The love of the Berber lion

30 December 2008 | Fiction, Prose

A short story from the novel Berberileijonan rakkaus ja muita tarinoita (‘The love of the Berber lion and other stories’, WSOY, 2008). Introduction by Janna Kantola

The lion’s name was Muthul. He was an old Berber lion from the Atlas Mountains. He had a black mane, a black tail with a bushy tip and the scars of many battles on his hide.

He had grown up as a lion cub in the royal palace at Carthage at the time when the Romans, led by Scipio the younger, destroyed the city with fire and sword. The palace was set ablaze, a bloody battle ensued in the gardens, Romans impaled on arrows lay strewn in the rose bushes, Carthaginian blood dyed the water in the fountains. Someone had let all the palace animals, wild and tame alike, out of their cages; they were running around wildly, killing each other in the grip of panic, then disappeared inexplicably.

As the battle continued, an exhausted Ligurian mountain soldier leaned against a statue of Astarte, and he saw a lion cub hiding its head behind its paws between the goddess’ legs. The mountain soldier stroked the cub’s back and placed it in his cowhide pouch so he could sell it to the Roman circus. A moment later the crown of a cedar tree crushed the Ligurian’s head as he tried to ransack the burning palace.

The cub was rescued from the flames by a Numidian fighting for the Romans. He threw the Ligurian’s pouch over his shoulder and retreated spluttering through the smoke and out into the courtyard. Once outside, the pouch began to growl. The Numidian dropped it on the ground and kicked it. The pouch then began to whimper pitifully. The soldier opened the pouch and saw the furry muzzle and pair of slanted eyes inside.

Have I saved the devil from the lick of the flames, wondered the Numidian and prepared to stab the beast to death. The lion cub then crawled out of the pouch and began to lick itself. The Numidian remembered the kitten he’d had as a child and decided to spare the cub. ‘Let your name be Muthul,’ said the Numidian. ‘It means “little devil”.’

The Numidian sold the cub to his chief. The chief then bequeathed it to the court of King Masinissa. Masinissa trained lions for his own sporting events in the gardens of his palace in the city of Thirmida. There Muthul grew into a powerful lion with a long, black mane and whiskers the length of a cubit. At the age of five Muthul tired of practicing exhausting, meaningless tricks. He knocked his tamer unconscious with a skilful blow of his paw, jumped over the ten-foot fence and sprinted roaring along the city alleyways, dashed through the city gates into freedom and did not stop running until he reached the Tell Atlas mountains.

Once in the mountains he joined a small pride of Atlas lions. By roaring and fighting and scheming he rose up the pride’s hierarchy. By using all the devious tricks his trainers had taught him, he eventually reached the position of chief lion. As leader of the pack he could keep all the females for himself. He didn’t allow the other males a single female.

Muthul reigned over his harem until the age of sixteen. Then a younger male appeared, an ugly, one-eared giant from far away, perhaps from as far away as Mauretania. The ugly lion challenged Muthul to a fight. Muthul responded by roaring and his opponent attacked him furiously. Muthul’s old tricks were of no use; as the autocratic leader of the pack he had become proud and lazy. The Mauretanian almost tore him to shreds.

Muthul fled in disgrace. After that he hunted by himself, ate by himself and slept by himself. He became a hermit.

At that time, Jugurtha, the new king of Numidia, was beginning to wage war against the Romans. In the lowlands an army was on the move again, Numidian mounted cavalry, Roman legions and their Moorish allies on camelback.

Muthul remembered the fire of Carthage, his time in prison and his narrow escape. Soon fires would be lit, the din of weapons and terrible war cries would fill his ears, great war-elephants would hurtle towards him and the ground would shudder. Neither would Muthul be safe in the mountains; the soldiers would come up there too with their whistling arrows and torches and battle cries.

Muthul decided to travel as far as he could. He had heard that beyond the great desert lay green land and forest with plenty of grass and lots of animals of different sizes eating the trees’ leaves, animals he had never seen or tasted before. Muthul set off across the Libyan Desert towards a brave new world.

After he had walked for three days and was dying of thirst, he heard a soft rhythmic patter in the sand and saw a handsome camel wobbling past, so close that only a narrow sand dune separated them. The camel was travelling south; it was carrying a small load and there was no rider on its back, all that covered its saddle was a blanket. Muthul gathered all his power and rage, ran up to the camel, jumped on its back and dug his teeth into the animal’s neck, but didn’t snap it. The camel stopped, trembling, and stood perfectly still listening to an immemorial proverb that kept beating at the back of his small mind: don’t try to shake a lion from your back, it will bite your neck in two. It will do this anyway, but not always.

‘Where are you travelling, humpback?’ asked Muthul.

‘To the Jarman Oasis,’ replied the camel, his yellow teeth chattering.

The camel had been born at the oasis. Now that his rider, a young Moor, had been killed by a Numidian arrow, he was a free camel once again and was returning to the place of his birth.

‘What a coincidence. That’s where I’m going too,’ said Muthul. ‘Unfortunately I’m going to have to kill you and drink every drop of your blood to quench my thirst.’

‘That would be very short-sighted,’ said the camel. ‘And it would be the end of both of us. Beneath my blanket you’ll find flasks of water which my Moor filled before his death.’

Muthul found the flasks, bit a hole in the side of one with his fangs and sucked out the water, emptied the second, and allowed the camel to drink from the third.

‘March, long-legs,’ commanded Muthul and made himself comfortable lying against the came’s hump.

After a day’s trek, the camel dropped to his knees to rest. Muthul jumped from his back, ran around the camel a few times to stretch his limbs, then lay down to rest next to the camel, right up against his side to make sure he didn’t run off in the middle of the night.

When the camel stood up the next morning, Muthul jumped on his back, ready to continue their journey. The camel, however, refused to move. That night he had thought things through.

‘What will be a camel’s reward for carrying a lion on his back?’ he asked.

‘You have my word that I will not eat you,’ said Muthul.

‘That’s easy for you to promise, but still you’ll bite my neck in two before we get to our destination,’ said the camel.

‘Why would I do that?’ asked Muthul. ‘If I did that, I’d die out here in the desert.’

‘You can’t do anything about your nature,’ said the camel, who had heard the story of the frog and the scorpion.

‘What do you know about my nature?’ said Muthul. ‘I am in control of my fearsome nature, I can control my wild instincts whenever it is necessary. I’ve had a royal upbringing.’

The camel was unconvinced by Muthul’s words and stood stubbornly on the spot. At this, Muthul promised, in return for his troubles, to protect the camel from any dangers, such as lions, wolves, hyenas and leopards.

‘Those animals don’t live out in the desert,’ said the camel.

‘I’m here, aren’t I?’ said Muthul. ‘And I, a Berber lion, promise to protect you against the Tuaregs, so that they won’t capture and enslave you again.’

This promise the camel took seriously and began walking. At resting places he ate leaves and shoots, even filling his hungry mouth with the thorny branches of the acacia bush. Muthul hunted small animals. He ate ferrets, land crocodiles, several lizards and a small hoomet which tasted like a lizard.

Some people considered them to be unclean animals, but Muthul didn’t care. He probably didn’t even know this.

Thus Muthul’s journey with the camel across the Libyan Desert continued, towards the Sudan and Darfur. He dreamed about the savannahs, even further off, where the grass was high and green and the flesh of the animals was juicy.

Finally they arrived at the Jarman Oasis. There didn’t seem to be a single Tuareg caravan in sight. There were plenty of animals by the water’s edge, in the shadow of the palm trees, in amongst the bushes, and further off in the shelter of the dunes; all kinds of animals, familiar and strange.

Muthul bid the camel farewell and thanked him for the ride and the water. The camel was moved to tears and decided not to believe in fables in the future. Greatly relieved, he left the lion and walked towards a group of three camels and a female zebra, lying close together, half-asleep, chewing lazily in the shade of a date palm.

‘Brothers, sisters! You won’t believe all that has happened to me in the last few days…’ began the camel.

The female zebra listened to the camel’s story, glancing every now and then at Muthul, who had lain down and rested his weary head on his paws, shaded by the bush some way away from the others.

‘He could have bitten my neck in two in an instant, but he didn’t,’ the camel continued fervently.

‘He made a promise and stood by his word. I had no need to fear that he might still have… But this lion has complete control over his wild nature, this noble and stately animal, brought up in a royal court, thoroughly trustworthy…’

The female zebra’s name was Punda Milia. She lived alone and wasn’t part of a herd. She was the only zebra at the oasis. In fact, she was probably the only zebra ever to have found her way to the oasis, thought the camels, who had all wandered far and wide across the world. Someone had heard that Punda Milia had become withdrawn at a young age, as she had been bullied in the herd. Her mother was a quagga, half zebra and half wild horse, with only partial stripes that looked unfinished, while her father was half plains zebra, half Grévy’s zebra, and that is why her head looked more like that of a donkey than a zebra and her ears were large, dark-brown, round and conical. When she was born, she only had stripes on her head, neck and chest. Her legs, hind body and stomach were still stripeless when, as a foal, she first stood up and waddled behind her mother. Her lack of stripes meant that the others began to shun her, particularly the younger members of the herd. Only her mother stood up for her. As she grew older, to everyone’s surprise and against her nature, she began to develop stripes on the grey-andwhite areas of her body. Even her large ears had two stripes each: one in the middle and another at the tapering tip.

Punda was unaware that her late development of stripes was unnatural. She was completely unaware of the changes in her hide, as the behaviour of the rest of the herd remained unchanged; the discrimination continued as usual, only now it was out of envy.

One day she had finally had enough of it and decided to leave the herd and go off by herself. She wandered across the mountains of Ethiopia and from there down into the Sudan and the steppes of Kurdufan. From there she was chased on her way by jackals and nasty servals. After wandering for six months she finally arrived at the Jarma Oasis, barely alive, nothing but skin and bones.

By the time she met Muthul, she had regained the soft curves of her figure. Her eyes were filled with the glow of life once again, and with those eyes she looked at Muthul.

Before night fell, as the sun sunk behind the Atlas Mountains and the animals retreated to their burrows or climbed into the protection of trees or huddled close together, Punda Milia moved away from the camels and closer to the resting lion lying beneath the Carob tree.

Muthul watched the zebra through half-closed eyes, and his mouth watered and his tail quivered; hunger wrenched at his stomach. He crept closer to the animal that resembled a horse, and in a flash his sensory memory brought the strong, sweet taste of horsemeat to his tongue. When he was close enough, he knelt down low, raised his head so that he could see the creature properly, her stripes, her powerful head, her funny fringe, her white teeth munching the grass, her tail as it skilfully flicked flies from the moist areas around her buttocks. But Muthul didn’t attack her.

Punda Milia was the most beautiful female creature Muthul had ever seen. Punda turned slowly, a brown Carob pod in her mouth, and looked at Muthul softly, then turned away again, briskly shook her neck and continued ruminating. The muscles in her hips quivered wildly beneath her tight skin.

Muthul and Punda Milia began a passionate love affair. This was the first erotic encounter for the zebra, made all the more wonderful as the pleasure was mixed with moments of fear and terror. For the old lion, it was as though he were reliving his youth.

On the third night, Punda Milia signalled to Muthul that she would not mind if he made violent love to her. She had never considered herself particularly attractive. Now she wanted to feel dominated, possessed and forced.

Once, just once, Muthul’s lovemaking became too violent. He pulled hard at Punda Milia’s neck, his teeth sunk deep into her skin, blood spattered into his mouth, the taste of blood forced his jaw to clamp shut and snap the Atlas vertebra in his striped beloved’s neck just as she cried out with pleasure.

Punda Milia’s heart burst with overwhelming joy. It beat for a moment, warm with love, then broke of sheer happiness.

Muthul was inconsolable. He wept for his dead, striped love for two days. On the third day, he ate her.

Translated by David Hackston

(First published in Books from Finland 4/2008.)


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