IT ISN’T easy in the Jungle. Things get eaten, things get hurt. Rain falls, dislodging the tiny beetles from their homes in the river bank and washes them away. Sun shines and the drinking pools dry out. Nothing is safe from Time, that creeping predator. All the same, sometimes there is kindness. Sometimes even love.
At the centre of the Jungle was a great yellow mountain, rearing up out of the glossy green trees. The forest creatures were afraid of the mountain. They didn’t know why, exactly, except that the mountain always seemed to have been there, whilst their own lives were fleeting. And the mountain made a continuous, ominous creaking and groaning. ‘I may decide to fall down on top of you,’ it seemed to be saying. ‘Just because I haven’t, doesn’t mean I won’t.
Only one creature was not afraid of the mountain, and that was the lion. Maybe this was because he lived half way up the great yellow mountain, in a cave, and kind of felt he owned it. Or maybe it was because he roared so loud and so long that he scarcely heard the groaning.
The mouth of the lion’s cave was littered with bleached bones, also chewed skulls of various shapes and sizes. The lion never needed to go out hunting; indeed, he liked the cave so well he never left it at all. The forest creatures brought his food to him, live and sometimes kicking. They accomplished this by drawing lots amongst themselves as to who should be sacrificed each day. Mothers fed their offspring heartily, and hastened to beget more, knowing how many of their plump, furry darlings were likely to end up inside the lion.
For they reasoned that it was better to keep the lion in his cave by this means, for if he ever did take it into his head to come out he would surely start slaughtering at random, and with great enthusiasm, reaching up his long golden arms to tip the monkeys out of the trees; reaching down his long golden arms to pull the harmless rabbits from their burrows. He would delve into the river with his scimitar claws to disturb the goggle-eyed fish in their dreaming. He would snatch the many-coloured birds from the air to serve as mid-morning snacks.
All this time the lion had believed himself to be alone. Occasionally, drowsing in the midday heat, he reviewed such memories as he had, hoping to find one that contained a mother, a sister or a father. But supposing such kin had ever existed, why had they gone away and left him in the cave?
Occasionally he paused in his roaring and listened, imagining for a second that he heard an answering roar from some distant cave or forest, but it was only ever an echo. The lion, of course, was lonely, but he didn’t know it. It didn’t do to know that kind of thing.
In amongst the thick brown fur of the lion’s mane, all this time had lived a mouse. The lion, as we have seen, did not possess a good memory. If he had ever known the mouse was there he had forgotten, and the mouse took great pains to keep it that way. Safe and still she lay in his tangled coat, only climbing down in the hottest part of the day when he was sleeping. Then she would skip into the forest to look for berries and seeds.
She enjoyed these little excursions into the real world. Occasionally she even allowed herself to admit how stuffy and confining it could be to live in a lion, one’s eyes seeing nothing but coarse lion hair, one’s nostrils filled with the rank smell of lion. Over the years she had learned her Beloved’s roars by heart; she knew their complex patterns and their various meanings. She knew the angry roar, the threatening roar, the hungry roar. She even knew the sad roar he sometimes made at the end of his day, very quietly, to himself, believing that no one could hear. For yes, she had grown to love the lion and she knew it, though it doesn’t do to know that kind of thing.
And so the years passed by. The lion grew a little louder and a little lonelier; the mouse remained content to hide in Beloved’s fur and only occasionally to indulge in wistful daydreams of the big wide world and what her life might have been like had she chosen to live on the forest floor amongst the other creatures. Mostly, though, she was grateful to be a Lion’s Mouse, for she was a timid and reclusive creature, ill-suited to the seething life below.
But then the lion grew sick, which changed everything. First he lost his appetite. The Sacrifices that appeared at the mouth of the cave remained there for a while, trembling but uneaten, and eventually crept away. Then, apart from the occasional whimper, the lion fell silent, his vast golden head lolling on the dusty floor, his great golden paws limp and useless. For the first time he heard the sound of blood roaring in his ears and throbbing in his veins; heard too the terrible groaning of the mountain and began to be afraid, for he sensed he was going to die.
After a while the creatures on the forest floor began to remark amongst themselves upon the unfamiliar silence, and upon the Sacrifices that had begun to return, not even chewed or licked. They confirmed that the lion was no longer so fearsome, but rather a moth-eaten old thing really. For several days the creatures waited in case the roaring should start up again. When it didn’t, they called a council meeting around the water hole. The fishes awoke reluctantly and, between deep breaths of water, lifted their spiny heads out of the water. Foxes slunk in through the undergrowth and sat yellow-eyed, their terracotta tails disposed around their paws, contemplating rabbits. The rabbits endeavoured to become invisible. Elephants pushed a path through the trees disturbing, briefly, the birds that had come down in great rainbow-coloured clouds to perch amongst the branches. Monkeys pirouetted in from the canopy on ropes of liana, looping up again at intervals to report to others what they had heard.
The meeting took a very long time, for the languages of the animals, like the languages of men, are many and various, but unlike men the animals have never acquired the skill of taking turns to speak. Nevertheless, by the end of their long and loud conferrings they had formed a plan of action. Together, they would creep up the mountain, to the very mouth of the lion’s cave, and peer inside. If the lion merely slept they could creep away. Should he be dead, on the other hand, they could leave rejoicing, for they would no longer have the inconvenience of sacrificing themselves and their children to assuage his hunger. And should they discover him alive, but sick, they would fall upon him, with the courage of the multitude, and rid themselves of the old tyrant while they had the chance.
The mouse heard them approaching. Scattered amongst the mountain’s creakings and groanings she heard their miscellaneous chatterings and twitterings, she discerned the snapping of twigs underpaw. She heard the sly slithering of the snake and the crouched creeping of the fox, and the sideways shuffle of the monkeys, who were furtive and ill at ease when down from the canopy. She knew, too, what was in their heart, for such a knowing is the particular talent of mice.
Now the mouse had long ago understood that the lion’s roar was not so very loud. The cave magnified the roar, rolling it around from wall to wall, bouncing it off the roof until it emerged as a great wave of sound. If he had ever left his cave and tried roaring in the open the lion would have realised this for himself. Or perhaps he did realise it, a little. Now the mouse understood that she would have to save her beloved.
As the creatures approached she clambered out of the lion’s brown and tangled mane, hid herself behind one of his great golden ears and began to breathe deeply. She thought of Beloved’s most splendid and terrifying roar as she breathed in the searing air of a jungle noon. She breathed in and breathed in and breathed in until one by one her tiny ribs began to crack beneath her thin, grey fur.
And then she began to roar. She roared Beloved’s angriest, most terrifying roar, the one that contained ‘GET AWAY FROM ME!’ and ‘HOW DARE YOU APPROACH!’ and the sound came rolling and swelling and echoing out of that mountain cave, louder, more fearsome and more perfect than anything the lion himself had ever produced.
And the mouse breathed in again, and roared again, though now the blood ran from her mouth and burst from her ears and the roar-cracked ribs began to burst through her sides one by broken one and the roar became, although by then she didn’t know it, a scream of agony.
Upon hearing this, the creatures of the forest beat a hasty retreat to their homes in tree and in sky and in burrow, and it was many, many months before the boldest of them ventured up the mountain again. This was, of course, the fox, who discovered what was left of the lion stretched out inside the mouth of the cave, dead of old age, sickness and loneliness, although he had never known it. And concealed in the lion’s mane, although the fox was never to know it, was a long-dead mouse, whose tiny broken body concealed a large, and broken, heart.