Arthur had never been fond of animals, but when his long-time girlfriend Mary invited him to the circus with her parents how could he refuse? He was planning on marrying her and needed to earn her father’s blessing to ask for her hand. Easier said than done, Arthur thought. Stock brokers on Wall Street usually don’t approve of college math professors, and Derek was certainly no exception. He just needed to get some quality time in with the family before he asked the father.
They sat in the middle of the crowd, far enough away from the animals and close enough so they still had a great view of the action. The place reeked as if a hundred people who hadn’t showered in a month all congregated in one place. Mary gently slid her hand over Arthur’s; he looked at her smiling face as her lips formed two sympathetic syllables: “Thank you”. He smiled back as sincerely as he could. Her expression indicated that he was convincing enough. Her parents noticed the exchange; Arthur hoped he had convinced Derek.
After the show, select members of the audience were allowed behind the scenes. That included them, since Mary’s father’s company was a prominent sponsor for the show. The smell grew worse. It reminded Arthur of the last time he was at the zoo, when he was six.
Derek pointed to the animals and began to walk towards them. One of the caretakers struck up a conversation, showing them the different beasts locked in their cages. They passed by giant elephants, monkeys squabbling in their cages, a tiger being cleaned by a trainer. The only animal Derek was interested in was the last one Arthur wanted to see: a great lion, proud, with a dark, thick mane and piercing eyes. As the group approached him, he growled, deep in the back of his throat. Arthur swallowed nervously, unwillingly remembering the last time he was this close to a lion. The caretaker held up a brush, asking anyone if they wanted to comb the lion’s mane. Derek slapped Arthur on the back, and he was falling, plummeting over the guard rail at the zoo upon the force of his brother’s hand. No, Arthur reminded himself. He wasn’t at the zoo with his family; he was at the circus with his girlfriend and her parents, and the caretaker was forcing the brush into his clammy hands. He glanced briefly towards the three people behind him. Derek whispered to his wife Anna, a malicious smile on his face. Anna glared at her husband incredulously. Her gaze turned upon Arthur and she smiled with traces of pity or remorse for her husband’s behavior. Mary’s beautiful face was drained of color, but her eyes shone bright with hope and anticipation.
Arthur took a deep breath to calm his nerves and turned toward the cage.. Had his leg always been trembling like that? The caretaker opened the cage. The lion stood up, bristling, and Arthur was six again, collapsed from the fifteen foot fall. The echoes of his brother’s laugh rang in his ear as the caretaker told him to follow slowly, teaching him how best to receive the lion’s permission to approach. Arthur wanted nothing more than to meet Mary’s comforting gaze, but he knew what Derek would think. The lion growled, and the tremor in his leg grew worse. The caretaker guided Arthur slowly towards the lion, telling him to extend his hand gently to show he was not a threat. It felt like lifting a lead brick. The lion walked closer, and Arthur was on the ground again, his tiny hands held up for dear life as the beast strode over to investigate. His brother’s laugh still rang in his ear, or was it Mary’s father now?
One hand reached the lion’s side. The beast did not flinch. The other began to brush, guided by the caretaker. With each stroke, the lion let its guard down more and more. It looked back, but Arthur dared not meet its eyes lest his courage falter beneath its steely gaze. Instead, he glanced at the three onlookers. Mary glowed with pride; she knew how difficult this was for him. Anna was smiling, simply happy that her daughter was happy.
As for Derek, his face showed nothing but shock that Arthur had done what he could never do. Arthur had no way of knowing how deep his future father-in-law’s fear of lions ran and how much this act spoke to Arthur’s character in Derek’s eyes. He simply took a deep breath, smiled, and focused intently on the brush in his hand.
About the story:
I wrote this as my final project for the story portion of a creative writing class in college. Our teacher gave us the prompt an hour before class. She told us to use something called a “story machine”. Basically, write down five professions and five actions on separate notecards, shuffle each category, then randomly draw one card from each category. That’s the premise of the story. My premise was “the math teacher petted a lion”. We had an hour to write our story then share it with the class. It’s since undergone quite a bit of editing, but the basic premise of the story stayed the same throughout. I was pleased with the results, to say the least.