I grew up surrounded by magnificent African animals. Now, as a genetic engineer, I feel that it is both my duty and privilege to bring Britain an animal king of its own. For the past twenty years I have had the tremendous fortune to live and labor on a preserve in Lakeland. At this moment, I am not allowed to disclose the exact location of Longfuse Labs, but it is safe to say that I have acres enough to observe Simon in conditions sizeable enough to mimic the larger wildness.”
“You’ll notice Simon’s mane; it’s a noble shade of auburn, much like our own Crown Prince Harry. You’ll see that he’s smaller than his African cousin, but slightly larger than a domestic fox. Simon is, at two years, fully grown. Don’t be fooled by his friendly behavior towards my son; this is not a domestic animal.
“Due to his specially designed fat distribution, he is very sinewy and difficult to cook. His pelt, though gorgeous on his body, is exceedingly tedious to extract from his flesh. Once it is extracted, it promptly decomposes. In other words, Simon is a bad catch for any potential poacher.
“Simon and Molly, his wife, are omnivores, and have a diet comparable to their neighbor the fox. They eat small game, mainly rabbits and brown squirrels. That’s correct,” he’d pause for effect here. “Only the brown squirrels. Leo brittanica is attracted to the scent of the North American interloper, not its indigenous red cousin. Now, the brown squirrel will not be fully eradicated in Simon’s area; he’s not greedy. But when leo brittanica takes his place in the English ecosystem, the resurgence of our red squirrel will be thanks to him.”
Dad winks at me here. He explained to me that this is where there will be a buzz amongst the reporters, and that I mustn’t be confused. He practices holding up his hands for silence, then continues.
“Simon’s release into the public will be gradual, and become the precedent for many species debuts to follow. First, he will begin where most species end: in the zoo. By the year 2020, there will be a specimen of leo brittanica in zoos across the United Kingdom, United States and South America; thirty-eight in total. Eight males, thirty females. However, this is only the beginning of their journey. They will be tagged and released into the wilds of Lakeland after a few months. Now, undoubtedly, they will be stalked and potentially preyed on by eager human tourists trying to catch a glimpse of this new species. The parks commissioner’s office has agreed to fund a task force of guards to patrol the area where the lions roam. Eventually, the public will grow tired of this spectacle and eventually our lions will blend into the public consciousness.
“For the naysayers and those who will cry ‘genetic fascism’, I ask only the following: what’s your solution to the problem? We could all sit around and bemoan the destruction and disappearance of various animal species, or pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and create some species for Mother Earth. The balance needs to be redressed, and we have the power. What I offer you today is the first chance to see—”
The doorbell rang. He nodded at me to open the door and I went. The men from the Conservation Society were there. They smelled like beer and wellies.
“Why, hello, Alfie!” The men came in. “Hello, Longfuse,” They said to my dad.
They all sat down for tea and cake. I brought Simon in and they petted his mane.
“Gorgeous color. Absolutely stunning,” One of men scratched behind Simon’s ears, which made him purr. “Can’t wait to see the cubs.”
My father put down his teacup. My mother was coming in with more cake, but she spun on her heel and turned round back to the other room.
“He hasn’t bred yet,” My father said.
“Oh,” The man from the Conservation Society was about to say something, but he looked at me and said something else. “Trouble with his missus?”
“I don’t know. It’s the right season. Molly’s up for it, but he doesn’t show any interest.”
“Right…” The other man from the Conservation Society cleared his throat. “That’s not good, is it?”
“Really?” My father snapped. “I thought it was a wonderful development.”
“Now, now, Longfuse.”
“We’re on your side. We’ve all got the same interest here. We need to keep this shortcoming under wraps,” The society man patted Simon’s back. “We could inseminate Molly.”
“With his sperm? No,” my father shook his head.
“The deficiency will carry over to the offspring. You want a race of homo lions?”
Homo. A lump jumped into my throat. I didn’t know adults said that one, either.
“So,” the other society man asked. “You’re convinced it’s in the genes, are you?”
“I’m convinced it’s not worth the risk.” My father stretched his hair back with his palms. “He’s bloody useless to me, that Simon.”
Simon laid on his back with his stomach to me. I usually scratched him when he did that, but now I was scared to. Everyone was watching him.
“Well, you can’t get rid of him, Longfuse. He’s worth millions of pounds.”
“I just need to make another one. This time with less testosterone,” My father stared at Simon. “But what the fuck can I do with one?”
“Don’t be stupid,” My father said. “Why dissect something I already know? Built the damn thing myself, didn’t I?”
There was a silence. Simon farted. I giggled.
“Alfie,” my father said, warning me. I took Simon back to the barn, where Molly was already asleep. Simon sat down and stared into my eyes.
“Daft faggot lion,” I said, trying the words on for size. He licked my face and I hugged him.
I went back to house to say goodnight to my parents. The Conservation Society men had left. My father was writing in his notebook.
“What’s going to happen to Simon, dad?”
“Well, the Longfuse Lion Project will still be unveiled tomorrow,” he said to the notebook. “Now, instead of being a daddy lion, Simon’s going to be more of a mascot. Like a spokesperson.”
My father smiled in spite of himself. “Yes, Simon’s a roarperson. That’s a good one, son. Since he’s not focused enough to be a good husband and father right now, he’ll tour the world with Molly so that everyone will know what Longfuse Lion families look like.”
“But lion families are prides, with one dominant male and loads of females.”
“I know. But this is what we have to do for now,” my father said straight at me. “You see, Alfie? That’s what Simon gets for being a showgirl. Instead of rolling around with Molly he wanted to keep his mane nice and neat. Now he won’t have any children. Setting me back by millions of pounds, he is. It’s not good to be selfish like that.”
I didn’t know what to say. I walked back to the barn.
By the time I got there, it was already dark. I found my way to the closet and put on my press conference suit with the shiny black shoes. I climbed the ladder down to Molly and Simon’s pen, and put my head on Simon’s flank. It made a good pillow. His breath warmed my hair and made it smell like blood. After a night in the pen, I’d be unselfish enough for the cameras in the morning.