My daughter in-law has told me her story truthfully and willingly, not holding anything back. She rips off her flesh and exposes what is underneath for all to see. Why does she not tell my son? Can it be that the gift she has given him allows him to see into her past as well as see what his blindness forbids? I cannot say for sure.
But Paka says that her adventure in Mlango was only one of her adventures. She can recall many others, and she wishes to tell me as many as she can, before her memory fails and her memories are lost, confined to the stagnant, rotting stump of a mind that was once a young seedling.
Her aforementioned adventure was still in her head nearly half a season later, when she was hunting with her pride sisters near a dense grove of trees. The sun was setting, and the shadows created were so contrasting that both predator and prey found it difficult to perceive what was beast and what was plant. Paka strayed near the back of the pack, scanning the bushes cautiously. Apparently, no one had spotted anything, because none of the sisters had dropped into the grass in the familiar crawling position ideal for charging undetected.
Paka suddenly spotted a tiny antelope in a thicket of shrubs, chewing on the few twigs that were still leafy. Since it was the dry season, and most of the animals had moved on, it was unusual to see an antelope still in the heart of Azima, and especially alone, away from a herd, right in the path of a pride.
It was a duiker, Paka realized, a very small creature that could almost run between a lion’s legs with its head down. She could barely see its two black horns, sticking up like canine teeth in the brush, parallel to the slope of its face.
None of the lionesses had seen the duiker. It was either too far away or not making enough noise to attract their attention. But Paka could see it, and more importantly, the beast had not seen her. Not yet.
Paka didn’t want to wait a moment longer, she sprang into the air and broke into a run. Her light body seemed built for such moves. Since she was so far behind the rest, it took a few seconds for the rest of the huntresses to realize what had happened, who the dark blur who just streaked past their noses was, and what Paka was after. By the time they did, the duiker had snapped its head around and seen its doom bearing down on it. It spun around and sprang out of its protective bush, into the confusing, blazing grasses of the savannah.
Paka altered her path of pursuit and plunged after the animal. Several of the lionesses had taken off after her, the rest had begun scanning the grasses to see if there were any more duikers in hiding. The duiker that Paka was chasing was darting about in a rabbit-like way, first to the left, then dashing to the right, and left again. And its’ path wasn’t predictable. Sometimes it would swerve for a clump of bushes, sometimes it would leap into a bush and dart out the other side at a random angle. But Paka was swift and agile as well, more agile than any other lioness I have known. She somehow managed to decipher her prey’s code and when it leapt through the air, this time for a prickly young briar, she clamped onto its neck with her small, yet capable jaws and went tumbling headlong across the ground, clutching it to her chest, and coming to a stop against the briar.
The thorns pierced her skin as well as her victim’s, and their blood intermixed. Paka could taste the warm fluid in her mouth as the duiker was yelping out its last in a voice that Paka realized was female. This could be a young creature…it could be carrying young that would now never be born. Or she could already have some, hidden nearby, that would either die or be killed by the pride members.
The animal was still gasping and trying to cry out. Chokes of pain mixed with inexplicable anger.
“Paa-aaaaah,” it seemed to say. Paka grunted in reply and kept her grip, in spite of the duiker’s slashing hooves.
“P’kk-aaaaah,” it wailed. Paka let her jaw go slack slightly. This was odd. She knew duikers and all antelopes could communicate in languages similar to hers, but she had never known one to “speak” to her in its death throes.
“Paah-kaaaaah,” moaned the duiker. Paka gasped sharply and let the animal’s head fall from her mouth, onto the soft ground. The beast had spoken her name, and in the same feline dialect that she had been taught. How did this duiker know her name, and why had it spoken to her like a lion?
“Who are you?” Paka whispered.
The duiker lay still in Paka’s grip, its four slender legs limp, its cloven hooves pressing against my daughter-in-law’s chest, trying to get its wind back. The wound in its neck was surprisingly small, and wasn’t nearly as lethal as Paka thought it was. Paka was aware of the three sisters that had pursued the duiker with her standing behind her, panting. They all assumed that Paka had caught what she was after, and were waiting for Paka to kill it so that they could divide up the portions. They had not heard the antelope’s words, nor Paka’s. Since Paka was facing the briar, all they could see was her back.
Finally, the tiny beast raised its head, and bleated:
“What did you say?”
Paka’s mind reeled. Ifama. The name seemed so familiar, yet so foreign. Where had she heard it before? Was it her mother? Her father? One of her pride sisters?
Wait…sisters. Paka was borne in a large litter, and many of her siblings died, but the one she remembered most was the one that was so weak and feeble, that was a few minutes younger. Paka’s eyes had just opened when the sister had fallen asleep for good, and how her mother had tried to revive her, licking her over and over. That was all that Paka had remembered from her infancy…until now. Now she remembered how her mother was speaking a word between licks. Every time she licked the still form, she would say, “Ifama.” Over and over again. “Ifama…Ifama…Ifama.”
Was it the cub’s name? Was her mother speaking it to coax her daughter’s soul back into the realm of the living? Or did it have to do with the meaning of the word, “Everything is well”?
But there could be no doubt now. Somehow, some way Paka could not conceivably answer, the tiny duiker she had been intent on eating was her dead sister. She shuddered and loosed her grip on the creature’s body. In spite of the punctures all over it and the gaping wound in its neck, the little antelope sprang into the huge, thick bush and was soon invisible among the thorns. Paka rose shakily to her feet, trying to hide her shock.
“It…kicked me in the head while I was trying to kill it,” she said to her pride sisters. “No use trying to get into that bush after it, look what happened to me.”
She pointed to chest and neck, where the thorns had wrought the most damage.
“Do you think there are more nearby?” asked Oni, one of the best huntresses in the pride.
“Maybe. Duikers are most active at night,” said Paka. But they probably won’t be hanging around here, with all the noise we just made.”
“I suggest that we check the waterhole again,” said Sigele, a younger lioness with quick wits but rather slow paws. “There may be some gazelles there, and I’m sure we could all use a drink.”
“Not me,” said Paka, flopping down. ”My skin is a mess and I need to at least let the blood congeal. I’ll come back to the main meeting point in my own time. I can make it on my own.”
The lionesses gathered around her cast glances at each other and nodded, then the whole group began making its way towards the west, where a large hill blocked out the setting sun. Beyond the hill was the waterhole.
When the last lioness’s tail had vanished over the hill, Paka collapsed on her side, staring straight ahead through the grasses in total shock. Had it really happened? Had that duiker really called her by name and told her that it was her sister? Perhaps she had knocked her head on a rock or driven into unconsciousness by a loss of blood to the sharp thorns…no, that couldn’t be it. Was she dreaming then? Or was she still dreaming?
Paka turned over and looked up at the new stars blossoming in the twilight. Had some sort of miracle happened? Had her sister somehow lived? Had she acquired magical powers like the shaman she had encountered in Mlango? Had she become trapped as a duiker? Or was it the duiker that had magical powers?
She was still thinking when she heard a loud rustling and a sound of tiny hooves on soft soil. She rolled over and nearly crushed the tiny antelope, which was standing mere inches from where she lay.
“You!” she hissed.
“Ifama,” replied the duiker.
“I don’t understand. Who are you, really?”
“I said,” said the duiker, staring up into Paka’s amazed eyes. “I told.”
“You said you were Ifama. Ifama was my sister.”
“Yes. I was.”
“What are you talking about?” Paka said, growing more and more agitated. “You…she died. Along with several other of my littermates.”
“Something that happens for all.”
“What do you mean?”
“We die. We come back.”
“What are you saying?”
“We die…” said the duiker, pausing longer this time, “We come back.”
Paka paused, trying to comprehend what had been said. Could this little animal be saying what she thought it was saying?
“Are you speaking of…rebirth?” she asked. “Reincarnation?”
“Yes, yes,” said the duiker, becoming excited. “Reincarnation. We die, we come back.”
“I’ve heard of that, but I…No…no, you can’t be. This is some kind of joke.”
“It’s not, Paka. It’s not.”
“Then…you are Ifama?”
“Yep. It’s me.”
For a moment, Paka was again speechless, staring at the tiny beast. Ifama? Born again? As a duiker? It seemed so strange. Almost mocking for a lioness to become an animal that lions preyed upon. But what other explanation was there? The duiker knew Paka, spoke her name, and knew her sister’s name.
“But why?” Paka whispered. “Why were you born as this? Why were you born so close to my home? And why do you remember me? I thought reincarnates forgot everything about their previous lives.”
“Perhaps I was closer to you than I thought,” suggested Ifama. “I may have something to complete in this area of the world before I move on.”
“And why were you born as a duiker? Your life was honorable. You died so the rest of my litter could live. Why didn’t you reincarnate as something higher than a common lioness? Why, you could’ve been born as one of those big-headed apes in the jungles, or even a human…”
“I shouldn’t have been born as a lioness,” said Ifama, lowering her horned head. “I wasn’t ready. That’s why I sickened and died. I needed to repeat what I had already gone through. I hadn’t learned all there was to learn from the life of the Hunted. If I want to become a Hunter, or even something greater, I have to go through a commoner’s life again.”
“That sounds unfair,” said Paka. “But I’m still amazed that you know all this.”
“You can be knowledgeable about anything if you have the strength to dig deep enough,” said Ifama, looking up at the stars. “It hasn’t gotten me far, but now that I’ve met you…”
She lowered her head and looked at Paka out of her deep, pearly eyes. “I think it’s worth it. I forgot to tell you how beautiful you look.”
Paka started. “Really? Geez, no one’s ever called me that before…”
“Well, the last time I saw you, you were just a cub. I see some of your spots haven’t faded yet, though. Is that why Mother called you ‘Paka?’”
“I suppose so,” Paka murmured, touching her left cheek timidly. “I know it’s none of my business, Ifama, but…what’s it like being a duiker?”
“How’s it like? Like being an impala, only smaller.”
“You can remember being an impala in a past life?”
“No, I was just giving you a half-digested analogy.”
“All right. But really…what is it like, Ifama?”
Ifama pinned back her ears and looked at the ground. “Well, it’s fast…a lot faster than a lion’s life, that’s for sure. I’ve seen calves that come out of their mothers in the morning and are on their feet before midday. We are always searching for grass and water, especially now, in the dry season. We learn how to run and leap to elude those who hunt us, and how to leave others behind and let them be killed without having pity. It’s very hard. Which is why we all have to go through it to reach a higher caste. Few survive being one of the Hunted, and have to repeat their lives again and again to become one of the Hunters. Perhaps this will be my last life as a Hunted.”
“I hope so.”
Suddenly, a loud noise came from beyond the hill that eclipsed the view of the waterhole. The sound of several large animals stampeding came to the pair’s ears, and a moment later, several large antelope came galloping their way. Paka flattened herself to the ground, unnoticed by the creatures that ran past. In the midst of the racket, Paka heard another antelope’s death cry, and the familiar growling of several lionesses closing in to feed.
Paka turned to her companion, expecting to see her trembling with fear, but surprisingly, she was quite calm and composed.
“They will be coming back to check on me,” said Paka. You’d better find a safe place to hide. I may not be able to see you again.”
“Why not?” Ifama asked. “Do you not go off on your own every now and then?”
“I’ll be in this area. I’m sure your pride won’t miss you if you leave them for short periods every now and then. Just don’t come here with them. I may not be so quick then.”
“All right,” said Paka gently, giving Ifama a very gentle pet on her back. “Good-bye.”
The tiny duiker turned and began to make her way into the dense tangle of the briar.
“And Ifama?” Paka said. The duiker turned her head slightly and looked back over her shoulder at the lioness.
“I’m very happy to see you again, Ifama.”
Paka returned to the main meeting place later that might and left it early the next morning. The sun had barely risen, but the land still was filled with enough light to allow Paka to see by (which was not much). She quietly stepped through the tall grasses, grasses which concealed all of her body except her shoulders, head and back. Her light weight combined with her years of practice produced very little sound as she crept from the pile of boulders, trying to remember where the cluster of bushes was. She knew it was within a mile of the meeting place, and that the waterhole was west of it. Since the waterhole was north of the meeting place, the bushes would be northeast. Paka turned her nose in that direction and continued making her way to what she hoped would be her destination.
She heard the night insects still chirping away, and every now and then, she’d see a flock of birds sleeping in a baobab tree. Once a small group of gazelles leapt away from her in alarm, sprinting through the tall, dry grasses. She could have easily brought down one of them, but she didn’t feel hungry. She might have been inside, but there were more important things than food at this point.
Finally, she spotted the bush cluster, the thick grove of trees to the left, the little twiggy shrubs dotting the dry, dusty earth now almost devoid of grasses, and the huge briar dead ahead. It seemed even more ominous in the early light, but Paka knew what was inside it. She approached it slowly, trying not to alarm what she knew as inside it, waiting.
“Ifama? Ifama, can you hear me?”
“Ifama? It’s Paka. Your sister. Are you in there?”
Again, no answer. Paka was growing worried. Had something happened to Ifama? She said she would be here…had some other animal gotten her? She had a badly torn neck, so naturally she was vulnerable…but yet, she seemed so strong…she couldn’t have been killed. She couldn’t have.
But she wasn’t here. She said she would be here, but she wasn’t. If she was still alive, where could she be? Had she fled Azima? Had she gone into hiding? Or was her encounter with Ifama just a dream?
Suddenly, she heard a sound coming from her left. A slow, dragging sound, like that of a carcass being pulled by another creature. Paka turned in the direction of the sound, and to her amazement, saw a tiny, pale brown antelope dragging a dead rodent nearly as large as it was towards her. The antelope’s tiny mouth was closed around the rodent’s neck, and it seemed to have no problem toting such a huge load.
Finally, when the little creature’s backside was almost touching Paka, it released its grip on its prey, turned around and looked at the lioness that towered above it.
“I found this gopher or whatever it is in a burrow near the waterhole,” said the little duiker. “I figured you haven’t had much to eat in the last few days, so I thought I’d do something to prove myself to you. I hope you don’t mind that I chewed on it a little, but I was hungry too. There isn’t much grass around here.”
“Ifama,” breathed Paka in disbelief. “You can hunt…and eat flesh?”
“Not exactly hunt,” said Ifama, still tired out from dragging her prize to Paka, “But my people can kill when necessary. And yes, we do eat ones smaller than us in times of dire need.”
“I never knew duikers did that,” said Paka.
“Well, not many know that much about us. Even the humans don’t know that much, but that is mostly because we sleep by day and move at night.”
“If that’s true,” Paka asked, “Why were you awake yesterday, when the sun hadn’t even gone down yet?”
“Either I’m an early riser,” said Ifama, “Or I just felt that you were coming.”
“I wish you would just talk plain leonine or duikan or whatever dialect you’re speaking in,” said Paka, finally starting to overcome the shock of her sister returning to her as an herbivore. “Sometimes I just can’t understand what you’re talking about.”
“There’s an eccentric in every family, Paka, regardless of reincarnation. You’d better start eating this meat before the hyenas and vultures wake up and smell it.”
Paka, since she had nothing to say in return, sat down and began nibbling at the small rodent. It was barely a few mouthfuls, but it was a regular feast for her sister, and for her to give it to Paka when she could barely find enough for herself was enough to convince Paka that this was indeed her kin, since she truly loved her.
I am still amazed at Ifama’s actions. I never met her, duiker or otherwise, but any creature that would give up its entire kill to ensure another’s health is incredibly selfless and generous, but for a creature of a totally different species to do the same act is almost beyond comprehension. It is something that I have never heard of until now.
“Is it all right?” asked Ifama.
“It’s great,” said Paka, tugging at the animal’s tough skin, “But I feel uneasy about eating meat in front of you.”
“Don’t feel bad. You and I eat the same things, to an extent. We both eat birds and rodents, when necessity requires. It’s just that you often hunt things that are bigger.”
“True,” said Paka. “Too true.”
Ifama stepped closer to Paka. Paka could see a slight tinge of red on the duiker’s lips.
“Do you mind if I…feel you?” Ifama asked.
“Do you mind if I feel you? You know, just touch?”
“Well…I suppose,” Paka said, unable to fathom why Ifama would want to do such a thing.
Ifama stepped up to Paka and rubbed her sleek head against Paka’s right foreleg. Her duiker’s fur felt coarse and short against Paka’s relatively long, fine coat. The lioness flinched at the touch of the antelope’s short, black horns, which were surprisingly cold.
“It is like I remember it,” said Ifama, drawing her small head back and looking up at Paka. “Lion’s fur is soft.”
“Yours isn’t?” asked Paka.
“Did it feel soft to you? I think not,” said Ifama. “We’re always on the move, and never have time to tend to our coats. Not like you do, Paka.”
“Yeah. That’s true.”
“And we live alone once we leave our mothers, so no one else could groom us even if they wanted to.”
“Your people live alone?” Paka queried, pausing midway through a mouthful of meat. “I thought antelope always lived in herds.”
“Not us duikers. We live our own lives, and we live them away from everyone else, no matter how perilous that can be.”
“Odd,” remarked Paka, swallowing her meat, “A lion is the only type of feline that lives with others in its adulthood, but I have always been the solitary one in this pride. And a female, at that!”
“There’s a similar paradox with my life,” said Ifama. “Duikers are known to be unusual for their solitary behavior, but now I’m forming a friendship with another individual…and not just another individual. An individual from a completely different species!”
“Now that is weird,” said Paka. Lying down and placing her head on her crossed paws. “I guess that’s something that comes from two creatures being attached the way we are, eh?”
“Could be,” said Ifama. She looked behind Paka, across the grassy plains at the brilliant, rosy sun coming up over the horizon.
“You should better leave,” she said. “And so should I. I’d better find another place to stay where I won’t get killed and eaten.”
“You shouldn’t leave now,” said Paka, “Now that the sun is up. You might be seen.”
“But If I stay here, my scent will be detected,” said Ifama, without fear or worry. “I’ve stayed here long enough for my odor to leave a mark strong enough for other predators to pick up. Even if I stay in the briars, there will be some clever jackal or hyena that might come up with a strategy to force me out.”
“Well, what are we going to do?” asked Paka.
After a few seconds of thought, Ifama suddenly lifted her forelegs and brought them back down firmly. “I know! You see how thick and tall the grass is towards the south?”
“Yes. That’s the way to my pride’s meeting place as well.”
“Well, why don’t we just walk that way, and I’ll hide at the first suitable place we come to. How about that?”
“Ifama,” said Paka, “The grasses may be high, but that doesn’t stop a hawk or some other flesh-eating bird from spotting you from above. You could be snatched up in an instant, and I don’t think I could save you.”
“But Paka,” persisted Ifama, “You can do something else.”
“And what is that?”
“As you’re walking along, have me walk directly underneath you. With my head down, there should be just enough room. No predator in his right mind would attack a lion, even if she were doing something as bizarre as that.”
“Ifama…” said Paka, amazed. “That’s brilliant.”
“It runs in the family, I suppose,” said Ifama. “But it’s mostly common sense, don’t you think?”
“I guess,” said Paka.
“Well, let’s hurry up and get moving before my idea dies along with me,” said Ifama, smartly skipping in front of Paka as she rose to her feet, then backing up slowly but nimbly, keeping her horned crown low as she scooted backwards until her entire body was shielded by Paka’s.
“Ready?” Ifama asked, looking up at Paka, careful not to move her head.
“Ready,” said Paka.
She took the first step, slowly putting one paw forward, then the other. Ifama kept pace with Paka, keeping her eyes ahead but still keeping her head down. They kept going, reaching the perimeter of the dusty patch of earth and entering the brightening yellow grasses of the savannah. The grasses were a golden, shimmering hue by now, and would have hidden Ifama perfectly even if Paka wasn’t protecting her, but the sun would be higher in a few hours’ time, and there would be many more predators and much more light by then, and the two friends could not afford to take any chances.
It must have been quite a sight to see, if it could be seen, that is: A fully-grown, gaunt lioness with a tiny antelope walking directly underneath her, with neither of them exhibiting the familiar Hunter-Hunted roles. It was something never seen by human eyes. It was something that they would have called “peace at last.” But peace was not important to Paka and Ifama. Their union meant love and trust, and sometimes those two emotions can overrule anything.
“I see a great big hollow tree ahead,” said Paka. “That would probably be a good place for you to stay.”
Ifama scooted ahead of Paka and stood on her hind legs to see over the grasses. A few yards from them was a large baobab tree, similar to the tree that shaded Paka’s pride’s home, but larger and more ancient, with a small hole near the ground, between two large roots.
“I see it. That does look like a safe place to stay. Lots of grasses growing about it, a very small hole, so not many large creatures can fit in…and the grasses surrounding it don’t easily retain scents…yes, I think I will stay there,” said Ifama, dropping to all fours again and looking up at Paka. “I’ll just make a dash for the tree. It should be a cinch.”
“Are you sure you can you make it on your own?” asked Paka.
“No problem,” said Ifama, tossing her head. “I may be small, but I am fast, and that tree isn’t too far away. I’ll be meeting you here from now on, all right?”
“If you say so,” said Paka, and before she even finished her sentence, the tiny creature had darted away from her, and through the tall grasses straight to the baobab, barely creating a ripple in the golden sheaths as she ran.
“Far out of reach, guarded by porcupines, yet reached by those that are long in tongue,” said Paka.
Ifama shifted her weight and looked up into the gnarled branches and tiny leaves far, far above them. She reclined as gracefully as a duiker could recline, her hooves stretched out in front of her.
“Guarded by porcupines…out of reach…I know!” she said suddenly. “Acacias! Acacia leaves!”
“Good,” said Paka. “I thought you would get that one.”
“Do you want to hear one?” asked Ifama.
“Building castles, with mortar and clay, yet as far from humans as humans can say.”
Paka stopped herself from speaking her thoughts out loud, aware of the effect that careless words can have on riddles. She pondered the question, looking at the sky through the baobab branches. She and Ifama were relaxing beneath the immense tree, late in the morning. In spite of the fact that Ifama was nocturnal, she was just as wide-awake as Paka. It had been several days since Paka’s last visit, and the apex of the dry season in Azima was slowly approaching. Too slowly, the lionesses in Paka’s pride were saying. It had not been this dry for this long in years. Even I seem to recall a year such as this in Kiwara. Not nearly as intense as Paka describes it, but since our two lands are close neighbors, I wouldn’t be surprised if our Dry Years weren’t one and the same.
“Could you say it again?” Paka asked, turning to her friend.
“Building castles, with mortar and clay, yet as far from humans as humans can say,” said Ifama patiently.
Paka silently mouthed the lines, looking at her paws pensively. Finally, she looked up, and answered triumphantly:
“Termites! I thought that sounded familiar. I’ve been forced to eat a lot of those little creeps, what with the zebras on the move and the gnus gone.”
“You eat termites?” asked Ifama, cringing in disgust.
“It’s better than starving,” said Paka. “I’ve had to eat roots to survive these seasons. And worse. If you think your people have it the hardest, think again.”
“I know,” said Ifama. “We all have to work hard to get our food. Even fleas and mosquitoes. It’s just that some of us realize when we are taking a life for the sake of our own, and some don’t.”
“And you think I’m just realizing it?” asked Paka, lowering her head until she and Ifama saw eye-to-eye.
“Actually, yes,” Ifama said. “Not many Hunters take the time to ponder the feelings and pains of the Hunted, but I think we are both starting to see through each other’s eyes.”
“I guess so,” said Paka. She glanced to the north, a huge swarm of flies was buzzing over the grass, and appeared to be slowly heading their way, but Paka decided that there was still plenty of time for the two of them to relax and talk.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you…how is that wound in your neck healing?” Paka asked hesitantly.
Ifama turned her slender neck to let Paka see the sickle-shaped scar parallel to her spine, then turned again to let her see its mirror on the other side. Surprisingly, neither injury seemed that major.
“I’m doing very well,” said Ifama. “You didn’t bite me as hard as you thought. Besides, I’ve had time to heal.”
She paused, as if she was hesitant to tell Paka something.
“I’ve never been chased by a Hunter before. I must say, you are a lot more organized than my mother told me you were.”
“Well, we try to be,” said Paka, awkwardly because there are very few things as awkward as discussing hunting strategies with a duiker, “Our usual method for large prey is attacking from the front while other members of the pride wait in the bushes where the prey will surely go. I don’t know who formulated the idea, but it sure has worked for us.”
“If only I could remember that strategy in my next life,” mused Ifama. “Then I might be one of the most skilled huntresses before my first year.”
Paka snickered and shook her head, trying to hide her confusion about Ifama’s theories about reincarnation. She was suddenly distracted by the black swarm of flies that was now less than a yard from them. She patted Ifama lightly on the back and gestured toward the flies.
“I think we’d better walk away from here,” Paka suggested. “Once those flies get on your pelt, they won’t leave. If we step out of their path, they should pass us by.”
“Should I walk beneath you?” asked Ifama.
“Yes. That’s a good idea,” said Paka, rising to her feet. Ifama scuttled beneath her, and the two set off across the savannah at an almost matched pace. After a few yards, they stopped. Paka looked back and saw that the flies were indeed passing by the large tree, “But,” as Paka said, “We’ve come this far, we might as well walk a little farther.”
So the pair continued at a slow, meticulous gait, still unfazed by the approaching midday sun.
“So…” Paka asked. “What’s it like? Being a duiker, I mean? Can you compare it to being a lioness?”
“Well, you see things on the ground that you never would see up there,” said Ifama, after a brief pause. “And you can see almost all around your head without turning it.”
“All the better to see things like me approaching,” said Paka.
“That’s right. And our feet,” said Ifama, “I guess they aren’t as vulnerable to thorns as yours.”
“I can’t argue with you there,” said Paka.
“But then, we can’t feel much underfoot, but I suppose that’s a small price to pay,” decided Ifama.
“And the horns…” hesitated Paka.
“What about the horns?” asked Ifama.
“Only when they were breaking through the skin,” said Ifama. “I wasn’t born with them. They grew as I did. I don’t imagine that they hurt me any more than your teeth did when they were coming in.
“And it’s obvious that we can run faster than you…no offense,” said Ifama, even though she couldn’t see if Paka was irritated or not (which she wasn’t), “But other than that and the fact that one of us eats grass and one of us eats the other, we’re pretty much the same.”
“That is interesting,” said Paka. “I guess I’ve never bothered to look that deep. It was all run-chase-kill-eat-rest for me…until you appeared. You of all creatures…”
They walked in silence for some time, both thinking, probably of the same thing. Paka would occasionally look down at the little duiker, and wonder how they ever managed to meet, in such a huge world with so many beasts and birds within it. She would look up and survey the desolate landscape, which suddenly didn’t seem so desolate anymore. It was full of creatures, all with emotions and feelings, no matter how tiny they happened to be, no matter how insignificant they appeared. Paka sighed heavily and wondered why she was the one chosen to be so aware of the world, and if anyone else out there saw it in the same way.
As she was in this trancelike state, there was a sudden crashing sound followed by a terrible, piercing screech, like that of a lion crossed with an eagle. Paka snapped her head up in an attempt to locate the sound, but just as she did, Ifama’s head also shot up, her horns, tiny as they were, embedding themselves into Paka’s tawny chest. Paka screamed in agony and just barely prevented herself from falling forwards, flopping over on her side in the tall grasses. She could feel the dampness spreading through her fur as Ifama struggled to free herself.
“What was that – Oh no, Paka, what did I do – Don’t worry – Stay calm – You’re not going to die – Stay calm – I can take care of this – It’s all right – “
These words were all Paka recalled as she lay on her side, her life flowing out of her with her former sister staring into her eyes. Ifama once glanced over her shoulder at a dark shadow that Paka could not make out, then turned back to Paka.
“I’m going to lick your wound now,” she said. “Don’t worry – I won’t let you die – “
Paka could feel the short tongue licking her fur in a quick, almost frenzied, manner. Her consciousness was fading rapidly. She could still see the two wide eyes that suddenly seemed to be high above her, she could see the tongue grow larger and flatter, the texture grow more rough and serrated, the jaw grow broader, the ears rounder, the body larger and the tail lengthen, just as her own body began to grow lighter and smaller, her legs grow slimmer and more delicate, her muzzle more elongated, her vision more blurred, and the dark horns painfully blossoming from her forehead, parallel with her profile.
Even as all this was happening in her mind, she could feel herself being suffocated, her abdomen being ripped apart, her remains being feasted upon by jackals and vultures. And above her was her sister, the one who was eating her, licking her chest, lapping up the blood. So duikers do eat meat…but only when necessity requires, thought Paka as she passed out.
She awakened at twilight, staring into the stars. A dull pain still lingered in her forehead. She touched her pate gently, but felt nothing out of the ordinary. Her vision was still blurred around the edges as she looked around and found Ifama lying on her belly in the dry, trampled grass, a perfectly normal duiker, it appeared. A gentle prod revealed that she was alive, but tired.
“Oh thank the Gods,” said Ifama, rising to her feet. “I was afraid you were never going to awaken.”
“What happened?” asked Paka.
“That noise we heard was an ostrich. I thought it was a lion. If it had been, I guess it would have been nice that we would both die together…but no, that’s not right,” she muttered, as if her brain hadn’t yet gotten up to speed. “Anyway, after I punctured you, I spent the rest of the afternoon defending you from the scavengers, since I couldn’t drag something as heavy as you anywhere.”
“How did you do that?” Paka asked.
“I can do a fairly good imitation of a lion’s roar,” said Ifama. “That kept them way away. I’d say letting me be around you has indirectly saved your life.”
“I guess so,” said Paka. “But I think I feel well enough to go home.”
“Something strange happened just before I lost consciousness. I saw you as a lioness and me as a duiker. Do you have any idea what that means?”
Ifama pinned back her ears, pondering the question as if it were another riddle.
“I’d say it has something to do with us being such close sisters. You were just seeing things through my eyes. That probably happens in situations like the one we’re in.”
“And how often do situations like this occur, Ifama?”
“I dunno…probably never.”
Paka smirked and turned towards the south.
“Well…I’ll be leaving you now.”
“Good-bye…and thank you, Ifama.”
Paka had only gone a few yards before her wound (which she had almost forgotten by this time) reopened and began streaking the grass with crimson that appeared black in the evening light. Once or twice she collapsed and had to rest a short while before continuing on, towards home…safety…refuge. Those three words never meant that much to her until now, when she could easily be attacked by another lion or a pack of hyenas or jackals. She continued on, willing her blood to stay inside her, not wanting her scent to be spread.
Finally, she could see the sheltering baobab in the distance. She half staggered, half plunged the rest of the way with the last of her strength. She swore she could hear growling from behind her, predators that would hunt the Hunters, preying upon their brothers and sisters in times of leanness. But somehow she made it to the rocky pile, collapsing in the soft grass, taking care to hide her wound from sight before falling into a restless sleep.
When she awakened the next morning, she found several heads looking down at her, all with looks of equal concern and worry.
Oni spoke first.
“Paka, what happened to you? It looks as if you’ve been rolling in the dust all day. And what is this under you?” she exclaimed as Paka slowly sat up to face her. “Your blood?”
“I was out hunting on my own,” lied Paka. “I was thrown into a briar patch by a gnu.”
“But the gnus are gone,” said Sigele, always the first to spy things amiss. “Are you sure that’s what happened?”
“Well…” began Paka, cursing her drowsiness that was causing her loss of memory.
“And why do you have only two punctures? And why are they so deep?” asked Sigele. “I think they just barely missed each side of your sacrum and almost got your heart. If that was a briar, it must have been an odd one.”
“I’m not sure I remember,” said Paka. “I was out cold for a while.”
“She needs to rest,” said Oni firmly, taking control of the situation before Sigele could ask another question. “Paka, we are going to try for a herd of zebras that’s been frequenting the waterhole. We’ll bring you back as much as we can.”
“Mm-hmm,” said Paka, laying down again, grateful to see her pride sisters walking away, some occasionally looking over their shoulders at her.
For the better part of a month, Paka remained at the meeting place, recuperating from her injury, which remained in her skin much longer than she expected it to. She thought about Ifama, how she was faring, and if she was thinking about her as well.
She thought about what Sigele had said about the “thorns” nearly penetrating her heart. Had Ifama pierced her heart? What would that mean? What was the significance of a once-sister piercing her sibling and nearly killing her? A duiker killing a lioness. So absurd, yet almost true.
Now it seemed they were both marked, Ifama from Paka’s jaws, Paka from Ifama’s crown. Had their blood mixed? Perhaps Paka was now part duiker, just as Ifama was now part lioness. Paka ran these thoughts through her head night after night as the skin reluctantly advanced over her open wound, slowly sealing it from the elements.
Finally, one dark, moonlit night, Oni (who had been keeping an eagle’s eye on her since the day she became injured) had left with most of the pride sisters to find a stray herd of impalas. The only lionesses that remained were expectant mothers or mothers that already had cubs to look after. They wouldn’t raise a paw to stop Paka even if they were awake. The only eyes that watched Paka leave the meeting place were those of the two or three cubs that hadn’t tired yet.
I wonder what will happen to them, wondered Paka. Will they have brothers or sisters that die and come back as duikers or zebus? Or what if they come back as apes or humans? What then?
She tried to exile these thoughts from her mind as she made tracks for the old baobab, through the dark grasses that somehow seemed to possess a different dryness than they had the last time she had walked through them. They seemed almost tense…hesitant…waiting for something.
Paka continued until she saw the tree. In spite of the pain in her chest, she sprinted to it and dropped to her belly in the shorter grasses growing around the roots.
Almost at once, a small, black-horned head peered out from a small gap between two of the larger wood bolls near the baobab’s base. Ifama leaped out, landing in front of Paka, brimming with happiness and tightly strung excitement.
“Oh, thank goodness you’re all right!” she cried. “I was so afraid for you, Paka! I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you again!”
“Neither can I,” said Paka, reaching out and pinning Ifama with a paw before she realized what she was doing. She quickly withdrew, but pinned back her ears sheepishly and chuckled with relief when she saw that Ifama remarkably had been injured no more than a lioness would be if she had a paw slapped on her back.
“Watch it, Paka!” said Ifama. “You might give me another pair of scars playing rough like that!”
With that, she sprang beside Paka’s shoulder and hopped onto the base of her neck, her upper body draped over the lioness’s head, her hooves tapping her temples.
“You know, if we walked with me on top of you, it might’ve worked just as well. The vultures might mistake you for a lion, with me as your mane!”
“Quit joking, Ifie!” said Paka, giving Ifama a mock-swat, which Ifama responded to by leaping off Paka and landing firmly on the ground in front of her, she turned around, still smiling, but with a more serious look.
“Paka – I assume your chest has healed?”
Paka scooted back, allowing the duiker to see the tiny twin scars.
“One of my pride sisters said they just missed my heart…one on each side,” said Paka.
“Rat tripe!” spat Ifama, bending her head down. “Look at these horns. Do you think your heart would fit between them?”
Paka blinked, realizing, for the first time, how small Ifama’s horns really were.
“Lion’s hearts are much larger than that, and I’m sure yours is well above average. If my horns went in as far as this sister is saying, Paka, you would be dead now.”
“I still think they touched it,” said Paka very quietly.
Ifama looked up with a look of shock mixed with amazement at the depth of Paka’s words. After a few silent seconds, she drew close to Paka and ran her sleek head along the lioness’s foreleg.
“I’m so sorry, Paka,” she said, her eyes moistening the thick fur. “It was all my fault, us duikers with our eyes so big we can see all the way around, living in a perpetual state of paranoia…I should’ve known better…”
“It’s all right,” said Paka, stroking Ifama’s back, trying to calm her, but feeling just as torn up as Ifama. “We get injured by our prey all the time, and this was no different…”
Immediately, she regretted her words as Ifama lay down in the dirt, covering her face with her hooves. She trembled and muttered incoherently but said nothing Paka could understand. Paka suddenly remembered the first time she met Ifama, and how she was wailing as she tried to deliver the fatal bite. Was that noise the language of the duiker? And how Ifama had been speaking so monosyllabically later. Could it be that the language she had been speaking with Paka wasn’t that of the duikers? Had Ifama “learned” leonine from her reencounter with Paka?
Then why was she making those same noises now? Was Ifama slipping back into her fast, searching, running, leaping life? Was she forgetting her relation to Paka? Paka reached out to Ifama, expecting her to dart away into the bushes.
Ifama looked up with sadness in her deep, black eyes.
“I love you.”
For a long time after those words they sat in silence, not daring to look into each other’s eyes. The moon slowly rose higher in the sky and the insects chirped rhythmically. Finally, they both looked at each other at the same time, as if each anticipated the other’s movements.
Paka’s mouth fell open. For a moment she could not understand what had just been said.
“I really hate to say this, but it’s us, Paka. We don’t belong together. Not now.”
“What do you mean?”
Ifama looked up at the full moon, which was partially hidden by clouds.
“A lioness and a duiker, even under these circumstances, cannot live together in a world like this.”
“But…we’re sisters, Ifama! Sisters…”
“We were sisters,” said Ifama sadly. “But that was only one life. Before we might have been born to entirely different families, perhaps in entirely different worlds. We just can’t remember.”
“I remember you as my sister,” Paka said. “And that’s enough for me to believe that you will always be her, no matter what…”
“Others won’t let us be together, Paka,” said Ifama. “Your pride may desert you, or they may kill me. Or both.”
“But we are…”
“We are outcasts,” said Ifama with a sudden deepness in her voice. “There’s no denying that. We are people that won’t be tolerated by others. If we were both duikers, or both lionesses, then we would be fine, but not now. Not as long as I am a duiker, and you are a lioness.”
Paka was about to protest again, but something in Ifama’s gaze clamped her lips shut.
“So that’s why I’m leaving, Paka. Perhaps we may meet again sometime, somewhere. Perhaps as lions, perhaps as eagles, perhaps as humans. But not now. There’s a time and place for everything, and we’ve violated that adage. We’ve both gained something, and we may remember how we met. We’ve marked each other, haven’t we?” she said, stroking one of her scars. “We’ve formed some kind of bond that not every pair of siblings makes. I’d say the odds of us meeting again are quite high, don’t you think?”
Paka nodded, trying not to cry.
“So there’s no reason to think I’m leaving you forever. I’m just going into hiding in the briars until the time is right. Until we can be together again.”
She rose to her feet and nuzzled Paka’s soft neck. Paka, feeling the tears coming down her cheeks, gently licked Ifama’s back. Ifama stepped back and was about to walk away when Paka suddenly said:
Ifama turned her head to look back at the lioness.
“I’m still worried…”
“About what?” Ifama asked.
“I often hunt creatures like you,” said Paka. “I’m not sure I can bring myself to killing an antelope again, now that I’ve met you, Ifama.”
Ifama shook her head and looked at Paka with concern in her dewy eyes.
“Don’t stop hunting what is essential for your survival, Paka. You can’t deny that any more than you can deny that you are a lioness. You live your life, and I’ll live mine.”
“Until we meet in another one?”
Ifama snickered. “You’re becoming wiser every second, Paka. I’ll miss you.”
“So will I,” said Paka.
The little antelope tossed her head, turned, and began to walk off into the grasses.
“Good-bye, Ifama,” said Paka, waving.
“Good-bye,” said Ifama. “And Paka? The dry season is over. Those clouds up there are rain clouds. You won’t have to endure this dusty weather any more.”
Dry season, thought Paka, looking up at the dark, billowing clouds. I think I just spent this dry season in paradise.
She was looking at the clouds so intently that she almost forgot about Ifama. She stood up and looked at the suddenly restless savannah. There was a tiny creature slowly walking through the grass, so small, it could barely be made out. Paka suddenly felt a stab of pain in her heart. In the open, Ifama would surely be caught and killed. And now, with the moon on high, there were surely animals moving amongst the bushes. Jackals, hyenas and other predators would be waiting in the shadows.
Yet, as Paka looked at the moonlit figure walking through the tall weeds and a light drizzle of rain began to pelt her dry back, she could almost see an aura surrounding the tiny beast, a light that repelled the other creatures like a raging fire. And there was a shape to this aura – or was it the duiker itself that was forming itself into a shape? – that was the unmistakable form that Paka would know anywhere.
A pale, tawny lioness.