Taka: the Rising Sun

 

By Unali

 

Chapter 1: Taka’s Tagalong

Taka lie snuggly between his mother’s paws. He was a dark cub with a flop of black hair which covered his bright green eyes if he did not keep it pushed back. A smile of content spread beneath the cub’s whiskers as the first warm rays of the morning touched the tips of his paws like a gentle whisper: wake up! He opened his eyes happily, listening to the gentle breathing of the other lions pressed around him. The den was hot and stuffy with so many lions, with so many different scents, and with a king who could not control his bowels.

Taka lifted his head and scowled at the pride: it seemed he was always the first to wake. He glanced with disdain at his brother: small and golden with a flop of auburn fur on his head, Mufasa lie sprawled on his back across their father’s paws, his mouth open, his ear twitching. Taka had a good mind to spit right into his brother’s open mouth as a sort of practical joke, but the chilly morning wind ruffled his tuft of hair and it fell again in to his eyes. Taka batted his hair back and turned to the entrance of the cave.

It was glorious, the rising sun! His father’s words echoed in his head as he reflected: “One day, my sons, the sun will set on my time here and when it rises, one of you will be the new king.”

“One of us?” Mufasa asked in confusion. There was a worried frown on his face. Mufasa did not know it, but Taka knew his elder brother had no desire to become king.

“Of course, zebra-breath,” snapped Taka, rolling his eyes. “Did you think we’d rule it together?”

“Don’t call me zebra-breath!”

“Oh, forgive me . . .ZEBRA-BREATH!”

Mufasa had pounced and as the two cubs went rolling, King Ahadi sat in reflection a moment . . . what a brilliant idea: if only they could both be king!

Shaking off the memory, Taka bounded forward to the very edge of Pride Rock and surveyed the land. His tiny chest swelled. One day . . . this would all be his!

“Taka?”

Taka heard his mother’s voice and turned brightly to face her. “Mother!” He bounded forward with a cub’s bouncy run and wound himself between his mother’s legs.

Uru leaned her neck down and nuzzled him affectionately.

“So,” said Uru, smiling down on her son, “what mischief are you up to today?”

Taka turned from his mother with a private smile. “Oh . . . nothing much,” he said, his back to her as he surveyed his claws nonchalantly.

 It was a lie, and being a mother, Uru knew it was a lie. Being a wise mother, she also did not let on that she knew.

“Whatever you do today, be safe, my son.”

Uru gave Taka a worried frown he did not see, but hearing the tenderness in her voice, Taka spun around. His mother, however, was already retreating into the cave. He watched her go with a guilty, miserable expression and scowled at the ground.

It always seemed his mother was the one lion he would never hurt. No one else mattered. Why, he would have run away long ago if it wasn’t for Uru’s love . . .

“Hey, Taka!”

A bright, girlish voice. Taka looked up to see Zira bouncing his way and scowled. She was a little brown cub with a dark stripe on her head and bright, mean little eyes. Taka loathed her. She was always following him around! But at least she had her uses. . . .

“What ya gonna do today, huh?” Zira asked eagerly, her bright eyes trained upon his every move. She tilted her head, smiling her wicked smile, and Taka groaned in exasperation. “I know,” went on Zira, “we could stuff Sarabi in that crevice down by the gorge --”

The offer sounded tempting, but Taka said over her, “Get lost, Zira.”

As he was moving away, Zira sat a moment and watched him retreat, her shaggy face filled with hurt. She would have done anything to make Taka like her but he was always so mean, so secretive, and so stuck-up.

Zira lunged forward suddenly as Taka was nearing the stone stair and snatched his tail in her teeth.

“Hey – get off, rag-ear!”

Taka gave her a swipe, but Zira pinned him down, her bright eyes wicked and triumphant. Taka was such a skinny little weakling, she thought haughtily . . . but in his eyes there was something magnetic, a conniving power she was thirsty to share. And besides . . . he was the only cub in the pride who was remotely nice to her, even if being nice in Taka’s case meant sneering sarcasm and the occasional swipe in the face.

“If you don’t tell me what you’re up to . . . I’ll tell your mother!”

Taka groaned as Zira’s wicked smile widened.

Chapter 2: Uru The Liar

But little did Taka know Uru already knew he was up to something.

Uru sat half in shadow in the mouth of the cave, her bright green eyes cutting the darkness as she watched her son and his eternal tagalong, Zira, gamboling down from Pride Rock. . . . Well, Zira was gamboling. Taka almost never bounced or rolled like the other cubs. In fact, Taka only seemed to act his age when around his mother. No, Taka swaggered down from Pride Rock with the usual haughty walk, Zira bouncing at his side and occasionally annoying him with kisses and bites and swipes.

Uru sighed. She loved her sons equally and yet Taka was so much closer to her . . . perhaps it was their similarities, not just in appearance but in personality. Uru was a dark lioness, her fur so brown it was almost black. She and Taka shared the same long face, the same bright green eyes, and the same superiority complex.

“Shall I go now?”

Zuzu, King Ahadi’s majordomo, had spoken. The little hornbill sat at Uru’s side, watching with narrowed eyes as the cubs disappeared into the tall grass. Uru had already spoken with Zuzu and given her the order to tail the little prince and his tagalong and report back to Pride Rock if anything serious happened. But most importantly of all, Zuzu was to keep out of sight and never let Taka know he was being followed.

“Yes,” answered Uru quietly, her bright eyes focused on the spot where the cubs had disappeared.

Without another word, Zuzu took wing.

“Where is Zuzu off to?”

King Ahadi stepped out of the shadows of the cave, watching with a bewildered frown as his hornbill advisor glided low over the grass.

Uru merely answered without looking at her husband, “Zuzu is taking an early breakfast.”

She could lie as coolly as any jackal caught with the pride’s lunch in its teeth. She looked at her husband and gave him a loving, reassuring smile. It was better if Ahadi did not know the truth. There was already such tension between him and Taka . . .

Ahadi grunted, licked his wife under her eye, stretched, and went at his heavy looping walk down from Pride Rock. He was silly in that way and tender, always kissing her like a cub and throwing his paw over her side as they slept . . . how angry and betrayed he would feel if he knew she’d just lied to him . . .

But Uru was not only a wife but a mother. It was her duty to protect not only her husband, but her son. . . . even if that meant protecting them from each other. Ahadi could never know of Taka’s little misadventure or it would mean trouble for them all.

Chapter 3: His Brother’s Keeper

“. . . and if you tell a soul, I’ll put a nick in your other ear,” Taka was saying as he and Zira reached the waterhole.

Zira rolled her eyes. “Who am I going to tell? Sarafina? Sarabi? Don’t be stupid. You know they don’t like me . . .” She scowled to herself as Taka went to the pool for a drink.

“It’s not a matter of merely telling,” said Taka, “but if you go shouting about it when you’re talking to me anyone might hear --” The words died on Taka’s lips. As he was bending for a drink, he noticed a reflection in the water. The reflection was merely a blue and white smear, but he knew without a doubt who it belonged to.

The reflection, meanwhile, seemed to realize it might have been spotted, for it darted out of sight in a fluster.

Taka smirked to himself and pretended to drink, then straightened up and said calmly to Zira, “You can’t tell a soul that we’re running away together to the thorn patch.”

Zira’s nose wrinkled up in confusion. “What? But you just said --”

“I KNOW,” said Taka loudly, “there are predators out by the thorn patch, rogues that lurk in the desert . . . but won’t it be fun? Won’t it be an adventure?”

Zira took an uncertain step back, “What are you talking about? You’re not adventurous; you’re scared of your own shadow --”

“Play along, imbecile, we’re being watched!” Taka snarled under his breath.

“Oh! Uh . . . yeah, alright. I won’t tell a soul. I promise.”

“Good,” said Taka with a sly smile. “Let’s get going . . .”

They heard a slight rustle in the nearby tree, and Taka knew Zuzu had fluttered off.

“We’re still going to the elephant graveyard, right?” said Zira uncertainly once the cubs were trotting off again.

Taka rolled his eyes, “Duh!”

But a sudden shout made Taka and Zira halt.

“Hey, Taka, where are you guys goin’?”

Taka’s face darkened and twisted into a scowl. Mufasa trotted up with a fatherly frown on his face, a giggling Sarafina and Sarabi in tow. He was as handsome as ever, goldish-brown with the same red streak of hair falling into his warm brown eyes and a thick, strong body that would one day be the strong body of a large adult lion and possibly of a lion king. Taka’s heart burned at the mere sight of him. He always felt so ugly and weak beside Mufasa . . .

“What are you doing here? Have you been following me?” Taka demanded.

“Yeah, right, like I don’t have anything better to do than follow you around,” Mufasa shot back.

“Then what are we doing here?” Sarafina demanded impatiently. “I don’t wanna hang around Zira; she’s got ticks and termites!”

Sarafina and Sarabi giggled again. Zira’s eyes filled with anger and hurt and she looked away.

“Nice one,” said Taka, his thin chest heaving, “so I take it Sarafina is using the trio brain today?”

Zira looked at Taka and brightened: he was standing up for her! He’d never done that before!

Sarafina’s face darkened, and Sarabi, ever protective of her friend, took a halting step forward and said, “For your information, Mufasa’s dad is making him look after you and we promised him we’d help, so do us all a favor and take a nap or something.”

“Look,” said Mufasa quietly. He took a step close to his brother and spoke very privately in an undertone, “This isn’t exactly going to be a picnic for both of us, so if you promise to stay out of trouble, I’ll get lost and pretend I looked after you.”

Biting sarcasm was burning to burst its way out of Taka’s mouth, but he quickly realized that the only way to get rid of Mufasa and his cronies was to lie and lie well.

“I wasn’t planning to get into trouble,” Taka shot back with convincing anger. “We were just trying to escape you and your brainless clones.”

“Come on, Mufasa, he said he’s not up to anything,” said Sarafina loudly. “Let’s go!”

Mufasa nodded, but as the others went their separate ways, he merely stood and watched Taka and Zira moving into the tall grass. Mufasa wasn’t as stupid as Taka thought he was. No, Mufasa could be twice as sly and slick when he needed to be . . .

Chapter 4: Rai to the Rescue

“Your majesty! Your majesty!”

Zuzu came soaring down from the sky, alarm written across her features and her beak twisted in panic. She landed before Ahadi, who’d been reclining on a hill and surveying the Pride Lands. Ahadi sat up quickly when the hornbill landed before him, panting and sputtering and clutching a stitch in its side.

“Slow down, Zuzu, catch your breath. What is it?”

“Young master . . . Taka . . .” the bird paused and took a huge gasp.

“Taka? What about Taka?”

“Ran away . . . with Zira . . . they’re heading to the thorn patch . . . and then to the desert!”

Ahadi let loose a roar of frustration. “Alarm the lionesses, then follow me!” he growled and charged away without another word.

Zuzu was rising on her wings again when a paw swiped out of nowhere and snatched her back by the tail. Zuzu was pinned to her back on the ground by a heavy, unsheathed claw. With the wind knocked out of her, she peered up, dazed and confused, into the furious face of the queen.

“You were supposed to report to me!” Uru growled. “Me and only me!”

“But it was an emergency, your highness!” Zuzu gasped apologetically. “Taka has gone to the --”

“He hasn’t gone to the thorn patch! Don’t you know anything by now? Taka is a liar, a born liar --”

“Just like his mother.”

Uru looked over her shoulder.

A heavy lioness with a square face and small, gray eyes was standing behind Uru. Her name was Rai and she was Sarabi’s mother. She smiled and moved forward, and with her nose, she gently nudged Uru’s claw from Zuzu. Zuzu coughed and climbed to her talons, grumpily flapping herself and smoothing her rumpled feathers.

“I may be a liar,” said Uru after a pregnant pause, “but I did it for my son and my husband. Taka will defy his father no matter the cost and if Ahadi discovers his betrayal, their enmity will only continue to grow. I . . . I’m tired of seeing my son and my husband constantly at war!”

“So you lied to protect them from each other. I understand,” replied Rai with a motherly smile.

There was a pause as Uru gazed with a mother’s worried frown off to the horizon. She was gazing in the direction of the elephant grave yard, that place on the edge of the Pride Lands where gray mist forever hovered and from which the constant stench of death and decay drifted. Rai waited patiently for Uru to speak.

“Will you help me?” said Uru at last, her gaze questioning as she looked to the older lioness.

“Darling,” said Rai affectionately, “that’s why I came.”

Chapter 5: Natural Born Enemies, Unnatural Friends

“Is this it?” Zira whispered, her ears flat to her head as she and Taka crept carefully through the rising mist, the maze of gray bones, and the stench of rotting flesh.

“Where are they?” Zira whispered. “Where are your friends?”

“Shh!” Taka snapped. “I told you to keep quiet. Not ALL the hyenas are my friends here, just three pups . . .”

Zira shivered. “I hate hyenas. What do you need them for? I’m your friend!”

Taka rolled his eyes.

“Halt! I smell trespassers!” rang out a voice.

Zira shivered and staggered to a halt, bumping into Taka as a gray and black ball of fur pounced suddenly out of the mist. Taka rolled his eyes and shoved Zira away as the hyena pup leaned down and snarled at them.

The pup was wearing a cracked antelope skull on its head, which was falling into his eyes so that he growled blindly at an elephant skull instead the intruders.

“Ed! You’re facin’ the wrong way!” cried another voice and a young female hyena pup emerged out of the mist with a sharp bone poking through her nose. She was closely followed by another hyena pup wearing a skull similar to the first ones.

“Oh, hey there, Taka, sorry,” said the third pup, “We thought you were trespassers.” So saying, the third pup turned to Ed and smacked him on the back of his head, knocking off his antelope skull. “Knock it off, Ed, it’s just Taka!”

“Yeah, we thought it was somebody we should care about,” added the female with a relieved smile.

“I see,” said Taka tonelessly.

“Why are you wearing skulls?” Zira asked in disgust. She looked to Taka, “Is this some sort of weird hyena thing?”

“You could say so,” Taka replied dispassionately.

“We were just playing a game,” explained the third pup, straightening his crooked antelope skull as Ed chased his tail.

“Who are you anyway?” the female demanded, snorting around the sharp bone thrust through her nostrils.

“Zira,” was the proud answer, “Taka’s BEST friend.”

“I thought we were your best friends?” cried the third hyena indignantly.

Please,” said Taka, rolling his eyes. “Zira’s not my best friend. I just call her that for lack of a better word. Zira, this is Banzai . . .” Taka nodded at the third hyena wearing the antelope skull, “This is Shenzi,” he continued, nodding at the female, “and that idiot over there . . .” he gestured with distaste at the first hyena pup, which was licking his own butt and giggling, “is Ed.”

“Nice ta meet ya, Zira,” said Banzai as he and his siblings began to circle the newcomer.

Zira merely lifted her chin as they examined her.

“But you gotta go, Taka,” added Shenzi as the three came to a halt before them again.

“Yeah,” added Banzai, “our family’s due back anytime now. Wouldn’t wanna come home to find lions in the den.”

“We’ll go then,” said Taka, “but I’ll be back later. My mother’s planning to hunt wildebeest tonight, your favorite.”

“Awesome!” cried Shenzi and Banzai in wide-eyed unison.

But just as Taka and Zira were turning to leave, they came face to face with two large hyenas.

“Going so soon?” growled the female, licking her chops.

The large male with her dropped a limp, ragged body from his mouth to add, “Yeah, we just brought dinner. Why not stick around for desert?”

Taka and Zira ran the other way, but two more hyenas popped up, laughing evilly.

“Don’t, Ma!” begged Banzai, leaping in front of Taka and Zira. “They’re our friends!”

“Yeah, we can’t eat our friends!” chimed in Shenzi fearfully.

“Silence!” snapped the female in the lead. “How many times have we told you? Hyenas and lions are NOT friends! It’s time you learned, and this little dark one will be your first lesson!”

And the female was about to snap at Taka’s face when a tiny claw came out of nowhere and swiped her hard across the face, leaving angry red lines on her cheek. Mufasa had leapt out of hiding and now stood in rigid anger before his brother, facing the pressing group of hyenas.

“Keep your smelly teeth off my little brother!” Mufasa growled.

“Mufasa!” Taka gasped. “You followed us?”

“I couldn’t let you go off alone,” Mufasa said without turning, his scowling eyes till trained upon the outraged hyenas.

“Did you see that?” the female snarled to her children, her bright eyes trained on Mufasa. “Did you see how he struck me, children? It’s because lions hate us! They hate us! That’s why we’re here, in this stinking elephant graveyard, and that’s why the three of them must die! GET THEM!”

Taka and Zira cowered behind Mufasa as the adult hyenas charged; ignoring Banzai and Shenzi’s protesting wails. They bore down up the three cubs, teeth bared, eyes alight with hunger, but two chilling roars shook the earth and made the hyenas’ hairs stand on end. The three cubs gawked as two lionesses leapt into the fray, slashing and swiping, snarling and growling, until all the hyenas had scattered, leaving the lionesses facing the three cubs.

“Mom!” Mufasa cried as Taka and Zira cringed beneath the lionesses’ motherly wrath. “I can explain! It’s all my fault – er, Taka and Zira . . .”

“Hush, my son,” said Uru over him, but her fierce eyes were trained upon Taka, “You needn’t lie to me: I know you were merely looking after your brother.” She looked to Mufasa with a smile and added, “Besides, you aren’t very good at it.”

Mufasa smiled in relief.

“Come,” said Rai quietly, “We can’t discuss this here. Let’s go home.”

Uru gave Taka another stern glare, then the group started back for the pride lands.

Chapter 6: Ahadi’s Mistake

Ahadi, of course, was in a foul mood when the group returned. Uru had sent Zuzu to fetch him and now he sat on the edge of Pride Rock, watching and waiting as his wife, Rai, and the three cubs climbed the stone stair.

“What were you thinking?” he began at once, marching toward Taka.

“Dad, it wasn’t his fault,” Mufasa began but Ahadi ordered him into the cave with Rai and Zira.

“I went all the way to the thorn patch on the edge of our lands,” Ahadi roared, “looking for you, thinking you’d been killed by predators, thinking you were hurt, or perhaps lost forever! How could you lie like that? How could you make Zuzu think you were going there? To spite me? To get me to go running wild in pursuit of you? Do you think of no one but yourself? Hmm? ANSWER ME!”

Taka merely winced and stared at the ground, a tear coursing down his cheek.

“Ahadi,” began Uru, “don’t you think you’re being a little too hard on him --”

“Too hard on him? I haven’t been hard enough if he’s playing cruel tricks on his own father like this! And then trotting off to the elephant graveyard! I don’t want to see you outside this cave again!” he growled at Taka. “And you,” he said to Uru, “now I get it. Now I see where he gets his great ability to lie. You told Zuzu not to tell me, didn’t you?”

Uru shot Zuzu a dark look.

“I couldn’t betray his majesty’s trust!” the hornbill cried to Uru, as if begging for forgiveness.

“Do you know why I lied?” said Uru darkly to her husband. “Because I’m tired of this!” She nodded to their son, who was crying silently between them. “I’m tired of seeing the two of you bicker and fight. Do you know why Taka causes so much trouble? It’s because he wants your attention, Ahadi! He thinks that you don’t love him!”

“Why should I love him after all the trouble he’s caused!”

As soon as the words flew from Ahadi’s mouth, he seemed stricken by how cruel they sounded. He looked to Taka and tried to stammer an apology, but Taka turned and fled down the stone stair with a sob.

So it was true! His father didn’t love him, only Mufasa, always Mufasa!

“See what you’ve done!” Uru hissed.

Ahadi sat with his mouth open, lost for words. He gazed after the dark blot disappearing into the twilight that was his son and his brows rushed together with concern.

“I want you to talk to him tomorrow,” Uru said and without another word, she turned and went after their son.

Chapter 7: Look to the Rising Sun

Uru took her time as she came down from Pride Rock, moving like a shadow as she glided through the tall grass. Sniffing here and there, she followed the scent of her son beneath the bright moon and stars until she heard the sound of soft sobbing. Gradually, the earth began to climb and the grass slipped away until Uru’s large paws were treading softly across shifting, brown soil. The ground was still warm from the last faint rays of the sinking sun but now the Pride Lands was a quiet place, filled only with the whistling of the breeze and the occasional distant groan of elephant, rhino, or hippo.

A tree stood at the very top of the hill. It was a lonely tree, barren of leaves, its bark blackened and twisted from the hot touch of lightning. It was a tree so much like the little dark cub sobbing in its branches . . . .

Uru smiled sadly at her son and sat on her haunches, gazing up at him. “You know, it’s a myth that an adult can’t climb a tree?” she called.

“C-come up if you want, I don’t care!” Taka choked, dragging his paw under his eyes. “But I’m not going back there! N-never!”

“Oh, Taka . . . Your father --”

“Don’t say it! He doesn’t love me! He never has! He never will! And why should I believe anything you have to say anyway?” He glared at his mother, dropped down from the tree, and sauntered off. “According to Father, you’re as big a liar as I am!” the cub called derisively over his shoulder.

“You’re right,” said Uru to her son’s back. She remained seated beneath the tree, her expression solemn. “Don’t believe a word I have to say. Don’t believe that your family loves you.

“Don’t believe that I risked not only my own life but the life of Sarabi’s mother, my best friend, to come to your aid in the graveyard. Had the rest of the hyenas come rushing in, we’d both be lying motionless under a pile of rocks. Believe that I saved you because I hate you.

“Don’t believe that your father ran the entire length of his kingdom, past the gorge, through the thorn patch, before he finally received word from Zuzu that you had deceived him because he loves you. Believe that he did it because he hates you.

“Don’t believe that Mufasa, your brother, nearly got himself killed,” she growled, her voice rising,“ defending you because he loves you. Believe that he came to your rescue because hates you --”

“Mother!” Taka had stopped and stood motionless, his back to his mother as he listened. He turned to her with a tearstained face and said shakily, “Alright, I get it! You love me! You all love me! So why am I still an outcast? Because two princes were born instead of one. Look at me!” he shrieked, his tiny frame shaking. “I’m runty, I’m skinny, I’m weak! I’ll never have my own pride! I’m doomed to spend my miserable life under Mufasa’s wing, under his protection from rogues, like a lioness, because I’m weak!”

Uru could not deny the truth of her son’s words. Taka could never have his own pride. Mufasa, as the eldest brother, would stay in the Pride Lands and become king while it was tradition for the second brother to leave the area and find his own territory, but everyone knew Taka was too weak and too small for his age to ever go forth into new territory and take it over.

Yet there was also another truth and Taka had not yet seen it.

Uru continued to sit motionless beneath the tree and her expression remained solemn as she spoke. “I won’t tell you life isn’t fair because that’s fairly obvious at this point. I also won’t tell you that your condition is the Great Spirit’s will, because if anyone had said that to me, I would have ripped their face off.”

Taka smiled miserably.

“But I will tell you this,” went on his mother, “if you let your condition conquer your heart, you really are weak, both in mind and in body. If you can’t be strong in your body then at least be strong in your mind, my son. If you want a pride of your own some day, then you go forth into this world and you do whatever you have to to get one.”

When Uru had finished speaking, Taka flew to her, sobbing miserably, a trembling smile upon his face. Uru lie down and opened her paws to embrace him. He fell into the crook of her arm and sobbed until he was too breathless and too weak at heart to sob.

“Mother,” choked Taka after a long moment, “will – will you always be here to guide me the—the way Father guides Mufasa?”

Uru’s eyes flickered with a sudden sad thought as she remembered her own mother, the life she had led before she became Ahadi’s queen . . . the suffering which hopefully her sons would never know.

“Taka,” she said heavily, “there will come a time when the sun will rise upon your brother as the new king. As your father has explained to you, he will not be here and perhaps . . . neither will I.”

Taka sniffed and looked at her with wide eyes, tears trembling in their corners, “Where will you be then?”

“Look to the sky, my son. When you feel alone, when you feel you’ve had enough, when you feel so angry and so torn and so empty inside . . . look to the sky and there . . . behind the rising sun . . . I’ll be waiting.”