“The Lion God” by Benjamin Blattberg

When he comes onto the set for my interrogation, I know what to expect – I’ve seen this on TV before – but I’m still surprised by the size of the Lion God. Not even the billboards in Times Square with his loving face have prepared me for his, I have to say it, majesty. The cameramen and the lighting techs and the men in the control booth bow their heads in prayer before moving to frame the Lion God flatteringly for the broadcast. He doesn’t need their help. The people lucky enough to fill the studio audience first lose their breath and then shout hallelujah at just his appearance. As he pads toward me, everything else seems small and far away.

And for a brief moment, I’m filled with love for the Lion God and I want to join the shouting. I’d be as happy as all the people around me if I let myself love him. If his police hadn’t handcuffed me to the chair, I might run to him and throw my arms around him even now.

So: yay for the police, I guess.

The Lion God smiles – at me, only at me, my heart thrills – in a way that doesn’t show any teeth, but that clearly hints at them. I’m sure he practices that in the mirror for just these occasions: his casual “rebel interrogation” smile. I’ve seen that smile on TV, whenever he prepared to enlighten some other rebel in my position.

The on-air lights over the cameras go on and we’re live, beamed into all the homes in the country. Thanks to the presence of a giant hunting cat that is also a hostile god, I am not bothered by my usual stage fright. To those at home, we must look like a very mismatched pair: the terrifying and awesome Lion God and me, one of those recalcitrant, lipstick-wearing rebel girls that they’ve been warned against. In my 30s, I try not to take being called a “girl” personally. You have to pick your battles, especially when you’re handcuffed to a chair.

I remind myself that I did pick this battle. That this is part of the plan that I came up with and volunteered for: me, in handcuffs, facing the Lion God. A thought comes to me suddenly: I might be the dumbest person to ever live.

It’d be so much easier just to let the Lion God tell me what to do, wouldn’t it?

After sniffing at me and walking around me, he sits down in front of me, still smiling, still loving. He’s almost within reach, if my hands weren’t handcuffed to the chair, and if I wanted to reach for him.

I kind of do.

“I need you,” he says, “to tell me what the rebels are planning.” His voice rings out as clear and deep as some ritual bell.

I almost do tell him, right then. No TV could prepare me for the feeling of my heart resonating with that voice, or for his rich, warm smell – full sun, ripe earth, gold-green grass, and blood.

No, wait – that copper tang of blood comes from me.

I smile back at the Lion God, at the cameras around us, making sure to show the bloody gap in my teeth. The tooth I’m missing was fake – hollow, except for the poison in it – but the police weren’t gentle when they wrenched it out. Besides the bloody mouth, I also probably have a nice shiner and some bruises from getting arrested this morning.

No one minds a little violence, of course. Everyone knows you’ve got to crack some eggs for a paradise omelet. But my bloody mouth and bruised face are a nice reminder for the folks at home: to the Lion God, we all look remarkably egg-like.

The audience here is clearly on his side, singing out “Amen!” and “Yes, Lord!” At least one has to be motioned back into their seat by the Lion God’s guards. They either want to throw themselves around his neck or cut mine for his glory. Who knows, maybe the home audience is slashing at their TVs right now, trying to kill for the Lion God.

Part of me scoffs at these worshippers. Part of me wonders if they know something that I don’t know.

The Lion God’s face shifts into his most common expression, that mix of love and pity he feels for all of us. Really feels – not even I can argue with that. I’ve been down to the Empire State Building during his open courts, I’ve seen people rolled in to the building on stretchers and in wheelchairs, and seen them walk out, crying and singing. I’ve seen his face with that love and pity as he’s healed children in their parents’ arms. I understand why some of the rebels argue that his miracles are just tricks. But I’ve seen his power and love and pity. I could love him for that. It’s hard not to love him for that.

I only have to hold out long enough for the mission, I remind myself, only have to wait for his love to express itself in the only way he knows how. He may be a god, after all, but he’s not my god.

“I feel your pain,” he says about my missing tooth. “But I could not let you take your own life, when life is the most precious gift I’ve given you.”

He delivers that last line more to the cameras and the audience than to me. Even the people working on set – the cameramen, the police, the mayor of New York, the Lion God’s own Golden Guard with their tacky lion insignia – all sort of sigh at that. I try not to roll my eyes or get into an argument about the ethics of gift-giving. Or even get into an argument about the bare facts of the case, about the strangeness of him showing up and taking control only a few years ago.

Instead, I spit at the Lion God, to get my blood on him. Partly for the symbolism, partly because the blood is just kind of gross in my mouth.

Mostly I just drool pink-red on myself, on my best pair of blue jeans. It almost makes me wish the show’s producer had gone through with his initial idea to put me in some long skirt. Because Lion God forbid I be seen on national TV being tortured in pants.

The Lion God shakes his head sadly. Then there’s only love in his eyes and he leans over me. Everything goes gold as his mane falls over us both and I hold my breath.

If he breathes directly in my face, I will love him completely, and I won’t be able to hold anything back from him. He will own me completely.

But instead of breathing on me full in the face, he licks me with his sandpapery tongue. The heat of him hits me like the blast of an open oven. After one pass, his wide tongue covering half my face easily, he leans back and smiles.

I smile, too, at first. I can’t help myself. My face feels cool and tingles pleasantly. Any ache I felt on that side of my face is gone, and my mouth is no longer bleeding.

“I’m here for your sake,” says the Lion God. “I’m here to help you.”

A little less pain-addled, I remember all the other interrogations I’ve watched, remember what I know from watching him in action. He won’t breathe in my face yet, for the same reason that he always interrogates rebels himself: he wants to be here when we give in, and only when we’re worn down with his love, will he make us love him with his breath. It’s the personal touch, plus claws.

I force the smile off my face. I keep my newly-healed mouth shut.

He reaches out with one giant paw, and pushes my right shoulder playfully, just a slight tap. It feels like a solid right hook from sparring with Tom, back when I boxed at the gym, before the Lion God banned women from boxing. One of the many things I’ve lost after the past few years. The chair, bolted to the floor, strains back a few inches and I can just imagine the colorful bruise I’m going to develop from that. If I live long enough.

“Come now, child. I love you. What are the rebels’ plans?” He stands up and walks the half-step towards me, shaking his mane in that mix of godly and childish excitement. His whiskers tickle my left cheek.

I look down, away from his black eyes, like rare gems or deep caves. I can feel his breath on my left shoulder, and even through the shirt, my skin feels hot and flushed with love, with devotion, with obedience to him. I jerk to the right instinctively, to get away from his breath.

He laughs, a sound half-cat purr, half-oncoming train throb. The audience laughs with him. So that’s what jubilation sounds like. It’s kind of terrifying when you’re on the wrong end of it.

“You know this has only one end, rebel. So why resist me?” he asks.

It’s a goddamn reasonable question – but no one would be more disappointed than the Lion God if I gave in now. I’ve seen this show before, seen the joy he takes in righteousness. He’s especially loving and full of pity when he’s causing the pain. I can’t turn my head to see it, but I know the dunking tank waits right behind me. What a waste of water it would be if no one got dunked and held under and came up sputtering and crying.

For a moment, I doubt the intelligence behind our plan. And by that, I mean I’m totally sure that our rebellion consists solely of incompetents and morons. A toe-to-top, bone-deep certainty that pretty soon I’ll be post-Lion-breath, Stepford wifing it, singing hosannahs as I’m led to my very public apology and execution.

Or, thinking optimistically, I might not have a tongue and we could skip straight to the beheading.

I’ve seen those executions before, several times on TV. Once in person. It seems a peculiar sort of love the Lion God has for us, a love wide enough to make room for suffering and death.

“I love you so much,” he says.

He puts his paw back on my shoulder and his touch sends a thrill through me. Even with my memories of those executions, knowing how this’ll turn out for me, I feel myself loving the Lion God. If he breathes on me, I’ll be lost for good.

Instead, he extends one claw neatly into the meat of my shoulder.

I almost laugh with the relief of still having my own thoughts, until the pain hits me.

He shakes his head sadly. “You’ll understand soon why this is necessary.” He drags a single razor claw down my arm.

I scream.

His claw is so sharp that it shears through the metal handcuff with a sweet metallic tinkle, so pure I can hear it through my scream. Did he hear that sound, does he know my arm is free? I try to clear my head, think of what I can do with my gashed left arm, but all I can think is “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

“I do this for you,” he says, sitting back and licking his claw clean.

For a moment, I think he makes a face, like he’s tasting something weird in my blood. But then he continues to clean himself, accidentally smearing blood on his chin.

Getting my blood on him doesn’t bother him, so to hell with symbolism, I guess.

I feel my head start to fall, like I might be blacking out, but also like it’s happening to someone else. The Lion God nuzzles for a moment at my arm, then licks, knitting the flesh back up with his warm tongue. I’m wide awake again, the blackness of blacking out falling away from me like I’m coming out of a pool. Despite his healing tongue, a wave of pain still echoes through me.

“In the end, you’ll know I’m right,” he says. “So why not give me your secrets now?”

When I don’t say anything, the Lion God sighs, which is, all things considered, one of the odder things I’ve seen today. He slashes at my legs with his claws, not cutting too deep, almost lazily, then wipes my blood off on my shredded jeans. Weirdly, I almost consider that to be the height of his dickishness. He doesn’t mean to be a dick, but effortlessly accomplishes it all the same.

It’s also a great disappointment to me, since I felt his claw go through a sack of poison I had just under the skin of my calf. The poison’s not deadly to people – I was assured of that by the morons who developed the poison – but it might’ve worked on the Lion God if he ingested it. It was supposed to leak into my veins and poison him that way, but I wouldn’t mind having less poison in my blood, all things considered. Is there some way to get him to bite my leg? Or maybe – I make a pained face and let my head droop, hoping he’ll lick my leg, healing me, poisoning himself.

Instead, he places his paw on my chest, and knocks me over, chair and all, tearing the bolts from the floor.

Everything goes white for a second as I hit my head on the concrete floor and then it stays white because of the bright ceiling lights. Then it turns gold as the Lion God looms over me, the light haloing his mane.

If he had fingers and a smartphone, all his selfies would look like this.

This close to him, I find it hard not to love him, no matter how many sarcastic comments I make to myself.

He presses his paw on my chest – that one paw as wide as my whole torso – and he continues to press. I can’t breathe, can’t hardly think over the internal monologue that keeps going, “So, this is the plan, huh? Doesn’t seem to be working.”

As he crushes my chest, he whisper-purrs in my face. “What other god do you have but me?” I’m sure, for a Lion God, this passes as great restraint on his part.

I have a snappy come-back for just that question – something about “no gods, just us” – but I’ve got no air in my lungs to get it out.

I can feel something in my chest compressed to the point of breaking and then breaking. A rib? There’s a slight smell of licorice, under all the other smells: his savannah cologne, my blood, the interrogation set’s bleach-washed concrete floor.

Still, I feel a burst of love this close. I am dying and only he can save me.

With my free left hand, now horribly scarred, I reach up and jab at his eyes.

He neatly bites off the first few inches of my pinkie to my middle finger, the bitten-off portion disappearing like a magic trick. I try to distract myself with a joke – something something concert pianist career – but being asphyxiated to death is a real buzzkill.

He lets go of my chest for a moment, just so he can pin my arm and lick my fingers to stop the bleeding. My chest burns when I breathe in. Not just because this is my first full breath, but because the sacks of poison in my lungs have fully split, turning my breath sweet and hot. The licorice smell comes on strong in my mouth and nose as I gasp for air. Can he smell that poison I’m breathing out?

In that moment, I know that “Licorice Death” will be the name of my next band.

I try to hold my breath, to wait till he’s facing me again, but I’m still coughing, trying to get enough oxygen to stop the world from going away.

With the world coming back into focus, I realize that I am hearing a hymn being sung by the audience. Even the cameramen are adding their voices.

After my fingers, he licks my arm, then nuzzles at my neck, his mane covering us both from the cameras and the audience, a private moment between the two of us.

So when he turns my head to face him, when I’m coughing and sputtering and probably drooling, a large part of me wants to give in, to sink into the love like a warm bath. His paw on the side of my face keeps me still, his claws only slightly digging in.

I remember the mission, remember the poison that I’m still breathing out, remember all of the pain that the Lion God has caused in the name of love, remember the joy he takes in all of this degradation simply because he can’t figure out any other way to love us. I may die, but I will kill him.

He breathes fully in my face and all of that goes away.

In that moment, I feel connected to him, to all the people who love him as I do. I feel lifted up, lighter in my heart, cared for, protected, cherished. To kill for him would be a pleasure and to die for him would be the outer bounds of joy. Everything he does, he does out of love, and all he asks for in return is our love back – his infinite love for our frail inadequate love. The world is golden and good, and no price is too great to live in it with the Lion God.

I can’t stop myself – can’t remember any reason that I’d want to stop myself – from reaching up to his head. I wrap my free left arm around his giant, majestic head and I hug, and feel a jolt of happiness from his silky fur.

From what sounds like far away, I hear clapping and praying and joyful singing as the other people in the room welcome me into communion.

I will tell him everything I know and gladly go to my execution now. But for the moment, I am warm in the embrace of the Lion God and his people, where I belong.

The Lion God lets me bury my face in his fur and asks, his voice thrumming through my body, “What do the rebels want?”

I am finally ready to tell him. I sigh happily, sweetly. My breath tastes of licorice.

The realization hits us both at the same time.

He wrinkles his nose, sniffs at my odd, poison-sweet breath, then tries to jump back, away from me, from all the poisons I’m carrying and leaking out onto him. He tries to shake me off.

I hold on. I should let go of the Lion God, get away from him, take my filth and sickness far away. But I can’t make myself let go. For a moment, my love for him gives me strength to cling on to his neck. The realization of what I’ve done hits me like a bowling ball in my stomach. And suddenly I’m crying, great wracking sobs that shake my whole body, forcing out all the poison gas I had in my lungs even as I try to hold it in.

I cry out my love while he tries to pull me off him.

His steps begin to wobble as he loses strength, that strength that seemed inexhaustible just moments ago. His face still has all the love and innocence I know are in his heart, though he’s beginning to froth at the mouth.

The Lion God collapses. I fall to the floor with him, not yet able to make myself let go.

With my face in his fur, I still smell that rich earth, ripe grass, warm sun smell of him. The rest of the world is muffled and far away – the crying, the shouting, the hysterical laughing. The floor vibrates with people running, though I’m not sure whether they’re running towards us or away from us or just running.

Slowly, the world comes back into some focus, and I realize I am partly under the Lion God’s body. And in a lot of pain. I guess he did crack a rib or two. Luckily I can still breathe since his giant head doesn’t rest on my chest, but instead on my lower stomach, like a sleeping housecat. And, I realize with a slight bit of embarrassment, he’s pressing onto my bladder. I will have to pee all over both of us if I don’t get out from under him pretty soon.

None of the people in the studio are paying me much attention, as they are too wrapped up in their own feelings for the moment. From where I am, under the ex-Lion God, I can’t tell if their tears are more happy than sad, or if their dancing is manic or… Actually, the dancing is mostly manic. Whatever else is going on with these people, no one’s looking to help me.

And they’re carefully not coming closer to the Lion God. His face is twisted, half snarl, half lolling paralysis, his tongue hanging out between his teeth. It’s hard now for me to see what was so impressive and majestic. He would look grotesque and menacing, if that squint in his eye didn’t make him look like a drunk trying to wink flirtatiously at some cute Lion Goddess down at the watering hole.

“It’s just you and me,” I say to the Lion God, the first words I say to him. He doesn’t respond.

Since my right hand is still handcuffed to the chair, I grab at one of his paws with my now short-fingered left hand. I had a cat before, so it takes me only a few tries to figure out how to press on his paw’s pad to get the claws to come out. Then I start sawing at the handcuff. It doesn’t take long. His claws are still sharp. Hallelujah.

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About the Author

Benjamin Blattberg, English major and software developer, lives in West Texas, with his girlfriend and dog and a notebook that produces ideas, but not necessarily good ones. He loves semi-colons and sestinas.

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