It was a massive golden beast, as awesome in its beauty as its quiet ferocity.
“But how did it get there,” you ask.
It happened one cold morning last winter. I had just gotten ready for work and was stepping out of my room on the second floor when I spied my six-year-old son by the stairs. He was looking down at nothing in particular. He didn’t look too happy.
“What’s the matter, man?”
The question elicited no change in expression, just a dull “Nothing.”
Well, I knew that was untrue. You see, like any father worth his uniodized sodium chloride, I know my son.
I suspected it had something to do with him realizing he had fallen asleep the night before wearing his Thomas the Train pajama pants without matching Thomas the Train pajama shirt, rather a plain old “soft” shirt – his preferred term for a white tee.
Maybe it was something else. But I was faced with two options – to either engage him and let him talk his problem out, or to supplant his current preoccupation with another. I chose the latter without hesitation.
I ran my hand over his head and invited him to hold it as we made our way down the stairs. He let his left hand slide on the bannister as I let my right shoulder graze the wall, each of us contributing our shuffle to the silent melodies of morning time.
Our stairs bifurcate at a mid-level landing, one flight goes to the right and ends in the foyer, the other goes left and back to the family room.
As soon as we approached the corner and stepped onto the landing, I jumped back two steps. He instinctively bounded back with me. I pressed my back to the wall and pulled him close.
“Wha..” he began, but I cut him off with a frantic finger to my lips.
We stood there silently for a couple seconds. Then I leaned down and whispered very softly into his ears.
“There’s a lion on the foyer rug.”
He looked back confused, then the corners of his mouth turned up in a smile.
“Abba!” he protested sweetly.
My face went hard. I continued in a loud whisper.
“Listen, if you want to play the pretend game, it’s all or nothing. That means we go all the way or we just forget it. Now, are you with me or not?”
“Okay,” he said after a moment of thought.
I held his face in my hands and looked into his eyes, still whispering loudly. “Are you with me ALL THE WAY?”
That was me summoming the method actor in my six-year-old. The response came as the smile left his face.
“Yes,” he said with a poker face.
I took a deep breath and pressed my back to the wall again and motioned to him with my free right hand to follow suit. He complied. We then crab-walked down a step. I turned my head to peek around the corner.
After about ten seconds of what was meant to be intense observation, I withdrew and leaned down to whisper into his ear. My breathing had become labored and there was a quiver in my voice.
“It’s massive. Must be at least 400 pounds of muscle, bone, teeth and claw.”
“It has claws?” he asked aloud with wide eyes.
My face showed sudden panic as a finger flew up to my face to shush him, my expression contorting into the unspoken plea of Could you please stop acting like you’re six years old and be an adult for once? I continued in a whisper.
“Of course it’s got claws. It’s a LION.”
I gulped and shook my head, breathing out slowly the way they teach at Lamaze classes. Fond memories. I renewed my grip on his hand, then stole another peek before returning to his earside with an update.
“That animal is sitting on it’s haunches. It’s ready to pounce. We will have to move imperceptibly.”
He whispered back this time. “What is imperpes-, what is that?”
“IM-PER-CEP-TIB-LY,” I replied visibly annoyed at having to deal out a vocabulary lesson in the middle of this crisis.
“I read about it in a Jim Corbett account when he found himself face to face with a man-eater in the jungles of Kumaon. It means very, very slowly. We have to step on that landing very, very slowly. We have to move very, very slowly as we circle around and take the other flight of stairs to the safety of the family room. Can you do that?”
He nodded, “Yeah.”
“Okay. There is one very important thing you must remember,” I added stealing one more glance at leo.
“What,” he asked.
I snapped back and looked him in they eye.
“Do not… I repeat… DO NOT look at that lion,” I said.
“So, don’t look at the lion?” he repeated back almost inaudibly.
I shook my head emphatically. “If you look at him, he may take that as a challenge to fight you. So whatever you do, don’t look at him. You got that?”
He nodded, “Yeah.”
I held his face in my hands again and kissed him on one cheek, and then the other. My voice softened.
“I love you man.”
We straightened up again, our backs pressed against the wall. More labored breathing. Then I looked down at him and nodded a “You ready to do this?” He nodded back.
We assumed a normal stance on the stairway and ever so gradually stepped down onto the landing. I was gulping audibly and my breath came in gasps now. I tightened my grip on my son’s hand. He reciprocated. I looked down at him and his eyes were wide open staring straight ahead at the dining room chandelier.
Slowly and not so imperceptibly we turned around and began to step off the landing. I was now looking down directly at my son.
He brought his right hand up to join his other hand so that they were clasped around mine. I watched for the trigger and it came as he turned his head to the left to sneak a peek at the beast.
That was my cue. Now I may have spent a second thinking about the consequences of rushing down the seven steps before us. After all, I am his father and couldn’t help wondering if this bit of mindless haste might cause my boy injury.
(Excuse me, something is pressed against the inside of my cheek. There. Now, where were we?)
I dismissed the thought as I decided we were in survival mode. There was no room for injury. There was only room for respite from being mauled by a lion.
With all the suddenness I could muster, I screamed:
We rushed down the stairs and collapsed on the floor in the family room in a heap of laughter.
That was a year ago.
That was fun.