“Walks Like a Lion” by Nancy Au is inspired by true stories and uses the imaginative power of fiction to empathetically inhabit the lonely, lovely minds of a Tibetan mastiff and a Japanese grandmother with equal illumination and insight. Au’s transportive, compressed language is suggestive of a far vaster world than its 750 or so words—a brief and resonant testament to what a piece of flash fiction can do.”
– Kathleen Rooney

Walks Like a Lion

by Nancy Au

Ms. R, 80, stole salmon roe, sweet Japanese creeper, a frying pan. Fourth term. Final sentence, two and a half years. Has a husband and a son. Imprisoned for trying to run from her husband’s delusions and paranoia after his stroke. Shoplifted breath. Stole companionship. Ms. R, 80, said to Life, ‘I stole with money in my pocket.’ Said, ‘In prison I found my way home.’

(~Inspired by Shiho Fukada’s essay, “Japan’s Prisons Are a Haven for Elderly Women: Lonely seniors are shoplifting in search of the community and stability of jail”)

***

The Tibetan mastiff, neck ringed in a wild rust mane, is not a lion as the placard states. Still, the animal moves about his concrete enclosure, elegant toe-step by toe-step, a digitgrade’s regal stride in the underfunded petting zoo.

In the dog-lion’s uncaged mind, he pads through alpine meadows, under junipers, wind ruffling his long fur; he stomps on rhododendron leaves and is not satisfied by the lackluster crunch. A goliath amongst the Himalayan antelope, deer, and sheep of the kingdom. He strides with pride and kin, icy sun on their backs. Listen to their gentle breathing, the quietness of mud. A wild, better world.

The 80-year old grandmother visits the petting zoo for the first time with her granddaughter. The eight year old girl studies the placard she is too young to understand, touches the informational photo of one lion skeleton mounting another. Rain clatters the cage’s corrugated tin roof. The girl runs her umbrella along the cage’s bars, throws popcorn at the dog-lion when her grandmother stops to speak to a security guard. She cries out to the animal, For your hungry mouth! A low winter sun throws long shadows into the cage—the dusk of cats. The girl reaches through the bars, and when the animal roars his approval, the girl-cub roars in return. The dog-lion longs to lick the child’s feisty shadow.

The grandmother tells the security guard about her time behind bars, about the solitary months before her imprisonment, wandering like a ghost in her neighborhood, not wanting to return home to care for her ill husband. About the thrill of stealing a frying pan from the market. How, at eighty, she felt just like the coins rattling excitedly in her pocket as she was gently handcuffed by an embarrassed policeman–lonely, happy money. How, when the policeman questioned her he said that he understood. How she finally felt seen, heard. She could breathe. For this old woman, the next twelve years in prison, a haven.

The grandmother squeezes the dog-lion’s bars, palms stick to the icy metal. She studies the loose hay and feces at the animal’s feet, remembers her husband’s incontinence, how the old man hid soiled underwear under their mattress. Remembers the fateful day when her husband had tried to make the bed, how lifting their heavy mattress had triggered the stroke. Remembers the sudden limpness of his arm, his sagging left eye, his downturned lip, how his eyes would never see her again.

Her granddaughter tugs impatiently on the sleeves that the old woman hemmed using invincible stitches she learned from her best friend in prison. The grandmother squeezes the girl’s hand in reply, Morse Code she learned from her first prison mentor, • —• , squeeze-hold-squeeze, message received.

The grandmother studies the bright, angry clown cartoon printed onto the child’s popcorn bag. She thinks of her son’s frown, the irritation etched on his face the day he picked her up from her final prison term. She calls out to the zoo guard’s retreating back, the answers she wished she’d given her disapproving son: I am not crazy. I’m not ashamed. I stole to find a new family. My fellow inmates, my people, everything.

She takes her granddaughter’s sticky hand, rubs the crumbs out of crevices between the child’s fat fingers, takes one last look at the cage. As they turn to leave, the dog-lion releases, not a roar, but, bark! bark! bark! The cry of a caged animal longing for touch sounds as if it is coughing up wood.

The grandmother does not want to believe that life in the petting zoo is different than her life was in prison, that only loneliness and food are thrown at the animals twice a day. She wants to think that at night the dog-lion does not slumber, that he is not alone. Instead, he roars. A king of dragons, powerful paws and ears flicking in tandem. A dream of lionesses, hunters, hares and beating hearts.

Nancy Au’s stories and essays appear or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Cincinnati Review, Catapult, Lunch Ticket, The Pinch, Beloit Fiction Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. She has an MFA from San Francisco State University where she taught creative writing. She teaches creative writing (to biology majors!) at California State University Stanislaus, and is co-founder of The Escapery (https://theescapery.org). Her flash fiction is included in the Best Small Fictions 2018 anthology. And she was the winner of The Vestal Review‘s 2018 VERA Flash FictionPrize. Her full-length collection, Spider Love Song & Other Stories, is forthcoming from Acre Books (University of Cincinnati) in Fall 2019.