Prey Upon the Spirit
by Joe McCauley
© 1998 by Joe McCauley, based on The Lion King.
The Lion King and its characters are © 1994 by The Walt Disney Company
Reviewed and edited by Andrew Perrin, who helped me improve the dialogue and caught several typos. Thanks, Mageuzi!
Dedicated to Gabor Antos.
Though I walk through warm sands in Africa,
Winds will grow soon to storms in Africa.
How far to go I cannot say.
How many more will journey this way?
Dark skies fall on black earth and ivory.
Far from your sun clouds now close over me.
How far to go I cannot say.
How many more will journey this way?
Storms have come! Rains wash the earth away.
Dark skies fall down into another day.
Rains have now come from storms in Africa.
Time will go on through storms in Africa.
--Enya, "Storms in Africa"
Simba was barely able to restrain the urge to retch at the sight before him, and a shudder ran through his body. He hadn't expected to encounter this on what was supposed to be a routine hunt for something to eat.
The growing adolescent lion had become progressively less satisfied with the diet of insects and other creepy crawlies his friends Timon and Pumbaa had introduced him to, and for quite some time he had been supplementing it with small rodents and the like. As time passed and Simba grew, his dietary cravings and hunting skills graduated him to springhare, porcupine, duiker, and now, increasingly, it demanded of him that he tackle larger prey.
Some animals, though often taken by groups of lions hunting together, were not usually attainable to the solo hunter. The buffalo were too large, and the springbok were too quick, though Simba would occasionally find an old or sick one of either, or a starving abandoned young one. Simba also wouldn't consider warthog since Pumbaa was one of them. Still, that left him plenty of choices to hunt. As the seasons changed, so did the assortment of animals that migrated through the grassy corridor that separated the jungle from the desert. This year had been drier than last and the herds had altered their migration patterns accordingly, with the result that some of the animals appearing now were ones Simba hadn't seen in the two years he'd been living here.
That was how long it had been since that fateful day when his father lost his life beneath the hooves of a thundering herd of wildebeest. The nightmares from that event had become less frequent and less intense over time. Until now, that is. The sight before him brought it all back anew. For the first time since that day, he was looking upon those same sharp horns, those same heavy hooves. He was looking at wildebeest.
In a breath, his hunger evaporated and with it his will to hunt. Overpowered by memories too painful to shrug off, Simba closed his eyes and turned away. Quietly, as though being seen by the wildebeest would start another stampede, Simba sneaked away to the familiar safety of the jungle.
* * *
"Dad!" shouted Simba as he barely dodged a wildebeest. But Mufasa was having enough trouble of his own trying to avoid the stampeding antelope, and not always successfully. Simba sidestepped one hoof just in time, only to see another wildebeest bearing down on him. He didn't have enough time to react to this one. This was it. Suddenly he felt his father's maw snatch him deftly out of the way. For a second it seemed he was safe, but then he felt a jolt as his father was hit full force by one of the animals, sending the young cub flying, hurtling, tumbling through the air. When he landed and righted himself, he saw nothing but the torrent of wildebeest. Where was his father?
Simba snapped awake in a cold sweat. He'd had several variations of this dream before, but this was the most vivid he had experienced in quite some time. His heart still racing, he looked around and again found himself in familiar surroundings, with Pumbaa next to him laying on his side asleep, and Timon on top of Pumbaa doing likewise. Seeing them sleeping peacefully and snoring noisily, he wondered how many more times he would have relived the death of his father in his nightmares if it hadn't been for them. Actually less. He never would have survived. But if he had somehow, it would have been a lot worse all around without these two. Even with all their quirks they were the best friends he could have hoped for.
Though his stomach was empty he couldn't bear the thought of eating, so he lay his head back down, closed his eyes, and hoped for more peaceful sleep.
* * *
Simba tugged at his father's ear. "C'mon, Dad. You gotta get up. We gotta go home now." But the lifeless body of his father wouldn't respond to his pleas. His insides churned and grew queasy as Simba gradually realized the awful truth about his father, that they had already spent their last moments together.
He blinked awake again, overcome with grief and emptiness. Would it ever end? How many more of these dreams would he have to endure? Simba sighed. At least the wildebeest were gone that time. But would the real ones be gone when he tried to hunt again?
* * *
The sun was up and his hunger had returned when Simba awoke. The demands of his growing body would not wait while he wrestled with other matters that preyed upon his spirit. He gave a toothy yawn and extended his claws in a stretch, hoping they would get a workout today. He began the walk to the corridor where he had seen the wildebeest yesterday, hoping they would be gone by now.
But he arrived to find about twice as many wildebeest as the day before. Simba didn't react with the same revulsion, but his stomach still knotted and his hunger receded. There were other kinds of antelope here he had hunted before, but their herds were mingling with the wildebeest and the prospect of trying to cut one out seemed too daunting for his now diminished appetite. Sighing heavily again, he trudged back toward the jungle cover where he found a spot to settle down and take stock of the situation.
There was no telling how long there would be wildebeest in the corridor, yet he couldn't expect to hunt larger prey in the jungle. He could always eat bugs with Timon and Pumbaa, but it was hard to fill up on them and they weren't as appetizing. Oh well, he thought, whatever it takes to get through this. Perhaps a little Hakuna Matata was all he needed. After a brief rest to calm himself, Simba got up and sought out his friends.
"Morning, Simba," said Pumbaa.
"Hey, guys. What are you two up to?"
"Oh, not much. Hey, why are you here, anyway?" Timon asked. "Your *own* hunting not much good today?"
"I... I just don't feel up to it. I figured I'd just join you guys."
"Sure, that's okay," Timon replied with a shrug. "Plenty of good stuff here. You picked a good day to join us!"
Pumbaa paused and glanced at Simba. "I saw quite a few antelope out there earlier. There were even some wildebeest."
"Yeah, you could try something 'gnu'!" said Timon, as he began laughing loudly. "Get it?" Pumbaa laughed with him.
Ignoring the joke, Simba swallowed and tried to look nonchalantly at the bugs they were feasting upon. "Yeah, I saw 'em. Too dangerous for me. Maybe when I'm a little bit bigger..." Without looking at Timon or Pumbaa, he lapped up a bunch of the crawlies.
Timon stopped laughing and looked at Simba, then traded a glance with Pumbaa, who had also stopped. Simba didn't notice, or at least tried not to notice, that his friends had picked up on his uncharacteristic timidity and his somber mood. "Yeah okay, if you say so," shrugged Timon. "Dig in! These are some really chewy ones!"
Simba continued to lap up the bugs, being careful to leave plenty behind for the others. It wasn't enough to satisfy him, but it would hold him over for now. Later that morning he chewed on some grass to settle his queasy stomach.
* * *
The afternoon sun watched Simba stalking along the edges of the corridor hoping against hope he would find something he could hunt that was separate from the wildebeest, something both attainable to him and substantial enough to sate his hunger. It was to no avail. There were too many wildebeest, and they seemed to be everywhere. The very beasts who haunted his memories were now keeping him from his food.
The sunset watched Simba trudging back to the jungle where he would have to settle for bugs or whatever other small prey he could get. The twilight moon watched Simba fall asleep restlessly, too depressed and in too much of a quandry to care about how hungry he was.
* * *
Just ahead in the grass, he saw it. An impala, staggering and weak from disease by the look of it. Meals seldom came this easy. Simba stalked closer to the animal, keeping low in the grass and carefully making each footfall a silent one. The impala would soon become the latest victim of his prowess.
From nowhere it seemed, a large wildebeest appeared and walked purposefully to the impala, then stopped, turned and stared straight at Simba. It stood tall with fire in its eyes, and with its stare challenged Simba to come any closer, while the impala continued cropping grass, seemingly oblivious to the spectacle taking place beside him. Once again, Simba's meal so close was rendered just out of reach, kept away from him by a demon. Once again, Simba wouldn't eat.
Simba awoke to find himself lying meager and low to the ground, as though the beast were standing over him gazing down at him. The image from the dream was still quite vivid in his mind, enough to make him cower with fear just thinking about it. Simba wondered, would his father be afraid? There was a time when he thought Mufasa wasn't afraid of anything. Where are you now, father? Yet if his father were still around to help, this demon wouldn't even exist. As it was, Simba was having to face it alone, this mysterious creature that seemed to have the power to keep him away from his food and make him go hungry for as long as it cared to torment him.
* * *
His first exploration of the day revealed that there were still wildebeest migrating through the corridor. He observed them for only a short time and from a safe distance before retreating and seeking out the companionship of Timon and Pumbaa.
"Hiya, Simba," said Pumbaa. "You look hungry! Enough to make me worry, in fact."
Simba looked at him reproachfully. "You know I'd starve before I'd ever hurt you."
"Yeah, I know."
"Hey Simba," said Timon. "You really shouldn't worry too much about the wildebeest if that's what's bugging you. Just eat something else!"
"I will. I'm just waiting for the chance." When Simba saw Timon looking back at him uncomprehendingly, he suddenly felt ill at ease about where the conversation was headed and feared looking foolish in the eyes of his friends. "I'm going to go get a drink," he stammered.
Simba wandered off, thankful that his companions were perceptive enough not to pursue him. Pumbaa's remark bothered him, even though it had been made in jest. Simba's fear of the wildebeest was something he would rather have kept to himself, but now that too was at stake. The demon could stare him down even as he sought the safe haven of his two closest friends.
* * *
He returned to the corridor three more times that day to study the wildebeest, and each time he stayed longer and stalked closer than he had the time before. As he did this, they appeared less and less like the fearsome creatures from his nightmares. By nightfall he had virtually reached the point where he was comfortable trying to reach some of the other more familiar prey that grazed among them. He had reagined enough of the confidence he needed to hunt. Simba could ignore the demon if he had to.
Yet something held him back. As he sat quietly observing the herd, Simba again thought about his father and about the kind of lion Mufasa would have wanted him to be, and something inside Simba told him he should try staring back at the demon.
So deep in his thoughts and so focused was he that it startled him when Pumbaa and Timon crept up beside him. "Er.. what's up, Simba?" whispered Timon, who knew better than to betray Simba's presence to the herd.
"Just scoping the herd. Trying to figure them out..." His voice trailed off.
"Hey, if the wildebeest scare you, just forget about 'em. Hakuna matata! Go for something easier. Piece of cake!"
Simba glanced at him reproachfully, then resumed his vigil on the herd all the more intently.
Only briefly taken aback, Timon couldn't completely hide the admiration he had for Simba and his ability to become so immersed in the animals that grazed before them. He let out a small sigh. "Okay buddy, suit yourself. Just be careful. Make sure you go for one of the easier ones your first time out. And watch those horns! They can be dangerous!"
Turning to his left, Simba noticed three of the animals grazing next to the jungle, apart from the rest of the herd. They were all adults in their prime, but for what he had in mind that didn't matter. Stalking quietly, slowly, carefully, tensely in their direction, he was soon able to get within striking distance of the nearest one. All of his senses were primed as he prepared to spring forth.
He exploded out of cover toward the three wildebeest, who quickly snapped up from their grazing, sounded an alarm call and hooved it away from the jungle back toward the main body of the herd. Simba pursued quickly but never got within reach of a kick. After a short chase he broke off and ducked deftly into the dense jungle cover before the wildebeest got a good look at their attacker.
Timon and Pumbaa, who had watched this spectacle incredulously, caught up with him moments later. "What was that supposed to be!?" cried Timon. "What'd you go after those guys for? You didn't even come close to getting one!"
"Didn't expect to," Simba replied. "I was just feeling them out, trying to learn their behavior. And if I'm lucky they think I was just a leopard out from the canopy."
"Err... yeah, of course. I knew that," Timon exclaimed.
"So, you going to try again?" asked Pumbaa.
"Yes," Simba replied evenly. "This time for real."
Simba had just about recovered his breath and the herd had settled back into their grazing, albeit a little bit further out into the corridor and more alert to potential danger. Slowly, cautiously, Simba moved around to the opposite flank of the herd, using the twilight dusk to his advantage. Choosing his cover carefully, he crept up on the group. He looked them over, and spied an animal whose walk was ever so slightly uneven, perhaps from a recent injury. His quarry had been chosen.
The gentle breeze died down momentarily, quieting the steady rustle of the grass. Simba froze while he waited for the gentle background noise to resume as two of the wildebeest looked up. The breeze soon returned and the animals resumed their munching on the tender grass shoots. Stalking the last little bit to get within striking distance of one's prey was always a cagey game, where an errant sound or a random puff of wind from the wrong direction could send his meal scurrying away. Silently, painstakingly, as his feline instincts directed, he progressed, until at last, it was time. He tensed for the pounce.
The next instant, Simba charged from his cover, and again the wildebeest were quick to react. Seeing their first startled reaction, Simba felt a flash of fear and hesitation, but he ignored it and forced himself onward with the chase. He realized soon enough that they were displaying the same flight behavior as the other types of antelope he was more familiar with. He closed on his target quickly. Coming up alongside the wildebeest, Simba could see the sharp horns, could feel the vibrations of its hooves pounding the ground, and fear rose up within him once again.
Simba again tried to suppress the fear and forced himself to keep going. He allowed himself to merely pace the animal for a few strides while telling himself it was like an impala only larger, but he was becoming winded and would have to act soon or lose his quarry. The pounding hooves, he realized, were not directed at him, but were trying to escape from him. He didn't need to fear them. The time had come. Okay Dad, he thought, this one's for you.
Summoning all of his courage, Simba made a powerful leap onto the animal's shoulders, taking the back of its neck in his jaws while reaching his paw over and digging into the opposite side with his claws. He held on tight, and after a few strides, the animal came down onto its side. Simba clambered from beneath it as it fell, then regained his hold after it was down. This wildebeest, the largest animal Simba had ever tackled, was kicking and trying to break free. Simba held fast, and when it started to tire, he released his hold partially for an instant while he maneuvered himself into position to get his mouth over its muzzle. Once that was accomplished, all he had to do was hold on. The kicking from the animal soon subsided, and the struggle was over.
An immensely warm sense of elation suddenly welled up inside him, and he let out a roar. He had stared back at the demon! He had fought the beast and won! Spurred on by his victory, he felt a sudden, irrepressible urge to chase the herd and take down another. His adrenaline kicked in as he jumped up and charged toward them. Vengeance drove him. Rage, anger and vengeance, directed at the beasts who had killed his father, who had haunted his nightmares for two years. He was determined to release his anger on the ones whose kind had caused so much pain in his life.
But he hadn't fully recovered from his previous chase, and the herd, now alert to his presence, stayed well out of his reach. He thought about the wildebeest he had just brought down, and he noticed that the oddest thing about it was...
...that there was nothing odd about it at all. Simba stopped running and stood watching the herd, panting heavily.
It wasn't the demon he'd seen in so many nightmares. The look in its eyes was the same look, the same fear of death from the teeth and claws of a predator, that he had seen many times before. To a carnivore, whose survival depends upon killing and eating other animals, it was a look he'd learned to expect a long time ago, even while his father was still alive. "Everything you see exists in a delicate balance," his father had once told him. "You must understand that balance and respect all creatures from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope." He was only trying to do what his father would have wanted, yet all of a sudden he wasn't so sure what that was. There had been no evil in the creature's eyes. Only fear and the will to survive. The same fear he saw in all the other prey animals he hunted.
The same fear he had seen in the wildebeests' eyes during the stampede that had so dramatically changed his life.
He turned and padded back to his kill, knowing scavengers would soon arrive if he left it alone too long. Simba had scored a victory for his spirit. He felt quite proud of himself, and would never again fear wildebeest as he had before. For that much, he was sure his father would be proud. Yet the victory seemed hollow, like it was less than it should have been. Simba looked down at the carcass. He had not truly defeated the demon. He had merely forced the demon to take flight and abandon its disguise, a form it would never again take on. Eventually it would be back in its own time and its own way to torment him further, and he feared that when it did it would prove to be a much more formidable challenge than it had been this time. He felt daunted to think what still lay ahead. It had taken a lot out of him to face it this time. If that hadn't been enough, would he ever be able to face it when it showed its true face?
But that concern could wait for another day. Simba's body hungered, and for now he was secure in the knowledge that the demon wouldn't make him go without food, at least not anytime soon. It was time to have a well-deserved meal to celebrate his accomplishment. Sniffing the animal, he went back through the hunt in his mind. The wildebeest was bigger than anything he had killed previously, but not by very much, and it certainly hadn't been the fastest or the hardest to catch. Springbok were still the quickest and most agile. Impala were easier to hunt when available.
And so his thoughts went. As he continued to review the hunt, he tore into the carcass and began the best meal he'd had in a long time.