You catch the Bryons like crazy people, listening into some corner of thin air. You do not know the time they put in with the Big Cats. How they come home, and roars are still booming in their ears. Soon, they get the license. And they buy a cub. It is dopey like the babies of all species. Soft brown with spots. With eyes that shrink to dots. A cub you know nothing of. One day, Robert and Lydia bring their son’s PJs. “Smell Aden. Smell Aden?” — they ask. The primary-colored dinosaurs are urinated on so the cat will know Aden before they even meet. At “home,” Lydia points to the space across from her. Sit, sit with us, Gitte? Robert pours another glass of wine — he hands it to you. The salt water fish tank glows ultramarine, backlighting the Bryons, who smirk between each other, swirl their Shiraz, and explain.
Lie on? You pause. Like, the grrring kind?
A mountain lion, Mrs. Bryon says.
Lioness, says Mr. Bryon. You know. A girl lion? No fangs. No claws of course. Tame!
You search their faces but there is no joke. So you smile, knock your glass to theirs. You’re looking forward. It’s a lie, but the neon fish swim behind your confab of stemware—Flash! Sheen! Glint!
When you met Aden, your bangs were hay above your topaz eyes. Having slept on the foldout tray, it’s what you got. From your carry-on: candy, a book of H. C. Andersen in English. You told Aden about this Dane. The boy made a face and spit the licorice into your hand. He’d wanted to hear Den standhaftige tinsoldat. But the tin solider having one leg, that you hadn’t thought of. Not until it was too late. Aden was tucked into the blanket and you tried not to look.
Now, the cat has seen him. And she knows. You can tell, because you’ve seen a lioness. The even voice of a British narrator, describing a cat who looks for the weakest springing gazelle. She stays low. She keeps very, very still. When she finds him, she takes him down. You would’ve reached into the televised savannah. If you could have, brought the weird kind of deer into your living room. The thankless deer would have pissed and shit on your wooden floors, scuffed up your leather couch with its cloven feet, but its jugular would have been safe.
Well? The Bryons want to know what will Aden call her.
He squints at his feet. As if the answer is there, riddled in his numbness.
Not Nahla? Robert asks.
But, think. Simba was a b—
Simba! raves Mrs. Bryon. Perrrfect!
You bob yes. Most of the time, you want to scream Be nice! at Lydia Bryon. She is the croc mom you also saw on TV. The Briton voicing her kind of mother. She will defend her young, if only that. She is cold but no one fucks with her crèche.
Meters away, Simba toys her tail.
The cat is proud, cool; Aden’s chair is a knot of silver in her eyes. You would put yourself between Aden and the muscle and teeth, but can’t. Lydia and Robert want this. But he’s just bone! You think.
Now it is a Venn diagram. You are the au pair. You are lavender Circle A. But you are devoted to this boy beyond it, unprofessionally. Sky blue Circle B stands for how you really feel. In the uncomfortable periwinkle overlap of these circles (A+B)? Is you. That is where you are, Gitte.
Simba dips her head. She moves toward the boy. Slow. Her eyes trained. She is set just like you have seen her in the shows. How she comes through the grasses at oblivious zebras. You must catch her eye. Squinting, you think, Cat. You do not want him. Nor do they. There is meat in the fridge for you.
But it does not work. Your fear is a thin coat of sweat on your body. Why does it not distract her? You turn your back from this.
Lydia laughs one of her neatly creased laughs. Wonderful!
Simba is nosing Aden’s shins.
You relax, a little.
You picture the Bryons when they found out. A word freezing the Bryons in their seats. Mr. Bryon asks a doctor. What does it mean? A doctor says their child will not walk. That paralysis of his lower extremities was probable. Help. Wheelchair. Time. Other things like his bladder. ADHD. The doctor soothes. Science makes this easier every year.
Robert is thinking.
will not have to say don’t run with sharp objects
not like they expected
the kid will not be able
Black tears stripe Lydia’s face. She does not want it broke in her. Driving home, she cannot look down at her stomach. Instead Lydia looks for animals in the wood panels of their Jag. She usually finds gorillas, manatees and dogs. She sees fetuses now. Curled in wombs. Things on their spines. Lydia needs a hard word—untoward. She’s very sorry. But it is.
Lydia comes home fisting handles of shopping bags. They are glossy and matte and their fonts say what is inside costs. What comes out from between their stiff tissues is divine. One day, Lydia pulls out a glass bowl. It is fat at the bottom and curves up thin and sharp-edged. It is teal with bursts of flesh and rose. Just like your Baltic Sea right now, wet and so cold. The jelly red firemen mark it. It is August. Their bodies will crowd the shore through September. They are all dead, but their fishing yarns can still sting.
Gitte. What do you think of it, here? Lydia wants to know.
It is good. You like the bowl hit by light. It shines like your Baltic. Like your North.
Lydia drums her thigh. It doesn’t really work, does it.
She seems let down.
If only you could say it. When her eyes fall on their stairs. On its machine to move Aden up and down floors. When her lips purse. Say it then. Hold kæft, Lydia! To Aden. Din mor er en dum kælling. Such a dumb bitch.
You watch Mr. Bryon, too. When Robert goes sailing on Lake Michigan, he wants to take a son along. A son who could be taught to tack into the wind, jump overboard and swim the backstroke. His son with strong, tan calves like his dad.
Simba, you hiss. Get them.
Simba is not for Aden. You know what Simba is for. For Robert and Lydia. They do not care what this could do. But you are careful. In Wicker Park, you turn the wheelchair away from children at play. It would hurt this child to see them run by. Do not ask a bleeding hand to cut lemon. Gitte, you don’t!
You wait for the wild. Simba meets your eyes. You think they will go off. The hard black dots will stretch to a scythe. That scythe will swing. But Simba is a house cat. She is housebroken. She balls up on the floor, purring. There is no scythe. There’s jade. It is carved with the signs of a dead race. Covered by the tiny, dark hands of vines. She knows something. In her hot pink harness, the blonde form crosses the checkerboard of black and white tiles. It takes your breath. She is a sphinx wherever she rests, but on the beige floor she really throws you. She swats at a lamp like a kitten. But not like a kitten. There are ropes of muscle.
You pick up lamp pieces. She’s a fat cat, that Simba!
Her face changes. Simba will say what it is she knows. But she’s a tease. Her nose is a perfect pink heart.
Together this lion and boy are something. Aden is Simba’s ward. Simba is Aden’s keeper. The one he loves most. There is friendship between one elephant and dog you know of. A bond between a hippo and a tortoise. A pony and a cat. A cat and a monkey. A cat and a rabbit. You don’t know what those odd couples get from each other, but why not simpatico?
When Aden falls out of his bed one day, Simba is there like a lassie. She is there even before you.
Hi, my Simba.
She gives her paw a long, lax pass. Attitude to let you know, she’s no dog.
It is time for bed, you tell her—Kom så.
And grab her harness, looking at her. Simba Simba Simba!
You should not, but you take her to your room anyway. Snapping above the duvet: Jump!
Simba’s tail goes—
—she springs onto the bed. She takes most of it.
How can it be you feel safe with this animal in your bed?
Tomorrow you take a plate of meat to Simba’s quarters, chicken room temp, the way she likes it. Inside, Aden is in the living room in front of the TV.
What is he watching?
When Aden does not answer, you say his name too loud.
You are waiting.
The samba. Look!
You look to the screen. A couple rolls their hips. They quicken their feet. They are competent. Every step is meant. The woman turns so a varicolored hemline spins off her shiny legs, and her partner meets her at the waist. By the hand. By the small of her back.
You look at Aden.
He is smiling, what’s worse. He does not feel bad but you do. He’s … You aren’t. Does English have a word for it, it is … guilt? Like guilt.
Simba walks inside licking her chops. That I know swank of hers. She looks like she might take to the dance floor and show you all a thing or two. She pauses in front of the TV, back steps, then turns to look right at Aden. For a second, you thought she was grooving.
Aden laughs. Yeah, Sim Sim! Go! He wheels this and that way to the beat, the cat following his turns. You watch them. Go, Simba, you think.
Ja, you think. Samba, Simba.