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Uhuru na Umoja
Lion could remember when he was just a little cub, playing in the tall desert grass with his three older and bigger brothers. “Runt!” they would shout at him. “You’ll never be like us! We’re too big for you.” Lion would simply ignore the remarks. He always imagined he would grow to be as immense as his stern and fierce father.
That was, until the day of the incident.
He would still wake up in the middle of the night, screaming and thrashing with the memories of the day his parents deserted him, the day the one thing he could count on ceased to be trustworthy. He would have nightmares that he was falling, tumbling over the cliff’s edge with his mother roaring out in pain above him, his father still and indifferent other than his prickling mane. They had thought he had been killed; they probably still thought he was dead. Only Monkey and Lion knew the truth.
Monkey was the one who had found him, clinging to the side of the stone. He had immediately scaled down the rocks when he heard the wails, grabbed little Lion by the scruff of his neck and pulled him to the top. But when they got over, Lion was so scared that he lashed out and attacked Monkey’s leg, biting into the flesh good and hard; Monkey had had a limp ever since.
Monkey would come running to Lion’s fits of terror in an instant. “Hush, little one, hush. You are here, with me. You are safe and warm and dry. Go back to sleep, Li. You will need your rest for tomorrow.” So Lion pretended to sleep, and Monkey pretended that Lion was asleep, and they pretended all was well.
Lion was learning to hunt; it was the greatest distraction he could have asked for. He was focused on something decent for once, not his insolent, unethical family. Not to mention that he was worn out enough to sleep. Monkey summoned him for lessons daily, and Lion never missed a single one.
“What are we doing today, Monkey?” Lion would inquire.
The answer was always similar—running techniques, stalking tips, speed tests, or hiding methods. Today, it was learning to tread quietly.
“Good grief, Lion! Even with my old age I can hear you from a mile away.”
Lion chuckled. “I can be quiet”, he said in a low, soft tone. “I can be undetectable. Watch! Give me two minutes to run, then I’ll keep moving quietly, and you try to find me!” And before Monkey could argue the notion, Lion was off.
He loped past the flat trees, slunk through the dense underbrush, scampered around clearings and waded in mud. He eventually found a secluded ditch not far from a watering hole. He trotted around for a few minutes, and then walked towards the water, knowing he would win the game.
What Lion did not know was that his birth parents and three big brothers were coming from the other side of the desert to the same watering hole.
He and his parents seemed to come to the realization at the exact same moment. Lion watched curiously as the female’s nose lifted and her eyes locked on his, boring holes, it seemed, into Lion’s forehead. He saw the male’s mane prickle with unease, and a sense of déjà vu washed over him. Then the father turned to the other three cubs. “Come,” he whispered to them, “Your mother will catch up in a moment.”
When they were gone she did not hesitate. Her legs carried her at incredible speed around the edges of the watering hole straight towards her long-lost cub. “Baby?” she breathed, her eyes melting with compassion, her ears set back with shame and fear and hope. “I-Is that you?”
She didn’t have to ask the question. She didn’t have to say anything. The atmosphere shifted to one of total familiarity as Lion walked towards Mother’s chest. They stood silently for a moment, their breathing shallow and eyes closed lightly, until Mother pulled away just a few inches.
“I’m so sorry…so, so sorry,” she cried. “I thought…I needed the food and you…so small.” She had begun to gasp between her words, and Lion suddenly felt the years of torment and pain rushing back to him.
“Don’t apologize. It’s okay now,” he said gently. It wasn’t exactly okay, but it was better. The pain that he had felt gnawing at him moments before was now vanishing, like pulling out a nasty thorn from a paw. Lion was healing.
Mother left Lion sitting in the quiet grass by the water while she went to talk to Father. That’s when Monkey came up behind him, startling Lion. “I saw what happened,” he said gently, “and I want you to know that if you are given the choice to go with your family, you should do so. This is how it was meant to be.”
Those words echoed in his head as he faced his father later on that evening. This is how it was meant to be. ‘I was meant to find my family,’ thought Lion. ‘God put me back here with them. I was meant to be here.’ But inside, Lion was doubtful. He had grown used to Monkey’s company—it was the only thing he knew, could trust. But, of course, he kept in the back of his mind the memory of the last thing he had relied on.
Lion walked straight forward, shoulders back, head tall, and collapsed a few inches in front of his father’s feet. “Son.” Father started the word powerfully, but by the end, his tone was more compassionate than forceful. His next words were genuine: “Welcome home.”
But he was holding back—not telling the whole truth, not telling the whole story. Something more was concealed in his mind. Lion could tell by the way his mane prickled, just like the way it had when he had fallen from the cliff; just like the way it had at the watering hole. He had nothing short of a horrible feeling about it.
Lion and Father talked for a long time about nothing in particular; the unusually wet season, their favorite dinner animals, and eventually Monkey.
That’s when Lion’s suspicions were confirmed. “We need you to prove yourself to us,” Father said cautiously, but nonetheless formally. “We must be sure that you are able to go to whatever lengths necessary to survive with us.” Lion listened, intent and scared. “This means incredible strength and sacrifice. Are you willing to do this?”
Lion stared at Father. What could this possibly mean? Was this how it was meant to be? His mind was racing at a million miles an hour, but all that came out of his mouth was a yes.
“How will I prove myself to you?” Lion looked polite and composed, but inside he was terribly confused and mortified. “Some sort of a physical test…or a series of questions?”
“It’s…yes, a sort of physical test. But an emotional test, too.”
The grass grew very still for a minute. Lion could hear his father’s heart beating in sync with his own. His breathing began to grow heavy, and his blood was pumping so loud in his ears that he had trouble understanding what Father was asking of him.
“Kill the monkey.”
Lion got the worst sleep of his life that night; in fact, he didn’t sleep at all. Instead he lay awake, running through the different scenarios in his mind. He had until midday to decide. He wanted more than anything to be back with his family. He hoped that maybe then the dull ache growing inside him would finally be gone. But Monkey was family, too. Lion didn’t know how he would bring himself to kill anyone…he could barely kill his dinner! But something stronger, something malicious, was telling him otherwise. You should do this. This is how it was meant to be.
“Monkey!” Lion called later through the morning drizzle. “I’m hungry. Can we hunt?”
“Why, of course. We’ll go to the watering hole and wait—”
“Actually,” Lion cut in, “I kind of want…I want to go to the more forested areas…I think I need more practice in new territories.” It almost sounded like a question.
“Sure, Li, I couldn’t agree more.” Lion’s head was spinning. He couldn’t believe what he was doing—he couldn’t believe it was working. They walked on.
In a matter of minutes Lion and Monkey had come to an area of dense trees full with leaves that sheltered against the light rain. Lion had tried to hide his jumping emotions, but Monkey had smelled something off in the air. He was always very perceptive; only this time it was working against Lion, not for him.
“It’s nothing,” Lion claimed when asked about it. “I just…it was weird to see them, you know? It was good, but…really different. I’m nervous.” The last part was the truth.
“How did that go, meeting with your father?” Monkey tried to keep the conversation light. “Has he asked you to live with them?”
“Yes,” Lion said, panicked. “Well, he wants to test me…to make sure I can pull my own weight.” He awaited more questions, but none were forthcoming. Finally, he said in a condescending tone, “Father said he wants me to kill something to demonstrate strength and sacrifice.”
Monkey was suddenly more alert. “Did he specify?” he said slowly. “A particular animal…a particular person?” An awful empty stare was coming from Monkey’s eyes. He could suddenly see what was playing out. He could see, but could not understand. Lion slowly saw his curiosity shift to fear, and the worst kind of feeling came over him. He ignored it. Instead, Lion studied the reflection of himself in Monkey’s eyes. Only he didn’t see the victim he had always been known as.
There was violence, and hatred, and anger. There was no guilt. No remorse.
Lion saw a predator.
“It’s okay,” he crooned. He almost laughed at how easy this would be—with his bum leg, there was no way Monkey could escape. Lion thought his father ought to have picked a more difficult target. “It won’t hurt. I promise it’ll be quick…painless.” Lion’s voice was low and dark, and he could feel thunder rumbling in his veins. The thunder grew, fast and strong, until it was too loud to be thunder—Lion had formed a menacing growl deep inside his chest. It pierced the air and rippled the fur on Monkey’s face. Lion was so, so close. They both breathed heavily. “You said, this was how it was meant to be,” Lion hissed. “This is how it was meant to be.”
And he lunged.
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