LION TAMING: AN INTRODUCTION
The Ringmaster traded a dancing girl, a barrel of red wine, and on old carburetor for Lucille the lion. When his counterpart from the other circus learned the Ringmaster didn’t have any experience with lions, he threw in, gratis, a pamphlet called Approaches to Taming Your Lion. In the months to follow, the Ringmaster set to work.
APPROACH #17: BRUTE FORCE
It is in a lion’s nature to respect hierarchies. Size and strength can sway a lion into submission.
The Ringmaster brought his right hand man, Claude, and Red the wrestler to the lion’s enclosure.
“You sure about this boss?” Red asked.
Claude snickered. “You scared?”
Claude was a buffoon, but the Ringmaster brought him along for the duel purposes of absorbing some of Lucille’s physical punishment and, more so, to egg on Red, as the kind of man who’d silence his better judgment sooner than he’d admit cowardice.
“I don’t know what it’ll prove.” Red had his hands up already, as if preparing to feel out Lucille like an ordinary wrestling opponent. “Maybe I take her, but that only means she respects me, not the rest of you.”
It was true that this, like most of the Approaches, felt half-baked.
“And what if I can’t beat her?” Red asked.
The Ringmaster tilted his head to Bruno, the old wrestler Red had unseated, standing by with an old tranquilizer gun from when the circus had an elephant.
Lucille, who had rested in some space between sleep and casual interest in the men outside her cage—rose to all fours. She stretched, arching her back high, and opened her mouth in a wide yawn.
When Red and Claude were inside, the Ringmaster closed the door and sealed the padlock. Red looked back, and it was clear he’d heard the finality in that click.
Claude shadowed Red. More than imitating the wrestler, Claude kept the wrestler’s body between him and lion. Finally, Red ushered him to the left, so that the two might approach Lucille from opposite sides and close in—as good a strategy as any the Ringmaster could deduce.
Lucille advanced on Claude first, lashing out with a swipe that he narrowly dodged. The Ringmaster felt the raised scar over his own chest through his shirt as he looked on, remembering.
And it was that false move that gave Red his window. The Ringmaster had heard him talk about the mechanics of wrestling and that one of the truest keys to victory was to take advantage of the smallest opening mercilessly and without hesitation. Before Lucille had fully retracted her paw, Red dove, shooting at her hind legs and scaling up on her back in what looked simultaneously like a frenzy, and expert precision. He maneuvered his face into the back of her head, tucking his right arm under her throat, pressing the left down against the top of Lucille’s head. It was a chokehold masterfully applied such that, while Lucille didn’t seem altogether subdued, neither could she reach him with any of her appendages. Lucille fell to her side, in what the Ringmaster at first took for exhaustion, and the possibility that the brute force approach had actually worked. As she began to roll, the Ringmaster recognized it as her own form of wrestling—to loosen his grip through motion and pressing the considerable weight of her body on top of him.
Red held fast, legs clamped to her mighty ribs to anchor his body in place against hers. Red turned his head carefully, in a moment of relative stillness. “A little help! Get her legs!”
Claude edged toward Lucille’s hind legs but she kicked them back in his direction, as if to communicate that the indignity of this one man holding her was bad enough, and she wouldn’t abide another.
It took a matter of minutes, but Lucille did fade. Unbelievably enough, and albeit with the benefit of Claude’s distraction, Red had beaten a lion. For a moment, the Ringmaster’s mind shifted to whether there were some way of marketing the feat. He never would have thought to have video-taped the proceedings in advance, but looking back, it might have been a marvelous opportunity.
Red held on longer than the Ringmaster suspected he needed to, and he began to worry the wrestler might kill the lion. When he let go of the choke, though—slowly and by degrees—Lucille’s chest bobbed gently. Of course Red knew what he was doing. Of course he was a professional.
The Ringmaster unlocked the cage. The next steps in this taming approach weren’t clear, but Red had proven someone could best Lucille physically, and perhaps that might stick in her memory.
Claude got out of the cage.
Red had a foot in the air to make his escape when Lucille pounced.
She was, after all, a great big cat, and it would occur to the Ringmaster later that, had she leapt forward with all of her might, she could have sent herself and Red sprawling from the cage. She probably could have killed him or made a run for it before Bruno got his wits about him enough to fire a tranquilizer dart.
She didn’t make any gesture toward escape, however. Instead, she slammed Red’s body to the edge of the door, then got him to the floor of the cage where she pinned her paws down on his shoulders.
When the Ringmaster looked to Bruno, he had the tranquilizer aimed, but he waited.
And Red—Red was calmer than the Ringmaster ever would have expected for him to be, down beneath Lucille’s weight, her teeth inches from his face.
He said, “You win.”
Lucille let him go.
The moment Red had made it out of the enclosure, Claude rushed past the Ringmaster to slam the door shot and force the lock into place, as if Lucille were on the verge of escape.
“Lions are noble,” Bruno said. “They recognize worthy opponents.”
“Does that mean she’s tamed?” Claude asked.
Lucille flopped back to the floor, relaxed. She blinked slowly, as if tired, but in the glimmer of her open eyes, the Ringmaster understood her to still be anything but tamed. He understood her to be wild, if calculating. Respectful, if only to await her rubber match with the wrestler.
APPROACH #8: KINSHIP
Lions—like all creatures!—enjoy the company of their own kind. Consider working with a partner who reflects your lion’s spirit.
The Ringmaster didn’t want, per se, for Nina to get hurt. But there was some benefit to giving an insubordinate employee a scare every now and again, much the way he wished he could muster a scare from Lucille the lion, if only for a second, to show her who was in control.
Flattery was the key to getting any of the dancing girls involved in anything beyond the normal confines of their acts. Though she looked at him like his eyes were dangling from their sockets when he broached the subject of her working with the lion, all he had to do was tell her how beautiful and regal she was—so much like the lion—to begin to sway her.
The hard part wasn’t getting her to the cage door. It was getting her to the other side.
He expected she’d tuck tail and run before getting in, or at least before they closed the door behind her. At least he’d know he tried, and at least he’d have reasserted that modicum of control over one of his performers—maybe she’d even be grateful when he didn’t do anything to force her in.
But after a minute of standing, staring at one another from opposite sides of the iron bars, Nina stepped back, and told the Ringmaster it was all right to open the door.
What followed was as a dance. The lion, slowly beginning to circle, a low growl building in her throat. Nina’s legs grapevined. She moved with a sureness and a fluidity the Ringmaster had never had, least of all enclosed with Lucille.
Nina lowered to all fours. A cardinal mistake, the Ringmaster thought. The lion respected size first, creatures perceived to be larger than her. And here Nina was slinking toward her, less equal than sacrifice.
Then Lucille flopped onto her back.
Nina scratched beneath her chin.
Nina rubbed her tummy.
The Ringmaster had only known the lion as beast, but here she was as cat.
For Christ’s sake, she purred.
And in that moment, the Ringmaster recognized a certain ineffable animal connection between the two. Was that the case between all women? It seemed too simple. But this woman, smiling devilishly, hand buried in a tuft of fur, and this cat, an irresistible circus attraction if ever he could master her—hadn’t the both of them broken his heart time and again in their own ways? There was a language to that. An understanding.
Nina didn’t walk back to the cage door so much as she crawled, not in the tattered, bloody state the Ringmaster might have anticipated minutes before, but as though, in her kinship with Lucille, she had become part feline.
“That was impressive,” the Ringmaster said carefully. He didn’t know that he’d ever said that of her work before, for her performances might be deemed captivating, sensual even, but never required much skill, never implied her to be special. “We’ll discuss Lucille’s training.”
“I don’t know about training.” She ran a finger beneath his chin. She smelled of Lucille. “We were just getting acquainted.”
The Ringmaster understood then what he should have from the beginning. Nina never meant to help him. And Lucille? Those black eyes stared at him from behind bars. The glimmer in them shone for the prospects of violence, murder, and fresh meat.
APPROACH #30: HYPNOSIS
While each lion has a mind of his or her own, all minds are susceptible to outside control if manipulated appropriately. A skilled hypnotist can tame a lion in as little as one intensive session.
From the notes The Ringmaster had inherited from his predecessor, he knew to Never let a hypnotist practice on you, or anyone else who matters.
The logic to follow was straightforward enough. If a hypnotist really could plant suggestions and influence behavior, it was a dangerous thing to give him the opportunity to control the entire circus.
The Ringmaster couldn’t get a solid read on his hypnotist. He was an old school charm-dangler—the whole, you are getting sleepy, very sleepy shtick that felt dated and yet by and large seemed to work. Audience members danced jigs and spilled secrets on cue. Even if the Ringmaster heard rumblings on their way out of the big top that they’d only been playing along, there was something sheepish in their voices. They didn’t want to admit they’d been had, or that there really might be magic—or at least forces they didn’t understand—extant in the world.
So the Ringmaster went to him. Sir Patrick O’Shaughnessy on stage, simply Pat once he was behind the curtain. He asked him if he thought he could influence a lion.
Pat patted down the edges of his bushy moustache. “I don’t see why not. Though it would be better to hypnotize the both of you.”
Pat explained it as tackling a problem from two sides, like trying to lose weight through not only exercise but also diet, or learning his own craft as hypnotist through a combination of book learning and hands on practice. Hypnotizing the lion was half the equation, but hypnotizing the lion tamer not to fear the lion—to truly and compatibly believe the lion would be tamed—was the other.
The Ringmaster slept on it, but ultimately agreed, on the condition his right hand man Claude would listen in on their session and had full authority to knock Pat off his block if he reached beyond the hypnosis they’d discussed. Pat agreed, and his only additional request was that the Ringmaster give himself over fully. “Hypnosis can only work if the entranced party is open to it.”
Though the Ringmaster really wouldn’t recall much of anything from after the golden locket swung before his eyes, up to the moment Pat snapped his fingers, he roused with a sense of rest and calm—better than he ordinarily felt from sleep—and Claude confirmed there hadn’t been any funny business.
For as well as they’d started, the Ringmaster remained skeptical about hypnotizing the lion. He watched from a distance as the hypnotist sat cross-legged on the ground, on the far side of the iron bars from Lucille. The lion watched him and he began to wave his locket.
Pat didn’t wait for Lucille’s eyes to close to start giving instructions, but she did seem to be listening, and the Ringmaster wondered if the hypnotic trance really had taken hold. To his credit, Pat’s instructions were good. You will not hurt the Ringmaster. You will listen to the Ringmaster. You will follow the Ringmaster’s instructions, even above your own instincts. The success of this endeavor was predicated on Lucille knowing who the Ringmaster was—on following the English language at all—but her attention didn’t waver and when Pat snapped his fingers, she did seem to rouse by degrees, muscles tensing as if she had been dozing and was now awake.
All that was left was to test the results.
The Ringmaster stepped inside the cage. He felt the hypnotic calm, not his usual resignation to being mauled, but a new sense that he would enjoy progress with the lion this time. He made the motion with his hands. A sharp, fast, counterclockwise circle out in front of him. By virtue of fresh fish and repetition, he had partially trained Lucille to roll over at this instruction before.
She swiped at him, hard and fast, mercifully only catching him with a single claw, slicing a single line through his shirt and down his upper arm.
He retreated. Claude got the door open far enough for him and slammed it shut behind him before Lucille could make it out. The Ringmaster and Claude had that routine down nicely.
Outside the cage, Pat shrugged.
“I thought you said you could hypnotize a lion,” the Ringmaster held the wound, wondering if it were a bandage or stitches incision, and in either case, bracing himself for the sting of alcohol when the medic tended to him.
“I can,” Pat said. “But it’s like I told you—the party being hypnotized needs to be receptive to it.”
Lucille stretched lazily inside, front legs straightened, mouth open in a yawn that looked as though it could very easily become a roar or a crushing bite. A simple matter of will.
“That lion didn’t listen,” Pat said. “It’ll never work if she won’t listen.”
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Georgia with his wife and son. His hybrid chapbook, The Leo Burke Finish, is available now from Gimmick Press and he has previously published work with journals including The Normal School, Passages North, and Hobart. He works as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.