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Don’t Turn Your Back on the Cage … Read an Excerpt from Green Lion, by Henrietta Rose-Innes

Henrietta Rose-Innes

Green LionUmuzi has shared an excerpt from Henrietta Rose-Innes’ latest novel, Green Lion.

In a review for the Sunday Times, Hedley Twidle called Green Lion a “remarkable” novel, while in her Magwood on Books Podcast review, Michele Magwood says she believes that Rose-Innes is “steadily cementing her position at the top of the South African literary scene”.

Green Lion is Rose-Iness’ fourth novel, after Shark’s Egg, The Rock Alphabet and Nineveh.

In her conversation with Magwood, available to listen to here, Rose-Innes says: “For quite a long time now I have been interested in the relation between human being and the natural environment.

“In this book, I wanted to examine what I see around me, which is modern human beings’ strange love affair with other creatures, non-human creatures.

“It seems to me a poignant, sad contradiction that as we are losing species, particularly these iconic, big, beautiful animals that have always held such meaning for human beings, they are becoming more central to us, culturally.”

Read an excerpt from Green Lion:

* * * * *


Mossie was standing under the tree outside the Lion House, as he knew she would be. She drifted over to him like smoke settling on his clothes, his skin. He remembered his mother’s musty odour: cigarettes and sweat and sweet eastern scent.

        Con was a little out of breath, and the sweat felt chill on his skin. He’d walked, fast, all across the city from the hospital, jogging at times. It had taken a while; the day had faded, the sky growing soft and purple as a lake, and the cars switching on their pilot lights, approaching white and receding red, as he crossed their glittering wakes.
        It was not intentional; not a route he’d plotted or planned. It was just where the walking had taken him: not back to Elyse’s flat, but up, back up again to the blue-green mountain.

        Con did not touch her. Instead, he started down the path towards the gate. When he glanced back she was following slowly, a strand of hair caught between her slightly open lips.

        “You know I can’t take you all the way in.”

        She nodded.

        “But I can show you. Come.”

        The evening had taken on a velvet density. Together they walked down the pale path, past the sign of the golden lion. No guard at night, with the staff cuts. He closed his hand around the keys in his pocket, heavy and cold.

        He led her along the familiar path, to the grass corridor between the prefabs and the den. The early moon lit the ground only in patches and he felt his way across the space by memory, dodging the spade leant against the wall and the edge of the concrete trough. Then through the small gate into the lion enclosure.

        They stood for a moment in the circular space. He could sense Mossie trembling next to him. He pointed to the barred gate and she almost leapt towards it, putting out her hands as if to push them through the grille. Quickly he pulled her back, shaking his head. Mossie started to speak, and he put his fingers to her mouth. Her lips were slightly open, her breath warm. He guided her to sit next to him on the grass, an arm’s length away from the cage. They waited there for a long time, long enough for their breathing to fall into synch.

        And Sekhmet roared. Con had never been so close before. The sound reached in through his ears and grabbed him by the guts and shook him like a bird in the big cat’s mouth. The bars of the cage shivered and resonated.

        When the last tremor died, Mossie was panting, mouth open. Her eyes were very dark, as if her pupils had expanded massively, like someone on drugs, and he knew what it was: the spike, the rush, the beating heart. He was feeling it too. Without thought, responding to her flushed and open face, he leant forward and pressed his mouth against her cheek – to still her, to hold her back. His teeth pressed softly into her flesh. And she tilted her head towards him and turned the bite into a kiss.

        The mobile warmth of her tongue in his mouth. And before he could gather himself, the scene had changed, and she was moving more forcefully, with some new scheme, some plan. She put her hand on his throat and pushed him down hard. Every sensation was precise, intensified: the cold ground against his back, the pinpricks of the grass against his hands and neck. And it was as if her clothes had already been shaken loose by the rumble of the lion’s voice, because they came off so easily. Her eyes still huge and black as she twisted out of stockings, shirt, panties, bra, the whole cumbersome apparatus of her clothes, dozens of items it seemed, left boot, right boot, the zips so laborious, a long-sleeved vest with buttons, peeling herself free until she was pale against the dark sky. The body revealed was barely human, snakelike, turning, never holding still long enough for him to get a lock on it, to see it all in all – full breast, pale buttock, dark patch between her legs. And then she was on him, cool weight at full stretch, hands pressed into the grass either side of his head, warm breath in his nostrils. He lay there, thinking: me, me too, how am I supposed to shed this skin all on my own?

        But she had that under control. Without releasing him, keeping him pinned, she started on his buttons, breathing deeply through her nose, mouth closed in concentration. She drew the wings of his shirt to either side to bare his chest, and then worked at the belt and the fly, and pulled down his trousers to his ankles until he was lying half-dressed, half-unpeeled, and she was astride and already pushing herself down onto him – the liquid heat of her, skin still cool to the touch – with her forehead bent to touch his and her eyes blank as she moved against him. The movement of her body knocking the top of his head lightly against something hard, over and over until he realised that it was the bars of the cage, and pulling away from them just before he shuddered into her, thinking don’t turn your back …

        When she was quiet again, she moved her weight off him and lay by his side. His mind was empty, his body dissolved in the dark. He lay for a long time staring up at the stars, which appeared and reappeared, as high, unseen black clouds covered and uncovered them like a child’s hands in a game.

        At length he turned away from her so they were lying back to back and he faced the darkness of the cage. He kept one hand draped behind his back, holding her fingers loosely in his so that the turned back didn’t seem too cold. His eyes drank the darkness. He opened his mouth and let the fuzz and buzz of the evening roll out, breathed it out into the black space on the other side of the bars. Losing it all, losing the words; they tumbled out of his head. He let the black roll into him, the black and the silence.

        It was quite a bit later, perhaps, that the quality of the blackness changed; and perhaps he’d slept, or was sleeping still. But he was aware that the dark beyond the bars was no longer empty; it had grown full, plumped with breath and blood. It moved, shifting against the bars, seeming to bow them towards his face. Slowly, he let his hand travel outwards from his body, finding the metal, which seemed warmer now, and through, passing between the bars to touch – very, very gently, with tips of his fingers – some warm, almost feathery surface.

        Sekhmet had come to the bars and laid herself out, was pressing her length against them as if offering her warmth, or seeking his. Con shifted his own body closer, and slowly, millimetre by millimetre, brought his face near. He could feel her heat against his cheeks and forehead, smell her reek. At last his fingers came to rest, very lightly, on her spine.

        He seemed to hold his breath forever, but at some sleepy, barely conscious point he must have exhaled; and then drawn in the lion’s breath, a potion, a sleeping draught.

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