The light glinted playfully across my face, awakening me from my slumber. I reluctantly got up from my warm, furry haven curled up beside my mother with all of my siblings around me. I stretched luxuriously, and winced as I remembered yet again how hard the floor of that cave was. Cautiously, I tried to crawl over Hashim, who had odd brown stripes across his forehead, and Malishkim, with the white paws, without waking either of them up. I warily crept up the natural stone stairs that circled their way around the inside of the cavern and peered into the shallow freshwater lake in the room at its zenith. The reflection that looked back up at me didn't look anything like the faces of my family. My face was tanned from the sun, but it was still starkly naked and pink. Everyone else in my pride had rich, deep golden fur over their entire bodies, and the papuas, or fathers, in our pride even had a long brown fringe of fur around their faces. My hind legs were much, much longer than theirs, and I had peculiar miniature extensions with tough plates at the ends of them coming out of my paws.
I splashed awkwardly into the water, transforming my reflection into a plethora of tiny ripples. I liked it that way. I couldn't see that I was different. I began to wash.
It wasn't always like this. My moshi (mother) found me under a bush in a mirage when I was very young, crying louder than she had ever heard her own young yell. I was a hideous, Crimson, wrinkled tiny thing covered with a strange-colored fur that wasn't plush at all. But Moshi felt an unusual sense of compassion for me, and she had finished her hunting for that day already anyway, so she gently placed me on her back and took me to her pride.
When all of the papuas in our pride came home, not everyone thought that I should be welcome. However, my moshi and papua insisted, so they brought me along with them from shelter to shelter. The others had to listen to them because they were the leaders of our pride.
"Lalashim? Are you up there?" My moshi's melodious voice awakened me from my daydream. I quickly licked my paws and ran them through the long, red fur that only grew on top of my head. I stretched and finally ran silently down the steps. All of the moshis in our pride were looking up at me expectantly from the foot of the stairwell. The sun was showing its full, round, orange face, a small hoofka above the horizon, so it was time to go hunting. The papuas and cubs were still sleeping, as they would until they saw it fit to rouse themselves.
We all slunk out of the cave into the bright, warm morning. I loved waking up early to go hunting with the females. Everyone walked along in a comfortable silence until we caught the scent of an antelope, Zebra, or other hefty animal. The giraffes we left alone, though. There was an old legend saying that if anyone tried to sink their teeth into their supple flesh, they would move their powerful legs and kick us to join our ancestors in the heavens.
Then, we would creep up as close as possible to the animal, and when we were sure that we were at the most advantageous spot, we would run simultaneously up to prey and trap it until one of us could clamp our jaws on their neck, the fatal spot. There would be a small struggle, but eventually the animal would succumb to death and hang limply in our mouths. Finally, we would eat until we were full to bursting and bring what was left home.
This was where my job would come up. Two summers ago, I discovered that the sticklike objects protruding from my paws could curl around a kill and make carrying the meat much simpler. Since my legs couldn't move swiftly enough to trap our meal, my teeth weren't sharp enough to cut its throat, and my nose was too feeble to smell the animal, I insisted to the other hunters that my task would be to carry the kill back home.
That day, we were all chattering cheerfully on the way back. It had been a good hunt; we had brought home three zebras and two antelope. Suddenly, my moshi stopped in her tracks, her muzzle raised high and twitching.
"Humans! Upwind from here!" she exclaimed. We all swiftly turned our heads upwind. As one, we skulked from bush to bush, out of sight of the humans, until we could see them. It was rare that people ever came here to the savannah because the climate was so harsh. Being that we were all very curious creatures, when they did come, we always went, unnoticed, to check them out. We never attacked them unless we were particularly desperate for food or they were disrespecting our space.
As we all crouched under a patch of dry grass, we inspected them painstakingly. These particular ones looked very strange. Most of the humans who came here were very dark. Moshi says that they are the native humans of this land. But these, these humans had oddly pink skin, so light they were almost white! There were two of them; one of them had long, red-gold hair and sparkling blue eyes, and the other had short, deep brown hair and greenish eyes that looked rather like the deepest part of the hidden pool in our cave. And yet . . . they looked vaguely familiar, like a memory from a dream. One of our youngest moshis, Ganua, blurted out precisely why I remembered them.
"Why, they look like you, Lalashim! Especially the one with the orange hair!"
I was a little baby, screaming and flailing my fists around, when these two people and a substantial group of others with enormous, black, box-like things came here on the huge metal bird. Oh, how my ears were hurting! I felt particularly attached to the more feminine of the two, but I would hush myself if the other were holding me, too. When the strange creature of flight finally landed, bump-bump-bumping on the makeshift runway, I was sleepy and ready to go home. So of course I started crying feebly again until we had reached our campsite in a caravan of frightening green machines.
Everyone but one crew member had to leave immediately to "shoot the show," so they left me on a blanket in the shade with strict orders for that last crew member to watch me vigilantly. Eventually, both of us dozed off but I woke up first, restless. So I decided to go for a pleasant crawl, just around these bushes. But one bush led to another, and another, and I got lost. It was starting to get dark, and I was hungry and afraid. I curled up under a bush, but when my aching body refused to accept these harsh conditions, I started howling. Suddenly, a benevolent, warm-looking, fuzzy creature appeared and sniffed at me with its huge muzzle. I giggled, its whiskers tickled! It gave one last, decided sniff and carefully picked me up with its needle-sharp teeth, laying me on its soft back. I fell asleep instantly.
"Lalashim? Lalashim! Hello? They're leaving!"
I came back to earth and realized that, indeed, they were piling into a huge green box on wheels, leaving their insubstantial canvas tents behind.
"Let's go," I said firmly. I didn't like the eerie familiarity around this place, or the strange memories that came with it. I was ready to go home. The others were perplexed, but they recognized the determination in my eyes and followed me back to our cave.
That night, after everyone had eaten our catch and praised it profusely, as was proper in a pride, the moshis lounged with their cubs and licked them clean with rough tongues. When it was my turn to be inspected, I mustered up the courage to ask my moshi about the remarkable people we had seen earlier.
"Do you think that those humans were my real family?" I got right to the point.
My moshi gently licked behind my ears. "This is your real family, Lalashim."
"No, no, I mean the one that I was born into," I clarified impatiently. Moshi sighed, but she tried to disguise it with the thorough cleansing of my only fur.
"Perhaps. They did have a strong resemblance to you. The same extraordinary eyes that look like our lake. Would you like to find out?"
I sat up alertly at the unexpected question. "Could we? Really?"
"Well, they would have to remember you, like I remember all of my brocha." (Brocha means family.) "So all that you'd have to do is reveal yourself to them, and if they recognize you . . ."
I felt a wet blob hit the top of my head, I hadn't realized that Moshi's voice had been quavering until then. Hastily, I touched my paws to her face in wakka, or love and respect, to let her know that she would always have a place in my heart. She returned the gesture shakily.
"So do you want to do it?" she inquired.
"I don't know. I'll think about it."
And I did. For the whole time that the moon was in the sky that night, I sat at the mouth of the cave and stared up at the stars, worrying. What if those people were my family? Would I enjoy living with them? What would it be like? What if I decided not to find out? Would I be able to stand it? When the moon was at its highest point in the sky, I saw an enormous, growling green box moving across the horizon, very near to where I was sitting. The box heaved to a halt right in front of me. I wondered what they had seen? The two humans that I had recognized that day tumbled out of the box and came running toward me. I became anxious. What if they had seen me? Impossible. I was sitting in the darkest shadows of the cave! But they had! They jolted to a stop just one jump away from me! I tried to back into the cave, but the one with long hair was coming toward me, with front paws just like mine upraised. My brain was flashing warnings. Run away! Leave while you still can! But a part of me wanted to know if this was my family. Before I finally reached a decision, it was too late. The humans were upon me, making coaxing noises in their own foreign dialect. I think they were worried about a child being alone in Africa. Hah!
Suddenly, the woman stopped, her hand out to freeze the other. Her eyes grew wide, so enormous that I thought they were going to fall out of her head. The male looked confused, his eyes searching the woman's face for a clue as to why they had stopped. She uttered one word, and one word only. It might have been a name, because it was such a strange word. "Clara?" There was a long pause as the male squinted at me. The moon glinted on a single drop of water that was slowly tracing its way down her cheek. A look of recognition appeared on the man's face.
The two started conversing rapidly. Finally, they inched over the small space that remained between us, their hands still upheld. Just as I decided to go with them, after all, the man leapt over the distance that separated us and gathered me in his front legs. The female promptly followed suit. By now, both of their faces were sopping wet with the water that seemed to pour out of their eyes, and they were repeating that bizarre word over and over again. I wasn't quite sure what to do, so I licked the salty water off of their faces. We sat like this for several minutes until they were finally clean.
The male picked me up and carried me to the box they had come out of. I became frightened. I did not want to go into that box! But the man held me firmly, no matter how much I squirmed. Once we were inside the outlandish contraption and he had slammed a sheet of metal over the only way out, a dark man in the front pushed something that started the box rumbling across the savannah. I wiggled myself out of the woman's hold to get a last look at my cave through the peculiar clear wall that was across the back of the box. The female dragged me back down again, and the two humans started conversing quickly. I whimpered faintly in the back of my throat. The man started stroking my fur while the woman looked me in the eye and started saying things slowly in her own tongue. A growl escaped from my throat. I was not enjoying this. I tried flexing my paws ominously to let them know how I felt, but neither human seemed to understand. Finally, the box lurched to a pause in front of their campsite of cloth tents. The woman carried me into one and covered me with a strange, flattened-out fur. She bent over and touched her muzzle to my forehead. These humans had some odd customs. Then, she ducked back out into the starry night.
I curled up. I stretched out. I did this several times, but it was no use. I couldn't get to sleep. Too many questions bombarded my mind for the second time that night. Was this the right choice? Did I really want to do this? Learn their language? Their customs? And most of all, when would this sharp pain in my chest go away? I knew it had something to do with my family—friends, that is. I missed my old brocha.
By sunrise, I knew what my choice for my future was. I crept out of my tent, flexing my muscles in the morning light. I stalked around the campsite. Finally, I found my . . . new moshi and papua? That sounded strange. They were lying under furs similar to the one I was under last night, out in the open. I took a sharp rock that I found nearby, used it to rip off a lock of my long fur, and draped it across the woman's paw. I stood there for a moment, just watching them. They looked so serene and vulnerable, just sleeping there. Finally, I shook myself and ran out toward my home.
Halfway there, I heard the thundering of many paws on hard-packed earth. Quickly, I wiped away the water that had suddenly started coursing down my face and turned toward the clamor. As I had expected, my moshi was at the head of the pack of females running toward me. As soon as I had reached Moshi, she started running her tongue all across me.
"What happened? Didn't you like your family? Did they treat you badly?" My moshi started firing questions frantically at me. I wasn't surprised that she had known where I was. My moshi knew everything. I looked her in the eyes firmly to stop her hysteric cleaning.
"You were right, Moshi. This is my real family."