A LION IN THE FOREST
A forest of beech trees in late April is as neat and tidy as a newly unwrapped present. Fresh tufts of grass have sprung from the earth, covering the layer of rotten leaves that had to be waded through at the end of autumn. The air is fresh and fragrant and – is it even possible? – seems to be tinkling gently. But more likely this is the sound of the safety boots (with a buckle that has come undone) that the young forest engineer is wearing as he is walking down the road that the forest administration’s vehicles have carved into the terraced countryside. He could have taken a shortcut. No one knows as many shortcuts in the forest as he does, but what’s the rush? He revels in the world around him, a joyful feudal lord, proud of something he doesn’t own and doesn’t really need to, as it’s enough for him to be fond of it and thoroughly at home in it. It was his forest, which, like a magnet, had drawn him back home once he had completed his degree.
Just a few weeks ago, by five in the afternoon everything around here would have been sunk in darkness. But today dusk has only begun its stealthy approach and the forest is radiant, rich in colour: the trees’ canopy has yet to fully close and the fresh foliage flutters in the wind, letting through more sunlight than it will in a week’s time. In the dappled light, particles of space seem to shift about as if the forest were in motion. Amidst the birdsong, the screeching of a chainsaw in the distance, which has served the engineer to orient himself, is far less unsettling than a sudden, vague feeling that he is not alone. But the sensation is gone before he is fully aware of it, frightened off by the creaking of a tree trunk.
A four-year-old boy peers out from between the trees and looks around. He had come here this morning. While plucking purple flowers for his mummy, he had seen his brother Michal disappear behind a tree to hide from him. He got scared and ran after him. Michal had given a laugh and stuck a bunch of flowers under his nose; now he is sitting at the table examining his younger brother’s drawing. He chuckles:
“But lions live in Africa.”
The little one ignores him. He is completely absorbed, colouring in the lioness’s back paw. He is clutching the crayon so tightly it might break any minute.
“They live in the jungle, not in the forest,” Michal continues. “If they lived in our forest, they’d soon kill all the animals and there’d be nothing left to eat.”
Drawing trees is hard. He only learned to do it recently: first you shape the trunk, next some branches growing out of it, then a splodge of green, like smoke from a chimney. And between two of the trees, a pair of lions. The male, with his thick mane, is ready, and the lioness is nearly done.
“You have to draw them a palm tree.”
Michal pins down the sheet of paper with two fingers but before he can pull it towards him and show how you draw a palm tree, a hand lands on the drawing and his eyes encounter an uncompromising gaze from under a pair of arched eyebrows.
Michal is past his big cat phase. He abandoned it readily and scornfully once his younger brother developed an interest in them, an interest that had since grown into an obsession. His weird, truly weird younger brother. Once he gets immersed in something, it is quite unlike other little boys playing. As if it wasn’t child’s play. Sometimes he totally forgets about the outside world, stops receiving signals from his surroundings. In order to bring him back, mummy has to shake him and plead with him to listen.
There was a time, long, long ago now, when Michal used to be scared of him. Once he was startled awake in the middle of a hot summer’s night, to find his little brother sitting on his bed, motionless, a dark silhouette. Although he couldn’t see his face, he knew that the little one was watching him. Michal couldn’t tear his eyes off him, he was unable to turn away or say a word. He only closed his eyes after a dark blotch started to spin above his brother’s head – but it was probably just his tired eyes imagining it. Later he overheard mummy discuss his brother with a friend: she was laughing, which helped to ease away the nightmare somewhat. She said that when he was a baby, there had been times when she hadn’t seen him sleep for days on end, a couple of weeks maybe; it was as if he slept only when they, the parents, went to sleep as well. Michal would never tell his parents that he was afraid of being left with his brother at night; he wouldn’t admit that to anyone in the world – and eventually he stopped dwelling on it, too. About a year ago his dad took him aside and said that his brother suffered from fits of some kind, but he didn’t say what kind. There was something about the way his father talked to him that made it sound like he was being admitted into the world of grown-ups; except that it was a limited admittance and, as it turned out, it didn’t come entirely free either – he must never beat his brother, has to protect him and keep an eye on him wherever they go. So, to compensate, he at least took every opportunity to annoy his brother, as he had earlier today in the forest.
He dabs at the paper once more, very quickly, barely touching it. The crayon stops its dance for a moment although his little brother doesn’t look up and keeps drawing. Michal goes back to his own picture. He has to draw a lorry driver in his cab – lorries are a hundred times better than lions.
His younger brother holds the paper down with his forearm, just in case. He knows everything there is to know about lions. In the Encyclopaedia of Animals, so huge he can barely lift it, the first pages in the entry under the letter L are all grubby, evidence of his frequent thumbing. He watches films on Africa with his daddy. The lionesses are the ones that stalk the prey and their shoulder blades rise and fall gracefully as they walk. The males prefer to stay in the shade, yawning. And please note that the furry end of their tail is called the tuft. No one knows as much about lions as he does. They growl and hug him with their enormous paws, but they won’t hurt him.
The young engineer looks around: he registered some movement right at the edge of his peripheral vision, something has slipped into the dappled light next to a thick tree trunk. He freezes: less than twenty metres away, crouching in a sea of purple honeysuckle, a muscular lioness lies in wait. From her slightly open jaws comes a deep growl, less a sound than a vibration quivering in the air. A few graceful leaps and the engineer finds himself face to face with the beast – his heart, in thrall to the growling, has skipped a beat. The lioness rears up, resting her front paws on the engineer’s shoulders. For a split second he is seized by a seductive, dream-like sensation, verging on bliss… before crumpling beneath the weight of the enormous body.
Something moist, warm and prickly, moving up and down his face awakens him. He waits a little before opening his eyes. The lioness is watching him inquisitively from about two metres away, her pupils yellow, her tongue lolling out, the tips of her fangs bared in a smile-like grimace. He takes a few steps back. The lioness also moves but keeps her distance, as the man turns on his heels and bounds down the hill at full pelt.
He doesn’t look back to check if the animal is following him. He knows it is! Concentrating all his energy into one mighty bound, he grabs the thick bough of a tree whose low, wide branches are spread before him and leaps off the ground. He continues to clamber upwards. Every muscle in his body plays its part in this sprint for safety. A fleeting look back: the lioness is pawing the tree trunk, eyeing him (did he catch her by surprise?), her tail swishing from side to side as if it was a completely separate animal, independent of her existence. The engineer inches his way up a few more metres, to be on the safe side. He leans his head against the branches of the canopy and lets his weight sway him to and fro. He relaxes although he’s still shaking and panting.
He waits a little longer for the saw’s screeching to stop, then fills his lungs with air and starts shouting for help; this is the first time he has needed to use his vocal cords in this way. When he pauses, the chainsaw restarts – evidently, no one has heard him. He tries again and again, until nothing but a futile, hoarse croaking comes from his desperate throat.
He glances down between the tufts of green. It is as if the lioness had never been there. The birdsong has stopped. But not the chainsaw; the little boy also hears the voice about to make the engineer’s head explode; he is oblivious of everything except the echo of the man’s voice. He is sitting on the sofa, his eyes fixed on the pages of an open book. A tiny stream of saliva trickles down the shining sliver of his lip. It lands on the yellowing page. The book, which his brother has just brought him, relishing the superiority of being older, had once belonged to their daddy. It’s an old travel book about Africa, without any photographs, but illustrated with drawings. One shows a man-eating lion baring its fangs. The boy has never seen a beast like this. It has added to his knowledge of lions and taken his breath away.
Michal returns, carrying a glass of fruit juice. The door slams against the wall, breaking the boy’s train of thought and as he looks up and licks his lips, over in the forest (watch out for that buckle!) the young forest engineer tumbles out of the tree.
First off, astonishment: only a second ago he was perched up in the tree and suddenly he’s down on the ground. He tries to get up, but an excruciating pain contorts his body – he has broken a leg. He looks around: the forest is peaceful, darkness thickening amongst the trees. Nothing moves except for a thrush rustling in the bushes by the road. The chainsaw can’t be heard either. Where has everyone gone? His left foot is bare, the boot lies by the tree trunk. His grazed forearms sting. He runs a hand over his face; when he takes it away, it is smeared with blood. He is gripped by a sense of panic and his muscles tremble in response.
Suddenly, everything comes to a halt. The thrush flies out of the bush, then a dark shape detaches itself from the undergrowth and starts to approach – the engineer has never seen anything like it. It is a caricature of a lion, a monstrously grimacing creature with gaunt sides and a thinning mane. It is moving slowly, its head low, as if trying to sweet-talk the man. Two steps forward, one back. The choreography of the man-eating beast follows a precise line. Its starting point is a crazed stare, its end a throat with its agitated Adam’s apple.
RICHARD PUPALA (1972) is a Slovak writer, dramaturg and scriptwriter. After studying journalism and art history at Comenius University he went on to study scriptwriting at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava, where he also gained a PhD and taught for two years. As a student, he earned his living as a barman, journalist and advertising copywriter, and currently freelances as writer of fiction as well as scripts for film and TV. In 2007 Pupala won the Poviedka Short Story competition. His first collection of short stories, Návštevy (Visits) appeared in 2014. His most recent collection, Čierny zošit (The Black Notebook), published in 2017 by Marenčin PT, was shortlisted for Slovakia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Anasoft Litera, in 2018.
About the Translators:
JULIA AND PETER SHERWOOD are based in London and work as freelance translators from and into a number of Central and East European languages. Julia Sherwood was born and grew up in Bratislava, Slovakia, and spent more than twenty years in the NGO sector in London before turning to freelance translation some ten years ago. She is Asymptote’s editor-at-large for Slovakia. Peter Sherwood’s first translations from the Hungarian appeared fifty years ago, but he was an academic for over forty years before retiring and devoting himself more or less full-time to translating. Their joint book-length translations into English include works by Balla, Daniela Kapitáňová, Uršuľa Kovalyk, Peter Krištúfek (from the Slovak), Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki (Polish), and Petra Procházková (Czech). Peter’s translations from the Hungarian include works by Béla Hamvas, Noémi Szécsi, Antal Szerb, and Miklós Vámos.