Posted in Africa, Lions, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel, Writing

The King of Beasts

No other creatures of the savannah sleep as deeply or as soundly as lions, but after all, lions are the main reason for not sleeping soundly, so this is not surprising. – Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Old Way


We’re in a diesel Land Rover, a lovely old relic of earlier safari days thirty, maybe even forty, years ago. It shudders loudly when we stop. Yet they don’t wake up.

Two male lions sprawl in a cool swath of sand shaded by a thick clump of mopane. Blotches of pale blue rest upon tawny bodies like cloud shadows. It’s late afternoon and the sun is softening into that round light that blurs the edges of things.

After our ears clear of the clatter from the Land Rover, the wary silence whispers in a leaf twitch, in the movement of the sun across the sky. It’s the kind of silence that follows a lion’s roar. Even the birds are hiding.

The lions sleep on their sides. They haven’t eaten lately; their loose hides wrinkle against the ground. Without opening his eyes, the closest rolls onto his back. A small spot of sunlight outlines his high ribcage, deepens his navel.

Odd to think of him as a placental mammal, like humans. Odd to think of our inheritance from the Old Days, when we were afoot with cats. We were armed then with spears and rocks and our ability to make ourselves seem larger than we were, brandishing blazing torches, standing upright together, throwing and screaming.

Lions rarely sleep at night. It is the time of greatest vulnerability for most, and it would be so for us, too, if we were alone, without fire or companionship. But now we are encaged in the old Land Rover, gazing down without fear at two lions asleep on the blue-dappled sand.

There is something else watching. Lying deep in the mopane, camouflaged by leaves, a lioness stares at us. Her eyes are unwavering, ringed in black, with a white patch under each one. Long minutes later she loses interest in us and yawns, revealing the black edges of her gums, a baby-pink tongue, sharp white fangs, and one tooth broken. She looks over at the males.

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

They sleep on. The closest male has the abandoned flung body of a napping child. No, not a child. Not with hard-muscled shoulders and those ripping claws.

Between splayed legs his balls droop in their bags. We notice a tick crawling across one of them, wild creature upon wild creature. Small attacking large. As the tick tickles his scrotum, the tip of the lion’s penis emerges from its furred sheath, begins to drip. His right hind paw lifts and twitches.

Now we know his dreams.

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill


Cheryl Merrill’s essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Pilgrimage, Brevity, Seems, South Loop Review, Ghoti, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adventum and Isotope. “Singing Like Yma Sumac” was selected for the Best of Brevity 2005 and Creative Nonfiction #27. It was also included in the anthology Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, 10th Edition. Another essay, “Trunk,” was chosen for Special Mention in Pushcart 2008. She is currently working on a book about elephants: Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.

2 thoughts on “The King of Beasts

  1. This is brilliant – your words have transported me to the scene, and I so love the description of the male lion’s nether regions! Also, very envious of you with your Land Rover – we rattled along in a Series 2, Short Wheel Base (canopy top) in the old days when we were living in what is now the Gonarezhou, SE Lowveld.

    1. Brilliant! I love Land Rovers over Landcruisers as safari vehicles.They’re hard to find anywhere anymore. Ours had completely open sides – the panels could be lowered right to the floorboards, creating steps to the ground. (It was also outfitted with a multi-charger for all those digital devices we can’t do without.)

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