Just Like Me

A short story by Joe McCauley Copyright 1996 by Joe McCauley Based on "The Lion King", copyright 1994 by The Walt Disney Company Inspired by a scene from "Jungle Flame" by Adrian Rossi

Simba looked around. There was a nice cool breeze rustling the grass and the leaves of the nearby bushes. On one side of him, a stone's throw away, was thick jungle, and in the other direction a couple of hills over, the grass gave way to desert. In between there were a few trees and various sized rocks. Most of the time he got along great with Timon and Pumbaa, but every now and then they got on his nerves or they had a falling out of one sort or another. On those occasions he would seek a place to get away from them, and this was one of his favorites. Other times he would come here when he had no particular problem with Timon and Pumbaa because he needed the solitude, or just because he liked the place so much. His favorite spot to lie down was on a flat rock on top of a slight rise, or sometimes on the ground next to it which was often cooler. Here he could take in all the sounds and smells that surrounded him, and could see for a fair distance in every direction except into the jungle, where the thick foliage prevented him from seeing very far. The only drawback to this spot was that it wasn't shaded, and the shady spots nearby all had much more limited visibility or other offsetting drawbacks. But on this particular day there was a nice cool breeze so the lack of shade wasn't a problem. Simba's mind wandered, and he thought back to a day about one moon earlier when he had come here. It was unbearably hot that day with no breeze to take the edge off, so Simba decided to venture into the jungle to look for a cooler spot. Finding a path made by other animals he decided to follow it hoping it might lead to a pool or something. As he walked along the path he thought he heard a noise ahead of him, so he stopped to listen carefully. Not hearing anything after a moment, he continued forward quietly. A few steps later he was startled when a black leopard leapt out of a nearby tree and growled menacingly at him. "Get out of here! You're not welcome here!" hissed the leopard, a female. She was poised to attack if necessary.

"I'm sorry," Simba replied. "It's very hot and I was just looking for a cool spot to rest."

"Then look somewhere else," snapped the leopardess. "Out of here! Out, out, out!".

Simba was puzzled that this animal he had never met was being so cross and defensive, especially since he could easily defeat her in a battle if it came to that. Then he noticed that her teats were engorged with milk, and he understood. This was a mother protecting her cubs, possibly newborn from the look of her.

"Okay, okay," said Simba, turning to walk away. "I'm going."

Instinctively he kept half an eye on her as he walked away, and noticed that she followed him for a short distance, not closely but just enough to make sure that he was really leaving before returning to her cubs. Simba's mind returned to the present. I wonder what that leopardess is up to today, he thought. The place where I encountered her wasn't that far into the jungle, and even here she might think I am encroaching on her territory. She can have the jungle, but out here in the open is still one of my favorite spots and I'm not going to give it up that easily. He looked toward the jungle, wondering if he might see her watching him from somewhere in the thick undergrowth. He didn't see her but he wasn't prepared for what he saw. Next to the path where it started at the edge of the jungle, peering at him from behind a rock, were three small black heads. Great, he thought sarcastically. That leopardess is probably going to come looking for her kids, she'll see me and get all mad again. Though Simba wasn't especially afraid of her, he wasn't crazy about getting into another confrontation with her either. Simba got an idea. He stood up, pretending not to pay any attention to the leopard cubs. Then he stretched out his front legs, making lines in the dust with his extended claws. He hoped that by doing this his size alone might be intimidating enough that the cubs would go back to their jungle hiding place. After walking in a circle, he looked again toward the rock where the cubs had been a moment earlier, and saw one cub, still watching him. Oh well, two out of three ain't bad, he thought as he lay back down. But when he looked again soon afterwards, the other two heads had reappeared. Simba stood up again, this time more obviously looking in their direction, and took two steps toward them. Two heads disappeared but once again the third continued to watch him. Simba took more steps toward them, and heard the rustle of leaves as two of the cubs darted into the jungle cover, but the third cub barely flinched. Stubborn little fellow, aren't you? Simba continued to walk forward until he was only a pounce away from the rock and the cub before he stopped. The black leopard cub looked at him with wonder, not seeming afraid of him at all. Finally, his head disappeared behind the rock, but instead of following his littermates back into the jungle, he walked out in front of the rock to get a closer look at Simba. Now Simba didn't know what to do. His feline instincts told him to kill the cub, but he was above blindly following instinct and would not kill a cub such as this without good reason. He'd already seen death in his lifetime and had no desire to be the cause of it. And the cub still stood before him, looking at him curiously.

The leopardess had been out on a hunt, seeking nourishment for herself that she may better nourish her cubs. But she sensed that something wasn't right and came back to check on them. She found her two daughters nervously pacing around near their hiding place, and they quickly communicated to her that their brother was in trouble. That lion again! She knew where he lay sometimes and bolted off in that direction. She hadn't gone far when she was stopped dead in her tracks by what she saw. There, coming toward her, was the lion, carrying Matwana by the scruff of his neck in her mouth. Instinctively she assumed a fighting posture, ready to do whatever was necessary for the safety of her cub. But she was surprised by what the lion did next. Watching her carefully, he set Matwana gently on the ground. Matwana, evidently unharmed, took a step toward his mother then stopped and looked back at the lion. Not taking his eyes off her, the lion leaned down and nudged him toward her with his muzzle, and this time Matwana kept going and walked back to her side. She wasn't sure what to make of this, a lion who acted so benevolently toward her cubs. This wasn't the behavior she expected from another predator, especially a male. After Matwana continued on the way back to their lair, she turned and followed him. He would get a good scolding for this. But the lion remained a mystery to her. In the days that followed, Simba thought about the curious leopard cub, particularly how he saw a lot of himself in the cub. Curious, anxious to explore his surroundings, ready to show the world who he was, not afraid of anything. Just like me, he thought, when I was the same age. But Simba had learned a few lessons the hard way that this cub obviously hadn't learned yet. Didn't he realize there were dangers in the world? Simba would never harm the cub, but he also knew the next animal the cub approached might not be so friendly, or could even be happy to make a meal out of him. Another moon passed and Simba was back at the place he enjoyed so much. The sun was shining in the cloudless sky and there was barely any breeze, but it wasn't all that hot. Now he couldn't help thinking about the cub and his mother and littermates whenever he came here, but he had seen no sign of them when he'd been here two days earlier. Today, however, he heard small voices.

"Are you crazy? He might kill you!"

"No way! You remember what he did last time. He brought me back to Mom."

"I don't care. He might be dangerous!"

"Yeah! You heard what Mom said about other animals!"

"Well... I'm not afraid of him. I think he's nice."

"What if you're wrong?"

"Yeah, you might end up dead."

This went on for quite some time, with silent pauses interspersed in their conversation. At these pauses he would sometimes look over and see one or more of the cubs peering at him from behind the same rock where they'd been before. They were bigger now and their heads extended higher above the rock when they looked at him.

"You loudmouth! Now he's looking at us."

"Okay, but I don't see him coming after us."

"Maybe he's afraid of Mom."

"Him? No way! He's more than twice her size!"

"Yeah, so we better be careful."

"He's not gonna hurt us. I bet I could even go out and talk to him."

"Yeah, right! Now you've really lost your marbles!"

"No, watch me!"

"If you do, you're really stupid!"

"Yeah, I'll tell Mom!"

"You do and I'll tell her what you did at the pool yesterday."

"Not fair! That was different!"

"I'll show you guys. Watch this!"

The black leopard cub stepped out from behind the rock and took several steps toward Simba. He had obviously grown since they'd met before but was still quite small. The cub stopped when he was still just close enough to the jungle that he could get away if Simba were to charge him, and he studied Simba for any signs of aggression. They studied each other for a moment, and when the cub finally seemed satisfied that Simba was nice, he continued forward. The cub approached him slowly and cautiously but he didn't seem afraid and didn't stop again until he was right in front of Simba.

"Hi, my name is Matwana. What's you're name?"

"My name is Simba. What brings you out here?"

"I just wanted to talk to you. You seem pretty nice, but my sisters think you're dangerous. Are you dangerous?"

Simba looked over and saw his sisters watching from behind the rock.

"No, but I'd probably say that even if I were."

Matwana thought about that one for a moment.

"Okay, but I know you won't hurt me. You brought me back to my mom that one time. Remember?"

"Yes, I remember," Simba replied. "This is a nice place, isn't it?"

"Yeah, kinda," said Matwana as he looked around. "I like it better back in the jungle, though."

"The jungle is nice, but I like it out here where it's more open."

Matwana again stopped to think. "I think that's strange, but, I guess it's okay."

"Does your mother mind if I come here sometimes?"

"I don't know," Matwana replied. "She doesn't tell us about that stuff. She just worries a lot about keeping us safe from other animals that might do something bad to us."

"Maybe she's right," suggested Simba.

"But it's so boring," Matwana complained. "We never get to go hunting with her, or explore, or do anything."

"So you go exploring when she's not around."

"Yeah. It's fun."

Just like me, indeed, Simba thought. He really liked the cub and didn't want to see any harm come to him, but other than not doing anything to Matwana himself, what could he do? Simba continued to make small talk with Matwana for a while as he thought about his own experiences. About wanting to be brave, going to explore the shadowy place his father told him never to go to and almost getting killed until his father arrived to save him, and most of all about the next time his father saved him and got killed in the process. His father would never be there to get him out of trouble again. He had been tormented by the memories of these events ever since. In them Simba believed he had learned some of life's most important lessons the hard way, and what he had been through was something he wouldn't wish on anyone. Now Simba looked at this cub, this reflection of himself before these things happened. Surely his mother wanted him to be safe and had warned him of some of the dangers as Simba's parents had warned him. But like himself, Matwana didn't seem to take the warnings seriously enough, at least not when they came from parents. Was there anything he could do that might get through to him? The leopardess spotted her two daughters watching something, and when she reached them she was shocked to discover what it was. Matwana was out talking to that lion, sitting within easy reach of him.

"How long has he been out there?" she whispered to her daughters. The two cubs hadn't heard their mother creep up behind them, and were startled with fear, for they too weren't supposed to be this far away from their lair and were likely to get in trouble. But they quickly saw that she was more concerned about Matwana than them. "For a while, I guess," one of them replied.

She sighed. This was the same lion that had brought Matwana to her once before, and her son had been out there long enough by now that if the lion meant to do anything harmful he'd already had plenty of time to do it, so she wasn't too concerned for the safety of her son. What did concern her now was that it would be twice as hard to convince that little rascal about the dangers of life in the jungle. Why did her son have to be so adventurous? Why did that lion have to come here at all? At the moment, however, all she could do was watch and wait until she could figure out what to do about the present situation. Simba glanced over at the other two cubs, as he had been doing from time to time to see if they were still watching, and was surprised to see the leopardess watching him too now. She seemed to understand that he wasn't an immediate threat to her son, but she looked quite concerned nonetheless. In this he saw his opportunity. While Matwana was looking away, Simba looked over at his mother, and smiling slightly, winked at her. She looked a little surprised by this, but Simba had to look back at Matwana and therefore couldn't keep looking at her.

"Has your mother told you about what big cats will do to protect their territory?"

"Some. Why?" Matwana replied curiously.

"Because one of the things male cats do is to hunt down and kill the cubs of other big cats living in the area. That way they don't have to compete with them for food when they get older."

Matwana looked up at Simba. "Yeah, but you're nice. I know you wouldn't do anything like that."

"Oh, really?" Simba replied. "What makes you so sure?"

Matwana started to look a little bit worried. "Well... You've been pretty nice to me so far."

Simba smiled menacingly at the cub. "Maybe there's another side of me you don't know about."

"Simba!" he shouted nervously as he began to back away. "Don't be that way." Simba glanced over at his mother, then leapt off his rock, landing inches away from Matwana, growling. Matwana jumped back in terror.

"Help!" he cried as he began running away from Simba in the wrong direction. Simba gave chase, but only keeping pace with his speed and leaving a little space between them, even though he could have easily overtaken the small leopard cub. Matwana led him in a half circle before his mother reached them and interposed herself between them, baring her teeth at Simba.

"Run, Matwana," she shouted. She then roared and leapt at Simba, attacking both sides of his face with her paws, followed by an attack of his throat with her mouth.

Simba immediately noticed that her blows were not very hard and she had kept her claws sheathed, and her attempt to bite his throat seemed pretty halfhearted. Feeling greatly relieved that she had picked up on what he was doing, he fought back in kind, making all the sounds and facial expressions he would if he were defending himself for real. When Matwana reached his sisters he stopped, out of breath, and turned to watch. His mother and Simba continued to tussle for a bit until at one point they stood, facing each other off.

"Back home! Now!" the leopardess commanded to her cubs, not taking her eyes off Simba. They darted off into the jungle, knowing they didn't dare disobey their mother at a time like this.

She walked carefully sideways toward the path entrance, and upon reaching it looked and listened intently to make sure her cubs were well on their way and out of sight and earshot. Then she turned and looked back at the lion, whose name she now knew was Simba. And smiled gently.

"Thank you," she said quietly.

Simba smiled back. "You're welcome. Could you do me a favor and when he's old enough to understand tell him I'm sorry?"

"Sure."

"I just wish I could have given him one more lesson."

"Oh really? What's that?"

"Someday you won't be there to get him out of trouble." "Maybe you did. You could have killed me, you know."

She studied Simba for a moment and her face changed. What could have motivated this lion to act as he did toward her cub? What secrets are hiding in his past? She would like to have known what his story was. The leopardess sighed. "I'd better be following my cubs before they come back looking for me." And then she disappeared into the jungle.

Later, Simba wept. Matwana had been very friendly to him and it broke his heart to think that he had scared the daylights out of him like that. But better that Matwana should fear him than that he should not fear someone else who might kill him. Or break his spirit, a fate almost worse. Why does the world have to be so cruel sometimes? Life would be so much easier if all creatures could just be friendly to one another. Someday when he's older, Simba thought, I'll have to come back, apologize to him myself, and make friends with him again. After this at least there's a better chance he'll still be alive when the time comes.

Epilogue

Simba didn't get his chance to renew his friendship with Matwana. Shortly after he last saw Matwana and his family, he returned to the place he had come from to face the incidents from his past that had tormented him for so long. His views on life improved a lot after that, but he still thought about the black leopard cub every now and then. In some ways he regretted what he had done to Matwana and thought of other ways he might have handled the situation. But the memories also served to remind him of how badly he'd felt about his life at the time, and how much his life had changed since then. And it made him wish all the more for another chance to meet Matwana.


by Joe McCauley {mccauley@databahn.net}