A Lion Tamer Dies

bookcoverA Lion Tamer Dies
Reggie Thornburg

The story of A Lion Tamer Dies is essentially a story about you, the reader and also in this instance the “audience.” The story is composed of two tales. The first tells of a boy named Andrew whose uncle is the owner of the Cirque De Chartres in a small town just outside of Paris, France. This tale runs from the year 1917 to 1922, in which time Andrew experiences a mostly adventurous trip through India and into Nepal on an expedition to obtain tigers for the circus. At first Andrew is taken up with the awesome thrill of the whole event, but this only heightens his disappointment, even shame, when he is finally confronted with the reality of the enterprise. Upon returning to France Andrew finds that perhaps putting an honest effort into his chosen profession of “Animal Trainer” will help make amends for the coming of age he experienced during the trip.

As this tale progresses Andrew works to overcome the two main obstacles to his success. The first being Juno his uncle’s right-hand man who is generally in charge of the grounds. Juno holds this position from some unknown past history with his uncle, which Andrew is yet to understand. The second obstacle is Andrew’s fear of not being able to entertain the audience. The latter Andrew finds, to his disappointment, never should have been sought after, especially at the expense of his and his cat Tongsa’s sincere efforts. Juno’s envy and hateful pride becomes a much larger threat right up to the point where
Andrew decides to quit entertaining entirely.

The more modern tale starts in the year 1976 and runs through 1990. It is the story of John Rand, a singer/songwriter who thrives on being able to collaborate with fellow musicians and be “just a part” of the mood at what his friend and later agent Thomas Jergins refers to as horrible little “gigs.” As this story unfolds, just as time and again the reader has seen for themselves through the modern media, John Rand takes a wild ride to success. John begins to lose a hold on his music as it becomes over-shadowed by the fame of his persona. After the media morphs him into the highly stylized and polished celebrity of “Jonny Rando,” John increasingly has to fight to try and remain connected with the reality that others are choosing for him. In this battle John finds that being on stage in the “rehearsed” environment allows him the only time in which to relax and get out of himself. Increasingly the life, or the “show” off stage begins to blur for John/Jonny and the reader is allowed to judge for themselves whether the singer is completely nuts, an extremely creative genius, or just another drug addict spoiled by extravagance and fame.

The reader will find that with all of the first-hand information given in the one story or the lack of a decision made for the reader in the other can be quite unsettling. As the reader contemplates the outcome of the book, they find that there is a huge question left unanswered, or is it? When are too many details enough to make us stop caring? Why is a satisfied choice of another not acceptable enough to us? Ultimately the question must be asked, “Which came first, the audience or the entertainer?” The more the reader ponders their own feelings about this story, the more he or she realizes that they are the “Lion” to which the title refers.

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Read excerpts from Reggie Thornburg’s exciting new release, A Lion Tamer Dies!

Cirque #2, India II

The following dawn’s light found them well on their way. Andrew was not waiting to be told when to go. Everyone was ready to move on, apparently giving up on holding back any further. Mr. Aristead’s attitude had not lightened any, which only served to drive Andrew on. Shim said very little and tagged along dutifully. Andrew hoped that they would not run into Juno and the others on their way back from the netting site, all the excitement over.
Sometime around noon, they were all stopped by a noise in the distance. Far ahead they could hear the retorts of gunshots. The popping sounds continued for nearly a minute and then fell off with a couple of intermittent shots a moment later. Each of them stood silent, listening intently as the noise of the jungle returned.

Andrew looked at Shim, who broke their silence. “Sometimes a cat gets loose during the movement from pit to crate.” He paused, listening with his face pushed out from his shoulders. Then he added in a whisper, “Sometimes a man loses his life before the cat is stopped.”

Mr. Armistead pushed past to lead the group, saying, “Right! Well, let’s press on.” The others fell in behind him as he continued up the trail.
Andrew thought to himself as he followed along, Perhaps the men in charge knew of this danger and felt it unwise to expose me to it. He decided this must be the reason for the other men’s hesitant behavior the day before. He was not sure if he liked it or not, but decided also there was nothing to be done now but get there. They tried to hurry over the new path strewn with freshly cut limbs. An hour later they came upon the first of the traps. Andrew was relieved to see bearers busily working all around.

Immediately, his attention was drawn to a crate that stood on the ground at the edge of the clearing. It was the first in a group that were positioned along a trail or separate pathway. Each container had two ropes drawn tight over their tops and staked firmly to the ground at both sides. Between the crates the heavy brush had not been cut completely away, leaving walls of foliage that kept the animals from seeing each other.

As Andrew approached, brilliant colors of orange and white shined through the tightly spaced bars of the crate. He stopped short when the creature snarled. It lashed at the side of the crate nearest him and shook the container against the ropes holding it upright. Andrew saw its golden eyes peering at him through the slats. They did not look frightened or angry, just very wary. Andrew remembered hearing the gunshots and a chill ran up his spine. A man was busy cutting up a pig he had butchered, preparing it as food for both the wild cats and the men.

Andrew wandered about looking at the cats. Most were yearlings, with a couple of two-year-olds contained in larger crates. Farther off he heard shouts. Someone was giving commands and there were the ferocious growls of a tiger.
Andrew hoped to see one being caught so he hurried toward the commotion. He came upon the group of men just as the netted animal was to be pulled up out of a pit in the ground. Shim came up beside him and quietly began to narrate the scene that was about to take place.

“A net lies at the bottom of each hole and a crate is positioned above and beside it. Two long poles are attached to the bottom of the crate, which stick out on either side and prevent it from upsetting while the animal is being put in. Each man has a pole to help push the animal into position over the opening of the crate.”

Andrew saw that a wad of cloth was affixed to the end of each pole as padding. Shim explained that the padding was for the tiger’s protection, yes, but more importantly so the cat would not be angered more by being poked at with a hard object.

Shim continued his monologue. “Everyone must be prepared, for when the net is drawn up around the animal it will immediately begin to slash and chew at the restraint. The men must pull very hard and get it in the crate before it can tear its way out.”

Andrew watched the men preparing, all eyes were on the mouth of the dark pit of growling and hissing. The pole men were gripping and re-gripping the sticks they held in their hands. The men holding the ends of the ropes were trying to set their feet in the best position to pull. A lead man was looking from one group to the other, watching to see when everyone was ready. The lead man spoke a few words and one of the pole men repositioned himself a half step to his right. There were more men standing farther back around the other two groups. These men each held a rifle, ready to shoot should the cat get loose. Everyone stared at the dark pit. The cat had grown quiet.

Andrew knew the moment the signal was to be given, for he saw the lead man’s eyes grow wide just before he threw his arms into the air. At that instant the cat was hoisted out of the pit. A fury of orange and white shot up into the light, shrieking violently; Andrew saw its bright white teeth seizing the netting. The animal slashed at the rope and repeatedly snatched at it with its powerful jaws. Whenever it let go, Andrew could see how alarmingly frayed the heavy hemp would be left from only one bite.

The rope had been positioned high in the tree so that it was to the side of the pit and over the spot the crate sat. When the net was drawn up, it would naturally swing into position over the opening in the crate. Just as soon as the animal appeared, the pole men all moved up to check the swing of the net so it would not over-shoot the crate. Time was of the essence! Having to reposition the bagged animal may spell injury or death for the men or the cat.

The pole men were both experienced and agile, yet Andrew saw that it was no easy task. He could also tell that the tiger did not merely thrash about in a panic but was quite aware of the menacing captors surrounding it. Its eyes flashed about, taking them all in; as it looked for the closest one, its slashing nails followed their gaze. It was not just biting at the netting either, but at the frail little men poking at it from beyond the trap it was in. One of the pole men stubbed his foot against a brace pole sticking outfrom the bottom of the crate. This caused him to let his pole slip under the animal and forced him to take a step forward to keep from falling. The yellow eyes within the net saw this closest movement and the man shrieked in pain as black razors protruding from the net were swept past his face. From nowhere a bearer appeared and dragged the wounded man back; then another pole man immediately filled his position.

Andrew held his breath as he watched the men feverishly probing at the shiny black nails that defiantly clung to the edge of the crate opening. No sooner would one paw be loosened when another, with perhaps only one nail free, would find the opposite edge to the opening. The men’s nerves were beginning to fray. The rope men took up the slack to make the animal lose its grip and then let off quickly in hopes of finishing. The pole men grew uneasy as the gnawing white teeth tore apart more and more of the rope netting. In a final cooperative movement, the animal’s feet were pushed at the same instant the rope men gave slack. The cat fell halfway in but stopped, getting caught by its chin on one end and tail on the other. There was enough slack in the rope to let the net fall away exposing the animal’s back. Andrew gasped and fought the urge to turn and run. The pole men changed their poles swiftly to an over-the-head position and brought them down on the cat pushing it into the crate. The lid was pulled shut and as a man busily secured it, the rest fell back in exhaustion. Part of the net still protruded from the top of the crate, keeping the lid from shutting all the way. Later this piece would be cut away and the rest of the net pulled out through the bottom.

Andrew had watched all of this not realizing Shim was talking calmly beside him. He turned and looked at Shim as he finished with, “. . . and then the nets will be put in a pile. Then they will be sorted as to which can be repaired and which cannot. Those that are ruined will be burned.” With that, Shim simply stood quietly watching the man securing the door rope on the crate that held the newly captured tiger.

Suddenly, more gunshots rang out. This time the sounds filled Andrew’s ears as if he had discharged the weapon himself. Andrew looked at Shim questionably and asked, “How many retorts did you count?”


Every night is Friday night in Las Vegas, work is behind you and Monday cannot be seen. Saturday night is too strained. That “last chance” to party feeling prevails, and at the same time you find yourself holding back a little, trying not to do more than Sunday can fix. There’s always the fact that a stronger Bloody Mary can help just about anything past breakfast, but just craving the vodka-soaked celery rings a bell that the weekend is about over.

In any other town, time might stop for a given moment. A concert or other event that could have that Friday-night feel of freedom, but in Las Vegas, it’s total. In fact, there is no Saturday through Thursday, at least not to the minds of those fortunate enough to be there.

Now, certainly the labor force that keep the buffet tables loaded with steak and seafood entrees way past two a.m. and the army of laundry workers that punch the clock and tackle an endless amount of sheets and towels know only too well just what day of week it is. But, if asked, not one of them would admit, even to themselves, that it’s not Friday night.

The bright lights beckon in the night air, drawing hordes of gambling enthusiasts like moths to the hot but thrilling flame of chance. By day the tide of people ebbs somewhat. Only the most fickle of gamblers will brave the light of day to forge across the street or down the block to search out a more caring or friendly set of slot machines. Fair ones are not to be found—besides, fairness is not part of the game. Nobody ever coaxed money out of a deal by being fair.

It’s in the caress you give the machine, the light touch of fingers when pulling back on the handle. The passionate cooing as the wheels whirr and then begin to stop. One bar, then a second bar . . . what of the third? No, a seven. But wait, do not give a grumble.

. . . Do not utter a curse. Just a sly glance at the taunt you were given. A good drag on the cigarette, waiting halfburnt, along with a gulp of watery Gin, and perhaps with this next coin you might goad the old girl into giving up a little more.

There is another group of people that show themselves in the light of day. These are the tourists that are totally blind to the true intent of Vegas. They wander in loose platoons in the harsh heat, wearing impossible outfits, on their way from one attraction to the next. Every piece of their clothing, if you can concentrate on it past the horrid brightness of color, seems to be nothing but undergarments.

The women are clad in a nylon and spandex array of nightmares to fashion, even for developing countries. They are all chattering incessantly about what to do next right after they do what they are headed to do, so each one of them can be the first to tell the others what to do.

Each group has a charge of brats lurching out in front, like unmindful dogs constantly being pulled back by the adults with sharp and threatening voices. Generally oblivious and tagging behind, the men bring up the rear of the party in, Oh Lord, baggy, below-the-knee pajama-looking-shorts over any kind of footwear with tightly pulled-up socks! Could this possibly be the reason that some automobiles have tint applied to the windows?

Just at this moment, a long white Lincoln limousine goes by and, sure enough, the multicolored group takes a collective breath and their chattering starts anew. Obviously one of them knows who is in the prestigious ride, only a glance can tell. ”Really!” comes a shout and then, just as quick, the talk turns to, “Not such a big deal. Remember my sister’s brother-in-law used a car twice that length for his second marriage. They rode around in it for nearly an hour after the wedding ceremony before they went to the reception.”

Something else grabs at their attention and as they express how unimpressed they were with the woman the guy got hitched to, they march off down the street.

For those who know and care about the difference between daywear and evening wear, this is Friday night. Wherever you are going is the place to be and every crowd is the in crowd. It does not matter which facet of the jewel you look upon, each is as bright and as perfect as the next.

In the late fall of 1982, John Rand sat facing himself under the bright glow of the mirror lights in the dressing room he had come quite familiar with over the past year or so. With only a few minutes remaining before show time, he was mentally preparing himself to help keep that Friday night feeling of Vegas alive and well for the hundreds of guests he knew were filing into the show hall at that moment.