by Aubrie Dionne
Deep in the core of night, when every soul except the most daring slumbered, the palm leaves rustled beside my cot, and I felt eyes on my back. “Namdi, are you coming?”
I lay curled on my side, feigning sleep and trying to calm the erratic rising and falling of my chest. Maybe if I ignored him, he’d go away.
My brother hissed, more persistent and intense, “Namdi, wake up!” His hot hand shook my shoulder.
“So be it.” I whispered under my breath, although I wanted to disappear underneath my cot and hibernate until hunting season played its hand. I should have known better. Early on in the night, I heard boar’s teeth clinking as my brother threaded them through strings. Now, he towered over me, his newly made necklace hovering just above my forehead. I hoped that was as close as I’d come to sharp incisors that night.
“As you wish, Takata. I’m ready.”
“Good. The silver moon gleams bright, and the Leeu reigns free. Tonight, we hunt in his domain.”
I rose to my feet, feeling weakness in my joints. The mention of the Leeu made my spine shrink. I grabbed the spear my father had carved for me at the first sign of hair on my cheeks and followed Takata from the darkened hut to the moonlit bush.
“We’ll capture it and prove our worth.” In stark contrast to his dark skin, his teeth shone ferociously in the white light. He’d dabbed his forehead with paint, and the pattern made him look like a true warrior. I felt like a child in his shadow.
He pulled me to the nearest baobab tree, and we hid underneath the scraggly branches. “I’ll wear its paw upon my throat and its fur down my back.”
“Hush, Takata, your boasts will tempt the gods.”
My brother exuded the fearless confidence only found in youth. “Let them come. They will witness my triumph and bow.” He flexed his spear. The tip extended two feet longer than mine, his height lending him a longer reach.
The bush stretched out in an endless plain marked by patches of baobabs and silhouettes of monkey oranges with ripening fruit. I heard the barking call of a hyena and crouched lower in the shadow of the branches. Even at night, the bush was wild and alert, every part of it alive.
“Come on.” Takata pulled me forward, and I almost dropped my spear with my sweaty hands. We ran underneath the stars, and I could feel the eyes of the Leeu watching us, biding its time like a tarantula creeping upon a sleeping man. Only we weren’t sleeping. We had spears. Grasping mine to my chest, I whined to myself about how I’d much rather be snug in my cot.
A shadow moved in the distance, jumping behind an outcropping of rock. “There it is!” My brother’s eyes grew wide, and he clapped me on the back so hard I almost fell to my knees. “Let’s go!”
We stalked the moving specter across the plain. I struggled to keep up with Takata, not because I wanted to reach it, but because I didn’t want to be alone in the dark. Our hasty footsteps skidded over the sand and brush, and I feared one of us would step on a black mamba and end our night trek with one fatal leap.
“Takata, you’re going too fast!”
“I don’t want to loose it.”
When we circled the rock, we saw a robust wildebeest, its striped neck catching rays of moonlight.
My brother sat back against the rock. “Damn. It must have been separated from the herd.” He would not spear it because it was no challenge to kill.
The wildebeest rolled its eyes at us warily and returned its attention to something in the brush up ahead.
“Why does it not run away from us?” I peered into the darkness but could see nothing.
“Stupid beast’s probably feasting on crabgrass. Look how round and fat it is.”
But watchfulness shone in its large eyes, and it did not bow to the ground to eat. The wildebeest backed toward us, and I knew then we weren’t the only mammals tramping through the plain.
“Takata, I think we should get out of here.”
“Don’t be silly. You’re scared by a wildebeest?”
Before I could respond, the beast’s hind legs heaved, and it took off in a sprint. Just beyond where it stood gleamed a pair of golden eyes. All at once, I realized the animal wasn’t as dumb as I thought it was. It had used us as a diversion to get away.
A growl, low and fierce, rumbled my innards. Takata leapt up and positioned his spear. It was too late to run, and so I watched in horror as the Leeu approached.
The beast’s head rose to my brother’s shoulder. Its mane was full and thick, white at the crown of its head and growing darker as it trailed to the sand. My brother froze, entranced by its unwavering gaze.
“Spear it Takata!” I whispered from behind a bush. But my brother’s hands shook, and he dropped his spear. I watched in horror as the beast took a step forward with a paw larger than my outstretched palm. My brother stumbled backward, falling on his rump. The Leeu opened its jaws and prepared for an attack.
“No!” I shouted before I could think and stood up, waving my arms. The Leeu gave me an indifferent glance, and his eye returned to my brother. I jumped from the bush, heart flitting like the wings of a tsetse fly, and threw myself between them, holding up my spear. All I could think of was protecting my brother, for all the jeering he caused me, I loved him more than life itself.
“Go away!” I yelled so hard my lungs felt sore and lunged with my spear.
The beast’s eyes narrowed, and his whiskers twitched as his jaws snarled back at me. A ferocity arose inside of me, hard edged like a blade. I stood my ground, poking my spear as best I could and did not think of the sharpness of its teeth.
I chanced a step forward, driving him back with the tip of my spear and the sharpness in my voice. Perhaps he saw the runaway wildebeest, or perhaps he grew tired of our game. Whatever the reason, the Leeu turned and sauntered away without a backward glance. Long moments later, I collapsed to my knees, my body going limp. I felt as though I’d transformed to a beast myself and back again. The rush of energy died within me and tears ran down my cheeks.
I felt Takata’s arms around me, picking me up and turning me to our village. The smoke from the morning fires tinged the air, and dawn rose behind us in a wash of relief.
“I owe you my life, brother.” His voice was weak and full of awe. No longer would he tease me. I’d won his respect and that was the greatest triumph over all.
“You may pretend to be a coward, but inside you have a lion’s heart.”
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