Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real. – Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
The sunset. That was what I remembered most on the drive back, the sun beating down on my limp body and the strength of the heat. I wasn’t sure if it was the blood pushing itself out of me or if it was the heat from the rays of the sun. Either way it was warm on my otherwise cold body. The color was a mixture of red, yellow and orange and it scorched itself into my eyes, into my memory. The sunset lit everything up in the darkness of the safari. The trees lit up and their shadows scattered the ground. My arm limped over the back of the jeep and my blood flowed down the tears in my skin and dropped off my fingers like rain falling off a leave. I couldn’t feel the blood running down my skin but I could see it and I could smell it. I went in and out of consciousness. One minute my eyes saw light from the sun and others it was as black as night. Only, nighttime had more light in the safari, the stars were clear and the moon shone bright. When my eyes closed nothing could be seen; there were no stars to guide me to my destination.
Sometimes I like to think what happened to me never happened. But with the scars I have it would be impossible. I dream of the moment it happened and I dream of the moments beforehand; what could I have done to change it? Was there someway I could have avoided what happened? But then I wake up and realize there is no way I can change anything and that I just have to live with it. It doesn’t even feel like a dream, it’s more like a movie scene playing over and over again in my mind. It never leaves me alone, whether I am dreaming or awake the memory will never leave me. It is engrained on me forever.
My father and I went to Africa to visit a lion sanctuary that he was working with. I’ve travelled with him before on his work trips but this one was different. On previous work trips he would be working with animals that had been in sanctuaries for months or years. This trip we would be working with a lion that had never had any human contact. My father never tried to keep me from the lion, I had always wanted to be a zoologist like him and he always thought these trips were the perfect opportunity for hands on experience. He never thought it would be this hands on. Sometimes I can still see the regret and sadness in my father’s eyes when he sees me, he blames himself for allowing me to get that close. It was no one’s fault except mine.
It was a normal day. We woke up early and ate breakfast as the sunrise came up. Dad had all of his gear ready to go the night before so all we had to pack were the camera chargers and bottles of water. The sun was already piercing down on our skin as we climbed into the jeep. I had set up several GoPro cameras on the jeep to make sure we got every angle we possibly could. The drive to the sanctuary was beautiful. The birds were chirping in perfect unison and flying in front of us as we sped down the dirt roads. The dirt flew up hitting the jeep and my hair was flapping in the wind. The sun was perfectly round hanging in the sky and shone down on us as we drove to the sanctuary. This was the first time I would be allowed in a cage with a lion that had not been around humans for a long period of time. I was nervous and my heart was pumping through my chest, but I was excited. I was more excited then I was nervous. Things like this made me feel alive.
We finally arrived at the enclosure and drove right in past all of the other lions we had visited the other day. Dad and I jumped out of the back and grabbed our backpacks. My dad walked around and spoke with a few of the employees and I walked over to one of the enclosure. There was a baby cub that was staring at me and I bent down staring at him. He looked up at me with his bright eyes that took up most of his face. It was almost like he was smiling at me and I leaned closer to the fence. His paw came up quick and he nicked me just below my right eye. I cowered and lifted my hand to the cut. It wasn’t deep and I could feel a couple of dots of blood falling down my cheek. I wiped it away quickly and looked in my backpack for something to wipe my face off. When I turned around I saw my father’s bright green eyes staring at me. His blond hair was blowing in the wind and he was smirking at me. I stood up smiling myself and walked over to him.
“They will get ya,” he said chuckling as he threw his arm around my shoulders and we began to make our way back to the jeep. I jumped in the back of the jeep and my dad jumped in the passenger seat and we sped off. Our guide was taking us to the enclosure that was passed the main compound. From my understanding, of reading my dad’s notes and eavesdropping on his conversations this lion, named Kasim, had never been involved with humans before. He has never been in an enclosure. In the reports it showed that he had been mortally injured and that researchers on a safari run saw the lion dying in the middle of the desert. They sedated him and brought him back to see if there was anything they could do to help him. The doctors were able to stabilize him and save his life, but Kasim was an angry lion and he lashed out at any human who would attempt to go near him. Kasim needed the time to heal before they could let him back out into the wild and my father was brought in to see if the injury was healing properly and if there is a reason as to why the lion is so angry. I, however, became quite familiar with Kasim’s anger and to this day I can still see his bright yellow eyes in my nightmares.
When we arrived our driver parked by the stairs that led to the enclosure. There was one large cage set up as an octagon and there was not much else around. Kasim was in an area all to himself, clearly the handlers did not trust his rage and kept him away from everything. There was one door to enter and to exit right in the front of the octagon. We walked to the side where the stairs were so we could get a birds eye view on the lion. Our boots clanked as we walked up the metal stairs and our guide, Pierre, showed us around the top. There were walkways all around; two that spanned from one side to the other vertically and horizontally and they met in the middle. Then there was the one main one that walked the perimeter. We walked around the edge and then into a room where the security guards were sitting and the controls for the door was. My father, Pierre and I dropped our bags off and took big gulps of our water bottles. The heat was beginning to get through us and I could barely swallow without my throat burning.
“Where is the lion?” Pierre asked with his French accent. Pierre was born in Paris, France and moved to Africa to help with the conservation of lions. I had overheard this between him and my father on our drive to the encampment but I was only half listening.
“He is hiding,” the security guard answered shaking his head and rolling his eyes. He looked exhausted and bored with his stationary job. He pulled up more security cameras but there was only grass, dirt, trees and rocks lying around. The enclosure had been cleverly crafted to look like walls of grass or large trees to help with Kasim’s captivity.
“What do you plan on doing dad?” I asked curiously looking at the cameras and then looking down at his imprisonment through the glass.
“Well we are hoping that camouflaging the walls will make the captivity less like a prison and when we do let him go back into the wild it will be easier for him to adjust,” my dad explained pointing at the walls.
“What about the walkways on top? To him they are a part of the sky but when he gets out they won’t be there anymore,” I said jokingly. My dad elbowed me and smiled as well.
“Obviously those are there to feed him and to watch over him, but yes I see what your point is,” he said. My father turned around and went back to the cameras and then pointed to the screen. “There he is!” I moved quickly to the camera and stood in between my father and Pierre. Pierre and I were staring at the cameras looking to see where Kasim was.
“I cannot see him,” Pierre said as his eyes squinted looking for the lion. I was looking from one camera to the next but I could not see him at all. And then my father pointed again.
“There! There he is!” he exclaimed. He jumped from the cameras and swiftly walked to the edge of the walkway. He was looking down into the enclosure and then pointed again. Pierre and I looked at each other and then ran outside to where my father was as the security guard slowly followed behind us. He was pointing to the corner of the enclosure a few hundred feet away.
“How can you see that far away?” I asked squinting my eyes.
“My eyes are trained to look for lions even when most people cannot see them,” my father answered as his eyes lit up with knowledge and fascination. He had seen hundreds of lions before and yet his eyes always lit up, like a child on Christmas morning. The lions were his gift. I followed my father’s finger and I thought I saw movement, but it could have just been the wind blowing leaves. But then the rocks underneath the tree began to move and then I could finally see him. At first it was only his claws but then he began to move slowly from underneath the shade of the tree. His paw appeared and looked as if there were a couple of scars on it. He walked out from behind the rock and his eyes locked onto mine. I could see the pain and anger in his eyes as he walked out and began to come closer to us. My father instinctively put an arm in front of me and pushed me back further from the bar of the blockade. At first I didn’t protest, but I wanted to see the lion from up close. Too bad I got my wish.
I tried to push back against my father’s arm but he was surprisingly strong and turned around to look at me with a stern look. I knew then I should not go past his arm and at this point I was lucky I hadn’t. Kasim had jumped halfway up the enclosure and had reached out his giant paw and both my father and Pierre jumped back. The lion roared and I had never heard anything so powerful, mesmerizing and terrifying all at the same time. I was shaking and my father turned around and put his heavy hands on my shoulders.
“He can’t get to us,” he said sternly staring intently into my fear-stricken eyes. I nodded slowly and watched as the lion had walked away from where we were standing. My father let go of me and walked onto one of the other walkways. He walked straight to the middle of the enclosure and watched the lion as he walked around. I followed my father to the middle of the enclosure and watched Kasim walk around. He was the biggest lion I had ever seen, his muscles were visible through his fur as he pounded the ground with his paws. As I looked closer at his face and not just his eyes, I could see the scars on his face as well. There was one crossing his left eye and another three on the right side of his nose. I could tell why he was angry, he had been attacked throughout his life and now he was being caged up when he should be free. His very presence was intimidating; the strength in his walk and the determination, anger and power in his face made me feel like the inferior life. Even though he was caged up and trapped he still had a hold over me, he still ruled over me and I could not change the dynamic of this relationship.
I leaned over one of the sides, as my fear of the lion disappeared and my courage began to sprout along with my curiosity, to get a closer look, but Kasim had hid from my eager eyes. My father was looking for him as well but could not find him. How could an animal so large hide so quickly? Then suddenly it all happened at once. There was nothing anyone could do no matter how hard they would have tried. Unexpectedly, Kasim had jumped from the opposite side of where I was leaning and he had jumped high enough to hit the bottom of the walkway and it shook violently. I could feel myself slipping over the side and then suddenly my body had fallen over the side and I was hanging on for dear life. My father turned around and I could see horror and fear in his eyes, but I could already feel my hands slipping. It was scorching out and the bar was burning my hands and the sweat already on my hands was making it even harder to hold on. I could see my father reaching out to me but by the time he had made it to my side I had let go. I had fallen and all I could see was my father’s distressed face as he looked down at me.
I landed on the ground with a loud thud and then a painful jolt up my back. My head hit the ground as well and my sight went black for a moment before my eyes being blinded by the sunlight once again. I moved slowly from my back to my side but I was too sore to move any further. And then I heard it. The growl that came from Kasim’s stomach, but I also heard my father yelling for the gates to be opened. I could hear people running around the walkways as their boots clanked on the metal and I could hear my father’s voice closer to me then when he was standing above me. But Kasim’s growl was closer and I could tell this could be the end. I could not see the animal but I could hear him, and then his eyes were visible from behind the boulder. They were bright yellow and piercing and staring right at me. They did not blink and they did not move from me. I was his lunch and he would not miss it. I heard the gate begin to open but it was not quick enough and neither was I.
Kasim lunged at me and his claws came for my face. All I could see from behind my arm was his large teeth and cruel eyes. They were terrifying. He continued to claw at me and eventually I could not take the pain. My whole body was screaming for it to be over and I could feel every scratch he had left on my upper body. Eventually my left arm fell from loss of blood and that left my face as open game. I had lost so much blood that I was beginning to go in and out of consciousness. But I could still feel the stingy of his claws against my skin as he pulled it off of my face. I could feel the hot blood streaming down my face and out of my body. Then I heard a loud bang and his body landed on top of me. I could still feel his heart beating but it was slow, to the point of death, but then again so was mine.
“Get him off the boy!” I heard Pierre yell and then there was a little bit of relief from the weight of the giant beast as the handlers began to move him. I could feel my heart just barely beating, but I could also feel my blood leaving my upper body at the same rate as my heart. Every time it beat more blood would flow out of me. Suddenly, there was dirt being flung up over me and my father was kneeling by my side. He was saying my name but I could barely speak back. He held my head in his hands and was yelling at me to stay awake. I blacked out again and when I came back to I was in the back of the jeep speeding away, presumably to the nearest hospital. My father was holding several bandages over my face and Pierre was holding more over my abdomen. There was another man hovering over me holding bandages but I did not know who he was. I could hear my father, just barely, telling me to hold on, but it was difficult. The sun continued to beat down on my body as I lay uselessly on the back of the jeep. I could hear the voices above me and I could not tell if they were of my father and Pierre or if it was some sort of divine being. I could tell I was losing my mind, but I was also losing a large amount of blood and my mind was beginning to become clouded. My eyes became heavy and I could not keep them open long enough to watch the sun set. The bright rays and the shadow of my father was the last thing I saw awake. I closed my eyes and the yellow eyes jumped out at me again.