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Gazelle and Her Lion Brother

Ursula K. Legume

     I changed into a dog and visited the village of the humans on the borders of the lions' land. They walked upon their hind legs, and they had no tails. They had no fur, but they covered their bodies with the skins of animals and with cloth woven from plants. And they all were women.

     The other dogs stayed clear of me. When the women noticed the strange dog, some of them knew I was in disguise and wanted to drive me out, but others did not recognize me.

     "Perhaps he followed us into exile," said one.

     "He is dangerous. There is something inside him," said another.

     "It may be that others will follow him from home, and we will be taken back and given to our brothers," said a third.

     But Gazelle - the most beautiful of the women - said, "Whatever he is, he is far from home in this wild land, and we should give him food." Whatever Gazelle said is what the women did, for she was the most delicious of all. When I saw her, I longed to have her.

     I drank some of their milk and left the village. But at night I returned as my lion self, and then I was truly hungry, for in those days milk was not my meat.

     All of the women slept together in a large round hut. I thought first to enter through the door, but I found it barred. When I rattled it, a voice called out, and I knew it as the voice of the girl who saw through my disguise. Still, I responded by speaking to my Gazelle.

     "Gazelle, please let me come in!" I called.

     But the same voice responded. "Dara is asleep. Lana is asleep. Aina is asleep. Gazelle is asleep. All the girls are asleep."

     "Then why do you remain awake, little one?" I asked.

     "Because I am thirsty, so very thirsty, and I cannot sleep when my tongue is dry like the leather strap of my sandal."

     "Have you no water to drink? Surely I smell water in your hut." said I.

     "I cannot drink water from a gourd or a clay pot. It sticks in my throat and flies back out again. I can only drink water from a reed basket, and no one ever brings water to the hut in the reed basket."

     "Then let me bring you water," said I. I took the reed basket from the outer wall, as the girl instructed me, and ran to the stream beyond the corral to fill it. Before I could pass the corral in my return, the basket was empty, for the water leaked out in every direction. I could see the cattle watching me warily; all of them stood facing me, chewing slowly, with their eyes upon me, some of their horns glowing in the moonlight. I returned again and again to fill the basket, using clay and moss from the stream bank to seal it, but each fix failed, and the water was gone long before I could return to the hut. In this way, I used up the time until dawn, and then I had to return ravening to my own country.

     Each night my appetite for Gazelle's flesh returned, and I came again to the great hut. Always the same little girl remained awake to speak to me. As an animal, you see, I could not learn the trick of bringing her water. Nor could I break the door or dig through the thatch and wattles, for she would awaken them all, and there were far too many women with grinding stones and spears and knives to stand between me and my prize.

     After months, my hunger was unsatisfied and growing ever stronger. Then there came a night when there was no response to my rattling the door. I thought that at last the girl had gone to sleep. Or better, she had died. I called out to Gazelle in my softest voice, and there was no reply. So, I started to break through the door. I pushed in both my front paws, clawing away the thatch. And through this hole I thrust my head. Then I felt the rope tighten around my neck, and I was caught. I could neither push myself in nor back out. I was filled with rage, and I roared so as to shake the hut, even as I thrashed my body and tore at the door with my claws to break free. It was no use; I was held tight. Before me stood Gazelle, with a long spear in her right hand. As much as I wanted her, I saw the time had come to cease my struggles and to speak.

     "Please don't kill me, Gazelle!" I said.

     "Why not?" she asked. "What brought you to our hut?"

     "I was only looking for a place to sleep," I said.

     "That's reason enough. I will kill you for it."

     "Oh, please," I said. "Rather than kill me, let me be your brother. I'll not hurt anyone here. And if you like, I will go away forever."

     Gazelle stopped then and studied me. I understood that she had never been afraid of me. She had thought only of killing me and being rid of her troubles. She turned the glittering point of her spear toward the roof, and tapped the other end on the green mats of the floor. Then she dropped to one knee and looked up, deeply into my eyes. Her eyes and her skin were the deep brown of tree bark, and she wore a white shift tied at the waist with a leather strap. Saliva flushed in my mouth, and I so wanted to eat her.

     "I am in need of a brother," said she, "but how am I to make a brother of you? You have lied to my sister, and you have lied to me. You have wanted only to harm us, and now, while you drool for us, you say you would be our brother and protect us from harm. You see that we can protect ourselves well enough. But we know nevertheless that it would be good to have a brother again."

     "I can indeed be a brother to you," I assured them. "But I cannot live among you unless I am tamed first. As long as I remain wild, I might hunger in the night and attack you. As long as I am wild and free, I can change my shape and my voice, and I can deceive you."

     "I believe you," said Gazelle, "but how is a lion to be tamed into a brother?"

     "My animal hunger must be driven out, so that I no longer lust after your flesh, but can be satisfied with milk and with the meat of cattle."

     "And how is this done?"

     "I must remain tied. I must be weakened. You must roast the meat of a bull, and then hold a juicy piece near me, then pull it away, teasing me with the meat until I no longer desire it."

     "Perhaps this will work," said Gazelle. "If it does not, let me tell you your fate. I had a brother once, and he decided to marry me. No one in my family or my village would persuade him against this, though it had never been done. Finally, he took me into his hut, and he would have made me his wife, but that my little sister, Nama, warned me beforehand and told me what I could do."

     She pointed to Nama, a sickly-looking girl standing next to her, and I recognized the owner of the thirsty voice who had held me outside for so many nights.

     "Nama brought me a knife, and when my brother who would be my husband fell asleep on the first night that we slept in the same hut, I killed him with that knife. See what I am wearing on this leather thong around my neck. This is his scrotum, tanned and sewn tightly shut. Inside are his dried testicles. This is the charm that keeps evil men from touching me. If you fail us, I will make my sister a charm for lions."

     I asked her then, "And this is why all of you women live so far from your kind and without men as well, here on the border of the lions' country?"

     "Yes. My brother would have robbed me of my right of marriage, so I slew a brother and stole a son from the village. All of these girls would not remain where their brothers might claim them for wives."

     "Then I will be tamed. I will become a brother to all of you. And I will return with you to your village, where wrongs will be righted."

     Gazelle said nothing in reply to this offer, but at her signal, the girls opened a secret door in the wall. While some of them held tight to the ropes that bound my head inside the main door, all the others went outside and began to beat me. They beat me until I could not stand, until all the golden hair was beaten off my body.

     The tortures I underwent are too gruesome to detail. They teased me with meat for days, and it seemed that I would die before my body would cease to be transformed by the very smell of the roasted beef. The last torture was to pour boiling water down my throat. For days I was delirious with pain and starvation, and though I do not remember this, I am told that the first food they were able to give me was milk. I only remember that when I could think again, milk was all I craved. And then they fed me cheese, and I craved that too. And as I grew stronger, I learned to eat grains and fruits, and all the foods that humans eat, and my cravings ceased. The more kinds of food I ate, the more human I became. My tail never grew back; my scarred and bruised skin grew smooth and brown, and I shaved my head so I looked just like them. Finally, when they brought me roasted beef, I could cut it into small pieces with a knife and eat each one along with yams and greens and milk and water. By then I was untied, and I hobbled about among them. Soon I became strong, and I was their brother.

     After many months, I persuaded Gazelle to return to her home with me and with all of the other girls. Five years had passed since their flight. During their exile, they had prospered, and I had helped a little myself, so that they returned with many cattle, with women who had become mature and wise and able to care for themselves, and with a brother to replace Gazelle's lost Leon. The reunion of the young women with their village was a joyful one. Though Gazelle had killed her brother, she was even more beautiful than when she left and still was much loved in her village. Whatever she said was what everyone wanted to do. In her exile, she had learned what to say, and so she brought harmony and prosperity with her. She was properly married, but not until she had secured a wife for me, making me completely her brother and one of her family. Many years passed, and she bore thirteen children. All of her children were as beautiful as she, except for the thirteenth, whom she named after her lost brother, Leon.

     When Leon was a baby, I saw that he was different from his brothers and sisters. As soon as he had teeth, he took pleasure in biting. Gazelle reported with joy how vigorously he sucked from her breast, and she even felt pride when he drew blood. She saw nothing strange in this, but I was afraid.

     Soon he was walking and playing with other small children. Their mothers would come to Gazelle, scolding because he pinched and bit their babies, and sometimes they bled. And finally one day, I spoke to her. I met her at the end of the day, when she came from the yam field, and we sat for a while beneath a tree as the sun fell low.

     "Sister Gazelle, your Leon is not an ordinary boy. You can see that he has too much of the animal in him."

     "Oh, no!" she replied. "He is just a little wilder than his brothers. You'll see that he will grow into a great man."

     "But what sort of man will he be?" I asked. "You have given him the name of your dead brother. Perhaps something in your heart recognized this child. Do you remember how you killed your brother Leon?"

     "I have long forgotten those evil days. Please do not bring them back to me!"

     "I think you must remember them. Tell me, how did you kill him?"

     Gazelle's face grew hard and rough, like the sooty stones around a fire. To remember such horror was against her will, and perhaps it closed places in her that should have remained open, but I pressed her. "It is important to remember. Tell me the story."

     The sun had fallen almost to the horizon, and the scattered trees reached shadowy fingers toward us. As she told her tale, they slowly made a fist and grasped us in darkness.

     "When he told me to sleep in his hut, that everyone said I could be his wife, I knew that doom had come. My voice was silenced, and the gods were ignored. I was already his sister, and now he could claim me and keep me as both sister and wife.

     "So I knew little sister Nama was right, and the only way to regain my voice and to return to the gods the choice of who marries, I would have to kill Leon. I would have to cut off his sex while he slept, so that he would die. And I would have to make a charm of it to fend off my father and my little brothers when they yearned after me. And I would have to flee into the wilderness as the murderer of my brother and the property of any man willful enough to claim me.

     "When we lay down in the hut and darkness overtook us, he chose to rest before having me. I lay awake on my mat and listened for him. I could tell he did not sleep. He breathed and sighed, and then he began to pant, and I heard him rise. I held my knife in my right hand beneath my right thigh, and heard his feet brush the grass mats.

     "Before he came to me, a voice called to him. It was a lizard hiding in the thatch, and it said, 'Brainless Leon, why do you want your sister? Will you be ruled by your prick?' That stopped him, and he returned to his bed.

     "After a while, he arose again and approached me, but another voice spoke to him, 'Look at the monkey-man, drooling over his sister's body, caring nothing for her spirit or his own.' These were the rats circling the outer walls, and I could hear them laughing as they spoke. Again he stopped and returned to his bed, but again after a while, he turned to me. This time, I heard his knees scraping the mats as he crawled on his hands and knees.

     "The voice that called this time was that of his own favorite ox, which was penned for the night in the corral behind the hut. It was as if the ox looked through the walls and saw Leon on all fours, stalking me in the dark. 'How he mocks himself before the spirits, shuffling across his hut in darkness like a crazed boar that would put his thing in any warm hole that holds still.'

     "After that he was too tired, and he fell asleep. When I heard his sleeping breath, I slipped across the floor to where he slept, and as no spirit forbade me, I cut away his sex, and ran away from the hut. In the dawn, I called the girls to me for the maidens' dance, and we determined to leave the village where we could be kept by our brothers."

     She finished her dark story in the glow of stars. Though there were tears in her eyes, her face remained dark and hard, like the bark of the tree beneath which we sat. I thought she wanted to mourn his death and could not because her anger remained so strong. So I said to her, "And if Leon were here now and reached out to take you as a wife, you would kill him again?"

     "Yes, I would." she said.

     "And if your own little Leon is a man like your brother? If he is not really a man at all, but a lion as I was?"

     "But you are tamed! A lion can be tamed, if he will be, and can become a man."

     "How did you tame me? Why was it that I willed to become a man, while your brother could not keep his manhood?"

     "I don't understand you. Leon is a man already; he has only to grow up."

     "But your brother. He grew up and craved his sister's body. How is little Leon to outgrow his thirst for blood?"

     "I don't believe he thirsts for blood. He just plays rough, and he likes to bite."

     "When I was a lion, I wanted to eat you. I smelled your flesh over the savannah, and I wanted you in my mouth, in my gullet, the taste of you on my tongue. If I could have found a way to you, I would have had you, and nothing would restrain me except fear of losing my life in getting you. I played rough. I liked to bite."

     "Still, he will become a man by growing into one. Now he is only a baby."

     "No, sister. I think he is a lion child. He will grow to be a lion, just as your brother grew into an animal. A man thinks he is a man because he looks like a man, but this is not the truth. A man must will to be a man. You spared me when you had the power to kill me, and made me want to become your brother. When I could not have your beauty in my stomach and when the desire for your flesh threatened my death, I discovered that I could be like your sisters, that I could befriend your beauty. So I desired to be your brother. And then I submitted. I endured beating, and hunger, and torture, and the scalding of my mouth and throat. In this way, with your help, I willed my animal hunger to submit to my desire to be a brother. This was successful, and now you have me."

     "And so, my brother, what would you have of me? How can I make my son, if he is a lion, into a man?"

     "You cannot unless he himself wills it."

     "How can I make him will this?"

     "I don't believe you can. Other children of his age want to be human, and they surrender what we demand of them to give up so they can live happily among us. Little Leon resists. He will not submit. He will follow his lion appetite. I think you must kill him."

     "No!" shouted Gazelle. "About this you are wrong. The child of my flesh will grow to be a man as other men do. He is not to be killed like my brother."

     "Not even if he eats another?"

     She would not answer this question. She arose and walked back to her home. Perhaps I should have followed her and argued more, but I thought I had said all I could say. She would have to think and decide.

     Years passed, and Leon grew. Soon he was old enough to go out with the other children during the day to keep watch over the cattle as they grazed, to keep them out of the plantings, to warn the old men if danger approached, or if a calf came, or about any of the other things for which adults might be needed.

     Gazelle had decided to be firm with her boy, and it seemed as if his biting and pinching had stopped. But I was skeptical. I watched Leon when I visited his village. I noticed that the other children stayed away from him, that they moved away when he approached. They didn't want to be near him. And I noticed that he was the fattest and strongest of all the children his age. While they often appeared thin and somewhat weak, he was always sleek, and he grew faster and taller than they. I thought these bad signs.

     And then I listened to the talk of the mothers. This group, they said, seemed so prone to accident. Every day someone fell down on a sharp rock or backed into thorns or a sharp branch while playing games. Because there were twelve or thirteen children that played and watched together, it was hard to say that their cuts and scrapes were more numerous than those of other children, but still every day, someone would have some wound to care for in the evening. When a mother would scold her crying child, while washing or applying ointment, I would sometimes look at Gazelle, to see whether she was attending. If she noticed, she gave no sign.

     One day when Leon was eight years old, I was walking to Gazelle's village. I found six-year-old Greet by herself, sitting languidly beneath a little tree, quietly crying. She was supposed to be with the others, minding the herd, but here she was by herself. I thought perhaps it was too hot for her in the open that day, or perhaps that she had been stung by a wasp or had fought with one of her friends, so I stopped to comfort her.

     Her back was against the trunk, and there was only a little shade in the midday sun. She sat with her shaved head over her scuffed knees, her arms crossed in front and her hands beneath her thighs. When she saw me, she pulled her legs tighter with her arms, and put her head down to hide her face.

     "Why are you crying, little one?" I asked her.

     She didn't speak, and she tried to stop crying, but this was hard for her, and her little squelched sobs shook her shoulders.

     "Come. Tell me. What is the matter? Have you been stung somewhere? Did you lose at a game? Did the others hide from you?"

     Finally, she said, "I can't tell."

     "What is so terrible that you cannot tell? Who is having secrets? Surely you can tell everything to your lion uncle. Isn't this so?"

     Greet was very little, but she also was very afraid. Before she would tell her story, she made me promise never to tell anyone else. "If you tell anyone, I will die," she said. And though my heart felt a pain somewhere deep, I smiled inside at how the little ones think anything might kill them.

     Then she told me.

     "I was trying not to move, and I was crying. It's hard to be still and to cry. The hot wind would dry my tears before they fell from my face. He was kneeling beside me, but I didn't look at him. He held my hand hard, and his mouth was on my wrist, where he cut it with a stone. I wanted to be with the others watching the cows, but he held me in a dark place, in under a low tree. He kept his mouth at my wrist, and I bled for him." She told her brief tale as if it were about someone else, and when she spoke of his drinking, she held out her little wrist for me to see the gash, with its pale edges and a little oozing blood. Then a look of wonder appeared on her face, that her story really was about herself.

     "He said I must never tell. 'You fell on a stone and cut yourself. Remember. If you ever say anything else, I will find you in the woods, and I will kill you and eat you there.'"

     Though she thought she would die if I repeated her story, still she seemed gradually to move away from it as she talked, and when she was done, she was no longer crying. I said to her, "Don't fear, little one. I will tell no one. And I also will find a way to protect you, so that he never hurts you again."

     My words made her smile. "Let me take you home," I said. "It is very hot today, and a little girl who isn't feeling quite right should rest the afternoon in her hut." She walked back with me, and I told her mother how I had found her feeling a little sick on my way to visit. Perhaps she needed to stay in the village for this afternoon.

     Then I sought Gazelle. Always a leader of the village, she now was a grandmother, and she no longer went into the fields or to the herds, except to inspect them and see that they were in good order. Mainly she remained in the village, organizing the work there and helping the other older women and men to watch over and teach the little children.

     I found her and asked to speak with her apart from others. We walked away into the thin woods that made a grove around the village.

     "What do you think of your Leon these days?" I asked.

     "He is growing into manhood," she replied.

     "You see nothing strange about him? Has he outgrown his thirst for blood?"

     "I thought you had forgotten those things, Brother. It is so long since you spoke of them."

     "They will not be forgotten. Such a boy must be watched if he is not destroyed. Don't you see the lion in him still?"

     She looked on down the path from where we had paused. We were far enough from the huts that no one would hear us. Not far away, the woods opened out into a field of corn, and we could see the bright afternoon sunlight in patterns on the waving green stems.

     Finally, she answered with her own question. "Do others say the lion is in him still?"

     "It doesn't matter what others say. You are his mother. You see into his heart. What do you see? What do you say?"

     "I cannot."

     "Oh, Sister Gazelle, you are not one to turn away from what must be. When your family said your brother could have you, you knew this must be unless you acted for yourself. When your brother crept toward you in the darkness, you knew you must have his life, and you took it when you could. If you now know your son is a beast of prey, then you must take his life away."

     "I cannot. I cannot!" And she turned and ran from me, ran like a young girl back to the village, and left me standing in a great cage of light shafts falling between the tall trees. And perhaps this is right too. A sister may kill the brother who threatens her life, but how may a mother kill her child, whatever monster it has become?

     The next day, I returned to the village before dawn. I brought my spear. I went to the largest tree near the pasture for the cattle, the tree where I judged the young watchers would shelter from the sun when it rose high. I climbed into the tree and waited.

     The old men drove the cattle out to pasture soon after the sun rose, and then they returned to the village, leaving the children to play, but always watchfully. I saw Leon among them, taller and stronger than any. In the cool of the day, they played games in the grass, and after a while, they sat in two circles in the shade of a small tree, the girls talking together, the boys playing a game with sticks. Leon didn't join the boy's circle, but wandered around the pasture, always seeming to watch the cattle, moving from tree to tree, in a world of his own.

     Toward mid-day, Leon approached the circles, and both fell silent. Then the children rose and began to scatter away from him, but he called out a name, loudly, so that I could hear it plainly, "Macha!" A little girl stopped, as if she had been transformed into stone in the midst of her walking, her left hand still reaching away, still leaning upon her left foot. He took her hand and led her to a tree across the clearing, and they disappeared into the shade. The other children gathered under my tree. They sat quietly, without talking or playing any game. After a while, Macha came to them. There was a fresh cut on her leg. just above her right knee. "I was playing catch-me with Leon, she said, and I fell over a branch." No one said anything in reply. One of the older boys pulled a basket from next to the trunk and divided fruit and cheese among the children. Then he produced a pot of milk, from which they all drank. After they ate, Macha lay down to sleep, and the children began to take turns walking around the herd. When one returned, the next left. I did not see Leon again that day.

     The next day, I came again, and hid myself in the tree where Leon had taken Macha. Again at sunrise came the old men with the cattle, and they left the children to watch. Again they played and talked, while Leon roamed about. Again at midday, he approached and they half-heartedly tried to escape. He called "Artrae!" And this time a boy was turned into wood, and he stood like a tree in the blazing sun, silent with gnats buzzing around his smooth head.

     I had found Leon's favorite tree, for this is where he brought young Artrae, a boy perhaps eight years old, though he was small enough to be six.

     "Down on your hands and knees," commanded Leon.

     "Not there this time," begged the boy. "Some other place. That hurts too much!"

     "Lay on your back then, but quick! I hunger."

     Artrae lay down flat on his back, with his dusty knees raised. He wore nothing but the loin cloth all the children wore in the summer pasture. Leon seemed to snarl as he dropped by the boy's side, and with a long thorn punctured and then tore the soft skin at the left side of his waist. Blood oozed out and Leon was on him, licking away the liquid and then sucking on the wound. Once he lifted his head and grinned at the boy, and red streaked his ivory teeth. "You ran against a thorn tree. Remember. If you tell any other tale, you are my meat. I'll find you, and I'll butcher you, and I'll eat you slowly, one piece a day until only your bones remain for the dogs to gnaw."

     Artrae said nothing, but his arms reached out as far as they could and his hands gripped hard at the grass stems beneath them. His face was fixed in pain, like a baked clay mask.

     I dropped from the tree, then. I kicked Leon in the shoulder, and he rolled away from me. Though I kicked him hard, and he yelped, still he rolled to his feet, and ended crouched on one knee facing the one who had broken his feeding. The liquid bubbled in his throat, and his teeth grimaced at me. His face was in the sun; there was blood on his chin.

     "I have found you out little lion. You must die now," I said.

     "You cannot kill me," he cried out. "For I am my mother's son, and you are my uncle." Then he was on his feet, running across the pasture, right into the herd of cattle. I could have killed him easily then, putting my spear through his middle, but I chose not to endanger the cattle. Instead, I pursued him, dashing through the hot dry dust the cattle kicked up, a sharp eye on his dodging form as he slipped to the left among the animals, then turned again, so that when he broke out from among them, he was returning in the direction from which we had come and toward the nearest approach of the woods. He passed through the woods and into the tall oats before I let myself catch him. There I shoved the blunt end of my spear into his back and sent him sprawling in the tall grass.

     I put my right foot upon his stomach. Instantly he was at me with his claws. At first I didn't mind the little scratching of a child's fingers, but then I felt that the cuts were deep. When I looked away from his wild and roaring muzzle, I saw his long brown claws ripping away the leather strips that bound my sandals, and I saw his golden-haired leg, stained already with my blood, reaching for the inside of my thigh, the claws extended to cut the great blood vessel that was pulsing there. I do not remember moving, but my spear went into his red-foaming lion's mouth and pinned his head to the ground. His leg straightened suddenly, but the bared claws did not touch me. He then lay, all his limbs spread outward, twitching for some minutes, his blood and mine mingled with the dusty green smell of the crushed oats.

     I limped into the village, and I asked for Gazelle to clean and dress my wounds.

     "What wild beast has come from the border lands to haunt our fields?" she asked.

     "It was not a large one, as you can see, but his claws were long, and his teeth were sharp."

     Her eyes turned red and moist, but she did not cease her work. The long deep scratches from my knees to my ankles were washed clean, though they continued to bleed. She began to wipe each one and then pack into it soothing ointment before it could fill with blood again.

     "I would not lose another brother to the slicing blade," she said.

     "I will live."

     "Yes, my brother, you will live."

     When she had finished with my wounds she said, quietly, "He is dead, then."

     "If not he, then I," I answered.

     Then she wept, and I held my lovely Gazelle.


I owe the most to Angela Carter, who gave me "Diirawic and her Incestuous Brother," a Dinka tale from the Sudan in Strange Things Sometimes Still Happen, which provided me with a challenge: how to bring out of these materials a story that would be interesting and understandable to Western readers. Then, I had lots of help from Linda and Gabe and from members of this class, especially: Jeana Greiner, Ryan Nelson, Sarah Nitz, Michelle Steele, Bret Scheidenhelm, Forrest Green, and Bill Dickinson.

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