It had been years since Kimbabwe had run. He lazily draped a paw over the edge of his rock, letting the warm sun shine in his eyes. His cage at the zoo was much too small to get up the kind of speed cheetahs were famous for. He had his food practically delivered to him, and he had long since forsaken the idea of pretending to hunt it as he had when he was young. It was, after all, just scraps of raw meat. No amount of pretending could turn it into the kind of challenge he needed. A good long chase after an antelope, maybe. Or perhaps just a jog for fun, he thought wistfully. He could barely remember the days when his territory had stretched across the entire African savannah. His father had been the leader of the most powerful band of cheetahs, and their territory had stretched farther than the eye could see. He had been a very young pup, still with his mother, watching the males he would someday join as they flew gracefully by.
Then the Men came. Creeping through the long grass, their fire sticks could shoot faster than the pack could run, and before long the pack was gone. Then they came for Kimbabwe and his mother. She ran from them for miles, but eventually the sticks caught up with her and she was gone too. Kimbabwe surely would have been next had not the people from the zoo found him and saved him. Ever since then he lived in a cage with two of his brothers.
Each day, many people would come and peer at them through the glass, commenting in awed voices at their incredible grace and beauty. Kimbabwe was always disgusted by their shallowness. You think I’m beautiful when I’m sleeping. You should see me run! You think I’m mighty when I yawn and show you my teeth. Give me an antelope and watch me kill it myself!
Sometimes he would jog around the enclosure as a special treat for the viewers, or sometimes he would play with his food and make a big deal out of “killing” it just to see the children laugh. His two brothers, Jawjue and Kamunji, couldn’t understand him. They lay on the rocks all day, wondering at him. Why are you wasting your time? they would ask. Come and lie with us. The people don’t care. Why do you tire yourself by running when you could lie in the sun and be admired for your beauty? They didn’t understand how he longed for freedom, how he needed to run. He could feel his body tense and stretch sometimes, and the need to run was excruciating to ignore. He would growl and scratch at the ground, tear around the trees, leap and spin, trying to rid himself of the push to just let himself go.
Once, when he was still new at the zoo, he had run as fast as he could straight towards the glass. He had thought it would shatter and he would be free. Instead, he was unable to move for weeks.
On this particular morning, the people did not come. This meant that the week was over and tomorrow a new week would begin. Kimbabwe sighed and leaped down from his rock. His brothers, as usual, lay stretched out lazily. Where are you going? Jawjue, the curious one, lifted his head. Come and lie down. My side is cold where you were lying, come and warm it up.
Kamunji cuffed Jawjue, making him fall off the rock. You have the brains of an antelope, he growled. Get back here and be quiet.
Kimbabwe ignored them pointedly and studied the crack in the glass wall where the keeper brought their food. You two are stupid, lying there all day. Why don’t you get up and do something for once? Make yourself useful. They glared at him and lay back down.
No, really. Kimbabwe sat down on the rock and prodded Kamunji. Don’t you ever get the urge to run? To just be free, to go back to that place where we were pups? Go somewhere, do something? To eat something real instead of this fake raw meat junk that they bring us? Don’t you want adventure? His fur bristled just thinking about it.
Kamunji blinked at him. In a word. No. He sighed and rolled over.
Jawjue, however, was staring at Kimbabwe with a look of wonder on his face. You mean there’s more? This isn’t the world right here in front of us? And the food tastes better than this?
Kimbabwe was appalled. He motioned for Jawjue to follow him. They sat down together at the edge of the enclosure. Of course there’s more. Picture this place over and over with no walls or ceilings.
Jawjue closed his eyes and thought.
Kimbabwe went on. Imagine huge pools of water as far as the eye can see. Imagine thousands of cheetahs running at top speed through the grass. Imagine a mother with her pups. Imagine the thrill of the hunt, with cheetahs running and an antelope limping away. Now, look! The lead cheetah jumps up and the antelope is down! Now the pack’s swarming over it… now it’s gone and the birds move in. He shivered and opened his eyes.
Jawjue had a glazed look in his eyes and he was staring hungrily off into the distance. I. Want. To. Go. There.
Kimbabwe wrapped his tail around Jawjue’s haunches. Someday, I promise you. I’ll take you there. We’ll go and rule Father’s territory, just like we were meant to.
They sat together for a long time, each dreaming separately of wide open spaces and antelope. Kamunji growled in disgust. How can you believe we’ll ever get out? Why can’t you just be happy with life here? Warm, never hungry. If you went back you’d have to… He stopped when he saw that they weren’t listening. With a snarl of contempt, he turned his back on them.
* * *
The manager of the zoo walked quickly to keep up with his boss. “Sir, please!”
“No, Damon, I’ve given you my final answer.” He strode to his car and drove off. Damon Graham stared after him. He had just been fired. Dejectedly, he made his way back to his office to take care of some leftover paperwork. He paused at the monkey cage, saddened and a little scared to think of anyone else having such control over their lives. He was an animal lover and would never do anything to hurt any animal, but he knew some money-hungry people who were dying for this job. They would do anything to get their hands on the job of manager. Worried, he turned his back on the zoo and continued on towards his office.
* * *
For the cheetahs, life continued much as usual when the new manager came to work. The only differences were the amounts of people. Kimbabwe wasn’t sure what had been done to the zoo, but he did know that a lot more people were coming by his cage every day. He and Jawjue would chase each other around and around, wrestling and tearing their meat apart together, for now that Jawjue knew that there was more to life, he had begun to feel the call as well. The two of them would tussle to keep themselves in shape, dreaming of that day when they would once again be free.
One day, their food did not appear in the corner where it always did. Kimbabwe and Jawjue searched the whole enclosure and found no sign of any food at all. By noon, even Kamunji was starting to get worried, and he helped them, but to no avail. That night the cheetahs went to bed hungry. The next morning there was a small bit of meat sitting in the corner. Kimbabwe neatly divided it between the three of them, although it was not much of a meal for anyone. Kamunji grumbled and growled, but no food came again for the whole day. The next morning there was the same amount of food as the day before. Starving, the cheetahs devoured the food and prowled restlessly around for the rest of the day. The next morning it was the same, and the next and the next.
After months of this, Kimbabwe woke up one morning and found himself so weak from hunger that he couldn’t walk. Jawjue brought his food to him, although by the hunted look in his eyes Kimbabwe guessed that he was almost as weak. Kamunji didn’t even bother to try, making Jawjue go and get his portion for him.
Jawjue curled up next to Kimbabwe and sighed deeply. That place. The one with wide open spaces and antelope running free. When will we get there?
Kimbabwe waited as his stomach growled before answering. I don’t know. But maybe if we imagine antelope we won’t feel so hungry. So they both closed their eyes and dreamed. When it came time for the zoo to close and them to go to sleep, they lay down together, never opening their eyes, both dreaming of a better place.
The next morning tragedy struck. Kamunji was unable to move even his tail and was having trouble breathing. Surprisingly, he wasn’t his grumpy self. He seemed to know that he wouldn’t be around for much longer, and when he opened his eyes for the last time, he spoke softly. I can see it now… why you wanted to leave. I understand. I want to go now too… I’ll be taking the quicker road than you. He sounded vaguely happy. I’m… so… rr… y. He closed his eyes and was gone. Kimbabwe dragged his body into the fake rock den, and he and Jawjue kept watch over him for the rest of the day and well into the night. Then they pulled him out in plain view of the crowds as a plea for help. However, instead of gaining the sympathy of the people, all they got were tranquilizer darts stinging their haunches, and then blackness slowly took over.
* * *
The new manager of the zoo was a money-hungry businessman. He had made all of the animals’ food supplies smaller and was planning to rid himself of half of the animals by releasing them to research clinics. The Pretty Face Care Foundation, which tested its products on animals, and the Exotic Photo Clinic, which kept large African animals penned up for photographers to shoot safely, were only two of them.
He had made up his mind that the monkeys were the first to go, but when he heard about the dead cheetah, he knew he was looking at possible lawsuits. So he changed the applications and arranged to have the cheetahs shipped out to the Exotic Photo Clinic in two weeks.
With a sigh, he shoved the papers to the back of his mind and pushed the admission price for the zoo up another fifteen percent.
* * *
Kimbabwe and Jawjue ate their food in saddened silence, the body of Kamunji having disappeared. Kimbabwe suspected that the disappearance had something to do with the sleeping sticks, but it didn’t really matter to him. He wondered if anything would matter to him again.
Jawjue stretched. What now? He batted a ball aimlessly around Kimbabwe’s paws.
I don’t know. Kimbabwe watched the ball slowly come to a stop. Neither he nor Jawjue made an attempt to chase it down. Instead, they both sat down together and began to dream of the safari. Kimbabwe began. We will step out of this cage and find ourselves at home with endless space. We will run together until we are tired and then the pack will find us, and we will join them. They will see an antelope, and we will help them chase it down. We will never be helpless again.
Jawjue licked his lips and continued. Then I will find a pretty female and she will have my pups. When they are older I will take them with me and teach them to hunt and they will call me Father. Their pups too will remember me, passed down like a story, growing bigger and fiercer with every telling. And the zoo part of my story will fade out and be forgotten. The two lapsed into sad, hungry silence.
They stayed together for days, leaving their daily servings of meat to pile up, forgotten. They continued to tell each other stories of what they would do when they were free, as they got weaker and weaker, and as the life started to ebb from their bodies, the breath from their lungs. But the stories went on, even when Kimbabwe was short of breath, or Jawjue sank into unconsciousness. For the stories were the only thing keeping them alive. Then, a day later, Jawjue was unable to finish his part of the story. Kimbabwe opened his eyes and squinted at the brightness before looking down at Jawjue. He was lying peacefully quiet. Too quiet. His heart pounding, Kimbabwe brought slab after slab of meat that had collected over the days. Jawjue managed to eat one before sitting up. He refused to eat any more. You’ll need it for when you escape. I won’t need it where I’m going.
Kimbabwe didn’t listen to such talking. No! he insisted. It will be us escaping. I won’t go without you! Now, try to eat some of this.
Jawjue turned away. Tell me one more time how it will look when we are free. And so Jawjue leaned against Kimbabwe and listened as the older cheetah told him of the wonders they would see when they got to Africa.
After Kimbabwe had finished the telling, he looked down at Jawjue. Horrified, he tried to make himself believe that he was dreaming, but he knew in his heart that what he saw was no dream. Jawjue was taking his last breaths. His eyes were glazed over as he looked up at Kimbabwe. I can see it now. The wide open spaces, the antelope, the cheetahs running free.
Kimbabwe whimpered. Don’t leave me, Jawjue. I need you.
Jawjue’s eyes seemed to focus slightly for a few moments, and he replied, You don’t need me. I needed you, and you did what you told me you would. Thank you.
Kimbabwe choked back a wail of agony. Thank you for what? I did nothing. I gave you empty promises, that’s all.
Jawjue gasped. But… you… did… so… much… more… than… that. You… gave… me… hope. His eyes slowly closed, and he gave a short sigh of satisfaction.
Nooooo! Kimbabwe wailed, beating his paws on Jawjue’s body, on the ground, on anything his paws touched, sending zookeepers running towards his cage, sticks in hand. For the second time in a week, Kimbabwe felt the sting of the sleeping sticks…
* * *
He awoke in a quickly moving vehicle. Slung across the floor of a small cage, Kimbabwe groaned as the metal bars dug into his skin. Grief filled him as he remembered what had happened to Jawjue, and he was so full of it that he didn’t care where he was going or why he was caged. Of course, even if he had, the name Exotic Photo Clinic wouldn’t have meant anything to him. Which was probably a good thing because, even if he had wanted to escape, he couldn’t have. But he didn’t know any of these things, and so when the vehicle stopped, he barely pricked his ears up.
The bright light flooded the back of the truck, making Kimbabwe squint his eyes. A man and woman seemed to be arguing.
“I’ll give you ten grand for him.” The woman glanced at him and smiled. The man next to her twisted his hat in his hands, obviously swayed by the money.
“I had orders…” He pointed weakly towards the Exotic Photo Clinic just down the road. The woman smiled icily, her voice as cold and as hard as steel.
“I will double whatever they are offering you. You can take half back to your boss and keep half and no one will ever know. I need a cheetah like him for an experiment a group of vets are trying. We will release him back into the wild and track his movements, which is a lot better than what they’ll do for him.” She nearly spat the last words out, moving protectively closer to Kimbabwe.
“This is the perfect opportunity for both of us.” She looked compassionately at the cheetah, and he began to feel a spark of hope.
“Done!” the man lunged towards the money in the woman’s hand, literally ripping it from her grasp. He began to count it eagerly, and the woman waited patiently, with her hand on top of the crate. When he had finished, he helped the woman load the cheetah into the back of her man-eater, and then he almost jumped into his car and drove crazily away.
“There, that’s better, isn’t it.” The woman slid behind the wheel and spoke softly to Kimbabwe.
“You know, I hate being dishonest like that,” she confided in him, “but I really had no choice, did I?”
It wasn’t long before they approached the doors of a veterinary clinic. The doors burst open and a young man rushed to help the woman with the cage. He frowned.
“We have the plane all lined up for tomorrow morning. Are you sure this boy’s big enough? He’s got hardly any meat on his bones.”
“We’ll give him some shots when we put the tracker in his ear. He’ll be fine.” The woman opened Kimbabwe’s cage door, letting him into a spacious room, almost as big as his cage at the zoo. He headed straight for the shadiest spot and was asleep almost as soon as he lay down. This time it was a real sleep, not a drugged one.
Kimbabwe woke suddenly and found the woman standing over him with a needle in her hand. He purred, glad to see her as she gently slipped it into his leg. His head slumped to the side and his purr slowed to a low rumble as he was wheeled into the examination room.
He woke again in the vehicle with the woman at the wheel. This time he was in a bigger crate with a padded bottom, and he was surprised to find that he was quite comfortable.
Before long the vehicle pulled up to a huge bird-thing, and Kimbabwe watched with interest as the woman wheeled his cage towards some doors leading into the back of the bird-vehicle.
Once he was safely in place, the woman once again slipped the needle into his leg, and he lay his head down on her hand. He was asleep almost before she pulled it away.
Kimbabwe woke for the last time in the vehicle again. This time, though, the air held a familiar scent. Africa! Kimbabwe sat up in excitement and pawed at the cage door, yipping and chirping in ecstasy. The woman laughed and stopped the truck. In the distance Kimbabwe could smell a pack of male cheetahs, and he whined in frustration as the woman pulled the crate down off the truck bed and slowly began to undo the latches.
Free! Kimbabwe rolled around on the ground, scratching and jumping. He was about to run off when he remembered the woman. Running back towards her, he rubbed his face up and down her leg and then jumped and put his paws on her shoulder. She tensed slightly, but when Kimbabwe began to lick her face, she put her arms around him.
Then he was off, running and running until he reached the pack. After sniffing him and circling around and around him, they accepted him as their own and the group set off at a slow jog. Then he remembered Jawjue. His head sank in sadness. What is it? One of the cheetahs his own age moved closer to him.
So Kimbabwe, remembering Jawjue’s desire to be a legend, told story after story of Jawjue as a puppy, and as his friend and brother. When he had finished, the whole pack was gathered in silence.
Then the oldest one spoke. We will always remember our brother Jawjue and our member Kimbabwe for all that they have struggled through to bring us these tales.
Kimbabwe’s throat constricted. He held back a whimper. Thank you. It was then that he remembered the thing he had told Jawjue about so many times. The desires that had come upon him in the zoo came upon him again, and Kimbabwe stood up. The pack, sensing what he wanted, stood up, and together they did the one thing Kimbabwe had been longing to do for his entire life. They ran.