Author’s Note: “The Accidental Lion tells the story of two childhood friends who took very different paths. Now, they have to understand who they are, who they wish to be, and whether they have the ability to transform. The story is inspired by Nietzsche’s construct that used the lion and the lamb to argue that ethics and morality are created by the weak to protect them from the strong. In my own experience, I found that most people perambulate between positions of strength and weakness. In a way, we can all become lions when the circumstances require.”
The Accidental Lion
WHEN BOBBY CALLED to pitch his brilliant idea, I should have turned him down on the spot. From third grade onward, this man was responsible for two dozen groundings, a three-day suspension, and the eternal hatred of my teen crush Hannah upon discovering a pickled frog in her coat pocket.
But this was Bobby of shared secrets, of coded words. My co-discoverer of personhood. So, I just cringed.
“Gil, man, c’mon, live a little,” he said in his raspy voice, and I was glad this wasn’t a video call, so I could hide among strewn boxes. Six months in Philly, and I still lived like a vagabond.
“You nuts? That’s halfway around the world!” I said.
“So? It’s not like you have to paddle.”
Past graduation, our friendship had entered a parabolic orbit. College for me, army for him, then a decade of ever-sparser texts, calls, and one awkward Thanksgiving with my mother and her creepy new boyfriend.
“Well?” he asked with the insistence of a four-year-old.
I clasped my phone a little harder. An intercontinental trip seemed an unlikely solution to arrest our decay. But what was the alternative? A muggy summer in the apartment with the silent doorbell?
I reached for my credit card and conjured a lame excuse to serve my office manager in the morning.
Two weeks later, I touched down in Tel Aviv with my heart thumping. The cheeky grin that greeted me on the other side of the baggage claim dampened my trepidation. For one, I was glad to see him. For another, he had shed his army uniform for blue jeans and a loose linen shirt.
I wish I could blame military tradition for his career choice, or even flag worship. But Bobby was that kid: the one who knocked a tooth off the playground bully, the cub who growled when told he was too young to fly to Haiti after the earthquake. I, on the other hand, tended to watch in horror from behind the couch.
I pointed to his buzz cut. “Blind barber?”
“You’re one to talk. You look like General Zod after he lost the fight.”
I ran two fingers down my rather stylish—I thought—goatee. “Asshole.”
We hugged and headed for the bus terminal, dragging our roller bags with giggles and elbow nudges. Boys, Dad would say if he was still alive.
We filled the hour-long ride to Jerusalem with “remember when” stories and the short walk to our hotel with a silence imposed by the bustle of the ancient city.
Jet-lagged and sore, I voted for a nap, maybe a visit to the Shuk afterward: sample street food, see exotic sights, meet someone. Despite the searing July heat, the city was awash in tourists—and I was newly single. But Bobby was hell-bent on visiting the Holy Sepulchre. I was surprised by his insistence: surely three combat tours had scrubbed off any vestiges of his mother’s Catholic fervor.
I cocked my head. “You know it’s not true, right?”
“What’s not true?”
“This church, dummy. It’s not where Jesus died. It’s all a gimmick.”
He huffed. “Gil, man, when did you get so cynical?”
After Dad died too soon and Mom shacked up with David. After Sylvia walked out on me, fed up with “all that sadness.”
“You go ahead, I’m too tired.”
His stare lingered. Then: “Okay. Meet up later, yeah?”
We settled on three o’clock by the Lion’s Gate. He arrived a good thirty minutes late, gave me a shrug while radiating a quiet glow.
“All done hanging out with Jesus?”
He grinned, and the tiny scar above his eyebrow reddened. My fault that one, I had dared him to climb to the top of the giant oak behind his parents’ house.
We strolled down the medieval market streets. Tall and narrow, humming with conversations in a dozen languages, Jerusalem offered us refuge from the real world.
We sat at a coffee shop, took in bitter coffee and cheese- wrapped pastries dipped in honey. He whipped out his phone. Two thumb scrolls later, he beamed. “All right! My man Asaf came through! We’re all set for a day trip to an Umayyad palace.”
He shook his head. “So glad you went to college, Gil. Worth every penny.” He returned to his phone. “There’s a famous mural there. Eighth-century classic, man.”
I let him brag; he was just parroting the contents of the email.
“Who’s Asaf, anyway?” I asked his gleeful face.
“Army vet. Met in Peshawar on my last tour.”
His eyes turned dark, and I chose not to probe any further.
THE FOLLOWING DAY, we boarded a minivan along with an elderly couple who offered commentary in broken English and a pair of honeymooners who exuded coconut sunscreen and kept to themselves.
A bumpy two hours later, we stood in a city of ancient ruins. Hisham’s Palace, the metal sign said.
Clutching a guide map, we gawped at a stone rosette the size of a jet turbine before entering the palace proper. The courtyard took our breath away. Flanked by arcaded galleries, an area ten times the size of my apartment was paved with geometric mosaic carpets so vivid, I struggled to accept they were millennia old. I told as much to Bobby. He grinned, took to catwalking, like when we drew a smile with our sneakers on his mom’s freshly mopped kitchen floor.
But when we crossed into a side room, his gaze fell to the raised platform, and his shoulders stiffened. A mosaic depicted a fruit-laden tree in full foliage with three gazelles beneath. Two were nibbling on shrubbery. The third was being devoured by a lion. The Tree of Life, the guidebook explained.
“Positively pastoral,” I said, pointing at the sharp claws gouging the poor animal’s back.
He clenched his fists, eyes fixed on the lion.
I extended a finger toward the fruit farther up the tree. “You think these are apples?”
“I bet you they’re actually pomegranates,” I carried on, a little too fast. “You know, the seeds are symbols of prosperity. Also…” I launched into a cocktail of stuff Dad told me about strength and servitude, mixed in with rubbish I made up on the spot.
We strolled about for another hour. He remained sullen. It wasn’t until dinnertime back in Jerusalem when he finally shook off whatever demon had been needling him. But even then, his braggadocio seemed designed to meet my phantom expectations.
We spent the next day drifting around shops, bars, tourist traps. When I spotted an embroidered carpet with the Tree of Life hanging on a window, I took a sharp turn left toward an alley that smelled of sandalwood. We found a gift shop. I convinced him to try on a yarmulke.
“I’m not Jewish!” he protested, but he bought one, nonetheless.
On our last night, we found ourselves lounging at a seaside bar at the old Jaffa Port.
I sipped my wine, leaned back, relaxed in the music and spices from the restaurants lining the mazy hill above and the salty air blowing in from the Mediterranean. Across the table, Bobby had taken to sending long stares into the void once more.
“You all right?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Those fucking gazelles.”
I searched his face, expecting a punch line. “What do you have against gazelles?”
“They skipped Communion again?”
He turned his face toward the sea, calm in the moonless
night, black like an oil slick. “It bothers me, Gil, it fucking bothers me. What kind of God allows a lion to kill an innocent gazelle? I mean…can you imagine the pain? The fear?”
I set my glass down slowly on the concrete ledge. “You expect the lion to starve?”
“No…but how is that not murder?”
I shrugged. “Isn’t that the lion’s purpose?”
“To dish out pain and suffering…”
My chest tightened. “Or weed out the weak gazelles. The sickly ones.” Mom had claimed Dad died peacefully, but my sister confirmed my suspicions: bone metastases were excruciating.
“A mercy executioner. That’s the poor animal’s role…” He let his gaze drift to the sea once more. When he refocused on me, his eyes looked poisoned. “Shipping out in two weeks.” His shoulders slumped. “Iraq, this time.”
“I thought you were coming back to Fort Bragg.”
He downed his wine in one large gulp. “Can’t do this shit no more, Gil. Just can’t.”
DURING THE FLIGHT HOME, and for days after, I kept thinking about Bobby and his gazelles. And Dad. The last time I saw him, he was slouched at the kitchen table, moaning like a medieval ghost. He had straightened up when he caught sight of me, blurted something about insomnia, and warmed up leftover pizza.
Bobby texted a few times, sent me a selfie atop a tank, his helmet underarm to show off the yarmulke. I replied with a laughing emoji.
I let the next few weeks drift outside my office window.
Come mid-September, I started dating a woman named Lizzy: perky, bright-eyed, worked on the eighth floor. She had a ticklish laugh and twirled her hair when she got nervous. As the leaves turned, I toyed with the idea of inviting her to spend Thanksgiving with Mom and Dave the Creep. I postponed any decision. Plenty of time, I told myself.
But on a drizzly October morning right before Halloween, I forgot all about letting Lizzy into my house of horrors. Frozen among rows of marble fangs in the Baltimore National Cemetery, I found myself staring at a hole in the ground.
When Bobby’s tank skidded off a bridge near Fallujah, the Euphrates River carried him downstream. They didn’t recover his body. The army paid for a casket, nonetheless: brown and lacquered, with brass handles and a “Robert (Bobby) Willer” embossed plaque.
Back at their house, I traded memories with his mother, shared a long, hard hug with his father, shook a dozen hands. I knew most of the guests: aunts and uncles, neighbors. His cousin, Jessica, showed up with a casserole but fled as soon as his mom ushered her to the living room. The giant picture on the mantel must have pushed her over the edge: Bobby in full-dress uniform, a row of six medal ribbons on his breast, a beaming smile on his face. Now he stared out at us beside a folded flag: a soul stuffed in a piece of cotton, like those triangular cheese pastries in Jerusalem.
Shake it off, dude, the picture said and nudged me to the liquor cabinet.
Enemy action, maybe I could accept. Patriotism et cetera. But a tank accident on a bridge halfway around the world? What for?
I downed two shots of bourbon in quick succession, rushed outside in search of air.
Thank God my sister, the Saint, had flown across the country for this day.
“Whatcha doing out there?” she called out from the edge of the porch.
Transfixed at the oak tree that gave Bobby the scar, I only responded to her voice when her palm pressed my shoulder.
“Marion, do you know if lions can swim?”
“Guess not, right? They’re cats. Cats hate the water.”
“But gazelles can. I looked it up. Gazelles are excellent swimmers.”
She rubbed my shoulders. “C’mon. Let’s go back inside. It’s getting chilly.”
I MANAGED TO AVOID BALTIMORE for four months. Instead, I finally unpacked the last two boxes, hung an old map of the US above my couch, considered joining a cooking class with Lizzy. I did call the Willers on Christmas Day. Was nice. Jessica had just visited them. Come Valentine’s, I sent a potted orchid to Bobby’s mom. She called me back with an “oh-Gil- you-shouldn’t-have” mixed with soft sobs. I promised I would drive down soon, real soon.
I didn’t. So, on a cold Wednesday in March, when my screen lit Willer again, I prepped my guilt-ridden excuses. But the voice was his dad’s. “Gil, son, glad I caught you!”
“Mr. Willer, hi, everything all right?”
“Any chance you can come down this Saturday?”
“You sure everything’s okay?”
“Yes, yes, everything’s fine.” His breath whistled. “Would mean a lot to us. I know it’s short notice…”
I had promised to take Lizzy to the movies. Maybe I should bring her along.
“What are you scared of?” she asked, but I was too busy looking for my car keys.
I traveled down the interstate alone.
Shivering beneath my duffle coat, I cursed the late snow covering the footpath between the driveway and the front door. Beside the porch hung a giant American flag, limp from the icicles forming along the bottom edge.
A man I vaguely recognized as Bobby’s dad greeted me at the front door. Gone were the potbelly and heavy shoulders. Gone was the glint in the eye, that shine that carried both playfulness and the authority of the paterfamilias.
“Gil!” He wrapped his arms around me.
He ushered me to the living room, where pictures of Bobby had spread like mold on the plastered walls. Along the mantel, the two of us were grinning in those stupid high school uniforms, while on the table by the bay window, he stood in front of his uncle’s boat holding a four-foot fish aloft.
“Mrs. Willer at work?” I asked.
His lips dripped a melancholy I couldn’t read. “Oh, she’s upstairs.” He took a long pause. “With Bobby.”
I shuddered. “They recovered his body?”
“No, son.” He gripped my shoulder, sat me down on the couch. “They found him alive.”
I blinked, replayed his words. I gasped, probably in stages.
While my heart thumped in my chest, he rested his hand on my shoulder, told me about the raid in some cave, the hostage rescue, the flight to Germany, the phone call in the night.
“When?” I heard myself ask.
Mr. Willer shuttered his eyes. “Two weeks ago.” He tightened his grip. “Ain’t gonna lie. It’s been tough, Gil. Doctors told us to take it slow.”
He stood, motioned me to follow him, and I shuddered.
Over the years, the pine staircase had served as a slide, an escape chute, a creaky trap set by light-sleeping parents. Today, I could have sworn the railing was lacquered with pungent tar.
But I grappled the banister and carried my feet up the twelve steps while fighting my breath.
“Look who’s here!” Mr. Willer said as he swung Bobby’s bedroom door open.
My spine froze. My arms contorted. My heart stopped beating, and my stomach turned.
Beside the bedroom window, Bobby was slumped in a black wheelchair. A knee-length stump was all that remained of his right leg, while a cast covered his right arm from wrist to shoulder. When he turned his head, I summoned every ounce of courage not to wince. His skeletal face was half burned, the rest plowed by a scythe that had taken his right eye and left behind two angry scars, maroon and blue around white stitches. Most of all, he looked desiccated, as if his soul had leeched out of him into the Euphrates River.
“Bobby…” I said from the doorway. “Heeey.”
He glared. His face contorted, pulling at his stitches. He howled.
“It’s all right, man, it’s me!”
He shrieked louder, grunted, shook in his wheelchair. Mrs. Willer vaulted from the bed to press her hands against his shoulders. “Shhh, it’s all right, it’s just Gil,” to no avail.
Mr. Willer nudged me toward the hallway with a feather touch and a slouch filled with unfathomable pain. “Let’s give him some time, eh?”
I took the trip from the kitchen to Bobby’s room six times, each with the same result, more or less: growls, shaking, and in the end, tears. Last time I had seen Bobby cry we were twelve, and his head was gushing blood onto the roots of the oak tree.
COME DUSK, I drove home. Between my tears, ghostly silhouettes glided along the woods lining the interstate. I saw deer hiding. And in the thicker brush, I’m sure soldiers were crouching, their hands pounding their helmets.
Lizzy showed up at my doorstep holding a plastic bag, a response to a text I sent her on a whim moments after I crashed on my crappy couch. “Chicken biryani!” she announced.
“I hope it’s really spicy.” I hugged her, shivered, let go.
While chasing an errant raisin with my fork, I told her about my visit. About the army raid, the explosion of a munitions pile. About the mangled heap of Bobby, the howls.
“When did all this happen?”
I shook my head. “Took a while to identify him. Whoever captured him ripped off his dog tags and burned his fingertips.”
“But he’s alive!”
I let the fork clang, sank back into my chair. “More or less…”
She leaped to me, buried my head in her chest. I wrapped my claws around her back and shoulders. I kissed her lips: rough, desperate. She kissed me back, pulled me to the floor. I made love to her with the ferocity of a wounded beast.
“When are you going back down?” she asked me softly afterward, while her fingers caressed my side.
“Next weekend, maybe. Dunno.”
“I wanna come.”
I pecked her cheek. “It’s okay.” I swallowed. “Everything’ll be okay.”
She sat up on her elbow. “Some days I feel like I only live in one of your rooms. Where’s the rest?”
I smirked. “Nothing to see. Just a giant old mess.”
Her eyes darkened, but she focused on pulling aside a stray tuft of hair from my forehead. “Whenever you’re ready,” she whispered and leaned forward. Her lips tasted sweet. Mine were bitter, of this I’m certain.
LIKE A METRONOME tracking an old sad tune, I journeyed down to Baltimore every other Saturday morning, returned in the evening. I spent my time next to his wheelchair or when the fits took him, recounting Bobby stories with his mother. She made hot cocoa, like when we were kids. His dad retreated to the garage, restoring an old truck. Between each trip, I watched the Willers age another decade.
The first of May was Silver Star Service banner day. It didn’t fall on a Saturday, but I took the day off to drive down, nonetheless. I didn’t tell Lizzy I was going, but I changed my mind when I hit the interstate. I texted her, received a heart emoji.
I found the Willers assembled around Bobby’s chair. All dressed up, they looked like a wedding party. Bobby’s old commander had sent a letter. Onto the breach, dear friends, once more. It didn’t really say that when Mr. Willer read it with aplomb. We also celebrated the arm brace removal with chocolate cake—Bobby swallowed a few morsels with grimaces and grunts. We cheered. Mr. Willer slapped my back. I didn’t wince.
The following week, on FaceTime, Bobby rotated his right hand and clutched a pencil.
“I think that’s great,” Lizzy said from the far corner of my bedroom the moment I shut my laptop. She walked across, rested her hand on my shoulder. “That’s really great.” I pulled her to me, kissed her hard so I wouldn’t cry.
I skipped visiting for a couple of weeks, planned instead for a weekend away to New York. Guilt needled me, until I imagined how Lizzy and I would cross Rockefeller Center with hands entwined, find scalped tickets to Wicked. All just before Memorial Day. I gritted my teeth. What shall we celebrate this year? Unassisted urination?
I had just booked a Manhattan hotel when the phone buzzed. Jessica’s name on the screen gave me pause. Before Bobby shipped out, we had gone out a couple of times. But with no chemistry, the whole effort proved to be both awkward and futile—much to our Bobby’s disappointment.
She spoke in terse, hoarse sentences. I knocked over the cereal bowl, cursed, called Lizzy, canceled the hotel reservation. A hundred-odd miles later, I burst through the front door of the Baltimore Veteran’s Hospital wearing a moth-eaten shirt and dirty jeans.
Past a woman at the reception with impossibly long, stenciled fingernails, I navigated an orderly wheeling a double amputee out of the elevator and a shift nurse with a silver “John” name tag who failed to intercept my dash to room 316.
From the armchair, Mrs. Willer dropped her book, gave me a bleary-eyed smile, and rose for a hug. A doctor stood between her and Bobby’s bed, pressing a clipboard against his chest.
I kissed her cheek. “What happened?”
She shook her head, stared at her shoes. Before I could ask any more questions, the doctor took a hasty leave with a lip purse and a pat on my shoulder.
Bobby was asleep. No bandages on his wrists, no tube down his throat. Good. Probably.
Between his mom and Jessica—who arrived fifteen minutes later armed with carnations—I pieced together the last two weeks. Bobby had gotten food lodged in his throat. Septic pneumonia ensued. The ambulance screamed him in while he choked; they slammed his IV with antibiotics. Once the fever dropped, he could look forward to a feeding tube.
My words lingered in the antiseptic-filled air as Mrs. Willer’s head slumped.
DUSK DESCENDED, bringing an end to visiting hours.
I pulled up my chair closer to Bobby, cracked a smile. “Hey, man, they’re kicking me out. But I’ll be back tomorrow, okay?”
He looked at me through half-open eyelids, balled his fist.
“I know. It’ll be all right,” I heard myself say. Maybe I meant it.
He pointed to the notepad on the foot of the bed.
I helped him close his fingers around the pencil, held the paper with sweaty palms.
He pressed down, grunted, tore a hole. We tried again on a fresh page. Steadier this time, he drew four letters. Imperfect, jagged, acidic. They spelled: “Lion.”
“I don’t understand.”
He pointed at my chest, back to the paper. He clutched his IV and stared at me with an intensity that buckled my knees. His face lit red with effort. “Lion,” he said, or something to that effect.
I shook my head.
His eyes fell to his mother, asleep on the reclining chair. “You. Lion,” he repeated.
My hands trembled. “You can’t ask me that…”
No more fits, or grunts, or notes. He just stared at me, and all I could do was count the scuffs on the linoleum floor tiles. I was half relieved when the orderly shooed me out, even though Bobby’s eye bore a hole in my back that threatened to burn clean through me.
I took to the streets in the vague direction of my hotel. I had rented a room near the Inner Harbor. Was always fun, that place, with music and people and paddleboats that looked like ducks and dragons.
But I had forgotten how gloomy nights could be in Baltimore. The damp air, the yellow streetlights, the faint whirr of the water taxis, all conspired to dress the redbrick buildings in melancholy. The ducks and dragons were all chained too.
I sat on a park bench, tracked a pair of beggars shuffling along the sidewalk, dog tags dangling over their camouflage jackets. One was unshod, his right foot an open sore. “Damn it, Bobby,” I said. “Goddamn it.”
I thought of Mr. and Mrs. Willer, of Dad, of the trip to Jerusalem, of the twenty-five years from when Bobby and I met at the playground. I thought of the poor gazelles. My phone buzzed in my pocket. I wriggled it out, stared at the screen that said Lizzy. I turned it off.
Bypassing the drip machine’s fail-safe to flood him with morphine was impossible; smothering him with a pillow felt grotesque. When Dad got sick, I read this article how injecting a whole bunch of air into the IV would do the trick—instant heart attack. We never discussed the topic. Marion might have gone along, but Mom carried enough religion to consider such acts anathema.
All I needed was a syringe.
I stood, chest pounding, and headed to the pharmacy around the corner. Outside the swinging doors, I called Lizzy.
She answered on the first ring. “Hey, been worried about you!”
“I’m at the VA in Baltimore. Bobby took a turn for the worse.”
“Shit. Sorry! How you holding up?”
“I need to stay for a couple of days.” Long pause. “Listen… I was thinking…how do you feel about spending July Fourth at my mom’s?”
The line went silent. Then: “That’s a great idea.” More silence. “Are you sure, though?”
I was sure. I hung up, inhaled the cold autumn air, and went inside the store. I should be roaring, I thought. Maybe I did, inside my chest.
Nicholas Katsanis’s short stories and poetry have been published in The Delmarva Review, The Umbrella Factory, Literally Stories, Flash Fiction Magazine and The New Verse News, amongst others. One story was the lead in a #1 Amazon ranked dystopian anthology. He enjoys traveling and has visited half the planet. Laptop and notebook underarm, he hopes to visit the other half while editing his debut novel. Website: nicholaskatsanis.com
Delmarva Review publishes the most evocative new fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from thousands of original submissions during the year. Designed to encourage outstanding writing from authors in the region—and beyond—the literary journal is nonprofit and independent. Support comes from tax-deductible contributions and a grant from Talbot Arts with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Website: www.DelmarvaReview.org