Leopard Like Me
“We have to get him back.”
“Do you think I don’t know that?”
“He’s right there.”
“Do you think I don’t know that?”
“I’m going to get him.”
“No! You know we can’t do that.”
“I won’t just stand by and watch this happen.”
“If you hadn’t just left him there we—”
“Oh, so it’s all my fault now? At least I want to do something to fix it, instead of just pacing!”
A pause. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. But there’s nothing we can do.”
“I know, I know, he’s mine, too. But you know what they think of us. If their father got the slightest whiff of us, he’d kill us both, with no thought at all. Don’t you see?”
“I want to something just as much as you. But all we can do is hope for the best.”
A sniffle. “Is—isn’t there anything? Just one little thing?”
“Not that I can think of.”
Desperately: “But—but what if he grows up like them? Hating us?”
“We can only hope.”
The leopard cub scampered happily through the grass. “Betcha can’t catch me!” she called back to her two sisters.
“Betcha you’re wrong!” said one coming up behind her eagerly.
“Hey, be careful,” cautioned the other. “There could be dangerous stuff out here.”
“Zebra!” the two others taunted as they ran away, the third on their tails. “Running like a zebra!”
The first one stopped with a sudden gasp, skidding slightly. The second one tackled her. “Gotcha!”
The third ran into both of them. “What’s the idea, stopping like that?”
“It’s—it’s a cub,” said the first cub, her eyes wide with surprise. The other two poked their heads around her to see, then slowly walked around to get a better look. The little cub lied on the ground, obviously a newborn.
“Whoa. It is a cub,” said the second cub.
“Hey, little guy,” asked the first one, “what’s your name?”
The cub squalled.
“Oh, come on, you gotta have a name. I’m Ukafu, this is Daima, and this is The Epitome of Stupid.”
“Hey!” exploded the third cub.
“Well that’s what we call you!”
“Not me,” said Daima. “I call you Mr. Stupid.”
“Oh, that’s really nice,” the female cub pouted.
“Come on, little guy,” Ukafu said. “Talk to us.” She tickled the cub under his chin. The cub grabbed hold of her leg. “Aw, I think he likes me.”
“How do you know it’s a he?” Mr. Stupid asked skeptically.
“Look, right there,” said Daima.
“Where’s your mommy?” Ukafu asked the cub, gently pulling her leg away from the cub’s grasp. The cub began to cry. Ukafu hurriedly replaced her leg. The cub stopped crying.
“Uh, I think you’re his mommy now,” said Daima.
“Hey,” said The Epitome of Stupid suddenly, “what if his mom does come back?”
“Yeah, we better get out of here,” said Daima nervously. She and Mr. Stupid started to leave.
“Hey! We can’t just leave him!” protested Ukafu.
“Look, just because he’s sucking on your leg doesn’t mean we take him with us. His parents would be mad.”
“He is not sucking on my—” Ukafu turned to look at the cub. “He is sucking on my leg!” Daima and Mr. Stupid burst out laughing. “It’s not that funny!”
“Yeah, whatever,” said Daima. She turned to leave, Mr. Stupid with her.
“We can’t just leave him!” Ukafu looked down at the cub, his little closed eyes so cute.
“But—but what’ll Dad say? And Mom? I don’t want to leave him either, but—”
“We’ll just take him with us,” said Ukafu matter-of-factly. She rolled the cub over and picked him up by the scruff of the neck, the cub crying out when she removed her leg and stopping when he felt her warm breath.
“Okay,” said Daima. She began to follow Ukafu home.
“I don’t think this is such a good idea,” said Mr. Stupid.
“You never think anything is.”
“Oh, my word! What do you have, Ukafu?” The leopard stared in wonder at the cub.
Ukafu gently set the cub down. “It’s a cub, Mom.”
“Well, yes, I can see that, but why is it here?”
“We found him all alone,” said Mr. Stupid. “I decided to bring it home.”
“That’s so nice of you, Kpindi.”
“Hey, it wasn’t even Kpindi’s idea! He was against the whole thing!” protested Daima.
The leopard drew the cub closer to her. It was shivering from the cold. “Poor thing,” the leopard said, completely ignoring Daima’s protest.
“He wouldn’t tell us his name,” said Ukafu.
“Well, he probably doesn’t know it himself.”
“Huh? That’s stupid!”
The leopard chuckled. “Maybe to you.”
“Jibu!” called a voice. The cubs and leopard turned to see a male leopard striding towards them. “Have you found the—oh, there they are. Where have you been, you silly little rascals? I’ve been looking all over for you.” The cubs ran over to their father and nuzzled him lovingly.
“Akida, I’ve told you time and again, don’t worry about the cubs. They’ll be fine,” said Jibu with a smile.
“Hey, Dad, guess what I found?” said Kpindi excitedly.
“Hey, I’m the one who found it,” protested Ukafu.
Jibu chuckled. “Always competing. Alright, what is it?”
“Over here, Dad!” Akida walked over to his wife’s forelegs, smiling. The smile vanished when he saw the cub. “We just found him! Can we keep him? Please?”
“No!” said Akida with sudden ferocity. The cubs took a step back, surprised by the change in their father’s attitude.
“Akida,” said Jibu soothingly, “it’s just a cub.”
“We have three of our own! We don’t need any more!”
“I’d like a little brother,” said Daima timidly.
Akida almost rounded on his daughter, catching himself. He reminded himself that she didn’t know what she’d done. “Girls, would you please excuse us?” The cubs left to go into the grass quietly. Akida watched them go, then turned to Jibu, slightly thrown off by her determined gaze. Just slightly. “We will not keep it.”
“Why not?” Ukafu’s head was poking through the grass.
“I said to let us be!” Ukafu’s head disappeared back into the grass, accompanied by scurrying sounds. Akida turned back to Jibu. “You know why.”
“You know why, maybe. Not me.” She nuzzled the cub. “My little Shaka.”
Akida let out a groan and began pacing. “Jibu, you don’t name it. If you name it, you become attached to it.”
“I still don’t see anything wrong with raising it. Wouldn’t his parents be looking for it if he had any?”
“Most likely the filth just dumped their cub to become an easy hyena meal.”
“That’s how they think. They think of nothing more than their selves, they’d kill you as soon as look at you. They are filth. And look at you,” he said disgustedly. “Cradling one in your legs!”
“They can’t all be like that.”
“They are,” said Akida viciously.
“But this is just a cub. Couldn’t we make him see the real way? The right way? Raise him right?”
“Do you want to take that chance? Who knows what that—thing will do when he grows up? I wouldn’t be surprised if he isn’t scheming in his little mind to—” Akida struggled for something that the innocent, harmless ball of fur in Jibu’s legs could do.
“Eat the cubs?”
“I think you’re being silly.” Jibu nuzzled the cub again. “He’ll be just fine. He’s just like us, really.” She looked up at Akida slyly. “Besides, you heard Daima.”
“‘I always wanted a little brother.’”
“She doesn’t understand yet.”
“Then how can you expect this little one to? How can you expect him to understand things like hate?”
Akida groaned, well aware he was losing.
“Besides, if we just chuck him out, we’re just as bad as them.”
Akida suddenly stopped pacing, his eyes lit up with inspiration. “And how do we feed him? Tell me that. You’re fresh out of milk, and—by some miracle—if you did get any it’d be far too late for that runt. So, how do we feed him?”
“Carefully.” Akida groaned. “We’ll find a way.” Akida glared at her. “Alright, I’ll find a way.”
“Fine,” said Akida. “But the moment he causes any trouble, he’s gone.”
“Alright!” said Daima, jumping from the grass, Ukafu and Kpindi following her.
“You’ve been there the whole time?” said Akida incredulously.
“Well, duh,” said Kpindi.
Akida stared at the three for a second, then chuckled. “Alright, then.” He sighed. “How about I go get dinner?”
Jibu smiled. “You do that.”
The three cubs huddled around their mother’s legs as Akida left. “Aw, isn’t he cute?” said Ukafu.
“Yeah . . . little Shaka,” said Daima. “Good name.”
Shaka curled tighter into a ball in his new mother’s legs, completely unaware of all the trouble he’d caused.
Shaka knelt down into the grass, his cub body attempting to make no sound at all. There were Daima, Ukafu, and Kpindi, all of them in the small clearing, looking into the grass, thoroughly scared. He had gotten them all into this one place, frightening them, appearing here in the grass, then over there, then everywhere and nowhere. He tensed his body in preparation to strike. All three of the cubs’ heads snapped in his direction as he leapt with a cub’s roar at them. Kpindi screamed. Shaka laughed. “Gotcha.”
“It isn’t supposed to be that real, Shaka!” protested Kpindi.
“Oh, you were so scared!”
“I was not!” She wouldn’t admit it. She never did. None of them did when they played. Today they played Cubs and Cheetahs. Shaka was the cheetah now. Kpindi would be next. Shaka had played a perfect game. The bloodthirsty cheetahs stalked the cubs, hunting them down and killing each one of them. There was no way for the cubs to win. The only point of the game was to stay away from the cheetah as long as they could. It was a lot more fun after Shaka had grown up enough to play it. They could do two on two now.
“He scared you so bad!” said Ukafu.
“He did not!” Kpindi protested. “It’s lunchtime anyway.” She began to walk away.
“Hey! You can’t just leave!” said Daima. “It’s your turn!”
Kpindi turned around, pouting somewhat. “Why do I always have to be it? You haven’t gone all day!”
“I didn’t scream.”
“Liar!” said Shaka. “You’re scared!” he taunted. The other two joined in. “Scared of little cheetahs! Scared of little cheetahs!”
“No I’m not! I just don’t want to play anymore, that’s all!”
“Why not?” asked Ukafu. “You’ve always loved this game.”
“It’s just—well, I had a bad dream last night,” admitted Kpindi grudgingly.
“Oh, like that—ow!” Ukafu hit Shaka to shut him up.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Daima asked.
“It—it was about us—and Mom—and Dad.” Kpindi looked up from the ground. “Cheetahs killed all of you.” Her face grew dark with the memory. “It—it was horrible.”
Ukafu walked over to her. “Don’t worry. There probably aren’t even any filthy cheetahs around here.”
“I want to think that, Ukafu. I really do. But don’t you just wonder what if—”
“Oh, stop it with your what ifs,” said Shaka. “You can do that all day and not get anywhere. There aren’t any cheetahs around here. If there was, you know Dad would take care of us.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” chimed in Daima.
“Yeah, I know,” said Kpindi. “But what if—”
“Stop that!” said Shaka.
“What do you know, Shaka? You’re just a cub!”
“You’re only five months older than me. That doesn’t mean anything. Besides, I know about this kind of thing. I got the sense.”
“Pff. Yeah, right,” said Ukafu. “Sense my rear.”
“I do! How do you think I always win? I know right—where—you—are. I don’t even have to see you.” Shaka drew himself up proudly. The other cubs’ gazes slowly looked up slightly above Shaka’s head. He didn’t notice. “If anyone besides us was even near here, I’d know.” He finally saw where they were staring. “Hey, look at me when I’m talk—there’s someone right behind me, isn’t there?” The other three nodded mutely. He slowly turned around. “Hi, Dad.”
“That is a wonderful sense you have, Shaka,” said Akida. The other three cubs burst into laughter. “Now come on. Lunchtime. Mom got antelope specially for you.”
“Alright,” said Shaka grudgingly. He followed his father into the grass, humbled. It didn’t matter. In five minutes he’d be the playful cub he always was.
Akida stared down at his son. It was a son any father would be proud of. Shaka was good, loving, gentle when necessary, and forceful only when he had to be. His lean, slightly muscular body was definitely something to be proud of. He had outperformed all of Akida’s expectations when Akida had taken him in. Jibu had been right. But he was only one. Just because Shaka was alright didn’t mean that the others were.
Akida enjoyed these walks that his son had taken a custom to. It gave them time to talk, to learn more about each other. Sometimes they took the walk in silence, just thinking. It was always pleasant, either way. But this time they talked. “Dad?” Shaka asked.
“Why do we hate cheetahs so much?”
Akida sighed. He hadn’t expected something this heavy this early in the morning. “I thought you knew.”
“Well, I know they’re evil, and cruel and nasty, but still . . . I’ve never seen one, have I?”
“No. No, you haven’t.”
“I mean, I know that they’re bad. I just know it. But you never told me why you hate them.”
Akida was silent for a moment. “Son, when I was a cub, I was attacked by two cheetahs. I didn’t know then that they were the demons that I know now. I learned fast. I was with my mother and my two younger sisters. Mom always was good to me, and to them. There was a drought, and there was very little food to be found. But she always managed to find something for us, even if that meant she didn’t get to eat. Dad tried to make her eat some, but she wouldn’t. She cared more for us than herself.
“But these two cheetahs came one day and killed her. They had no reason. They weren’t starving like we were, like she was. But they killed her, with plenty of remarks about what a meal she’d make. Then they noticed us.” Akida smiled grimly. “We were appetizers. They started on my two sisters. They were already dead before Dad came back from hunting empty-handed. He barely kept them from eating me. He killed one and the other ran off. He broke that day. He completely broke down and wept. I never saw my father like that. He was never the same after it. He discovered that day the cheetahs aren’t the animals they pretend to be, they’re monsters that the gods should never have allowed to walk the earth. I swore that day that I would never trust a cheetah ever, that I would kill every one I saw so long as they gave me half a reason.”
Something must have showed on his face, because Shaka suddenly said, “You did the right thing, Dad.”
“I know. I’ve never doubted that.”
“They aren’t even worth enough to be in our presence. They’d kill you as soon as look at you. You’re right, Dad. They shouldn’t even exist.”
Shaka yawned as he stretched his body, the sun coming up of the horizon. His body no longer had any trace of cubbishness, yet wasn’t fully adult. He was in the feline equivalent of late puberty. There was nothing that differed, however, in his notice of girls. He’d already taken feelings toward leopards that he’d seen. He knew he was too young to think of mating permanently, but temporarily was almost always on his mind. It was natural, Akida assured him. He looked over at his sleeping family, then decided to head over to the waterhole.
He thanked Aiheu for days like this. Days that seemed to sparkle in the morning, and would undoubtedly continue all the way through the night. He reached the waterhole, smiling. He remembered how he had met his first cheetah here, only for a few minutes. Akida had been with him. He’d seen the cheetah sneaking up behind Shaka towards the waterhole. He’d pounced on it, tearing it to pieces. The sudden ferocity his father mustered scared Shaka. It was unlike him. Akida had looked up at Shaka’s alarmed face and said, “It’s okay, son. It’s dead now.”
Shaka began to lap up water, the happy memory of the cheetah’s death playing through his head. He straightened up, thinking of what he’d do today. He didn’t quite know, yet. Ukafu, Kpindi, and Daima were no fun to play with anymore. They’d become “females. We’re not just cubs anymore.” Ugh. Shaka didn’t act masculine. At least, not around them. Now around those other cheetahs, well that was just a little different . . . But still, he didn’t try to. It just happened. Those leopardesses just brought it out.
He looked at his face in the water. He wasn’t all that bad-looking, he thought. I mean, sure, he didn’t look a whole lot like his father, but none of the girls looked a whole lot like Jibu, either. He saw a head appear in the water a distance away from his, that reflection looking at his. Shaka brought his head up to stare at a cheetah, with a smaller, apparently scared version of the beast behind it that must have been its mate. Shaka felt rage and hate suddenly fill him. “What do you want, cheetah?” he asked furiously.
The male didn’t seem to notice Shaka’s anger, though the female cringed. “We wanted to see you,” the male said, an emotion in his voice that Shaka didn’t quite register.
“And what would a pair of cheetahs possibly want with me?” he asked scathingly.
“Let’s just leave, Meyk,” pleaded the female suddenly. “He doesn’t want this.”
“Peri, you’ve always wanted this. We have a chance now, finally. You’ve wanted this since he was first gone. He needs to know that—”
“My time is too good for you,” said Shaka, stalking away angrily. He heard the female let out a cry of sorrow.
“You’re my son!” the male suddenly yelled.
Shaka was nearly blinded by rage. He turned and ran back to the cheetah and dealt him a furious blow across the face, knocking him to the ground. “What lies could have possessed even scum like you to say that?”
The cheetah looked up at him, his eyes pleading. “It’s true, my son. We love you.”
Shaka slashed the cheetah again, the cheetah doubling up in pain. “Lies,” he hissed. He drew his paw back for another blow. He would rid the world of another piece of filth.
“Stop! Please!” begged the female. “Please, my son, just stop!”
Shaka turned to her, the female gasping when she saw his face. He struck out at her, hitting her across the neck. He hadn’t really intended to hit her there, just anywhere. He was mildly amused at the blood spurting from her neck as she fell to the ground. He didn’t think that demons like this would bleed. He suddenly remembered his first experience with a cheetah. Yes, they did bleed, plenty. He turned back to the male as he heard his cry of distress. The male was staring at his fallen mate and the red pool blossoming from her as her heart pumped the life from her body. He looked up at Shaka as he approached. “You killed her,” he whispered. “Your mother.”
Shaka had had enough. He was not part of these cheetahs. He was not going to tolerate their impudence. He translated these thoughts into blows that he rained down on the cheetah, he cheetah crying out into pain. The cheetah was finally still, except for the heaving of his chest. Shaka stared at it in disgust. It would hurt the cheetah more to leave it alive, to let it live while its mate was dead. He washed their filthy blood off in the waterhole. He would never drink from here again; they had tainted it. He turned back home. He knew his father—his true father—would be pleased to hear what he had done. Everything those cheetahs had said were lies. He was Akida’s son, a true leopard. Those cheetahs only deserved to die.