The names of Simba, Nala, Zazu, Timon, Pumbaa, Scar and the trademark geographies are copyrights of Disney and may not be used at will without the recognition of Disney as its owners.
Every Lion King fan has a tale surrounding the mystery of the unknown cub.
"Never Like That Again"
Matthew Zu (c) 2004
Simba peered across the savanna from Pride Rock, taking in the stillness. It was one of those days where no one did anything, where any physical exertion was inviting heatstroke. There wasn't a sound save an occasional bird call. The heat drowned everything under its waves: the land, the distant mountains, even the wind. Wiry acacias dotted the land like a scattered islands amid the undulating plain, their presence a magnet to everyone desperate for shade. Antelope and wildebeest jostled teeth to horn under the tangled shadows while vultures and other fowl did likewise in its branches. Out in the waterhole the hippos were nothing but floating rocks. The heat seized, ripped, and penetrated everything like an invisible phantom, drawing its hot breath across the face of every animal and the stalk of every grass, plotting away at the usual. Simba sighed and shook his mane. He looked over his shoulder at the cave and could just make out the lionesses within its dark depths, who lay sprawled on their bellies, their sides, their backs with legs propped in the air, anything they could do to relieve the embalming heat. As he watched he saw one lioness with a swollen belly get up from deep within, and with belabored effort make her way towards him. At the entrance a shaft of light flashed green off her eyes. "Nala.”
"Simba, what on earth are you doing out here? You'll get cooked alive." She craned her head and squinted to see him in the blinding light.
"I'm watching for fires. There's no telling when one will start on a day like this." He looked out again for any traces of smoke. He remembered the last fire, a conflagration seared into his memory as the night he wrestled his birthright from Scar. That was a season ago, and luckily a rainstorm had set in to quench it. No such reassurance today; there wasn't a hint of cloud in sight.
"So what happens if a fire does start?" Nala inquired with a teasing look.
"Well, there's not much we can do to stop it, but at least we can warn everyone to get into the watering holes," he looked aside and added, "---just hoping we won't have to do that."
A scampering noise came from the cave, and they turned to see a small ball of fur with four legs dashing toward them as fast as it could.
"Mom! Dad! There you guys are!"
"Tano! No! It's too hot out---!" But before they could finish their golden ball was already at their feet, brushing against their legs and purring. Simba looked at his son and smiled. He wasn't quite as big as Simba was at the same age, but he had twice the fervor to make up for it. Tano never kept still. He was always jumping about, looking after every sound, and stalking everything that moved, eyes always bright with curiosity. His eyes were black, and he resembled any typical cub, that is, except for his tail, which was just a sorry stump. A short time ago Tano's taste for adventure drove him to climb up Pride Rock instead of taking the marked paths. It had been a good day of exploring, and the sun had already set when he arrived home. He found the rock piles difficult to negotiate in the fading light, and half way up he stepped on a loose stone. He slipped off, and the stone dislodged a much bigger boulder that tumbled willy-nilly down after him. He landed on a ledge, and before he could get away the boulder smashed and severed his tail in an instant. Never had Simba and Nala heard such crying in their life, and no one got much sleep that night as they tried to soothe Tano.
Nala began cleaning him, or at least made an attempt to as the cub squirmed like an eel. Tano's mind was elsewhere, excited by all he could see from his high home. His eyes were on the water hole, then the trees, then the mountains, the sky, the sleeping herds, taking in everything and missing nothing. He bounded out of Nala's arms to the cliff edge, his tail stump ecstatic.
"Mom, can we exploring?"
Nala answered the ridiculous question mildly. "No, Tano, not now. Maybe later when it cools down, and maybe Daddy can take you star gazing tonight, right Simba?"
"Hmm? Oh, yeah, we can go star gazing," then he whispered into Tano's ear, "and if you stay good the rest of the day, I'll take you hunting tomorrow."
"Really?" his son beamed.
"Simba, what are you telling him?"
Simba straightened up with a grin. "Oh, nothing."
"Simba---," she teased him.
They looked out across the land and followed its breadth to its distant edges, where it dissolved in a dance of heat waves before rising up as blue mountains.
"Well, you two better get back inside,"
"Are you sure you want to stay out here? I can take your place for a while and let you rest."
"Uh-uh, no pregnant queen is going to stand in this heat if I can help it," he placed a paw on her stomach, "go on inside. You need the rest more than I do. I'll be all right. Besides, this mane does a great job keeping that sun off."
Nala tucked her head under Simba's chin and purred into his warm mane. "Do be careful."
He answered her by kissing her silky forehead. Nala picked up Tano by his scruff and walked back to the cave while Simba watched them go, and at the cave entrance she smiled over her shoulder.
Stillness once again. Simba took a deep breath of the lung-searing air. How fortunate he was, he thought. How fortunate he was to have escaped with his life from three hyenas so long ago, and how fortunate he was to escape a second time under the whimsies of Timon and Pumbaa. And how fortunate he was to have such wonderful friends, such a wonderful mate, and now a splendid son. But fortunes come and fortunes go, and fortune itself can only exist in the balance of misfortune.
The sun was approaching the uppermost arch of its lazy sojourn before starting back down into the mountains, and the receding shade under the trees had many a creature fighting for its shortening supply. Simba shifted his own position several times, yet nothing he did relieved the relentless battery from the sun. He continued to scan the horizon for fires, and noticed a small dark smudge in the distance on his left. He jumped at the sight of it, but a second look saw it was hovering above the ground.
That's no fire, he thought, whatever it is. He watched as it grew, rising and falling with the heat, like a splinter of wood tossed by a current. Soon he made out two wings flapping on either side, and as it got closer he saw the familiar giant orange beak.
"Apologies for my late arrival sire," Zazu croaked while still in the air, "had to listen to a complaint from some baboon on the way here. Said he wanted me to ask you to turn the heat off. Hmph," he shook his head, "it really is taking its toll."
Simba chuckled at the news. "I wish I could, Zazu. That would be nice indeed."
"So, sire, just what are you doing outside on a day like this?"
"Watching for fires."
"Ahh. Interesting, I'm sure. But isn't the heat getting to you?" But it was too late. "Uh-oh," he whispered. The question had slipped out before he could catch it. Simba, however, caught it immediately.
"Why yes, Zazu," he said in mock professionalism, "as a matter of fact it is, thank you for asking. Would you like to take my place for a while, seeing you're so...so...so concerned...about your king? Hmmm?"
"Ohh no. No no. Please, your highness---"
"No! Please! I'll get burnt alive out here! You know us birds and heat don't mix. Next thing you know it'll be roast hornbill for dinner!"
"C'mon now. It won't be that bad. You're small. Just find a shady cleft somewhere or something and keep an eye out for fires. It'll be easy."
"Do you really mean it?"
"Yes. It's not like its dangerous or anything"
"Danger! Now don't you go off talking about danger to this old bird, why I'll tell you---"
"Zazu." Simba gave him a sidewise look.
"Ohh no," he despaired, "Farewell, brilliant blue plumage! Farewell, great Africa! Farewell, fair world! I'll never see another sunrise. Oh the horror, the--"
Simba left him squabbling. He was too preoccupied with his paranoia to notice Simba had gone, and when he did he squawked all the louder.
"Don't worry!" Simba shouted over his shoulder, "You'll be fine!" He trudged past the others to where Nala lay dozing and collapsed next to her. She shot to her feet.
"Jeez! You scared me!" She took a moment to recollect herself. "I thought you were watching for fires."
"I was," the tired king mumbled, "but I'm having someone else watch for a while."
Nala cocked her ears. "Who's he talking to?"
Simba managed a tired smile and said in a low voice, "Himself. Again."
"Would you like me to wake you for dinner? Simba? Are you---" her words trailed off, "-asleep?"
Outside all was quiet once more. Zazu had curbed his terror a bit and he attended to his post from a shady cleft as Simba had suggested. The land continued to bake beneath the sun, still a long way away before flooding the sky red with its daily wave goodbye. Out here the sun has authority, given it by One, to give life and the take it. It is the reason the volumous clouds burst with rain, so welcomed by a wrinkled land into its pores and scars, where a new generation of seedlings can have a chance at life again all because of the sun. The sun marks off the days that stretch into seasons, witnessing cubs and fawns grow bigger with each round of the earth beneath the stars. It's set like an ultra hot ember that never tires or chars itself into exhaustion. It never fails its course or leaves it track, but as sure as the days are numbered it greets each one with its warmth in the morning, and stands watch at night by reflecting its presence in the moon. Always willing to give. But such a giver also takes. With merciless radiance it snatches away any life not prudent enough to escape its wrath. They flounder under its arrows and die, realizing their mistake much too late. Or death can come in another form---at the fingers of flame set forth by this taker.
This has been due course for ages. Kingdom before kingdom have submitted to its decrees, willingly or not. Simba. Mufasa. The past kings. All are subject to this higher authority, this pinion the circle of life revolves around. To exist without it would be like not existing at all, to be trapped in absolute limbo with nothing but a flicker of hope to go on, as Nala had been through in her younger years. But that was the last thing on Tano's mind. He gingerly nudged his sleeping father. No response. He nudged his mother, who did no more than grunt. Delighted, Tano got up and tiptoed for the sunlit entrance.
Outside he could barely contain his excitement and had to use all his will to not blow it in easing past Zazu. He snuck down Pride Rock behind boulders, peeking out to make sure no one had seen him. At the bottom lay a patch of bare earth before the savanna began. Tano paused a moment, looked at the speck that was Zazu high up on the cliff, and then zoomed across, laughing as he plunged into the grasses.
"Whew! Boy that was close!" He stuck his head out of the grasses to look up at his home. Not a sound.
"Yes! Wahoo! Like a snake!" he giggled, "Didn't even see me!"
He himself couldn't see much in the grass either, with its stalks towering high above. He could not just walk in it, but had to push through it. The stalks would fall away in which ever direction he was going, only to close up again behind him with a trushing noise. The only thing he could see above the grass canopy were some acacias, and because he remembered that was where the animals were hiding, he promptly set course for the nearest one. His progress made a comical indentation in the stalks so that one was tempted to part them aside and find out what was weaseling its way through, but alas it was so slight no one could notice.
Tano stopped short when he saw the horde of animals lulling in the shade. His eyes bright with excitement, he snuck forth one paw at a time and hid behind a termite hill to get a better look at his quarry. He wasn't sure what he would do once he got close to them, but that can come later. He studied the gangled crowd from behind his hill. It was mostly wildebeests, speckled by some zebra and kudu here and there. He also found some pathetically small impala half buried behind the much larger animals, giving their all to hang on to a small share of shade. This should be fun. He backed into the cover of bush again, and crept around to a spot where the least eyes were looking. His gold fur blended right in with the grasses, and he became nothing but two excited eyes and a brown nose. He took a breath, made a low growl, and ducked to the ground. A few animals cast a half-hearted glance in his direction, unconcerned whatsoever. Feeling bolder, Tano issued a much louder growl. More animals looked again, and some gave nervous snorts. Delighted, he scooted a little to one side, and rustled the grass with his paws. This brought the creatures yet more agitation. Those that were lying down got to their feet, pawing the dirt and looking around for what predator was making such a racket. Tano felt as elated as ever. He buried his nose in his paws to keep the laughter at bay, watching the animals' bewildered expressions.
"This ought to do it," he whispered. He hopped up and came down on a stick with all his weight, snapping it with a terrific report.
That was it. That was enough. Whatever hungry beast hiding in those grasses can stay hiding there. The animals weren't waiting to find out. At the sound they gave a simultaneous snort and scattered without ado. Tano sat in the midst of the flying hooves, proud of his achievement. Once they were all gone he emerged from the grasses to investigate his new territory. The open earth between the grass and the tree was sizzling to Tano's feet and he hastened into the shade. There he was met by a wall of animal odors that made the air humid, thick as it entered the cub's nostrils, a disturbing concoction of animal perspiration, lingering bad breath, and post processed lunch of the grandest variety all rolled into one. Between the heat and the stench that was quite unbearable, he rathered the former of the two evils and left for another destination. He scanned his small horizons limited by the grasses. To his right he could see his home, rising like a beacon amidst the plains, its monolith finger seeming to point at some timeless and long forgotten secret invisible to the eyes. Tano's gaze followed that pointing, from the base of where the once upright slab broke off, up along its gentle rise, past the smaller upright monolith that caught its fall, and on to a silent blue sky. He shrugged. Before him he could see the canopy of another tree.
The fierce sun was still set high, unrelenting in its grip on the land. It was early afternoon and the millions of rays raining upon the earth continued to batter everything. Tano felt glad to have drunken plenty at the last watering hole; his full belly, however, now pulled at his eyelids begging him to rest. He pressed on through the monotonous grass trying to fight his stone heavy eyes, but it was a loosing battle against the warm sunlight filtering down on him. Seeing the struggle useless, Tano padded some grass flat and lay down, allowing the bush to receive him into its warm embrace, and fell asleep with nary a yawn.
Far in the distance behind Pride Rock, a small crackle emanated from a twig, audible only to any ears next to it. It was a pop, an explosion, minute in scale but nonetheless the result of the much bigger fire in the sky. From the pop emerged the faintest yellow apparition, a small light swaying a precarious existence over the twig, fighting for its delicate life. It fluttered, twittled, and turned the twig it was dancing on black, but not without itself sometimes on the verge being snuffed out. The yellow ghost was hungry, and it found itself standing on a perfect meal. The black spot grew, and so did the apparition, quickly loosing its innocence and then racing across the rest of the twig. At the first chance it had the flame reached for a grass stalk. It extended its fingers once; no success. Then a second time, and the skeletal grasses burst away in flames, standing not a chance to the powerful consumer devouring it.
At first Zazu was perplexed. He could smell the smoke, but he couldn't spot a fire anywhere. Everything before him looked fine as far as he could see. While he surveyed the horizon a second time, Pride Rock darkened beneath a mysterious shadow. He looked up to see the sun disappearing behind billows of thick black clouds growing like a monster from behind Pride Rock. "Oh no!" he gasped, "no no no!" He flew up for a better view, and saw the fire racing across the plains like an expanding ripple, but much more serious. Pride Rock stood directly in its way.
"Sire! Sire! Wake up! Madam! Sire!"
Simba raised his drowsy head. "Huh?"
"F--F--Fire! Behind Pride Rock! Coming fast!"
"Fire? Oh no!"
Simba was on his feet in an instant. "Nala! Nala, wake up! Zazu, help wake everyone else. Tufura! Mendka!"
The fire was already engulfing the shrubs of Pride Rock by the time they ran out, making everyone cough at the smoke. Splashes of dancing light painted the growing darkness a frightening red, standing in sharp contrast to the remaining patch of blue sky hovered in the distance, illuminating the water hole like a sapphire.
"Head for the water!" He turned to Nala, "Is everyone out?"
"Yeah, we've got every---wait! Where's Tano?" They gasped in terror.
"Tano!" Simba yelled out, "Tano!"
Despite her condition Nala leapt back into the cave like lightning, but a minute later she was out again, desperation written all over her face. "Where could he be?" she whispered, half to herself and half to the flames about her.
"Nala," her attention was snapped back to the present. "Nala, lead them to the water hole. I'll look for Tano."
"I'll be fine," Simba assured her, "You're the queen, and the pride needs you right now," he looked into her eyes, "Please, go with them."
She gazed up at him, and Simba noticed how beautiful she looked in the firelight, even in this desperate situation. For a moment he saw how the washes of red and yellow danced across her features; on the sides of her ears, the gentle roll of her muzzle, the tip of her slim nose, as if fighting for the privilege, for her favor. "Okay. But please be careful." After a brief hug she bounded off. "Come on everyone, follow me!"
As soon as they had gone he called for reinforcements. "Zazu! Tano's out there somewhere. I need you to help me find him."
"Right away sir," with that he sped off.
"Okay, Simba, now think. Where would Tano be? He likes climbing trees, but which one?" He looked at the trees, and almost all were in flames. "Or he might be in the still unburned grasses way out there..." The fires on Pride Rock were spreading, and so was the smoke blowing in Simba's face. "Better get moving," he decided, and drew a deep breath and ran down into the burning savanna.
An incredible snarling and popping. Tano covered his ears at the annoying sounds, until his sleepy brain was at last roused. He noticed the black sky. "Huh. Didn't think I slept that long." Then he saw a curious glow radiating from certain areas of grass, and a whiff of smoke brought the conclusion. "Whoa! Fire! Fire!" It was all around him, he had no idea where he was. Curtains of smoke hid everything except a tree a ways off. Realizing his only hope, Tano raced for the lone tree without a minute's waste. The flames were eating the grass at a fanatic rate, making Tano jump and dodge as he ran. He smashed into the tree and clawed his way into its branches. His breath came in gasps, but for the moment he was safe. Below his perch he could see nothing but a moat of fire all around. Animals ran back and forth trying to escape the flames, giving their terrified yelps to stir with the fire's roar. Tano looked for any signs of his pride, but his attempts were futile. "Oh, I do wish I hadn't sneaked off. Now what am I gonna do? I'm gonna be in so much trouble when dad finds me, man! Of all the---whoa!" The branch he was sitting on cracked under his weight, nearly spilling him into the fire below. Tano wasn't really afraid of the fire, because he had only heard about it but not seen it. In fact his curiosity got the better of him and he was fascinated watching the flames, as a mouse is fixated by a swaying cobra’s head before it strikes. He felt safe in the tree, high above the ground where that red storm was raging. Little did he know trees burn too.
Simba couldn’t see a think through the smoke. Furthermore, he found himself unable to penetrate the flames to search what was already burnt. He ran down the fire line, yelling Tano until he grew hoarse. At last the chance came, and Simba burst through to the black landscape on the other side. There he stopped short at the grim scene before him, where dead and dying animals were strewn all over the smoldering field, their unearthly shreaks pounding the air. Simba swallowed hard. "Hold on Tano," he prayed, "Keep holding on. Daddy's on his way." He looked about it despair. "But which...?"
The longer he was trapped in the tree, the more desperate Tano became. The fire still crackled below him, like it was yearning to have him in its grasp. Then what he thought was impossible happened: the tree caught fire. It had burnt all the grass and had reached the dry trunk, tasted it, and then surged up its skeletal structure. Oh no, Tano pleaded. "Help!" he raced higher up the tree, sinking his claws into every branch he could reach and heaving himself up as fast as he could. A glance over his shoulder showed him nothing but a field of flames below and strands of fire slinking up the trunk after him. He climbed faster, but knew the tree wouldn't go on forever, and that sooner of later he'd have to stop. Sooner. The branches got thinner and thinner, until at last he reached for one and it broke away, nearly knocking him off. Nowhere to go. He looked down at the tree trunk, and the fire now inched its way on, as if playing with its helpless and cornered victim. "Help! Mom! Dad! Help me! Where are you? I'll be good! I promise I'll be good for the rest of my life!" He began to whimper, but his pleas went unheard in the roar of the storm. "Mommyyyyy!" It was raw primal fear, the feeling every living being dreads and understands. It's a feeling of utter loss, of no way out. It's agony in its final form, racking the brain and shaking the nerves until no more sensible thought happens, until it only leaves its victim thrashing for answer and storming for another way out, for anything. "Help me!" he wailed. He cried at his hopelessness, cried out at the fire eating away his last hope piece by piece. No place to run, too high to jump. Then Tano heard a loud crunching sound, almost like the splash of a boulder into water. The next thing he realized his perch was tipping, first in faint motion so that it was barely perceptible, and then down he went. As he screamed he saw the burning ground approaching through the tangle of branches, and the last thing for his shining eyes was a giant branch coming down on him. The fire raged on.
"Sire! Sire!" Zazu cried when he finally found Simba. "I think I---," he paused, "--I think I found him." He led Simba through the lifeless savanna to the blackened remains of the tree, and deep in its snarl laid a motionless cub covered in ashes. Upon seeing it Simba froze as if his heart had been run through. His eyes widened for a moment, and then he lowered his head with an enormous sigh. He didn't want to believe it though he knew it was true. With shaking arms he pushed away the black branches and gingerly drew out his son from beneath the mess. It can't be. It just can't be. The words drummed in his head. He looked at the tail but there was none. He felt weak in the legs as he licked the son he loved so much, whose lively eyes were shut forever. A father. So long ago. Now a son. Why me? "Tano, please. Wake up." The tears were running down his face. Why me? Why! He let out an enormous roar, the like of which few have witnessed. It was at once full of anger, of despair, of sadness, of pain. It rolled like thunder over the land, hanging in the air before ebbing away.
Nala was worried sick. She walked out to the edge of the clearing, then back to the lionesses, and back out to the edges again over the small furrow she had worn in the ground by her pacing. And then there he was, emerging bit by bit through the smoke, as if reluctant to show himself. Nala ran toward him but then stopped. Her mouth opened to silent words. She saw the limp form dangling from his mouth, a cub with no tail. From the cub her eyes went up and met Simba's, whose own glimmered with tears, and in that instant she knew. All the joys and challenges of a cub, all the laughs, the cries, the treasured moments of bliss, all the days teaching him and nights spent gazing at stars, all of it was over. It had come like a phantom, with no warning, and had spirited her son away. In a breath he was gone.
Simba slowly lowered Tano to the ground. Nala walked over to her son as if in a trance and licked him lovingly, hoping by a faint miracle those eyes would open again. But they did not. She buried her head in Simba's mane and sobbed. He too could no longer hold back his own tears, and the two sat there, each the other's only comfort.
The fire was out, having burnt everything it could, and the blanket of smoke rolled away to reveal a clear night sky with the first stars shining forth. The pride flopped down next to the water hole, too exhausted to walk back home, while Simba and Nala spent the night some paces away. They talked of past memories, remembering all the times they had with Tano. Once in a while they chuckled, like remembering the time when Tano, covered in dirt from head to toe, tried to pounce on a lioness. She instinctively ducked, and Tano sailed over her, legs outspread, and left a great dusty silhouette of himself hitting the wall. The chuckles would lapse into silence, and maybe a long sigh. Sometimes they'd cry, sometimes they were just glad they still had each other. They waited for dawn.
The next day they spent in a stupor, picking up the pieces of their lives as best they could. From Pride Rock Simba looked out over his black and grey kingdom, lying dead under a blue sky. He went inside. Nala soon came in from her own vigil. She curled up against him and they spent the rest of the day in reflection, as they had done last night. They talked about everything and anything, letting their free thoughts soothe the wound where a piece of their hearts had been torn out. They had resigned to the fact that Tano was gone forever, but that his memory would always be with them. They reminisced about their abrupt reunion in the jungle, and the day when Mufasa was killed. At this Simba once more became quiet. A father and a son. Two crippling blows too much to receive on one spirit. Nala leaned back against him, and she thought she felt something wet fall on her and seep into her fur. She looked at her swollen stomach and tried to change the subject.
"Our prince is gone," she said softly, "but what about this next one?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, should we tell him--or her--about Tano? That they have a brother, who they won't ever see?"
Simba drew a deep breath. He knew about death all too well, being more familiar with it than he wanted to be. Maybe loosing a sibling isn't as bad as loosing a dad, he thought, or a son, or even an uncle. And maybe it won't be heart wrenching either, for his next child will not ever see Tano. Tano Tano Tano. Simba couldn't stop thinking about him. He closed his eyes and gnashed his teeth. What good will it do them? What bad? Tano Tano. His mind kept going back to yesterday. The fire, the smoke, the tree, his dead son. The fire, the ash, the tree, Tano. Fire, smoke, tree, Tano, flames, tree, tail, Tano. His breathing quickened. No, he thought. Never again. Never like that again. Next cub I have, I will protect it!
I WILL protect it! He lay there a long time in silence, letting himself recover. At last he muttered something.
"What?" she turned around.
"I was just thinking; let's not tell them about Tano---yet. It's not going to help them in any way if we did. A death is a death, and having to live with the death of a family member will just be too painful. We'll tell them about my father, of course, but I really don't think letting them know about Tano is necessary. Don't you agree? We may tell them when they're older, or if somehow we need to, but let's try to spare them that for now."
Nala thought it over while she stared at her stomach, picturing the life growing within her. "If it's for the best, yes."