This was back in ninety-six, a mere two years after democracy. Struggling to find work in archaeology (that’s what you get for just assuming there’s a job at the end of a degree), I worked as a bartender.
The bar was small and decorated in an affable mismatch of objects: a crystal chandelier; a stuffed springbok head; a huge, mottled antique mirror on one wall. Close to the door hung a framed postcard of Mandela as Superman. Someone stole it. We put up another one and that got stolen as well; a small illustration of the manic optimism and rampant crime that permeated our newly minted democratic state.
It was early evening and almost empty, except for two students sitting at the far end of the bar counter. Brandy and Coke for him, gin and tonic for her. I could tell he was keen on her by how hard he was trying to sound indifferent when he asked where in the States her boyfriend was.
‘He’s in New York,’ she said.
‘Oh,’ he raised his eyebrows. ‘What does he do there?’
‘He’s an actor, so he works in a bar.’
At that moment a new customer walked in. He was dark and shiny, like polished ebony, with small, child-like teeth and bricklayer’s hands.
He ordered a Lion Lager in his Mozambican accent, wrapped his meaty fingers around the cold bottle and took a swig. ‘Have you seen one of these?’ he asked, turning the label of the bottle towards me. I was unsure what he was getting at – people sometimes think they can try and take the piss just because you’re serving them – but his manner and his question seemed sincere.
‘I see quite a few of them most nights.’
He shook his head. ‘No, have you seen a real one?’
The penny dropped. ‘If you mean wild lions then yes, I’ve seen a few. Mostly on holiday in Botswana and the Kruger Park.’
He looked at me for a few moments and nodded, as if coming to a decision. ‘I have seen one too in the Kruger Park. Very close.’ He took a bigger swallow of beer, frowned like it tasted bad. ‘Me and my brother. We were coming by foot through that place to get here.’ He shrugged. ‘No passports, no work permits.’
‘That can be a dangerous place on foot,’ I said.
He looked around, his gaze resting for a moment on the two students, but they were absorbed in their own conversation. ‘It was the second day. The bush was thick, and the lion found us.’
‘What did you do?’
He ignored my question and leaned across the bar. ‘It looked at me.’ Then he pointed at the empty space to his right. ‘And it took my brother.’
I realised I had been holding my breath and exhaled loudly. ‘I’m sorry, man, I–’
He cut me off. ‘My brother was screaming, calling for me to help. In the lion’s jaws he looked like a child.’ He grimaced. ‘I did not help him. I just run.’ His eyes closed as he lifted the bottle to his lips and tilted his head far back.
I felt I should say something to him, but the two students waved and pointed at their empty glasses. I turned away to pour them another round. When I turned back he was gone, his empty beer bottle on the counter the only testament that he had been there.
The flash fiction story Where the Wild Things Are was inspired by two things – time I spent working as a bartender when I was looking for work as an archaeologist, and a story a friend (who also worked there) told me one night. I find that where two experiences intersect is often fertile ground to excavate a story.
Through his work as an archaeologist and his love of travel in Africa, he has journeyed extensively in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia, drawing inspiration from the people he has met and the stories they shared. He has a deep affinity for African history, folklore and mythology, and loves to incorporate them in contemporary fiction.
Andrew Salomon lives in Cape Town with his wife, two young sons, and a pair of rescue dogs of baffling provenance.