I wrote this story a year ago, but in the light of recent events, I have this need to share it again.
This is for Cecil the lion…and for five elephants slain in Kenya on Monday…and for countless extinct species….but mostly, this is for kindness and humanity.
Because, we are the only guardians of our own future.
“My dear friend, it is time we part our ways.”, a lion said to a little girl.
She looked up into his golden eyes, her small hands braiding a sun-kissed mane: “But why? I don’t want you to leave.”
“I don’t want it either, my tinny human. But some things are not meant to last.” his soft growl beget her heart to skip a bit.
“Please, don’t leave me.” she whispered, tears brimming her eyes, then softly tumbling across her freckled cheeks.
“Do not cry, little one. You will always remain my one true friend, but now I must be yours. I hear them coming for me, frightened human souls, trying to catch and tame what is untameable.” He slowly rose from the ground, stretching his back, inhaling the wind heavy with whispers of death. “Remember my dear, although I am a cat of a different coat, my claws are still sharp.”
She flung herself at him, trying to encompass his neck with her small arms, burrowing her head into his fur, trying to memorize the feel, the smell of him. “What can I do? There must be something. I know I must let you go, but I need to know I’ll see you again.”
“You will see me in every sunrise over the savannah, in every stretch of grass caressed by gentle wind, in every herd of antelopes with heads held high and noses searching for danger…You will see me in every shadow of a tree, when the sun is high above…You will see me when the rains come, when the lightning splits the sky, when this dry valley turns into a pool of life…But above all, you will hear me…When this quiet corner of the world is bathed by the silver of moonlight, when all once cherished is forgotten, when humans are hidden behind their walls and all the land once more belongs to those wild in heart…Then you will hear me, you will hear my roar.”, his voice rumbled like a distant thunder, yet soft like the gentlest drum. Turning to the east, his mane dancing to the soundless music of wind and shadows, his gaze fixed on the horizon, he sang to her: “Promise you will grow up to be the best you can, to keep us safe from harm, fierce creatures that are chased by those who don’t know us. Promise you will become our guardian, in the times ahead, when our furs and our tusks will be more valuable than the sight of us freely roaming this land. Promise you will never forget a little cub you found in the tall grass – hungry, tired, alone. For I shall never forget a little girl who made me a great lion.”
“I will never forget you, I promise.” her whispered words followed his retreating form, her heart breaking in harmony with his every step. In a blink of an eye, he was gone, golden beast hidden in a sea of green. As the retreating rays of cheating sun stole the daylight, small voice shouted to the sky, to the stars blinking above, to the world: “I promise!!!”
The car stopped at the side of the road and she jumped out. Worn boots sank into dirt, reminding her of long bare-feet walks on the Skeleton Coast last spring. “Always chasing after lions.”, her father teased her for years, not knowing how his words cut her to the bone. She made her way to the jeep, where a ranger was waiting for her.
“Hello, Doctor. It’s just up ahead, over the ridge, some three hundred feet in the bushes. We marked the way, but kept our distance, as you instructed. Let me show you the way.”, the ranger started walking towards the marked path.
She waved her hand, stopping him: “It’s all right. I’ll go alone.”
“Etuna, please.”, passing by, she squeezed his forearm and he acknowledged her with a nod.
Familiar heaviness settled on her shoulders, demanding more effort with each new step. It was a road she traveled too many times, always fearing who will be waiting for her at the end. As she stepped closer, a sudden gush of wind parted the grass before her. There he was, lying on a ground. Matted fur that lost its golden shade years ago, ribs protruding, sides covered with scars, once glorious mane now brown and tangled. But to her, he was still beautiful, unchanged from all those years ago, from that golden sunset when they parted ways. Slow rise of his chest was the only sign of life, his eyes closed, his body flattened to the ground.
“Hello, my friend.”, she whispered, sitting down beside him.
He opened his eyes, low rumble greeting her.
“Here, let me help you.”, she gently lifted his head and slid beneath, resting him on her lap, her hands combing his knotted mane with practiced ease. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
“Hello, my tinny human. In the end, It was always you and me.”, he spoke softly, his eyes squinting in the late summer sun. “Could it be any other way?”
“No, it couldn’t.” she smiled, looking down to the valley, green ocean spreading as far as the eye could see, its surface broken by islands of colors and life. “I saw you, just as you said I would. Everywhere I looked, there you were, every step of the way. And every time I faltered, I felt you pushing me further.”
With his eyes still closed, he turned his head to her: ” And I saw you. Last spring, on the Skeleton Coast, with your little one. You looked happy.”
“The lions were back. After all these years. I was happy.”, caressing his forehead, she sighed: “So,you were there. I wasn’t sure, but I hoped you were somewhere close. I imagined walking on that beach alongside you, watching the ocean, defying the wind. Every large paw print I saw, melted my heart. My daughter was hoping she would see you that day.”
“You told her about me?”
“How could I not? Every night I tell her a story about a lion and a girl, about their friendship and their adventures. You know, she found a cub last month.”
“So, the story continues.”
“Imagine that, the story continues. But it will be easier this time.” She gently took his head in her hands and whispered to his ear: “Open your eyes. See.”
With an effort he unhurriedly opened his eyes, his gaze encompassing the landscape of life before them. Herds of zebras and wildebeests on the edge of the lake, single line of elephants making their way through the tall grass, hippos splashing in the river, lions lazily sprawling under the trees, mountains in the distance hiding where the desert meets the ocean.
“You kept your promise.” he whispered, as a sudden tremor shook his weakened body.
“I kept my promise. And I will never give up.”
“I am so tired.”, he lowered his head deeper into her embrace. “It was a long journey, but the stars brought me back.”
Tears blurred her vision, falling quietly onto his mane: “Rest, my friend. You are home.”
Tucked away safely, unobserved by all the life around them, with the warm earth bellow and the blue skies above, with the sun and the wind playing the ancient game of hide and seek, the lion and the little girl said their goodbyes.