For days now he had been driving through this endless desert.
The road was well-kept and almost completely straight but the landscape was barren, flat and almost totally devoid of any landmarks or features to catch the eye. No trees, no hills, no rocks even. Just sand, gravel and short, prickly clumps of grass stretching as far as he could see.
This monotony made it very hard to believe he was making any progress. His dashboard told him he was doing 120 kilometers per hour. There was, however, not a single difference he could discern between where he was now and where he passed through an hour ago. He could as well have been standing still all that time.
This sense of stagnation made him restless, causing him to gradually increase his speed. Without him realising it his speed had been creeping up to over 150 kilometers per hour. And yet the world around him seemed as still and static as the frozen image of a paused video.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, something was crossing the road, a few hundred meters in front of his car. The fractions of a second he needed to register there really was something on the road ahead proved to be fatal. By the time he stepped on the brakes he knew it was too late: his wheels locked up, his tires lost their grip on the road and in a moment that seemed like an eternity the nose of his car hit the large animal walking there with a sickening thud. The animal was thrown up onto the hood and crashed into the windshield. The glass shattered into the opaque mist of a thousand tiny fragments but miraculously held together inside the frame. The animal bounced up onto the roof to slide down the back of the car onto the road.
The world had gone silent.
His engine had stalled. The monotonous hissing of the wind against his windshield had stopped. What remained was the ticking of his cooling engine. It sounded like the countdown of a mechanical detonator that would blow apart his world when it got to zero. His heart was racing and he felt sweat dripping across his forehead and cheeks.
He forced himself to breathe to regain some measure of control over himself. With shaking hands he undid his safety belt, opened the door and stepped out of the car. Hij had to hold on to the door not to fall, as his legs felt like they would give in any moment.
Reluctantly, dreading what he would find, he shuffled to the back of the car.
There she was. A more than man-sized lioness, stretched out on the dusty tarmac. The strange angle of her hind legs to the rest of her body indicated she had broken her back. Her head lay in an unnatural position as well; it looked liked the head of a hand-puppet without the hand to keep it in place.
He assumed no living creature could survive such a collision. He didn’t see any movement in the broken body. Yet, when he kneeled next to the imposing head of the lioness, he saw she had her eyes open and was staring straight at him.
Her yellow cat’s eyes were locked onto him with a hypnotising pull. He wanted to look away but lacked the power to avert his eyes. The longer he looked the more he felt the dying lioness communicating with him. He first felt her pain, the shock of the unexpected collision, the breaking of her back and neck. Then the dull thud of her broken body on the tarmac and her realisation she was, indeed, dying.
Yet she didn’t want to die. She couldn’t die. She had a task to fulfil. Without her care none of her very young cubs would survive. Her bloodline would die out and with it the last living connection to her ancestors that had ruled over these lands for so many millennia before her.
She, knew, however, her death was inevitable. With every move she tried to make she felt her life force flow away.
With a near-impossible effort she bound her life force to his, mixed them and forged them together. Only then did she let go. With the last air flowing from her lungs the light in her eyes faded and she died in front of him.
A jolt went through his body. He fell down on hands and knees. It felt like a superhuman hand was kneading him to force two shapes – his own human form and that of the dead lioness – to combine into one. Everything inside him was pulled out of shape, compressed, shifted, broken and put together again. He wanted to scream in pain but his equally deformed throat only produced a kind of tortured groan.
Abruptly, the torture stopped. Still on hands and knees he panted in exhaustion and confusion. He tried to get up but found his new form made that impossible. Though he still vaguely felt a human form in his muscles and bones he realised he had become more lion than human. More lioness than man as well, as his genitals had disappeared and he felt four swollen nipples filling with milk to feed four hungry cubs.
Everything in him still clasping to his humanity was washed away by an irresistible, deeply instinctive need to reach her cubs so she could protect them and feed them. Her own life didn’t matter. All that mattered were her cubs.
A bit tentative at first but adjusting fast she began to run. She ran in the direction of a small outcrop of rocks in the far distance. It was surrounded by small shrubs and high grasses, offering the only shelter in this otherwise wide-open plain. Though full of places to hide her cubs it was also a rather prominent feature in the barren landscape. Which made it an obvious place for predators and scavengers to go look for prey. Deeply worried she closed the last few kilometers at full speed.
Arriving at the rocks she didn’t immediately see anything. Almost panicking she began to call her cubs with that low growling sound that had replaced his voice. Her relief was immense when the first of her cubs answered her call with a squeal. Within moments, she was surrounded by four cubs, less than two weeks old, happily crawling over her and enthusiastically falling over themselves and each other to be sniffed and licked by their mother.
The intensely happy feelings of the mother lioness greeting her cubs made what remained of him realise fully what he had caused by killing her. He felt his own hear break. Her maternal love burst into his heart through the cracks and completely overwhelmed him. He had no choice but to surrender himself to it. He knew he would give his live to see those cubs grow into independent young lions.
Purring with satisfaction, she dropped on her side to let the cubs drink. She felt how happiness filled her as the cubs found her nipples one by one and started to drink. He, too, felt this happiness and let it fill him like the milk filled the cubs. He realised he had never in his life felt this complete as right now with those cubs hanging from her body.
This was the start of a period of constant care and worries.
Following her instincts she made sure the cubs remained hidden from potential predators by regularly moving them to different hiding places provided by overhanging rocks and dense undergrowth. She hardly ever left them alone, except to relieve herself far from her hiding place, to avoid attracting unwanted visitors.
When she was still fully alive, she would occasionally go out to hunt for food but she knew that her hybrid body lacked the power and speed to successfully chase and kill any substantial prey. Fortunately there was a small spring between the rocks but food would be lacking. She prepared herself for a difficult battle to pass on as much of their combined life force to her cubs before she would perish from hunger. She hoped it would be enough to give her cubs a reasonable chance but she feared the worst.
After some time, however, the effects of starvation began to show. She started to lose the energy to properly care for her cubs. She couldn’t move them as far as she had done, increasing the chances of them being discovered. She also felt her milk production decrease. Her cubs were growing fast and needed more milk, not less. Instead of falling asleep fully sated after drinking, her cubs remained restless and visibly dissatisfied.
She realised they wouldn’t make it this way; she simply lacked the energy to lead all her cubs to independence. So she started to consider the unthinkable. She would have to kill two of her cubs. The flesh and life force of the two smallest cubs might stretch just enough to give the two largest cubs a fighting chance to survive without her.
Meanwhile, he had completely surrendered to her maternal love and the all-encompassing need to keep her cubs alive. The thought of her having to kill a couple of her own cubs caused waves of panic and pure terror to rise in him. He tried to take control of her body but was utterly powerless against her iron will. Curling up in misery he witnessed how she was getting ready to carry out her terribly duty.
Powerless and desperate he sent out a cry of distress to the Universe; a silent prayer for help, for an intervention, for something that could stop the lioness in her gruesome determination. He offered up his own heart in sacrifice. “Take me, take everything I have ever been or wanted to become” he begged silently, “but spare these cubs. They haven’t done anything to deserve this.”
Just when the lioness was ready to kill one of her cubs with one blow of her paw, a shadow fell over her. She looked up to see an enormous male lion looming over her. He was almost twice her size, with the full manes of an adult male and the many scars of an animal that had won his dominant position through many fights. Instinctively she tensed, ready to fight for her cubs, well-aware she didn’t have a chance; not in her weakened condition; not against this lion in the prime of his life.
To her surprise, the lion didn’t attack but turned to pick up from the ground a large prey which he threw in her direction. The dead animal was fresh and uneaten, with enough meat to feed her for a week at least. Confused she looked from the dead animal to the gigantic lion, half expecting him to attack her after all. The lion, however, remained still and calmly returned her gaze. She felt his strength and reassurance and understood he was no threat to her and her cubs. She relaxed and briefly bowed her head in thanks and acceptance of his gift before grabbing hold of the dead animal to drag it to her lair. Here she could devour the animal in peace. When she looked back, the lion had disappeared, as silently as he had arrived.
He had barely noticed anything of what had transpired, so completely had he withdrawn into his own desperation and grief for the impending death of the cubs and the sacrifice the lioness was prepared to make. The only thing he was aware of was a change in the mood of the lioness: from grim determination to sudden panic to surprised acceptance and gratitude. He wondered what had caused this sudden change so he tried to reconnect with the outside world through the lioness’ senses. For a moment he felt a presence: an independent being, powerful and untouchable. Its power was reassuring and safe, unthreatening. Without exactly knowing why, he knew everything was going to be all right. He relaxed and let himself sink back into the pleasure with which the lioness tore up her prey to take in its life-giving meat.
Time moved on without further incidents. The lion never showed himself again but from time to time she found a fresh kill close to her hiding place.
Her cubs grew and thrived. After a few months they had started to gnaw on the carcasses of the animals she had been feeding herself with. They started,clumsily but with great joy, to hunt each other, insects and lizards, or just the wind that blew up dust and grass around them.
Half a year later she started to prepare them for a life without her care. She taught them to hunt by showing them how she stalked and attacked animals. The clumsiness caused by her hybrid existence as half-lioness/half-man prevented her from catching large prey but she did manage to overcome her limitations enough to successfully hunt smaller animals. That had to suffice to get her cubs through that crucial first fase of their independent existence. The rest they would have to figure out without her.
Her cubs were fast learners and soon were better hunters than her mother could be. When they started to catch larger animals than she was able to, she knew her time had come. Almost a year after her fatal accident, she let her cubs run ahead of her far enough during a hunt to allow her to sneak away unseen, to return to the place where she had met her fate.
He felt like he was waking up from a half-consciously experienced dream. He only remembered fragments, images, feelings: the feeling of the suckling cubs, the satisfaction of their mother watching them play and learn, the melancholy of the inevitable parting. Over all this lay a feeling of contentment, the knowledge he had made up for a terrible crime; the realisation that he, undeservedly, had been given a chance to serve the life his recklessness had condemned to a slow death. He knew well enough it hadn’t been his power and determination that had brought this atonement but that of the lioness and her unyielding maternal love. This was her achievement. He had just been allowed to serve her. But that was already more than he could ever have hoped for.
As they approached the place of the accident, her lion form began to fade while his human form solidified. This transition caused a moment of utter confusion. She/he lost control of his/her limbs and stumbled on, half walking, half crawling, till he/she fell over, exhausted and out of breath.
He felt her slip away. Her shape had dissolved completely and now her spirit followed until only faint traces of her were left in his mind. It felt like losing a part of his heart. It hurt. But he knew he had been given a part of her heart in return. With tears in his eyes he thanked her for what she had allowed him to accomplish.
Then she was gone.
After a pause to catch his breath, he stood up and walked to the road. There he saw his car, exactly like he had left it all those months ago. The car was in surprisingly good condition. After knocking out the fractured windshield and scooping out the sand that had blown into the interior, he found even the engine started in one go.
Relieved, he drove away.
For a moment he thought he heard a lion roar in the distance.
But that could have been the wind.