© Copyright 2020 by Brittany Rohm
2020 Animal Contest Runner-Up
With the engine off and the windows down, nature pervaded our senses. The afternoon sun hung in a cloudless sky, and the balmy equatorial air lingered, without a whisper of a breeze to move it along. Sweat shined on Patrick’s forehead, and some dampened my palms. Tsetse flies buzzed intermittently, and hippos in the nearby lake grunted on occasion. The faint smell of cape buffaloes crept into my nostrils.
“This is so great,” I said. “Just the two of us and the two of them.”
I snapped a few more photos of the napping pair, then set the camera in my lap. At times, viewing animals through only my eyes’ lenses proved difficult. A desire to get the best shot often surpassed simply watching wildlife before me, unbound by a rectangular frame.
“Actually,” said Patrick, pointing straight ahead, “it’s not just us.”
I followed the direction of his finger.
“Ooh.” My heartrate ticked up a notch. “This could be interesting.”
A giraffe lumbered toward us through the grass, pausing every few steps to glance right, then left, then right again. I turned sideways to observe the lions.
Still listless, they seemed unperturbed by the interloper. The heat had no doubt zapped their energy, much as it had ours. But unlike us, the cats couldn’t even be bothered to open both eyes at once.
I turned back to face the giraffe. As serenely as it had sauntered into the picture, the earth’s tallest living land animal ambled off toward the trees. Patrick and I settled back into our sweat-slicked seats and focused on the lions.
More diurnal than other big cats, lions are nonetheless active primarily at dusk and dawn. Waiting for them to do anything during the day other than laze under some bushes generally proves fruitless.
“Whoa.” Patrick stretched across the middle console like a giraffe craning for an acacia leaf. “Look at that brazen little mongoose.”
Smaller than a lion’s paw, a dwarf mongoose scurried toward the thicket. Again, my heartbeat accelerated. I was fairly certain that lions preyed upon far bigger animals than Africa’s most miniscule carnivorous mammal, but with the mongoose venturing so close, hope rose inside me that something—anything—would happen.
But then, less than five feet away from a predator six hundred times its size, the mongoose morphed into an ice cube. Like the mongoose’s heart, my breath caught. As much as I had been wanting to see a kill, the ultimate checklist item on any African safari, I now hoped the mongoose would escape.
The lion nearest us—nearest me, rather, as the cats were on my side of the car—eyed the furry little creature. He even went so far as to raise his head, but the mongoose sprinted away.
“Phew,” I said. “Lucky little buddy.”
Patrick nodded and took a slug of Sprite. He set the can back in the cup holder. “Yeah, but what do you think the lion would’ve done had the mongoose walked even closer?”
“I don’t know.” I picked up the Nalgene bottle from between my feet and unscrewed the lid. “Whenever we’ve seen lions, they’ve always just been...” I gulped some water. The end of that sentence didn’t need to be said.
From my peripheral, I saw the corner of Patrick’s mouth twitch. Sometimes I got courtesy laughs for using puns, but I’d apparently exhausted my collection of “lions lyin’ around” jokes. I leaned forward to set the water bottle on the floor.
The call of an ibis cleaved the silence, its haa haa haa blaring and unmistakable. I snapped upright and grabbed the camera on instinct.
“The lion in back—”
“Shh,” I waved off Patrick. I could very well see that the lion farthest away was now standing, just like the hair on my neck.
Without making a sound, I turned the camera’s dial to video and positioned the viewfinder in front of my eye.
“If he comes around from the tree,” Patrick whispered, “I’m turning on the car.”
“Shh,” I said again, not wanting the video’s quality to be compromised by a running narration.
“If he steps out, I’ll close your window.”
“Okay, okay.” I flapped my left hand at Patrick.
A red-eyed dove cooed nearby. The lion nearest us groaned. The big cat in back licked his lips. He yawned, but the bush obscured his deadly teeth. A little bee eater alighted on a branch just feet from the lion, its green and yellow body melding into the foliage.
Five seconds, ten seconds, fifteen seconds passed. The bee eater chirped. The dove cooed. I scarcely breathed.
My ears registered the click at the same moment my eyes registered the movement. The lion in back rounded the bushes and strode toward us. Patrick pressed hard on the start button.
But my window remained down, and the car engine—off.
Panic flooded my body, threatening to shut off all controls in an instant. Even my adrenaline ceased to spur me into action. Somehow, though, my hands clung to the camera. If I was going to die, if these were my last moments on Earth, I guess I wanted them on film.
In reality, I simply feared moving even a toe. I had never seen lions in the wild do anything other than lie around, and I had no idea what one might do if provoked by a terrified human flailing about.
As quietly but as forcefully as possible, I said, “Okay, go.”
The clicking of the start button rivaled the call of the ibis in volume, yet the car remained still. The lion, however, continued pacing forward.
“Okay, okay!” I panted, unable to control my voice. “Go, Patrick, go!” My words came out like the screech of an African fish eagle.
More clicking ensued, but I didn’t dare avert my gaze from the lion. I had read somewhere that humans should stare down aggressive lions, but truth be told, I was more terrified of seeing what was happening behind me. And learning that the car was done, dead, deceased—just like I was going to be in mere seconds.
And then, when the lion was only twenty feet away, my window rolled up. The dam broke, and adrenaline surged through every capillary of my body. My hands trembled as if an earthquake had struck my core.
“That was insane!” I said, my voice still experiencing aftershocks. “Do you think if we hadn’t gotten the window up in time...” Anxiety overpowered my vocal cords. I didn’t want to imagine what might have occurred had the car not started.
“I don’t know.” A mischievous look played across Patrick’s face. “But I will say that that lion was tired of—”
In one smooth motion, the lion lowered himself to the ground and extended his front legs. He rolled onto his side, swished his tail, and closed his eyes.