The Pride of Rolbos

“We should get a library,” Gertruida says, “and get you lot to start reading. All you do is sit around all day, gossiping and drinking beer. We should be better informed about what is happening in the world today.”

“Ja, maybe.” Kleinpiet draws an open book on the counter top. “The question is: whether we actually want to know what’s happening out there. I mean – does it make any difference how they paint the president or whether that new guy in France is left, right or centre? We still have the drought and the pothole in Voortrekker Weg, anyway. I think the world should be better informed about us – it’ll make them feel better.”

Vrede jumps up suddenly, the hairs on his back telling everybody he is upset about something. A minute later they see the truck parking in front of Boggel’s Place.

“That’s not Kalahari Vervoer,” Vetfaan remarks, “it’s not Thursday, is it?”

“No, it says Pagal’s Circus on the side. They must have lost their way.”Gertruida walks to the window for a better look. “And it can’t be the whole circus – there’s only this one lorry. A smallish one, at that.”

They watch as the huge man gets down from the cab. He’s dressed in blue jeans, and orange shirt with a wide collar and cowboy boots. When he enters Boggel’s Place, he takes off the Stetson to reveal his long ponytail and bushy sideburns.

“Ya’all know where I can stable my lion for a week or two?” Gertruida decides the American accent is fake but still feels drawn in by his disarming smile. “He has been performing for three years now, but lately he seems to be a bit under the weather. I think he needs a rest.”

“You have a lion in the back of that?” Vetfaan points at the truck.

“Yep, partner. Back there is the tamest, cleverest, bestest lion ya’all will ever see. Had him since he was a cub. Meek as a lamb, he is.”

“We only have the cottage at the end of Voortrekker Weg,” Precilla says, “nobody lives there now. I suppose you can borrow that for a while. But, what about the lion? We don’t have cages and stuff like that.”

“No problem, Missy. That there lion shares everything with me. Food, chairs, bed – the whole shoot. He’s not the outdoorsy type at all. Very domesticated. I’d be mighty glad if we can borrow that bungalow. I’m sure Leo will be just dandy after a week’s rest.”

After they’ve shown Big Pete (who made quite a joke of Kleipiet’s name) to the cottage, they return to Boggel’s for a debate on circus animals. They all saw how Leo calmly jumped from the back of the truck to follow Pete indoors – like a dog would, as Boggel put it.

“That’s not natural,” Precilla says. “That lion is missing out on being a lion. He thinks he’s a pet, like a cat of a dog, and that’s not what lions are supposed to be like. I feel sorry for the animal.”

Before she can continue, an earth-shattering roar rattles the window panes, followed by another. The patrons at the bar exchange horrified looks. Did the lion…?

A few minutes later Big Pete pushes open the door. “Ya’all know where I can buy some meat? Leo sure is hungry. I think he likes it here – he hasn’t eaten for days now.” On cue, the lion pokes his head around the door, sniffing the air. Boggel has some sausages on the braai behind the bar and the aroma seems to please the big cat.

Now, a free-range lion in the confined space of Boggel’s Place isn’t a common sight. And, as Gertruida will tell you, these big cats can be very scary up close. When it padded softly – like lions do – towards the bar, the patrons did a bit of unpractised (but perfect) collective gymnastics to join Boggel behind the till. Vrede, who has been sleeping at Vetfaan’s feet, wakes up when the lion starts licking his face.

It’s difficult to tell a dog about tame lions. Dogs don’t buy that sort of logic. They file lions under the same heading as crocodiles, puff adders and the municipal inspector from Upington. Vrede’s mind works overtime, weighing up the possibilities. As a good ex-police dog, he should serve and (heaven help him!) protect.  As an intelligent dog, he should have been running already. Yet, staring into the big yellow eyes of the cat; only inches away from his own; Vrede finds that his legs refuse any orders. Hy simply stares back – eyes wide with fright and tail tucked in between his legs.

The lion finds this a bit boring and ambles out through the back door. Minutes later they hear a crash as he overturns the half-drum that serves as Boggel’s braai, and when they eventually peek out, Leo burps his appreciation. He growls a throaty thank you – that sausage sure hit the spot.

By now the lion’s peaceful manner has calmed down most of the nerves, and after Big Pete calls him back inside, he gets introduced to everybody.

“My, he sure is tame,” Gertruida says as the cat rubs his mane against her leg, “ I’ve never seen a lion like this.”

Vetfaan arranges for some meat in the freezer on his farm to be brought to Rolbos, promising Pete to deliver it to the cottage. And, by the way, would he mind taking the lion with him when they leave?

Soon after, the roaring starts up again. Over and over the thundering sound reverberates through Rolbos. Sure, the customers in Boggel’s do not think, this time, that the lion has developed a taste for bipeds; but still – the sound is unnerving, to say the least.

When Platnees arrives with the meat, the sun has almost disappeared below the western horizon. Vetfaan tells him to deliver the meat at the source of the racket. Platnees refuses, saying he can hear that is one hungry lion. Does Vetfaan take him to be a fool? You don’t walk up to famished lions and hope they’ll take the frozen meat. It’s not a good idea. No, thank you, do it yourself…

Despite their previous encounter with Leo, the rest of the customers all shake their heads as well.

“It’s your meat, Vetfaan. It’s also your deal. You sold it, you deliver it. We’re not going anywhere until that lion is fed.” Servaas knows about lions. His grandfather once had an encounter with one. “Grandpa said they look all peaceful and happy, then you disappear down their throats. The family used to poke fun about this, until it really happened while he was tracking a wounded Kudu…”

After two quick Cactus Jacks, Vetfaan shoulders the carcass and slouches out towards the cottage. The din raised by the hungry lion was ear-shattering. He wonders how Pete can stand it.

He’s about to knock on the door, when he hears the sniffing sound behind him. Turning, he is just in time to avoid the huge paw – claws extended – reaching for the carcass. With a jump that would have made Nuriyev proud, he jumps from the porch right back to the middle of the street. Gertruida will measure the distance later and suggest he should consider joining the Olympic team.

Vetfaan finds out that lion-induced paralysis is not a condition confined to dogs at all. Although his mind screams at his limbs, he stands rooted to the spot. He watches as the carcass gets pulled apart … and then notices that the lion, the one crunching away at the succulent bones of the carcass, seems to have had a recent haircut. The mane is missing…

Big Pete stays for about a month. After numerous excursions into the Kalahari, Leo was officially declared completely missing, presumably happy with the young lioness he attracted with his roars and the dowry of one sheep’s carcass.

“That circus man didn’t look happy when he drove off. I feel kind of sorry for him, you know? Losing his lion like that…” Precilla liked the friendly man with the fake accent. “But I’m glad for Leo; he can be a real lion once more.”

Gertruida snorts. “He can’t know all that much about lions, Precilla. He though Leo was hungry for meat. A young lion at that age? Pete should have known Leo had an appetite for something much more exotic than frozen sheep!”

Sometimes, late at night, the windows of Boggel’s Place gives a little rattle – as if the air vibrates for a second or two. That’s when Vrede will give a small yelp before digging in underneath Boggel’s cushion, there below the counter. It has become custom to raise one’s glass during those moments and toast the freedom of the lion, formerly known as Leo.

“You know, Gertruida,” Servaas says as they hear the windows rattle again one evening, “I don’t want that library. It’ll take away the fun in Rolbos if we knew everything about the outside world. We’ve got enough here.”

For once she agrees. “Yes, Servaas. I suppose if you grow tired of Rolbos, you’ve grown tired with life. If you can hear a happy lion roaring, it beats the clamour of survival in the big cites.”

Leo will be spotted once more, a year from now. He’ll parade down Voortrekker Weg with the same head-held-high attitude Big Pete had taught him in the ring. The patrons in Boggel’s Place will close the door quickly before they flock to the window to take in the magnificent sight of Leo, proudly bragging with the two cubs at his heels.

“The pride of Rolbos,” Gertruida will sigh, while the rest of the planet rages – like they will forever – about unimportant things like money and politics. In the glass-and-aluminium world of international affairs, they can’t hear the windows rattle any more.

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