The cold sweat pearls moistened his shoulder blades. They grew and gathered into rivulets that crept along the indent of his spine, they dripped across the hollow of his shape and seeped into the rushes of his sleeping mat – the sour sweat smell reached up into his nostrils.
The child woke from his horror dream. He lay still, too afraid to move while he listened to the breathing in the hut. He was sure it was all human breathing. He knew the owners of each fluttering pattern. He named his family in his mind as he ticked off the familiar rhythms. For the moment he felt safe. He could wake up now, and know, there was no lion here.
This waking was a challenge every day. He fought against the fear and groped toward reality. Over and over the task demanded his attention. His energy was spent in clutching the last threads of calm before panic overtook him.
This thin, quiet child was the son of a great chieftain. He was not a joyous hunter. He was not a graceful runner. He hung his head and walked awkwardly and slowly, restrained by the great fear, which stalked him through the day and haunted his sleep at night. The child could not take part in playfulness and in adventure because the child feared lions.
In his inmost secret soul was the sure knowledge that one day a lion would seek him out and he would be destroyed, consumed and would exist no more. He felt powerless and feared the wind, the plains, the open sky, the tall grass and the sounds of day and night because all this reminded him of the stealthy stalking lion. No reprimands or encouragement could ease the dread the child was feeling.
The wise old chief observed his son. The tribal destiny rested on this child who was so different. Different from the other children and different from the sons of chieftains in the past. The fire stories had not described, till now, the history of a small thin boy consumed by fear. The chief had faith in the great universal prophesy and watched with patience and with compassion but with growing concern.
The boys grew and the time came for the initiation journey. The wisest teachers had long since taught the ritual ways. The boys must go alone to seek their adult manhood. This was the time to test their skills as trackers, as hunters, as independent decision makers. How well had they remembered lessons about cloud patterns bringing storms, the habits of small animals that might be easily caught for food, the insects that told where to find honey-laden plants. They had each made their own hunting sticks and water skins. Now was the time to test how well these tools were made. They must remember how to find fresh water and plants to heal their injuries.
The chieftain’s son set out across the plain. His fear was heavy and his ribs ached with his dread.
In the late afternoon he was hungry and tried to catch a nimble lizard. He ran and being awkward, lurched and fell. His long thin leg had folded, had failed him, had trapped him and now the pain held him still in the dust.
His only shelter was the long sparse grass.
The sun slid down behind it’s coloured curtains. A warm breeze blew. Birds filled the sky. A vulture circled, swooped, fixed the location of the injured boy on its long way home to rest. In the morning it would pass again. The quarry might be weaker then.
The icy stars came out. The breeze turned cold. The pain crawled and gnawed the boy while his fear grew. He shivered, scratched his way deeper into the old earth and fought the salt tears in his heart and eyes.
The boy’s ears tricked him. Tricked him into terror. He heard grasses rustle, heard soft even padding, heard the faintest purr and rumble of a giant breathing. He closed his eyes hard, tight, searching for courage in the inner darkness. Courage that he did not find. He peeped through long wet lashes as the tears ran down his cheeks. His peeping grew to wide-eyed terror as he recognised the shape that sat before him, half-concealed and half taunting in the silver moving grass.
There sat a lioness, observing, with cruel green eyes, weighing his bones in her cold mind, tasting his flesh. She rose and prowled with graceful power. Circling closer she inched toward the child. The child who wept and shivered and stared with open eyes and soundless screams alone in the dark night.
Closer the lioness came, with heavy scent of sweat and blood from recent kills. The lioness now breathed into his face and opened her great jaw. The child saw only yellow teeth and ceased to feel. The soft red tongue extended, dripped, then, with the gentleness of butterflies, licked the teardrops from the boy child’s face.
The lioness settled her great body on the grass and lay stretched out beside him. Reaching with a paw she drew the child down to her, wrapped her arms around him, drew him close into her warm soft belly fur and locked him in her safe embrace.
Exhaustion chased the fear away and the chief’s son slept, deep and long, with his head on the arm of the lioness, guarded from the fear and the pain and the vulture slowly circling.
While he slept the great lion spirit moved and spread and seeped into his heart so that when he woke the lion spirit had claimed him. In that place where the fear had always lived there was now strength and wisdom, strategy, compassion and endurance.
As the sun rose slowly the lioness and the chief’s son crossed the plain. The lioness led the way towards the river. The Chief’s son limped and leaned his weight against her shoulder. His fingers gripped her fur while she supported him. When they rested the lioness used her paws to capture mice and lizards. She brought them to the hungry boy to keep him strong.
Soon they arrived at a waterhole where the boy bathed his swollen leg. Remembering his lessons he knew the special leaves to gather that would take the pain away. He rubbed their juice into his skin and breathed their fumes in deeply. He remembered how to make a heavy plaster from the river mud to encase and protect his leg so that it could heal.
The lioness stayed close. She hunted fish to share and kept the chief’s son warm at night. They followed the river’s long and twisting path watching sunsets and the stars at night. During the long days of silence the boy was changed. His great fear was dead. He learned to run, leap over logs, climb high in trees, laugh back to birdcalls and to sing his tribal songs as he followed the lioness along the winding river path.
When the time came for the boy to return, when he had learnt all he could from the initiation journey, they came to a spot close by the village. From a hill above they stood together looking down on the cluster of huts. They watched the women at their work, some gathering wood, some grinding grain. The children played pretending to throw spears or digging holes in search of grubs. The chief’s son knew that he must part with his dear friend.
The lioness crept silently away and the boy went on alone following the path towards the village. One by one the village people noticed him, standing tall, leaning on his spear, his eyes shone proudly, his leg was healed and he was now, at last, a chieftains son.
His people gathered round to hear the story of his journeys, to share the lessons he had learnt and to celebrate and praise the spirit of the plains that had guarded him and brought him home. As darkness fell the fires were lit and there was drumming, dancing and storytelling far into the night.
In time the chief grew old but was well satisfied. His son was strong and wise. He hunted with the strategy of a lion. He was patient and effective. He had great courage and he was a worthy leader. At times the young chief went into the grasslands and spent many days away. He sat by the river or lay in the grass curled into the side of a great wild lioness, drawing closer to the lion spirit. He listened to the voice of the breeze through the grass and with his head against her side he heard the rumbled breath of the lioness as she breathed Ooboodoo; the name of the lion spirit.
The seasons passed, the young chief saw his lioness coat grow rough and sometimes marked now with the blood of battle. Her own blood. The lioness was no longer agile and sometimes ate the small delicacies she had hunted once for him. The muscles did not ripple as they used to. He felt the bones inside the golden fur. The lioness was slow.
At last the chief’s son killed an antelope and carried it across his shoulders to their meeting place. He threw it down to share with his old friend. The lioness growled low in her throat and said:
‘It is time that you bring me this offering but you must know, no man can hunt for a lion. A lion takes too much and each must hunt his own game. This will be our farewell feast. I must go my way and you must go yours. Before we take leave of each other I must know whether my work here is complete.’
‘In all our time together I have taught you the sacred laws that I was sent to teach. You must tell me the pieces that you kept. What were the things you learnt?’
The young chief was deeply sad but knew that nothing is forever and that he must give back the teaching. He drew a breath and said:
‘Oh wise and gentle lioness, you have taught me many things, too numerous to tell, too subtle to remember, too sacred to disclose but of all these you taught me one great thing and that I give you back. When you breathed into my face and dried my tears you taught me that when one faces fear, truly looks it in the eye, it is ones greatest friend. That fear up close brings courage, wisdom, love. You taught me to know my fear and love it and that has made me strong.’
They feasted on the kill until the lioness said:
‘You came alone across the plain and you must go again.’
The young chief stood and took the first hard steps away. Away from his dear friend and away from his old self. As he strode with each new step his heart grew cold and hard and heavy and tears filled his eyes. The tears ran down his cheeks this one last time. A warm wind dried them as he walked, dried the tears with the gentleness of the lion’s tongue. Some tears ran down inside and melted the hard cold pain around his heart, until it was once more light and soft and gentle.
The lioness lay a long time in the grass and spoke with the great lion spirit.
‘I know the time has come for me to join you but I do not want to leave this place. I do not want to leave the young chief whom I love. I do not want to leave his children or the grassland or the river’.
‘Great Spirit tear me now to pieces, take the particles I offer and place a piece of lioness in every lonely, frightened child; in every sad and weary youngster on his initiation journey. Great Spirit make great hunters, wise warriors, compassionate leaders from the fragments of my spirit that I leave.’
The Great Spirit replied: ‘The old law says you must come home but you have made a proposal bearing better fruit. I will do as you suggest and I will change the law in favour of your wisdom’.
From that time on all children have in their hearts the spirit of the lioness to protect and warm them. To lick away their tears and to help them stalk their courage when it is hiding from them.