From the author: This was the first of three stories I wrote based on paintings by the late artist James Christensen, the other two being "On Not Noticing a Bear" and "Ménagerie in Motion" (also available here at Curious Fictions). Christensen's whimsical style captures my imagination (Google him!), and I couldn't help but imagine some stories to go along with his art.
One bright morning Charles the lion tamer woke up inside the lion’s cage, which, all things considered, was not terribly unusual for him after a night of drinking with his fellow circus folk. But what was unusual, Charles noticed through bleary eyes, was that he was wearing only one of his favorite purple-and-white-striped socks. The left one, as it turned out.
The lion, Sebastian, was wearing the other one.
Perhaps even more oddly, Charles was still wearing both of his black buckled shoes. Had the sock somehow managed to magically transport itself? Even if Sebastian had been able to to get Charles’s sock off of Charles’s foot and onto his own paw, it seemed ludicrous to think he could have put the shoe back on Charles’s foot and re-buckled it.
Sebastian sat gazing at Charles with an inscrutable expression.
Charles realized that his beloved striped sock was most likely stretched beyond all redemption. A lion’s paw is no small thing, after all.
“Sebastian,” he said, shaking his head sadly. “Why are you wearing my sock?”
“To get your attention,” said Sebastian.
The lion tamer gave a small shriek and scrambled backwards.
“Really, now,” said Sebastian. “You take me out in front of a crowd almost every day and stick your head in my mouth, a head that I would snap off if I accidentally sneezed. And now you’re afraid of me?”
“But you, you’re talking!” exclaimed Charles.
“Yes,” Sebastian said. “Surprised?”
“Of course I’m surprised!” said the lion tamer. “You’ve never spoken before, have you?”
“I didn’t have anything to say.”
“Well, what do you have to say now?”
The lion gazed levelly at the tamer. “Charles,” he said, “I think you’re drinking too much.”
“What?” said the tamer. “You think I’m drinking too much? Am I going insane, or did a lion just tell me I’m drinking too much?”
“It was one thing when you went on the occasional bender,” Sebastian continued calmly. “But it seems to happen far more frequently these days. And when you end up in my cage, that’s a good night. I don’t want to remind you where you’ve ended up some of the other times. Are you unhappy? Have I done something to upset you?”
Inexplicably, the tamer’s eyes filled with tears. “No, Sebastian. You haven’t done anything wrong.”
“What’s bothering you, then?” asked Sebastian.
“I don’t know,” said Charles. “I feel… I don’t know what to say.”
“You know, Charles,” said Sebastian, “it is said that most men lead lives of quiet desperation. It seems to me that you are in a rut, that you want to break free, as it were.”
“No. Yes. I don’t know,” Charles said miserably. “I’m very happy with you, Sebastian. I’ve raised you since you were a cub. I’m a bit disappointed that you haven’t spoken before if you could do it all along. But still, I’ve considered our relationship a happy one. I think of you as my closest friend.”
“And you are mine,” Sebastian said. “Perhaps we simply need a change of scenery.”
Charles heaved himself back to his feet and began pacing the confines of the old rail car cage. He noticed that the door was locked and sighed. Just how much had he drunk? But no matter.
“Sebastian, you’re right,” he said. “I miss our wandering days. I don’t think we’ve been out of Nebraska in three years — we just go from one end of the state to the other. We used to travel the entire Midwest, do you remember? The entire country, almost! We do need a change of scenery!”
“Shhh, someone’s coming,” said Sebastian. “Shall we wait for cover of night and steal away?”
“Yes, Sebastian, that’s a good lion,” Charles said loudly for the benefit of Lulu, the tattooed lady, who was passing by. She seemed to be wearing the same tatty red blouse that she’d worn the night before. “Good morning, Lulu!”
Lulu eyed Charles and Sebastian suspiciously, then shook her head. “Locked yourself in there again, have you, Charles?”
“That’s right, Lulu, be a dear and get the extra key from the master, will you? If you do, I’ll shout you to a beer tonight, um, I mean the next time we’re at the bar together. What do you say?”
“Oh, all right,” she said in a grumpy tone, and started away. “I’ll hold you to that beer,” she called back over her shoulder, the one that Charles knew sported a particularly ferocious eagle eating a snake eating a mouse.
“Smooth,” said Sebastian. “Especially since you won’t be drinking with her again for a while, eh?”
“My friend, you always did understand me perfectly,” said Charles, as he twined his hand in Sebastian’s mane. He smiled as the throbbing in his head began subsiding at last.
“Extra! Extra!” shouted the newsboy at the corner of Main and Stratford, just a few blocks from the town’s decrepit fairground, where the circus had long overstayed its welcome. “Lion escapes! Tamer assumed eaten! Nothing left but a sock! Extra! Extra!”
This story originally appeared in Every Day Fiction.