Four days later.
It’s almost time for the council of elders to send for the youngsters. Uzochukwu has been marking the days, making tallies on the gigantic tree where he made his home.
Six white slashes show against the greenish-brown bark, a slash for every nightfall. If he is able to make it till then, tomorrow evening a group of strong men would come to guard him out of the forest. From there to the huts of adulthood where his head would, for the first time, be fully shaven.
As with most children, since there was no recurring reminder, the danger of the previous meeting has faded to nothingness in his mind. As such, he hasn’t been as careful as he could have.
He has failed to cover up his tracks, failed to properly mask his scent with fistfuls of mud and leaves smeared liberally across every inch of skin.
He has forgotten.
But she hasn’t.
Leaving her den as the sun sinks over the distant horizon, the lioness yawns deeply and sets out for her night-time hunt.
With a nose able to take in and disseminate far more information than a weak human nose, ears that pick the barest sounds, and eyesight unencumbered by the approaching darkness, she makes her predatory way out of her den and into her range.
It doesn’t take long for her to pick up a particularly interesting scent, one exactly like the one she came across a few days ago. With the scent trail as clear to her as the beams of a lighthouse on a starless night, she begins her hunt.
Meanwhile, Uzochukwu has had a terrible evening. Failing to properly ration his catch the previous night, his stomach rumbles and he leans against a tree trunk, nibbling on the last strips of roasted meat. Soon he is done and he wipes his hands on his loincloth, smearing grease and adding more easy-to-follow scents.
It doesn’t take long for the lioness to follow the scents back to their source and she sees the huge beast that would most likely end up as her next meal. Hidden in the shrubbery, her yellowish brown coat virtually indistinguishable from the dust covered plants, she manages to get within 27 metres of her target, crouches, muscles tense- and snaps a twig. In the silence that covered the forest like a blanket the snap is loud enough to jolt Uzochukwu, who jumps to the right in fright, just as the lion pounces.
That jump takes him out of the lioness’s trajectory, and she lands without her intended target. Quick as a flash, she turns to face him.
Man and feline take in the full measure of each other, moving about, making two halves of a circle.
He knows he cannot run.
Only one of them can make it out of here alive.
She will not let him go this time.
The laws of the jungle are absolute. Eat or be eaten.
At the same time, both predators launch themselves into a blur of motion, locked briefly in the eternal dance of life and death.
The following night, when the group of young men come to retrieve the son of the soil who has achieved manhood, they find a gory sight.
Blood and entrails scattered on the ground.
Bloody paw prints to and fro.
A spear, broken into pieces, with the sharp metal head conspicuously absent.
Leaves flattened, evidence of a great tussle, and amidst all these, a badly scarred but still breathing man-child, with the corpse of a lioness in his arms, as he struggles to take in air.
Filled with awe, the leader of the group of mighty warriors sent to retrieve him walks forward and touches his big toe. The one attached to his right foot.
“Strong one,” he says “the fight is over. Come home.”