After spending four year writing this novel, with pleasure, I am allowing the Fantastic Wildlife Community to read this novel set in the savannah of Zimbabwe. Tens of animals of Africa are given human voices as they struggle for survival, power and simple security. Tune in every day for a few thouand words more.
The green grass had become beige grass. Grass stems appeared in intermittent clumps on sun baked sand like broken straw. On the edge, lay a swamp, though, not a dull, lifeless swamp as you may believe the definition of a swamp to be, but a bright, silver-blue layer of water that ran for about a quarter of a mile, where it became lost in a belt of giant sedge reeds. Different hues of green sedge, rich and resplendent offered no clues of the heat that scorched and sizzled the savannah unmercifully during the beginning of the autumn. Aside the swamp Monarch butterflies, swirled apricot and azure around flowers, of a kigeli-keia tree, or sausage tree. A pair of brown-headed parrots adorned with bright emerald belly feathers chirped merrily and chattered like best friends on a branch. Several brown seed pods, hung beneath them like long, rocking sausages, their cargos bulging, heavy and ripe. At the base of the tree, Jasiri the young lion yawned, stood on tip toes, arched his back and sucked in his stomach curving his whole body in to an ‘n’ shape.
“Be careful, whelp. These seeds pods are heavy. If one falls and hits you, it’ll crack your head in two – crack your head in two, young whelp,” cried the nearest parrot, his wing tip pointing at a quivering sausage.
The young lion glanced upward and his mouth gaped; at that moment, a long pod careened downward, crashing into the ground a sliver of an inch from his hind paw. With fearful eyes, he scampered onto nearby open ground, where the camouflaged, shape of his mother lay on her side. She raised a round ear from the level sand and shook her head at him for ambling to places where he knew were best avoided.
Monde, a twenty-mile square of the map, intersected by a central tributary of the great river Zambezi had become their home. For men, this territory would today be found at a place of a pleasant fishing stretch of the Zambezi River located in the country of Zimbabwe. During this period of time the name Monde would have been lost on man, in the same way the word Zimbabwe would have been lost on the animals living there. And men played no part in their lives at this time, in this place, for once.
Jasiri, was nine months old. His frame was sturdy and two thirds the size of his mother’s slender figure. His ears barely reached her shoulders. Boldness ran in his blood, sometimes too much boldness. Sideways, upward downward, Jasiri’s head would jerk while he poked his black muzzle under thickets and into burrow entrances, occupied or unoccupied of anteaters or warthogs; spaces, private places he had no right to enter. Fur, gleaming and tawny had replaced black spots that lion cubs are born with. His copper, alert eyes, glinted with a determination to gain knowledge about his world.
Two older male lions, three Aunts and Lubaya his mother completed the rest of the pride. Other cubs had lived with them when he had been younger, though he scarcely remembered them. Lubaya had a strong, protective mother’s air about her; she was four years old, with alert eyes rimmed with patches of cream fur, though her patches were wider than other Monde lionesses, running nearly to the base of her ears, endowing her tear-drop face with a unique beauty, her cousins said. Her form, feline and golden in sun slants, like her eyes and her spirit, shone bold and with vigour. Lubaya: elegant mother, beautiful and bold lioness.
For a pride they were few in number, too few. The young lion lived unaware the pride’s existence teetered between a status quo, safe, satisfied, peaceful and death by invader male lions or hyenas. He lived blissfully unaware their year without serious challenge had been one-part good organization among the few aging elders and two parts good fortune marauders found meat and mating grounds elsewhere.
For ten generations the whole of the savannah lived without a king. Nobody wanted a king, a queen or any type of ruler. Feelings on the matter were taken for granted. Mothers still spoke to their young about the dark times in hushed tones at sun down. Lionesses to mother meerkats would tell their cubs and pups if they misbehaved the monster black manes would return and steal them away in the pursuit of ruling the kingdom by fear and force. When bottom lips would start to tremble, mothers would reassure young ones, a united resistance of good Zambezi allies, chased the monstrous lions away many generations before and the dark enemy was never to be seen again. Indeed, the power struggle between lions for the right to be king affected all on the plains, bringing unnecessary bloodletting and tempting those without power to constantly seek power. Most inhabitants hoped the hatred of unnecessary death and upheaval on Monde, would endure.
New generations of lions killed, only when they were hungry, chasing down the like of roe deer and buffalo once a week and living content in an unspoken pact of equanimity and more or less goodwill with all inhabitants. Creatures of all sizes knew their place in the order of Monde, and those sitting the top no longer abused their mightier power. Universally, animals adhered to life’s order – a way stamped into the consciousness of all good creatures.
By the time the sun was sniffing its nose at the cloudy horizon, Jasiri lay on his belly in a sullen mood. Feelings of guilt circled the edges of his mind like hyenas. A few evenings before, he had been taking hunting lessons with the senior males of the pride. The small group of lions had followed a herd of wildebeest quietly for an hour through copse after copse of palm and willow. Directions had been passed down for Jasiri to stay hidden, for several minutes, eyes alert for the attack nod and tail flick of an elder, though when Jasiri glimpsed a wildebeest, beside a plumb bush, fat, laconic and fed (at what he thought was striking distance) he ignored their instruction, growled, roared and charged.
As clumsily as a cub he fell at the animal. His paws flailed empty air. The hooves of the ‘beest showered him with dust and scampered effortlessly in to brush as if it had escaped a foolish lion a hundred times. When the same routine had played out once, twice, three more times, the elders chastised him, calling him, ‘a disobedient, arrogant cub.’ If his guilt could speak a frustrated, howl would have risen and resounded high among the canopies.
Jasiri’s, eyes slid to his mother who sat straight several paces beside him. Jasiri noticed an agitated air about her that morning. The black tip of her tail flicked against the ground. For the last two days she had paid scant attention. He sighed; chases and hunting games were a fond memory. The young lion swallowed and his eyes slid to the sand. Thoughts spinning, continued to prevent him from sleeping.
Disappointment had etched itself in to the features of his mother’s face when the elders told her of his poor listening skills he remembered. He heard one elder whisper to the other: “Don’t bring Jasiri on the hunt tonight, he’s a liability. The cub will scare off the antelope and zebras.”
He didn’t want to remember. Rolling onto his flank, Jasiri brushed his cheek against her cheek, though she remained still as stone, her eyes fixed unblinkingly on something in the distance. He sighed, rested his chin on his fore paws, and allowed his senses to melt in to a nap.
A nose in his ribs woke him. His eyes looked blearily up. It was his his mother’s face, “Was I dreaming–a nightmare?” she blurted, her eyes, wild and round. Her chest heaved. “I had a nightmare. It must have been a nightmare,” she blurted again. “Where are they – the others?”
Her head twisted behind herself; her eyes darted over broken lines of bermuda grass obscuring the outline of the distant palms. Jasiri’s eyes slid to her heart pounding against her ribs. This was not like her. She was incredibly agitated he thought.
“Was it a nightmare?” she asked sharply, her lashes blinking out remnants of sleep and searching about her as she began to gain full awareness.
“No, they didn’t come,” she said, her eyes becoming gimlet. She added, “They are still not here.”
“No, nobody is here apart from us, Mum.”
Jasiri’s gaze searched her eyes for answers. He didn’t have to wait long.
“Two days have passed; not one of our pride has returned from that moon’s hunt to the edge of the territory. The pride was expected home before dawn that same night,” she said turning her face to his and looking him squarely in his eyes.
“Why aren’t they back?”
Awareness they were exposed and in danger welled in her eyes. She scented the air high on her topmost tiptoes and low, an inch from level ground. “I shouldn’t have fallen asleep,” she muttered angrily and added, “I don’t know, son.”
“Perhaps they are still stalking?” offered Jasiri.
“Not for two days. They wouldn’t have the energy or the will. Besides lions, don’t hunt in the day, not in this heat.”
Two evenings before, she and Jasiri had remained behind among their comfortable thickets, safe in their own central territory. The elders had insisted they remained, saying ostensibly it was best if the ‘juvenile’ stayed at home, for terrible dangers were commonplace on the outskirts. She had agreed as two lions were safer than one even on their own patch. They could have gone without meat for a few days more, she had reasoned. The thickets had seemed to reach out and cling to them that night, harbouring them from danger. She had known her son had been not as half as responsible as he might have been. She had known he should have been ready to join them, ready to hunt. At least she had been content where they were for a night, far from hunting habitat – unpredictable and savage.
A ten-strong cackle of hyenas had been roaming the outer territory a few nights before – their eyes glowing like “many angry flames in the darkness”, her cousins had said. The pain of losing two young cubs on a hunting trip to those terrible dogs six months before had remained raw. They had only turned their backs for an instant when the cubs were snatched by loping shadows that had arrived clandestinely and left just as quietly and quickly in the night. “Skin those monstrous hyenas,” she breathed. “Skin those hyenas that kill so cruelly, never dispatching their quarry quickly and painlessly in the way of lions.” And now an inner voice ominously sounded in her ears: What now of their own safety? It would be unlikely the others would return as well.
Her eyes flashed at Jasiri. Hyenas would not venture into central pride land unless there were easy pickings. Her eyes became wider. We are now easy pickings. After two days, the brutish dogs would be encroaching and testing for resistance where there now was none. Cackles would attack like a hideous plague of locusts. Of black muzzles and ghoulish giggles. Ruthless and as terrible en masse as the most terrible imagination could imagine. Her gaze slipped warily at undulating bumps in the distance. Indigo cloud shadows wrestled one another inconspicuously over hillock and dune. Out of fear. Not sport.
Morning dragged, relentlessly.
A nine-month-old cub is the juvenile equivalent to about thirteen years in human years. A young male is expected to live with his Mother until he is two years.
Cream patches on faces of lions trap light into their eyes for keener vision.
There were no feline shapes or any other creatures in sight. Silence, reigned, painful and unwavering as if the dry earth and punishing sun were watching, waiting to take their hopeless, mortal quarry in to their deathly clutches.
But Lubaya was determined and possessed a mother’s strength and a mother’s struggle in her breast. “I must stay strong,” she breathed.
“Should we follow their trail to the outer limits of their territory – perhaps we could find them there?” asked Jasiri who had been sitting still, watching warily her pace back and forth.
“No, son, it would be too dangerous. We must wait and hope for their quick and safe return.”
She swallowed hard. Her throat was dry. Lapping, from the swamp, she froze with her last drink for a memory came to her in a jolt. A week before, she had overheard jackals at the watering hole whispering amongst themselves – speaking of a scent of new lions on the outskirts and footprints – “The largest” they had ever seen.” They were always gossiping. Her eyes widened; some of them spoke in almost silent tones of the slaying of the mighty cape buffalo, Tenzi – mightiest of all the savannah buffalo – his half-eaten carcass left for the vultures on the outskirts. It would have taken six large lions to down him. Six lions would have cleaned and polished the bones white. She frowned. It was not wise to listen to idle Jackal talk.
“Jasiri, come with me. I need to talk to you urgently.”
“What is it Mother?’
He followed her, twenty paces to a level soft patch among dry grasses where they could see about themselves for a few miles.
“Jasiri, it’s important you scan the swamp and reeds as thoroughly as you can looking for enemies or until we see them again. Or until I say.”
“If you see anything out of the ordinary bending the sedge or creeping through the bushes, you must tell me! It is of great importance,” she said. Her eyes glued to his eyes.
“Yes, Mother I’ll watch for enemies.”
“Yes, and you must improve your listening skills and not be so tempestuous. Enemies could be closing in at any time and from behind any bush. You must stay close to me.”
“I – I have sharp eyes,” said Jasiri looking at her eyes intently and nodded with determination.
His eyes remained large, his heart drummed and his claws dug firmly in to the ground. The agitated air about her worried him. The word ‘tempestuous’ leached to his mind and tightened his chest reminding him of his foolish actions.
“Thank you, son. We must be vigilant until the others return, and then I am sure you can practice stalking and wrestling wildebeests with them,” she said with her warm eyes searching his eyes. The eyes slid back to the horizon, narrow and wild betraying her inscrutable mask.
She jerked her head behind to him; “You scan that direction, and I will survey the land in this direction,” she breathed, jerking her muzzle toward the southern hills.
Jasiri understood the others should have returned two days before, and now he shared her worry – worry for his small pride and a creeping worry for their own safety. As a united pride, they were safer from cackles of hyenas, they were safer from coalitions of lions and they were safer from all terrible predators, his mother had said. He didn’t fully know the awful consequences if those predators chose to attack, though his mother’s fearful eyes were contagious when she spoke of those predators. He would obey her command that morning resolutely he told himself and like her he would watch for those predators – watch every twig twitch, every blade bend and listen to every tone, low or high on the plains. Good news would eventually come he thought.
They sat with their backs locked, watching and waiting and hardly speaking. At last, she said, “Jasiri, this will be an admirable lesson in scouting for you, and when the others return, you will be able to tell them how you have learned to watch the bushes, still with patience and stealth. The most silent and determined lion lives longest.”
The afternoon passed in much the same way. His mother surveyed silently the opposite stretch of ground that lay barren and bleached save for a band of acacias standing sentry over the silent hills, their branches trembling and wavering within a wall of rising heat.
At sunset, a salmon-coloured wash daubed the sky then faded into black, and a new half-pale moon feebly flushed the landscape. A rare chill came on the wind. Jasiri felt his eyelids become heavy. He stretched out his forepaws, laying his jaw upon them and tiredness, finally began to take its unavoidable tax. Lubaya jerked her head round to her slumbering son. Her eyes glinted with warmth for a second. She would allow him to regain his strength for a few hours. Her nose remained tipped down to him and she began to whisper:
If you find yourself stranded, dear son,
Run young lion with the wind, course past palm and through desert pass,
Use your wits, when danger cometh, hew the night’s air to reach tallest grass,
When the moon’s blue eyes pierce the darkness, you’ll run fast under mantle,
Find northern lustrous grounds when doom threatens ardour and fettle
Inexperienced juvenile grow with honour, boldness, safe with mettle.
Find the Great Tree of Fireflies on Dead Legs Hill
During his last awake seconds Jasiri heard every word. She straightened her gaze to the acacia trees on the horizon. The sight of the same twisted branches and trunks she had casually watched her pride twine between two days past now filled her with dread. She had hoped for two days she would see them reappear, through those blackened trees once more. Those trees’ shadows jostled, black and entwined as if they were whispering and laughing, cruelly, withholding the secret of her pride’s fate. Since then, two days had slowed as if they were two weeks. Since then a gut twisting hope began to dominate her every thought. That hope was now breathing its death rattle.
The young lion’s sleep was interrupted by a dig in the ribs. Eyes opened. Black greeted him. He scented his mother. Whack, it happened again. This time his hind paws rose with such force he was standing, shivering in the dark. Her silvery eyes shone down at him. A pang of pain surged up his spine. The eyes weren’t her regular eyes. They said desperation. She nosed him again. He grunted and half asleep, began to stumble downward. Down, down a narrow trail. What madness was this? His first thought. His mother was never mad. They must be in grave danger was his second.