I was six when Dad left Mum and me in a storm of curses and broken dishes. After that, it was quieter at home, and I saw Dad every second weekend.
He gave me the jigsaw puzzle the first weekend of the school holidays — a pride of lions lounging on the African savannah. I could hear the roar of the male from inside the box. I suppose Dad meant for me to put it together while he hung out with his new girlfriend, but I was a little scared of it, with all the roaring coming from inside.
Mum said five hundred pieces was too many for me, and what had my father been thinking? She said that about his girlfriend too, who chewed bubble gum and had a tattoo of Pikachu on her left arm. When I told her she should ask Dad instead of me, she snorted.
“Your father doesn’t think. I suppose I’ll have to help you put it together,” she added.
But I shut my door and refused help—lions were dangerous. I didn’t want Mum to get hurt.
I knew the lions wouldn’t harm me, because I was a kid. Maybe I’d nestle in among the sleeping cubs and they’d take me in as one of their own. What would it be like to be raised by lions? I was pretty sure daddy lions didn’t come home smelling like beer and shouting at everyone. And I knew mummy lions caught fresh wildebeest, instead of pulling out stale crackers and Marmite for lunch.
I separated out the border pieces — peacock-blue sky and dusty brown grass, perfect for concealing the tawny cats — and framed out the edges of the puzzle.
At lunchtime, I asked Mum how wildebeest tasted.
“Wildebeest? Why would you want to eat wildebeest? Try not to get crumbs on the carpet, dear.” She swept up the bits of cracker I’d dropped.
I put together Mama cat first. Her haunches, tail, furry paws, and the stiff whiskers framing her face. I set in the final piece of her and her black-tipped tail twitched. She purred when I scratched her head.
“Sweetie. Dinnertime,” Mum called.
I removed a piece of paw, just in case, and went to eat.
The cubs were next. It was hard to tell where one spotted body ended and another began. The first one I finished mewed for its brothers.
“Are you okay in there darling?”
I shushed the cub by tickling it under the chin. “All good, Mum.”
The finished cubs squirmed and tumbled together, mock-fighting. But they had no space to play. I focused on the savannah for a while. I made them a wide field of sparse grass full of grasshoppers to chase and a spreading acacia tree for shade under a blue sky.
After Mum tucked me into bed and turned out the light, I had to tiptoe to the puzzle and take out a few pieces. The cubs were making so much noise, I couldn’t sleep.
Later, a sound that wasn’t the cubs woke me. I knew what the pounding on the door meant. His voice rattled my window as he bellowed for Mum. Her slippered footsteps pattered on the steps, and I silently pleaded for her not to let him in. I pressed the pillow over my ears so I couldn’t hear.
Mum slept in the next day. When she poked her head into my room, still in her bathrobe, dark rings circled her eyes. She pointed to the puzzle.
“You’ve gotten so much done! The only thing left is daddy lion.”
But I didn’t put him together. Not yet. I was a little afraid of him. Instead I spent the day playing with the cubs. I tumbled with them under the hot sun until I was dusty and covered in scratches. Then we piled in a heap to sleep off the heat of the day — it’s very hot on the African savannah.
“What happened to you?” Mum exclaimed when I came down to dinner that evening. “It looks like you’ve been wrestling tigers!”
I shrugged. “Lions, actually.”
She wasn’t happy about the state of my room either. “What have you been up to? Looks like a herd of elephants came through here.”
I piled the cubs on my bed that night and we nestled together under the covers. Mama lion didn’t mind, but I was a little worried about the fur on my pillow in the morning. I brushed it off so Mum wouldn’t see it.
Next day I put together the daddy lion. Almost. I left one piece out. I was still a little afraid.
When Mum came in, she bent over the puzzle. “There’s only one piece left.” She reached out to slot it into place.
“No!” I clapped my hand over hers. “You can’t let the daddy out.” I didn’t think I had to explain why.
She frowned at me, and then shut her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, her face was twisted into a strange smile. She ruffled my hair. “You have such an imagination!”
For a week, I slept with the cubs at night and played with them by day. On Friday night, when Dad threw a rock through Mum’s bedroom window, Mama cat jumped onto the bed and gave us tongue baths. It tickled and smelled funny, but I wasn’t scared with her there. She sat watch all night, and the next two nights, too.
Mum grumbled every time she came into my room. “I can barely walk through here with that big puzzle on the floor.”
The next day was a school day. I made sure to take out a few puzzle pieces before I left. I didn’t think Mum would be very happy to find claw marks on the furniture.
At school, I told the teacher I had lions in my room. She said not to tell lies.
When I got home, Mum was in a bad mood. She made me tidy my room.
“And put away that puzzle if you’re not going to finish it.”
I stood looking at the puzzle for a long time. The cubs were asleep and Mama cat was cleaning a paw. The sun shone brightly, and grasshoppers buzzed in the grass. Daddy lion — still unfinished and frozen — watched over his children. His ears looked soft, and his eyes were alert, but not fierce. He didn’t look like the sort of daddy to throw rocks and hit people. I crouched and slipped the last piece into place. Daddy lion shook his mane and licked Mama lion’s face before turning amber eyes to me.
He blinked slowly. An ear twitched, as if beckoning.