Lviv’s Lions by Peter Prizel

Unlike its easterly counterpart, Lviv had not been scarred by the war. The city, situated on the Poltava, which had more sculptures and images of a lion per capita than any other metropolis, was not about to fall. 

“When the Moscow Circus comes to town, we expect it to behave,” a weathervane in the image of a lion commented from the window of the history museum to his counterpart nearby who adorned the side of Boim Chapel in Cathedral Square.

“I am not sure you or I are in a position to best make that assumption,” said Lev the Lion perched on the exterior of the chapel. “We know the reason why you are attached to the wall of the museum. You would always fall off the roof of city hall when bad fortune loomed, and the chapel, whose exterior I adorn, was never consecrated by the bishop who saw the fresco of the devil smiling from under a chair that Judas is sitting on. Having already received the thirty pieces of silver for his betrayal, Judas was hardly in a benevolent mood.”

“Well, I will not let them be ringmasters to us. Now, keep your vigil and your weapon clean and watch over the city. It is only a matter of time before the Russians move on us like they have in Mariupol and Kyiv,” the weathervane said.

“Indeed, indeed,” Lev said as he blinked his eyes and an uncomfortable amount of snow fell from his eyelashes. The lions of Lviv, which adorned the emblem of the city, banks, park benches, and wells, stood guard while cradling their machine guns as refugees from the east of the country took shelter in gymnasiums and other spaces that had been converted to house them. A strict curfew was in force and the streets were deserted until six o’ clock the next morning. 

The hours droned slowly, and the lions struggled to keep their eyes open, some even drifting off to sleep, although they were supposed to be on sentry duty. It was only when Lev caught something bright red out of the corner of his eye that he was roused from his sleep. 

“Halt, who goes there? Why are you out during curfew?” the lion said, squinting his eyes, trying to see the two figures who had red noses make their way toward him from across Rynok Square. Both figures were dressed like clowns and looked dubious at best. The fatter and shorter of the two sported a red nose and a red wig, and makeup covered his face and neck. He was dressed like your typical r’izhii, a lower-class Auguste clown, with his tattered clothes, a ripped-up checkered vest, and oversized loafers that made him trip as he slid in the snow. Accompanying him and holding him up was the second of the pair, a lanky white-face clown who wore an elegant red wig, his face and neck also painted with makeup. 

“Forgive our trespassing,” the portly clown began. “I am Sergei and this is Vladimir. We are refugees from the Donbas  region and we are looking for lodgings in the Hotel George.”

Humored by the two buffoons who brought a microcosm of cheer to the atmosphere hanging over the city, the lion lowered his firearm and smiled. “It is two more blocks down the street then hang a right, but I doubt there are any vacant rooms. This city has been converted into a displaced persons camp, but you are welcome to check.”

“Spasiba,” Sergei said, the last syllable of the word barely audible as he was elbowed in the ribs by his companion. 

“No, Dyakuyu,” Vladimir said.

“You are welcome. If you are stopped by anyone else, tell them Lev sent you and tell the receptionist I say hello.”

“Will do,” Vladimir replied. 

Lev watched the two clowns continue down the street as he cradled his machine gun trying to stay awake.

The two clowns used Lev’s name to ask for a room and were immediately shown to one that was used by the staff of the hotel. 

“I didn’t give any of the refugees this room because it is only for our use. But since so many of us are at the front and you are an acquaintance of Lev, you can have it for the night,” the receptionist said.

“Thank you,” Vladimir replied. He took the bed by the window leaving the one by the door for Sergei. Because of the fear of air raids, Vladimir lit a match and held it up to the wall until he saw two buttons with the words kurtyna written below them. 

“Let’s put it to the test,” Sergei said. “I know the women have gone off to fight in the east, but surely there are some still here.” The short clown reached his chubby fingers toward the projectiles on the wall. 

“No, no,” Vladimir said as he slapped his colleague’s hand away. “Not until our job is done. We are in the circus, remember, and we have a mandate from Moscow to co-opt the people, to coerce them to surrender. We can reward ourselves later once the job is done. We were not received well in Kyiv, Kharkiv, or Mariupol for that matter, and I believe it’s because we lack the lions in our show. We will co-opt them to join, which is why we have come to Lviv.”

“Fine, who are we bringing in first?” Sergei asked. 

“The tigers,” Vladimir replied. He dialed a number on the phone while Sergei looked out the window on the main square where the statue of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet, still stood proudly as his country crumbled around him. 

“I just spoke with the crew,” Vladimir said as he hung up. “The train made it to the station. We will first bring in the tigers, then the monkeys, then the elephants, then the bears if the lions don’t rejoin the circus after those acts. Then we will do our act and once the job is done, we can reward ourselves. Now get some sleep. We have a long day tomorrow,” Vladimir said, as he blew out the match and fell asleep. Sergei soon followed leaving the lions to keep watch over the city.

In the morning, Vladimir and Sergei began to set up shop around Rynok Square, which was filled with empty baby carriages, a hundred and nine of them, symbolizing the number of infants that had been killed so far. As the clowns began to move the carriages, the people started to protest.

“Don’t you know what these strollers represent?” an elderly woman asked indignantly. “They are one for each child who has been killed in the war with the Russians.”

“Don’t worry about the dead,” Vladimir chided. “Besides, children love the circus, and we have brought a live one to Lviv.”

“Yes, don’t worry. We will put them back after the show is over,” Sergei added. 

The adults of the city were not about to relent, but when a newsboy announced that the train was in the station laden with wild animals, the children clamored to see them, and the city’s residents parked the strollers by Boim’s Chapel. As if on cue, half the lions that adorned the exterior of the chapel—the other half was female—handed their firearms to a group of university students who continued to rock the strollers back and forth as seriously as they had during their evening vigil of mourning for the lost infant souls. 

The city, whose population had ballooned over the past month since the outbreak of the war, struggled to accommodate all the spectators, which included not only Lviv’s inhabitants but refugees from the eastern part of the country as well. The spectators made the best use of the city’s limited space so all could get a good view of what was about to happen in Rynok Square. They turned to the Old Jewish quarter that housed the Jewish population, the once ostracized segment of the populace. Confined to a compact section of the city where space was in short supply, they made creative use of the buildings that had ceilings and floors of different heights. No longer inhabited, the Old Jewish Quarter had become a tourist attraction, but with the circus in town, it was temporarily reverted to its old use. 

The city officials made up the front row of seats, slabs of pine that had recently been cut down to make coffins for what were expected to be many deaths and laid across makeshift iron tank-traps to block invading Russian armored vehicles. These rudimentary benches were set up along the perimeter of Rynok Square where statues of Greek Gods, including Neptune, stood haughtily with their backs to city hall. 

“They don’t approve of us watching this entertainment during such grave times,” the mayor quipped to the city comptroller.

“They never approved of anything because they always had their backs to the hall,” the comptroller replied before being cut off by the voice of Vladimir booming through a bullhorn.

“Ladies and Gentlemen of Lviv, I Vladimir and my assistant Sergei would like to welcome you to the Moscow Circus. You are our fourth stop as we make our way through Ukraine. We have been to Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol, where I must admit we were not well received, but we hope our fortune will change. Our show is a series of four acts after which we expect our missing compatriots, the lions, will join us as we move on to Cracow.”

“Why were you not well received? Did you not behave?” the weathervane lion called out from the ledge on the museum, whose door had been thrown open so older spectators could gather in the foyer to avoid the snow.

“Sergei, Sergei,” Vladimir hissed as he beckoned to his assistant, “is that not the lion who used be on top of the city hall, the one that was removed because he falls whenever something bad is about to happen to the city?”

“Yes, according to the guidebook I read on the train, I believe it is,” Sergei replied. 

“Then come, let’s install him back to his rightful place,” Vladimir said as he hit his counterpart on his backside, causing him to fall in the snow. Chuckles erupted from the crowd and Sergei turned as red as his nose. He dusted himself off, unbuttoned his vest, and pulled a long handkerchief from his breast pocket with the light blue and golden-yellow colors of Ukraine. The audience burst into applause.

While Sergei was entertaining the crowd, Vladimir used the opportunity to steal to the museum and unscrew the weathervane from the wall, but as he did so, the cub scratched the ringmaster. “I expected you to behave,” the juvenile lion growled. 

“Relax, your compatriots seem to be enjoying the show, now cooperate,” Vladimir said and loosened the final screw that held the lion on the wall. Returning to the Rynok Square, he handed the weathervane to Sergei, who had commandeered a volunteer who had suspended the long handkerchief on the roof of city hall. 

“Go get the tigers ready,” Vladimir said, and he began to climb city hall while hanging on to the weathervane. The crowd below craned their necks and yelled catcalls at him, but eventually they clapped, when, after several near falls which would have cost him his life, Vladimir succeeded in placing the weathervane on top of city hall. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, I announce our first act, the tigers, our guided missiles.” Swinging a rope-hoop covered with wax and doused in kerosene, Sergei prominently lit it ablaze and summoned the first tiger to climb on top of a wooden crate labeled “ammunition product of the USA,” which he had dragged from the edge of Rynok Square. 

Sergei noticed that the audience was fearful of the blazing rope-hoop and decided he needed to calm them down. “Don’t worry,” he said, “our tigers are highly trained and will not cause any collateral damage.” 

“What damage will they cause in the first act?” the mayor called from the stands.

“Oh, nothing. Don’t worry,” Sergei said, but then he made the mistake of removing his belt and brandishing it like a whip, causing his pants to fall revealing several stitched-hearts undergarments. Surrounded by the laughter in the audience, Sergei made another dire mistake: he caused the whip to go limp instead of cracking it so that the tigers would jump through the hoop, when instead, one tiger, chasing after the end of the belt, grazed the edge of the hoop and set his tail ablaze. 

“Don’t worry,” Vladimir called as some young men rushed after the tiger, “the snow will douse the flames.”

The wounded tiger held his tail aloft as he fled the circus and made it as far as the interior of the Stefinik Library, one of the most renowned libraries of scientific works in the country. There, the tiger set several priceless manuscripts on fire before the caretaker threw his morning coffee on the beast to stop the blaze. 

Upon being relieved of its burning tail, the tiger dashed across Rynok Square and headed toward the statue named after Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s national poet, with conscript soldiers chasing after it.

“There goes our culture,” the mayor said.

“Science is science. It is universal,” the comptroller said. 

“That’s what Putin would say about Russians and Ukrainians. We are one people. Do you really want to buy into that?” the mayor replied. 

“Perhaps we won’t be the only victims of culture annihilation,” the comptroller said. He took out his binoculars and looked toward Mickiewicz Square only to spot the tiger halfway to the pedestal and the soldiers ready to pounce.

“We apologize for the technical difficulties,” Vladimir said through his bullhorn, “but I assure you there will be no more mishaps. Our next act is the monkey bombs.” The impromptu ringmaster pulled a black sheet from atop a large cage to reveal several gibbons and other new world primates with prehensile tails. Each primate held a book by a famous Russian author, a white gibbon with Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, a famous treatise on nihilism, and a howler monkey with Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

“What are they going to do? Read those tracts of misery about how every unhappy family is alike and get us to agree to be part of Russia?” the comptroller asked. 

“I don’t know, I just hope they don’t let them out of the cage like the tiger was,” the mayor replied. “After that snafu, I don’t trust the two clowns running this circus.”

The mayor’s alarm was right on target. The bewildered adult crowd watched as Vladimir undid the latch, while the children who were enjoying the show laughed and waited for the ringmasters to amuse them some more. As soon as the latch was release, as if on cue, the monkeys ran down Stavropihiska Street toward the monument of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet. Once there, the monkeys scaled the statue set on an obelisk-like platform, and they spread out along Taras’ arms, the white gibbon perched atop the crown of his head. In the midmorning sun, the monkeys sprawled out and opened their books and leafed through the pages.

“First they destroy our discoveries, which you say are universal, but now they attack our language,” the mayor quipped. 

“You are right,” the comptroller sighed. “I do not see a single book by one of our authors, but then again, would you really want a monkey to be the standard-bearer of our literature?” 

“No, I don’t think you are right. Look,” the mayor said as he took out his own set of binoculars that had been issued to him by the army. “The children down the street are throwing bananas at the apes and they are dispersing.” The mayor cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted to Vladimir and Sergei. “Hey, buffoons, I thought you said there would be no more foul-ups.”

“Ah, you know monkeys, they are so closely related to humans that they have a mind of our own. They are autonomous,” Vladimir boomed in the bullhorn, interrupting the conversation between the mayor and the comptroller. “Have no fear, for the next act we bring you the tanks, the elephants, which you know are highly intelligent but lack the reasoning of monkeys.”

“This could be a bad thing,” the comptroller huffed.

“Indeed,” said the mayor. “Just look what happened in Mariupol. The Russians shelled the city from ships in the Sea of Azov. The sailors were so detached that they could not even see their targets, out of sight, out of mind, with no human connection—” The mayor’s philosophizing was cut short when he saw elephants walking down the street from the direction of the train station. Dressed in an ornate glittery saddle, one elephant pushed a massive ball in front of itself, while the rest of the pachyderms emitted their bowels in the street. The elephant bringing up the rear that Sergei was riding went as far as to enter the Latin Cathedral and relieve itself next to the foot of the altar. The sacrilegious incident was relayed to the mayor and comptroller when the caretaker of the chapel took it upon himself to cycle the short distance to inform the authorities of his disgust at the debasement of his house of God. 

“Perhaps they really do want to restore communism,” the mayor quipped.

“Have they not read their own literary giant, Fyodor Dostoevsky, who famously said that without religious values everything is permissible?” the comptroller asked. 

“Perhaps they read it too closely and are taking it literally,” the mayor replied.

The rest of the elephant troop, which was commandeered by young conscript Russians from Siberia and looked like they were in a drunken stupor and unsure of what they were supposed to be doing, performed their act.  With the lead elephant balancing his front legs on a massive ball, and the other elephants balancing on his back or on other elephants, the Russian soldiers managed to get them into formation around the perimeter of the Rynok Square before they began their trumpeting. The children laughed, unaware of what the elephant had done in the cathedral, and soon the children were ushered out of the Square and headed to the train station. 

“You see,” Vladimir said to the remaining audience, beaming, “no collateral damage there. Even the children had laughed.” The ringmaster adjusted his red nose, which was starting to fall from his face due to the weather increasing ten degrees over the past hour. “Bring in the bears,” he said. “They are just coming from the local cemetery!” As soon as he said these words, a trio of bears came riding their tricycles from the direction of Lychakivske Cemetery. They carried large Russian flags in one hand and steered their tricycles with the other. 

As they entered Rynok Square waving their Russian flags, the bears rode in circles around each statue of the Greek gods. Upon hearing that they had come from the cemetery, the local priests from the Orthodox and Catholic denominations crossed themselves, tears running down their faces at the profanity they had witnessed.

“Don’t worry,” Sergei shouted as he emerged from the crowd and grabbed the bullhorn from Vladimir. “I made sure they danced on the graves to the song Kalinka. ”

“First, they take away our culture, then our language, and now they desecrate our dead. How much worse can it get. I want to spit in the ringmaster’s face,” the mayor fumed. 

Out of all the acts, the bears lasted the longest. It took some clever thinking by a priest to entice them away with honey fetched from the cities open-air museum, a fifteen-minute tram ride from the city center. Enticed by the sweet smell, the bears took off in the direction of the priest who began to walk back to the park on foot.

The bears leaving the Rybox Square didn’t rattle Sergei or Vladimir, so the ringmasters proceeded to their final circus performance: the lions. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” Sergei boomed through the bullhorn, “our Moscow Circus wouldn’t be complete without this one final act, and this act is performed by the lions.” 

“Yes, which is why we are here,” Vladimir gestured to the lions. “Although world-renowned, our circus isn’t complete without you. Surely, you can now see that we all are on the same team and have the same goals in life. Would you care to join us?” 

“We expected you to behave,” a voice from the lion on the weathervane cried from atop city hall. 

“Yes,” the lion on Biom’s Chapel chimed in.

“Instead, you desecrated our city and the memories of our loved ones,” the faces of several lions said in unison, the ones formed at the end of the arms of benches which ran around the perimeter of the Rynok Square.

“You are a disgrace,” a lion on a bicycle on the roof of the city’s main bank chimed in. “I say we throw them out of town. What do you all think? Let’s take a poll!”

Vladimir and Sergei did not hang around to find out the result of the poll. As the mayor counted hands, the two snuck away through the crowd and returned to Hotel George, which was vacant since everyone had been outside watching the circus. They made their way to their room, but once there they found the six men who had been riding their elephants at the circus and after their act had come to the room where Vladimir and Sergei were staying. 

“Push the button, push the button!” Vladimir yelled. “Don’t let them see us. Thank God they have democratic values and decided to take a poll. Were they authoritarians like us we’d have been dead by now!”

“We were waiting for you, ringmaster,” said one of the six men. “Believe me, we wanted to push the button for a long time. It is time we are rewarded with something for our services,” the Siberian who had been riding the lead elephant in the pachyderm troop said. 

“I hope the woman is blond,” one soldier broke in.

“I prefer brunettes,” said another.

“Idiot’s,” Vladimir scoffed as he slammed the button. Kurtyna is curtain in Polish, but you country bumpkins from Siberia would not know that!” 

“Do you think the people at Rynok Square know we are here?” Sergei asked anxiously. “Should they find us, I would not put it past them to lynch us from a lamppost.”

“No,” Vladimir replied as he peeked out the window and saw the whole city running down the street in the direction of the train station. “They are running toward the train station.”

“So, maybe the lions will join the circus and our prestige can be restored?” Sergei said beaming. “If we can just—”

Sergei’s voice trailed off when a loud clang came from the direction of the center of Rynok Square causing Vladimir to glance out the window again only to spy that the weathervane, the one he had erected on top of the building, had fallen to the ground.

“That only happens when something bad is about to befall the city,” Vladimir said. “Come, let’s go to the train station.”

“But we are risking—” 

“No, we are not—” Vladimir cut off the soldier and took out his phone and made a call. 

At the train station it was chaos. All the animals had been let loose and the lions, who were no longer affixed to their landmarks, shepherded women and children like lambs into the circus car as they brandished their firearms to keep men back. 

“Men cannot leave. They have to fight! Only woman and children can go to Cracow!” the lion from Boim’s Chapel said and fired warning shots into the air. 

“And I thought the Lviv lions were tame,” Sergei said as he and Vladimir along with the six soldiers snuck into the train through a trapdoor in the caboose that only they knew about. 

“Normally they are, which is why I thought they would be such a hit and was so eager for them to join the Moscow circus,” Vladimir said and covered his ears when he heard supersonic aircraft a short way from them. 

“What is that?” Sergei asked. “Who did you call?”

“Oh, no one,” Vladimir said. “I suppose the prophecy of the leonine weathervane came true and bad things are going to happen to the city. War has no formal ringmaster.”

Women and children cried as they left their husbands and fathers at the train station. Lviv’s lions began to depart to take up defensive positions around the city, the time for clowning around had ended. Meanwhile, back on Rynok Square, the weathervane lion dusted himself off and put the carriages back in the Square. After he completed this important task, he climbed back on his perch in the wall in the museum and muttered to himself that there would be many more carriages in Rynok Square in the future. 

Peter Prizel is a social worker specializing in end-of-life care. He is pursuing an MFA at Manhattanville College. He lives in Bedford Hills with his daughters and three cats.