The cave had been built on the back of a zebra. Judith had come running at dusk, hearing the zebra scream. Rifle in hand, she’d stood there, frozen. The roars ripping the night, miserable about sharing, crying out for her. She counted eyes in the dark and shot them, one by one, as they disregarded bullets and devoured the corpse of the zebra. Eyes at night are anonymous; it could have been coyotes or wild dogs. It was not.
Her children rotted in the pale autumn, leaving a gaping rib cage exposed with a stiff carrion curtain. Judith often wondered what it would be like to crawl inside and go to sleep. The head of the zebra rested between two lions, their maws forever nuzzling the creature. It was all Biblical, she thought. If only she knew which Psalm to apply.
A cicada flew down, almost invisible in the dusty yellow grass by her foot. With a quick stomp, she crushed it. Delicately dug the insect free of her instep. Placed it in her upturned hat to preserve all pieces.
Without any head protection now, she had to check the fence quickly. A lope around the perimeter; already her cheeks and nose began to burn. Her fair skin a gift from an Irish grandmother who never expected to set eyes on such a place as this — flat, sandy, gray. She noted no holes, no bent places, nothing torn.
That night, as she placed the cicada into the embers at fire’s outer edge, she had to admit that they were no longer testing her. Now they were waiting.
The cicada did not taste very terrible, not that she knew the difference anymore.
• • •
All the cages were empty now. Unless you counted old Hallibal’s cage; the tufted fur yet clung, the paws still curled. His claws were clean. She had looked.
It was proof of Gwen’s report, dated last April 17th. Hallibal had remained lion until the end of his days. If only the zebra hadn’t escaped. Judith had been saving it for his last meal. It might’ve lasted weeks. She could deal with the stench of rot. There were flowers that smelled less sweet.
It was the same zebra, she was sure. Their stripes were like fingerprints. Zebra 3, forever without a herd. She closed her eyes that morning, as she always did, when she reached the cave, a gross benediction for an animal she had never loved like the lions. It was unfair of her, she knew. But love always was a ladder.
When she opened them, something moved behind the ribs. She flinched. Of course it was only insects, or further corruption of the carcasses, or a vulture.
Small fingers reached beyond the cage.
Judith’s breathing stopped.
Cicadas, she thought. Blood pounding in her ears, she listened for the whir of wings —
A pair of green eyes.
She could not approach the fence, could not move, her boots were rooted in cement. Her lungs were filled with it. The thing inside the zebra pressed its mouth to a broken shoulder blade.
The roar shook her. She stumbled backward, gained her feet and ran.
There was nothing to eat that day, and the water from the roof tasted like rust. She crouched by Hallibal’s enclosure, her mouth dry, and waited, like always, for the lift and slump of his chest. It never happened.
• • •
It was from a time before, but now she saw how the light crept up the walls, how the mouth of the lion was open even then, though she did not hear it.
Judith made acorn coffee. The filter sank into her cup, and she sighed. For a moment, she forgot about the strange thing that had occurred the previous day at the cave. She merely wondered what she could eat, if it was worth attempting to plant some of the remaining seeds inside the house, in the little glass box she had made. The other seeds had failed to sprout, or died quickly. It was possible that she would soon wither as well. She wondered what it would be like. It would be worth it if Gwen would be there, on the other side, but neither had subscribed to those sorts of beliefs before. It seemed deceitful to start now.
She had never admitted this one thing to Gwen: that she believed in reincarnation. Gwen would have laughed. That would have been an interesting discussion, yes, but in the end, her belief would have been dismissed. So she had privately held to it. A duplicity that hadn’t seemed to matter. Her mother had often said that Judith was a girl who lied. Not to be trusted.
A cry from outside. Judith had not stretched, nor done her jumping jacks. Her muscles were stiff as she ran to the fence. To the exact spot. Knowing where the cry came from, afraid to know.
The girl curled inside the zebra. Even from thirty feet, Judith could see her freckles, her blonde hair tangled, the color of Kansas dirt in a drought. Her chest was bare and bony.
We could starve together, Judith thought.
She swayed, and the child crept on hands and knees from her hiding spot.
Judith opened her mouth to speak, call the girl closer, but then she saw.
The girl wore a scrap of fur on her back. It tied in an ugly knot around her neck.
Her chin lifted, the girl sniffed. Scented Judith. Opened her mouth in a pant.
The rifle jerked in her arms. Shaking, she pointed. Sighted. The girl stretched her neck, grinned.
Judith turned, trotting back to the house first, then running, frustrated screams at her back.
• • •
“This isn’t Africa. We can’t just let them go.”
Judith thought of all the pythons released in the Florida Everglades. They had a better chance, maybe, than the lions.
“Besides, you know I need them. For my research.”
“Don’t we know everything we need to know about lions?”
Gwen stared at her, a cup in her hands, light blue powder leveled off.
She dumped in the last cup and heaved a bucket handle in each hand. She backed out through the door to the pens.
“You don’t have to stay, you know.”
Judith peeled off the gloves and washed her hands, listened to the lions roaring for their food, the crash of their bodies against the fences. Some of the vitamin powder had spilled onto the stainless steel counter. She touched her thumb to it, lifted it to her mouth.
After a late dinner, when Gwen was at the computer, Judith came up behind her and put her hands on her shoulders. Gwen tensed. Gently, gently, Judith bit down on the tender part between neck and shoulder.
Seventy-one, Judith thought, remembering that night. She had been seventy-one.
• • •
“One-fifty,” said Gwen.
“Seven hundred.” The man with the tired capuchin on his shoulder pulled a cigarette from a pocket in his overalls. “Had his teeth removed myself.”
Judith was repulsed. Gwen said, “One-twenty-five, then.” As the man’s eyes widened, she told him that she wasn’t paying for a lion with missing parts.
The man wheezed. “Gonna take off for his missing ball, then?” He wheezed harder, spat yellow, and lit his cigarette. “Accident with the bear,” he said, around puffs.
A girl and her parents came by. “You can touch his paw, honey,” said the man. The girl reached out and stroked the beast’s paw. A tremor passed through the lion, as if shaking off a fly. The girl screamed, but the lion barely cracked an eye before drifting off again.
• • •
“Picture!” insisted the father, and his daughter laid her hand atop the lion’s paw, smiling. Everyone laughed but Judith. After they left, Gwen said, “A hundred. Take it or leave it. It’s not like he’s really healthy. And I don’t exactly need another one.”
The man shrugged. “He earns a hundred a week, I reckon. Might as well keep him.”
“Two hundred,” said Judith. Both parties stared. “Two-fifty.”
“That’s enough, Judith.”
But the man was smiling. “I’d probably consider it for three.”
“Done.” Judith twitched. “I got to write a check, though.”
“Don’t take no checks,” said the man.
Gas stations passed on US-160 flashed through Judith’s mind; surely one of them had an ATM.
Gwen sighed. “I suppose you’re fine with cash. I’ll be right back. It’s in the car.”
“Fine with cash,” the man mused to the sky, or the capuchin. “Yessir, just fine.”
Hallibal walked out of his cage with an enormous chain leash around his neck, the man holding one end. He walked up into the back of the trailer, slumped to the floor, and yawned.
All the way back — three hours — Gwen groused about the rules, about who made the business decisions. Judith kept an eye on her side mirror, staring at the barred window, waiting for a shaggy skull to emerge.
• • •
The water buckets had been bone dry for weeks. The girl sometimes appeared at the door, hands on the screen. After three days, Judith got up and lifted the latch.
On the fourth day, she stumbled onto the porch. Hallibal snoozed, a paw over the side. She stepped closer. Thought about lying next to him, about burying her face in his mane, dusty and lion-smelling.
Deep, rhythmic grunting. From out at the cave. She blinked. Hallibal was gone. Just like his teeth.
The cicadas had come like an invading army, covering the ground. She stooped and ate one, its brown wings hitting her face. Licked tiny legs from her palm. The rest of the insects eyed her warily as she stepped among them, but she ignored them. They rose, at last, a clicking tornado around her.
Out at the cave, the girl was not alone. The skeletons of dead lions surrounded her. She wore their bones, mingled them with the zebra’s.
Judith stood, swaying, two feet from the fence. “There’s no rain,” she told the girl.
The girl shrugged. Her eyes were green like the savanna in May.
Just behind the trees, gaunt bodies roamed. They should have moved on, she thought. Should have claimed a city for their own. Last radio reports described lions in the streets, a confusion before shots brought them down. Before they realized that the lions were only a vanguard. Before crows fell out of the sky.
Judith and Gwen had only ever taken one safari. Private, with guides who spoke perfect English. Lions had lounged yards from them. No fences to keep them safe.
To keep who safe? She giggled, stepped forward, leaned her forehead against the fence. No electricity since last April.
The girl unfolded spindly legs, stood in a wash of dust and bones.
“Are you tired of cicadas?” she asked.
Judith didn’t answer. The girl stuck out her tongue. It was blue.
From the compound far behind her, Hallibal roared. She knew that roar anywhere: hoarse, rasping. She turned, her heart leaping. He was alive. He could be alive.
The girl launched herself at the fence. It clattered but held against her small body. Judith toppled backward. Small fingers wriggled at her through the diamond openings.
The girl’s mouth opened, pantomiming a roar. Tiny white teeth scraped against the metal.
Behind her, behind the cave, the yellow-leafed cottonwoods swayed.
The rest of the pride emerged.
Across the dead clay and scrub grass, they walked. Slow. Bodies gaunt. Heads low.
They couldn’t break the fence. Could they? It was too tall to climb. Topped with two rows of barbed wire.
The girl shut her mouth. The remaining lions — Gwen’s lions — stood behind her in a ragged line.
They weren’t lions anymore.
Closer to the fence, reaching out for her.
The zebra’s teeth bit into the sandy ground, a lonely bray that brought tears to her eyes. She had done this, she had. Not Gwen.
The day the lions had lain in their pens, breath heaving, tongues hanging heavy and blue from frothing mouths. The day she watched birds come down to peck at them. While Gwen crouched nearby with a clipboard and camera. Speaking into a voice recorder.
Help them. Help them!
She’d run inside to call a vet, but Gwen ran in behind her, throwing the cell phone. Telling her to go home if she couldn’t handle it. This was her life’s work. She was on the verge — Judith couldn’t ruin it now — didn’t she understand anything she’d told her?
Judith found antibiotics in the food prep shed. No idea if they could help. Loading a needle, Gwen glanced up as Judith opened the first pen.
Kyle, the smallest male. Not Hallibal, who hadn’t been there long, who paced in the pen opposite, pacing and growling for the first time since arriving, throwing himself at the metal. Kyle, who had always been small.
Big enough to take down Gwen, teeth on her shoulder, claws digging into her thighs and stomach, as Judith attempted to drag her free.
She had no gun. The needle fell, disregarded. He began to feed while Judith stood outside the open door. While Gwen’s left arm feebly beat the ground.
The rest of the lions stirred, opening yellow eyes. They had been near death, and now they roused.
Judith could not comprehend. Could not see anything but Gwen. Her knees cracked as she slumped to the ground. In panic or revenge, desperate to make things right, she stumbled from pen to pen, opening them. Hoped they would devour her too. The lions sniffed her in passing, fled in straw-colored streaks.
She hadn’t opened the outer gate. Coming to her senses hours later, she sprinted.
When the reports on television showed dead crows littering the highway, dogs staggering in pastures, cows bellowing as they were ravaged by something other than lions, she repaired the gate as best she could. Loops of chain, hammering the bars as straight as she could. The lock was unsalvageable. Everything was unsalvageable.
No one called to ask how the lions had got out. No police showed up. Already, Hutchinson was under siege. Nobody knew from what.
The pride didn’t get far. Shot, some of them. Some died in the streets.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world spun in a confusion of dead birds falling from the sky, of sickness, of small children mauled to death by the family cat.
She turned it off at mentions of babies in cribs.
The electricity went off a week later. She continued to feed Hallibal. No vitamins left. She opened cans of green beans and beets for him. Watched for him to become lethargic, for his tongue to turn blue.
Four zebra died. He ate them, though Judith didn’t join him. The vegetarian at the end of the world.
It took her two days to bury Gwen. The stain in the pen remained, stubbornly. She never walked over there. There was no benediction.
The pride attacked the fence.
So did she.
The new pride joined the girl at the fence. Pressed their bodies close. Their mouths opened and closed.
The roaring filled her head.
The cave was crushed as more came, ambling out of the cottonwood. Climbing over one another. The fence bent.
The fence slinging wires, snapping like metal bones. A section fell. They tread without pause across curls of barbed wire.
She was halfway to the pen, running past Kyle’s, throwing herself against Hallibal. Beetles scurried out of his mouth.
The girl came first, padding on bare feet.
The others paused outside the pen, a restless, circling mass.
Gingerly, the girl picked up the lion’s paw. Laid it atop Judith’s arm. She was filthy and naked but for the scrap of fur. And hungry.
We could starve together.
Slowly, Judith opened her arms. The girl scrambled in, clutching at her, turning her head to snarl at those outside the pen. Hallibal’s head was heavy against her back, his fur coarse.
She stood, holding the girl, a growling, huffing form hardly heavier than a pail of meat. She spared one last look for the lion, hide sunken over ancient bones, before turning to face her children.
They were all hungry.
And she would feed them.