Chapter 4: Growing Up

 

            They buried Sulubu on a hill overlooking the river.

            It had been one of his favorite spots to play or to simply laze about and enjoy the land around him. The hill was high and covered with rich grass, and the waterhole could be seen just to the south.

            It was a place that held strong memories for Dhahabu...

            ...rolling down the hillside into the river...swimming soaked onto the bank...Sulubu's voice: "What are you talking about? You didn't stalk me--you just caught me off guard, that's all..."

            Dhahabu squeezed his eyes shut.

            Sitting on the hillside with him were all those who had cared for Sulubu: Tembo, Taraji, Malkia, Mfalme, and the rest of the Kiburi Pride. Before Mfalme's paws was a small, uneven mound of dirt. The Lion King had ordered his mole scout to dig a grave deep enough to keep away scavengers, and Tembo had dragged a large stone onto the mound to discourage digging.

            Dhahabu forced his eyes open, forced himself to look at the grave, wishing once more that he were the one inside it. He looked up at the others. Malkia was weeping piteously. Tembo's head was lowered. Taraji simply stared into space, not blinking, a look of shock permanently etched into her face. The fur under Mfalme's eyes was dark, the flesh sunken and hollow from lack of sleep. He still remembered with pain how it had felt to lift his son's lifeless body onto his back and carry him home...

            The wind whined softly across the hilltop, stirring Mfalme's mane, and then at last he spoke.

            "There comes a time in this life when we lose our faith. We begin to doubt the Circle, we wonder why it has dealt us the life that it has. Such a time is now."

            Malkia leaned against his shoulder, shaking with her sobs.

            Mfalme looked down at her mournfully. "I will not even attempt to guess why the Great Kings took Sulubu from us. Perhaps he was meant for better things. Perhaps he was too good for this world..." His voice cracked. "But whatever the reason, and whenever we know it, if such a time comes, we must move on. Life is meant to be lived; Sulubu would not want us to spend our time in endless mourning. We are the Kiburi Pride, with duties to ourselves, to our subjects, and to the land."

            One of the other lionesses nodded solemnly. "That is true. Sulubu was the best hunter I have seen in years; he would want us to continue the hunt."

            Malkia sighed and wiped the tears from her eyes. "Your words are meant well, but they bring little comfort--I have lost my precious son!"

            Mfalme nuzzled her and peered anxiously into her face. "Yes, my love, but you must also remember what you still possess..." He glanced down at Taraji and Dhahabu, side by side, their faces displaying different but equally emotional stages of grief.

            Malkia followed his gaze and blinked. "You are right, my mate. I have let my sorrow blind me to a great joy." She turned towards Tembo. "And I have you to thank for this. Tembo, you are welcome among our pride from this day forward. As long as your father does not know where you go when you play, you will be safe." She turned back and looked at Dhahabu, whose shoulders were slumped. "And I have the feeling a friend like you is exactly what Dhahabu needs right now..."

            The wind rose again, and Mfalme lifted his head to the sky. "O Kings, take care of my beloved Sulubu. He will be strong for you, for whatever you require of him."

            With these words the lionesses rose to their paws and began the slow return to the pride's den. When the last lioness was gone, Malkia rubbed on Mfalme's side and then turned and followed them. Mfalme glanced down at his son. "Dhahabu..."

            "Dad..." The golden cub's voice was husky and low from disuse. "I just want to be alone for a while longer, OK?"

            Mfalme nodded in understanding, then glanced meaningfully at Taraji and Tembo. Slowly the lioness cub came out of her shocked reverie and rose to her paws. She rubbed half-heartedly against her brother and then joined her father. Tembo gently touched Dhahabu's back with his trunk. "When you need me, I'll be there," he whispered. Then he joined the two lions, and together the three turned and descended the hillside.

            For a long moment Dhahabu remained frozen in place. Then he collapsed across his brother's grave, tears streaming down his cheeks.

            "Sulubu...I know you said it wasn't my fault, but if you hadn't had to save me, none of this would have happened. I just knew we shouldn't have gone to Kivuli, but you were so excited, and we thought it was safe, I guess the hyenas moved in after that zebra colt was there..."

            He was babbling. Bringing himself up short, Dhahabu fell silent. Then he laid his head on his paws. "You wanted me to be the best king ever, bro, but that's not possible--that's what you would have been. I don't know how I can ever be what you wanted me to be..."

            The cub squeezed his eyes shut. Sulubu, pouncing on him from the acacia tree...Sulubu, standing proud and defiant when Mfalme confronted Damu...Sulubu, eyes fixed on a line of termites...Sulubu, nuzzling him...Sulubu, teaching him how to be a better hunter...Sulubu, leaping to save him from Mwizi...

            Sulubu, bloody and dead.

            Rising weakly to his paws, Dhahabu stared morosely at the grave one last time, the grave where his innocence lay interred with his brother, then turned and stumbled down the hill toward the waterhole. When he reached it, he plunged his muzzle into the cool and refreshing water and drank thirstily. Lifting his head up, Dhahabu looked around belatedly. There were no hyenas or any other animal around; it was as if the Circle had frozen for this one day in memory of his brother...

            His brother...He sniffed the air wildly, a confusing welter of thoughts running through his mind. It was impossible! He'd seen his brother die--yet he could smell his familiar scent! Was he losing his mind?

            Glancing about for answers, Dhahabu suddenly noticed the young kigelia tree beside him, which he had ignored when he came to the water's edge. Its branches waved in the wind, their leaves rustling softly, like a well-remembered voice whispering to him words of comfort.

            Uncertainly he approached the tree until his muzzle was to the rough bark. Then he sniffed. Stricken, he fell back. That was his brother's scent--still there from when he had last marked that tree, an ephemeral remnant of the brave cub who had died for him!

            Dhahabu's tears welled up anew. That was all he would ever have--smells, dreams, memories, patches of shed fur in the pride's den. This place, in fact everywhere around him, would always remind him of his brother. Wherever he went, he would see him.

            He turned back to the waterhole. Gazing at his reflection, he barely recognized himself. His fur was still caked with dirt from Kivuli; dried blood surrounded cuts on his forehead, sides, and belly. On his left shoulder, he could clearly see the four jagged wounds, far from healed, that Mwoga had given him. He would carry those four wounds for life, as scars. One more thing to remind him of who he had lost...

            Dhahabu paused in mid-thought. What was he doing to himself? Sulubu would not want this! His father was right, he had to move on. The past could not be changed, only the future.

            "But it's so hard to let go!" he cried aloud.

            Slowly, as he stared at the landscape around him, Dhahabu's thoughts returned to his memories of his brother, but this time he remembered them fondly, as treasures to be preserved and examined in times of sorrow. Slowly he contemplated Sulubu's dying words--they had been a command, but one given out of love, one intended to guide his path for years to come. How could he refuse his brother's wishes?

            He glanced up and watched the wind stir the grass beside the waterhole. It was as if an invisible presence were there, running through the savanna, never quite tangible but real all the same. He thought he heard a soft laugh, thought he saw the flicker of a tuft of hair on a leonine tail, and then it was gone.

            Suddenly Dhahabu didn't mind anymore that every place he went would remind him of Sulubu...that meant he would never forget him. And his brother would always be with the Great Kings, watching over him. Perhaps the Circle required him to be a great king, and as long as Sulubu lived, his strength would overshadow Dhahabu's.

            "I will be what you want me to be, brother," he whispered.

            Impulsively he began to groom, determined to restore his coat to its former beauty. He eyed his reflection in the water between licks, and what he saw pleased him--slowly his golden color was emerging, like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. And as his coat brightened, so did his heart. Sulubu was no longer alive, yet he was not lost...he lived on in his heart.

            Dhahabu gazed up into the sky. "Thank you, Sulubu. I won't let you down."

            A lone sunbeam spilled down from the sky to warm the earth where he stood.

 

***

 

            Days and weeks turned into months, and the Circle of Life continued to turn. Determined to fulfill his vow to his brother, Dhahabu was eager to learn all his father could teach him, however long it took, as long as it would make him a king Sulubu would be proud of. Tembo, also anxious to carry out Sulubu's dying wish, took every opportunity to sneak away from his father to join Dhahabu, at whose side he hung on Mfalme's every word.

            It was her brother's firm resolve that finally rescued Taraji from her depression. After days of quiet conversation with Malkia in which Taraji's responses were soft, incomplete snatches of words, the lioness cub at last began to notice Dhahabu. At first she became angry, indignant at his seeming desecration of Sulubu's memory. But as time passed she slowly realized his learning was in honor of their brother--and that as Dhahabu's sister, it was her duty to support him in every endeavor. He was the future king. So for her brother's sake she came out of her shell--and gradually, through Mfalme's lessons, found value in living again.

            As the weeks passed, Tembo and the two lion cubs soon experienced a different sort of change in their lives--they were growing up. It all began one morning when Dhahabu noticed his reflection in the river looked larger, more solidly built. Peering closer, he saw that more hair had grown between his ears and around his neck, lending him a decidedly shaggy appearance. Taraji was hunting nearby, but he called out to her excitedly. "Taraji! Come and look at this!"

            She snarled, annoyed, as Dhahabu's voice frightened away the young springbok she'd been stalking. Turning, she marched through the grass until she stood at his side. "This had better be good, Dhahabu--you just scared away my dinner!"

            "Look!" He gestured at his reflection.

            Taraji peered down, but saw nothing even remotely interesting."Am I supposed to notice something?"

            "Yeah!" Dhahabu looked offended. "My mane's starting to grow!"

            His sister stared at him. "You bothered me for that?" she demanded, disgusted. "I knew that a week ago." She turned and stamped away, muttering to herself about lost prey.

            The rest of the Kiburi Pride was much more appreciative of Dhahabu's new appearance. Mfalme smiled proudly and caressed his head with a massive paw. Malkia gave him a lick on the side of his face. The lionesses of the pride expressed their approval with purrs and nuzzles, while Tembo let out a blast on his trunk.

            Changes after that seemed to come every other day. As the months passed, the most shocking were the changes in Tembo. Ever since he'd met the young elephant, Dhahabu had known he would one day be as large as Damu, but knowing and seeing are two different things, and his mind was not psychologically prepared for it. As Tembo grew to tower over him and his tusks became longer and sharper, Dhahabu became more and more uncomfortable, but he soon found he had nothing to fear--Tembo was still his fast friend, and would never hurt him.

            But one thing did disturb Dhahabu. As he and Taraji filled out and gained muscle, as his mane continued to sprout and fall across his thickening neck and broadening chest, as his voice deepened, Dhahabu noticed with worry that Mfalme was changing too--his mane was darkening, and the fur around his muzzle was beginning to turn white.

            For the first time he realized his father was much older than he knew--he'd had cubs later than most lions...

 

***

 

            Three years had passed since Sulubu's death, yet to Dhahabu it could have been the day before. He sat on his haunches beside the waterhole, the kigelia tree's shadow spreading across the water, the hot African sun winking at him through the leaves. In this very spot, he had found peace and a reason to go on. And before that, he had once gazed into this pool, thinking he would never be as big or strong as his brother...

            "And look at me now," he murmured wryly, marveling anew at his rich baritone.

            The reflection before him was of a magnificent, if young, lion in the prime of his life. Golden as the sun, his smooth, lustrous fur covered supple, muscular limbs and a healthy, well-fleshed body. The thick layers of his honey-gold mane formed a protective ruff around his neck, spreading out across his deep chest. But his gray eyes still held a haunted look, older than his years, and on his broad, left shoulder were four jagged scars that he rubbed absently with his paw, feeling an echo of pain. He sighed.

            "Thinking about Sulubu again?"

            He glanced up to see the lithe form of Taraji and smiled half-heartedly at the beautiful lioness she had become. "Yes, Taraji. It was on a day much like this one when he died."

            His sister frowned. "Do you still blame yourself?"

            "No, I know now that what happened that day was no one's fault..." He growled softly. "...except Mwoga's."

            Taraji's jaw clenched. "Yes. Perhaps someday she will receive the punishment she deserves!"

            The two gazed into the water for several long minutes, trying to dispel their bad mood. "Oh, Dhahabu..." Taraji murmured, eyes downcast. "I loved him so much."

            "So did I." The young lion stared sadly at her, thinking of all the days they had spent together since he had made his vow. The two of them only had each other, besides their parents. He had grown closer to her than he had ever thought possible... Dhahabu placed one foreleg across her back and pulled her against him. "And he loved us. But the Circle will continue." He nuzzled her and then laid his head on her shoulder and closed his eyes.

            Slowly, deliberately, Taraji licked his cheek.

            Dhahabu's eyes popped open, and he raised his head. He'd never noticed how large his sister's eyes were...so blue and filled with emotion...

            Taraji rose to her paws and began to circle him, rubbing gently against his fur. What was she doing? Slowly she lowered her head and rubbed underneath his chin. A delicate scent wafted up--it was like nothing he had ever smelled before...so enticing...

            Dhahabu's face grew hot. What in the world was wrong with him? Why was he having these thoughts about his sister? Was he sick? He felt a strange sensation deep inside of him, unlike any other.

            "Dhahabu! Taraji!"

            It was Mfalme's voice.

            Flinching guiltily, the two lions moved apart. In moments Mfalme, accompanied by Malkia, approached the waterhole. The queen smiled. "Now what have you two been up to?" she teased.

            Eyes wide, Dhahabu rose to his paws and turned away, embarrassed. Malkia glanced toward his hind end and gasped. "Oh, no! Mfalme..."

            The Lion King followed her gaze. A strange look crossed his face, a mixture of pride, amusement, and worry.

            Dhahabu hung his head. "Dad, I--"

            "Son, I think we need to have a little talk. Let's walk over there to that kopje." Mfalme turned toward the rock formation rising on the far side of the waterhole.

            Slowly Dhahabu followed. It was obvious that his father knew what was wrong with him. He hoped Mfalme knew how to help him--his whole hind end, as well as his face, felt on fire! Did he have a fever?

            As they approached the kopje, Mfalme paused. He glanced back toward the waterhole, where Malkia and Taraji sat side by side, apparently deep in conversation. "Son, there comes a time in a lion's life when certain...changes...occur."

            "What do you mean?" Dhahabu was confused.

            "The Circle of Life must continue." The Lion King sighed. "There must be a new generation."

            Dhahabu froze. "You mean...cubs."

            "Yes." Mfalme eyed him sympathetically. "It is completely natural, but unfortunately not very selective."

            The young lion's eyes glazed over. All of the heat drained out of him, leaving him feeling cold. "Oh no. You mean, if you hadn't shown up...?"

            "You would have mated with your sister."

            Dhahabu sat down involuntarily and dug his claws into the dirt. He closed his eyes. "Oh no..."

 

            Dhahabu pressed himself to the ground and kept his eyes shut, tears starting to form beneath his eyelids. How could he have even thought of doing such a thing to his sister? So what if it was natural, he should have more control than that...!

            Suddenly he felt a slight weight on his shoulder. Opening his eyes, he saw Mfalme sitting before him, one paw resting on the four scars Mwoga had given him. "Son, this is no reason to put yourself through such agony. What is important is that nothing happened...this time."

            The young lion's eyes widened. "Oh, blessed Aiheu, you're right! I can't be left alone with Taraji anymore, I can't be trusted--I don't trust myself!"

            Mfalme squeezed his shoulder, silencing him. "Dhahabu, you are the most gentle, loving, trusting lion I have ever known, and I only hope that it is my example that has made you so. I would trust you with Taraji's life. But you are right. We must make sure this never occurs again."

            Dhahabu was puzzled. "How?"

            Mfalme smiled. "By giving you someone else to focus on. I think it is time for you to go on a journey, son--to go to another pride and seek a mate."

            Dhahabu's jaw dropped. "But--I've never been outside Kiburi lands, except once..." He paused, thinking of Sulubu, and then shuddered. "And why would another pride let me have one of their lionesses for a mate? Wouldn't their king simply kill me as a nomad?"

            Mfalme nodded. "This is true, son, that this is the Rule of the Pride, but I do not intend to send you just anywhere. There are three prides close to our lands, but one of these is ruled by a dear friend of mine, a lion named Adhimu. I have not seen him in years, but I hear he has two lovely daughters who are close to your age. As a favor to me, I am sure he will allow you to choose one of them as your mate."

            "But how will I choose?" The young lion stood up, his heart thumping with nervousness and a touch of fear--he had no idea what he would do or say to a strange lioness! "How will I find this friend of yours? And how will he even know me?"

            The Lion King smiled. "Son, she will be your mate. I cannot guide you in choosing the lioness that you will spend the rest of your life with. You must follow your heart; it has never failed you before." He caressed Dhahabu's mane with affection. "As to how you will find him, use your nose. I will describe Adhimu's scent tomorrow morning when you leave, so there will be no mistaking it when you come across it. And don't worry, he will know you..."

            Mfalme rose to his paws and stepped up to his son. "Give me your paw."

            When Dhahabu complied, Mfalme proceeded to rub his cheeks against the golden fur with exaggerated care, depositing enough of his scent to leave an unmistakable marker. "When you meet Adhimu," the mahogany lion continued, stepping back, "hold out your paw, and he will know you. And you will not have to worry about being alone, either. I intend to send Tembo with you. If for some reason Adhimu doubts you, Tembo can vouch for you; an elephant's word is inviolate, as my friend well knows."

            Dhahabu stared at his paw, then set it down almost reverently. "Are you sure this is the best way...?"

            Mfalme nodded. "Even if this had not happened, I would have been sending you on this journey anyway. Our pride needs new blood, and you are almost an adult, Dhahabu. You must begin to take on adult responsibilities. I won't be around forever, and I want you to have a mate and an heir before I am gone."

            Dhahabu winced. "Please, Dad, don't say that!"

            "It is the truth, Dhahabu. Surely you must have noticed how old I am getting. I do not get around as well as I used to." He shook himself. "But I intend to see my grandson's birth, so I will not be leaving any time soon!"

            Dhahabu sighed, relieved. For a moment there, he'd been afraid his father knew something he did not.

            For a long moment Mfalme looked at him, his eyes running up and down his frame. He didn't know if his father was judging his fitness for the journey or gauging the strength of his soul...perhaps some of each. Dhahabu sighed, hoping his father would be proud of what he saw. At last Mfalme turned toward the waterhole. "Come, son, we must share my decision with your mother and your sister."

            As the two lions approached the waterhole once more, Dhahabu's eyes went automatically to Taraji's face. Her ears were turned down, and her eyes were lowered. Everything about her seemed to express a secret sorrow. At the sound of their paws passing through the grass, Taraji looked up. The moment her eyes met his, she blushed furiously and turned away. Dhahabu glanced at his mother, who was watching Taraji sadly. Apparently a similar talk had been going on here as well.

            Malkia looked carefully at her son and let out a sigh. All was as it should be. She looked into Dhahabu's face and saw the intense guilt and shame etched there. Swiftly the queen approached him and nuzzled. "Oh, son, it is all right. There is no need to be ashamed. You are a three-year-old male, it is in your nature. This is my fault. I saw you were maturing, I watched your mane grow, but I just couldn't accept that you weren't still my little lion cub..." Her voice broke, and she lowered her head, unwilling to let her son see her cry.

            Dhahabu's pain intensified. He had done this to her, made his own mother cry! "Mother, please, don't do this to yourself!" He in turn nuzzled her tenderly. "I will always be your little lion cub, no matter how old we become..." He licked her ear.

            Mfalme stood just behind his son, a sad smile on his face and pride in his heart. After watching Malkia and Dhahabu for a few minutes, he cleared his throat. "Beloved, I have made a decision that will help alleviate this situation."

            Malkia looked up, surprised. "You mean--what we discussed before?"

            "Yes. Dhahabu will travel to Adhimu's pride to look for a mate."

            Taraji looked from her father to her mother in shock, but slowly a look of acceptance entered her eyes.

            Mfalme glanced at her, then motioned unobtrusively with his head toward the distant den. "Perhaps we should leave them alone for a little while," he whispered. "This will be the last time they see each other for many days."

            "Are you sure it is safe?" Malkia frowned.

            Mfalme chuckled ruefully. "As safe as it's ever been leaving those two alone together! But no, I don't think there will be any trouble. They both know what could have happened, and are unlikely to let it happen again, as long as we send Dhahabu away now."

            Slowly Malkia nodded and joined her mate in walking back toward the den. Soon Dhahabu and Taraji were alone.

            For one uncomfortable moment brother and sister stared at each other as two strangers might, unsure of themselves and of each other, unwilling to trust and uncertain of the future. Then Taraji ran to Dhahabu and buried her face in his mane, a storm of hot tears flowing down her cheeks. Dhahabu gazed down at her morosely and caressed her neck with his paw, not knowing what else to do. "It'll be all right..."

            "No, it won't!" Taraji looked up at him, eyes red and bleary. "We've never been apart, not since Sulubu..." She began to choke up. "You're the only one who helped me go on. I don't know what I'd do without you!"

            The young golden lion stared at the cinnamon lioness. "Do you remember what your name means, Taraji?"

            Taraji blinked. "Yes--hope..." She whispered it, as if truly hearing it for the first time with a heart that understood.

            "Then remember your name while I am gone. Sulubu would want you to. He would want you to live for his sake." Dhahabu touched a claw gently to the scar underneath her left eye, the one Mjinga had given her. "You're a beautiful lioness now, and you have so much to live for. Somewhere out there is your mate; you only have to know where to look. I'm lucky, Father has told me the place. But you..."

            "Are you sure you have to go?" Taraji begged.

            "I was afraid at first, too, but now I see it is for the best."

            "I'm not afraid!" his sister burst out indignantly.

            Dhahabu chuckled. "Now there's the Taraji I remember. I didn't mean it like that. You just don't know where to go or what to do. Here's a suggestion: go on an extended hunting trip. Search your feelings, do some thinking. Hopefully by the time I return you'll have found the answers you need."

            Taraji smiled a watery smile. "Now how did my annoying, cocky brother ever get so wise?"

            Dhahabu grinned. "I don't know, but I sure didn't get it from watching you!"

            His sister swiped at him, laughing. Dhahabu's heart swelled. It was so good to hear that laugh again after so many months without it...

            The two siblings laughed and played like cubs for only a few minutes, but it felt like an eternity, making up for all the time they had lost, for the cubhoods they had lost in Kivuli. At last, exhausted, Dhahabu glanced up and saw the sky had darkened considerably--stars were beginning to twinkle in the twilit sky.

            "We'd better be getting back," he suggested gently.

            "I know. It's just that this will be our last time of freedom. When you return, you will have a mate, and I will be a full member of the hunting party." Taraji paused. "And what about Tembo?"

            "Dad said he was sending him with me as a precaution, in case Adhimu doesn't accept me. But when we return, I suppose he'll continue learning to be my adviser, and find a mate of his own." Dhahabu paused, picturing this, and began to laugh.

            Taraji saw the look in his eyes and began laughing as well."Well, we'd better go find him and break the horrible news!" she gasped, tears of laughter at the corners of her eyes.

            Together the lion and the lioness turned and proceeded up the hill in the direction of the den. But at the top Dhahabu paused, his thoughts turning momentarily to Sulubu and to his father's mortality, horrible news that he could not bear to share with his sister. Then he lifted his paw and sniffed it. Taraji glanced at him strangely.

            Not wishing to worry her, Dhahabu returned his paw to the ground and began loping down the hill, but as she joined him, his thoughts were more reassured. He might have only Tembo with him on the journey south, but he would carry his father with him as well...

 

***

 

            It was nearly midnight, and the sky was a vast, cloudless expanse of black, with nothing between the earth and the stars but the frigid air and the coldness of space. Yet Tembo still stood alone on the hilltop, gazing down at the slumbering elephant herd below, his mind still working as he searched for the words that would reach his father's heart.

            Earlier that night Dhahabu and Taraji had informed him of the journey to the Kusini Pride and, amidst laughter, his inevitable fall to the wiles of a female. Tembo blushed, embarrassed anew. There was a female elephant he had fond feelings for, but there was no way his friends could know this. And he had no romantic intentions at this time, he didn't even know how she felt about him...

            Tembo shook his head. That was the least of his worries. This journey of Dhahabu's would be one of several days. How would he explain his absence to Damu?

            "Well, Tembo, it's time to get it over with," he said to himself with a sigh. Slowly he descended the hillside toward the herd. As he approached, he spied the old elephant cow who had taken care of him after his mother died...but Damu was nowhere to be seen. All of the other elephants were asleep.

            The elephant cow looked up, tears in her eyes. "Oh...Tembo!"

            Tembo froze, his stomach in knots as he stared at her face. "Wh-what's the matter? Where is my father?"

            Every wrinkle in her skin drooped downwards, and pain filled her eyes.

"Tembo...he told me to tell you that...it is his time."

            The bottom dropped out of his equilibrium. "What? You mean--"

            "He is waiting for you at the border of Kivuli."

            Tembo stood stock still for one shocked moment, and then he turned and barreled across the savanna toward the north. It wasn't possible! Damu was old, but...

            The wind rushed past him, cold and bitter, and the grass bowed before it like ocean waves. His mind raced, as if trying to keep up with the wind and reach Kivuli before his father. Three years ago he had gone to Kivuli to see his mother's bones and to learn if he should follow his heart with Dhahabu. He had arrived to find his friend and his siblings under attack by hyenas. It had been a clear sign to him that his mother wanted him to stay true to Dhahabu--but although he had rescued Dhahabu and Taraji, poor Sulubu had not been so lucky. Now he was running to Kivuli again, and he feared tragedy would strike once more.

            At last the barren, mist-shrouded elephant graveyard hove into view--and Tembo's breath caught in his throat. A massive shadow stood at the top of the rise, facing the darkened valley. It was Damu.

            "Father!" he called.

            The bull elephant turned slowly to face him. "Tembo."

            Tembo slid to a halt, staring at his father. The elephant's voice was weak and husky, and the skin around his eyes was sunken and hollow. He could almost see all the edges and planes of his father's skull.

            "You can tell, can't you." All of the life seemed drained out of Damu's voice. "I am old, son. My time here is nearing its end--and I wanted you to be the last to see me before I leave."

            Tembo's words came out thickly. "But Father, I don't want you to go! There's so much I never got to tell you..."

            "Tembo," Damu interrupted gently, "remember: I taught you to be strong. You are almost an adult now, and once I am gone, you must take responsibility for the herd."

            Tembo became very uncomfortable at these words. "Father, that's one of the things I had to tell you. I...don't know if I'll be able to lead the herd."

            Damu's eyes widened. "What...?" His voice came out as a growl.

            Miserable, Tembo forced out the rest. "I...have chosen to become an adviser to...Dhahabu." He closed his eyes and waited for the explosion.

            But it did not come. When he opened his eyes, his father was gazing at him with a look of sadness and despair. "Tembo, I no longer have the energy to rebuke you. But you have severely disappointed me. Unless you can offer an explanation that makes sense, I will disown you."

            "No, Father! You don't understand!" Tembo's words tumbled out like a waterfall. "I couldn't help it! Dhahabu cares about me. I just couldn't believe the things you said about lions were true. I had to find out what the reality was. So I went to Kivuli--"

            Damu's trunk stiffened. "WHAT?"

            "I had to, Father! I wanted to visit Mother!"

            A look of intense pain came into Damu's eyes and slowly his trunk drooped. "Of course..." he whispered. "I am so sorry, son."

            Tembo eyed him guardedly. "But when I got here, I found Dhahabu and his brother and sister being attacked by hyenas."

            Damu's jaw clenched. "Hyenas..."

            Tembo took heart. "I was able to save Taraji and Dhahabu, with Mfalme's help, but Sulubu...was killed."

            Damu froze. "I care little for lions, but...that must have been terrible for Dhahabu."

            "Yes. He saw it happen."

            Damu blinked.

            "He was devastated, Father. I had to comfort him, didn't I?" Tembo pleaded.

            Damu lifted his trunk and placed it on Tembo's shoulder. "Son, you have a good heart...better than mine. What you did came naturally to you--you could not have acted differently. While I cannot agree with you, I understand you." He paused. "But how, then, did you become his adviser?"

            "Dhahabu's parents saw how much he needed a friend, so they asked me to stay and be with him. As he recovered, he became very attached to me, and I to him, and when his father taught him lessons on how to be a good king, I was there. I listened, and then one thing led to another..." Tembo shook his head. "I know you think Mfalme is not the proper king. I don't--he takes care of the land so much better than Giza did. But even if you're right about Mfalme, that only makes my presence more important. If I am Dhahabu's adviser, I can guide him to be a king you would respect." The elephant stared at him. "Don't you see? I had to do this. It's what Mother would have wanted..."

            Damu's eyes filled with tears. "You're right, of course. She would have wanted this. And I cannot betray her memory." He sighed. "I am still not happy with this, I still see it as a mistake, but it is your mistake. I have taught you all I know; it is your choice whether or what to accept. You are an adult now, and you must live your life. I will not be here, but I trust you will be true to your heart. If that means you must be Dhahabu's adviser..." His voice dropped. "So be it. I may have argued with your mother, but I loved her, and I would not want to turn you away from her."

            Tembo's face lit up with joy. "Oh, Father, thank you! You don't know how much this means to me..."

            "Yes, I do, son--now. At last I understand you." Damu hung his head. "I...have mistreated you, I know, but I hope what I will say now will help you to forgive me. I'm just a stubborn old bull, set in my ways, but at least I can try to change before I go. At least I can give you the blessing."

            Before Tembo could protest, Damu stepped close and raised his trunk."May your tusks be sharp..." He passed his trunk above Tembo's tusks. "May your mind be wise..." He touched his son's head between his ears. "May your heart be pure..." He moved his trunk down to touch Tembo's chest, forming a cross with his previous pass. Then he raised it again and intertwined it with his son's trunk. "May you be true to the ancestors, and to generations hence." He stepped back and smiled sadly.

            "Oh, Father..." Tembo's eyes were also wet. "Of course I forgive you. I've always loved you."

            Damu gazed at him wordlessly, his eyes speaking volumes on his love and regret for what was lost. Then he turned and slowly descended the hillside. At the bottom he raised his head to the sky and called out Tembo's mother's name. Then he trudged into the mist and soon disappeared from view.

            Tembo stood on the rise and let the tears run down his cheeks. He was an adult now--but the moment was bittersweet...