A Lion Among Men
The particularity of otherfolks' youthful memories always mocked Brrr. The first visit to Grandmama's! When the coconut fell on the teacher's head! The time that baby Albern almost choked! How we laughed, how we cried. How we remember. Together.

His first and oldest past was undifferentiated. Unending forest. Unremarkable seasons. Loneliness without hope of relief. How could Brrr imagine relief from loneliness when he hadn't found companionship yet? What goes unnamed remains hard to correct.

Brrr didn't know if his mother had died in childbirth, or been stricken with amnesia. Or maybe she just lit out because she was an unnatural mother. A loner or a schizo. Or maybe she was drummed out of the pride for low behavior. He used to care which it was.

Though of course he didn't take it in at the time, he also grew up without the benefit of a tribe of his own. No aunties to fill in the blanks about what his mother had been like, and where she had gone, and why. No growly father hiding a whiskered grin of affection even as he set to cuff his darling cub, raising him up right in the ways of the family.

His earliest memories—gluey hazes—involved skulking about the Great Gillikin Forest north of Shiz like—like a skunk, like a grite, like one of those creatures who can become repellent even to their own kind. Like a human.
In later years as an arriviste in the Emerald City—having sat through a number of poetry readings—he found a way to characterize the Great Gillikin Forest. After a second sherry he could wax most convincingly about shrouds of spiderwebs. The dank naves suggested by rows of diseased potterpine, slatted with bars of cold yellow light. The forest floor carpeted with thornberry prickle. The stupid fecundity of the spring, the swift and unrewarding summer, the gloomy autumn, and—oh hell—the bone-taxing winter. What damned Lioness would bother to deliver a cub just to abandon him there, of all benighted places?

People nodded politely as they inched away.

The trees creaked as if the whole world were constantly flexing its muscles, about to pounce. A fern could unfurl with a snap that knocked you six steps toward a sanitorium. Owls, bats, forest harpies, badgers. A wild turkey in the undergrowth, startled into flight, making a noise of small explosives. To say nothing of fog. He hated fog. And poison ivy.

And don't even mention snakes.

Or elves. Or any beast larger than a runtling pig.
The first humans he could remember coming upon were the mad Lurlinists. Brrr spied on them from behind screens of bracken. They dabbled in heathen rituals. Smoke and incense, singing in minor thirds. That sort of thing. He'd deduced language from them, language of a sort: an orotund pitch derived from religious prosody. Somewhat off—putting, as it turned out. It hadn't helped him to act the part of an alley cat later on, when he'd wanted to flee into the demimonde.

But he had loved the contrapuntality of discussion even before he quite understood that words possessed dedicated meanings. Eavesdropping on two travelers arguing over which way to go: savory plum nectar to him, blanket and kisses and mother's milk to him. The lilt of human voices in conversation, the nasal sonority, the fermata silences—he learned to hold himself very still in dappled shadows for the reward of it. Rhythm and tempo came first, vocabulary followed—but he never practiced, except to himself in secret bowers. As a young Cat he was still larger than a human, and if he spoke stupidly he might identify himself as nothing but a big lummox.

How had he survived his early years? He'd eaten nothing but forest turnips, shallots, the pinker of the edible fungus. He'd stalked human travelers and eavesdropped on their campfire chats to try to pick up anything that approximated street smarts, though he didn't even know what streets were yet. Watching occasional romantic exercises in the firelight, he'd learned more. Not that he'd been able to put theory into practice very often. More's the pity.

"Your childhood," said Yackle coaxingly, as if she could smell his thoughts. As if she could sniff out those passages he hadn't chosen to retail at drinks parties.

Her words lulled him. The past, even a bitter past, is usually more pungent than the present, or at least better organized in the mind.
From A Lion Among Men by Gregory Maguire. Published by William Morrow/An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.


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