I was a young kid when a fierce black lion stood on a high shelf of the farmhouse where my mother had grown up, and where some of my cousins then lived. The farms of rural Saskatchewan were not yet electrified, and though the beast looked tame enough in the living room by day, at night when Aunt Selma lit a lantern and led Jerold and Ralph and me through the room to the staircase and the bedrooms above, the lion menaced from its shelf casting sinister shadows around the walls and ceiling. I hurried upstairs, but the fear of the beast followed me into bed, and I shuddered even under the Mennonite quilt Aunt Selma had laid out.
When the farm was sold, at the auction sale Ralph won the bid for the lion, but later when he saw how fascinated I remained by it he gave it to me. As a child I had imagined the lion to be made of iron or steel, but some years after it came into my possession I discovered by a mischance that it was plaster of paris. I had kept it on a shelf in my own office, and after it had stood there for many months I took it down one day thinking it would make a good bookend on my desktop. Clumsy oaf that I was, I dropped it and broke off its nose, and when I saw the white plaster underneath the dark coat the creature began to resemble a sphinx from some African desert rather than the ferocious beast it had been in childhood.
Nevertheless, for more than a year it had indeed served as a bookend for my dictionary and thesaurus, and one afternoon I again wanted to use it to prop up a binder beside the computer to make onscreen corrections to a manuscript inside. I had done this often before, and it was a routine gesture when I pulled the lion forward, but suddenly I heard the clunk of something fall from the desk and roll down the wall to the floor.
I pushed back my chair and went on hands and knees to see what it could be. I moved aside a briefcase, groped along the dusty pile of the carpet, and there tucked against the baseboard was a tiny brass lion about a hundredth the size of the old animal above. The mouth on the infant’s face was opened in a perfect round O, and its body had only three legs, with a hole in the belly where the fourth should have been. The three paws also had small holes in their pads, as if the creature had once been mounted on some surface.
I sat up and laid the little whelp on the desk and began inspecting the old one for orifices I might previously have overlooked. I tapped the base and listened for hollow sounds. I pulled back the felt lining of the underside in search of a false bottom through which the infant might have come, but there was none. The base and body of the statue were solid as ever (though the ghost of a nose remained!), and eventually I went to ask my wife whether she’d ever seen this little animal before. She had not.
From where, then, could it have fallen into my world? It was a mystery.
It occurred to me now to read Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols to see what the scholars had to say about the king of beasts. I went to fetch the book from a shelf across the room, and there in front of its thick spine sat another lion, a medium-sized ornament made of ceramic, with a history of its own in my family. It was given to my mother by her father, Grandpa Gliege, as a 12th birthday gift, and one of a very few things that had been rescued from a fire that destroyed our house when I was three weeks old. My mother had treasured it all her life, and kept it on display in her china cabinet. When she moved into a nursing home, the lion accompanied her to her small room, and when she died and we were left to dispose of her things I took the gift home, where it also found a place in my office, as the other one had.
Now three lions were looking at me: large, small, and medium; plaster of paris, brass, and ceramic. The symbolism, I learned, is prolific. The lion represents the sun, the young one a rising sun, the old one a setting. It is the possessor of strength and the masculine principle. It’s the earthy opponent of the eagle in the sky. Frobenius even says, “the solar lion tears out the throat of the lunar bull.” And lions are associated (God knows how) with the Gospel of St. Mark. Yet none of this tells me what I most wish to know: from where did that infant lion come? It’s been on my desk for many months now, and I still have no clue.
There is this, though. When I halt my frenetic or bumbling motion long enough, the three lions are a reminder of the mystery, magic, and miracle (all three m’s!) of anything whatsoever appearing. Or re-appearing. For unless the Deity commanded my little critter to appear ex nihilo and without a history, it was hiding somewhere to confound a human who thought he had a reasonable grip on things. But what does that human know anyway?
As for the old farmhouse lion, even in its new function as a bookend, when I steal into my office at night with all the lights off, it looks fearsome enough to recall childhood’s shivers, and show in its stance that it’s very much undefeated by the broken nose.
Ratzlaff is the author of three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press: The Crow Who Tampered With Time (2002), Backwater Mystic Blues (2006), and Bindy’s Moon (2015); and editor of Seeing it Through, an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. Formerly a minister, counsellor and university instructor, he now makes his living as a writer in Saskatoon.