Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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SEPTEMBER 9, 2012 5:02AM

The Fourteenth Lion

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“You can insist all you like.  I won’t do it.”

“Claude, I really need you to be in this photograph.  It’s a way to promote the act – and if we don’t promote the act, we could risk losing our place here.”

“There are enough lions in the photo already – you don’t need me.”

“The more lions the better!  Thirteen is good, but fourteen-- !”

“Thirteen is a perfect number. Foreboding. I really think it’s the best solution for everyone.”

Hans’ pleading now gave way to genuine curiosity.  “Why won’t you be in the photograph? There’s nothing to be afraid of --”

Claude gave a growly snort.  “The only thing I'm afraid of is degrading myself. It’s enough that I stand on a platform and wave to you every night.”

“Yes, but you know our deal: Your acting like that on stage lets you see the world. If you all didn’t seem docile – even friendly – would we have gotten so many private invitations from the crowned heads of Europe? When I met you in that rundown zoo, I promised I’d take you on adventures and let you see the world.  Haven’t I kept that promise?”

Claude nodded his huge, maned head.  “You have.  But I’m not going to lie at your feet forever.”

“I don’t expect you to.  Just for the photograph.”

“But that’s what a photograph is – forever.  How long will this image last?  In the future, you’ll seem to be a king, and the rest of us – well, it’s a disgrace to our kind and I won’t do it, and I don’t think the others should, either, but it’s their choice.”

“I understand, of course,” Hans’ voice sounded a little hurt.  “But sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to.”


Hans sighed.  “That’s how it is.  In the savannah, where you were supposed to have been raised, animals have to die so you can eat.  Everyone’s obliged to do something.  Why, even I –“ Hans paused, reflecting on how he might, just might, be revealing too much of his personal life to a mere acquaintance.  Of course, the relationship he had with Claude and the other lions was a bit different than that of most people and their human co-workers; each night, they performed their routine, knowing that if it weren’t for their mutual respect and professionalism, between his whip and pistol, and the lions’ natural deadly accoutrements, someone might not leave the ring alive. 

Taking all that into account, it seemed all right for him to continue. “I – There is a pocketwatch in my family, handed down through the generations, since my great-grandfather’s time.  A lovely, strange old thing.  Well, my sister had a suitor who wouldn’t leave her alone, though she wanted nothing to do with him.  The man told her that if she didn’t marry him, he’d slander our good name.  I offered him our fine family watch, which would catch a fair price if resold – if he would never see her again. The man agreed, and just last night, I gave it over to him. I hate it, but that’s how it is,” Hans finished the story brusquely, reaching for the snuffbox in his breast pocket.  He opened said box, and snorted a neat pinch.

“Why?” Claude asked again.  Hans was irritated; what was making him so stubborn? 

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” the lion went on. “You’re going to go out there and let the photographer take your picture with our thirteen friends.  Afterwards, you’ll ask the strongman to lend you that long coat he wears offstage, and you’ll procure me a wide-brimmed hat from the cowboy sharp-shooter. Then, we’ll go together to find this man and get back your watch.”

Hans stared at him, stunned.  “But how – ”

Claude sighed, a low rumble.  “I can walk on my hind legs.  You taught me yourself.  I’ll walk into his place beside you with those clothes on.  And once we’ve spotted the watch, I’ll scare the hell out of this thief, and we’ll get it back.”

“I don’t know if –“

“You don’t have to do it, if you don’t think it will work.”

“No, I – “ Hans squared his small shoulders.  “That sounds like a fine idea.”

As he climbed up and positioned himself into the throne-like chair among the lions, putting his arm around Squire, the oldest and sleepiest of the group, Hans seemed somehow taller.  For the first time in his life – which may seem surprising, for a man who spent his nights yelling orders at deadly, massive carnivores – he felt powerful.  Holding his pose, as the photographer instructed, he fixed the line of other performers waiting to have their photographs taken, looking for the strongman so that he could ask him for his coat.


This week’s Fiction Weekend prompt was: Write a story about a refusal.  After posting that prompt, I came upon the photo at the end of my piece, on a wonderful site the boyfriend and I love, called Retronaut.  The picture, labeled “Circus Lions, 1905” on the site, has this caption on the cardboard frame around the image: “Group of Lions, Hagenbach’s.”  Some quick research led me to this site, which is dedicated to elephants and preventing cruelty towards them – a very noble cause.  According to their records, Carl Hagenbeck’s Wild Animal Circus was of German origin, as the name suggests, but toured the US from 1905-1907.  In 1907, it was bought by another circus company.  If you’re interested, you can find a really detailed and intriguing account of the early days of Carl Hagenbeck’s Wild Animal Circus here.  There’s nothing in particular written about the lions or the lion tamer, though.  Some people who commented on the photo on the Retronaut site, said they felt sorry for the lions. I hope that these big cats were treated well.  Circuses often made/make sure their animals were well looked-after, if only because they were major monetary investments. According to The Tribe of Tiger, a fascinating book about felines by anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, while the wild is always the best place for big cats to live, the circus might be a close second for some – like tigers – who seem to respond positively to the stimulus of training, and the praise received for a good performance. I hope the same can be said for lions.

If you’d like to participate in Fiction Weekend, go for it!  Everyone's welcome to participate - you just have to write a FICTION story.  For more information, check out our OS blog(instructions on how to announce your story, etc, are in the left margin).   

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What a nice way to start a Sunday morning with this fascinating little tail......oops, tale. The postscript was a real bonus treat. R
Serendipity in the Serengeti! Clever and beautifully executed.
Wonderful post, Alysa. Love the photo and info on that, too. I also hope that lions respond the way tigers, do.
Great story, great pic... R&R ;-)
I just got on here after fighting with this site for a long time,
It was well worth it to read this.
By the end, I had a grown up Calvin and Hobbes cartoon running in my head. Awesome. The Gift of the Magi would have turned out much better if there had been a lion or tiger involved. Good one!
what an odd tale.

"if it weren’t for their mutual respect and professionalism, between his whip and pistol, and the lions’ natural deadly accoutrements, someone might not leave the ring alive"

yet they reach an agreement, to their mutual satisfaction.

the wild is always best for a man, or a lion,to dwell in of course.

but alot of men need lionizing, and many lions
need humanizing.

it works out well for both.
Imaginative, fun, well written. Gotta tell you, though, the pic of the guy surrounded by all those lions gives me the shivers! Not the career path for me . . .
The real training, clearly, was done by the cats. They even taught their human to speak basic Lion! I want to know how the caper turned out.
You delight me, Alysa! I had a hard time getting on here, but I'm glad I made it to read this AND the background information. Please look me up on FB, so I can follow your writing, if you post links there. Just in case... :-) R , of course.