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Home :  African Legends :  Lions Wings and Lion's Bones

Lions Wings and Lion's Bones
 (South Africa)

If you think the Lion is something now, roaring and going around eating things, you ought to have seen him in the olden days. Back in those days, and I mean way back, Lion was big and Lion was bad, and on top of the rest of it, Lion had wings. I'm not talking little wings, some leftover bits like Ostrich has. I'm talking wings. Big wings. Heavy-duty. Wings for a lion. They weren't feathered, like a bird's, but stretched out bone and hair and skin, like wings you'd see on some overgrown bat.

When Lion took off for a day of hunting, there wasn't a safe spot anywhere. He'd soar through the air a long way up, looking over his hunting ground. He'd spot a zebra from way up there, then pull in his wings and down he'd come. He'd drop from the sky like a half-ton stone and when he landed, goodbye, zebra! The impalas couldn't jump away, not even the gazelles could run. When the shadow of Lion crossed the sun, even the elephants stamped their feet, and looked uncomfortably around.

Lion had a tremendous fear that someone would come and break the bones of all the animals he'd killed. No one knew why he feared such a thing, but thinking of it made him Cat of Precautions. When he'd finished eating whatever he'd caught, Lion would gather up every last bone. He'd paw through the mess he had left on the grass to make sure he hadn't missed a one. Then - so carefully - he'd close those jaws, and carry the bones off through the air to his den.

The den, now there was a place! One mean, gruesome patch of ground! Big bones, little bones, old bones and fresh. Skulls and femurs and vertabrae filled up every ledge and nook. Who'd be crazy or brave enough to stick their heads into such a spot? Even if they weren't afraid of bones, who'd want to be there if Lion came back? Lion wasn't taking any chances, though: he kept a pair of crows on guard. Not just any crows, of course, but always two of the purest white. Every white crow that broke through the egg was sent to Lion to work for him. That's how Lion wanted it, and pity the crow who tried to keep a new white hatchling out of Lion's sight!

Of all the crows in all the world, only Lion's white ones talked. He kept the crows together in a flock and fed them his leavings to make them strong. Whenever one of his watch-crows died, the oldest crow in the flock took its place. Not even the oldest crows knew the truth of Lion's bones: that they held the magic that let him use his wings. As long as the bones were safe and whole, Lion had magic to hold him in the sky. But in spite of his systems and guards and plans, fear kept pinching in his belly.

If Lion had ever put a face to his fear, it wouldn't have been the face of the Bullfrog. Mouth with no teeth, monkey-child eyes, Bullfrog without even claws on his hands! Oh, but Bullfrog had a tongue, and he knew how to use it, not only on flies.

One day, while Lion was out on a hunt, Bullfrog hopped up the path to the den. "Hey, you crows," the Bullfrog said. "What are you doing there day after day?" "Watching the bones for the Lion," they said. "Move along, Bullfrog, move along." But Bullfrog repeated: "Oh. Watching the bones. Tell me, are they doing something interesting?" "No," the crows answered. "They only sit."

"That's pretty funny," the Bullfrog said. "You sit watching and they just sit, and it's sort of hard to tell you apart. White bones, white crows, nobody moving except the flies." "Move along, Bullfrog, move along." But Bullfrog answered: "I'll tell you what. If you want to go and stretch your wings, I'll sit a minute and watch the bones. Sitting's what a frog does best; I'll even clean up a few of the flies."

The crows looked up and down the sky, but Lion was flying off out of sight. "Now's our chance," they told each other. "Bullfrog's right: with all our sitting, we're getting too much like bones ourselves." And off they flew, wheeling and spinning and tumbling through the air.

Oh, but the minute they were gone, Bullfrog put his legs to work. One hop, two hops, three hops, a hundred! The crows were cartwheeling up in the clouds, but down below were breaking bones. Crack! went the skulls, and brack! went the leg bones, and all the little finger bones went crunch! crunch! crunch! The only bone the Bullfrog missed was a tiny metatarsal from a warthog's foot. He didn't see it as he hopped away, because Lion had buried it back in a corner.

When the crows came down and saw what he had done, they set after Bullfrog as fast as they could fly. "Lion will bite off our heads!" they shrieked. "He'll use our bones to start a new collection!" They dove from the sky to peck at Bullfrog, but Bullfrog took a tremendous leap. He landed in the water and the poor white crows smacked full speed into river mud.

Bullfrog said to them: "If Lion wants to know who broke his bones, tell him to hunt for me here at the dam!" And diving underwater to where it was safe, Bullfrog added to himself: "Lay the egg and the tadpole hatches! Now we'll see what Lion does!"

While all of this had been going on, Lion had been perched up high on a rock. He'd been watching a herd of game wandering closer to where he sat. "Wildebeest," Lion said to himself. "Gazelle? Springbok... Zebra's nice. Still, a wildebeest makes a meal; they're fat and tender this time of year." He didn't especially like giraffe, but a leopard he knew said the young ones were good. "They take getting used to," the leopard had said. "But I think you'd like them: they taste just like chicken."

"Chicken," thought Lion, sitting on his rock. "Do I like chicken? I can't remember. I think I'll have a wildebeest. No, a zebra...or gazelle?" In this way Lion passed the time as the herdful of dinner wandered closer.

But when he raised his wings to fly, he could hardly lift them off the ground. He felt the strength in them trail away, like the flow from a faucet as the well runs dry. When they drooped and he couldn't even hold them up, Lion remembered the bones at his den. He let out a roar that shook the whole country. The herd he'd been watching stampeded away. He roared from the tip of his tail to his nose and it didn't do him a bit of good. Bullfrog had broken the magic bones, and now that they were broken, the spell was, too. Lion had to crawl down off the rock, and walk all the long miles back to his den.

He fumed like mad every inch of the way, and guess what muddy pair of crows sat at the den and ducked their heads? No more cartwheeling up in the sky: they puffed up their feathers and wept and wailed, convinced that this was the end of the road. They kept looking up: they expected Lion to drop down out of the sky onto their heads. When he walked up the trail with his tongue hanging out, they were too suprised to be afraid.

"Bullfrog broke the bones!" they said. "He said you could hunt for him down at the dam!" Lion didn't say a word, but pounced straight at them to bite off their heads. Without even thinking, the crows flew up. When they saw that Lion couldn't follow, they laughed themselves silly out of pure relief. "We're safe! He can't get us! We're free as birds!" They cackled and chortled and flew back and forth. "Free as birds, get it? Free as birds!"

Lion roared out, big and mad: "That's what I get for trusting crows! Feed them! Raise them! Where's the thanks?" But the crows only laughed at him: "Caw! Caw! Caw!" "Feh!" said Lion. "I'll show you what!" And he dug up the one bone Bullfrog missed. This little bone from the warthog's foot held the magic for the white crows' speech. Lion snapped it between his teeth, and the crows were left with only "Caw! Caw! Caw!"

Lion took off his useless wings and had to learn to stalk his prey. You can bet he went stalking after Bullfrog, but Bullfrog was always way too careful. Whenever he heard the Lion coming, he gave a big laugh with his toothless mouth and dove straight down to the bottom of the water. Lion would sit there roaring on the bank, but roaring didn't solve a thing. Circles spread out from where Bullfrog jumped in. Seeing the circles made Lion mad: they reminded him of circling up in the sky.

Timothy Bush

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