MAILE MEETS THE LION
BY C PAM ZHANG
The lion is lying by the lake when Maile goes to fetch water. Its orange ruff reflects in the smooth blue surface, twice as bright in the water than in real, dusty life. Maile lifts a hand to shield her eyes, and in doing so knocks a fingerswidth of muddy well water from her bucket. Today is hotter than yesterday. The sun dries the telltale drips, but Gramma notices the lack anyways.
Stupid girl, Gramma hisses, lions? Pah! This mirage-spinning is how you lost my precious water. Know how hard I worked to dig that well? Harder than your skull is thick! You won’t drink tonight, oh-ho no.
Gramma presses her pipe to Maile’s forearm, leaving a pink mark that rises from her brown skin like the smog at sunrise. Maile stands quite still. Lucky—when Maile is especially lazy, Gramma leaves burns as dark as flocking vultures.
The lion is not there the next day, and something wobbles in Maile’s chest. Sunstroke, likely. Today the red line on the heat-reader reached the top. The well has sunk so low her bucket scrapes sludge.
Only the mirror lake is untouched by drought, shining blue with toxins that will not fade for a hundred hundred years, according to the scientists who fled and left their instruments to be swallowed by sand. Fools have tried to filter the water, drink it. The dunes are speckled white by their bone; once in a while the sand winds slap a chunk down the back of Maile’s collar, where it wriggles hot against her back. A rare northerly breeze makes her look up, and there, at the far bank—the lion. The fur on its body is the black of noon shadow. Its jaws open pink in a yawn. In that sudden wash of coolness, Maile finds the strength to pick every speck of silt from the bucket.
A hraaki, Gramma says. She is pleased today, tummy swollen with drink. In my girlhood—oh-ho you should have seen how pretty I was!—hraakis came here after their forests burned. They stole our water. Like this. Gramma grabs Maile’s cup and gulps. Near extinct now. Gramma’s wet lips are slick as two slabs of meat. Though we killed them too late.
Maile wonders about that. The hraaki never approaches the well.
The next day, which is hotter, Gramma says, I should let it steal you, you worthless ninny. I starved myself digging my well, and look how you waste it!
Maile looks at the rolls of fat on Gramma’s arms, and wonders about the truth of that, too.
The next day, hotter, the hraaki lopes close enough for Maile to see its tawny eyes, the brown hidden deep in its black coat. Its tongue dips the lake. Maile’s bucket comes up half mud, earning her a new burn. The flesh puffs in a circle and forms a yawning pink mouth.
You’ve called it here, evil child, Gramma frets. Silt forms a mustache above her mouth. Maile counts the cracks in Gramma’s dry bottom lip and holds her burnt arm stiff, pretending it is the arm of one of the broken windmills. Metal through and through. I knew I shouldn’t have taken you in, oh-ho no.
The next day, hotter, Maile tucks her courage about her like radiation tarp and walks the long walk around the edge of the lake. The sun is hotter than Gramma’s pipe. By the time Maile arrives she is panting. The hraaki blinks, regal as an ancient king. In their reflected selves, Maile can see that both of them have eyes the same tawny shade.
Are you...? Maile asks. A half-chant worn to tatters in her childhood, when she asked the question of every dark-skinned man who passed through, tugging at the hems of their tarps. Before Gramma told her her people were garbage, and incinerated just like it.
The strange breeze ruffles the hraaki’s mane against Maile’s thigh. The touch of it is unexpectedly cool. She remembers that feeling later, when her new burns kindle a fever in her.
Begone! Gramma screams. Tonight even burning has not quelled her rage. Out, out!
Gramma stands for the first time in years to draw the tent closed.
The next day, hottest, Maile is too weak to lift the bucket. How long since Gramma last let her drink? The sand wind is blowing, in eddies and devil-swirls, and sometimes Maile sees people dancing within. Sometimes blinking makes these dark mirages fade; other times the people persist behind her closed lids. She crawls over the last dune. The well is dry, and so is Maile. No tears as the hraaki approaches. Its breath is gentle, like a hand on her forehead from when she was small. The mouth opens; in the great jaw a pool of blue liquid glimmers. This time Maile knows that Gramma lied. The hraaki does not steal. It gives. She puts her head in the lion’s mouth. The lake water thrums over her tongue, sweet as ancient song.
C Pam Zhang’s debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books. Her short fiction is in or coming to Black Warrior Review, Fairy Tale Review, Gulf Coast, The Missouri Review, Tin House Open Bar, and elsewhere. She’s received scholarships and fellowships from Tin House, Bread Loaf, Aspen Words, the Hambidge Center, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She’s not sure where home is, but lives on Twitter @cpamzhang.
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