Al Maginnes

The Lion In the Backyard

When dusk gentles sky to charcoal-gray, when the quiet streetlights,

the tawny window-lights wink on, only orbiting moths

and the house cats that quietly prowl night’s depths still hear

the harping of wild blood. But let the sky fall

to just the right shade, and I can hear again

the throaty call rising over roof-crests, over

the churning of crickets and traffic hum

to tear a hole in the fragile curtain of our domesticity.

No one could say what human impulse

delivered a lion to live out its days in a pen

in a North Carolina backyard, flanked by backyard grills and swing sets,

matted with dust, ignored by all but the curious and the frightened.

The Wing brothers lived two blocks away, their front yard

our summer night gathering place since

their mother would not complain, no matter how late or loud

we played the music or how often we walked

behind the house to get high. One night

a minister, breath stained with non-sacramental wine,

tried to recruit us to join his church,

attempting to tame us with labor and shame, just as the lion’s owner

might have dreamed of that beast dozing at his feet

while he watched television or read scripture.

None of us laid a stroke of paint to a single holy board.

In the long exhale of that summer’s end, I led a girl

who refused to believe in the lion’s presence up to see for herself.

Its tail switched as we approached, its chesty growl

bloody promise that it hungered to escape,

to stalk the savannas of our suburbs, the shorn grass

of lawns poor camouflage for its lurking

in the subtractions of light between houses, its prey

not careless zebras or gazelles but mailmen, meter readers,

the weak, clumsy walkers hidden behind flimsy doors.

We watched the malevolent yellow eyes watching us,

the air we breathed, the dirt we stood on, transformed

by that regard. The quickening of her breath,

her nipples, small roses of flesh, dimpling the thin fabric

of her shirt, testified to how the body fevers

when its mortality is teased by a greater appetite.

In the eyeblink of our turning away, metal chimed

as the lion hit the chain link barricade, pushing

into the thin wire holding him from the free-roaming world,

shaking the plywood ceiling of the pen, boards

that might have built his only view of heaven.

Alarm thinned our blood; I steered her away,

not down the trail of streetlights to the Wings’ house

but up a nearly hidden path that neighbored a brown pond.

We curved together while full dark covered us

like a drop cloth. And through the rattle of high grass,

the tearing of our own open-mouth breath,

the long vowels of the lion’s voice magnified our shaking.