This early, as he passes the llama, camel, goats, Shep imagines them as feed for Jaco, who’s camped in the back, closest to the river, his own private lion. Jaco’s golden eyes catch the dawn like newspaper does a match. Shep sets down the bucket of ground beef and fiddles with his key ring. “How’s my little t‑rex this morning?”
Jaco growls in reply.
The smell of large mammal is heavy, damp and musty, like wet sand. Jaco’s fur-tipped tail switches across the cage floor. Shep swings open the cage and the lion approaches, purring like a motorcycle, a sound Shep feels in his guts. He empties the bucket of beef on the floor of the cage halfway between himself and Jaco. “Breakfast.”
Jaco squats over the meat, his mastication a series of clicks, tongue a giant spool of bubble gum. Shep retreats and watches, satisfied, for the next eighty-four seconds as Jaco’s yellow fangs move over the three pounds of cow. Then Shep leashes him and leads him into the purple morning.
Birdcall fills the air: Wrens skitter and whistle in the bushes along the water, a mockingbird alights on a tree branch with a worm in its beak, cardinals hop through the trees, pause and greet each other. Or maybe they’re singing to the earth, to spring, because they sense it’s going to be a beautiful day.
Jaco shakes his head, clearly pleased to be outside. His mane needs to be washed and conditioned before the next show. It saddens Shep to think of a future without Jaco, when he’ll have to buy a new big cat. If.
His daddy bought Jaco as a large cub from Busch Gardens in Tampa, when his mother still read fortunes and handled the family accounts. His daddy insisted they feed Jaco together so the lion’d love Shep once he took over; his daddy had already been diagnosed with cancer, has already been dead sixteen years now, his mother parked in her trailer on Lake Hartwell for almost as long. Beauregard & Co. Family Circus is his alone—Shepherd Beauregard is the last Beauregard left.
Back in those days, in his last bloom of youth, his hunchback wasn’t bad. He recently bought platform shoes to keep some of his declining height, so Jaco still views him as dominant in the ring. He’s lost an inch a year these past three years. Now he’s barely five feet tall.
His body isn’t all that’s changed. The new hire Cassie is his youngest employee and she’s against the idea of performing animals, doesn’t think it’s fair that instead of competing against hyenas on the savannah Jaco gets fed and watered and groomed and his life expectancy is nearly double for having to jump through a flaming hoop a few times a week a few months of the year. The way things are going there won’t be circuses in ten years. Just last week he had to write a letter describing the care schedule for all of the Beauregard animals to ward off another fine from the Animal Welfare Act. Even though it’s been years since the last.
Orange peeks its head into their meadow as the sky whitens. A cloudbank floats warm and gentle southward, cozy as chicken noodle soup. It smells fetid and wild, of big cat and sweetgrass and slow river. It feels like nothing—or maybe everything—is as it should be.
Ever since Shep tried to tame Cass’ lion and she rebuffed him, she’s been rude to him about Jaco. “Come on,” he joked to her yesterday, “if Jaco didn’t love me, don’t you think he’d’ve eaten me by now?”
“Maybe he’s holding off as a sign of his love,” she said.
Shep touches his belt where he normally keeps his holster. He doesn’t wear his .45 when he feeds Jaco. Maybe he should. Though it’d take the entire round to lay down a five-hundred-pound lion set on escape. The gun’s mostly to feel safe. Like when he’s come too close to Jaco while he’s eating and he growls, or in the ring when Jaco roars before a jump, and the children ooh and aah and scream and Shep has to try not to, because he feels that sound in his bowels and knows the wildness in Jaco’s eyes. Better to back down. Let nature lead. His daddy used to say if you can’t follow your nature you’re doing something wrong.
But nature is only right this spring morning. There comes a sense that everything can be born anew—the air high and tight and full, the distant trailers stoic and heavy. Thing about lions is they have more nature, more instinct than we do, which makes them harder to control if their instinct is to kill. Cass thinks Jaco can learn calculus if you train him long enough—but she also thinks a circus should be people only, and animals should be free to roam the jungle, get poached by hunters—go extinct if that’s what the Good Lord—
“Hey!” Virgil croaks from his trailer steps. The faded yellows and reds and black on his neck are like the spotty plumage of an old robin, deep-set eyes like obsidian, skin rough and brown as a dead leaf, ready to crack and reveal all that emptiness inside: Shep’s most loyal carnie. Shep still remembers the day he showed up almost twenty-five years ago, chaining Marlbs, all twiggy in his beater, voice already like it’d been run through a cheese grater when he said he came from a carnie family down in Jacksonville, troupe they’d never heard of, his mama the bearded lady. Shep still doesn’t know if that’s true. Not that it matters. Think you can find a new hire who can put together a Tilt-a-Whirl in under five hours—by himself? For standing barely five-seven—Shep’s height ten years ago—Virgil’s got the strength of someone twice his size. Unnaturally big hands, extra long arms, knows all the carnie tricks—concrete bottles, bent basketball hoops, dull-tipped darts. They haven’t given out a big stuffed bear since they bought Jaco. And the way he stays good with the dealers to get everyone their drugs—all the drugs. Throws Shep ten percent for letting him handle it. Virgil scratches Jaco’s head and Jaco shakes it out. “You heard of that new show Tiger King?”
“Makes me think they should make a show about us.”
“Now why would they make a show about a lion when they just made one about a tiger?” Shep says and then he remembers his father: a composite memory of those cold, early mornings when they fed the Beauregard lion from his childhood, the one called Thomas, the musty old tent, his father’s rounded back, the cage door swinging open, his father hucking the meat from the steel pail onto the cage floor, and together how they watched Thomas eat, the lion’s yellow dinosaurian eye flicking up at them as he licked the ground beef.
Daniel Adler was born in Brooklyn and raised in Portland. He has an MFA from U of South Carolina where he was nonfiction editor at Yemassee Journal. His work has appeared or is forthcoming from J Journal, Storgy, Shark Reef, The Broadkill Review and elsewhere. He’s @anieldadler.