Looking back on the November of that year, the turning point was when my publisher first suggested I take a trip to
He convinced me though, even offered to pay first class air both ways, and that was the kind of offer I couldn't say no to easily. When my attempts at finding employment at other museums turned out to be nothing but dead ends, I it took as a sign the cosmos wanted me to go, packed my bag, said goodbye to the few people who'd care I was gone, and left.
The trip over there, that was a kind of a non event. It was the first time I'd even flown outside of the luggage compartment of a plane, and I helped myself to the first class accommodations quite readily, tried, (and failed) to seduce a stewardess, and fell asleep during the in flight movie.
It wasn't until I touched down in
I dumped my passport, purse and tiny carry on bag in a airport rental locker, hoping it would still be there when I returned, but figured trying to carry a passport with me while hunting gazelles with a pride of lions would just be kinda awkward, and really confuse the hell out of any National Geographic types or tourists that happened to video tape the "wild African plains."
Once outside the airport the heat hit me, it was dry, like
the inside of an oven almost, but the smells, oh the smell of
Once in the city proper it was easy enough to stash the locker key out of sight, toss my dress down an alley into the arms of a shocked tourist, shift into a bird and dart off for the horizon. I'd done some thinking before the trip, kicking around just what creatures I wanted to spend my time in Africa as, torn between a cheetah or maybe a Alligator, before I settled on the lion, the icon of Africa and fabled king (or in my case queen!) of the jungle.
That part was easy, finding a pride of lions that were far enough from civilization I didn't have to worry about some jack ass with a rifle taking pot shots at me? That took a while longer, but sailing above the African plains as an eagle was kind of liberating actually, I really enjoyed the tranquility and the thermal up drafts made staying aloft almost effortless.
It was a day or three before I found them, (I've found time
kind of floats by as an animal, I just seem to perceive it differently, not
with the hurried intensity of you humans.) Out deep in the plains, the closest
thing to civilization was a barely used dirt road amongst the
I’d gotten pretty good at making my approaches to groups of animals over the years, and done my homework on lions, so I knew how they'd react to an outside lioness wandering into their fold, and was confident I could earn my place as a member of their pride without too much trouble.
I won’t bore and traumatize you with the sordid details of my approach and initiation, (you'll have to read my next "Life As" book for that!) But suffice to say after a few days effort and more than one scuffle I'd secured my place near the bottom of the pride, just above the runt of the group. (Were I male it would have been a bloody fight to the death for my place in the pride, but thankfully animal harems are more open to the presence of more females, if they prove they can pull their weight that is.)
My first zebra hunt, that was something I'll never forget, the scent of their musk, the cool evening breeze stirring the grass, the barely seen signals by the pride leader to crouch, close, keeping low and stalking until the huntress gave the signal.
Followed by the chase, muscles blurring into motion, the feel of such primal strength, and power of predatory might as I felt my teeth sink into the jugular of the prey, hot life blood pulsing across my canines! I swear it's almost better than sex! (and trust me I've got a *lot* of experience there.)
But my time among the great cats isn't the issue here, not
really anyway. It was after I'd spent some time among them. I'd guess a week or
three, humanity intruded on our little wild corner of
No wait that's not true, I think I'd lost that a long time ago, way back when I ran away from home when I was a teen and lived among the alley dogs for those few days and experienced pleasure for the first time. Funny how I never really realized until now that was the turning point in my life, when I found animals had more to give me than humans, could understand and accept me in ways no human ever would, well not yet anyway.
But I'm digressing, (again I know!) back to the past, and that mid afternoon, when humanity intruded by way of roaring engines and rifle fire. It momentarily startled the pride, but it was close enough to thunder they paid it little heed, flopping back in the grass and licking their paws in contentment as the sounds of vehicles faded into the distance.
I nearly let them go, went back to the comfort of my new family, gnawing on bones while cubs played with our tails. But I still had (and have) that cursed human curiosity, and wanted to know who they were, and if some drunken hunters were about to mess up my research. So I rose and softly padded off away from the pride to follow.
That's another thing about cats, both wild and domestic, they never say goodbye. their hellos are all head rubs and purrs and warm welcomes, but their goodbyes are non existent. They just get up and walk away, off to serve their own needs without even so much as a "see you later" or backward glance.
That was how I left too, I just padded off, picking up the trail of the jeep easily enough, and following it for a time, noticing the bloody trail of some hapless animal they holed in passing, likely not even giving a thought to their cruelty as they plinked at the creature for fun.
The feral side of me wanted to follow that trail, the scent of blood and vulnerability stirring something deep inside me, that instinct to hunt and kill I'd long since grown accustomed to when shifted. (These days the feral drive is clearer, even in human, sometimes painfully so but that's a tale for another time.)
I was still me though, with my own will, and the humans were my curiosity, and I quickly realized a lioness was no match for a jeep in terms of speed, and cheetahs were short distance sprinters.
So I shifted again, into a humming bird this time, fast, agile, and small enough I wouldn't be sport for their rifles. It was near dusk by the time I caught up with them, more rifle fire leading me to their final destination, shifting into an eagle to see them clearly.
It was a group of men, about a dozen, all African, wearing faded camo fatigues, a few of them leaning on a pair of world war two jeeps, sporting AK's and generally posturing like men are wont to do when they have a bottle in them and something to prove.
The rest were busy rounding up tribals from among a collection of mud huts,, herding them into a loose collection, firing off their rifles into the air and speaking a mix of English, and what I later learned was Swahili.
I'd seen pictures of tribals on TV of course, but never seen real ones, not up close like this, (There's a reason they call someone with good vision an "eagle eye" Eagles are second to none in terms of clarity.)
They were simple people, leather breach cloths and grass
skirts, most of the women bare chested with no one giving it even a second
glance, (not even the new arrivals.) I remember being in awe, barely believing
real honest to god tribals still existed in this modern era. Then again it was
I was about to fly off, leave the warlords to their petty show boating. When I overheard them demanding volunteers, young boys for their army and girls for their pleasure, (and sex trafficking no doubt.) I balked, it crossing the invisible line of morality nearly all intelligent people posses.
It's funny, how most people would reach for their cell phone to dial 911, I looked around and realized the closest phone booth was a few hundred miles away, and help non existent no matter who I reached on the other end.
A part of me, I'd like to call it the human part of me (although I'm sure some would disagree on that) wanted to run, not get involved and pretend it never happened, go back to the pride, or back to the USA, where police kept the streets (mostly) safe from men with assault rifles.
But it stirred something in me, a feeling of loathing, of such black hatred for them, those who thought their will could be imposed on the helpless. The feeling momentarily frightened me, I realized it was animal instinct, some desire within me to protect the pack from outside aggressors. Maybe it was my humanity after all crying out against injustice? I didn't bother with contemplation.
I shifted almost without noticing, feeling a primal almost motherly urge to defend this tiny village because, not just because I should, but because I *could.* I chose a raptor form more by habit than conscious thought, it had long been the shape I associated with strength, terror, and unstoppable force.
Through slitted eyes I saw them in a new light, the stink of their firearms and burnt oil of their vehicles a reeking stench that set my fangs on edge. The feral side of me wanted to strike while they were unaware of my presence, use surprise to shatter the packs cohesion and target the leader, scatter the herd and run them down at my leisure.
I hissed and shook my head to refocus on the problem. Men. Men could be reasoned with, or at the very least scared away, cowed into retreat without the need to spill blood, and risk the lives of villagers on a fight.
The primal side of me was unafraid, eager for the kill, secure in it's place at the top of the predatory food chain. The human side of me was hesitant, not wanting conflict where it could be avoided.
I circled the camp as some of the women screamed and pleaded with the soldiers not to take their children from them, my long smooth strides taking me around the small village in mere moments.
All eyes were on the new comers and it was easy to slip within, squeeze among the huts and step out several yards from the soldiers who froze at my arrival. Their guns spun to focus on me, cigarettes dropping from open mouths and a booze bottle smashing to the ground with high pitched tinkle.
The villagers stared in shock as well, some of the older men grasping spears and looking nervously between me and the riflemen, the terrified shrieks of women and muffled cries of children a brief flurry of sound on the now silent night air.
It was like being on stage when I was a teenager in the play, only this time there was no script to follow, no audience to boo the villains and cheer at their comeuppance. I hadn't even considered what to say until that moment, half expecting my mere presence to send them fleeing into the night.
"I am the spiritual protector of this village! Go and leave my people in peace!" It was the first time I tried to speak English as a raptor, and the effort hurt, but not as much as doing so as a bird had. My voice sounded like a demonic screech, almost like nails on a chalkboard slathered in blood.
The silence as I spoke seemed to deepen, eyes widening as they took in my feathered form, fire light reflecting off my teeth and talons in the gloom. I smiled, despite myself, the scent of their fear quickening my pulse, Making my tail quiver in expectation of impending slaughter.
Movement to the side caught my eye and I tilted my head, feeling my balance shift as I focused on it. A little girl, no more than four, had emerged from the doorway of the hut I towered next to. She had on a simple dress, actual cloth, it might have been red once but was a faded pink now. She stared up at me, a Jurassic specter of death, and smiled, unafraid. (I still see her smile when I close my eyes most nights, I sometimes wonder if I'll see it the rest of my life.)
I honestly expected them to retreat, soldier and villager alike, although in retrospect if they had ran, my instinct would have forced me to give chase, no matter the potential consequences. The warlords leader, a bald man with muscles that spoke of equal measure steroids and honest effort, stepped forward, the stink of his sweat almost overpowering to me.
He clutched a pistol in his right hand, some old weather beaten .45 1911 by the looks of it. When he spoke his voice sounded more angry than frightened, although I could smell the fear underneath, he wasn't used to being challenged like this, by something that didn't show fear in its gaze and viewed him as the prey.
"You think we're going to fall for this?!" His
voice rose in echo, some of the villagers who had looked at me with a glimmer of hope now turning back to stare
at him in terror. "This
He raised the pistol and fired, the sound oddly flat in the night air. But the shot was not at the danger before him. His bullet struck the little girl next to me, a flower of crimson blooming on her chest as she looked up at me in surprise and disappointment, her eyes seeming to blame me for her looming passage into the beyond.
The man opened his mouth to speak again, but what more he might have had to say was lost as I felt myself airborne, heartbreak and fury clouded my vision as my leap powered the man to the ground. I felt his entrails uncoiling around my foot talons as my mouth closed across the top of his skull and I bit down hard.
It felt like an peeled grape erupting in my mouth, the squirt of bodily juices and brain pulp flooding my senses as his head came apart across my tongue. The sweetness and rush of the kill was nearly orgasmic in its intensity. I was reminded earlier of my slaying of a zebra, but this. This was different. This was better than sex.
The chatter of assault rifle fire broke me from my reverie, the impact of bullets painful jolts like electricity, marking my side and awakening a primal anger. With a roar I closed on the nearest one, my foot Talon splitting his rib cage apart like so much kindling, to the side my tail lashed across a second man, sending him flying into a parked jeep with a sickening crunch, his rifle raising clouds of dust as it discharged into the dirt.
A third man, on his hands and knees trying to back away from me, eye wide with terror. I kicked out at him, scoring a glancing blow that still scored deeply into his flesh, his stomach ballooning through severed muscles to drape between his legs like a overfilled sack of meal.
In the back of my mind some human part of me was recoiling, throwing up and screaming in revulsion at what I was doing, horrified at my brutality. The primal part of me was alive, for the first time ever, engorged in its element and reveling in the expression of predatory triumph.
A fourth, still yanking the trigger of his empty rifle, yelling prayers to some forgotten deity to save him from the demon. I kicked him, my foot talon snagging on his intestines and uncoiling them like a spool of bloody rope hooked to my leg as he sailed into the darkness screaming.
The smell of burning flesh and the scream of a man, fallen into the bonfire in his attempt to flee, hair burning like a greasy torch. I paused, tilting my head to watch in curiosity as the human candle ran in broken circles howling. I'd never seen a man burn to death before, never knew that flesh ran like wax when it reached a certain temperature. He vanished in a cloud of blood and bone as the grenades on his chest detonated, the sound like a peal of thunder as his dismembered body washed over me.
The others were fleeing, running from the primal terror conjured into their mist, and my instincts begged me to purse, to hunt my prey and protect my pack. They didn't get far. The man fighting to jam a set of keys into the jeep was next, his head the second sweet fruit of the evening I sampled.
Three of the remaining five soldiers were gunned down by a fourth in his haste to kill me, the bullets lances of pain that barely registered above my adrenaline and battle lust. He died quietly, his decapitated head rolling into the fire where it sizzled like bacon.
The last man cowered, pressing himself against a rain barrel and stack of animal hides, looking wildly back and forth as I fixed my eyes upon him and roared, a primal, hurting roar, the death of the child driving me to kill, and keep on killing until the danger had passed.
He mewled, like a baby, and took his life with a pistol to the temple before I sprung. In my fury I still sundered his corpse limb from limb, my cries of anguish continuing long after his passing, the smell of death overwhelming.
In the silence that followed I noticed the surviving tribesmen and women, pulling themselves up from the blood soaked dirt where they'd cowered, out from the hunts where they'd hid. As one they knelt and began to chant. "Kalamu Kifo!" Feathered Death.
I collapsed not long after, whether from blood loss, bullet wounds, the horror of what I had done, or sheer exhaustion I'll never know. When I awoke I was in a hut, my feathers being bathed in sweet smelling waters and combed through with thin bone brushes by women from the village.
It felt breathtaking. It had been years since a human had touched me when I was shifted. Even then I could count the number of adults who had laid hands upon me with one paw. Even my parents had kept their distance when I was in other shapes, more likely because my nudity disturbed them than any sense of fear.
The scientists when I posed at the museum had taken pictures and pressed cold scientific instruments against me, but never warm human hands.
The tribals backed off in fear as I stirred, but resumed their gentle preening when I lied back down. One of the older women looked up at me and gave a sad smile. "Thank you for avenging my daughter Kiala, may you look after her spirit always."
It wasn't until then, I learned a raptor could cry.