Chapter IV: Uwivu
Nafsi looked down at the lioness with a smile. She was young, barely out of her cubhood. And she hated her king with a passion, one of the few who still dared to hate him. She was stunningly beautiful. He had given several lions kingdoms to rule under his name, and any one of them would have desired her if they saw her, just for themselves and for no other. She had been born outside of his personal pride, instead into the downtrodden, suffering lionesses who lived inside his lands and outside of his den, the lionesses who only received cubs from rogues, the lionesses who were the lowest of the low, the only protection they had being if they had a family member inside Nafsi’s den who wished them to remain safe. Very, very few of the lionesses that Nafsi wanted in his den wanted their families safe. He brought lionesses who had qualities that he found appealing up from the slime they lived in, and those same qualities generally made them utterly uncaring as to their families’ fate.
But the lioness before him didn’t have the cruel streak that Nafsi enjoyed. She was stunningly beautiful, as were the other lionesses, but she despised Nafsi and his ways. But she would love him. Nafsi knew she would. He had grown bored recently. Decades had passed since Ashki had been with him, since he had given her a son, who he had let rule one of his kingdoms, and had died, along with his mother a few years later. And other lionesses had come and gone, Nafsi giving a son to one other in all those years. Both of his sons had grown to be wonderful rulers, with not a hint of pity or compassion in their hearts, the closest they could come to their father’s utter lack of useless emotion. Nafsi had been prouder of them than he had been of anyone other than Ashki. She devoted her life to him, completely and fully, knowing what paw held out meat to her, and that she should caress the paw and worship its owner. His sons had not learned that. Their personalities were almost replicas of his in their arrogance, and that arrogance had cost them their lives. Nafsi had enjoyed killing them.
But the lioness before him would not bear him a son as he had let Ashki. He would not kill her as he did his sons. He would make her love him, would destroy her arrogance and hate towards him and leave nothing but devotion. He would make her truly love him. It would amuse him to break her. But when he was done, she would be far too subservient to let him entrust her with a son. Her future subservience didn’t show as she looked up at Nafsi, only the hate in her eyes. She was held by the forelegs between two of his creatures, both of them thickly muscled, with their long, clawed talons around a foreleg of the lioness. Majadi, that was her name. Nafsi smiled as she hung limply in the grasp of the creatures, only her hind legs touching the floor of the den. This was a private room; there were no other lionesses here. She would be put in with them later. But now it was just her and him.
“Release her,” he said casually to the creatures. Her forelegs were thrown to the ground, her body following them. Nafsi smiled from his long, soft throne where he lied, sprawled across the object. It, like the entire den and all the dens that were connected, was of his making. This was a special den, one that he used when he wished to make love to a lioness alone. His smile grew slightly in realization of the irony of what this room would be used for now. He and Majadi would not be disturbed; it was the reason he had chosen the den. Majadi looked at him, the fierce, burning hatred in her lovely eyes. “Leave us,” Nafsi said to the creatures. They bowed and walked out.
Nafsi got up from the throne and walked toward the lioness. She stared back at him, her face not showing her fear, if she had any. She would have been a wonderful lioness to have in his den, if she wouldn’t have hated him. “Don’t you bow to your king?” he asked. “Doing otherwise has become rather deadly.”
Majadi brought her head up proudly. “Then kill me. Kill me like you did my mother.”
Nafsi smiled. “Did I? All of the murders begin to run together after all these years.”
“I’m surprised you have the courage to call them that.”
Nafsi laughed. “What? Murders? But they are. Wonderful, delightful killings. But you won’t be adding to the number,” he said, stretching out a paw for her beautiful cheek.
Her foreleg flew up. He allowed her to knock his paw away. “Don’t touch me!” she said.
Nafsi’s smile grew wider at the statement. “Do you really think you can hold back against me?” He put a paw across the back of her neck and pulled her close to his muscle-bound chest. “You have no hope of resisting my strength.” He licked her passionately, enjoying the feeling of her squirming.
He let go, Majadi pushing herself away from him. “Don’t do that again,” she snarled.
Nafsi laughed. “Do you really think you’re the one who makes demands?”
“If you’re going to rape me, then rape me! Don’t toy with me!”
“Oh, but I won’t rape you. I don’t rape anyone. After all, rape is such a . . . immoral thing.” He grinned. “No, you will beg me to make love to you.”
“Never,” Majadi said fiercely.
Nafsi shook his head, still smiling. He held out his paw, away from Majadi. A long, black, featureless rod appeared in it, Nafsi’s digits wrapping around it. “This is a wonderful little thing I have here. I call it a sibu. Quite appropriate considering the meaning of the name.” He looked away from it toward Majadi. “It’s a wonderful feeling, using it. I’m not quite sure how it would affect you, though.” He held it out toward Majadi. “Wouldn’t you like to try it?”
Majadi stared at it. She didn’t want to take it. She knew it had to be a trap. But for all she knew it was a euphoric, or quite possibly the thing that had kept Nafsi alive for centuries. If she could get her paws on that. She looked up at Nafsi’s still-smiling face, then reached out her paw for the sibu.
Pain flooded her mind. She screamed, throwing back her head. Nafsi brought the rod away from the single digit that had made contact. Nafsi looked at her with a grin as the pain went away instantly. “You see, the rod gives different amounts of pain to different animals. But I’d say you’re about normal.”
“You bastard!” she screamed.
Nafsi hit her across the face with the paw that had the sibu, without letting it touch her, knocking her to the ground. “The correct title for you is master.”
“I’ll never tell you that! How dare you try to play god with my life!”
“Oh, but I am your god. Or rather, your master. Or both, if you prefer. You should have known, after all, that sibu means ‘cause pain.’ It’s not my fault you never bothered to learn your royal.”
Nafsi pressed the rod to her again. “What a filthy mouth,” he observed as she rolled on the floor, screaming. He wondered idly what it felt like. Simply touching it probably would have set him rolling like her, if he wasn’t immune to any amount of pain. He removed the rod. “We don’t need to go through this, you know. Simply learn to love me.”
“Never,” she whispered.
He pressed the sibu to her again, removed it again. “Sit up.”
More pain, longer. “This will never kill you. There will be no pleasant escape with death. Sit up.” Majadi did so miserably. Nafsi brought the rod next to the front of her neck, Majadi taking in breath sharply as he did so. He held it there, watching her stare at it as he kept it there, motionless. He finally pressed it against her neck, leaving it there for the longest time, watching her scream in agony as her muscles tensed, paralyzing her sitting stance. He pushed back, raising her forepaws of the ground as the rod lifted her slowly to his amusement. He finally whipped it away, Majadi sinking into his outstretched foreleg. He pulled her close, dropping the rod. Majadi wept into his mane, reduced to tears by the comforting embrace. She grabbed him tightly, sobbing.
“Don’t worry,” said Nafsi, rubbing her back. “The pain is gone.” He looked down at her as she brought her tearstained face up to look at him. “Do you love me?” She looked at Nafsi’s face in horror, realizing who she was clinging to. She pushed away. Nafsi picked up the sibu again. “Don’t you realize that your hate will only bring you pain?”
“No—no, Nafsi, please—” She stepped back, away from the rod.
Nafsi whipped it to her body. “You are to refer to me as master.” He removed the rod. “Do you love me?”
He could see her weighing the options in her mind. If she said yes, then maybe, just maybe, he’d let her go—after he took her. “Yes,” she finally said. “Yes, I—”
She screamed. “No. You don’t. You waited far too long to answer. You won’t escape by lying.” He idly twirled the rod as he pressed it against her, seeing her pain increase to new, unthinkable levels. He finally removed it. “Don’t you see that you only need love me? All of this hate, this bitter rage, it only brings you pain. Love me. Love me, Majadi. Honestly, truthfully love me.” He raised the sibu again.
“Nafsi—Master—please. Master, don’t do this.”
“I only want to make you see,” he said gently. “Do you love me? Be honest.” His voice was tender, almost as if he was a mother speaking to her cub about how much she loved it.
“I want to. Really, Master, I want to.”
“Do you? Or do you just want the pain to end?” Majadi hesitated. “Complete honesty.”
“The pain,” she whispered.
Nafsi nodded solemnly. “It’s good for you to be honest.” He pressed the sibu against her again, Majadi throwing her head back with yet another shriek. “It will be so much easier if you’re honest with yourself. Because I’ll know. I’ll know if you lie to me. And I’ll know if you don’t love me.” He removed the rod again, Majadi letting herself be drawn close, weeping in his soft, caring embrace. “Do you love me?”
“Then I am sorry.” He raised the sibu up to her neck, Majadi grabbing onto him, clinging to him desperately.
“Please, Master—please, I want to love you. Just don’t do that again. Please don’t do that again.”
Nafsi looked at her, a look of honest regret on his face. “You must love me.” She hung her head, sobbing from remembrance of the pain. Nafsi pressed the sibu to her neck, hearing her scream of pain again. He could barely suppress the sick smile that urged to creep across his face as he felt her shake in pain. He would put her in with the other lionesses after another hour, so she could see how rewarding he could be. She would love him. Adoringly, unconditionally, fiercely—and subserviently. She would never have the spirit of the other lionesses. She would be broken. But she would love him.
Three months later she walked back to her old den, transformed, a missionary to the lionesses, her hate changed to complete and utter love and devotion to her king. Her master.
Taabu woke up, hearing mutterings. There was Nafsi, in the middle of the den, sleeping a small distance away from his mother. He was twitching in his sleep, something Taabu had never known him to do. It was common enough among all animals, but Nafsi had never as much as moved a toe in her entire memory. Nevertheless, there he was, the twitches becoming more and more violent jerks. He was muttering one word over and over. “No . . . no . . .”
Taabu went to him as quickly as she could, carefully stepping over the other lionesses. “Nafsi,” she whispered. He didn’t wake up. Taabu cast a wary look at the slumbering king and queen before whispering slightly louder, “Nafsi.” Nafsi opened an eyelid partially, the jerks and moaning continuing. “Nafsi.”
Nafsi violently woke. He had no realization of what he was doing. A long, black edge came from his paw as he struck up, nearly going through Taabu. As it was, it cut her leg. She clenched her teeth in pain, willing herself to not scream. The years of discipline she had from Sibu had only been reinforced by Jadi’s treatment of her. She was silent. Nevertheless, she slumped to the ground. A slight whimper came from her with the blood.
Nafsi could only stare at what he had done. He had half a mind to simply leave her there and go back to sleep. He didn’t know where that thought came from. But it firmly protested She doesn’t need help. Don’t worry about her. She’s only a servant to you. This is a wonderful opportunity for you. Use your gifts. Make her suffer even more. It will be fun. But it seemed so—heartless. For some odd reason, it made him sad to see her so obviously in pain. He didn’t like that feeling. He got up and placed his paws on Taabu’s wound, hearing her intake of breath as his paws touched the gash. He simply healed her, replaced the lost muscle and fur with new ones. It required no conscious effort. He simply thought of what he wanted to do, and it was done. But the shoulder was different. Instead of the usual tan it was now black, as black as Uchu, as black as the swath of fur overarching his back.
Taabu craned her head to look at the shoulder. She couldn’t see the entire thing, but she could see some of it, the recent blood still there. But it no longer hurt. She looked back at Nafsi incredulously. He was now sitting down and staring at her. “You healed my leg?” she whispered.
Nafsi put a paw to his lips. Quiet. He mouthed, “Can you follow me, Grandma?” Taabu couldn’t lip-read, but she nodded just the same. Nafsi weaved his way through the lionesses to the back of the den. Taabu followed him outside. He sat down at the edge of the ledge that was connected to the back of Pride Rock, staring at the moon. Taabu sat down next to him quietly. Finally she asked:
“Why did you do that?”
Nafsi looked away from the moon toward the ground. “I don’t know. I was supposed to torture you a little more.” He paused, his brow creasing. “I don’t know why I helped you.”
“Nafsi,” Taabu said gently.
“Hmm?” he asked, his head jerking up.
“I meant why you hurt me.”
Nafsi stared at the ground guiltily. “I lost control. And I shouldn’t have.”
“What were you dreaming about?”
Nafsi stared up at her, his eyes wide. “How did you know?”
“I went to wake you up. You were muttering. I wanted to help you.”
“Oh.” Nafsi went back to staring at the ground. He didn’t speak for so long Taabu almost thought he’d forgotten the question. Just before she asked him again, he said, “We were right here. It was me, and this other lion. It was Akasare. And he was shining. And he said he wanted to help me. If I wanted to just tell him anything, or share anything, just to do it. I told him to leave. I didn’t want him in my head. And he did. And then I didn’t want him gone. There was something missing. I think Akasare was trying to be my friend. I looked all over for him, but he wasn’t there.” Nafsi fell silent. Taabu stared at him, her heart melting as it always did. After a few minutes he finally said, “I know why I helped you, Grandma.”
“You’re my friend, right?”
“Of course, Nafsi.”
“That’s why.” Nafsi looked up at her with a smile. “You’re my friend.”
“Nafsi . . . do you really want to smile?”
The smile disappeared. “No. But it makes you feel better.”
Taabu looked at him sadly. “Nafsi, it doesn’t. I want you to smile when you actually feel like it. I don’t want you to lie to me like that.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He hung his head in thought. “Grandma, why don’t I have friends?”
“You have me.
“I think you’d be my friend anyway.”
Taabu looked at the cub sadly. No cub should have to ask that question, and not with that much knowledge. Whatever Uchu had done to this cub, she had done nothing kind. “Nafsi . . . you just have to be nice to others. Maybe try a little.”
“But what was wrong with my new friend?”
“Nafsi, you can’t just create friends. You have to make them.” Taabu laughed at the utter lack of sense her words made. “I mean, you have to make a relationship. You have to give them something to start with. It’s just . . . a little harder . . .” She couldn’t bear to finish the sentence.
Nafsi looked up at her, his eyes filling with tears. “Grandma, I want a friend. So badly. And I’ll never have one. I’ve never seen me have one. But I want one.”
Half of what he said made no sense to Taabu. She didn’t know about his visions. “Nafsi, you’re just different.”
The tears flowed down his face. “Grandma, it hurts so much. I—I—” He closed his eyes, looking away, his body heaving. Taabu moved to embrace him when he looked back up at her, his face twisted into horrible, heartbreaking features she had never seen before. “Look in there,” he said, waving a paw at the den. “Look at those cubs. They’re all so happy. And their faces . . . they’re all so peaceful, and happy. They don’t have a care in the world. Why can’t I be like that, Grandma? I didn’t ask to be able to understand this. I didn’t ask to be hated. I didn’t ask to be friendless. Why do I have to be so alone? I want a friend. It hurts so much.” He bit his lip, the tears not stopping.
Taabu wrapped her leg around him, pulling him close. She rubbed him gently. “I’m so sorry, Nafsi. I know it’s not right. I’m sorry.”
“Why do I feel like this? Why?!”
“It’s okay to feel, Nafsi. It’s good.”
“Then why does it feel so bad?!”
Taabu didn’t have an answer.
“Dad is right. I should just let it go. If it feels like this . . . I don’t want to feel, Grandma!”
Taabu nuzzled Nafsi gently. “Nafsi, there’s nothing better than a friend. Even your mother has friends, heartless as she is. She has your father. You need a friend.”
“I know . . . I know . . .”
“Just . . . just try, Nafsi. For me. All you need to do is try. It will all be better if you try.”
“Grandma . . . it hurts so much . . . so much . . .”
“Shh . . .” Taabu gently eased Nafsi to the ground. “It’ll get better. Just remember, I’m here.” Nafsi’s sobs slowly eased away as he fell asleep to Taabu’s rocking. “It’ll be okay. I promise.” Taabu slowly fell asleep herself. When she woke the next morning he was gone.
Uwivu was Tumai’s daughter, and an exact miniature of her. Her father, unlike most of the other cubs, was not Jadi. It was Akasare. Her conception hadn’t been pleasant, either. It had happened the first night that Akasare had come back to life. Tumai still believed she loved him. She ignored the fact that Jadi had torn Taraju and Akasare apart, and had only resurrected evil. She had taken him that night to where they had spent their first night alone as cubs, completely by accident. She told him how much she had missed him, how she had longed for him. He told her in no uncertain terms that he did not love her, but still did admire her, for all the wrong reasons, despite her being nearly twice his age. If Tumai had not believed him then, she certainly did when he wrestled her down and took her forcibly. It had been anything but the romantic evening she had hoped for, full of only pain and misery and Akasare’s promise that she would bear his son, the future king of the Outlands.
Tumai had never had cubs before, despite multiple heats and copulations with Fujo and Kovu. It was believed she was barren. Tumai prayed she was. She prayed that she was too old to have cubs. She prayed that the gods to have mercy on her, to not let her bear the monster’s cubs. Her belly grew. The cubs were born. But the gods had some mercy. There was no son. Tumai watched as her three girls attached themselves hungrily to her stomach and felt their comforting warmth by her side. She smiled. She was a mother. They may have been forced on her, but she would love them. She looked up to see Akasare’s happy face. “And which one is my son?” he asked.
“There—there was no son,” said Tumai, afraid of what Akasare would do.
He took her
face in his paw so she stared him in the eye. “What?”
“I—I didn’t have a son.”
Akasare threw her head angrily to the ground. “You are worthless.” The cubs squalled being separated from their mother when she was knocked to the ground. Akasare looked at the girls in disgust. He brought down his paw on one, crushing her fragile body. Tumai let out a cry as Akasare walked out of the den.
If Akasare had moved his paw six inches it would have been Uwivu that hadn’t lived, not her unnamed sister. But as it was, she did live, her and her sister Chungu. Tumai raised tem carefully and loved them relentlessly despite who their father was. Uwivu loved her mother back, and loved her mother and her sister more than anything. She always felt what her mother felt about anything, especially concerning the royalty. She hated the king and queen with a bitter passion. She hated the prince especially, the unfeeling, arrogant prince. She did her best to protect her mother and her sister from their anger, and took more than one punishment, despite her mother’s protests afterwards and before. She brought them meat when he was old enough, and did swore that she would do her best to raise her sister and let her elderly mother die in peace. She was a natural leader, and soon had the other cubs following her. If Akasare had waited, he would have seen that Uwivu was twice the ruler that any son would have been.
But, like all cubs, her thoughts weren’t on the kingdom and all its affairs. When she wasn’t worrying about her sister and mother, she wanted to play. She didn’t know the happy days before Jadi; all she knew was misery and fear. But she did her best to stay happy, to keep all her friends happy. They scampered off into the savannah alone, in their little group, wrestling and laughing and playing and poking, her and all of the cubs. Every cub in the den was welcome. Except Nafsi. None of them wanted anything to do with him. If they angered him, or even annoyed him, who knew what Jadi would do?
Uwivu ran happily through the grass. The game today was tag. One of the unspoken rules of tag was that you wanted to be it. It was so much more fun that way. She ran just fast enough for the cub behind her to catch her one-year-old body. The overenthusiastic cub tackled her to the ground. “Gotcha!” the cub yelled.
“It was lucky!” protested Uwivu.
“Yeah, sure,” said the cub. She yelled, “New game! Back to the tree!” Distant shouts of the same words echoed through the savannah. The cubs all met by Rafiki’s old tree. Barely any of them were old enough to have met the shaman, and none of them were old enough to remember him. It was just a great big tree they all knew. Nothing special.
There was, however, something special by the tree. None of the cubs had noticed it before. When Uwivu and the cub that had caught her came to the tree they heard a shout of “Hey! Come here!” Uwivu and the cub that had caught her went to the other side of the tree. There, in a nook formed by two roots, was a group of flowers none of the cubs had seen before. To most of the cubs they were just something new and interesting.
To Uwivu they were amazing. “They’re . . . beautiful,” she whispered. They were a light blue color, their petals streaked with small lines of white, their heads yearning for the sun like sunflowers.
“Aw, they’re nothing special,” said one of the cubs. “But I wonder why we didn’t see ‘em before?”
Uwivu turned to the cub. “But can’t you just look at them? They’re so pretty.” She turned back to the flowers. “They’re beautiful.”
“They’re pretty, Uwivu. That’s all,” said Chungu.
Uwivu turned to her sister. “Maybe to you. It’s not my fault you were born with bad taste.”
“Uh, since we all agree, wouldn’t you have bad taste?” Uwivu gave a hmph. “And I think you’re just trying to get out of being ‘it.’”
“Oh, yeah? Well—” Uwivu stopped abruptly when she saw Nafsi quietly coming toward the group. “What do you want?” she asked rudely.
“I was just wondering if I . . . if you’d let me play with you?” Nafsi asked timidly.
Uwivu laughed. “And why would we want a freak like you with us?”
The other cubs gasped. Uwivu’s arrogance was going to hurt them all. “Uwivu,” cautioned Chungu.
“But—why?” asked Nafsi.
“Why? Why should we let you?” Uwivu said contemptuously. “You’re a little freak, that’s all you are. It’s your fault we have to hide. We hate you, prince.” She spat out the word. “Why don’t you go make some more of your little monsters?”
“Uwivu, careful,” said a cub. “He’ll—”
“He’ll what? He won’t do anything. Look at him. He’s a midget. I’m younger than hi and I’m twice his size. You—are—a—freak.” She relished the way Nafsi seemed to shrink back from her words. “Come on, girls. Let’s go somewhere where we won’t be bothered by freaks.” The cubs followed her into the grass, congratulating her when they thought they were far enough away for Nafsi not to hear. He heard every word. He listened to their happy voices go and sighed. He just wanted to be their friend. His eyes fell on the flowers that had gained so much interest. His eyes lit up. He’d bring her a present. She liked these, he’d heard her. He sat down next to the flowers and began to study them.
Uwivu walked toward the den with her sister. She was tired from playing all day. She didn’t want to go home, though. She wanted to stay out and play all through the night like any other cub would. But she was forced to come home. Tumai didn’t want her out after dark. There was one advantage to this, though. Uwivu did enjoy watching the sunset.
Uwivu’s sister climbed up the ramp of Pride Rock, Uwivu about to follow. She stopped when she heard a quiet “Uwivu?” She turned to see Nafsi next to her, sitting as if he’d been there all along. She suddenly recalled he had been. She did her best to ignore the hated—thing.
“What?” she asked, her anger boiling up again.
“I . . . I brought flowers,” said Nafsi quietly. He put his paw in front of him and then swept it back toward himself. A tiny bud appeared in the grass, completely black. It grew becoming an exact replica of the flowers that had been found earlier. But they were black, all of them. The plant recoiled its petals, detesting the last rays of the setting sun. Nafsi looked at them proudly, then up at Uwivu hopefully.
Uwivu stared at them, her face blank. Her features suddenly twisted themselves into disgust. “They’re hideous,” she said. She turned away from them and walked away, up to the den. Nafsi hung his head.
“What’s that, Nafsi?” Nafsi looked up to see Taabu standing above him.
“Flowers, Grandma. For a friend.”
Taabu smiled. “Who?”
“Grandma, she hated them!”
Taabu looked down at him sadly. She gave him a gentle lick. “It won’t be easy, Nafsi. You just have to try again.” She picked him up by the scruff of his neck, his body going limp in her teeth. He sighed. He would try again.
Uwivu woke up with an urgent need in her bladder. She got up and left the den quietly, by herself. She didn’t need to wake up her mother. She was one year old; she could handle a trip to the grasses just fine, thank you very much. But whether she liked it or not, she was going to have company. She walked down the stairs and poked her father in the face. Akasare opened his eyes angrily. “What?” he snarled.
Uwivu wasn’t intimidated. If he killed her, he killed her. There would be nothing she could do to stop him. “I need to go.”
Akasare sighed. “Then go.” Uwivu made a show of squatting. “Don’t be an ass.”
“You know I can’t leave. Not without you, Aka.”
Akasare groaned. He slept down here for a reason. Pofu had been moved up to the den just for him. It was his job to make sure lionesses and cubs didn’t run off during the night. He enjoyed the job, scaring the ones that forgot to ask him. But there was no fun in killing them, he’d found that out fast. There simply was no thrill. But there were nights like theses, nights where he didn’t feel like getting up to escort cubs to the loo. “Go by yourself. If you’re not here in three minutes, I come kill you. Problem solved.”
“Alright. I’ll just tell Jadi in the morning what you did. Or maybe he’ll find me tonight.”
Akasare turned onto his back. “Jadi doesn’t give a damn. Besides, I can’t be replaced.”
“You really think so? What’s to stop him from killing you and bringing you back again?”
Akasare looked at her with a scowl. “I really wish I’d killed you.” He rolled over and escorted her away from Pride rock, waited for her to finish her business, and led her back to the ramp. He stopped at the ramp and looked down at her to find she wasn’t there. He looked behind him to see that she had stopped. She was looking at the flowers Nafsi had created. The moonlight illuminated them as the moon crept from behind a cloud. The flowers opened their petals, leaning toward the moon. Uwivu watched in awe.
“Beautiful,” she whispered. He made that for me? She shook her head. Horrible animals could make decent things, she was living proof of that. She walked up the ramp to the pleasure of an impatient Akasare. She stopped at the top, took one last look at the flowers, then went back to her mother.
Nafsi believed in aiming high. That was the only logical explanation Taabu could come up with. He was two and a half now, and for the whole year he had down nothing but try to befriend Uwivu. Uwivu told him in no uncertain terms that she hated him, that she despised his very existence. Tumai actually got up the nerve to hit Nafsi, making him roll across the den. Somehow Jadi found out about it and beat Taabu bloody for it. After that she never touched Nafsi again. But Nafsi hadn’t told his father, he knew he hadn’t. Nafsi was nothing but nice to Tumai.
But Taabu was worried. Sometimes she doubted whether it was actually above Nafsi to tell his father what happened. She didn’t know whose ideas he leaned toward, hers or Jadi’s. He knew he had an amazing mind. He always had. She remembered the first time he had talked. It hadn’t been “Mommy” or “Daddy” like it would have been for so many other animals. It was “Grandma, could you take me for a walk, please?” She had stared at him so long, amazed, that he had to ask her if she was alright. The way he soaked up ideas and thoughts scared her.
She was especially worried about Nafsi’s emotions. The closest thing she had seen to rage was, according to him, “frustration.” Despite the fact that Nafsi could feel no sadness, his loneliness was enough to gnaw away at anyone’s heart. He didn’t have a friend in the world, save for her. She was only his grandmother, though, not his true friend. He realized that. He needed someone his age. It might have been enough for Taabu to handle his intelligence, but not that and his emotions. Nafsi was alarmingly smart, startlingly emotional, and demanded answers.
Taabu recalled vividly the day Nafsi became the angriest she’d seen. It was his second birthday. Taabu remembered with sadness how he looked on his third birthday. He hadn’t grown at all. It was bad enough that Nafsi had already grown slowly; at one year he was the size of a nine-month-old. But to be have caught up to the normal size at two years, and then just having stopped . . . Taabu recalled bitterly how Nafsi had told her that Uchu made him this way, that it was perfectly normal for him to stop growing, and not to be worried because he was happy this way. You aren’t, Taabu had thought bitterly. You don’t even know what happiness is.
But his third birthday was the day that he really scared her. She was alone in the den. She had been injured on the last hunt and couldn’t move. It was predictable. She grew older, she slowed down. But Jadi insisted that she hunt. She had been carried back, and today was alone in the den. Nafsi had walked in, his face a frown. “Happy birthday, Nafsi,” she said.
“Is it?” he asked grumpily.
“Well, yes. I can’t believe you didn’t remember your own birthday.”
He looked at her angrily. “Is it happy, Grandma? Is it? Really?”
“Uh . . . well, are you happy?”
“No. I’m not. I am anything but happy. I’m frustrated, Grandma. I’m not angry, but I am getting very, very close to it.”
“Why?” Taabu stretched out a foreleg and pulled him close. “Tell your grandmother all about it.”
He twisted away from her, something he’d never done. She was shocked. “Yes, it’s ‘let’s help the old lioness,’ isn’t it? How about ‘let’s help Nafsi’? ‘Let’s be nice to Nafsi’? ‘Let’s play with Nafsi’? ‘Let’s be Nafsi’s FRIEND!!!’”
“Nafsi,” said Taabu quietly, “I know it may hurt, but—”
“Hurt? Hurt? Grandma, it’s killing me! I’ve tried to be friends with them, I’ve tried to be nice, I’ve tried to do everything you’ve suggested, but they hate me! Why, why, why, why, WHY?!!” He whacked his paw against the floor of the den angrily.
Taabu bit her lip. She’d seen Nafsi do some very strange and alarming things. She didn’t know what he would do now if provoked. “Nafsi, I told you it’d be hard. They don’t trust you. They can’t. Your parents—”
“Oh, shut UP! Shut up, Grandma! Just shut up! Nothing you’ve ever said has done me any good. It serves me right for listening to some old lioness. Maybe Mom and Dad were right.”
“Nafsi . . . do you really mean that?”
“It’s how I feel, Grandma! Like nothing you’ve done for me has amounted to anything. You’ve given me advice. You say you’ve given me love, whatever that is. But it doesn’t WORK!” He sat down, shaking his head. When he looked back up at her, his eyes brimmed with tears that seeped into his voice. “Why, Grandma?” he pleaded. “Why doesn’t this work? Have you been lying to me? Do you just want me to be miserable?”
“Nafsi, come here,” she said gently. She held out her foreleg. He went to it, let her pull him close. She felt his tears on her leg. “Nafsi, I want you to be happy. As happy as you can be. And if that just means that I can make you feel no sadness, just feel nothing, then that will have to do. I can only tell you what I already have. Keep trying.”
“I want to hurt them, Grandma. I want to make them see. I don’t want to be hated.”
Taabu gave him a warm, gentle lick. “Nafsi, whatever you do, you mustn’t hurt them. No matter what your parents say, no matter what your feelings say, please, don’t touch them.”
He looked up at her sadly. “That means I can do nothing.”
Taabu swallowed back her tears. “That means you can try. You’ll break through, Nafsi. Just remember that I’m here.” She rocked him back and forth. “For whatever it’s worth, just remember that I love you. I know it may not mean much, but I love you.”
Nafsi buried his head in her leg. “I’m sorry, Grandma. I’m sorry I yelled at you. I’m sorry.”
By the time the hunters came back, he was normal, all traces of tears or sadness gone. Taabu knew better. She knew his loneliness ate away at him. She had watched as he tried to get help from his parents. They had done nothing for him. “You have no equal,” they said. “You can have no friends.” She watched as Nafsi took her advice, and she thanked Aiheu for it. She didn’t realize that Nafsi tried over and over only because it was the only way he knew.
But despite what Nafsi thought, he did begin to chip away at Uwivu. She let none of it show. She reminded herself that he was no better than his parents, that he wanted to simply use her. But she was touched by the kindness that he showed. She enjoyed the way that he exercised his powers to make little gifts, little things he thought she liked. She enjoyed the way that he was polite to her, the little touches such as giving her some of his exorbitant carcass when he saw she was starving, given only a few scraps of meat by Jadi for her mother’s occasional punishment. She almost loved him when he gave her food; it meant that her mother would eat instead of giving it all to her cubs.
But despite her thankfulness, she let none of it show. She mocked him, ridiculed him, insulted him, and could tell herself she hated him and make herself believe it. She looked down at his one-year-old body, his advanced mind that was too intelligent for any body, let alone that pathetic one, and would tell him that he was a freak, something that should have never been created, and she would say it with every ounce of hate and spite she could muster. She would leave him alone and walk into the grass and hear him weep, thinking she couldn’t hear him, and would hear him pound his little paws on the trees and ground in frustration. She would hear him ask quietly, “Why? For what reason?” Sometimes she would go away smiling. Others she would be sickened with herself. The latter became more and more frequent.
But then came the day that she honestly thought of stopping her cruelty to Nafsi. It changed the way everyone looked at him. That was the day that everyone realized just how dangerous Nafsi could be.