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The Lion Cub

By Mazen Maarouf and translated from the arabic by lina mounzer

We never suspected that the Lion Cub was not, in fact, a lion cub until his bicycle was stolen. He made no attempt to get it back. He only shot a few rounds into the air from his bedroom window, then lay down on the sponge mattress on the ground, tears dripping from his wide-open eyes, staring at the ceiling, longing intensely for his mother. His gun lay by his side.
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The bicycle had been a gift from his mother. But we’d only ever seen him riding it a few times. He had it displayed in a rectangular glass case near the school on our street. So that everyone could see it. But no one even ever thought of risking a proper look at it. The Lion Cub would get mad if you did, and would come find you by night and shoot you while you were asleep in your bed. Like he did to his elderly aunt when one night he found her trying to remove his two goldfish from the bathtub so she could take a bath and he shot her with his gun. It was as easy for the Lion Cub to shoot someone as someone cutting their nails, because his gun was outfitted with a silencer. Afterward, he’d get rid of the gun and then get himself another, of a different make and model, like any other very accomplished sixteen-year-old serial killer. And so no one was ready to sacrifice their life for the sake of a bicycle. Some people would even smile in its direction, or salute it with a nod of their heads like it was a faithful dog guarding the neighborhood. As for me, whenever I saw it, I was overcome with a desire to pounce on it and take a bite out of it. It was a bicycle so stunning it made you ravenous. A Chopper, orange and white. With two brown wheels that gleamed summer and winter, like they were molded out of yogurt blended with chocolate and cherries. The front wheel was small and the rear wheel large. I allowed myself to imagine that it was impossible to ride it with any speed, because then it might melt it was so clean. Like it was made of laundry detergent crystals. But it was in fact the opposite of that. A bicycle of utmost might. Made of nickel and lead. So much so that when the first car bomb exploded at the roundabout closest to our neighborhood, the Lion Cub cockily proclaimed that the bicycle could climb the pillar of smoke that all of us stood watching with dread. As if the car bomb was some sort of advertisement testifying to the quality of his bicycle.
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The glass case where the Lion Cub had parked his bike was originally set up to display a statue of Saint Matanyos, the patron saint of lunatics. But on the day his mother entered the mental hospital, the Lion Cub removed the saint and replaced it with his bicycle. That was before the first skirmishes that marked the beginning of the war. The people of our neighborhood weren’t Christians; the glass case and saint had been a gift from the residents of the adjoining neighborhood, those whom the war would force us to cut from entirely. Their kids, now armed, had dared slip into our area by night and lay their hands on the Chopper in its glass case, in retaliation for defiling the wax statue of the patron Saint Matanyos, which the Lion Cub, once having removed it from its case, had compelled me with just a nod of his head to tie to a huge firework and launch in the direction of the Christian neighborhood. I did this, in full view of everyone. A few hours later, the residents of our neighborhood began erecting barricades.

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I knew that the case and the saint had only been placed in our neighborhood on my account. They’d in fact been placed there on my birthday. An expression of the Christians’ pity for me. The barber’s eyes told me this every time I went to him for a haircut. They also told me that I needed to be cured as fast as possible, before the outbreak of the first battles. Because if I was, our people would return the saint and the case safely to the Christians, maybe even with a thank you note, and they’d have a barbecue and slaughter a small sheep for it. And with that we’d manage to fend the war off entirely from our neighborhood and avoid many battles, limiting ourselves to the number of small fortifications that had been built atop the roofs of some of the houses in our neighborhood as nests for snipers should the worst case scenario arrive, and on whose walls some thought it would be a good idea to have the children inscribe, with asphalt, accounts of the memories they’d shared with the children of the Christian neighborhood, things like public holidays and festivals, including the dates of each if they could remember them.

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But if I failed to comply with the saint’s will and be cured, and the war broke out, the statue would most certainly be destroyed, because it was a Christian one, and that would greatly provoke our neighbors. And its destruction would probably be used as an excuse to invade our neighborhood. So I was under a lot of pressure. I needed to be cured of what ailed me as fast as possible.

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On my way back from my plumbing job every day, I was aware of everyone’s eyes boring into me. The grocery store owner’s and the mechanic’s and the sporting goods store proprietor’s and the guy’s from the roastery. Children’s, too: one of them once asked me when I was going into the building, “Why aren’t you getting any better?” And when I entered my house, my mother and grandfather and sister’s eyes would all be saying, “We don’t have anywhere to run to. You have to get better. You have no other choice!”

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My mother lights incense sticks every day, massaging my head and pressing on that spot between my eyes while murmuring verses from the Koran, concluding with: “Get well!” as I fall asleep. And when I go watch the Scouts, now in military uniforms, doing their training drills in the empty lot, they all stop their training for a minute to look at me with eyes I can understand, eyes that say: “We’re training because we know you’ll never be cured.” Then they’d go on with what they were doing. In short, as the days marched on and the streets and houses slid ever onward toward the maw of the war’s meat grinder, the statue became a burden on me in particular. I felt pleasure as I tied it to the firework and fired it into the air. Almost as if I were the one flying.

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The Lion Cub, though, was exceedingly pragmatic. He was the only one who understood that I’d never be cured. In the arcade, he’d always say, “I’m convinced you’re never going to be cured. That’s why I carry this gun around. Look. This tube here is so it doesn’t make any sound. Like if I were to shoot you, no one would know you’d died. Not even you.” I loved that part of the story. That I’d die without anyone knowing that I was dead. So whenever I saw the Lion Cub, I’d say, “Tell me that story again. About how if I died no one would know.”

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And he’d pull the gun out gracefully from behind his back amid the anxiety of the other kids, cock it and say, “This is a gun. And this tube here is so that it doesn’t make any sound. Like if I were to take you out right now to that alley and shoot you, none of these people here would know you’d died. Not even you.”

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And I’d feel a pleasure that tingled all the way to the ironed-out scar on my pinkie toe, my scalp shivering the way it did when I peed, and I’d say, “Take me out to that alley and shoot me,” like I was daring him to do it.

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Except he’d say, “You’d have to be cured first. I wouldn’t shoot someone who wasn’t in full possession of his mental faculties,” then command me harshly to get out of his face.

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It was clear that the Lion Cub wouldn’t shoot me no matter how much I begged. It was a question of pride for him. He even bragged about it in a letter to his girl, a brevet student who lived on the ground floor of his apartment building. She told me about it herself. She came up to me while I was unclogging the kitchen drain in her house, sidling right up behind me while I fiddled with the copper flex and whispered, “Did you know? You’re the reason why. Ever since the Lion Cub wrote and told me he’d never shoot you, I fell in love with him. When he told me he’d never shoot you, I realized that he was really kind and sensitive.”

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His girl was slender. Her behind was shaped like a pear and her breasts the size of toilet floats and her eyes were sleepy day and night, and when she talked it was like her head was encased in a plastic bag. She said what she did so softly my heart began to pound, and I knew the people of our neighborhood would sooner turn into soap more easily than the Lion Cub would shoot me.

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There was no way to enter his house on the fourth floor. The rumor was that the front door was booby-trapped. If you touched it wrong, it would explode. Otherwise, it would have been easy to break into his bathroom and remove the two goldfish from his tub, and then wait naked under the shower for the Lion Cub to come home.

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After the Lion Cub’s mother was admitted to the mental hospital, the people in our neighborhood moved on to beating me instead of just contenting themselves with staring. The barber told me it was all because I wouldn’t get better. And that it was my fault that Saint Matanyos no longer bore any goodwill toward our neighborhood. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been the Lion Cub’s mother in particular who went crazy. Soon my mother also became nervy, crying at the drop of a hat, and my grandfather coughed harder, spitting up more phlegm than necessary.

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I knew they blamed me because they couldn’t figure out the reason that would cause the war to break out. I wasn’t happy with that sort of life. But when the Lion Cub put his bike in the case, he gave me an idea bright as lightning. I’d guessed that the only way to get him to shoot me was to go into the case and sit on the Chopper in the full glare of day. I’d leave the house as if I were going to work. At 8:30 in the morning. But instead of heading to the plumber’s, I’d just cross the street and then, in a few paces, find myself inside the glass case, sitting on the Chopper. I’d remain seated there just like that until the Lion Cub spotted me and shot me. Maybe he’d even shoot me from his bedroom window, in his underpants and undershirt. Anyway, the main thing was that when I died, I wouldn’t know it.

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I wouldn’t come to any harm.

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And I wouldn’t feel any of the beatings I was now getting from the neighbors and I would be impervious to my mother’s tears or what the people’s eyes said about how my fate and the statue’s were connected. And I’d also be the only one in the entire neighborhood who’d ever ridden the Chopper.

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That morning, I kissed my sleeping mother and washed out the pot into which my grand-father spit out his phlegm and put it back in its usual place beside him. But when I left the house, I saw that the bike wasn’t in the case. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was so shocked and upset it was almost as if it were my bike that had gone missing. My eyes filled with tears and my chin trembled. I stepped into the case without thinking, looking all around, touching the air, the glass walls, like maybe the Chopper was actually in there but I was unable to see it.

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Some of the neighbors had gathered around the case. They just stood there watching me, no one actually daring to set a foot inside to pull me out. Even when they saw the Lion Cub approaching, no one said, “He’s coming. Get out of there quickly,” or anything of the sort. The Lion Cub came up behind me and jerked me back roughly so that I fell out of the case and onto the ground. He was furious — you could tell from his red ears, and he had his gun in his hand. I had no idea the bike had been stolen. I thought he’d put it in another case or taken it home. And so I begged, “Please put the Chopper back in its case.” When he heard that, the Lion Cub went back to his room and shot a few rounds into the air and remembered his mother and cried.

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I have to mention that the box and the patron saint hadn’t been gifted to us for no reason, but because the Christian neighbors felt sad and ashamed given that their children were the reason for what had happened to me — specifically, the son of the head of the charity that organized benefits for children with kidney disease. We were at the arcade, which was tucked away in a neutral corner between our two neighborhoods. I was wearing boxing gloves. They weren’t real boxing gloves, not even amateur boxing gloves, but I was really pleased with them. They were a prize from the Ricco biscuit company that I’d gotten in exchange for fifty empty wrappers. They had that ridiculous drawing on them, of a biscuit with two small arms wearing boxing gloves and punching away. But I didn’t care. They were the first gloves I’d ever worn. Back then, I wanted to be a boxing champion more than anything else, saving the world with his punches—without really knowing what one had to punch in this whole wide world in order to save it. A powerful and fearsome boxer, as if fighting with elephant trunks wrapped around his fists instead of gloves. Then the head of the charity organization’s kid turned up. He asked to borrow my gloves. He said he wanted to try them out on the arcade’s boxing machine. They were in his possession less than a minute later. As soon as he slipped his fingers inside and curled his large hands into fists, the gloves ripped open and he refused to give me the price of fifty Ricco biscuit packets in exchange. When I came home distraught, unable to understand why what had happened had happened, my mother repaired the gloves with needle and thread. Of course, that wasn’t the reason why I began having these brain seizures that left me unable to trust everything I heard or saw. It was actually because, when I went to the house of the charity head’s son the next day, wearing the sewn-up Ricco gloves, waiting for him to open the door so I could sock him in the face and run for it, I saw that all ten of his fingers had been mutilated. He’d suffered an electrical burn while attempting to straighten his little sister’s hair with a hot iron: all the fingers had been melted together so that they curled up into a fist, almost as if they were still thrust into the torn up Ricco gloves. His eyes were so miserable as they looked on the boxing gloves I wore. Like he blamed them. His mother and father, too, looked at the Ricco gloves. And I felt something rip through my brain. Something that had never happened to me before. From that day on, I had seizures. My head would go rigid and freeze up, and my eyes, my lips, my ears, my eyebrows and my dimples too. I’d be unable to see or hear or smell anything around me. At school, I stopped believing the lessons the teachers gave us, and I stopped going to class. And even though the kid ended up having surgery on his fingers so that his hands were almost the same as they’d been before, the seizures never stopped, and I left school and began working as a plumber.

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Later they started calling me the patron saint of blocked drains because I was so adept at inserting the spiral flex into the blocked drain and pulling the obstruction out in one go. That’s the gift I’d been granted by the seizures: that sixth sense about blocked drains. But the softhearted Christian neighbors continued to act guilty around me. Some of them would go so far as to block their own sinks and drains with wads of toilet paper or plastic bags or socks so that I’d come and unblock them, ensuring that I had work. On my first birthday after that, they bequeathed our neighborhood with Saint Matanyos and his case.

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Should the war break out, I’d be the only one who’d be able to move freely between our neighborhood and the Christian one. That’s because the militiamen there were none other than the son of the head of the charity organization and his friends. And none of them were really concerned with shooting me anymore. That’s because in wartime you only kill people in order to provoke the other side. And my death would have provoked no one. It didn’t even matter that I’d tied Saint Matanyos up to a fat firework and shot it in the direction of their neighborhood.

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That’s the reason why the Lion Cub came to our house and asked me to go to the Christian neighborhood to get his Chopper back. When my mother saw him, her knees went numb and she couldn’t get up anymore. My grandfather fell into a coughing fit. But I was proud, so proud that I left the door open and the three windows too so that everyone could see that the Lion Cub was over at our house. I even flaunted before the Lion Cub himself, interrupting him while he talked to go clean my grandfather’s spittoon out. Of course I said yes right away. On one condition. I whispered it in his ear: “On the condition that you shoot me with the silencer while I’m riding your Chopper.”

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The Lion Cub thought long and hard, looking into my eyes, and then said that this would bring shame to him, but he’d do it for the Chopper’s sake, not for mine, and he’d do it somewhere no one could see us: at the kindergarten playground at the nearby school. I needed to be showered though, washed free of any plumber’s odor, and I needed to be wearing a large smock because he didn’t want any blood spattering on his Chopper. Immediately I thought of the barber’s smock and the Lion Cub said he’d get it himself, and I agreed.

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The Christian kids wouldn’t hand over the Chopper on the first day. They said I had to go get the statue first, since I’d never be cured, and come back the next day. When I went back to them, on the evening of the next day, the statue was in a bag hanging off my shoulder. It was broken in two, maybe even three pieces, and some of its wax limbs had melted because of the exploding firework. But the Chopper was waiting for me. So clean it looked like it had just come out of the glass case. Sparkling clean, without even a single scratch on it. It was the first time I’d be laying a hand on the Chopper. And I did it brilliantly. I was so excited about it, I got a hard-on. This made the children laugh, ordering me kindly to leave, saying: “Even if you yourself were to turn into Saint Matanyos, you’ll never be cured.”

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I made my way to the kindergarten playground at the school. The Lion Cub was waiting for me. He was holding a gun outfitted with a silencer, a gun I’d never seen before. It was silver and lighter than any of his others. “I’ve never used this gun before,” he told me, handing me the smock and looking at the Chopper. “But from now on, I won’t use any other. I promised my mother that. I visited her at the hospital today. She’s getting out soon. We’re going to go to the mountains, she and I, the way we used to before, and she’ll watch me riding around on the Chopper. It’ll be good for her.”

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I didn’t feel like any of this had anything to do with me. I was holding the bike, wondering only whether it would be better to sit on the Chopper of my own accord or wait for the Lion Cub’s permission first. But the Lion Cub interrupted my train of thought, taking the bike from me and handing me the smock, which I put on immediately so he’d understand that I was ready to ride. He pulled out a small flashlight and examined every part of the bike, then said, “All right. You can ride it now, but carefully.” And I, who’d never ridden a bike before, kept my feet on the ground, exerting a huge amount of effort so the bike wouldn’t topple over. The Chopper, for the first time, seemed small to me. I was just about to tell this to the Lion Cub. That the Chopper seemed a lot smaller than it had appeared to me in the case. Except he leveled his gun and aimed the silencer at my chest and shot. I felt the pain spread out into all my bones immediately. Like a whole army of cockroaches had risen up from the sewers to gnaw at me. I fell on the ground right way, because that’s what happens to you at times like these. The bike remained upright, still held in the Lion Cub’s hand. He didn’t even glance my way. He turned the Chopper around and mounted it, pedaling slowly across the playground, away from me. As I watched him, casting a last look at the bike, which still held me in its thrall, I noticed a small object lying next to me. A small, hot object, letting off light wisps of smoke. A bullet. A rubber bullet. A bullet from the Lion Cub’s new gun, which hadn’t penetrated me at all, and there was no trace of blood on the barber’s smock. I felt like the Lion Cub had not only tricked me, but was mocking me. I wanted to get up and run after him, but I couldn’t prevail over the pain in my bones. And just as I began to scream out to get his attention, the Chopper’s handlebars exploded, reducing the bicycle to wreckage and leaving no trace of the Lion Cub behind.

Contributor
Lina Mounzer

Lina Mounzer is a writer and translator living and working in Beirut. Her work has appeared in Literary Hub, Bidoun, Warscapes, The Berlin Quarterly, Chimurenga, and Rusted Radishes. She has taught Creative Writing at both the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University, and was a literary fellow at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Germany and a UNESCO-Aschberg literary fellow in Brazil. In 2017, she was an invited speaker at the PEN World Voices literary festival in New York City. She has translated, from Arabic to English, short stories by Chaza Charafeddine and Mazen Maarouf as well as a novel by Hassan Daoud.

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