Thursday, December 5, 2013

The lion's head

The ceramic lion's head with the big ceramic mane stared forward while its mouth dumped a steady trickle of steaming water into the bright blue tile tub below it. In the past, an electric pump siphoned the excess water away so the tub wouldn't overflow. Now a crude drain was improvised where the tub met the far wall, and a sloping path no wider than my thumb drew away the water so the spring could flow without complication as it always had.

I lowered myself into the water and inadvertently yelped as the searing heat surprised me. The old woman heard my cry and slid open the screen door to check on me.

"Too hot?" she asked. She had removed her wool winter coat and boots and now wore a violet sweater that matched her sandals.

"Just perfect." She didn't move. "Yes, it is quite hot," I admitted.

"Good for skin and bones. And breathe." She pantomimed a deep breath, directing her hands up from her stomach to her neck. "Good for lungs."

I made a show of inhaling while nodding at her. The wet air was salty and sulfurous, like old eggs. I must have made a face because she suppressed a giggle.

"I'll get food together. You rest," she said.

"If you wait a few minutes I can help."

"You're my guest. First one in a long time. Try to relax."

She slid the screen door shut and listened until I couldn't hear her footsteps anymore. Then I set my head back against the cold stone tiles and watched the lion's head, which I decided was staring at me.

The look reminded me of nature documentaries I'd seen as a child. In the videos animals approached the water with shifting eyes and springy joints springy, ready to flee at a moment's notice at the sight of a predator. When they finally drank from the water they did so cautiously, much like the lion's head that faced me, with their mouths angled down but keeping their eyes locked on the horizon.

These scenarios were about prey, not predators. Lions didn't need to keep as close of a watch, did they? Yet this lion refused to take his eyes off of me. Those glassy eyes didn't move but when I shifted in the tub they were still watching.

National Geographic said lions were predators. They hunted and moved in prides, protecting each other and sunning in the savannah, fearing no creature. Maybe the roles were correct in this case. Was I the predator, and the lion the prey?

This was not my intent. I apologized to the lion, closed my eyes, and submerged myself in the murky water. As I went down I could feel my hair floating up above me, free from gravity. My scalp tingled. The woman said the waters were restorative; maybe this is what she meant.

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