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The scream exploded across the empty savannah. Zena flinched and huddled closer to the base of the ancient acacia, trying to make herself invisible against its gray bark. Her hands betrayed her; they rubbed ceaselessly across the swollen curve of her empty belly in a futile gesture of comfort. She had not eaten for many days.
The shrill cry of alarm had come from her mother, Tope, above her in the tree. She screamed again, and this time the piercing sound broke through Zena's lethargy. Grabbing a low limb, she scrambled into the gnarled tree. Only when she had reached the safety of Tope's side did she look down. The hyena stared hungrily up at her. Its massive jaws were still wide open in readiness, and drool spilled from its grinning lips. She shuddered and moved closer to her mother.
The hyena stretched its forelegs up the tree and lunged toward them. Tope shook her stick at it, screaming all the while. When it leaped again, she struck it hard in the nose. The animal retreated, whining, and loped slowly away. Tope watched intently until it had disappeared from sight.
Zena watched with her until exhaustion made her eyelids droop. She forced them open again, afraid to sleep, and stared listlessly toward a horizon turned pale with dust. Waves of heat shimmered against her vision, but she saw no other movement, no sign of life any where on the expanse of cracked brown earth before her. Once, huge herds of animals and miles of undulating grasses had decorated the plains, but this Zena did not know. All she had ever seen was an occasional tree thrusting its bare branches upward as if in supplication, and piles of sun-bleached bones, mute testimony totead.
Tope lunged suddenly at a small lizard that had crossed her path. She caught it deftly and crammed it into her mouth. Dislodged by the abrupt movement, the infant began to whimper. Tope pulled it close to her breast, which hung low and pendulous so the baby could suckle as she walked. But little milk was left to comfort it, and the thin wailing did not stop.
A sound made Tope whirl. The big male had crept up behind them, his footsteps muffled by the powdery earth and the baby's crying. Tope eyed him warily. She did not trust strange males. Once, she had seen one grab an infant and smash its head against the ground. The image was indelibly printed on her memory.
Zena ducked behind her mother's back and peered nervously at the intruder. She seldom saw others like herself. Her troop had dispersed long ago, for nowhere in the drought-ravaged land was there enough food and water to support a group. The stranger frightened her. Almost twice the size of her mother, he had massive shoulders, and his jaw and chest were matted with dark hair.
The male reached out as if to grab the infant, then lunged unexpectedly at Zena. She shrieked and ran back a few steps, but Tope stood her ground. Holding the baby tightly against her chest, she turned and presented her rump. The male sniffed her, then grabbed once more at the infant with a heavily muscled arm. Tope screamed at him and clutched it closer. Again, she presented her rump. This time, the male mounted her and thrust eagerly. He groaned with pleasure, and so did she. When he had finished, he ambled off in the direction from which he had come.
Tope waited until she was certain he would not follow them again, then she hurried on. Streaks of brilli ance on the western horizon told her that darkness would soon come, and she wanted to find a secure place to spend the night. But no tree or pile of rocks that might offer refuge was visible on the pale and dessicated land that lay ahead. All she could see was a clump of stunted bushes, branches stripped of the withered berries that had been the only remnants of a once sumptuous annual feast. But the branches had thorns and would offer at least minimal safety from predators during the dark hours.
Zena followed her mother into the meager protection of the bushes and watched fearfully as darkness gathered around them. Soon, the air was so black she could not even see the shape of her hand. She listened instead, straining her ears for the stealthy sound of padded claws so she would be ready to run. But no lion or tiger appeared, and finally the light came again.
As soon as she could see, Tope crawled out of the bushes and started to walk. Zena stumbled after her. Her legs felt heavy and useless, and her throat was so dry she could hardly breathe. She gasped, and sank to her knees. Tope grabbed her arm to pull her up again, but Zena was too heavy for her, so Tope went on by herself. She struggled over a low embankment, holding tightly to the infant.
At the top of the rise, Tope turned suddenly and called. Zena could hear the excitement in her voice. Wearily, she raised her head. Her mother was gesturing wildly, urging her forward. With the last remnants of her strength, Zena staggered over the embankment. Her eyes widened in hope. Before her was an old lake bed, and in its center was a small puddle of water.
Mother and daughter hesitated despite their terrible thirst. Once, the lakes of the sava nnah had gleamed blue in the sunlight and sustained all manner of life. But neither Tope nor Zena had any memory of such beneficence. To them, lake beds held only death. Vast, sunken depressions in the earth, their cracked surfaces were littered with the bones of animals that had died in a last, desperate attempt to slake their thirst. The urge to drink could be perilous. Predators lurked nearby, ready always to spring upon those who chose water oversafety. But even they were not safe. Lured by the promise of an easy meal, hunter as well as hunted often flailed helplessly in the treacherous muck near the center of the lake.
Tope walked cautiously toward the water. Zena followed, eager to drink. But when the thick mud oozed over her feet, sucked at her legs, she grabbed her mother's arm, whimpering in fear. Tope stepped back a few paces, pulling Zena with her. Her dark eyes darted between the clear water in the center and the damp blackness at her feet, then she handed the infant to Zena and dug into the muck with her strong fingers. Brown water bubbled to the surface, and mother and daughter knelt to drink.
When her thirst was satisfied, Tope dug still deeper, first in one place, then another, using her stick as well as her hands. A vague memory had returned, from a time when her own mother had dug deep in the mud. Grimacing, she stuck a hand into one of the holes and pulled out a clump of hard objects. She struck at them with a sharp stone until the soft flesh inside was revealed, then she stuffed the contents voraciously into her mouth.
Zena sniffed cautiously when her mother handed her a few of the strange objects. Their smell was unfamiliar but good. Her stomach rumbled in anticipation. Pa ssing the infant back, she pulled eagerly at the mussels and ate until her hunger had begun to abate. Then she found a stick for herself and dug for more. Finally, their bellies full and their thirst appeased for the first time in many months, the pair moved on.
In the weeks that followed, they were not so lucky. Each day they struggled simply to survive, to find enough food to keep their legs from buckling beneath them, enough moisture to prevent the delirium of dehydration. Nights were an even more terrifying ordeal. Often, the long, dark hours were spent in a shallow hole in the parched earth, without even a bush to cover them. Mother and daughter slept uneasily, wincing at each noise, shrinking toward each other as the blackness deepened.
Gradually, the terrain changed as they continued to travel west. Rocks littered the dry ground, and the flat plains gave way to occasional low hills. Desperate now to find a place that still offered at least the promise of life, the possibility of a secure shelter at night, Tope struggled up each of them to survey the landscape. Late one afternoon, her perseverance was finally rewarded. A tumbled pile of boulders, big enough to offer shelter, lay ahead. Beyond them a long, rocky slope led to an old river bed, where there would be food. Still further in the distance, she saw the faint outlines of mountains. They drew her forward, for instinct told her that where there were mountains, there could also be water. And where there was water, there was life.
Excited by the discovery Tope broke into a run. But when she came near the boulders, her demeanor changed. Keeping Zena behind her, she approached with caution, watching for movement. Predators often made th eir homes in these rocky outcroppings. When she was sure there was no immediate danger, she moved closer and sniffed carefully at each boulder. Without conscious thought, her sense of smell told her what animal had left a particular scent, whether it signified danger, whether it was old or new.
A strong, musty smell permeated the air near a wide crack between two of the largest rocks, and she leaped away. The scent was not new, but still it alarmed her, for it told her a tiger had once lived in this place. She called nervously to Zena and began to investigate a smaller opening at the other end of the rock pile. No smells assaulted her, so she squeezed into it, gesturing to her daughter to follow. Zena sniffed the rocks as her mother had, so she would remember the predator's scent. Then she followed her mother through the other narrow opening.
The space beyond was cavelike and dark, and a welcome coolness radiated from the rock walls, Zena crept into a corner and watched as her mother fingered a few bones that were scattered across the floor of the enclosure. They were old and brittle, with no remaming scent. Mother and daughter dropped wearily to the ground. No other creature lived here, and no animal larger than themselves could enter their refuge. Here they could sleep, finally, without fear.
Zena was awakened by a drumming sound on the boulders above her head. The air had a strange smell, faintly acrid, and moisture had collected on the rock walls during the night. Its presence surprised her. Never before had she known wetness on rock. Still, she was grateful. Water could be found in the river bed, but they had to dig deep to reach it. She licked the damp places eagerly, her tongue des cribing a wide arc against the rough surface.
Abruptly, she realized she was alone. But the scent of her mother and baby brother remained, reassuring her, so she began to explore the crevices where rocks met ground with her sensitive fingers, looking for food. They had been here for almost a year now, and she knew all the places where plump worms hid or beetles scurried for cover. This time, she discovered a cache of moist seeds. She chewed them quickly, making smacking sounds of pleasure.
A slender snake, disturbed by her probing hands, slithered toward her, and she jumped away with a cry. It hissed at her and disappeared beneath the rocks.
Frightened by the snake, she thrust her head out of the enclosure to look for her mother, but withdrew it quickly. The unfamiliar smell was stronger outside. Even more disturbing were the cool drops of moisture that had landed unexpectedly on her face. She mewed apprehensively, bewildered by these strange events. But the need to find her mother was stronger than her fear, and she soon pushed herself out again.
Immediately, she was wet. Drops of water landed on her face, her arms, her back. She shook them off, but more returned. Puzzled, she looked at the sky. The drops seemed to come from up there. She had never seen drops fall from the sky before, and they alarmed her. Even more terrifying was the absence of sun. Never before in her life had the sun failed to rise and spread its harsh glare into every corner of the landscape. Now it had disappeared completely, and the day was gray and muted instead of blindingly bright.
Zena mewed again, this time a louder call of distress. An answering call came from the dry river bed below. Wide and deep, with high banks, it carved a winding gash through the land. Her mother was standing inside it, holding the baby with one arm. The other arm she stretched toward the sleeping place on the hill, as if in invitation. She uttered another low call, then bent down to resume her search for grubs and snails.
Zena hesitated. Still the sun had not returned, and the peculiar, acrid smell was stronger than ever. A loud rumbling noise suddenly came from the sky. She looked up fearfully, but she could see nothing, for the drops of water came hard and fast into her eyes and blinded her. The whole world seemed filled with them now. They splashed with loud plunking sounds on the rocks all around her and gathered in puddles on the pale earth, making dark lines as they raced toward the river bed.
She watched them, frozen into immobility; then, with a sharp cry, she retreated into the shelter. Just as she moved, a blinding flash of light tore across the clouds, and a terrifying crack seemed to split the air into pieces. The sound drove Zena into the farthest corner of the refuge. Wetness came with her; it trickled down her back, making her shiver, and cascaded down the sides of the rocks. Clutching her arms to her chest for protection, she huddled there, listening, afraid.
A scrabbling sound made her jump, but as she caught the familiar scent, Zena relaxed. Her mother's head, water streaming from it, appeared at the entrance to the cave. In her free hand, she held a limp rodent. It was covered with light fur and had a short, stubby tail. Washed out of its burrow by the rains, it had been easy to catch.
Tope responded with a comforting grunt to her daughter's squeal of greeting. Then she probed deftly at the animal's skin with a sharp rock. Tearing at the exposed flesh with her strong, blunt teeth, she chewed industriously, spitting out the fur in disgust. Zena held out her hand, and after a while her mother handed her part of the carcass.
Zena gagged at the strong taste, and chewed with difficulty. Her teeth were better adapted for grinding tubers and grains and nuts than meat. But the flesh of rodents filled a place in her belly that had been empty for so long she had forgotten it was there. Satisfied, and reassured by her mother's presence, she drank from a puddle near the entrance to their refuge, and curled up to sleep again.
All that day, and for many days after, the rains continued to fall. Flashes of light tore through the sky, followed by deafening crashes. Zena huddled in her corner, occasionally gnawing on the rodent's bones and other scraps left by her mother. Fearful of the unfamiliar sights and sounds, she had not wanted to venture outside. But now her hunger was too great to ignore, and the drumming of rain had slowed. She poked her head out to sniff the air, then emerged into muted daylight.
The world that greeted her was unlike anything she had seen before. Water was everywhere, in puddles on the ground, in crevices in the rocks, in rivulets that bounded down the slope toward the river bed. Light drops fell on her forehead and dripped into her eyes, but she was too astonished by the strange sights even to wipe them away. The sheen of the rocks, the glitter of puddles, and especially the perplexing ripples that spread outward each time a drop of rain fell, fascinated her. She stooped to examine the ripples more closely in a nearby puddle. Quickly, her hand lashed out. A large insect floated on the water, struggling to fly. She crunched it between her teeth even as she spotted others. Grabbing as many as she could fit into her hands, she crammed them into her mouth.
Her mother called from farther down the slope, and Zena started toward her. A larger puddle distracted her. Wriggling just under its surface were small black creatures with long tails. Zena reached out to catch one, but it slid from her grasp. Again she tried, and this time she caught the tadpole. For all the years of the drought, they had lain dormant in dusters of eggs. As soon as they were wet, they sprang again to life.
The rains had begun to transform the landscape as well. A light sprinkling of emerald showed at the roots of longdead grasses, and clumps of feathery leaves were already thrusting up between the rocks. On the plains behind her, Zena saw spots of red and white and deep blue, waving at the ends of their short stalks. She ran to see, and tasted some of them. The purple was bitter, and she spat it out. But the white ones were sweet, and when she dug beneath them with a nearby stick, their bulbs were succulent and tender.
The sun burst unexpectedly through the clouds. Bits of light were everywhere, on each leaf, each rock, on the ripples in the water. Zena dropped to her knees to examine them, but when she touched them they disappeared. She blinked and looked again. They reappeared, but then a huge shadow spread across the ground and they vanished once more. She looked up, startled. The clouds had suddenly darkened. Thick and bulbous, they loomed menacingly above her, blotting out the light.
She stood abruptly, mewing in fear. The air had become almost as dark as night, and she heard a strange noise, a su bdued roar, different than any sound she had heard before. It seemed to come from the mountains, not from the sky. She stared toward the peaks, but clouds blocked her view. The rain began again, making it even harder to see through the gloom. First, a few large drops fell, then water began to come at her in torrents, battering her upturned face. She ran toward the entrance to the cave, but she did not enter. Even more than the security of the shelter, she wanted her mother. Darkness when the sun should be high in the sky and the ominous new roar terrified her.
Squinting against the downpour, she spotted Tope stiff standing in the river bed. Water swirled around her ankles, and as Zena watched, she took a few steps toward the hillside. Then she stopped and turned a questioning face upstream, toward the river's source in the mountains that loomed against the southern horizon.
Zena listened to the sound that had attracted her mother's attention, and her terror grew. It was another new noise, a rushing, pounding racket. The sound grew louder and louder, more and more fierce, until it was a deafening clamor. There was wind now as well, furious, tearing wind. She clung desperately to the rocks, calling frantically. Her cries were lost in the howling around her.
Then, as she watched, a massive wall of water rounded the curve of the river bed far upstream, and came crashing toward her mother. She saw Tope clutch the baby under one arm and start to scramble up the steep bank. But the wall of water was almost upon her; it rose far above her head, filling the width and depth of the river bed. Tope raised a hand to her face, as if to fend off the approaching onslaught. Then it hit her, knocking her backwa rd, and she disappeared beneath the roiling fury.
Zena uttered a howl of absolute helplessness and despair. Squeezing her body between two boulders so the wind would not tear her away, she stared frantically at the place where her mother had disappeared. But she could see nothing beyond the rain that slashed mercilessly into her eyes.
Mewing piteously, she slithered into the protection of the cave and huddled in its darkest corner. Deep inside herself, she knew that her mother would not return. She was alone in this harsh new world where the sun did not rise, where wetness and deafening crashes came from the mountains and the sky.
Copyright © 1997 by Joan Dahr Lambert