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In the Lion's Paws
Leah smiled as she checked her watch. Instead of being upset that her guide was late, she was pleased; the delay gave her an opportunity to explore the marketplace where she had been dropped off. As she strode into the sunlight and out of the shadows, she was immediately drenched with vivid colors and sharp scents. Everywhere there was the sound of voices, of haggling people and protesting livestock. Leah stopped and marveled, taking it all in. It was hard to believe that just the week before she had been in drab and freezing Connecticut.
Grinning like a cat before a cornered mouse, Leah began to investigate. An old woman with missing teeth was selling knives with worn leather handles. Her shawl was a bright yellow, and she was adorned with all sorts of beaded jewelry. The old lady smiled at her while muttering, “foreigner” under her breath. Leah sighed mentally. Women were women, no matter where they were. She approached the knife seller and asked for the price of a tiny dagger in perfect Kiswahili, the local language. The old woman cackled in a friendlier manner, and they began bargaining good-naturedly. When Leah left, there were no hard feelings or suspicions between the two, and Leah had a slender steel dagger in a worn leather sheath. Leah wasn't quite sure why she intended to have one, but she figured she was alone in a strange country, so she might as well be prepared for anything.
Leah's next destination was a shop selling food. Here, Leah only looked and smelled; she was wary of eating food prepared by a stranger. There were too many food-borne diseases to risk contracting. Leah glanced at her watch again. She had landed at Loyangalani Airport ten hours ago, in the dead of the night. The journey here had been anything but easy. She had transferred vehicles at least five times; usually because the driver was stopping for the day and once because the car had broken down. One of the drivers had pulled over, jumped out of the car and run into the woods without any explanation, leaving a bus-full of dissatisfied travelers to seek other means of transportation. Traveling in Kenya had been interesting, but the day was starting to catch up to Leah. She found a bench removed from the marketplace and sat down.
“Bibi!” Leah awoke with a start. She first translated the word for “miss” in her bleary mind. There was a moment of confusion, while Leah tried to figure out where she was and who had been so rude as to awaken her. The perpetrator was an old man whose skin sat on him like it was meant for someone far younger. Leah deduced that this must be Ajali, her guide to the village. She rubbed her eyes as they exchanged greetings and apologies, and then began the long walk.
Leah found her guide to be a most congenial companion. The vivacious old man had boundless knowledge about the village, Peace Corps projects, and, to Leah’s interest, superstitious tales. There was no shortage of fodder for the conversation; Ajali was most curious about life in America. Leah wondered if he noticed that most of the details she was giving him were not based upon her own life but the lives of her friends. Her own life had been anything but standardly American, and Leah didn’t want any pity.
Because the two voyageurs were walking through Sibiloi National Park, there were lots of beautiful specimens of African wildlife. Leah stopped and took pictures of a herd of giraffes meandering across the plain. Ajali, having seen more than his fair share of giraffes in his life, remained calm, although he seemed pleased that she enjoyed the wildlife. When they walked around a bend in the road, they came upon a herd of zebra. The zebras all looked at them in surprise, their ears like miniature satellites. They stood frozen for a second before taking off in a snorting, dust raising mad dash. When Leah posed the age-old zebra stripe question, Ajali answered with a laugh.
“That much is obvious. A long time ago, there was a selfish baboon that was guarding the water hole. He wouldn't let any of the animals drink, so the zebra challenged him to a fight. He eventually flung the baboon high up onto a cliff. The baboon lost all his hair on the place he landed on. Afterward, the zebra tripped when he stumbled past the baboon's fire, and he singed some of his hair. That's how the zebra got his stripes.” Ajali's face fell. “At least, that's how my people think it is, but I, I am not so sure.”
As Leah and the old, withered man walked further and further from the world that she knew, she was filled with a sense of weightlessness. She was leaving the place that had given her nothing but pain—leaving forever, she hoped. Kenya had seemed to her the perfect place: there would be no contact with the people that had known her and there were problems she could truly solve. Suddenly, Ajali stopped, interrupting her wandering mind. Gesturing animatedly, he pointed out a tree in the middle of the grassy plain to their left. Leah’s Kiswahili was good, but the little old man was talking so fast she couldn’t decipher his words.
“Blahblahblah mti blahblah Simba blah mti Simba! Blah Simba blahblah, blah blah Simba!” Leah frowned. All she could understand was the word for lion and the word for tree… She shaded her eyes, squinting into the distance. Lions! There were lions under the tree. She groped blindly for her binoculars, finding that she couldn’t take her eyes from the spectacle. Leah peered through the lenses of her Swarovskis. There was the male, resplendent in his blissful lack of duty. With him were three lionesses, all basking lazily in the sun. One of them was licking her tawny cub, which wriggled away, pounced on the mother lioness’s tail and began gnawing. Leah could imagine its attempts at a ferocious growl and smiled. As the mother reached out with a paw and gently retrieved the aberrant youngster, Leah’s smile froze, then melted slowly away. This could have been her. Her mother could have been like that mother lion. Leah shook her head. She had come to escape from her demons, not to recall them from her past. She strengthened her resolve, fixed a smile on her face, and took one more look at the scene of serenity before she left with Ajali.
A week had passed during Leah’s stay in the village. She had settled in fairly well, making accommodations for the lack of resources available. Her small hut was cozy and functional, but Leah knew she wouldn’t be spending much time there. She was already busy creating designs for the water catchment system for a nearby high school. In West Kenya, where she was, the only source of water was the notoriously contaminated Lake Victoria. Other Peace Corps members were simultaneously working on a project to extend pipes that would bring clean water to the nearby villages. Leah was working with a small team to install a system that would provide plenty of water for schools. This was supposed to encourage more students to attend school. Until the systems were in place, she had brought some powerful purifying systems for her own water.
Each day, Leah made friends, explored the village and learned about the customs and traditions of her new family. After only a week, she already felt much more at home than she had ever felt in the house she had grown up in, with its austere white walls and modern furnishings.
Leah's past, however, was stubbornly refusing to stay buried. Each time she saw one of the villagers' guns, she would flinch and her hands would shake. The demons refused to listen to logic, and each time she found it progressively harder to calm herself down. As if that weren't bad enough, her mother's deranged expression seemed to leer at her from the shadows cast by the evening fires. Her father's cold eyes haunted her dreams at night. Leah convinced herself that she was really safe. From sunup till sundown she was free from torment, and that was good enough. But deep down, she knew it really wasn't okay. One day, the poison that had been simmering beneath the surface would erupt, harming both herself and the people around her. Leah knew she must do everything she could to prevent that from happening, but she just didn't know how.
Leah's subconscious knew exactly what to do. One night, exhausted from a long day, Leah had folded up her detailed sketches and notes, blown out the candle and drifted off to sleep. When she awoke, however, she was lying somewhere unfamiliar. She opened her eyes and blinked, confused. Why was she curled up in the grass? Leah sat up, and her heart nearly stopped. She was sitting in the middle of the savannah. Questions raced through her mind. What the hell was she doing in the middle of the plains? How had she gotten here? Cautiously, she stood up. In doing so, a water bottle fell to her feet. Leah scooped it up. How had she taken her water purifier with her? Slowly the shrouded facts became clearer. She must have sleep-walked out of the village, walked partway down the road and right into Sibiloi National Park. Leah scanned the horizons that stretched before her in all four directions. The savannah was endless.
Something caught her eye; a large object moving toward her from the distance. She waited with bated breath. As the animal came closer, she was able to discern its elephantine form. Leah was filled with wonder. Here she was, standing in the middle of an African savannah, with an elephant approaching her. Leah wondered if it would be afraid of her and run away or trample her. As the gigantic mammal drew nearer, any fears she might have had were replaced with awe. She was amazed that such a creature could even exist. The elephant was so big. His footsteps were heavy, yet he moved with a certain grace. Leah could see immense intelligence shining in his eyes, and she knew he would not harm her. When he was about thirty feet away he stopped. They stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity to Leah. She scarcely blinked the whole time. Eventually, he lumbered off, but he didn't go far.
In the distance, Leah could see a cloud of dust. She squinted to see better in the early morning light. A herd of gerenuks bounded by. The slender, lithe antelopes were clearly running from something. An instinct prompted Leah to sit down in the shadow of a tree where she would be better concealed. After a few tense minutes, she saw the cause for the gerenuks' flight. A lone male tourist was walking her way, following the tracks of the elephant. Leah knew that when he shot, his weapon would not be a camera. Filled with dread and foreboding, she felt the need to call out the elephant, to warn him of his dangerous predicament. She found she could not move, could not speak. The man walked closer. Leah could see the depraved eagerness that pervaded through his fingers, fondling the rifle with a sick anticipation. Leah hated him intensely. When the lone elephant came into his view, he stopped and crouched in some grim parody of hide-and-seek. Slowly, the hunter raised the gun. Blood pounded in Leah's ears. She heard the click, loud as it would have been if she was next to the killer. Nothing could have prepared her for the fusillade.
The shot echoed in Leah's head. Her vision went black, but not before she saw the elephant fall, a look of betrayal in his eyes. The bullet blew Leah back in time, to the place she had been trying so hard to avoid. Her mother in her empty beauty, screaming at her father. The man she had never truly known, raging back at her. The screaming, always the screaming. Leah never understood why they fought, but they always did. Day and night, night and day. The screaming, the bottles smashing, and sometimes the sound of flesh hitting flesh. Slapping, punching, kicking, but always the screaming. Leah remembered that even as they vomited their hatred at each other, their eyes were always empty. One day she had been caught between them. Pain, blood, screaming. Her mother's eyes were indifferent as she glanced at her only child, fallen, sobbing in agony. Her mother barely spared a glance for her; that she would never forget. Then, her mother stormed away. Leah felt nothing but relief. She sobbed silently, ribs and forehead throbbing, the pain blinding. Then her mother had returned with a pistol. There was more screaming, her mother threatened to kill her father. Suddenly they stopped.
Her mother smiled, leveled the gun and fired. Then, she pointed the gun at her own head and pulled the trigger. Leah felt no sadness for them as she lay on the floor. The screaming had stopped at last.
When Leah awoke, she found herself strangely comforted. Curled around her was something warm and soft. Leah raised her head after a moment of peace. She was somehow unsurprised to see that her protector was a lion. The male had his paws crossed under his chin and was snoozing. Leah was lying between him and a female lion. Leah felt that she had known them forever, that she had always been part of their family. She somehow knew that they had always been here, waiting patiently for her to arrive. Leah knew she could not stay in this grassy paradise forever, but it wouldn't hurt to stay for one more day... as she fell asleep that night under the tapestry of stars, she thought she heard the mournful trumpet of an elephant.