A story by Gil 'the Great' Ruiz
Legal Stuff: This whole story and all of its characters are copyright of me, Gil Ruiz. The work was partly inspired by 'The Lion King,' copyright of the Walt Disney Company. This story may be distributed freely as long as this paragraph is included. Permission to use any of the characters from, or basing other stories on this work must be secured from the author (that's me).
Comments are welcome. My address is GilDGreat@aol.com
Thanks go to Jason Knight and Ryan McGinnis for their invaluable help and advice.
Beginneth the story:
_______Every jungle is different. At first glance, it seems they're all made from the same ingredients: tall trees, vines, monkeys, snakes, and miscellaneous creepy-crawlies that bite and sting. So, you say, maybe some jungles are swampier than others and some have tigers while others have jaguars; that's about it, right? They're all just big, green and rainy, aren't they?
_______Well, when the good Lord put the jungles together, He made each subtly but uniquely different. Each one has trees, animals, and even types of rain that are not found in any of the others. Each has plants and flowers that won't grow anyplace else, insects and reptiles that don't exist elsewhere, predators and prey that are unique to that singular patch of green earth.
_______The particular jungle I was in at the moment was of the highland rain forest variety. Not flat and swampy like the coastal jungles found in Asia. Not rainy and noisy like those in Ecuador. Or dry in the summer and flooded in the winter like those in Whormidan, a planet with over 1,500 varieties of jungles. No, I haven't been to all of them; after all, I'm a freelance mercenary, not a botanist.
_______'Mercenary' might not be the right word; it brings up images of barbarians hiring themselves to corrupt warlords, destroying villages and burning cities. I'm more of a talent for hire, a fix-it man, the type of person that good people call when things get really bad and they have nowhere else to turn. In the Middle Ages there were knights who rode around saving maidens in distress and slaying dragons; they were called knights errant. I suppose you could call me that, except that I charge big fees for my services.
_______My name? Cruz, at your service. What am I doing in this jungle? I'm on vacation.
_______Why aren't I spending my vacation in some plush cabin in an expensive beach resort with a swimsuit supermodel in one hand and an icy drink in the other? Why am I not in some luxurious space liner, gazing out the windows in awe at some spectacular nebula, rubbing elbows with the rich and famous? Why am I not anywhere else in the universe other than in the middle of a rainy, hilly, muddy jungle full of dangerous beasts? Because it's fun, that's why.
_______And I'm stalking a large animal at the moment.
_______I don't hunt for amusement, mind you. I don't go out to some animal park and blast big game into oblivion just so I can have my picture taken with the carcass and mount the head up on my wall. Real hunting means leaving the human world behind - the comfort of private hunting lodges, air conditioning and electrical appliances - and going solo into the animal's own turf, into its world and playing by its rules.
_______It's not that I don't like all-terrain vehicles or air transportation or bathrooms with running water; it's just more even this way. Oh, don't worry, I'm not crawling in the jungle armed with nothing but a knife and my wits. And, no, I'm not going to wrestle wild animals barehanded or play some kind of man-against-nature game. Humans aren't born with claws or fangs, that's why I'm armed with the most advanced personal weaponry of seven worlds. After all, I'm sporting, not stupid.
_______When you're hunting, the adrenaline coursing through your body causes your senses to surge in sensitivity. Your vision becomes sharper, your hearing more acute, and even your skin registers the slightest change in wind or humidity. Your heart pounds so loud you think every animal for kilometers around can hear it. You can almost sense the body heat of your prey walking ahead of you.
_______I could hear the sound of nearly a dozen different varieties of birds, squawking, chirping, and singing in the cool afternoon. The dim sunlight that managed to filter from the four separate leaf canopies overhead created a diffuse green pattern on the soft, muddy earth. Exotic wildflowers, ferns and trees all mixed their scents along with the smells of the rainforest animals. The one I was after was 30 meters ahead of me. I could hear the sound of leaves brushing past its body.
_______I advanced ever so carefully, taking each step with excruciating care, making sure that each movement I made was absolutely silent. I tried to become an invisible, undetectable ghost, silent and deadly. Each footfall carefully controlled, I gingerly stepped on a rock here, treading on a root there, avoiding anything that might make noise and give me away.
_______Suddenly a shrill snarl came from my right. I instantly spun around and crouched into a defensive shooting stance, my ears straining to pinpoint the threat. I quickly scanned the bushes and trees for whatever predator was attacking me. For a single second, everything was dead silent, and my mind raced with images of large animals with long fangs and razor claws hurling themselves at me with bloodcurdling roars. The snarl came again, and I found that the animal was hiding among the gnarled roots of an old tree.
_______It was a small lion cub.
_______I could see that the little lion was terrified, almost incapacitated with fear. Its big green eyes were dilated far beyond normal, and its small golden body trembled uncontrollably. The part of my brain whose function it is to make me feel sorry for frightened little baby animals kicked in, overriding with warm fuzzy feelings the other part of me whose job it is to hunt and kill. I could almost hear myself think "Aww, isn't that cute."
_______"Hush," I said in a soothing, quiet voice, "calm down, little fella, I'm not going to hurt you." I holstered the gun and crouched down, holding my hands out to show it I was harmless.
_______"It's okay," I continued, "don't be afraid." Still, the little cub eyed me with fear.
_______"Don't be scared, I'm not going to hurt you," I said, trying to sound reassuring and calm. "You just startled me, that's all; it's okay" I kept it up for a few minutes, and the little cub slowly calmed down. Its breathing became less frantic, its heart ceased pounding, and it almost quit shivering altogether. But it still eyed me suspiciously.
_______Another approach was needed. "Are you hungry? Would you like some food?" This seemed to have some effect, as the big eyes widened once again, but this time in hunger. I could see little ribs through its dirty unkempt fur; the cub hadn't eaten for days, weeks maybe.
_______I tried to remember which of the dozens of pouches of my load-bearing harness contained something to eat that a small lion cub might like. Reaching back, I got a small bit of bacon out. I held it out to the cub, offering it in the tip of my outstretched fingers. The poor thing seemed to almost go mad in a mixture of raw fear and unbridled hunger. It was deathly afraid of me, an unknown being with unfamiliar smells and sounds, yet it was hungry to the point of starvation.
_______It looked at me, then at the bacon, trying to decide what to do next. I could almost tell what it was thinking. Was I playing a trick? Was it a trap? But, oh, the thing I held out smelled so good and it was so hungry. Two or three cautious steps were followed by a quick jump back, as its hunger and its fear wrestled each other. Two more steps were followed by careful sniffing as its tail twitched nervously back and forth.
_______Finally, its hunger won. With a quick skip, it nipped the bacon from my fingers and dashed back into the safety of the tree roots. Inside, I was laughing with delight. I sat down and got another piece out. The same little performance was played out once again, but this time the cub didn't seem to be quite as frightened as before.
_______After a while, the cub seemed to understand that I was not hostile, and it began eating all my food in earnest. Running out of bacon, I offered some dry fish I had; it was eaten with amazing rapidity. After the fish was gone, the cub proceeded to eat absolutely everything digestible that I had with me. The only thing it didn't eat was a concentrated protein bar I offered. Not that I can blame it, no one ever said emergency rations had to be good.
_______When its fat little belly was at last round with food, the small lion looked me over carefully before it finally sat down in front of me with a contented sigh. Its large green eyes studied me from top to bottom and from stern to port.
_______Then the lion said "My name's Naline, what's yours?"
_______How in the world, I know you're asking, can you, a human being, possibly know what a lion said? You probably think ol' Cruz has been out by himself in the jungle for too long. I assure you I'm not crazy and that I am as sane as anyone else. It's just that when you've been to as many worlds as I have, and you've met as many people, species, and miscellaneous beings as I have, you can't help but pick up a foreign language or two.
_______"I'm Cruz," I answered, "nice to meet you, Naline. That's a pretty name."
_______She smiled at my small compliment. "Thanks, I was named after my Mom."
_______Now, you know as well as I do that lion cubs do not belong in the jungle. Despite the cliched "king of the jungle" moniker, lions actually live in hot, grassy plains known as savannas. And there wasn't a savanna for kilometers around.
_______"So," I inquired, "what's a pretty young lioness doing wandering way out here. You don't live around here, do you?"
_______"No...," her demeanor fell a little and her gaze fell to the ground, "I'm lost."
_______"How did that happen, kid?" I tried a lighthearted tone because she was beginning to inhale haltingly in the way little children do when they don't know what to do but cry.
_______"I..." she tried to hold the tears back as she spoke. "I, that is, we were playing by the river and ... and there was this really loud noise and we all ran and I fell in the river and..." At the mention of the river, she broke into tears and told the rest of the story between sobs and cries. Did it pull my heartstrings? You betcha.
_______The story, as far as I could make it out, was this. Naline and her friends had been playing by the river when something had startled them. They all panicked and ran, but Kitten here had fallen into the river. Lions don't normally take to water, but at this point, a gigantic (or so she said) crocodile went after her, and she swam madly down river. After a while, the current became too strong and it swept her along for quite a long while. She was finally able to struggle out of the river, exhausted and alone. Since then, she had been wandering for countless days, getting more and more lost as she went. When I found her, she was starved, and in the verge of collapse.
_______I know what you're thinking; Cruz is really a big ol' softy and he's gonna help the cute little lioness find her way home. Well, wouldn't you?
_______"Hey, Kitten, don't worry," I picked her up and held her in my arms, "I'll help you find your way back."
_______"You will?" Her little eyes lit up with a mixture of surprise and hope. She obviously had given up on ever getting back. "Promise?"
_______"Promise. I'll get you back home. No problem."
_______Yeah, easier said than done. First we had to get out of the jungle without being eaten by any of the many animals that would do it if they had the chance. Then we had to find a savanna; that would be the easy part because I had a detailed map of this world stored in my wrist computer. However, we'd have to find the particular pride of lions she belonged to, and there probably were dozens of those around. All I knew was that her home was located in a savanna with a river going through it. Sure, piece of cake.
_______"Come on, Kitten, might as well get going." I started to get up, but stopped immediately when I realized that Naline had just fallen asleep on my lap. She was exhausted. What to do? Up and at 'em? What do you think?
_______Well, at least this would give me time to figure out how in blue blazes I was going to keep my promise and get Naline back to her pride. I couldn't just drop her off with the first group of lions I found because lions tend to shun cubs from other prides. I gingerly lifted my left arm and turned on the small computer strapped to my forearm. Not that I had to stay too still; the little lioness was so far gone that I'd have to set off a couple of grenades to wake her up.
_______Maps came into view. Hmmm, not much in the way of savannas anywhere near. There was a large expanse of rocky wastelands towards the west. Aha, a river two kilometers north of the jungle's edge. Probably make it in two days; longer if it rained. Flowed from the northeast. And there, with the river winding through, were vast areas of savanna. Big enough to make a decent-sized country, almost. This was going to take longer than I thought. Didn't matter, though, I'm on vacation, remember?
_______It gets dark on the jungle floor approximately an hour before the sun actually sets. This is because there are several layers of trees overhead, each of which tries to absorb as much of the sunlight as possible before it gets to the ground. Even at full noon, with the sun blazing overhead, the jungle floor remains dim, shrouded in a diffuse green glow.
_______The light from above was beginning to die down; pretty soon it would be pitch dark. I suppose there are worse ways to spend the night than sitting on the mud with a lion cub on your lap. I tried to think of a few to cheer myself up. I suppose I could have been sitting on the mud with a grown-up lion on my lap. Yeah, that would be worse. Oh, great, now I started to think of all the leopards and snakes and gorillas and heaven-knows-what-other-creatures that might be prowling around this jungle. Now I'd never go to sleep.
_______Crickets started to chirp. Then I remembered how badly crickets got on my nerves. Some people like crickets; they find their chirping relaxing and soothing. Not me. Their constant "shree-shree-shree" goes on for hours and hours and, after a while, it begins to drive me nuts! Sometimes I feel like going to wherever it is that crickets sleep in the daytime and hollering for a while to keep them awake. Just to get back at them. Serve 'em right.
_______Then I realized I was hungry. I hadn't had a chance to finish my hunt and Naline had eaten all my food. Well, not all of it; I still had that protein bar. No, I wasn't that desperate yet. I'd just have to go to sleep hungry. Sleep? Hah! Who could sleep with all those monkeys jumping around the trees making racket and the owls skreeing and the night birds hawking and squawking and those infernal crickets chirping?
_______Then I fell asleep.
_______"Quick, wake up!"
_______Those were the first words I heard. My numb brain groggily tried to figure out what was going on. It was disoriented and confused, so it decided the thing to do was to alarm me senseless. I jerked awake with a start, glancing back and forth with wide, unfocused eyes at the greenery around me. I fumbled for my gun, crawling around on all fours, all the while nearing the verge of panic, desperately trying to remember what I was doing sitting on the mud in the middle of a jungle.
_______Then I remembered. Oh, yeah, vacation, Naline, crickets. She was standing in front of me, bright and fresh as a turnip. Were turnips bright and fresh? I couldn't remember. From the look she was giving me, you would have thought a dozen orange monkeys were jumping on my head.
_______"What are you doing ?" she asked with childish amazement.
_______"What? Oh, ah, nothing. I'm, ah, always... I always wake up in utter terror. It's normal."
_______I stretched my arms, rubbed my eyes and took account of my tired body. My back hurt terribly, my heart was still pounding from the jolt, and I was famished. Yeah, normal.
_______"So what's with the racket, kid? Why all the shouting?" I yawned and slowly got up despite the protests from my leg muscles.
_______"You promised. You promised to take me back home," she reminded me excitedly, "we have to get going. Are we going to get there soon? Are we?"
_______"Yeah, real soon, Kitten; we'll be there before you know it." A memory of myself as a kid on a road trip, asking my father if we'd be There yet came to mind. Was it true what they said about people turning into their parents when they grew up? Who knew?
_______It was midmorning, judging by the dim glow of the sun. The night animals had gone and the day animals were bustling in the trees above and on the ground below. I'm not much of a morning animal myself, but, since I was up anyway, I might as well make the best of it.
_______"We need to hunt something to eat before we get going, though."
_______A disappointed look was aimed straight at my vulnerable heartstrings. "No, please, can't we go now? You can hunt on the way. I'll help you hunt, my mom has been teaching us how," she pleaded.
_______"I..." That was as far as I got. One of these days I'm going to have to do something about this whole soft-hearted business. I was putty in her paws. "Great, isn't this just peachy-keen," I thought, "I've gone head-to-head with some of the meanest nasties in the universe, and here I am, powerless to resist the sad-kitty look of one little lion cub."
_______I sighed in surrender. "Okay, let's go."
_______With a squeal of delight, the energetic little lioness bounded off.
_______"Kitten!" She stopped and looked back at me quizzically, her tail twitching with anticipation. "It's this way."
_______We took off together towards the north. She chatted excitedly about how well she could hunt now, her mother had said so. She'd even caught a field mouse all by herself. I tried to figure out how I was going to catch anything on the way with a little lion yammering the whole time. I started unwrapping the protein bar...
_______"Say, um," Naline stopped in midsentence and pondered for a second, "what did you say your name was?"
_______"My name was Cruz." We had been hiking in the jungle for a couple of hours, and her stream of chatter had been uninterrupted until now.
_______"Say, Cruz, ... what are you?" Don't you love the frank innocence of children?
_______What am I? Where was a philosopher when you needed one? I think therefore I am, and all that stuff; but what exactly is it that I am? I mentally reviewed the possible answers I could give her. I'm a mercenary, kid; I get paid to fight bad guys. I'm the guy that's going to vacation in luxury liners from now on, Kitten.
_______"What do you mean, Kitten?"
_______"Well, I've never seen anyone like you before." She struggled to find the right words, "You look a little like a monkey, but you're bigger and you don't have fur all over."
_______Great, I'm a monkey with a receding hairline. I don't get no respect. "I think I understand what you mean, Kitten. I'm a human being."
_______"Cool! What's a human being?"
_______"Well, on the average, human beings are, well...," how in the world do you explain the whole of humanity to a lion cub? "Okay, it's like this. The reason you've never seen any humans is that we don't live anywhere near the savanna where you lions live. Matter of fact, I don't think there are any humans in this particular world." Oops, that was over her head.
_______"Then how ..."
_______"Nevermind, let me try again," I interrupted. I was having a hard enough time explaining humanity without having to get into the complexities of dimensional mechanics.
_______"Human beings live very far away, that's why you've never seen one." Her eyes were wide with wonder, taking everything in as if it were gospel truth.
_______"We, that is, humans are about this tall," I put my hand on my head to show her, "and we come in two versions, regular and lite. I'm the regular variety, and back home I have a lite who's mad at me because I didn't let her come with me on vacation."
_______"Wow, that's neat!"
_______"And there's millions and millions of us, and we spend most of our time trying to get things."
_______"What kinds of things?"
_______"Oh, you know, needless things like fame, fortune, and designer clothes."
_______"What's designer clothes?"
_______"It's a thing that we use to show everyone else how trivially-minded we are."
_______"Anyway, most of us are selfish and envious of each other and we spend a great deal of time and energy killing one another. I think that's what we're best at, us human beings, hoarding stuff and killing. It's a wonder we've survived this long."
_______This explanation seemed to be plenty good enough for her. The mention of killing launched her on a narrative of the time she'd almost caught a gopher. Aren't kids wonderful? Here I was, telling her that she was walking in the company of a member of the most destructive species alive. Did it occur to her that I might turn on her or attack her? Not at all, Naline's innocent trust in me was totally unshaken.
_______We had been walking for a day or so, and were making good time. I figured we'd be out of the jungle by tomorrow morning. Now, you can't walk with someone over hills and valleys, morning, noon, and night without forming some kind of opinion about them. Naline seemed like a good enough kid; she was bright, energetic, and quite charming. She had an unusually intelligent and level-headed grasp of things for someone so young. I wondered if this was common to all lions.
_______I thought she was quite pretty; she had large green eyes, shiny golden fur and a cute little tail that flickered with endless excitement. She was a little larger than a house cat, but she had the big paws common to all animals that grow up to be big and strong. She was probably going to be a powerful predator when full grown, but at the moment, she was only a little happy furball, unable to fend for herself.
_______I absentmindedly wondered what she thought of me.
_______Then I realized that I hadn't been listening to what she was saying. How was it possible that such a little lioness could talk so much? Every conceivable topic ranging from her father to the color of the savanna grass had been explained to me with the utmost seriousness, as if our very lives depended on it.
_______There was a stream up ahead. I couldn't see it, but I could tell because the foliage changed as we moved forward. Darker-green plants which grew closer to running water became more abundant, and there was a break in the treetop canopy, allowing more sunlight in. It took us only a little while to get there. It was beautiful.
_______The trees overhead parted over the stream, allowing us a grand view of the clear azure sky. Sunlight cascaded down and played dazzling, glittering games with the bubbling water. The cheerful song of a variety of birds we hadn't heard before trilled all around us, completing the gorgeous picture of paradise that presented itself before us. I wanted to stay there forever.
_______"Ooh, it's beautiful," Naline gingerly skipped onto a large rock that stood out over a calm pool in the middle of the stream. Lions don't like water, but that doesn't mean they can't appreciate beauty when they see it. "Isn't it?"
_______"Yeah, Kitten," I followed her lead and joined her on the rock, "it sure is." Hah, you couldn't get a view like this on any luxury ship; I was glad I had come to the jungle instead.
_______I could see for quite a ways up and downstream. The tall trees that grew to either side of the stream framed the flowing water in vines, layers of green, and exotic wildflowers. Naline was looking at something down in the water. Rounded river rocks lined the bottom and there were dozens of large fish swimming in the clear water. Fish! We could catch a few and eat them!
_______I didn't have time to react as a blur of orange hit me from the left like a stadium full of football linebackers. A swirl of noises filled my ears: Naline's terrified cry, a fierce throaty growl somewhere near my face, and the sound of my body hitting the pool of water with great force.
_______Big cats don't kill by tearing their prey apart; they bite the necks of their quarry, puncturing their windpipes and the large arteries that keep the brain alive. As I sank into the water, I instinctively snapped my right arm up to protect my neck. Powerful jaws clamped my forearm with great strength, sending waves of pain throughout my right side. I could feel large claws pinning me to the bottom of the pool, I couldn't breathe, and the leopard was too heavy to throw off. This was going to get really bad if I didn't do something very soon.
_______I wasn't worried about the tearing claws; the suit I was wearing was completely puncture proof. Actually, there were very few things even in a military arsenal that could pierce it. Unfortunately, I wasn't wearing a combat helmet, which meant that I was either going to drown or get it in the neck. I couldn't hold the fangs off forever.
_______What to do? Options raced through my mind. I could grab its throat with my free left hand and crush its windpipe. Or I could gouge its eyes. "You fool," my brain screamed at me, "what's all your expensive weaponry for!?" It was right; what would I do without my blessed brain to tell me what to do?
_______The leopard was fighting to get at my neck, churning the water violently as it jerked my arm back and forth. My thoughts went something like this: "left hand ... knife ... stab!" The blade was a full foot long, and its sharp double edge pierced the leopard's neck, emerging on the other side. "Again ... get the lungs ... go for the heart!" Blood darkened the water as we struggled, but now it was the big cat who was fighting for its life. It leaped off me in a great spray of water and blood.
_______I practically flew out of the water, inhaling the deepest breath I've ever taken in my life. Pure air filled my burning lungs as Naline's shrill cries rang in my ears. The valiant little lioness had leaped upon the leopard. She looked for all the world like a bronco rider, being tossed around on a bucking wild beast, doing her best to hold on with tooth and claw.
_______My sequence of movements was perfect and fluid, polished by years of weapons training: ... release holster ... draw ... sight, acquire, fire! A double shot blasted the leopard square on the head and neck. The force of the impact spun it completely around, sending large quantities of water and a little lion cub flying into the air.
_______"Kitten! You allright!?" I called out breathlessly as I scrambled to get to where she had fallen into the stream. Naline burst from the water, desperately trying to paddle, her eyes wide with fear.
_______I fished the terrified lioness out of the water. "Hey, it's allright," I soothed her as I carried her out of the stream. "It's okay, he's dead. He can't hurt us anymore." A surge of pain flowed from my forearm as I set her down on the shore. It wasn't broken, but it was going to be black and blue for a few days. I collapsed on my hands and knees next to her; drenched, spent, and gasping for air. "S'okay," I managed to say, "we're okay now."
_______A silent few minutes passed as we recovered from the mental and physical shock. When at last I sat up, she was sitting next to me, grooming her fur clean, her eyes closed in concentration. "That was incredibly brave of you, Kitten. What you did took a lot of guts, thanks."
_______She looked up at me and quietly said "I was scared." How could I not fall completely in love with this adorable cub? I picked her up and gave her a great big hug. She was priceless.
_______"Yeah, but you did great, kid. You did great."
_______"You know what?" I whispered mischievously in her ear.
_______"What?" Sensing my lifting spirits, she immediately perked her ears up and a wide smile lit her face.
_______"I don't think I've ever eaten leopard before. You wanna try it?"
_______"Yeeeah!" She was instantly taken with the idea and she playfully skipped around my feet as I got up.
_______I know what you're wondering. You want to know what leopard tastes like, right? And you know what the answer is before I even say it, don't you?
_______It tastes like chicken.
_______I was in the process of starting the fire to cook dinner, which tonight would consist of leopard steaks. Naline had eaten hers raw, but I still preferred mine medium to well done. Just a sprinkling of thermite and, voilO, instant fire. Night had fallen, and we had camped by the stream.
_______"Wow! What's that?!" Naline had never seen fire before. Spellbound, she gazed at the dancing orange flames. They seemed to almost skip and play in front of her eyes, radiating a warm, friendly glow.
_______"Careful, Kitten, that's fire. Don't get too..."
_______"Ooooow!" With a surprised yelp, Naline leaped back. "It bit meeee! It bit my nose!" She was running in circles, licking her tiny muzzle, giving the fire a glare that could bring down a baboab tree.
_______"Kitten! You okay? Come here, lemme see." She gingerly came to me, walking in a big circle to avoid the fire. "Now let me see that," I took her in my arms and examined the whimpering cub's nose. "It's not that bad. I've got just what you need."
_______First aid kit time. I got some burn ointment and dabbed it on her sore little muzzle. "Here, this will fix you right up, just don't lick it off. No, I said don't lick it; tastes bad, doesn't it?" She gave me a sour glare. "Now leave it there overnight and it will be better in the morning."
_______"It doesn't hurt anymore." The ointment's anesthetics were taking effect, and she was staring cross-eyed at her nose. It was very cute.
_______"It's good for what ails ya." I set her back on the ground, and she stepped a respectful distance away from the fire.
_______It was quite a while before she said anything else, and I realized how used I was to the sound of her voice. The jungle sounds seemed louder and bigger without her talking, and I wondered when she would perk up and start her stream of chatter again. She stared at me silently as I shish-ke- bobbed some leopard chunks and set them over the fire to cook. It driving me nuts, being stared at by a silent lion cub. I had to break the silence.
_______"Whatcha thinking, Kitten?"
_______"Why are boys so mean?"
_______Huh? Excuse me? Of all of the things she could have possibly said, this was among the ones I expected least. I was caught completely by surprise. Where had this come from?
_______"Come again?" It was all I could think of saying.
_______"When you put that stuff on my nose," she explained, "and you were so nice and concerned, it reminded me of ...," she paused here and thought momentarily. Like all little girls, she didn't want to reveal the name of the boy. You know, The Boy; the one that filled her dreams and hopes. "It reminded me of this boy I know in the pride."
_______"Yeah?" Uh-oh, it was going to be one of those talks. "Is he nice?"
_______"Sometimes. It's just that I..., I mean, it's just that sometimes he's really nice to me and stuff, but other times he's really mean and he pulls my tail and makes fun of me."
_______"He does?" I tried to put just the right amount of concern and curiosity in my voice.
_______"He's mean mostly when the other cubs are around. Then he acts like he doesn't even know me and he pokes me and throws grass at me."
_______"And when no one's around?"
_______"Then he's really nice and kind and we talk about things and we get along really well." Naline stared at the fire with her head tilted slightly; she couldn't figure it out.
_______I could tell she was about to reveal the Big Secret, the one that makes little girl's hearts go pitter-patter. "One time," Naline's voice almost became a whisper, "one time he said I was pretty."
_______This was one of those milestone moments that define a girl's life, and the next thing I said would have a great impact on her. I didn't know if I was up to this. I silently prayed that I wouldn't say something incredibly insensitive that would scar her for life. Okay, deep breath, talk calmly, try to sound sincere.
_______"And he is right." Her big eyes met mine. "You are a very nice, very intelligent, very pretty young lioness." I hoped I was saying the right thing. "You're also brave, strong, and very perceptive." Did she know what 'perceptive' meant? I hoped so. "And every boy would be lucky to have you as their friend."
_______She didn't say anything, but I could see the pride and joy shining in her eyes. "The reason that he's mean to you sometimes is that when guys are young, they're not very smart." I couldn't believe that I was actually man-bashing; where was my male allegiance? "And when young guys get to liking somebody, they just don't know what to do about it or how to show it. So you know how they show it?"
_______"How?" Naline had a huge smile stretching from ear to ear. She was positively bursting with curiosity and happiness, as if the very secrets of the universe were being revealed to her.
_______"When young guys like somebody, they poke them and pull their tails and do all kinds of other crazy stuff. It's not 'cause they're mean, they just don't know how to show that they like you."
_______"Sure, Kitten. But just you wait until this guy gets a little older. He'll the nicest, kindest person you ever met, and he'll be endlessly sorry he was ever mean to you."
_______"I'm positively certain. How could he not simply fall in love with a charming, cute little kitten like yourself?"
_______I could tell that, underneath that golden fur of hers, Naline was blushing and turning all kinds of shades of red. I didn't want her to feel embarrassed, so I judged it was time for a tactful change of subject.
_______"Ever have leopard shish-ke-bob, Kitten?" I pulled a chunk off the fire and gave it to her. "Whaddaya think?"
_______"That's it, Kitten," I pointed to the small blue ribbon of water in the distance, "that's the river that runs through the savanna." We had made it out of the jungle without further incident, and Naline and I had been walking in the vast ocean of tall savanna grass for a while.
_______"Where? I can't see it." She was too short to see that far away.
_______"Come here," I leaned forward, "jump up on my shoulder. That's it. Careful." I straightened up and pointed towards the river again. "Do you see it now?"
_______"Yeah! There it is! We're almost there!" She almost fell off my shoulder; she was positively trembling with excitement.
_______We marched toward the river, and Naline bounded with anticipation. She imagined herself almost home, and she ran impatiently ahead of me, racing up and down the tall grass.
_______I never knew that savanna grass came in so many varieties. There's grass that comes up all the way to your waist, some that only reaches your ankles, and lots of sizes in between. Some grasses are thin and silky, while others are tough and have razor edges that cut your feet while you walk. Well, they would have cut me if I had been barefoot, which I was not. I couldn't figure out how Naline didn't get shredded on that grass.
_______It was midafternoon and stifling hot. You really don't get any idea of how hot the savanna actually is by the films and pictures you see of it. How hot is it, you ask? It's very, very hot. Too hot for my liking, anyway. I wished a blessing on whoever it was that had invented the personal cooling unit on my suit; without it, I would have been sweating buckets. It was going full blast, and I was cool as December. Naline, of course, had lived in this weather her whole life, so she was happy as could be.
_______"Yeah! The river! We're here!" If Naline had been any more excited, she'd have exploded like a little balloon.
_______"Hold it, Kitten!" She stopped suddenly, surprised at the firm tone of voice I had used. "Didn't your mother ever teach you about rivers and water holes?"
_______She tilted her head and furrowed her brow, like a first grader trying to remember what number came after 3. "Mom said," she used the same singsong voice that little kids use when they're reciting their first memorized poem, "that places where animals get together to drink make good hunting grounds."
_______"And...," I prompted her, leading her to a logical conclusion, "what could happen if we just bust in like a herd of rhinos on parade?"
_______She looked down at the grass, as if she'd just failed an exam. "Some other animal could surprise us and eat us."
_______"Right, so, what should we do?"
_______"We should..." she didn't know the answer to this one. She thought and thought, and she tilted her little head and furrowed her brow and looked all around, but she couldn't figure it out. It was awful cute to watch, though.
_______"We should check it out before we go in, right?" And putting words to action, I led my reluctant student onward towards the river. We stopped about thirty meters from the water and looked around very carefully. There was a strip of green reeds lining the muddy riverbank on either side. The river ran smooth and fast, providing noise cover for any waiting predators. There seemed to be no other animals around. But there could have been.
_______We waited a couple of minutes as we checked the place out. "You smell anything, Kitten?"
_______She stuck her nose in the wind and took a couple of deep sniffs. "No."
_______"You see anything?"
_______"You think it's safe, then?"
_______It was test time again, and Naline was reluctant to answer, lest she come up with the wrong answer. "Come on, Kitten, you've checked it out, you've smelled and looked; go or no go?"
_______"Go?" She didn't sound confident at all.
_______"Right, very good, Kitten." Naline smiled; she was so proud of herself you would have thought she'd just figured out the meaning of life.
_______We were so exceedingly parched and thirsty that I thought for a minute we were going to drink the whole river up. Savanna river water isn't exactly up to par with bottled gourmet spring water, but when you're as thirsty as we were, small things such as mud and sediment in the water really don't bother you very much. After our thirst had been sated, we sat in the shade of a large, leafy tree on the riverbank and rested for a while, happy and content.
_______"Do you think we'll be there soon, Cruz?"
_______"I dunno, Kitten; we have to find your one particular pride, and there sure is an awful lot of savanna out there to cover. Aww, come on, don't be disappointed, I'm sure we'll find them soon."
_______"You think so?"
_______"Sure. We'll be there in no time at all." I gazed at the vast expanse of savanna that stretched out towards the distant horizon; the grass flowed and bobbed in the wind. Somewhere out there was Naline's pride. I'd get her there. After all, I had promised.
_______I checked the maps once again and we steered northeast, following the river, heading upstream. I kept a hundred meters or so between us and the river. You never know what kind of ill-intentioned critters might be hiding in the tall grasses near the water.
_______Far ahead in the distance, we spotted a dark mass of birds circling in the sky. Vultures congregating on a kill. When lions or other predators eat their fill, carrion eaters such as vultures and hyenas scramble in and devour the leftovers. And when they are done, ants and bugs move in. When the insects are done, all that's left is a small pile of sun-bleached bones. The circle of life, Naline called it.
_______As we passed by, we could hear the sounds of hyenas fighting with the vultures over the kill. Snarls, squawks, dust and gray feathers flew into the air. A scavenger battle over a half-eaten carcass really isn't a pretty sight. Not something you'd like to put on a postcard, anyhow.
_______Naline had hopped on my shoulder to get a better look, and she stared wide-eyed in their direction. Uh-oh, I knew that look: her head slightly tilted, eyes open just a little too wide, mouth open as if she was about to say something but couldn't quite get it out. It was The Look she got when she had a big question and was about to head off in a long discussion. I braced for it, I knew it was coming.
_______"What happens to us when we die, Cruz?" Aha! What did I tell you?
_______Oh, great, how was I going to answer this one? I'm a mercenary, after all, not a philosopher. "How do you mean, Kitten?"
_______"I mean,... if we die... when we die, what happens to us afterwards? My dad says that we become stars and grass and stuff."
_______Now, I didn't want to introduce any ideas of the afterlife into a world where they didn't belong; who knew what consequences that might have. I thought long and hard for quite a while before I answered. I wanted to make sure I didn't deal irreparable damage to whatever the local ideas were.
_______Where human beings went to after they died, that much I did know for sure. Oh, haven't I told you about the time I went to heaven? Remind me to tell you about it sometime; it was extremely interesting. Unfortunately, I didn't think of looking for animals when I was there, so I sincerely didn't know where they went to after they died.
_______I remembered when I was a kid and my dog died. My father told me he'd gone to doggie heaven. But, as I came to realize later, parents tell kids lots of things to keep them happy and protect them from the sad realities of life. Was there really a heaven for animals? Who knew?
_______"When we die we um..., I don't know what happens when we die, Kitten. I suppose becoming grass and stars is as good a way to spend eternity as any other."
_______She pondered that for a minute, staring at the grass go by my feet as I walked. "Are you afraid of dying, Cruz?"
_______"Me? Nah." I really wasn't. I knew where I was going after I died.
_______Naline, like all little kids, was afraid, but she took courage from what I said and reassured herself. "Yeah, me neither," she sat up extra straight on my shoulder and looked ahead bravely, "I'm not afraid."
_______"But were you afraid when that leopard attacked you in the jungle?"
_______"Afraid because it jumped out unexpectedly and tried to eat me, or afraid because I might die?" I was purposely trying to keep things a little lighthearted because talking about death with kids is always heavy-duty stuff.
_______"Because you might die."
_______"Well, no, I was too busy figuring out what to do to be afraid of dying. There have been times, though, where I've had time to think about it."
_______"Yeah, like one time I was trapped in a cargo ship that was wired to blow. I spent three days in there, defusing the charges; all the while wondering whether I was gong to blow into smithereens or not. It gave me time to think." I doubted Naline knew about cargo ships and boobytraps, but she got the idea.
_______"And, well, I figured that if it happened, it happened, and if it didn't, well, it didn't. No use going around worried about it all the time. Everybody has to die sometime, you know."
_______The evening sun was nearing the distant horizon, bathing everything in a golden glow. The clouds in the sky burned with colors blending from a fiery orange to a subdued purple. The cool of the evening was just beginning to arrive, and there was a slight breeze, making the sunny evening just perfect. It was a good day to be among the living.
_______"Just be glad you're alive, Kitten. Just be glad."
_______"Is that them, Kitten? Is that your pride?" We were perched on a large termite mound, and we could see a lion pride in the distance. They were sleeping in the shade of a clump of trees.
_______"We're too far, Cruz, I can't see."
_______"Here, look through this." I held the macrobinoculars up to her so she could take a look.
_______"Cooooooool!" It was like magic to Naline, "they look like they're really close! How does it do that?"
_______"I'll tell you later. Is that your pride?"
_______"No," she said disappointedly.
_______We had spotted seven prides in about as many days, and still no sign of Naline's family. We had walked so far that I'd lost count of both the number of kilometers and the number of lions we had seen. I had never guessed there would be so many lions around. We were never going to find Naline's pride.
_______"We're never going to find them," it was as if she'd read my mind.
_______"No, don't say that, Kitten, we'll find them, don't worry."
_______We climbed down the termite mound. By now, thousands of very upset termites were swarming around, repairing the damage we had caused while climbing their nest. Termite mounds are really interesting structures; they're insect versions of self-contained cities. One mound houses millions of individuals, providing them with food, climate control, and a rock-hard barrier against predators. I felt kind of bad about mountaineering all over it, but we needed to get a good look at the lions.
_______We went back to following the river. Naline walked slowly, depressed and upset. She got more and more disappointed every time we found a new pride and it turned out to be the wrong one. It broke my heart, seeing her little face dim with disillusionment each time. Now I was more determined than ever to get her back.
_______"Come on, Kitten, cheer up. I'm sure we'll find your pride soon."
_______"That's what you said last time." She was upset and pouting. I didn't know if it was more irritating than cute. I attempted to keep her mind off her problems.
_______"I know, I'll tell you a story. You want to hear a story?"
_______"Well, I'll tell it anyway. Once upon a time there was this princess..."
_______"I don't like that story." Kids can be so contrary when they're upset. Contrary and irritating. Rrrgh!
_______"Okay. We'll try again. Once upon a time there was a handsome prince..." I froze in my tracks. I could feel it in my guts, something wasn't right.
_______"What about the..." Naline looked up at me and realized that something was wrong. She instantly stopped and peered in the direction I was looking. "What?"
_______"Shhh!" I whispered. "There's something in the grass. Something's stalking us."
_______"Where?" She whispered back. "Is it a lion?"
_______I spotted the animal's head in the grass ahead of us. "That way. It's too small to be a lion. It's got black ears, I think. I can't see it well."
_______What to do? Run? Fight? Throw a grenade? I couldn't do that; good guys don't go around lobbing grenades at all the fauna they meet. It says so in the good-guy manual.
_______I didn't have to wonder for much longer because the animal suddenly leaped from where it was hiding and rushed towards us with astounding speed. It was a cheetah. And it didn't look very friendly.
_______My instinctive response was to draw, lock and load; I was going to blast that thing to kingdom come if I had to. A split second later I realized that something was wrong. Cheetahs would never attack an unknown animal, certainly not one my size. I could see that it was thin and malnourished, it probably hadn't eaten anything for days. Then it hit me. This cheetah bore all the signs of lactating motherhood! This was an act of desperation on her part.
_______What to do? I couldn't just kill her. If I did, I'd surely be dooming a litter of cheetah kittens to certain death. Without their mother, they'd either starve or end up being eaten by other predators. Don't you hate it when life stuffs you between a rock and a hard place? I do.
_______It was upon us in two seconds. You never realize just how fast a cheetah really is until one is running towards you, intending to eat you. I had one heck of a problem: I had to keep Naline and myself from getting killed, and I had to do it without actually injuring the cheetah.
_______She leaped towards me, going instantly for my throat. I rolled with the impact and threw her off, all in one smooth motion. I was on my feet instantly, ready and facing the cheetah in a defensive stance. She landed on her side and tumbled in the grass for a few meters. I could see that she was utterly confused, this had never happened to her before. Then again, there probably weren't too many animals around here that knew judo.
_______"Naline, don't do anything! Let me take care of this!" The brave little kitten was growling up a storm, claws extended and teeth bared. "She's a mother, we can't hurt her." It took her a second to understand, but the implications quickly registered in her fast little mind.
_______"What are we going to do?"
_______"I don't know. Just stay behind me and out of the way." The cheetah had recovered and was preparing for a second attack.
_______"RRRRAAAWWWWRRRR!!!!" She flew through the air once again, death flashing in her eyes. This time I pivoted and spun out of her way, snapping my fist into her solar plexus as she sailed by, knocking the breath out of her. She crashed to the ground, her eyes wide with pain.
_______"Stay down," I shouted, "I don't want to hurt you!" I hoped she would listen to reason. She didn't.
_______She got up once again, jaded and gasping for air. I could see the anger and desperation in her face. "You won't do your cubs any good if you're dead." Oops, wrong thing to say; that just made her even more furious. She attacked me again, bellowing out a bloodcurdling scream like only a truly wild animal can.
_______The cheetah decided it was time for a change of strategy. Instead of leaping, this time she rushed on the ground and went for my legs. I let her bite my right boot and then brought a crushing blow right between her ears. With a sickening thud, the mother cheetah went down. She was out cold. I really hated having to do that.
_______"Did you kill her?" Naline's eyes were bulging out in amazement. She'd never seen anything like this either.
_______"I don't think so." I checked the cheetah's heartbeat just to make sure. I could feel the carotid artery pulsing in her neck; good, she was still alive. "I just hope I didn't do any permanent damage." I carefully felt all around her skull, it wasn't broken. Had I caused any neurological harm? I sure hoped not.
_______"Now what do we do?"
_______"Good question, Kitten." I hadn't thought this far ahead. I really didn't know what to do next.
_______"Let's hunt something and leave it here for her," she suggested.
_______"What?" I was amazed at the intelligence and clarity of thought that this little lioness had. It was amazing.
_______"Let's hunt a zebra or something," she explained, "and then we can put it here next to her, and when she wakes up, she'll have food to take back to her cubs." Why didn't I think of that?
_______"Kitten, you're a genius." I meant it, too.
_______We didn't find a zebra, but we managed to kill a gazelle nearby. I thought it was appropriate, since gazelles are a cheetah's favorite prey. We put it next to the cheetah's unconscious body.
_______I rummaged through the first-aid kit and gave the mother cheetah a little something for the headache she was going to have when she woke up. And a little something else to prevent any permanent damage to her nervous system. Ain't modern medicine great?
_______We put some distance between the cheetah and ourselves and climbed a tree to see what would happen. A couple of minutes later, she began to stir. Her tail twitched a few times and then she raised her head. She looked all around, confused and disoriented, then she slowly got up. She seemed to be in some pain; I felt kind of bad for her.
_______She became even more puzzled when she discovered a freshly killed gazelle next to her. She sniffed it a few times, trying to figure out what had happened. The cheetah surveyed the savanna around her carefully, looking for us. Fortunately, we were well hidden by the foliage and she didn't spot us at all. She looked back at the gazelle and shook her head again, she couldn't comprehend it. Finally, she picked the gazelle up and headed home.
_______Then it dawned on her. Suddenly she understood what had happened, what we had done. I've never seen remorse and regret hit anyone as hard as it did that mother cheetah. She dropped the gazelle in shock, eyes wide open in the realization of what had occurred.
_______She looked all around, desperately searching for any trace of us. "I'm sorry," she cried loudly into the vast savanna, "I didn't know!"
_______"That's okay," I thought, "it turned out allright." Naline and I watched her disappear in the distance.
_______It was raining. The storm had caught us in the open savanna and we had taken shelter under a baboab tree. I know you aren't supposed to go under big trees when it storms, but there wasn't any lightning, so I figured we'd be okay.
_______A few days had passed since we'd met the cheetah, and we still hadn't found Naline's pride. I could tell she was beginning to lose hope, despite my frequent assurances that we would find them soon. Her mood, like the weather, was dark and dreary.
_______I like rain, personally; I've always found the sound of falling rain relaxing and calm. Some people run into their houses at the first hint of a sprinkle and don't come out unless they're protected by umbrellas and raincoats. Not me. I like walking in the cool spring rain, or simply standing outside in the middle of a summer shower. My folks always did say I didn't have sense enough to get out of the rain.
_______Naline, on the other hand, was wet and miserable. She hated the rain and everything about it. She hated the noise, she hated the wind, and she hated getting wet. To be honest, even a pretty lioness like Naline looked quite dreadful with her fur all drenched and covered with mud. Her fur stuck together in odd clumps, making her look like a badly combed porcupine.
_______I wanted to say something to cheer her up, something to take her mind off her troubles and make her forget that she was a lost cub stuck under a tree in the middle of a storm.
_______But sometimes it's best to say nothing.
_______She shook the rain off her fur again, looked around in despair and sighed. She climbed on my lap, stretched her tired little legs, and curled up, resting her head on my knee. I scratched her neck. Naline closed her eyes and tilted her head slightly, enjoying the caress.
_______I had grown quite fond of the little cub; she was charming, friendly, and remarkably intelligent. I liked the way her curious young mind led her to explore the world around her. I liked the way she purred when she was happy. I just plain liked her. I knew I was going to miss her terribly once we found her family and we had to part company. What was I going to do without her?
_______Keep her? That would be unthinkable. She didn't belong in my world anymore than I belonged in hers. No, her place was here, in the savanna, among the tall grass and the thorn trees, in the company of lions and zebras.
_______Naline started to sob. All the stress of being away from her family, the stress of being lost, of wandering aimlessly through the savanna, of being attacked by hostile animals, of not knowing whether she'd ever see her friends and family again, had been building up for a while. The fear and terror she'd suffered in the past few weeks, the uncertainty, the disappointment, the hopelessness had all accumulated until the little kitten couldn't hold them anymore. She burst into tears and cried uncontrollably.
_______It broke my heart to see her like that. Someone so young and new to the world should not have to go through the things she had suffered. Yet I knew that with her tears would come a release of emotions and a cleansing of the soul. The tears would wash away the pain and the sadness, as the rain washed away the dead leaves from the trees. It would do her good to have a good cry.
_______The rain fell in waves that swept down the savanna, whisked along by the wind. Gusts of wind swirled the raindrops around the trees and doubled over the grass. The only sounds that could be heard were the incessant drumming of the rain and the soft sobbing of a disconsolate lion cub.
_______We spent the night under the tree, amidst the rain and the wind. Naline eventually cried herself to sleep. I hoped she was dreaming of happy times and familiar faces.
_______The next morning didn't bring sunshine and warmth. The rain hadn't ceased falling, and it didn't seem like it was going to anytime soon. I checked my wrist computer and got the weather forecast. It called for rain, followed by more rain, after which there would be even more rain. Good news for me, bad news for Naline.
_______She seemed to be in better spirits, now that she had relieved the pressure of the emotions that had built up inside her. She wasn't quite ready to do a dance of joy yet, but at least she wasn't bawling her little eyes out.
_______I didn't want to spend the entire day under the tree, waiting for the rain to pass. So despite Naline's protests, we set off again, walking in the rain. It was better for her to be doing something, instead of sitting around, brooding in misery.
_______We walked all morning and all afternoon. Naline was having a great deal of trouble walking in the damp, wet grass, so she rode on my shoulder most of the time. It rained incessantly all day; sometimes the rain fell in torrents, sometimes it merely sprinkled, but it never quit raining altogether.
_______ In the evening we stopped to eat and rest, taking shelter under a large cluster of thorn trees. We had killed a springbok a couple of days back, and we still had enough left over to last us until tomorrow. I unpacked a couple of steaks and set mine over the fire. Naline hungrily devoured hers. The food and rest improved her mood, and she became cheerful once again.
_______"Why does it have to rain all the time, Cruz?"
_______"Don't talk with your mouth full, Kitten." She chewed a bit and swallowed.
_______"Sorry." Manners weren't really needed here in the savanna and I suppose it was pretty silly of me to be teaching Naline about them. But Momma's little boy was raised right, and good habits die hard. "It's just that I'm tired of all the rain."
_______"It's kinda useless to get upset at inevitable, isn't it? You're not going to change things any, so why get all mad and ruin your day?"
_______"Yeah, well, I just hate it that I can't walk on the grass when it's all wet," she took another big bite and filled her cheeks with food, "I'm just too little." She sat thoughtfully for a while, staring at the fire.
_______"I wish I was older," she examined her paws, extending and retracting her sharp little claws, "so I could do whatever I wanted."
_______In a year or so, those claws would be five times as long, and she'd pretty much be able to do anything she wished. "Yeah?"
_______"Yeah, and then I'll be able to run around and stay up late and hunt zebras and, and... and do everything that grownups get to do."
_______"What's it like being a grownup, Cruz?"
_______Me? A grownup? Hah! I don't think anyone had ever called me that before. Now that she mentioned it, I'd never actually thought of myself as one, either. I always associated being grown up with getting a job with retirement benefits, marrying somebody level-headed, and changing baby diapers at 3:00 in the morning. I had no job, unless freelancing counts as a job, and I had never changed a diaper before; not one of my own, anyway.
_______"Well, you get to have a lot of fun."
_______"You do?" I could see the anticipation in her eyes.
_______"Yeah, you get to do great things like eat nothing but dessert, mix colors and whites, and resent your parents for a while. And you get to have things like obligatory social engagements, imitation zirconia jewelry, and massive amounts of junk mail."
_______"What's junk mail?"
_______"It's a wonderful thing you get every day."
_______"I wish I had some."
_______"You crack me up, Kitten."
_______I took a small stick from the fire and watched the orange tip glow in the darkness. I remembered back, when I was a kid, I would go in the candy store and stare longingly at the piles of candy on the shelves. My allowance would only go so far. Then I'd promise myself that when I was all grown up, I'd buy all the candy I could. But now... it had been a long time since I'd been in a candy store.
_______"You also get to realize that sometimes you don't get to do what you want."
_______"Well, you realize that sometimes it's best not to."
_______"Well, sometimes it's bad for you, like eating a whole box of Oreos by yourself; I did that once, you know. And sometimes you let other people have their way so they can be happy. One time I missed the biggest game of the year because my little sister wanted to go to the zoo."
_______"What's a zoo?"
_______"It's a really nice place where animals go see human beings eat peanuts. Anyway, my sister had such a great time that I was glad I missed the game."
_______Naline thought it over for a little while. She poked at the ground with one of those little claws of hers. I absentmindedly whittled at the stick with my knife.
_______"So how do you know when to do stuff?"
_______"You mean, how do we know when to do something you want, and when not to do it?
_______"Well, folks have been pondering that one for a long, long time." I sat back against a tree and stretched my tired back muscles. "Some have come up with incredibly complicated codes of moral behavior, telling them what to do and when to do it."
_______"Yeah, they're called lawyers. Others just kind of make the rules up as they go along."
_______"What do you do?"
_______"I...," well, now there was a question worth pondering. I'd never actually sat down and thought about it. "I, ah... well, I have some basic rules, ... and the rest I make up as I go along." Okay, so I never claimed to be some kind of philosophical luminary; at least it works. "Then there's that little voice."
_______"Where?" Naline looked around in surprise.
_______"No, not here, in my head." I smiled as I tapped my temple with my finger.
_______"There's a voice in your head?" She studied my face intently, trying to figure out where that little voice might be coming from.
_______"Well, yeah. It says things like 'For crying out loud, Cruz, don't play with detonators,' and 'what were you thinking, she's not even your type.' It gives me advice and keeps me out of trouble. It tries to, anyway."
_______Naline closed her eyes and tilted her head a little. She was trying to listen to the voice in her head. I laughed out loud, she was just too cute!
_______"It doesn't work that way, Kitten. It only talks to you when you have to decide between one thing and another. It kinda develops as you get older, like arthritis."
_______"It's what makes old people so lovable."
_______By this time, the fire had died down, and we sat in the dim orange glow of the dying embers. Naline and I had a wonderful time, talking far into the night.
_______Sometime after midnight, the rain gradually tapered off, and eventually disappeared. A cool night wind blew the troubled clouds away and wiped the sky clean, leaving only a bright white moon surrounded by a grand array of sparkling stars. I've spent so much time traveling among the stars that I tend to forget just how beautiful they are. Tonight they were breathtaking.
_______"Say, Kitten, let's go walk in the moonlight."
_______"Yeah, now. You aren't sleepy, are you?"
_______"Well then, let's go. You ever walk in the moonlight before? It's beautiful. Come on." We left the patch of thorn trees and slowly strolled into the night. Naline hopped on my shoulder to avoid the wet ground.
_______The drops of rain beaded on the grass; each reflected the clear moonlight and the gleaming stars. It looked as if the savanna was covered with diamonds. The night was absolutely quiet, the only sound that could be heard was the soft wind in the grass. No crickets; I liked it.
_______I wondered what it must be like for Naline to walk under the stars. She believed each star was the spirit of a departed ancestor. I don't know if I could sleep in peace, knowing that a mob of the dearly departed was hanging around in the sky, watching me snooze. I'd get stage-fright every time I went to sleep, with all those people staring at me all the time.
_______"It sure is beautiful," Naline whispered. There was no need to whisper, but it seemed kind of appropriate, like being in a cathedral. We walked for some time, enraptured by the sheer beauty of the night.
_______"That's IT!!" Naline screeched with excitement as she jumped off my shoulder. "That's my home!!"
_______"What? Where?" She had startled me senseless and I didn't know what she was talking about.
_______"Over there! I can't see it from down here," she explained impatiently, "pick me up again."
_______I put her back on my shoulder and she showed me where. "See that big rock over there, sticking up real high? That's where I live!"
_______"No... oh, yeah, now I see it." A massive rock formation over a hundred feet high jutted out of the savanna ground and rose into the starry sky.
_______"We're here! We made it!" Naline was so excited that she fell off my shoulder and ran around in circles. "Come on!" She dashed in the direction of the towering rock. I ran behind her, trying to keep up with the excited cub.
_______Normally she would have left me far behind, but the wet grass slowed her down enough for me to keep up. I could hear her whispering excitedly under her breath; her eyes absolutely sparkled with joy. "We... made ... it," she panted as she ran, "I'm... going... to... see... my... mom!"
_______"Kitten, wait!" I stopped, as a sad thought entered my mind. It was time.
_______Naline turned and saw me standing still in the moonlight. She came racing back, eyes alight with impatience and surprise. "What's the matter? Come on, we're almost there!"
_______"This is where I get off, Kitten." A heavy lump formed in my throat as I struggled to say the words. "This is where I say goodbye."
_______"What!? Why?" Naline was incredulous, "what's the matter with you, Cruz?"
_______This was a family reunion where I didn't belong. I had brought her back, I had kept her safe and had enjoyed her company. I had grown to cherish the little cub, and we had formed a tight friendship. But I didn't belong in her world, not really. I cringed as I imagined what would happen if little Naline suddenly burst into her family's den, followed by a strange human being. No, I couldn't allow that to happen.
_______"Nothing's the matter, Kitten. It's just that ..." deep breath, don't lose it, stay calm. "It's just that now I've brought you back and now you're safe and ... and now it's time to say goodbye. Remember what I said about growing up? This is one of those things we have to do."
_______A single tear appeared in her eyes, glistening in the starlight. "I'm going to miss you," she said quietly.
_______"Yeah, me too." I kneeled down and gave her a long goodbye hug. "I'm gonna miss you too."
_______I straightened up and cleared my throat, "well, go on then, your family's gonna be happy to see you. Off you go."
_______Naline turned and slowly walked away. She paused a short distance later and turned around, "I'll never forget you. Bye!" And with an energetic jump, she darted off and ran towards her home, leaping over the silvery grass, speeding towards the massive rock shining in the moonlight. She ran faster and faster as she neared her home. Soon she would be among family and friends, among loved ones and relatives. She would be safe where she belonged, among lions.
_______"Mom, I'm home," I could barely make out her words in the distance, "I'm home, I'm back!" With a series of excited leaps, she flew over the rock formations and disappeared into the darkness of a cave. I heard the sounds of lions awaking in surprise, and rejoicing at the sight of their lost little cub.
_______"Bye, Kitten," I whispered. I could feel my heart tear in half as I turned around and walked back into the night.