The cheetah came from behind the shrub at last. It sauntered, it seemed to the boy, like a king entering a throne room. When it reached the hill it hopped atop, with its long tail wagging and its thin legs lunging as though without effort. It stood on the hill with the left side of its body fully displayed to the boy and with its face watching him.
Long ago, the boy could not remember when, but long ago, when his pretty mother had been fond of playing children’s games with him, he had asked her why it was that the face of the cheetah was permanently etched with black tears. His mother had not known the true answer yet she had still given one to him. It was some old tale that spoke of the majesty of the lion and the humility of the elephant.
The boy had then asked his mother, in all honestly and without fear of showing her his ignorance, if the lion was aware it was the king of all animals.
It had seemed strange to the boy that the animals should convene and declare the lion to be their king. The truth was that the elephant was the largest of the animals, the giraffe was the tallest, the buffalo was the fiercest, the tiger was larger than the lion, the hippopotamus commanded both water and land, while the cheetah was fastest of them all. Should it not be then, the boy had asked, that the lion should not be king?
“Do you not think so, Mama?” he had continued.
In her patience and grace, the boy’s mother had answered, “But it was not for the animals to decide—they were not among the convened, dear one.”
In his confusion and dissatisfaction, the boy had sought his brave father and spoken just as eloquently, at least he hoped, of the prowess of the other animals. Then he had asked, just as fearlessly ignorant as he had done with his pretty mother, “Do you not think so, Papa?”
“You see, son,” the boy’s father had said, “it was for the hunters to decide—all the great ones that came to our land many years ago. It was for them to decide which of the animals they found the most formidable while hunting. The lion must have proven a worthy foe for them.”
In his confusion and frustration, the boy had decided to learn the language of the animals so that he might ask them, which, if any of the many species of the world, was their true king.
He had started his quest by consulting his tremendously old yet insurmountably wise grandfather. So wise was Old Grandfather that he confessed to the boy that he spoke the language of the wild cats with some considerable fluency. He could also call the fish of the seas to the shore and the birds from the sky they so dearly loved.
“Though I must warn you of this,” Old Grandfather had cautioned, “the purr of the cheetah is easier to learn than the roar of the lion.”
After teaching the boy the cheetah-word that was the same as the human-word for ‘hello,’ and after the boy could purr it with perfection, he had finally looked to his wrinkled grandfather and asked, “If the lion is king of all animals, Old Grandfather, then to whom do to the kangaroos of Australia supplicate? What of the anacondas of South America? For there are no lions in their lands.”
Old Grandfather had sighed heavily and said, “Who can know the things of animals so deeply, child of my child? I only know their call and their words. I am only a speaker, only that and nothing more.”
“When I finally seek the lions, Old Grandfather, do you think it wise to ask if they know of their status as kings of all?”
“But which lion to ask, child of my child? It might be an exiled lion you find, or a discarded king with a usurped lion throne. What then?”
“Then whom to ask, Old Grandfather? How will I know whom to ask?”
“Before my mother died, before we placed her body in the earth with all her treasures, she lived in the land of the cheetahs. She spoke their language as well. And before she breathed the cold breath, she told me the words of the cheetah can be understood by lions.”
The boy had known then that Old Grandfather’s mother had been privy to the secrets of the black tears, the ones on the cheetah’s face. “Did she know, Old Grandfather, did your old mother know why the cheetah cries the black tears that never stop falling?”
“She knew,” Old Grandfather had nodded, “she never told.”
“But the cheetahs have died. Those that live, if any still live, are hidden in the vast savannah, Old Grandfather. I need to ask them. But where to look?”
Old Grandfather had only shaken his head and spoken of the tragedy of ignorance. So when Wise Old Grandfather was finally taken to the asylum for the treatment of his dementia, the boy had known that he needed to quest to the far north in solitude—to ask the cheetahs, to ask the dwindling cheetahs if they knew of kings and kangaroos and teeming black tears.
When at last he arrived at the border between his own country and its former colony, right there where the Kalahari begins its stretch, the boy came upon the tribe of five cheetahs. When the cheetahs ran, when they ran across the plains there came a time when all their paws were off the ground and it looked to the boy as though they were flying.
Their speckled colour merged into the dullness of the savannah and their tails stretched like wings cutting through the warm wind. The boy had been the last of the human species to see that cheetahs could fly, even if only for a heartbeat.
He had called to them then. In a soft purr that Old Grandfather had assured him was the sound for ‘hello,’ he had called to the running cheetahs with bursting hope and his hardened feet also beating against the dying grass.
The leader had stopped and looked at the boy. The other cheetahs, which were smaller than the leader yet just as wondrous, had also stopped and looked at the boy.
Hello, he had called.
The leader had looked to her children and said…well, she had said something Old Grandfather had not taught the boy.
I have come to ask you, oh Swift Ones, if you have heard of the death of the rhinos? The last of the Black Kind breathed his last this past moon. They hauled his body to the place where great treasures are stowed behind hard glass. They shall keep him there so the world might look upon him and be awed. We humans call the place a museum. Have you heard this grave news of the last rhino, oh Swift Ones?
The mother had relayed her words to her children and they had seemed to the boy, to purr in mourning.
And your Asian cousins, the boy had continued, they have also gone from the world. None of the Asiatic cheetahs remain.
As though in even greater mourning, they had all turned from the boy and flown across the veld as they had been doing, disappearing into the vastness that daunted him.
The boy had remained there; he had boiled water he scooped from the river and drank away his thirst. He had found a field mouse hiding near the shrubs, cooked it, and quelled his hunger. And on each day, he had stood atop the hill and watched the tribe of the five cheetahs fly across the edge of the Kalahari.
Yet the way of all things, the way of all people and things had stolen four of the cheetahs. The first to perish was the young male, the one that ran the fastest and nearly always killed his prey. He had come across a crowd of hunters that shot him out of shock.
After killing him, the hunters had thought the young cheetah to be the last of his kind and so they had hauled his carcass to the museum, where the world would look and see what they thought to be the last cheetah.
After the death of the young male, the two females followed. They simply died. A pack of hyenas had ravaged their carcasses and all that had remained were wisps of fur that sometimes moved with the wind, and soon, nothing was left of the young females save the stench that came from the burping of the hyenas.
The cheetah-mother and her last remaining child had survived exactly seven summers together. But with her failing age and an illness that was unfamiliar to both the boy and the cheetah-mother, the last cheetah-child had died and left the mother to fly through the Kalahari savannah in solitude.
So as the cheetah came from behind the shrub at last, as it sauntered like a king entering a throne room and hopped atop the hill, the boy knew she was bidding him farewell. She was no longer as swift as she had been, as young and capable, and she was at last succumbing to the way of time and all things.
Oh Swift One, the boy called to her, I have lamented the death of all your children, I have convened with you for all these summers, and soon, soon, Swift One, I shall become a man.
He held his left fist to his chest, nodded in respect of her majestic presence, and confessed most humbly, I travelled here to ask many great wisdoms of you. Many summers have passed and still, I do not even know if you understand the words that come from my tongue, the many words I have purred to your stoic silence. When you perish, Swift One, your wisdom will perish with you and none will ever know of the truth of kings and the secrets of your teeming black tears. I only ask…
I heard of the doom of my Asiatic cousins from the flying birds of the sky, she said. I heard of the end of the rhinos from you, when you first arrived. The tigers of the cold lands have also perished and so too, will it be the fate of the bears of the North and the many fish of the sea. I know of these things, Human Child, even in this dry heat of our beloved land. We have all wondered if the humans knew. It seems that you do.
Have you convened with your kings to ask them…
We have no kings.
Do the lions know of this?
There have never been kings, Human Child. Each species has its own set of chiefs or queens but there have never been kings. A penguin never knew the true troubles of the rhinos, and a fish does not know the secrets of flying. How then, can a lion be the king of all? I say to you, we have no kings—the lions have always known of this.
The boy nodded to convey his understanding. And of the black tears? he asked at last, while also approaching the cheetah by two steps and a faster heartbeat. What is the secret of the teeming black tears upon your face, and the faces of those who went before you?
The cheetah purred softly and wagged her tail. She slightly tilted her head to her right side and took a step backwards. Who can know such great secrets? she finally said.
The boy slumped where he stood: his legs fell violently beneath him, his arms felt numb as they touched the dead grass that barely cushioned him, and his heart felt as if it had completely stilled in his chest. You do not know, he whispered in disappointment. You do not know the secret, either. All this time and you do not know.
You need to return home, Human Child, she said as she climbed down from the hill. You need to return to your roots while the wonder of the world still claims your heart. She then closed her old eyes for a long moment, as though she found the light of the sun to be blinding or the pain she saw in the boy’s eyes to be unbearable.
Just as the boy started to fear that she had at last succumbed to her frailty, she opened those eyes and deeply bowed her head in farewell. She then turned her weeping face from him, and unceremoniously started her flight into the great vastness the boy knew he would never dare visit.
As he watched her fly and then grace the earth, fly and grace the earth, fly and grace the earth again—her paws printing that earth for a last time, charging endlessly into the distance, towards the grave that would never be found, into the oblivion of all of time and the ignorance that would follow, he suddenly felt his heart pounding with deep sadness. And he felt the heat and salt of his teeming tears branding his face, forever marking the man he would grow to be.
He wiped his face with his hand and finally faced the direction of home. And he wondered: will anyone ever know?