He didn’t identify with anything or anyone but felt sure dragons would understand him. He cut out a map from a school history book—which he shouldn’t have done and which bothered his soul—that had pictures of monsters where the oceans spilt off the edge of the world. And then there was another map that a strange and distant ‘academic’ uncle had given him—a reproduction he stuck over his bed that had words written in Latin that went ‘hc svnt dracones’. On and in that map he found his future as an iconoclast—a defier if not a defiler of maps and mapping, and a wanderer who claimed he could be nowhere because he had no rights to anywhere.
But that was down the track and a long way off, almost outside time and space in terms of where he ‘was at’ as he stared at his new map. He would investigate further by asking questions—though he preferred being asked questions to asking them—and looking in big bricks of encyclopaedia volumes, and discovering the edges of Roman conquest tipping into ‘hic sunt leones’, and he knew that for him, given dragons weren’t real, that lions held the truth.
There was an ‘open zoo’ lion park on the edge of the city, where the suburbs of back then faded into vestiges of harassed and damaged bushland, and he asked if he could be taken there and driven through the park as the lions gathered. He knew he would find answers there, though he was angry the lions were so far off their own map and that they were providing entertainment in the name of ‘conservation’. He was that kind of kid. Teachers’ insistence that he needed to think and behave more in keeping with his age were dashed as soon as an adult sat down and tried to unravel him.
He resisted with words they had to look up in a dictionary and like kids who suffered from teachers who said they could only do those math tricks because they had memorised rather than understood process, he was marooned in the concrete and playground monkey bar jungles of their creation and prejudice. One teacher even said to his mother, Well, he can be an annoying little know-it-all, to be frank. To be frank. The boy was less upset than his mother, saying, I don’t think the teachers really appreciate what those ‘trade routes’ across the maps really meant for the people whose paths they crossed. And the lions suffered as a consequence as well.
The entire family wanted to go—two adults and four kids, but the adults decided the two youngest were too young and best left with grandparents. So the two adults and the two oldest children, he being the second oldest, were loaded into the station wagon for the journey across the river, into the oddness of the northern suburbs and beyond.
They’d been told that the best time to visit was feeding time, and though this tantalised him, he objected. It’s not right, he said. Not right by what they’re eating and the fact they deserve to eat in privacy. He didn’t like people watching him eat, and at school ate his lunch on his own behind the school hall where nobody else ever went, not even the roaming pack of bullies. So his parents found out about feeding times and avoided the issue. The parents didn’t mind, really, though mother said it would be gory, though his sister, who was going through a vampire and ghost stage, loved the idea and was disappointed and said, Why does he always get his way? You wouldn’t like it if you saw it happening, he said. I would, she said, and you can’t tell me anything. She was a year older than him, and he had no power over her other than what his parents bestowed upon him because he was the oldest boy. But that embarrassed him and he didn’t push it unless it came to cake or where they went on outings.
He said to his dad, who laughed, because that was the way he dealt with his son’s slightly embarrassing unmanlinesses, Dad, we are going off the edge of the map to see creatures taken from their homes … we are going into the wild of the suburbs! He never got enough back from his dad, so he nudged his sister in the back seat as she was looking out at nothing in particular as far as he was concerned, and said, If we open the windows, which is forbidden, they will rip us out of the car and devour us.
Don’t be an idiot, she said. You mean eat us, they’ll eat us alive.
Their mother, half turning to half look at them, but wanting to keep her eyes on the road because she didn’t drive and didn’t trust her husband’s ability to navigate to a new place and drive, said, Devour and eat …it’s all the same in the end.
And then their father, slightly irritated, said, Be quiet back there and stop carrying on, it’s distracting.
There, see! said their mother to the road, confusing them all, but not herself. But it was an odd confusion because it was mixed with deference—they all knew that she was the glue that kept the dysfunctional sometimes quite unhappy and argumentative family together, and that she was the best-read and most informed of them all.
Then Dad, confident he knew where he was going and feeling relieved as they sat at a longer than usual red light, said, Boy, we have to throw that old foamie surfboard of yours out … it’s disintegrating all over the shed in the heat and you never use it.
His sister chipped in, slightly on his behalf, and said, Well, Dad, you never take us to the beach so how could he use it? but then she ruined her gesture with, And why are we going to see poor lions stuffed in a paddock that they call an open-air zoo to make everyone feel it’s a wild experience instead of going to the beach where people, seagulls and even sharks are free.
He smiled, not sure if she was being full-on sarcastic or just a bit sarcastic, even though it was to his disadvantage to smile and he was really offended, but he smiled because this smart and sarcastic side of his sister’s personality quite appealed to him, and he really liked and admired her. Maybe she and I will be friends one day, though he’d never say this to her because she’d just laugh in his face and say, Der …
And then they were there, at the gates, having pulled in and almost being clipped by a tailgater, which made their father swear and their mother cry out in fear and annoyance, which irritated and attracted their father, which the kids couldn’t work out—they were inside!—having paid their car fee and been given a brochure that immediately found its way into the boy’s hands, and the weirdo—as his sister said—taking the money and handing the brochure winked at them all and gave her the creeps … and they were winding along slowly and they were passing a sign that said ‘Trespassers will be eaten’ and suddenly their dad said, Funny how things get lost and come back to you … I’ve been on one of these before near Sydney … you drive past these African features with names like Lake Chad and Chambura.
When was that? asked their mother, sounding disturbed, as if there were family secrets that needed exposing.
I remember there were long-legged wading birds being watched by lionesses sitting under gum trees on bare patches and ruined ground, he continued, checking his window was secure.
Wow, like here … look at those lions … the big cats! said his sister. They are cool! It’s like watching Daktari without the natives.
It’s not right saying that, said her brother, angry.
Why? she asked, and flicked him, I don’t mean anything prejudice … you’re the one who wanted to pretend we’re in the middle of Africa!
Stop it in the back and check your windows! barked their dad.
The car sailed on, keeping a respectable space between itself and the next car. These lions, he said, might be happier here than in the circuses they came from, all being tormented and annoyed by kids. It was a question and a statement and he didn’t know who he was saying it to, or whom he might be asking.
Like you! said his sister. He didn’t know what she meant but it still came as a relief to his troubled conscience.
Their mother snapped, You know your brother would never bother an animal!
Sorry, I didn’t mean it that way … and he understood me anyway, said his sister just as a lioness leapt onto the bonnet and studied them and leapt off.
Come off it! called their father, Who’s going to pay to fix the scratches? Bloody ridiculous. The boy was awe-struck.
The car stopped, which maybe it wasn’t supposed to do, but it did. A lion, a massive old lion with a raggedy-looking mane and patches of missing fur came up, sniffed at the wheels and doors, and circled. No-one said anything. Suddenly it leapt up at the boy’s window and he squealed. Nobody told him off because they got a fright as well. The lion slobbered over the window and someone said, I hope the window doesn’t break, let’s go now. Drive on, drive!
But they didn’t. They just stayed there, and the lion looked at the boy and he got caught in its eyes. They were mapping him and he was inside them. He wondered if it was born in a circus in Australia, or if it came from Africa—trapped and taken from its family. It bothered him and then it yawned and the map broke up and someone behind beeped their horn, which surely wasn’t allowed and his sister changed everything by returning to her senses, to who she was, with a savvy, What big teeth you have! comment to the lion. The lion walked on hind legs holding on to the car as they started to move off, then it yawned and dropped back onto all fours, switched its tail and swayed away, and started doing odd movements that looked like anger and annoyance and then indifference mixed. It shook itself and went to roar but nothing emerged.
The boy said, One day they will shoot that lion, they don’t care about it, not really.
And Dad said, It’s all to make money, son … it’s entertainment. Just like it was with that place in Sydney. If I’d remembered I wouldn’t have brought you here, no matter how much you moaned about it.
How on earth could you forget an experience like that? their mother asked their father with that look of bewilderment she used only on him.
He shook his head and muttered, Let me concentrate on navigating us out of this hell hole.
The car started to gather pace and they went through the process, did the journey, the trek, the safari, but all of them wanted to get home as quickly as possible. They went via the grandparents where the two youngest had been stalking each other in the garden pretending to be lions and when they saw the car pull up ran over and started clamouring at the doors, wanting to know if anyone got eaten. Slobber mixed with slobber. They roared and roared until their father roared back at them and they cried.
On Monday at school it was his turn to tell news. He said he had none. Everyone has some news, said the teacher, patiently. What did you do on the weekend? Did you go anywhere or watch an interesting television show? Nothing, he said sullenly. Well, that’s disappointing, and from one of my best students, too—you’re usually never short of a word. He was confused—did that mean she liked him, or didn’t like him? He shrank further as the suck suck sounds came from the boys sitting behind him, but he felt more frustrated by his own silence than by what they thought of him.
Then he said, Mrs Grady?
Can I write something on the blackboard instead?
It’s my news.
Well, I guess so … it’s better than nothing, at least you’re making an effort.
So he rose slowly, and walked slowly, and shook himself inside like a lion, a tormented locked-up old lion, and wrote across the board in big shaky letters: ‘hc svnt dracones’. •
John Kinsella’s recent books include the poetry volume Open Door (UWAP, 2018) and the novel Lucida Intervalla (UWAP, 2018). He is Professor of Literature and Environment at Curtin University, and a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge.