When the old man died, I laid him out in the bathtub because he was small and neatly fit. I took him by the ankles first and then, moving slowly toward his neck, gently scrubbed him down. I lifted him at the back and washed his ribs all the way around until he was like an old moist cigarette. Then I dressed him the way he always dressed, in a corduroy suit—this one was a dun brown—and laid him in his bed and called his wife.

No one had been able to tell me why they lived apart. She was the one, most of them said, who insisted upon it. She needed relief from their intimacy, or she’d never loved him at all, or she was someone who thought only of herself. There were many reasons thrown about by the people who’d known the old man when he was young and teaching at the university or by others who cared for him now in his home as a paid occupation.

They were all women, these people of the house, who had keys and came in and out and bought food and delivered it and even ate some of it, standing in the narrow pantry and gazing at the shelves. Pickled artichokes and Sicilian olive oil and healthy breads from the best, the purest, companies would come to rest in the cupboards. Often I would eat with them, and they would talk of the old man in his presence as though he were only partially there.

He was only partially there. He was as old as old trees, their bark haggard or worn, that have survived the succession of the forest and long seasons of shade and then the drought years of bone-dry springs and catastrophes of wind. He had long, tired memories that flowed in and out of events just like the wind. And up until the end, he had great gaps like any dry forest where he knew nothing at all about his life and it was as though it had never happened.


While I was attending my classes at the graduate school, he’d invited me through a colleague—as a favor to his former department and because I was an international student—to live with him. It was an honor to live with such a one. There were rumors of his teaching, of how he’d reached people, even the most remote, and left a mark on their lives. He had survived atrocities, it was said, while still a young man and was not supposed to be alive. To me, though, he appeared only a sad, old lord or a herald of brighter times which had faded until he had faded.

"More soup, I see," he would say over our bowls in the low, dark living room that creaked like a boat with uneven boards at the floor and his books hovering above us as though they were preparing to fall from the walls. "More soup and more soup."

"It’s wholesome soup," I’d tell him, encouragingly. "You should have more."

He would only grunt in such moments and reply, "So they say," then slurp his canned pea soup as if he were suddenly the ocean and it was a great turbulent river he was swallowing from the hills.


Once, during the last year I lived with the old man—when my program of study was nearly complete and I was preparing to shove off again to points unknown—I told him the story of the lion, about a young boy in southern Africa who’d grown up on polished tile floors in a household of tutors and money with a lion cub. They had been forced to release the lion into the bush, when he had become so powerful and strong that even the boy, who loved him, could not in good conscience hold him any longer inside the courtyard.

Years went by and the lion allegedly flourished at first under the eyes of authorities, until they lost track of him in the wild. They thought he had perhaps migrated to the north where there were green, algal lakes and the herds slept in ancient gallery forests for longer segments of the year. No one knew exactly what had happened to the lion, but the prides had been shrinking for years in the scrublands, and their prey had been gently seeping out of the blackthorn and crossing the burnt pans and fossil riverbeds to drift off into the hills. Finally, when for several brief seasons of rain there had been no word, the boy—who was already a grown man and the pride of his family—went out searching northward for the lion, carrying no weapon and against everyone’s advice.

"By now," I explained quietly, staring up at the rickety shelves, "he’s been gone a long time." I could feel my voice catch. "It’s possible now that he will not go back."

I assured the old man that honestly I didn’t know the rest of the story. We were sitting together drinking cognac, which I never actually drank but only smelled when I raised my glass to keep him company. He didn’t much watch me anyway but only listened through his one good ear with a kind of ferocity when I spoke. It was in the winter, when for weeks it had done nothing but snow until a layer of white had risen above the lower sills of our windows, and I’d been shoveling for the old man so he could walk slowly from the house to the street through a high, narrow corridor that constantly refilled. In those days, I awoke early in the mornings and went back to my shovel.

The old man stared at me directly, as he had never done before, when I told him there was no more to the story. Or that if there was more, then I couldn’t tell it. Because I wasn’t yet sure how it ended. He glared at me from behind his heavy glasses with both eyes squinting intently, furiously it seemed, and waited a long time. He began to list in his chair as though we were poised together on a restless sea.

"Tell me this story again," he said finally.

"That’s all I know," I told him.



For months, all the way into May when the snows had melted at last and he drank Kir rather than cognac, and all I did around the house was empty the garbage, I told him the story of the lion. He in turn would tell me of Russia during the war and of the cold and how everyone had been hungry. He would come back to his hunger again and again as though it were the line that held him to the present, the long filament he followed backward into his life.

"What would you eat?" I’d ask. "What would there be for dinner?"

"For dinner—" and he’d pause, hovering over the bowl, and then clean his spoon and place it carefully down on the table.

Sometimes for the rest of the meal, even after I’d heated more red lentil soup and come back to him hunched at the table, he’d say nothing. Then just when I’d think he was asleep in some inward way that was deeper than sleep, and I was sneaking glances to measure the strength of his breathing, or just when it felt like I should turn on his Schubert or repeat a host of questions from which he could choose just one, or that I should dim the lights nearly to nothing and silently step out of the room, he would ask me to tell him again about the lion.


On his last day, it was unseasonably cold, and the women who usually came in and out to make his bed or gather his laundry or arrange the mail or deliver his Belgian chocolates must have been shuffling their schedules or preoccupied with others who were sick or elderly in other parts of town. His wife, as usual, was nowhere about.

When I returned from class the old man was bent at the table alone in the low dark room that buckled beneath the world as though it had sunk to the very bottom.

I was silent. It was my final semester. I’d been living with the old man for nearly two years. I sat there with him and tried not to move at all.

"I’ve been remembering all of it," he said suddenly, loudly for one so close, as though he were a broad standing clock that had at last hit the hour. "It’s all coming back."

"Tell me," I urged him.

"First, I should think," he said very slowly, the way he said all things, with great spaces of silence stretching in between, "you should speak again about the lion."

I drew out the childhood of the boy in great detail, lingering over the way the sun smote the tiles of the courtyard, the way the lion would turn over onto his back in the afternoons in the shade of the mopane tree, and how if one stepped beyond the walls one needed to watch for the long, curved sickles of acacia thorns. For as long as I could do it honestly, I deferred the ending. Finally I came to the part about the boy, grown up, leaving the great sprawling farmhouse in the south and climbing the first escarpment, gazing back down at the maize fields belonging to his family. I related yet again that with twin weights of sadness and longing in his heart, he turned to wander out toward the lion.

Throughout these moments the old man ticked soundlessly beside me, swaying slightly in his chair, nodding now and again with a calm I would never have believed, as if to encourage me. I admitted then for the first time what I hadn’t told a soul, that the boy’s father had assured him if he left on such a fool’s errand—which he, the father, could explain to no one—if he threw himself at the world without so much as a knife at his belt, and if, of all things, he sought a lion that outsized him four and a half to one, then he was not welcome to return. It would be a final parting. He had no place in their lives.

And I could tell as I went on, stumbling at first then gaining my courage, the old man had been patiently waiting for my story through the length of our long winter, and that after so many years of searching, and for the second time in my life, I was suddenly alone.