Mara has always known it would come to this, sooner or later. There were things that were unavoidable no matter how hard he tried to keep out of Groot's way.
He wiped the warm liquid trickling down his muzzle. It tasted thick, salty and it throbbed with pain. It was blood and it was his.
"Come on, you loser, get up! I am getting bo-red! Bo-red! " Groot shook his mane and turned to the rest of the pride sitting in a silent circle around the clearing stained red. He lifted his head and roared, and his mighty muscles tensed up. Groot smelled death in the dry grass, and a victory within his reach. This was easy, a child's play. He was bigger than Mara, stronger, he was the young prince in waiting, and he has never lost a fight.
Mara stood no chance. He rolled on his back and relaxed. His bloody paws rested limp by his side.
"Let's finish this. We have a hunt to prepare, and though you boys might like to play, some of us need to eat." Father twitched his tail and the rest of the pride broke the circle. A good, solid fight was a stuff of stories for years to come, but a foregone conclusion and a certain outcome was of hardly of any entertainment value even for a moment longer than it took to see how the odds stacked. Father, every lioness, every cub, and every youngling could see as plain as day that Mara was finished. There were more important things to attend to.
Mooi's heart skipped the beat. The roar that came from the clearing was choked with fear and pain. It sounded wrong. She rushed with the rest of the pride back to the circle of the crushed grass.
Mara's teeth were sunk into Groot's throat and he was dragging the lion's massive body through the dirt, just as if it were a baby impala calved only this afternoon.
Mara growled through the blood gushing from the lion's wound.
"...I could kill you now...just say the word, you son of a bitch...say the word and you're dead...."
Mooi broke the ranks and leapt to the two males locked in the deadly embrace. Mara stepped aside to let her through, and she leaned over to nuzzle the wound on Groot's neck. The wound wouldn't kill him but only just. Mooi lifted the lion's head and stared at the blood pooling from his eyes.
She turned to Mara and yelled through the pride's frozen silence.
"You blinded him, you monster! What are you?! You tricked him, you...you took him by surprise, you...That's not how we...this is not how the lions fight!"
And that was the thing.
Mara was not a lion.
Father let out a low, deep growl Mara had grown to know so well.
"You have not deserved it move out of the way."
"Father, I haven't eaten in three hunts now, I-"
"-you haven't caught anything in three hunts now, either out of the way, boy, I am not as easy to push aside as Groot was. I won't say this again move."
Mara watched in anguish the pride feeding for the third day running while he starved. A bird dead too long even for vultures to pay its carcass any attention sometimes helped to ease the hunger, but the dry season was at its peak and even the rotten leftovers were hard to come by.
He waited for the dark. Mara might have been the poor last compared to Mooi and her sisters - he has never been able to fit in with the group effort - but Mara could move on a moonless night as if the Sun blazed as bright as the noon, his paws soundless and soft, his body sleek and stealthy, his bite as swift and silent as his pounce.
Mara might have not have the bulk of Father and the brothers, but he knew how to fill his belly even when the pride left him starving. He knew where the prey the pride hunted through the day slept at night. Left to his own devices he knew how to get his food.
But most important of all Mara knew how to keep it.
'Hey. Spotty! Hey! Mind sharing the lunch, eh? You have an impala, I have a case of monster munchies, how's that for a winning combination? Hey! Spotty! Come on! What's the big idea with the tree, eh? Hey!" Geelbruin paced under the acacia tree where Mara enjoyed the afternoon shade with his half-eaten last night's catch.
The young lion growled at the the dappled shape high up in the branches. He'd gladly swipe one of his huge paws at Mara's head, but he'd have to get to Mara first. Geelbruin snorted. Damn Mara. Damn his stupid tree antics.
"Father will tear you to bits, you know that thing with Groot was the last straw - you're not gonna get away with this, runt!"
Mara waited for the pride to assemble underneath the acacia tree before he climbed down, leaving the impala carcass safely on the branch too high for any of the younglings to scramble up to, even if they felt ambitious enough to try.
Mara sat in silence. Father stood head an shoulders above even the largest of the brothers. On a good day one could see the tips of his thick, dark mane as far as the plain went.
"Mara, you will share your kill with the pride, and you shall wait your turn. We share, boy, and we wait our turn, that's how things have always been and that's how things will always be. You know the rules everybody hunts everybody eats."
Mara straightened his back and looked up at Father. His gaze was calm and unwavering.
"I caught it." He bared his teeth ever so slightly. "I caught it - I''ll eat it."
"I knew I should have dealt with you long time ago, just like with those other cubs before my time. But no, 'He'll change, Father, he'll learn to hunt with the rest of us, he'll lose his baby-spots and grow strong and take over a pride of his own one day,' Mooi said and I let your sister talk me into keeping you alive. You should've perished where she'd found you. You failed at everything that we do. Look at yourself, boy - you look wrong, you do wrong, you think wrong. You are not one of us, Mara, you are not cut out to be one of us. Leave."
Mara blinked. This was the only home he's ever known, the only family he's ever had and heavens knew he tried so hard.
"I've never been outside the plain...I don't know where to go..."
"That's neither my problem, nor care - just like you, boy. If I catch you within my territory again-" the old lion paused and looked at blind Groot and his brothers, before letting out a warning growl, "-they'll be feasting on your bones."
He spent the night under the stars, awake. The light breeze carried the scent of warm blood and Mara felt hungry. He looked up to the sky filled with the tiny specks of light just like the shimmering dust on the water surface at sunset.
He knew he wasn't a lion and that he'd never been one.
But if he wasn't a lion what was he?
He could hunt at night just as he always felt he ought to, he could sleep in the shaded tree and hide from the blistering heat, he could go wherever he wanted and never to worry about being hungry again. Mara had the whole world at his paws to explore and he was all alone.
"See, I think this could work. We'd make a great team. Your skill, our numbers - we can't go wrong." Skelm narrowed his eyes and carefully approached the twin glimmer of bright amber in the dark, tearing at the body of the young eland caught barely an hour ago.
"We-" Skelm turned toward his fellow hyenas, looking for a show of approval, "-we are your friends right, guys?"
The rest of the pack whined in agreement. Skelm was a clever leader and if Skelm thought this was a good idea then nobody would argue about it. Well, not with a fresh, hardly touched eland so close by, that's for sure.
"And friends do stuff together." Skelm sneaked closer to the pair of golden green eyes shining in the dark.
"You want to eat go get your own," Mara growled.
"You mean...? Oh, heavens forbid! We're friends, we'd never thought about doing sucha ...awful, dishonest thing, right guys?" Skelm looked toward his gang again. They must have missed the cue because he raised his voice again and gestured vigorously behind his back toward Mara. "Right, guys?"
The pack hurriedly yelped in unison.
Skelm slowly positioned himself at the safe distance form Mara's powerful jaws, but close enough to savour in the smell of the kill.
Mara bared his teeth and Skelm quickly pulled back.Everybody has a sore spot, the hyena thought, and if you push it hard enough, everybody gives in eventually. It just a matter of finding where to push - and push hard.
"Lets see you get hurt. Or ill... We'll help each other, we stick together," Skelm turned on the charm.
"Beat it. Whatever you're selling, I don't need it." Mara grabbed the antelope's carcass by the neck and dragged it up the tree in a few quick leaps. The hyena blinked. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
"I had a cousin with the spots just like you. And big he was, strong guy like you, too. Then The Plain lions killed him." The hyena groped in the dark for anything that would bring this fine feline around. He came closer and whined. "You know every time a lion takes over the pride to become the Father, he kills all the cubs sired before his time? And the lionesses can't do a thing to protect them? How barbaric."
Skelm watched Mara stop for a moment, and he knew. The sore spot. Everybody has one.
"Poor kid. Never told you're good for anything, am I right? Living of your wits and trying to keep your nose above the water, with noone of your kind to look up to or show the way? I bet them Plain lions never told you, right?"
The hyena leader strolled over to Mara's tree.
"We might look a bit different but what's a little diversity amongst the kin, I ask you? Spots, muzzles, fur and paws, who's to say it matters, who knows what the Great Hyena had in mind when he made you?"
The dark made no difference to Mara's sight - but loneliness can blind even the keenest of eyes.
"Who are you?" he asked.
Skelm smacked his lips. And now - the finishing touch, he thought. The hyena raised his head and grinned.
"We're your family, bro welcome home."
"I don't know...You lot look ...strange." Mara frowned.
"Different tribe, my boy, we're..." Skelm thought hard about the quickest way out of the tricky conversation spot, "...we're from the North that's right, from the North. Don't let that bother you , my boy - kin is kin. Not a big deal it's all just..." he grinned "...cosmetic, you know. You close one eye and what do you know - you can hardly tell us apart."
Mara watched the grazing wildebeest with growing anxiety.
"Skelm, I work best when I work alone. There's too many of them, anyway. I guess I can take that calf over there-"
"-calf won't do, my boy, there's barely any meat on it. We need that big bull at the front to take us through the day."
"Skelm, they are too big and too many of them. Even the pride would have had a hard time making a kill."
"Don't you worry about it, we're behind you all the way." The hyena rubbed his head against Mara's broad shoulders."Now do your thing, boy, and make your family proud."
Mara crawled on his belly as close as he could, upwind and low to hide his scent. The big bull was now only a few strides away. Mara tensed his muscles and jumped.
Blood stained his fur scarlet red where the bull's horns tore through Mara's belly. Mara had just enough strength and presence of mind to push himself away before the wildebeest rammed his horns deeper into his flesh. Now the pain was searing blind hot into Mara's brain.
The hyena shuffled to the wounded cat, and squinted.
"Tough luck, kiddo. Shit happens, at the end of the day we can't all be winners."
"...what...what happened to 'we're behind....you...all the way'?" Mara pushed his words through the world turning red and upside-down.
"Change of plan, kiddo. You're on your own now."
The nightfall held him in its hand , stroking Mara's blood-stained fur with its cold, damp fingers.
A young wildebeest stood by and watched the cat's shallow breath rising in the faint mist above the dry grass.
"Are you hurt? What happened to you?" the wildebeest asked.
Mara opened his eyes. The calf moved a step closer, then she'd back away a moment later, unsure, nervous and curious, all at the same time.
"...an...accident..." Mara fought for breath in rapid, fitful bursts.
The wildebeest sniffed the air, her tail twitching.
"You're hurting. And you need water. You're funny looking fella. What do you eat? I can get you something better still, my mother and father would know. I'll go wake them up-"
"-no!" Mara did his best to raise himself. The gash in his belly opened afresh and he yowled with pain."No need water would do. Water..."
The wildebeest ran away . Mara slipped back into the darkness.
He was woken up by the wet muzzle pushing in his face.
The wildebeest nudged the leathery leaves under Mara's chin.
"Lick the dew. It's not much, but it will keep you alive."
Mara's mouth felt dry.
"You're a brave kid... I mustn't fall asleep again...Would you talk to me for a while? I could do with a friend... just don't let me fall asleep..."
The young wildebeest stood her distance.
"My kind and your kind can never be friends." She shook her head and backed away.
Mara smiled weakly.
"...and what...what is my kind?"
The young wildebeest trembled.
"Your kind is the one that kills my kind. And it will always be so."
The wildebeest run away and Mara lost the sight of her.
He turned on his side and closed his eyes.
"...so much for me trying to be a good guy..."
He's been watching from the distance Skone and her three young cubs for days now. Their paths often crossed - Mara rested in the shade during the burning, dry heat of the afternoon, while she chased the herds of gazelles across the grassy plain. Skone was slim, long-limbed, with the dark markings going from her eyes to her nose and the rosettes dotting her pale-golden fur - almost like his very own. Skone was a good huntress, Mara thought he was more muscular and stronger, but she was as fast as the summer storm, taller, lithe of body and swift of movement. He'd break his nap just to watch her run. His fascination rarely held for longer than Skone's brief sprint, but always came back with every lightning-fast dash she cut through the plain.
Mara had noticed The Twins even before their lazy swagger gave them away. Two cheetah brothers never believed in hiding their presence. The grassy plain was theirs as far as the eye could see, and everybody knew to move out of the way and mind their own business as far away from the brothers as the legs would carry them.
There was plenty of food to go around. Skone could hunt there if she asked nicely and if she obeyed the rules.
"Skone! Looking good, oh yes," Dief purred. "Where have you been keeping yourself, girl, we've been missing you."
"Lots," Windgat added. "Three mouths to feed and no male around, I see." He wrapped his long tail around Skone's slender hunches. She backed away. Skone was afraid, Mara thought but he wasn't.
There were now too many cats for his liking.
He came out of his shaded hideout and stretched his powerful back. Mara yawned and leisurely scratched the piece of the dried-out bark for long enough for the twins to take in the size of his paws and muscles on his neck. Mara made sure the tree line was behind his back. He crouched.
"Hey! Buster! You dropped something!" Dief hissed at the silent intruder stealing their scene.
"Yep. A dump," Mara growled under his breath. "Why don't you come closer it smells better."
Both brothers knew Mara could take on the prey three times his size and drag it up the tree without so much as breaking the sweat, and the twins were in no mood for a fight, not over a female who still suckled her young. Windgat motioned to his brother and the twins pulled back.
"Good work, Skone!" Dief snarled on his parting. "He's short, fat, slow and ugly what a catch. I wish you all the luck, girl, you'll need it."
Mara was about to say that he's neither short, nor slow and certainly not fat, but the twins took off and in a moment they were gone, chasing each other on the other side of the plain.
Skone waited for the sundown to make her move. Mara made her nervous, he was the oddest looking cheetah she'd ever seen. She had to admit Dief was right Mara was indeed stout, stocky and slow, but he was also calm, strong and fearless, and when one has to keep three small cubs fed and out of harm's way, strong and fearless counted for a lot.
Skone lowered her head and sat a tail-length away from Mara.
"I have a nice little place, just over there, behind the rocky outcrop."
Mara remained silent.
"You can come, if you want to," Skone said quietly.
Mara thought it over. He wasn't sure he wanted to, but after more than four seasons on his own, he could do with some company.
And the way he saw it, he could do far worse than Skone.
"So you're sneaking out at night again, aren't you?" she hissed.
"You want me to feed the family that's the only way I know how." Mara was getting restless. He saw no point in going over the same argument over and over again.
"You could do it with me," Skone growled.
" I cannot I work best my way. I'm fast, Skone, but I can't compete with you, I get dizzy and sick. I tried."
"You could have tried harder. If you cared. If that mattered to you."
"This is not my life, Skone. It hurts me, it drives me mad. You don't need me around. You'll be better off without me. I have to go. "
"And do what? Run away again? What happens when you run out places to run to, Mara? Mara!"
He stopped and turned around.
"I tried my best, Skone. I've never meant to hurt you."
She waited for his shadow to disappear in the moonlight, before whispering her forlorn reply.
"But you have. Just like all the others."
Mara paused to catch his breath. The springbok lying at his feet has finally stopped twitching, and he released the bite on its throat.
"Mind if I hang around?"
The sound came from behind Mara. He tensed up, alert and ready.
The pale shape took its place by Mara's kill.
"You must be new around here haven't seen you in these parts before," the stranger grinned.
"Easy, kiddo. I'm not after your dinner," the shape purred in a friendly gesture and let his face come in to view.
Mara looked up. The stranger's voice was inviting, his head respectfully lowered, his movements deliberate and relaxed. He had a bright white mark under his chin and the rosettes on his fur were small and densely packed just like Mara's. It was the way the stranger smelled - there was no scent at all, but Mara didn't give a second thought to the minor oddities these days. He was almost four years old now, and nothing surprised him anymore.
"Mara. The new kid well almost," he introduced himself.
"Gees. Old fart. Most definitely," the stranger grinned.
There was a tone in the stranger's voice, soothing and reassuring, just like the pattern of the small rosettes on his fur. Gees was easy to talk to, and Mara hadn't talked to anyone for a long time. If I had a brother, Mara thought and felt the pang of sorrow in his heart, I'd wanted him to be Gees.
That's how the night started.
They talked about their favourite night hunts, about how beautiful it was when the Moon shone its light in silvery slivers over the blades of the grass laden with dew-drops, about the sound of the fish splashing in the shallows of the pond at the last hour before the sunset. Mara would talk about his childhood with the pride, the brush with hyenas, about poachers after his fur, angry baboons after his head, and Skone, Skone with her three cubs, lonely, lithe, highly-strung Skone looking for someone he could never be, something he could never give back.
Mara paused and looked at the clear night sky. The first watery light of the nascent dawn was about to start breaking through the wisps of clouds suspended in the air like the feathers floating in the deep blue water.
"I've always looked for something else. Someplace else. Where the skies would be always bluer, the stars always brighter, the food always more plentiful and I would be somehow better, happier, where it would feel like..." he stopped himself mid-sentence. "I have been a bad lion, a stupid hyena, a lousy cheetah. I failed Father, I foolishly believed Skelm and I let Skone down." Mara drew a deep breath. "Hardly an achievement of a lifetime."
"Maybe - just a guess - because you're... not a cheetah?" Gees squinted at his friend.
"Dammit, Gees, if I'm not a damn cheetah, what the hell am I?" Mara growled.
"You're a leopard, kid. And a mighty fine one if you ask me." Gees pointed toward the half-eaten springbok."That's one mean dinner you got yourself there."
"What the heck is a 'leopard'?" Mara snarled.
"Dunno, kid, " Gees roared with laughter, "I tell you what - next time you go for a drink , why don' you have a look at yourself in the water and see what you can come up with?"
"So I am just like you?" Mara asked.
"Just like me, kid. Only better." Gees lowered his voice. The sadness crept in his wistful purr. "And smarter. You have a whole life ahead of you, Mara, Don't waste it away."
Gees rose to his feet.
"The sun is rising. I must go back now."
"I want to come with you Gees, wouldn't you want me to come with you?"
Gees shook his head.
"Where I'm going, kid, you can't follow."
"But you can't go now, not now, you're the first of my kind, not now when I found you!" Mara roared with anguish. "You're kept captive somewhere, is that so? Humans caught you, is that so? I've seen them, they keep you in one of their cages, right? I can save you, Gees, I can come with you and save you-"
"-you cannot save me, Mara." Gees smiled. "And you'll never lose me. I'll be always here. Always." Gees touched Mara's chest where his heart pounded like the thunder.
"And stay away from humans, Mara, humans and their cattle. They are the easy way out. Never take the easy way out, kid - the easy way out will kill you in the end."
His calls went unanswered. And Mara watched the last of his friend's shape blend into the tall grass as the first rays of the breaking dawn shone their light on the plain, taking Gees's face back to the ebbing night, just like a breath.
Mara walked in silent strides toward the village clearing. It took him less than a day since Geese had left to pick up the trail, and once he'd found out what he was looking for, there was no way he'd ever turn back.
The stench choked his lungs. Mara knew the smell well it was a smell of a carcass left to rot for days in the sun and heat, left to maggots and birds to feed on the shell that once had life coursing through its veins. Mara held his breath as he approached the clearing. There were the bones and chunks of meat in a thick, congealed liquid in ochre-coloured vessels that smelled foul to him, the scattered leftovers from the feast some two nights before.
Mara stopped by the tall wooden rack in the centre of the clearing. This was where the trail stopped, and this was where the choking smell of death was the strongest. Mara dared not look up. He didn't know why, but his head felt as heavy as a sleeping rhino, and his paws stood glued solid to the ground, unable to move.
Mara swallowed hard and lifted his head.
A mangled carcass was tied to the frame. The empty, dried out eye-sockets sunk deep in the skull had looked their last into the moonlight almost a week ago. It made no sense, - this couldn't have possibly been... there must have been some mistake... but Mara knew all too well what he was looking at.
He stared at the spot of the bright white fur under the chin, covered in the dried blood and torn to shreds, patches of deep red showing underneath the soiled fur.
The four-by-four stopped at the edge of the dirt track and a woman in khaki shorts whispered to the small group of men and women with wide-brimmed hats on their heads and cameras hanging from their necks.
"...Now if you be quiet and still, and if we are lucky, he'll just might make his appearance. Remember quiet and still."
There was a movement close by, and the wide-brimmed hats and the cameras followed the gentle sway of the tall grass.
"Oh my god, he is beautiful!" The hats came down and the cameras clicked as fast a cicada's love song.
"He is, isn't he? He is the pride of the reserve, our very special cat. My favourite," the woman in khaki shorts said in the hushed voice.
Mara watched the humans with the lazy curiosity. He got used to the rumble of the engines and the clicking spoiling his afternoon nap. He rolled over and stretched his back.
Mara stood up and sniffed the air for his distant mate. Her musky scent rolled over his tongue, making his pulse rush with anticipation The cubs have left now and Bemin was coming to season again. That meant it was the time he paid her a visit.
Mara waited for the sundown before he made his move.
Bemin lived at the edge of the bush. It wouldn't take him long, he knew his way with his eyes closed. He might stop for a quick snack, maybe take a present of a freshly caught fish to her as a token of his affections.
He was the leopard in the tall grass, he was almost ten years old, and the life was beautiful.
~To the creature we see every time we look in the mirror. To the leopard in the tall grass in all of us.~