“House Hunt” by Jessica Lee Richardson

The eye green and uncommonly unspiked at the iris; the mane thick and piss-riddled color and scent; toe, a boulder’s girth; nail, a curved kerosene tooth; tooth, a blade. Blood. And yet, or when, should I say, once upon a time, we came to live together, a rhythm was established. This rhythm had danger not at bay, necessarily, but sitting down to tea with us. Not that we actually sat down to tea. But we did cuddle. Yes, I cuddled a six-year-old lion suffering from a complex stress disorder in my home. Am I a badass now? Perhaps I am. What I feel is a pillowed hollow, though.

Let me tell you what happened: he chose me. Lions had chosen me before and whenever a cat picks you it’s an honor. But enormous animals normally don’t insist upon moving into your home. This one would not leave my side. He pressed his head into my legs and swiped at my knees if I tried to run an errand. I could see this annoying some people. This symbol of courage kowtowing before little old you. But I must have needed the attention. I loved him almost immediately and it only grew from there.

On the first day he moved in, he sniffed the length of all my floorboards, stuck his head in my tiny closets disapprovingly. Try as we might, the sheer girth of one another, the radiant heat, was a spectacle. We could not tune each other out. We took to staring while the other had their back turned, not that I could turn mine fully. There was love between us of the purest order but there was never comfort.

After only a few weeks living in my home, he began to lose his hair in tufts.

From the outset he wasn’t particularly healthy, but before long his scent changed too. It was too antiseptic, like a lit match near a mop. He started, in the months following, to allow me to leave the house with nothing more than a forlorn look. He was sleeping constantly. Lions sleep a lot. More than three fourths of their lives are spent in dream. But Miles—this was his given name—Miles began only waking to eat the stiff cow legs I procured from the back entry of the Shoprite Deli. I knew a guy.

I tried games. Switching up his food. Taking him in my truck to the preserve to play with his own kind. The preserve was a near disaster. We had barely gotten into the bush before he and another male were circling one another in a fierce stir of trouble. The roars took on a sick hiss. I had to scream my bloody head off. Miles left the standoff, believing me to be in danger. He smelled me all over, he knocked me to the ground. You could tell he was mad when nothing was wrong. We drove home from the preserve in silence. Not that we talked, normally. But on good days he would purr and I would sing.

Nothing had worked, so I decided to move. Change of scenery will do you good, I could hear my grandmother saying.

The real estate agent was discomfited to say the least. I brought Miles along, of course. The move was for him. The love I had for this lion was like a stake made of piano keys driven through the throat. Thick, painful, echoing. I was not going to let him just molt to death in my garden apartment. I had gotten it in my head that if we could just find the right environment, everything would be okay. It’s not an uncommon decision.

Sweat poured down the poor real estate agent’s neck. He showed us a basement apartment first and Miles growled. I couldn’t blame him. It was dark and musty, the furthest thing from a fresh start. Its only selling point was that it had a small no-reason room. For a lion it had zero selling points. The backyard was a small pit. The real estate agent was practically crying. It began to annoy both of us. He managed to squeak out, “You have to raise your budget.” If I wanted a good yard he meant. I relented. I had some savings. Prices had gone up while I wasn’t looking. You have to keep up with the times.

Next we saw a Tudor with a kind of gnome-like charm. I loved the scoops and peaks of the design. Miles seemed unimpressed with the suburban neighborhood. I pictured little girls on tricycles riding up to the backyard. Even with a relatively tame lion like Miles, it was just unsafe. Inside, the open floor plan and hardwood floors were attractive to the both of us. Still, I leaned my elbow on the quartz countertop and addressed the real estate agent. Come on, I said, show me something I can sink my teeth into, here. He didn’t like my metaphor but he stammered an apology. A low roar built in Miles’s throat, but I distracted him with a treat. We set off to look at another home. The real estate agent assured me in advance that it was more secluded. Miles would have plenty of running space.

We pulled up to the old gray craftsman by way of a dirt road that seemed promising. It was a fixer, clearly, there was a fallen shingle and a crooked gutter. But mulberry bushes lined the fence and a weeping willow sat picturesquely by its side. I had a good feeling and so did Miles. We parked beside the real estate agent and hopped out of my truck. The real estate agent put his hands up like he was under arrest and I laughed at him. He maintained his stiff position and I saw he wasn’t joking, the animal in him was peace gesturing. His slender face was flushed all the way to his bald spot. Miles let out a clipped little roar, but I didn’t see it as anything to worry about. It seemed he’d accepted the offering. How many acres? I wanted to know. Six and a half. Hm. Iffy. For a person that is plenty of space, but for a lion? Miles seemed to be enjoying the smell of the property, though. Or perhaps, in retrospect, it was the smell of the real estate agent.

We went inside. There was a lovely fireplace feature and an old Venetian chandelier I would keep. The kitchen and bathrooms were slightly dated, but it didn’t really bother me. My lion seemed perked up in the place and I felt it too. There was a little creak in the staircase but the upstairs bedrooms got plenty of light. The master was painted in a pleasant buttercup. The backyard appeared to go on forever from up there and I grew excited at the sight of a small weathered barn. Does the barn come with the house I asked, and the real estate agent croaked to the affirmative. I leapt up and bounded down the stairs to go see.

This may have been my first mistake. I may have riled him up, is the thing. My lion I mean, not the agent. In any event, Miles bounded after me. The agent trailed reluctantly behind.

Daisies dotted the half dry grass out back. The sun was already dipping toward a clean pink dusk and the rundown barn contrasting the hills behind it made you want to bust out the good camera. I had always wished to live inside a photograph. Miles ran out to test the borders. I loved watching his legs move at full capacity and it had been awhile. This had to be it. I wanted him happy so badly. The desire cut a bucket inside me, and from every dimension of its depth was this simple desire. A happy beast. I set off to see the old barn. I was almost skipping.

Inside the temperature dropped subtly. It smelled like oats and there were some old worn out saddles and straps in the far right corner. A horse must have lived here not too long ago. The windows let in a scraggly gold light that the charcoal wood then dulled to a peaceful cool. I could hear my shoes tap on the beams. An old lantern was left too. I wondered if it worked. I went to check and that’s when I heard the scream. Tinny and high. Unmistakably the agent.

It took me a minute to locate them and I still get mad at myself for this. But really, the whole debacle may have been the agent’s fault.

It was Miles I saw first, in the northeast corner of the property. I was scanning for motion. What I caught was a tail flick. Oh malignant flutter in the still. Not flutter. Switch. I ran toward the otherwise frozen pair. I could see that Miles was crouched. The agent had turned his back to the lion. I could think of no stupider position in the history of the world. I wanted to smack him.

Instead I cooed at my best friend. How pathetic is it? But true. He was my best friend and I cooed.

Not in time for his lunge.

Maybe Miles ignored me. But I think not. I think his legs were already coiled to spring. My sound blended with the leap and if a chunk had not been taken from the agent’s hind-quarters, there may have been a moment of poetic beauty. It’s difficult to settle on poetic beauty when you add a shredded butt cheek to the picture, though, however much song and lift.

Miles took a bite big enough to chew. It was the size of a treat, not the size of a meal, but still a sizable portion when you take into consideration how fiercely we wish our bodies whole.

In my estimation the agent was extremely lucky. Lucky my lion loved me so much, enough to stop biting an easy almost-kill. Lucky he hadn’t gone for the neck. The agent had turned his back on a full-grown wild beast to take his penis out and piss on the property of the wild beast’s new home. What, may I ask, had he expected?

It went like this: coo/lunge, bite, turn, dick, no, back. In my eye’s view: fur, cloth, sweat. Scream. In my ear. A decision of attention. Remove lion? Tend agent? Both of course. I would be lying if I remembered the order. There was some muscle and tendon, jagged partial moons against the black backdrop of blood at night.

I called 911 with my arm around Miles, my hand against his heart.

I led him to the old barn and then returned to press the same hand hard against the agent’s buttock. The bite, it turned out, was more properly on his upper thigh, but even then I enjoyed the nether parlance better, if not the near location of my hand. I begged. I cried. A wolf, I told him. Came out of nowhere! There would be money I said. Forget the house. I would give the agent my savings. Just please. Don’t let them take Miles away. He cried and cursed and spit. It was all a little unclear.

It occurs to me now to ask where a man like this real estate agent would get the guff to waggle and mark like that in the first place, but at the time I forgot fear is the most dangerous body language of them all. I still wasn’t reading him right.

He rode alone in the ambulance and maybe that was my second mistake. I wasn’t going to leave an adult lion in someone else’s unlocked barn, though. I took Miles home to the apartment that had him molting. We cuddled through the night. He pressed his head hard into my head, using the leverage to twist and turn. I woke with his paw on my belly and my hand on his.

In the morning I went to visit the agent and he had told. “Had to,” he said, “germs.” He was on his belly in a flat hospital bed, folded over forward in a pillow-induced child’s pose. His half rump in the air. His twit nose shining on his twit face. He would not sue, the tattle tale said into his pillow, he had entered into the situation of his own volition. But he thought there was someone who wanted to ask me some questions.

Of course.

I went in the bathroom and sank to my knees. It was awhile in there with the pipes of water and cold porcelain. Another girl came in and her face was red and glossy too. Bad news? She wanted to know. I nodded. Me too, she said. Somehow we wound up hugging. It was her father. I didn’t tell her I was crying for a balding cat. How could I? I just listened and left.

At home I warmed him a big bowl of milk for the conversation. I stroked his head and scratched behind his ears. As if in understanding he put both paws around my shoulders and pulled me in. I sang a few songs substituting Miles for key lyrics. His clear green eyes glowed and howled.

As we were falling asleep his purr began to sound like Cyndi Lauper. I harmonized. A whine grew in his throat that I had never heard. I matched it. I spooned him and patted his rough back and soft belly and underarms. The lullabies lasted though much of the night, and on into the following nights, culminating, finally, in a Miles version of a Boyz II Men classic.

On the morning they came to take him away I fed him a whole deer in my bowl of a backyard and stuck a stake in the front. For Sale, it said. He had just barely finished his special breakfast when they came. They were taking him to a preserve several hundreds of miles away where he would be the only male in the pride. It was a good deal. I fought mightily for it. Brought conservationists on board. They had wanted to put him to sleep.

They drugged him for transport and still he roared. We locked eyes the entire time. I kept my hand on his paw for as long as I could. It took five men to load him in the truck and finally he was behind the bars and could no longer hold his dazed eyes open. I read the posture of the men for clues on their fear. They moved like roofers, sturdy. I would not cry in front of them. When the truck rolled away I was done with facades, and I was done with my home. I markered my name and number on the sign. Knees. Face. Sod. I remember the order. I didn’t care who saw me.

The agent had the nerve to want in on my listing. I told him he could shove it into a certain hollow. He sniveled away, the subject of his own story.

When I pulled up to my new rental I was disappointed. It was further from the new preserve than it had seemed when I took it, in a bit of a panic, after only viewing online photos. I was adept at picturing myself in frozen landscapes snapped for their picturesque quality. Their was a long shady drive I could see myself walking, late afternoon light and all, and I had decided there, face down in the dirt before my home, the truck riding away with my animal, I decided then and there that I wanted a view of Miles playing with his first litter of cubs when they came, and surely they would. I wanted him to smell my nearness. To know I would never desert him. The duplex I rented had a second story, but it was across the road from the preserve’s entrance. There was the lemon kitchen I had seen myself in next to the oversized flowerpot but the flowerpot, filled then with peonies, had only been staging. There were the giant pines I thought I’d think near, bending my head over a book with my arm bent, eating an apple, but from the windows the trees were too thick. They hid the preserve and my smell was surely masked by the fumes of passing cars.

So I volunteered to shovel cat scat. I was overqualified, but it was their only opening. Everyone wants to get next to the beasts, it seems, at least the protected ones. They fall for the illusion that protection is a thorough impulse, and will extend then, perhaps, to them. I didn’t get much time with the cats, but every once in awhile I would glimpse him, or him me, and the keepers just had to move out of the way. He would bound toward the gate, his fur full and his gait alive. I would hum and he would leap. They couldn’t keep us away. We nuzzled through the bars.

When my molting apartment finally sold I left the duplex and bought a little bungalow in the area. By then I had moved up to reception. The bungalow had a nice walk-in closet and a backyard that touched the outer edge of the preserve.

On the very first night I heard a scratching sound at the fence and I stumbled down the back steps in my robe. It was Miles on the other side. Resplendent and beastly under the stars, eyes agleam with the spark of kingly legends. It was as clear there in the dark as it ever was, that agents and time had nothing on me and Miles.

house hunt photoJessica Lee Richardson’s first book, a short story collection called It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides, won the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize and is due out from Fc2 this September. You can read more of her work at www.jessicaleerichardson.com.