The White Lion by Janet Hamill

BOMB 34 Winter 1991
034 Winter 1991

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The war had just ended when Fabiano Fabrizi contracted scarlet fever. Years later, after his great talent as a film actor had brought him international acclaim, he wrote about the illness and its aftermath in his autobiography, La Vita Agrodolce.

… It was difficult for everyone. Even those, like my parents, who had been comfortable before the war were unable to find enough food for the table. Epidemics ran unchecked throughout Italy, scarlet fever being the one to come to Castello Fabrizi. The first to fall ill were the caretaker’s children, Maria and Paolo, followed shortly by myself. I remember an eternity of darkness in my bedroom and brief interruptions of light from the hallways when my parents or the doctor entered the room. They spoke in whispers—whispers, and the pained eyes of my mother, being an indication of the gravity of my illness. Of course I was not told at the time, but the fever quickly claimed the lives of my playmates.

After Maria and Paolo’s deaths the concern of my parents for their only child was exacerbated. To encourage me to fight the disease they offered to buy me a lion cub. I had a birthday due, my ninth, and the lion was promised as a gift, should I be well enough to receive it. Throughout the weeks prior to my birthday I struggled with fever, sleep overtaking me most of the time. In rare moments of wakefulness, I recalled the promise made by my parents, and thought that it had been made in a dream. They assured me the promise was real. And little by little, the fever ran its course. I could sit in bed and play with soldiers or draw pictures. By my birthday, standing, still weak and confined to my room, I was out of danger.

True to their word, on the morning of my ninth birthday, my parents presented me with a baby lion. He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. White as snow, of a rare breed then being raised for domesticity, I named him Raphael, because he was as perfect as a painting by the Renaissance master. I regained my strength, and overcame the loss of Maria and Paolo, with the help of the playful Raphael. In the warm sunlight, in the walled garden behind our kitchen, we rolled over and over each other in the grass. Often my mother would join us. Blonde and fair, in tweed skirts and pastel sweaters with a string of pearls, she was fond of sitting at the base of the lemon tree, holding Raphael in her lap, while she opened his jaw to see how large his teeth were getting. I believe the idea to give me a lion was hers, more so than my father’s, and that in order to afford Raphael she sold her most cherished heirloom—a gold band set with diamonds.

In time the severity of conditions after the war lessened, as Raphael and I approached adolescence. I grew tall, and a sleek and muscular Raphael grew a mane. To celebrate our simultaneous coming of age my father took us hunting. Along with my three uncles, we set out on a November morning. In 1949 the wooded hills of Umbria surrounding Castello Fabrizi were stocked with game, including wild boar. Raphael, who had never before been outside the walled kitchen garden, was ill at ease, and startled at the slightest sound or movement. The frequent firing of my uncles’ rifles at rabbits was especially agitating for him; and when he could no longer tolerate the commotion he ran, running straight into the caretaker, who was searching for truffles with his donkey and dog.

Surprised by the encounter, Raphael attacked the donkey, bringing it down with a bite to its jugular vein. In the ruckus, some of Raphael’s flesh was torn off by the donkey, kicking him in the shin. The wound was serious enough to require immediate attention, and an end to our hunting expedition. Amused by Raphael’s choice for his first kill, my uncles cut off the donkey’s head for a trophy. They tied the headless body to a pole, placed the pole on their shoulders, and my father, my uncles, Raphael and I headed home. As we were leaving the forest, I turned around to look at the caretaker. He was down on his hands and knees, picking up scraps of Raphael’s flesh and eating them …

 

Lake of the Buddhas

In her fifteenth year Sinca was chosen to be the bride of the Water Spirit. The Great Python, living in a submarine palace under the Mahaweli Ganga was tired of his old wife, who bore him only female offspring.

The moon was full, in the month of the white monkey, when Sinca’s attendants rubbed her with snake oil and dressed her in snake skins, necklaces, bracelets, and anklets. The Serpent Chief brought her a temple viper with a ruby in its mouth, as a token of love from the Water Spirit. And carrying the viper, she walked in formal procession to the riverbank.

Beside the Mahaweli Ganga, in all her finery, Sinca presided over the drowning of the Water Spirit’s old wife and daughters. She kissed the head of a living cobra and fed it a drop of her finger’s blood. She drank wine and ate the organs of a snake which ensured fertility. She crawled through a tunnel made by the spread legs of male worshippers. And, one by one, she mated with the serpent priests.

At the end of the night, Sinca fell asleep on the warm sand of the riverbank and dreamed of the Great Python, rising to the surface of a lake on a lotus blossom. The blossom drifted to the far side of the lake, where the python disembarked as a beautiful young man. The young man sat on the shore and spoke: “The perfume of virtue travels against the wind and reaches to the ends of the world,” he said. “Arise! Walk on the right path. Uplift yourself from your lower self, as an elephant draws himself out of a muddy swamp.” The young man spoke at five locations around the lake before disappearing into the sky on the lotus blossom.

When Sinca awoke a light rain was falling on the sleeping, naked bodies beside the river. She picked up a sharp knife and cut off her hair. She removed her heavy jewelry and put on a robe made of coarse material. She lit a torch, to scare away wild animals, and set out into the jungle.

For a year Sinca wandered as a mendicant, until the next white monkey moon, when she came upon the secluded lake surrounded by five colossal statues. The statues, made of bronze, were exact replicas of the beautiful young man as he sat on the shore and addressed her in her dream. A pleasant sound issued from the water, filling Sinca with gladness and calm; and at once she began to tend the shrine, gathering garlands of sandal wood, rose-bay, and jasmine to place in the laps of the statues.

Janet Hamill is a writer living in Upstate New York. Her novel, Nostalgia of the Infinite, is due out on Ocean View Books this year.

Three Poems by Janet Hamill
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Originally published in

BOMB 34, Winter 1991

Featuring interviews with Romulus Linney, 2 Black 2 Strong, Jessica Hagedorn, Phil Hartman, Tod Wizon, Lari Pittman, Terrance Simien, Gran Fury, Raul Ruiz, Yuri Lyubimov, and Whit Stillman.

Read the issue
034 Winter 1991