By John Burkitt
__________There was a young lioness cub named Darla who lived in the city zoo. She never thought there was anything unusual about that, for she thought all lions lived in cages. She could hear the others roar in the night and while she did not know all they said, she took comfort in their presence and would try to shout back in her small, thin voice.
__________Darla had only dim memories of her mother, a warm and tender lioness whose milk tasted good and whose love melted her to the core.
__________One day the cub awoke and nudged her mother. She did not wake. She was cold and still, and the humans came and placed her on the service truck to take her away. Darla waited a long time for her mother to come back, but she never did.
__________A kindly woman named Suzie that used to bring special food to Darla's mother came and fed her with a bottle. The cub enjoyed the woman's attention. Suzie called Darla by her name, fondling her and feeding her regularly. Still Suzie had other duties nad she only spent a short time each day playing with her. Most of the time, Darla had to content herself with playing with her beach ball and favorite tire swing.
__________Suzie had a little box on her side. Sometimes she would talk to it, and the box would talk back. The cub wondered how the box could talk back, and if it was alive and had a name.
__________One day Darla was bored waiting for the woman to pay attention to her. Suzie was spending far too much time talking to the box and not enough on her. So Darla climbed on the wooden frame of her tire swing. She loved to climb, and had walked the beam dozens of times. Perhaps she had become too complacent. Perhaps she was just unlucky.
__________She slipped. The fall was sudden and devistating.
__________All the air ran out of her lungs in a sudden, "Huh!" Darla lay on her back in hideous pain unable to move. The end of a rib poked out of her bloodstained fur, but what bothered her most of all was her desperation to breathe in one deep breath. Not a drop of air could be sucked into her lungs.
__________The woman saw her. She began shouting hysterically at her friend the box and it began squalking back at her agitatedly. Darla watched it for a few moments from her hurt and broken body, then she suddenly felt herself standing nearby. The pain released her, and she saw a small lion cub. She knew something odd had just happened. "That is me," she gasped.
__________Some more humans arrived. Darla watched them scoop up her body lovingly and put it on a board and load it into the truck. That was the same kind of truck that took away her mother.
__________"Am I dead?"
__________"Yes and no," a voice replied from behind her. Darla turned about quickly. There was a beautiful white lioness surrounded by light. "Come to me child. I will take you to see something special."
__________Darla asked, "What's going to happen to me? Who's going to take care of me?"
__________"You will be all right. Come with me. Don't be afraid."
__________Darla came and nuzzled the beautiful lioness. "Are you my mother?"
__________"No, sweetheart. I am Minshasa. I come and gather the broken and hungry to me. Then I take them to a place where their needs will be met."
__________A handsome white lion came and met the lioness, nuzzling her tenderly and murmuring, "Mmmmh mmmmh." Then he came and stood before Darla. She was overwhelmed by the size and majesty of him, for she had never seen a male lion before, and any lion would be impressed by Mano in his glory. But she could not be afraid. She looked into his deep hazel eyes and saw the wisdom and beauty that shone within.
__________"We are here to tell you about your heritage," Mano said.
__________"What's a heritage?"
__________"That's something that belongs to you. Something you are given as one of God's beautiful creatures. Something that cannot be taken away." Mano smiled. "Part of your legacy is to be a great teacher."
__________"But I don't know anything."
__________"Oh, you know more than you think. The humans that walk past your cage learn a great deal about beauty and wonder when they look at you. It will not be clear to you in this life, but you have a lot to give. Through you, many of these humans will experience a joy and kindness that leads them to understanding and someday even tolerance. In this world, we need all that we can get."
__________Minshasa took Darla gently by the scruff of the neck and without flinching walked through the bars of her cage. Darla looked about at the neatly trimmed lawns and the brick paved paths. But what struck her most strangely, there were two suns. One was small and yellow--she had seen it many times. The other was large and beautiful. Minshasa trotted a few steps, then bunched her powerful legs in anticipation.
__________Suddenly, Minshasa sprang. Darla saw the other sun grow in size and beauty, and in the a time which may have been seconds or days the light engulfed them. Darla then knew it was not a round thing but a doorway into a great light like the sunlight breaking through the storm clouds.
__________On the other side of the door was a vast plain. Herds of antelope roamed the never-ending sward which stirred like waves in a restless ocean. Exotic trees studded the plain. On the horizon was a huge purple mountain capped with a crown of snow.
__________Minshasa landed with a very soft tread and sat Darla down. "Welcome home, Mapani."
__________"You are. That's the name your mother gave you. It's a lion's name. When they call you Darla, remember that you are Mapani and be glad. That is something they cannot take away from you. It's part of your heritage."
__________Mano appeared beside them. "As you grow, you will learn many things." He nuzzled Minshasa and rubbed her full length, then looked back at Darla. "Someday when you are older, you will be loved by a lion. Someday you will have cubs of your own, and you will be a mother. It's a miracle that will bring you immeasurable joy. That too is part of your heritage."
__________"But I'm dead."
__________"No. You are just waiting somewhere between your old life and the new." Mano looked at her sadly. "There is pain ahead of you. You will feel sick and for many days it will be hard to eat or sleep or move about. You need to know there is something worth fighting for. You must fight to get well again. Stay with Suzie and love her the way she loves you. She's counting on you to fill an empty place inside these humans. Do that with joy that you are one of God's greatest wonders."
__________Minshasa added, "Always put on a good show for the children. One little boy named Timmy will grow up to be a great man someday. He will find how to cure the disease that killed your Mommy, and he will do it because he will love you and want to hold you."
__________"I'll let him," she said. "I like to be held."
__________"He will not be allowed. We can't all do what we want to do. That's why Suzie doesn't spend more time with you. But she loves you, you know. You're more important to her than you might imagine. She has no cubs of her own, and you're what keeps her going when she's ready to give up. Someday she will find a man, but right now you're her whole family."
__________"I didn't know I was that important," Darla said.
__________"Everyone is that important. The difference is, you know it."
__________Darla looked about and sighed. "I don't want to go back, though. I want to stay here with you. I'll miss Suzie, but I'm afraid! I don't want to hurt like that again. I couldn't breathe! Please don't send me back!"
__________"If that's what you really think is best." Minshasa looked intently into the cub's eyes. "If you're sure it's the right thing to do."
__________Darla looked down. "If I do go back, will I ever come back here? Will I ever see you again?"
__________"That's the best part of your heritage," Minshasa said, kissing her. "We love you. We will take you home again when you are ready. The memory of this place and what passed between us will not fade." Minshasa looked her intently in the eyes. "I can hear what you are thinking. I promise you that I won't grow cold and not move. The truck will never take me away from you."
__________"I'll do it."
__________Mano looked about and smiled. "I knew you would. You're my special little girl."
__________Mapani, for such she was proud to be called, ran and plunged her face into Mano's soft white mane and nuzzled him. Then she meekly let Minshasa take her by the scruff of the neck and launch her into the aperture.
__________It was an ugly little room. Humans dressed in green paper and white masks covering whatever smiles or sorrows their faces might have mirrored shuffled about the table where a tiny bloodied cub lay on her side. A small white cone and a long snakelike hose covered much of the face, but Mapani knew it was her body.
__________One of the humans took a pair of shiny pieces of metal and put them on her chest.
__________BZZZT! Her tiny body jerked.
__________"Still flatline. Try again. Now--stand clear."
__________The body jerked again. Suddenly Mapani felt herself being yanked. The dullness and darkness of her drug dazed body engulfed her spirit and then gasped in a breath.
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