Paka of Azima
Greetings. Whether you are human or beast, I urge you to continue reading. I am Rajua of Kiwara, mother of Kipofu, who was blind from birth, yet managed to survive to adulthood. He was mateless and pitifully lonely. Then Paka came into our lives. Ah, Paka. So innocent and compassionate. She let her life merge with Kipofu’s, and they became one, close partners for life. My son tells me that Paka has made him see for the first time in his long life. This perked up my curiosity. I prodded the young lioness with questions, asking her about her history and how she developed this ability to bring sight to the blind. She answered more than I anticipated, so much that I had to compile her tale into a book, which you are reading now. This is Paka’s story, and I will only interrupt your literary quest a few times, to give my own insight. As a mother, I feel it is my duty to write out the story of my dear daughter-in-law for others to read. I hope you heed my words. Farewell for now.
---Rajua of Kiwara
Paka was born to one of the many nomadic prides of the land of Azima. She tells me that she could not remember her parents’ names even if I gave her an entire wildebeest carcass. Her father was most certainly a rogue. I do not mean anything derogatory by that word since the male who impregnated me was also one. My Kipofu may be a bastard, but then, most lions are. It hurts me to think so.
Paka was raised well with her many brothers and sisters. There was and still is little famine in her homeland. Many of her siblings, however, died before they reached their first year. Paka vividly remembers her weak younger sister lying by her mother’s side, her breath and heartbeat slowing and eventually stopping forever. Her mother tried to wake Paka’s sister by licking her body and purring loudly, but the poor little cub had fallen into an eternal sleep, much to Paka’s shock. Such is the sadness of nature. We are bound to the tides of the seasons, growing ill when the lands grow barren, dying when our prey dies off. But it is a part of our lives, nature is. We live with it as best as we can.
Paka was lucky to survive to adulthood. She endured the seasonal droughts and scorching heat with incredible determination. One would hardly think that such a skinny, dark-coated, golden-eyed lioness would find a stable place in the Circle. But she made the impossible real, and there is little that Paka couldn’t do in her youth.
Many lions in her pride thought that Paka was overly inquisitive. In spite of the old adage, Paka still remained a very curious cat. She would always be the first to find the trail of the wildebeest, yet would always be the last to reach the kill. She would be too busy stopping to chase field mice on the way, you see. Paka would always be sniffing under rocks and hollow logs, and sticking her little dark nose into badger burrows, always quick enough to draw her head out in time. I am surprised that Paka wasn’t viewed as a social outcast. She not only acted differently, but her appearance was also strange, compared to other lions. Her fur was darker than the bark of an acacia, short and splotchy in places. Her ears were large and round, giving her the innocent face of a cub when she was more than two years of age. Her large, honey-colored eyes also gave her an odd look. But what really made Paka an individual were the dark freckles on her cheeks. Some of the shamans in her pride said they were darkened whisker follicles, while others said the speckles were her distinctive birthmarks. Regardless of how they appeared, these peculiar spots earned Paka her name. It means “speck,” but it can also mean “cat.” She doesn’t seem to mind how her name is interpreted. It seems to fit her like an umbilical sac.
Paka’s first true adventure began one humid afternoon, while the rest of her pride was hunting. Paka’s dark coat tended to alert the prey to the lionesses’ presence, and she also sprained her right hind leg the day before. Because of these two factors, she was left at the pride’s main meeting point: a large heap of boulders beneath an enormous baobab.
Paka decided that the best thing to do for her injured leg was to rest. This, of course, bored her out in about five minutes. She then made up her mind to go exploring the outer boundaries of the nearby rain-forest. It was only a stone’s throw from Paka’s location, so she started off, trying to take the weight off her leg.
Even from the outside, the jungle looked enticing. The songs of birds, the dripping of millions of water droplets, the howling of monkeys filled Paka’s ears, beckoning her to enter. She naturally consented. The ground was damp under her paws, and the moss soothed her sprained limb. Paka noticed several peculiar blue shelf-fungi jutting out of the seemingly infinitely ascending trees. She recalled overhearing a shamaness of her pride mention that certain cyan-hued fungi were said to release magic powers of the individual when eaten. Paka hesitated when she remembered that the shamaness had also said that a very similar species of fungus would cause the consumer to go mad. Paka decided to pass on the odd-colored mushrooms.
She continued into the dense jungle. Birds flew over her head and butterflies hovered through the air ahead of her. After several hours, Paka’s pelt grew damp with moisture and her breath grew slow and heavy. She had been in this rain-forest before, but she had never been this far. And here a narrow path, lined with young tree seedlings, led into even deeper vegetation. Paka couldn’t turn back, her curiosity was burning in her, and the sooner it was quenched, the better.
At the end of the path was a narrow tunnel of tangled vines, interlaced with crystalline, ethereal orchids. Paka dropped down on her belly and crawled through the opening, well aware that her coat would be a muddy disaster by the time she reached the other end. The seductive fragrance of the orchids opened Paka’s mind, and for a brief moment, she felt like she was a cub again, free as the wind, innocent as the rain…
Suddenly she stopped crawling. Her path was blocked by a thickly-woven, nearly impenetrable wall of white orchids. The tunnel was too narrow to turn around and too hard to back out of. For one of the few times in her life, Paka felt like she had made a mistake. But something was behind the wall of flowers. I asked Paka how she knew this, and she replied that perhaps it was instinct. We laughed about this, and she admitted that it was a joke, and proceeded to tell me the truth:
There was a luminescent glow coming from behind the wall of orchids. Determined as usual, Paka clawed at the shimmering blossoms until she discovered the mysterious source of the light. It was an incredible, pulsating ball of light. Paka told me it was like a fallen star, kept safe from the eyes of both humans and beasts, asleep in its orchid shroud. As she drew closer, however, the blinding glow slowly dimmed, leaving a strange, shiny, metallic sphere in its place. The sphere was not nearly as astounding as the shining orb of light, but Paka found it intriguing, nevertheless. The sphere pulsed with a seemingly endless prism of colors, many of which Paka had never even seen before. There was an image in the sphere, not her reflection, but something else. Paka crept closer, fearing to breathe or even blink. When she was but a whisker’s breadth from the strange phenomenon, she extended her right paw and touched it as gently as a young lioness could.
What happened next could barely be described, even with Paka’s vivid memory and imagination. She left an electric impulse shoot through her nerves, then a strange pulling sensation that seemed to pull not at her physical body, but rather her psyche and her mind. From what Paka told me, I decided that she was basically sucked into the sphere, both physically and mentally. She tells me that all she remembers from her brief time within the sphere was a great thunderstorm of colors and patterns, with flashes of light exploding at every conceivable moment. Then, almost as soon as she was pulled in, she was spit out like a melon seed, into…
Nothing, at first. The air surrounding Paka was cold, thin and (fortunately for her) breathable. She thought she was afloat in space until she looked down (or as near as she could tell) and saw a massive, snow-capped range of mountains some fifteen miles below her. Paka screamed at the top of her lungs as she realized that gravity was beginning to have an affect on her. She was falling like a stone, trying to figure out what was going on and why she touched that damnable sphere, and just before she hit the ground…she felt another spasm of electricity shoot through her and she blacked out.
As you may have guessed by now, my daughter-in-law didn’t die after falling fifteen miles through the air with nothing in-between. If she did, my tale would come to a most unwelcome end right here. When Paka awakened, after what seemed like weeks to her, she was lying half-buried in the snow of a barren mountain passage. The walls of the pass were honeycombed with caves and etched with paths. Paka looked up and saw a clear, sapphire sky, not her idea of the afterlife at all. She rose to her feet, still a little dazed, and shook the snow from her fur. For some reason, her coat felt strangely heavy, and her muscles felt taut.
“Well, well. Hiya, Pretty! You new in town?”
A gruff, masculine voice caused Paka to spin around to find herself nose to nose with a strange creature. He was like the muscular, spotted lynx that she was told tales about, but he was enormous! Almost as large as a lion! His coat was terribly scruffy and patchy, and even Paka considered his fur to be in worse condition than hers. And his tail…he had no tail! Well, except for a fuzzy stub of fur on his rear, but she had never seen such a tail on a cat before. His face was also ridiculously scruffy, with a large tuft of fur that drooped in front of his huge brown, glassy eyes, which were rimmed with black and graced by large, sagging bags under each of them. There were two cuts on the left side of his mouth, giving him a split-lip look. His huge ears ended in black tufts. His legs, which were fat and muscular like the rest of his body, ended in enormous, hairy paws with extended, onyx claws. To make a long description short, Paka told me later, he wasn’t the sort of guy you’d like your parents to catch you with.
After taking in the creature’s ugly physique, she replied to his slurred remark:
“What the hell did you say?”
“I said, why don’t we get to know each other a little, Beautiful?”
Paka was quite offended by this time, and her right hind leg was aching like mad. “You stay away from me, Buster. I don’t take to sexist males, especially ones of a foreign species!”
“Waddaya mean ‘foreign,’ my tender carcass? You don’t look that bad to me.”
The creature was slowly approaching Paka, and she was naturally backing away. “”I’m warning you, Big-nose. Don’t come any closer, you hear?”
Paka’s threats towards the male were ironic, since she had never fought a male in her life, let alone one of a different species, and what she lacked in strength she made up for in snappy comebacks, some of which weren’t well-worded.
“Aww, are you scared, Fluffy-paws? Don’t worry, Lobo’ll make your worries go away. Just c’mere, Sweetums.”
“I said back off, you hairball!”
Paka stopped in mid-sentence. Something cold and hard had touched her back. She shrieked and spun around to face another of the strange, hairy giant cats, only this one was a female. Paka froze, ready to fight. The other female did the same. After several minutes, Paka relaxed and slowly approached her rival. To her astonishment, the female again did the exact same thing. Suddenly Paka sensed that something wasn’t right. She reached out a paw and touched the outstretched paw of the female. She squeaked in terror. Her leg was almost twice as thick as it had been before, covered in matted, shaggy, dark brown fur. Huge, black, hooked claws stuck out of her huge, padded paws. After a long while, Paka moved her gaze to what she finally realized was her own reflection. A huge, chubby, muscular, stub-tailed, blotchy-coated, lynx-eared cat looked back. She touched her cheek with a paw, nearly scratching herself with her own claws. Yes. She was that creature. Yet…
She looked more deeply into the image. It had a smooth, dark brow and fiery orange eyes. More closely…yes. On each furry cheek was a cluster of dark freckles. She was another creature, but she was still Paka. She was still in there. But in spite of this reassurance, she began to panic.
“What am I? I’m a…a…”
“A Gulon, Precious, what else?” said the male behind her.
“A Gulon, of course.”
“What the heck is that?!”
“It’s a large, savage feline that lives in the mountains of Northern Europe, as if you didn’t know.”
“A ‘Gulon?’ But I’m not a…” Paka turned to her reflection again. “Aaaaagh!”
“Sheesh, you scream like a harpy, girl. What’s up?”
“A Gulon?!? A Gulon?!? But…”
“Is there an echo around here? What’s with you? Did a flea lay some eggs in your ear?”
“A Gulon…?” Paka kept on repeating the strange word over and over, unaware that her shrieks had brought several other Gulons to the scene. Suddenly, a massive paw touched Paka’s broad shoulder. “Come with me, my dear,” said a soft voice. “I will tell you what happened.”
She was too stunned to do anything else. Also, her leg was killing her. An older Gulon, with a white mane of fur and a small crystal necklace around his massive neck, escorted Paka into a large cave near the base of the mountains. The cave lengthened into a tunnel, which led down into a massive chamber, lined with stone shelves and tables, lit by a hanging golden pan filled with glowing coals. In the dim light, Paka could just make out a small figure searching through one of the shelves’ implements.
“Kama!” bellowed the aged Gulon, “You inflamed lizard frenulum! I told you not to snoop around in here! Get out, you little minx!”
At the sound of the voice the figure turned around. It was a slim, female Gulon with long whiskers and small, flashing green and blue eyes.
“Kama, get out now before I change your brain into a slug!”
The female broke into a maniacal grin and giggled hysterically, then bounded past Paka and her companion, up and out of the cave.
“Who was that?” Paka asked nervously.
“Oh, just my half-crazed niece Kama. She’s always looking for some crazy potion in my study, preferably something that’s been outlawed by the Society of Shamans and Shamanesses, you know, something that would give you another head or turn your blood black. You know the type.”
Paka decided not to say that she didn’t. She stood still, watching the Gulon rearrange the flasks and bottles that Kama had knocked over.
“You probably noticed that she has a tail that’s almost as long as she is,” he said, scribbling some symbols on a slab of slate. “Mixed some coyote fur with the Essence of Creatures and rubbed it on her rear, I reckon. She’ll probably snuff herself one of these days. That doesn’t worry me. What worries me is the fact that she might reincarnate in the same era as me.”
The mention of a tail made Paka think of her own (or what was left of her own). She turned her head to look at it. The sight of the bushy stub made her remember what it used to be, and she grew panicked again.
“Look,” she said to the Gulon, “You said you’d tell me what happened to me. Where is this explanation?”
“Coming, my dear,” the Gulon replied, fetching a wooden box from a shelf and lifting a flat, metallic object from a table. “And I am Ezri. Chief Shaman of the Mlango Pass for over a century, at your service.”
“Eh, thanks, Ezri. Can you tell me what happened to me?”
“Of course,” replied Ezri, placing the box and the flat thing on the ground in front of Paka. “First, though, we need a bit of your DNA.”
“’D-N-Aaaaaoow!” roared Paka as Ezri yanked a tuft of fur from her front leg.
“Sorry, my dear,” said Ezri, placing the fur in the center of the mirror-like, flat object, “But the hair is essential to this process.”
“Hush. You will see.”
The ancient Gulon knelt in front of the strange, flat mirror so that his necklace charm touched the glass. The mirror shimmered for a moment, then was blank again.
“So,” said Ezri, rising to a sitting position, “You are Paka.”
“You know me?”
“No, I just know your name. And also…” here he tranced out for a moment, “…You are (or were) a lioness from the land of Azima, no?”
“Such a curious youngster too,” Ezri said, clicking his tongue, “You touched the Sphere of Connection. Tsk, tsk, tsk.”
“That’s what that thing was?”
“Right on the bean, Paka, dear. When you fell out of the sphere, you entered our world. We Gulons do not exist in your world, and you don’t exist in ours. However, humans exist in both worlds. These mountains are completely surrounded by the hairless primates, but we are safe in Mlango.”
“Yes, Ezzie, but what about this?” asked Paka, pulling at one of her black-tipped ears.
“Ah, your transformation. So sorry about that, but if I didn’t change you into a Gulon, you would be starting your next life right about now.”
“Why is that?”
“Your extra layers of fat and muscle cushioned your landing,” explained Ezri, “And your enlarged skeleton also saved you. Not to mention all that fur and your padded paws.”
“Charming, but I don’t exactly like this bod.”
“I guessed as much, my dear. Fortunately for you, I have an ointment that is supposed to turn a feminine specimen of Lynx Familiaris Mytholosis into her original guise, in this case a female of the genus Panthera Leo.”
“Could you please say that in English, Ezri?”
“It changes you back into a lioness, silly girl!”
“Oh. Silly, I should have realized that at once.”
“I can also guide you to a similar Connection Sphere which will transport you back to the place from which you came.”
“Oh yes,” continued Ezri, “But one minor note, Paka: This mountain range is completely surrounded by a fairly primitive city built by humans. It is also inhabited. Since you cannot be seen in the city in your Gulon form or your lioness form, I have altered the properties for the ointment so that it temporarily turns you into a convincing Homo Sapiens.”
“What does that mean?”
“Before it changes you into a lioness again, it changes you into a human, of course.”
“A human!” exclaimed Paka. “Good grief, will there be no end to this crazy shape-shifting?!?”
“All in good time, my dear. We have many pieces of human life right here in this cave. Skulls, clothing, skin, jewelry, even that mirror that you ran into outside. Kama and several other females demanded it. They are so vain sometimes.”
“Oh yes, and another minor note, Paka: the ointment will only keep you in a human form for a few days, so you and I should move fast, lest we get caught up in something really hairy.”
“But Ezri, why are you going to so much trouble to get in me in my right form and transporting me home?”
“Your journey will have some good in it for me,” replied the ancient Gulon. “I will be able to spy on the humans and learn more about them, so that our tribe can defend ourselves from their race.”
“And another minor note: the ointment must be applied to your skin, evenly and thoroughly. Only don’t apply any of the stuff to your head, otherwise you would become a bald human, and no true human approves of that.”
“’Minor note,’ ‘minor note,’” mimicked Paka, her patience growing thin, “Any more ‘minor notes’ from you, Ezri, and I’ll pound you until you’re a B-flat!”
“My my, a little feisty today, Gulon. But no matter,” Ezri sighed, taking a flat, glass jar from a shelf and picking a small leather pouch from the floor. “Follow me.”
He padded outside, with Paka following behind. The scruffy, split-lipped Gulon that Paka first met was waiting by the cave entrance, whistling at her and waggling his eyebrows. Paka stuck out her lower lip and thrust her nose into the air. “Is Lobo bothering you again?” inquired Ezri. “Don’t worry, just ignore him. Little chauvinist.”
He sat down in the wet snow and lay the flat container in front of Paka. It was filled with a turquoise hued, waxy substance, which smelled so enticing that she was almost tempted to taste it.
“No, no, no!” bellowed Ezri. “Don’t do that! If you eat that stuff, you might grow an exoskeleton!”
Paka stopped reaching for the container and sat back, looking sheepish at the thought that she almost turned herself into an insect.
“Believe me, dear, if you think you look ugly as a Gulon, you don’t even want to think what you’d look like as a beetle! Or something worse!”
“Apology accepted. Now, rub on some of the ointment. Go ahead, it won’t bite.”
Paka reluctantly massaged the sweet-smelling stuff into her thick fur, being sure to cover every inch of her body, with the exception of the top of her head. After all the ointment in the container was gone, the ointment that was covering Paka’s body dissolved. She felt a little nauseated, but aside from that, nothing seemed to have changed.
“Your transformation will not be immediate, Paka,” explained Ezri. “It will be gradual, day by day. You should become human in about five days. That gives us just enough time to journey to the boundaries of the humans’ city. So let’s go.”
Ezri slung the leather pouch over his muscular shoulder, poured what Paka assumed was a powder into his necklace charm (which turned out to be hollow), and began to walk out of the pass, following a small path. With one final look at the village of Mlango, Paka turned and followed Ezri, the pain in her leg slowly subsiding as she walked.
Paka tells me that her journey through the mountains was not as perilous as she had anticipated. The shaman Ezri guided her through the icy, frigid lands for several hours. Both of them began to grow hungry and tired. Suddenly, Ezri stopped in his tracks. He raised his large nose, sniffing intently. Then he bolted like a leopard, darting through a small grove of trees quicker than Paka thought possible, putting on the brakes inches away from a half-decayed, fly-covered, long-dead deer carcass.
“Yeeeuugh!” squealed Paka, wrinkling her Gulon’s nose in disgust. “What the hell is that?”
Ezri sniffed the carcass deeply, probably inhaling a couple of flies in the process, his nostrils flaring in ecstasy. “Honestly, I can’t tell just by looking at it, lioness, but my nose tells me that this is, without a doubt, lunch!”
What happened next was inevitable. The old cat opened his toothy, muscular jaws and plunged his face into the hideous spectacle. A cloud of flies filled the air, and Paka sat back, too stunned to make any further noises of distaste. She tells me that she did not know that Gulons ate only carrion, even though she was one at that time. “Again, Rajua,” she reminded me, “I may have been a Gulon, but I was still Paka. If you saw me, you would know.”
Ezri wolfed down several dozen chunks of the stiff, smelly meat over the course of several minutes. Finally, he turned his face (which was covered all over with something Paka was glad she didn’t know what it was) to his companion, grinned a toothy, “Gulon-ish” grin and slurred: “Well, dear, something like this reminds me of the good old days! You wanna try a mouthful?”
Paka’s entrails twisted themselves into a square knot, and she just managed to stammer: “I’ll pass.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing, Paka,” replied Ezri, and with that he waddled off to the edge of the grove of trees, dug a small hole in the snow, turned around in a circle a few times and settled down, his enormous, swollen stomach rising and falling slowly and regularly.
Paka scratched frantically at her left ear. For some reason, it, and all the rest of her body was itching. Probably just dry skin, she thought. After scratching for a few more minutes, she also turned in for the night (even though the sun hadn’t set just yet).
She awoke the next morning with a scream that would make a howler monkey cover his ears. I was amused to hear about this, but she was not, and she had a good reason behind her action.
“My hair is falling out!!!” she shrieked, her eyes wide. Clumps of her matted, patchy Gulon’s fur were all around her in the snow. She scratched her back and even more hair came away in her claws. “Aaaagh!”
“Yeesh, Paka, what’s up…?” muttered Erzi, who was just coming to at that time. “Oh, my! I see that ointment is working on schedule! With the exception of the top of your head, your hair should be coming out right about now!”
“I’m loosing my hair!” Paka shouted.
“I’d have guessed that, girl. Don’t worry, you have plenty left on you. And we still have plenty of time left to travel to the edge of the mountains before it all falls out. Great stuff, magic. Y’just gotta believe in it.”
Ezri got up and stretched. Then he checked the strange, crystal amulet which dangled among his thick, white mane of hair, picked up his leather pouch (Paka still didn’t know what was inside) and walked back through the woods, with a heavily shedding Paka in tow.
Paka didn’t go into the details of her transformation with me. She obviously doesn’t want to remember them. But what she did tell me was short and simple. As she and Ezri trekked down through the mountains, the shedding of hair took place over the course of about three days, along with the shortening and rounding of her large, black claws. Her teeth grew dull, her vision deteriorated and what was left of her black-tipped tail disappeared. After the end of day three, Paka had lost almost all her fur, with the exception of her scalp, which was covered with a shaggy mound of dark, thick hair. Her toes were lengthening into fingers, and her back legs were growing longer and built for walking erect.
“You will need these, catkin,” said Ezri, handing her some earth-colored humans’ clothing out of his pouch. “Lest you freeze to death before we get out of the mountains.”
With some difficulty, Paka put on the clothing. It was simple: a dark green shirt, a rope belt and a brown pair of pants. The shaman also gave Paka a pair of leather sandals to protect her tender feet from the harsh rocks.
The next day, Paka practiced walking upright, as humans do. “You need to make a good impression on the humans in the village,” explained Ezri, “Otherwise they may grow suspicious and catch both of us.”
“Ezri, how will you disguise yourself? You haven’t told me how yet.”
“Tomorrow, dear. Tomorrow I will show you.”
They were near the boundaries of the village as the sun set. Paka stretched out and wrapped herself in the heavy robes that Ezri had in his pouch, then fell asleep without much difficulty, hoping that she would get back to Azima soon.
When she awoke the next morning, her companion was gone. There were no tracks in the dirt, no signs that he could have been eaten by another animal: he had just vanished.
“Ezri!” Paka called. “Ezri, where are you?? Eeeeeehz-riiiiii!”
“Wouldja pipe down, you crazy human!” said a small, scratchy voice. “I’m right here!”
The voice seemed to be coming from inside her brain. “Ezzie?” she asked. “Where are you?”
“I told you! I am in your right ear, my dear!”
“What do you mean?”
“I have changed myself into a deer tick and I assumed your ear would be the safest spot for me to reside. No human will notice me here! They’re probably crawling with parasites!”
“Oh. I see. Remind me not to scratch my ear. You won’t bite, will you?”
“Not unless you do something bad,” squeaked Ezri. “Now, get my mirror out of the pouch. I left it by that tree over there.”
Paka fetched the small mirror and gazed into its face. A shaggy-haired, freckled, flame-eyed human girl stared back.
“Your transformation is complete,” said Ezri. “But you won’t stay in this form for long, so we’d better move quickly.”
“Ezri, do you think I look like a human?”
“Well, the nails are a bit long, Paka, but that’s no big deal. And those orange eyes of yours…the humans will probably take those for colored lenses. The freckles are normal…tongue could’ve been a bit thicker, but then, you don’t talk too much…and your skin looks nice and hairless…you’re ready, girl! Let’s get movin’!”
Paka placed the mirror in the pouch, slung it over her shoulder and walked down the small hill and into the outskirts of the city. Her thoughts were unclear at the time – possibly aftereffects from the transformation, but Paka tells me that the only thought that clearly bit at her mind was “Damn, my ankle still hurts!”
There was nothing much around the outer rim of the town, just a few beggars and some that had drunk too much alcohol. Some squatted in the shadows, others staggered about, barely missing Paka as she gingerly stepped beside them and out of the human slums, into the more civilized sector of the city.
“Paka!” said a shrill voice in her ear.
“Issat you, Ezri?”
“Yes, my dear, but don’t talk too loudly! The humans might think you’re talking to yourself.”
“Now, there will be many odd humans and beggars asking for money, food and whatnot. Do not take heed of them, or they’ll all start hanging on you, and when a true human is this close to an imitation, they may notice some of your…well…oddities.”
“Okay. Ezri, I’ve been thinking…are there any other creatures here in misplaced forms or bodies?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised! But the typical human is usually too blind to notice them, or much of anything, even more so in your world.”
“Agh, don’t remind me,” groaned Paka, squinting her dulled eyes ahead of her. All her senses had been dulled, and she had as much chance of finding and downing an antelope in that crowded city as a monkey has of courting a hyena. After several strenuous minutes, her elongated digestive tract began to feel pangs of hunger.
“Dost thy other mouth call me?” intoned Ezri from inside her ear. “Don’t worry, I have several strips of dried rabbit in my pouch. Help yourself, Paka.”
Gratefully, Paka leaned against an earthen wall and swallowed some of the lean strips of meat. Her present teeth were not meant for shredding, just as her digestive tract wasn’t meant for unchewed flesh, but she knew that she would be a cat again soon.
Again, she began walking down the streets, with Ezri whispering directions in her ear. “Keep going, my dear. That’s it. Point your nose east and keep a-going. Thaaat’s it, Paka. I’ve gone down these streets a dozen times, I know them, all right.”
“But Ezzie, you said that you’ve never been down in this city.”
“Not in body, Paka, but in mind, on the other hand….or paw.”
“Oh, I think I see now.”
“Come on, Paka dear. Your time grows short. I don’t know how much time exactly, but I advise you to keep moving. I don’t know exactly how or when your second transformation will occur, but just keep moving. We’ll know soon enough.”
Paka crept through the dust streets, often flattening her body against a wall when a strange-looking human came her way. Yet none of them approached her, strangely enough. After a few more hours, she noticed a young, dark-skinned human boy lying crumpled against a wall, his emaciated hand outstretched, his mouth moving slightly. Paka approached him cautiously, and noticed that one of his legs was terribly deformed. It looked as though it had been ripped off at the knee, twisted about, then reattached the wrong way. Paka winced at the thought of her own pitiful leg. Her lioness side urged her to pass him, since she didn’t have many hours of humanity left, but her human side asked her to speak to the boy, to ask him questions, to help him somehow.
For some reason, Paka’s lioness heart was swallowed by her human shade. She delicately stepped over to the poor boy and spoke to him softly. “Hello, friend. What is the matter?”
The boy looked at her as if she were a princess in distress. He blinked his large, grayish eyes and replied in a rough, seldom-used voice. “You have food for me?”
“I do have some food. But, who are you?”
“Everyone call me Josef. You?”
“Paka of Azima, Josef. Why are you…”
Her words were cut short by Ezri’s shrill voice in her right ear. “Paka! Are you nuts?! Get moving, this is no time to play 20 Questions with a human!”
“Shut up, Ezri,” Paka hissed. “He’s hurt. I gotta help him.”
“He’s a human, nothing more, nothing less, Lioness!”
“Get outta my head, you crazy tick!”
“What you say?” asked the dark-skinned boy, staring at her in the manner of a newly-born cub. “You give me food, Pah-kah?”
“Of course,” said Paka, giving him a strip of meat from her pouch. “Help yourse-oww!”
She snarled in pain (as well as her human mouth could allow) as Ezri bit the skin inside her ear and spoke again. “Ptthah! Kipaka of nowhere in particular! Get moving NOW! You’re too human to be leonine! If you don’t get moving, the sphere may never accept you! Move! Move! Move! Now!”
“Don’t call me by my root name, ya crazy, eight-legged arthropod! I’m going, Ezri!” snapped Paka in anger.
“This taste good, Pah-kah,” said Josef as he gummed the dry meat. “You are kind to me. My God bless you.”
“What’s with your leg?” asked Paka. “Here, let me help you up, Josef.”
Paka’s white hand clasped Josef’s earth-colored hand and pulled him to his feet. A warm glow seemed to course through Paka’s body, then the boy cried out in surprise, as if he’d been stung by an insect (or bitten by a misplaced deer tick, in this case).
“Pah-kah, what have you done! My leg don’t hurt no more. I’m walking!”
He let go of her hand and unsteadily walked across the street, touched the wall, and almost ran back into Paka’s arms.
“You mus’ be magic wommon! How you do it?”
Paka was so shocked and confused that she didn’t know how to react. She smiled gently at the boy and patted his head. “You’re a good boy, Josef,” she purred, “And you deserve better. I have to go now. Good-bye.”
As she walked away, she could sense Josef waving one arm wildly in the air, the other gently rubbing his twisted, deformed leg.
“Nice sentiment, Paka-wacka,” said Ezri in a mocking tone. “Where did you dig up that gobbledygook?”
“Nunna your beeswax, Ezri. But tell me this: What the heck happened back there?”
“Beats me, Paka. I’ll think about it. Just don’t make me bite your ear again, ya taste terrible.”
“And I’m sure you’re an expert on ‘terrible,’ you carrion snarfer. Just give me directions.”
Paka kept walking on through the cities with Ezri’s help. The cities gradually grew thinner in buildings and humans, giving way to trees and grass, blessed wilderness. Paka tells me that she remembers little of the human civilization, and is grateful that she cannot.
After several hours, Paka and her companion were fully clear of the city.
“Well done, Paka! Free of the city as a misplaced human! Never taught my students anything like this!”
“Okay, Ezzie. So where’s this connecting sphere?”
“Towards that grove of trees, my dear. Over by the…Oh my goodness!” here his tiny voice rose into a shrill squeaking scream. “Oh my goodness! There’s hair growing like weeds in here, Paka! You’re changing into a lioness! Egaaaad! I’m bailing out!”
Paka felt nauseated and dizzy. She barely saw a large deer tick fall from her right ear, which was starting to grow rounded and furry, as was her left. Instinct caused her to run towards the grove, although her world was spinning around her, either that or her rapidly changing form was spinning around. Her hair felt frazzled, her sandals slipped from her feet and she fell forward, still spinning about as far as she could figure out.
Finally, with one final lurch, she dropped forward on all fours – oh, to be on all fours again – and felt her fur sprout along her spine, her coccyx lengthen into a tail, her hands shrink into padded paws and her senses sharpen like claws on stone. She then slipped out of her ratty human clothes and held out a paw at arm’s length. It was hers. But her face…she retrieved the mirror from Ezri’s knapsack, which had slipped from her shoulder during her transformation, and gazed into it. Finally, the mirror told the truth – a tawny lioness with dark freckles and honey-colored eyes. Paka of Azima…and she was ready to go home – if it weren’t for her damn sore leg, which, unlike the rest of her body, hadn’t changed at all.
“Ah, I see you have changed, Paka, my dear.” Said a familiar voice behind her. Paka spun around and saw Ezri, in his full form and sweating like a warthog.
“Uggghh, it’s a good thing you aren’t a Gulon now, my dear. You’d probably fry in your skin. God, it’s hot.”
“Where did you come from, Ezri?”
“This form, you mean? Oh yes. I simply drank the powder I stored in my crystal pendant. Pretty strong stuff, that. The powder restored my old form so that I may safely guide you to the sphere rendezvous. Afterwards, I shall become a winged insect, so that I may fly home without human contact.”
“Super. I’m glad to be out of that human city! Omnivores…Oy!”
Paka paused for a moment. “But tell me this, Ezri: what happened back there with Josef?”
“It wasn’t a magic trick you picked up from me, Paka. You were undoubtedly born with the power to heal the disabled.”
“Yes, like you’ve always had the power to return to Kansas, Dorothy.”
“Too obscure. Come on, let’s get to the sphere before I cook in this unbearable heat.”
Ezri guided Paka through the small grove of trees to what he called the “Sphere of Connection.” It was nearly identical to the sphere that Paka discovered in the jungles of Azima, only this one was perched upon a gnarled stump, pulsating in a shaft of sunlight which came down from above.
“The humans have not discovered this sphere, and probably never will,” explained Ezri. “The mental blocks they create could build another Great Wall of China. They don’t believe in magic, so they obviously never see it.”
Paka approached the sphere cautiously, remembering how she first entered this land.
“Go on, it won’t bite.”
Paka slowly turned her head and glared at the ancient Gulon. “Ezzie, if I drop into another weird realm through this thing, I’ll slap your nose off. And it’ll hurt.”
“Don’t worry, Paka. You won’t be around to do that.”
“Do you think we’ll meet again, Ezri?”
“Very improbable, m’dear. Now get moving.”
“Why? I don’t have any more limits on this trip, do I?”
“No, I just like suspense. Now move on, girl. So long.”
Paka drew close to the sphere. Ezri still stood behind her, wagging his tail in anticipation. She stared deep into her reflection; her fiery eyes, her dark fur, her irregular specks. She then extended a paw and touched the sphere as gently as a young lioness could. And again, Paka was sucked out of one world and into another.
When she was spit out of the world within the sphere, she realized she was hovering in the air, several dozen feet above the savanna. Immediately, gravity beckoned, and she fell through the hot, dry air, bounced off a baobab branch and crashed into the dead grasses directly beneath it. A scream just escaped her lungs, and abruptly changed to laughter. In spite of herself and her sore leg, Paka was insanely happy to be in familiar territory.
“Eh? Whoozat?” said a voice behind her. “Oh. It’s you, Paka.”
A young lioness was reclining on a flat rock on the other side of the baobab tree. “Just dropped in, did you?”
“Uh…I guess so,” stuttered Paka, “But where am I? How long have I been gone?”
“You are in Azima, Speck,” replied the lioness, flicking an ear. “And you’ve been missing in action for about two days.”
Huh, said Paka to herself. I guess time really does fly when you’re having fun. “So what’s going on?” she asked aloud.
“The other lionesses are out on a hunt, minus the ones that aren’t fit. That includes me (here she gestured to her side, which appeared to be slashed by a warthog tusk) and I guess you. They’ll be back soon.”
“Great,” muttered my daughter-in-law, stretching out her sleek, lioness’s body on the dusty ground. “For some reason, I have a strong craving for fresh meat.”