By J.D. Hager
The Taliban soldiers, teenagers mostly, would stand at the edge of Marjan’s enclosure and toss rocks and taunts at him, laughing when their stones made contact. Marjan grew skinnier and weaker and angrier every day, while the soldiers grew more brazen. One young soldier, wanting to demonstrate his courage, entered the enclosure to grapple with the weakened beast, thinking the skinny lion to be an easy target. Within moments of entering the enclosure, Marjan promptly pounced and killed the man. Seeking revenge, the man’s brother later tossed a grenade into the enclosure, which Marjan pounced on as if it was food.
Aamir’s father, the zookeeper, discretely helped nurse the lion back to health, and Marjan miraculously survived. The blast left him not only deaf, but missing one eye and mostly blind in the other. His survival and recovery made him a star among the Afghan people, as his story was told and retold. Marjan the lion reminded all that it was possible to live through Taliban brutality.
Aamir’s father continued to care for Marjan and the handful of other animals left in the zoo despite the Taliban. His concern for the welfare of caged beasts made him an infidel. He was publicly whipped for breaking Sharia law until blood dripped down his legs and soaked into the dusty cobbles, but even this did not dissuade him. Instead, he grew more determined and stealthy, sneaking through the ruins in the darkness of night to care for the animals. After Aamir’s father was discovered breaking curfew to feed Marjan a second time, the Taliban took him away. No one had seen him since. This left Aamir the lone man of his house, the only male left to care for a sickly mother and three sisters. Under Sharia law, women were in most ways treated worse than animals in the zoo. Aamir alone could leave the house without fear of notice or reprimand.
At fourteen, Aamir took over for his missing father, including waking up early almost every day to sneak food to Marjan. Two days prior, Aamir discovered a dead horse buried in the rubble of a bombed building. A bundle of rotting meat hung from his shoulder, folded into his dirty burlap. He slinked through shadows as the first light of dawn reassembled the crumbling landscape of Kabul. He entered the zoo through bombed walls in the back and traversed straight to Marjan’s enclosure, dumping his pile of horse meat without ceremony. Marjan no longer blindly attacked objects thrown to him. He sniffed the air thoughtfully and inched closer, his sense of smell now his primary input of information. He licked the pile twice and then dragged it toward the sheltered area at the back of the enclosure. This gave Aamir great pleasure, and he lingered longer than he should have.
“What are you doing?”
Aamir turned and saw a silhouette with a rifle slung over its shoulder, dark against the dawn sky.
“I am just praying for Marjan,” he told the shadow.
“This filthy beast,” the man said, “is not worthy of a name or prayers.”
“That could be said of many things in Kabul,” Aamir said. His face must have betrayed something disrespectful because the shadow became enraged.
The man stepped forward and wrapped his fingers in the fabric of Aamir’s shirt and turban. “This is not a creature of Allah,” the man said. “This creature was sent by infidels to distract from the teachings of Muhammed.”
“Marjan is a proud animal.”
“It begs for scraps and garbage.”
“He has survived great injury.”
“Witness this beast’s true place.” The soldier released his grip on Aamir’s shirt and unslung the rifle from his shoulder. He aimed it at the shadow of Marjan and steadied the barrel. But, just as he squeezed the trigger, Aamir reached up and bumped the rifle away from the target. Two bullets hit rock and ricocheted.
Aamir looked into the enclosure for Marjan’s shadow, but could not see it. Then he felt the sting of the soldier’s hand across his face. He closed his eyes and fell, but the soldier pulled Aamir to his feet so he could strike him and knock him down again. Aamir saw stars dancing inside his eyelids.
“Stand up,” the soldier said, pulling Aamir up by the fabric of his shirt, but Aamir’s legs wobbled, offering no support. The soldier slapped him across the face again and let him slump to the ground. Aamir’s hijab fell off, and the soldier dragged Aamir across the pavement by his hair for a moment. Then the soldier released his grip and again commanded Aamir to stand.
Aamir opened his eyes and studied the streaks of wispy clouds painted across the pale morning sky. The promise of day lit the mountains in the distance. The dark figure of the soldier leaned over him.
“If you cannot stand and walk, I shall drag you,” the soldier said.
The silhouette of the soldier against the orange glow of the horizon leaned in closer to grab Aamir, but behind him, Aamir saw a larger shadow growing, defined only by the swish of a tail, back and forth.
“I will pray for you,” Aamir told the soldier.
“Pray for yourself,” he told Aamir, just before Marjan jumped the soldier from behind.
Aamir was halfway home before he even realized he was running. He stopped for nothing and soon he was standing inside his house. He panted and locked the door behind him. Aamir went straight to his prayer rug and knelt. He prayed not for his own salvation or the soldier’s. He prayed for the same thing he always prayed for.
He prayed for the strength of Marjan.