Fiction / May 2009 (Issue 7)

The Subcontinent Pride

by Janet McClaskey

"What's that straw stuff on her head?" I asked, turning to Vardemon.

"Rice," he said. I watched the woman pass a few yards away, her head held steady as the blue pattern of her sari grazed the dust along her thin brown ankles.

"Is it rude to take picture?" I asked.

"No. No," he said, waving his dark hand impatiently at the flies that swarmed about his head. "Good shot in there." He slid down the dusty bank from the trail and headed toward the opening in a long low hut. I'd seen these buildings dotting the countryside but never been inside one. He pushed aside the palm thatching in the doorway and motioned me inside. It was cool and dark with only enough light from the window to make out the rear end of a pony standing in one corner and a small tan calf curled up in the other. I breathed in the unfamiliar smell of warm, wet horse manure and smiled.

For weeks now, I'd wandered the city streets, a hundred near misses of cow piles drying, my shoes covered in the soft feces, the constant smell of Hindu gods surrounding me. But out here in the country, I saw no Brahamans. A few herds of water buffalo, an occasional lumpy camel, a horse or two, but no cows. "The country's godless," Vardemon had laughed when I'd asked him about the absence of bulls who wandered the city streets calmly, rooting through the piles of refuse and reclining, silently chewing cud on the medians, oblivious to the honking, stinking, ever-present traffic that passed within inches of their noses. I'd smiled doubtfully when he'd said it, so he repeated, "The country's godless." I offered a blank chuckle. "You know," he went on, "the Brahaman cows are gods to Hindus. No cows in the country mean it's godless."

"I know," I said, trying to eek out a chuckle for him, but he waved his hand as though to say never mind and took off again. What I really wanted to know was if he was Hindu. Could a Hindu make a joke about a cow being a god? Or was he some other religion, a Jain or a Christian, and wouldn't it be insensitive to make that joke even if he were? I'd been here a month, and it was all still so confusing to me that I thought it better to keep my mouth shut about the gods of cows.

I was a little afraid to walk behind the horse, but Vardemon trudged on through the hut and swung his arm out the window. "Here," he said. "Good photo." I stuck my head out the window as he held the palm tips aside with his thin black wrist. A dozen women in gold and purple and pink saris squatted or bent over in the soupy water pushing short green rice shoots into the muck precisely the same distance apart. "Zoom in," he said as I raised my camera. I panned the landscape, snapping shot after shot of beautifully colored women planting or squatting in the shadows of straw huts with clay pots. In one frame I caught a tiny boy standing in the low water between the grassy rice, his hand shading his eyes as though he were looking back straight at me. I lowered the camera and surveyed the beauty, hungry for the sight, until my leg went numb and I had to shift my stance.

As I stepped back, my foot caught a horse turd and I stumbled backwards, nearly losing my balance. The pony skittered and the calf rose in one swift movement and leapt out the door. Vardemon made a motion to catch me, his arms swept wide, but I caught my balance and planted my feet firmly. In the back of my mind somewhere, I had the sense that the movements of the copper-colored animal in the corner hadn't been right to be a calf. I hadn't seen any cows in the country at all, and the swift, lithe leap out the door was far too graceful for any calf I'd known back home on the ranch in Texas.

"What was that thing?" I asked, but Vardemon just turned on heel and ducked out the low door.

I glanced at the horse and followed. Outside, the morning sun blinded me and I raised my hand to shield my eyes. I could see a dark shadow standing over me and heard the skitter of Mike as he slid down the road bank toward me. He pulled me back up onto the dusty path and we stood there above the thatched hut, shading our eyes and scanning the rice fields. The colored saris of the women stood out against the muddy water like blinking dots.

"Any good shots?" Mike asked. I swept my hand across the landscape.

"Well, just look," I said. "National Geographic, here I come." Mike laughed.

"It is beautiful," he said.

"No," I said. "I mean it. You think that thing about being a freelance photographer is just a pipe dream. But in this country." A long, low growl, something between a howl and a roar, came around the end of the hut.

"What the hell was that!:" Mike said. We looked at each other doubtfully, and a tiny rope of fear crept around my heart and tied itself in a knot.

"There was this thing," I said. "Inside. At first I thought it was a calf, but then it leapt up, and I'm not sure..." The rice stalks at the other end of the hut rustled, and we stood still. "Where's Vardemon?"

I stuttered "I don't know," Mike said. "I thought he was with you."

"He was," I said. "In the hut, but then. . ." We looked around in every direction, but our guide had disappeared. Simultaneously, then, we began to back away. Step by silent step we eased our way backwards down the trail until suddenly we saw the woven straws of the rice fence tremble, then give way as some undeniable force bashed against them. A tawny lion came crashing through the broken reeds.

"Run!" Mike screamed, and we took off down the path. We could see the glassy windows of the seven-story hotel winking in the distance, and I glanced back just in time to see the golden form leaping toward me. The lion landed on my legs, pummeling me into the dust and knocking the air out of my lungs. I could feel him tearing into my head, biting my neck and shoulders, his claws digging into my torso, and I knew I was done for.

Once when I'd been driving in a blinding rain, I'd glimpsed a pickup flipping round and round, ripping out deep tracks of mud, and winging its way across the median straight for me. Hemmed in on both sides by semis, I couldn't dodge him, and I remembered that incident now: the panicked thought "I am going to die!" followed by the deep calmness "I am going to die." and then the flashing of my life before my eyes, every single moment flipping through like a speedy venation blind. My life flashed before my eyes now, as the lion mauled my head and neck. I could feel him licking my blood with his large rough tongue as it streamed out of my wounds.

I had closed my eyes as that truck sped toward me, but, miraculously, there had been no deafening crash, and when I opened them, I was still driving along, at a constant speed between the semis. I never knew if the pickup had been stopped or what, but it definitely hadn’t hit me or anybody else, and it occurred to me that if I could envision this memory while the lion lay on top of me licking and licking my hair and neck that I probably wasn't dead now either. I lifted my head, and the lion swiped his slobbery tongue across my glasses. I heard Mike shouting and through the blurry lenses could see him waving a stick and running toward me. Later I asked him where he'd gotten a stick in the middle of Indian rice fields, and he said, "I don't remember, but if there was a stick to be had, you could be sure I'd find one." We laughed.

The lion leapt off me then, and I could feel the air rush back into my lungs nearly bursting them. I lay there in the dust, face down, covered in lion spit, and took stock of my injuries. I could hear Mike yelling in the background and looked up just in time to see the lion spring toward him, snatch the stick out of his hand, make a racing circle around him, drop the stick at his feet like a dog, and lie down before him. It occurred to me right then that the damn thing might be tamed.

We'd seen a bear that way, haltered and lying down in the middle of the road with an apparent troupe of ragtag performers on the road to Agra. Though the Taj Mahal held certain wonders with its white marble steps and gory tales of every man who worked on it having his hands cut off so he could never make anything as beautiful again (told to us hush, hush by the guide who wasn't supposed to ruin the beauty), I'd found the actual road to the city of Agra most enjoyable. Mike had said that everything that could move was on that road that day, and we laughed as we passed by the unbelievable cacophony of travel. Camels and water buffalo labored along at breakneck speed pulling carts of sticks or market produce. Cars, motorized rickshaws, bicycles, and motor bikes loaded with papas, mammas, and a child—sometimes two—squished in between all vied for a place in the five lanes. But the bear had simply gone to sleep, sprawled out beside his owner, looking nearly dead in the halter and leash, so it wasn't impossible that the lion might be somebody's pet performer as well as. After all, I'd found him lounging lazily inside the rice hut with the startled horse.

I could sense Mike kneeling beside me then, and I sat up stiffly, taking stock of my injuries. "Are you hurt?" he asked, squatting in the dust as the lion nosed around his feet and finally lay down a few feet away. A small cloud of caramel dirt settled on his matching coat, and he began to bite his paw. I removed my glasses and smeared the slobbery mud around the lenses with the hem of my skirt. Then I tried to wipe off my head, neck, and hair.

"Is there blood?" I said, twisting my head to the side.

"I don't think so," Mike shook his head. "Only slobbers. Or maybe snot." He pulled me to my feet, and the lion squinted up lazily at us. I staggered a little, and Mike caught my arm. A low rumbling was coming from the lion now, and I swear he was smiling at us as he sat in the sun.

"What's that noise?" I asked as we stared at the creature.

"I think it's purring," Mike said petulantly. We listened.

"I think you're right," I said. We stood there in the heat and the dust and the flies and listened to the lion purr.

"Can you walk?" Mike said finally. I nodded my head yes, and we started off again toward the shiny windows of the hotel glimmering in the distance. It hadn't seemed that far when we'd set off this morning with Vardemon, but now it looked light years away. I limped along with Mike's support, glancing back from time to time toward the lion who lounged in the bright sun, flicking his tail against the flies. "Damn, Vardemon," Mike said at one point as we hobbled along in the dust.

We'd gone a few hundred yards when we heard the padding behind us. The lion had joined us in a half dozen simple leaps, swiping his paw against Mike's legs and knocking them out from under him. He hit the ground with a thud, and the lion began licking him playfully and tapping him with its paw. Mike hadn't fared as well in the attack as I had, and when I rolled him over, I found he had a bloody nose and broken glasses. I tried to wipe the blood off with the hem of my skirt, but the lion minced up and licked it off in one smooth swipe. A lump began to rise on Mike's temple, but he assured me he could walk, so we began again, this time the lion close at our heels.

When we walked, he walked. When we stopped, he stopped. We tried to shoo him away a couple of times, but he thought we wanted to play and began frisking around, batting us with his paws so we thought it better to just walk along the path, nonchalantly pretending we weren't being trailed by a wild, vicious beast. A few women passed by, piles of sticks balanced neatly on their heads, but they never even glanced at the lion—or at us. Unlike the school girls at tourist sites who clamored for a photo with the only white people they'd ever seen, these farm women didn't even seem to notice us. I was hoping maybe one of them could take the lion off our hands, but he continued purring and rubbing the hard bone of his skull against our hands like an overgrown kitten as we walked.

The hotel was miles away through the dust and the flies, but we continued on, Mike's head throbbing. His nose had stopped bleeding, and I brushed the flies away from our faces as we walked. Sometimes the lion scampered on ahead, sometimes he lingered at our sides and licked our palms, but he never left us, and that was precisely what had us worried.

We considered walking right up to the front steps of the hotel to see if the doormen in their fancy coats, white gloves, and little hats would take care of the lion, but when we reached the back door of the hotel, it was all we could do to drag our tired bodies through it. Mike opened the door just wide enough to slip through, and I followed him, leaving the lion outside the glass—but as I slipped in, he took a bite out of the tail of my skirt and held on firmly. I was forced to choose between slipping out of the garment entirely and hoping no one saw my panties in the elevator (certain public humiliation in a Hindu country that didn't even allow legs to show) or going back out to unhook my clothing from the lion's teeth. It was the first time he'd used his teeth, and I was a little worried. I tried to pull the skirt free, ripping the material through his canines, but he just opened his mouth wider and snapped his jaws shut on a deeper bite, ripping most of my skirt to shreds.

As I stepped back out the door and unhooked my skirt from his teeth, the lion rubbed his head against my knees like a pussy cat and began purring. "What are you doing?" Mike said from the doorway.

"Getting my skirt loose," I said.

"Well, come on," he said. "My head's killing me. I may have a concussion." He held the door open for me, and the lion bounded past, knocking the floral arrangement off the table near the elevator. "Get out!" Mike yelled at him, pointing toward the open door, but the lion just sat down and looked at us. "Shit," he said, holding the door open and stepping back outside. The lion pounced his way back out into the sun with the both of us.

"Okay," Mike said, about to lose it, "You go in first, and I'll try to nudge him out here." He cracked the door, and I went on in, holding it open a tiny bit so he could follow. One leg, his upper torso, one leg to go, but the lion clamped teeth deep into Mike's calf, dragging the whole of him back out the door. Mike howled as the door slammed shut on his hand, and the lion bit into his leg.

I whipped the door open and began beating the lion with my fists. He let go of Mike's leg, scampered a few feet away, and then came back to rub his head against my back. "Can you walk?" I said to Mike, lifting him.

"Yes, I can walk," he spat out between closed teeth, "but if you don't get that damn lion away from me, I'm going to..."

"What?" I asked. "What exactly are you going to do?" Mike glared at me. "Never mind," I said. "Let's get you up to that room and take a look at your leg." I opened the door and Mike hobbled on in, the lion following. The elevator opened, and the lion stepped inside and lay down in the corner. Mike started in, but I put my arm up. "Wait," I said. "Maybe we could send him up to some floor and somebody else'd have to deal with him?" We considered it for a minute as the lion waved his tail against the metal of the elevator wall. The doors began to close, but at the last minute, he leapt smoothly between them and out toward us again.

"Bright idea," Mike said, pushing the button again. I could see a dark stain seeping through the leg of his jeans, and for the first time since the lion had landed on me, I felt fear. What if he'd been really hurt? What if he needed a doctor? We'd have to be crazy to go to a hospital in India.

The lion followed us to our room and waited patiently in the hallway as we slid the key card into the slot. Mike hobbled on in, sat down on his bed, and slipped off his pants. I knelt beside him, examining the tips of little bloody holes where the lion's teeth had penetrated the flesh of his calf. A thin line of blood ran down his leg from each hole. "It's not too bad," I said. "I'll get a wash cloth."
Mike lay back on the bed, his legs bent at the knees, his feet touching the floor. The lion paced around the room, sniffing, looking out the window.

"What if they think we stole him?" Mike said as I ran water into the sink.

"What?" I asked.

"What if they think we stole him?" he said again. I brought the warm cloth and held it against his leg, moving it slowly from bite mark to bite mark.

"Does he look stolen to you?" I asked. We looked at the lion who lay calmly beside the hotel desk smiling at us. He began to purr. "No," I said. "He looks perfectly content. Like he belongs to us. Now how the hell are we going to get rid of him?" Mike continued to stare at the lion, and I warmed up another cloth in the bathroom.

"I'm going to call the desk," I said finally, "and get them to come up here and get him. Here. You hold this. I think you've stopped bleeding." I handed the cloth to Mike and stepped around the lion to pick up the phone.

I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror, and for a moment I wondered what we were doing in this God-forsaken country. My reflection told the story—filthy, disheveled hair, torn clothes, covered in dust and lion slobber, my face a muddy mess from where the lion had drooled on me—and I asked myself whether the pictures were worth it. National Geographic here I come, I thought and gave myself a wry smile in the mirror.

Mike made a moaning noise from the bed, and just as I pushed the number, someone knocked on the door. "Who is it?" I said, replacing the receiver. A mumbled reply. "Who?" I asked, opening the door.

"Room service," said the small Indian who stood in the doorway extending a metal covered tray, a white cloth draped over his arm. "Room service?" I asked. "We didn't order any room service. Did you come about the lion?" The lion rose then, and the Indian's eyes grew wide as he backed into the hallway. "We didn't order room service," I said. "Can you get someone to take care of the lion for us?" He shook his head vehemently and took off. I looked over at Mike who had sat up and modestly covered his bare legs with the sheet. The lion was licking the wounds on Mike's legs. "A dog's spit is antiseptic," I said, shrugging. Mike smirked at me.

"Very funny," he said.

The lion looked back mournfully at me as they harnessed him and led him away. I watched out the window, and he kept staring up at the fifth floor longingly as the farmer who owned him walked him down the dusty path away from our air conditioned room toward his squalid hut. The hotel sent a doctor to bandage Mike's leg and give him a series of five pills guaranteed to stop infection—and probably anything else. He examined the lump on Mike's temple and recommended ice. We stayed one more night before we headed back toward the safety of the dirty city and the sanctity of cows. But I couldn't help but think, as we passed the blues and pinks of the sari speckled rice patties, that there was a God out here in the country somewhere too.

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