Tortoise trundled to the front of the assembly, bowed before the king and queen, and spoke.
Gasps and whispers passed through the assembly of animals. Suddenly, Cheetah appeared before them all. She bowed before the king and queen.
“That cannot be,” Cheetah said. “For Lightning is my mother.”
Cheetah pointed to her bright pure golden fur. “I share my mother’s coloring,” she said.
“See how my shell is marked by lines of radiance?” Tortoise said. “My mother placed that radiance within me.”
Queen Baboon answered both. “As you know, our wise king has deciphered the messages of our creators. Each creator only begat one earthly creature. Only one of you can be the child of Lightning.”
But even with clever King Monkey sitting before them, stroking his short beard, and peering at them, neither Tortoise nor Cheetah would relent. They both claimed Lightning as their mother.
“Then we must perform tests to prove your lineage,” the queen said.
Again there were whispers among the assembly. None who had thus far claimed divine descent had been required to prove their claims. But thus far no two had claimed the same parent. Adder had claimed the Sand as his father. Stork had claimed the North Wind as her father. Elephant had claimed the Thunder as her mother. So it had gone with the rest of the assembly.
Because lightning was bright, the animals waited till nightfall and they walked into a cave to see which one, Tortoise or Cheetah, would glow against the darkness. But neither did. Both claimed it was because their mother did not pass on her brightness to their forms.
Because lightning was hot, Tortoise and Cheetah were both made to stand before the queen, so she could lay her hands upon them and judge who was hotter. It was following morning, and the sun had just come up. Tortoise’s skin felt cool, bit Cheetah’s skin, even through her fur, felt very warm. Tortoise, however, asked the queen to wait until midday, for he would absorb the warmth of the sun, just as his mother did. Sure enough, at midday it was Tortoise whose skin felt warmer. But the queen and king could come to no decision. They needed more proof.
Because lightning was quick, Tortoise and Cheetah would have to prove they were quick.
“For this, there must be a contest,” the Queen said.
“A race,” Tortoise said at once.
Queen Baboon raised her brow. “Are you certain?”
Cheetah licked her lips and looked at Tortoise. “I’ll just run you down and eat you,” she said.
Tortoise replied. “You’ll break your teeth on my shell.”
King Monkey placed a hand on his queen’s shoulder. It was his gesture of approval.
The queen bowed her head to the rivals. “The race will proceed.”
Tortoise asked for three days to prepare. Cheetah was eager to finish the contest. But she was confident she would win, even if one of her legs was hobbled, or if she were required to carry stones on her back. She thought the king and queen might place some such handicap upon her to give Tortoise a fair chance at the race. But she also worried that Tortoise might have some clever plan in mind. He must have, else he would not have suggested the contest be a race.
Tortoise was slowly pacing in his garden, when his friend, Hare came by on the first of the three days of preparation. Long ago, when they both were careless youths, the two had been rivals. One day, Tortoise challenged Hare to a race. To Hare’s humbling surprise, Tortoise won. By simply continuing on, he won. Long after all the spectators had gone home, and Hare was slumbering on the ground, Tortoise persevered. He kept walking.
Hare slung his arm around Tortoise. “It’s long since you and I were rivals. But I still remember our race. Don’t let your victory over me fool you into thinking you can win against Cheetah. I was overconfident.”
“There may be love between us now, Hare, but I had more to fear from you than from Cheetah. At least Cheetah is honest and honorable.”
Hare took away his arm, huffed, and feigned insult. But he truly cared for his friend and feared for his friend.
“If you only had your fortune to lose, I would be cheering you on. But I imagine Cheetah will be feasting on your flesh tomorrow night.”
The winner of the contest would hold the claim to be the child of Lightning. The loser would be punished for making a false claim. The loser’s punishment was the winner’s reward, for the winner would be granted all control over the loser and his or her possessions.
Tortoise was rich in goods. Cheetah governed a vast land. So either winner would gain in possessions. But Cheetah, while honest and forthright, was also known to be brutal and unforgiving.
“She has a custom of killing and eating her enemies upon victory over them,” Hare said.
“Is that truth? Or rumor?”
“I don’t know for certain, but I wouldn’t test the truth or rumor with my own life.”
“What does rumor say about how she treats her friends?” Tortoise wondered aloud.
“Who would know? And why ask?” Hare peered at Tortoise, feeling as all at the assembly had felt. Perplexed.
“Why did you claim Lightning?” Hare asked.
Though he had won the race with the Hare, all the animals knew that Tortoise would not win in a race with Hare if Hare truly tried to win. And Cheetah was much, much faster than Hare.
Hare looked at him askance. “You’ve never mentioned it before today. Come to think of it, you’ve never mentioned your parentage before at all.”
“I had thought to ask the queen and king if I could choose a champion to run the race for me,” Tortoise said.
“They’ll refuse. You’re the one who claims to be descended from Lightning. You must be the one to race. Anyway, who would you choose? Cheetah is the fastest of us.”
“I had thought to ask the king and queen if I could chose the place, and I would chose the river.”
“They might grant that request, but you and Cheetah would be carried off by the rapids at the same speed.”
“I had thought to ask our sovereigns if I could choose the place, and I would chose the sky.”
Hare started. “Now there is a domain that belongs to neither you nor Cheetah. How would you race in the sky?”
Tortoise thought keenly. “The sky is the domain of Lightning.”
“But the child may not have all the powers of the parent,” the Hare said. “Tread lightly.”
Tortoise smiled. “Oh, I intend to, my friend.”
The day of the race arrived and all the animals gathered to watch. Most knew Tortoise and how slowly he moved. But many also knew of the race between Tortoise and Hare, and how Tortoise had won. But few who were now present had seen that famed race. Hare was surrounded by the curious and the questioning. In his usual manner, he admitted that Tortoise won the race, but jested that the race had started with finding out who was quicker, but ended with finding out who was more patient. And in a contest of patience, Tortoise would always win against Hare.
Cheetah too knew of the tale, and even if she had not, she would not have been as foolish as Hare had been. So she thought. But since she had heard the tale, she decided she would not underestimate Tortoise.
Just before the race, there was much anticipation from all. Cheetah had not been given any handicaps. She would run as fast as she could. That was certain. Many minds wondered, however, what Tortoise would do.
The race began.
Cheetah dashed ahead and was out of sight before Tortoise could raise his foot.
In only moments, Cheetah had run the required distance, reached the finish line, welcomed the cheers of those who awaited, and turned back to look for Tortoise. She waited and waited, and after a while, she asked the king and queen if she might go and fetch Tortoise.
When she dashed back, she saw that he had moved but a few feet. Hare was cheering him on, but the other animals had heard from Heron, who’d had time to fly back and forth from the finish line, that the race was finished and Cheetah was all but declared the winner.
All were simply waiting for Tortoise to arrive. Cheetah approached, and the way she was zooming toward him, Tortoise feared she would do as she had threatened, pounce upon him and eat him, even though she could not do so until the king and queen declared her the winner before all. But she stopped before him and told him that the king and queen were awaiting his arrival. She offered a ride on her back, but Tortoise saw that he would be far too heavy for her to carry.
He asked her pardon and said he would make haste as best as he could.
Hare hopped away, saying he had prepared for just such a moment.
“Now it is just you and I,” Cheetah said, her eyes gleaming with some yearning. It was not hunger, but curiosity. “I know I am the child of Lightning. So whose child are you, really?”
But just then, Hare returned. He was pulling a wagon with wheels. Tortoise climbed into the wagon and thanked his friend.
“Forgive me, Hare. But I don’t want to keep their Highnesses waiting.”
“What use is a friend if that friend can’t be of use?” Hare said, yoking himself to the wagon. He began to hop forth and while the wagon still moved much slower than Hare could run, it was still much faster than Tortoise could walk. Cheetah dashed ahead to let the king and queen know that Tortoise was coming.
The king, the queen, and all the gathered animals might have been cross after waiting so long for Tortoise if Tortoise had not thought ahead. He had asked his wife, Toad, and his other friends, Gazelle and Adder to prepare a feast of celebration for everyone gathered at the finish line. Many had believed Tortoise was being cocky and preparing for a victory feast. But after three days, he had thought of no plan for winning the race, though he had been the one to request it. He did however have a plan in mind for what to do after the race.
Everyone was well-fed and cheerful by the time Tortoise arrived in the Hare-drawn wagon. Even Cheetah had eaten a morsel or two.
Queen Baboon welcomed Tortoise warmly. Hare hopped away to rest and enjoy some treats.
The queen turned to all the assembled animals.
“Cheetah is the winner of the race.”
Everyone cheered Cheetah.
The queen turned to Tortoise. “Have you anything to say?”
Tortoise bowed deeply to the queen. “I concede victory in the foot race to my rival, Cheetah,” he said. “But the contest is not done, for I still hold claim to be the child of Lightning.”
As before, gasps and whispers rippled through the assembled crowd. Cheetah frowned. The king cocked his head, his eyes twinkling.
Queen Baboon raised a brow. “You asked for a race, Tortoise. And a race was run. You lost. You conceded victory. How can you still hold to your claim?”
“We raced only on the land, majesty,” Tortoise said. “I ask that we race in the waters. In the great running river by the south. If my rival agrees. If not, I will relinquish my claim.”
Tortoise was clever to ask before the assembly. If Cheetah was unwilling, though she had won fairly and Tortoise made his request after losing, she would appear unsporting. Cheetah’s honor would not allow for her refuse. For if she were truly the child of Lightning, she must be willing to prove herself.
Water was Tortoise’s domain. But he was still not the quickest swimmer. Everyone was curious what Tortoise might have planned. And everyone was curious whether or not he would provide another grand feast at the finish line.
Cheetah agreed to the race. This time, it was she who asked for three days of preparation. For Cheetah did not like water. She wanted time to practice her swimming. Tortoise agreed. The king and queen agreed.
Once again, Hare visited Tortoise and found him pacing his garden.
“Cheetah has been swimming in the rapids of the river for hours,” Hare said.
Tortoise stopped pacing and sighed. “Perhaps she will be spent by the day of the race.”
“Does that mean you still have no plan? I was certain you had maneuvered the contest to give you a chance to win the water race. But then, even if you did, who would be the final winner?”
“That is for the king and queen to decide.”
“Surely, you won’t ask for a race in the skies?”
Tortoise sighed and kept up his pacing.
The day of the race arrived and all the animals gathered to watch. Cheetah was nervous, though she had practiced hard and well. Eel and Catfish had tried to help her and give her advice. But she was clumsy in the water.
The race began.
Tortoise was not as graceful in the water as Cheetah had feared, but he still swam ahead of her, and he rode the crests of the rapids as masterfully as Eagle and Hawk rode the high desert winds. Soon, he was out of sight.
Cheetah struggled to keep her head above the water. But she managed. She reached the finish line of the race and dragged her soggy, sopping self to the riverbank. Tortoise was already there, receiving the praise and congratulations of the king and queen. His friend, Hare, came hopping out of the reeds and happily slapped Tortoise on the shell.
Cheetah shook herself and shook off the river’s burden. She was dismayed but not defeated. Tortoise had requested two races. She had not objected. She would now assert her right to choose one final challenge, the winner of which would prove to be the child of Lightning.
“What shall we do now, my queen?” King Monkey said. “Tortoise and Cheetah have both won a race.”
The queen crossed her arms. “We cannot stop for some challenge every few days. We must settle this matter once and for all.” She turned to Cheetah. “Tortoise chose the first two challenges. You chose the last.”
Cheetah was taken by surprise that she did not have to convince the sovereigns to let her choose. She had thought they would let Tortoise choose since he was at an obvious disadvantage when it came to races. So she had not taken the time to actually think of what challenge she would request. She tried to think of more challenges then. A contest of wits might do. A game of riddles perhaps. While she was fleetest of foot, there were many creatures whose minds were quicker. She did not think Tortoise was one of those, but he had proved to be clever so far. She gleaned that he had some grander plan in mind, one that would see him the champion at last. But she knew that she was the child of Lightning. How could she prove it?
She could prove her lineage by striking down Tortoise then and there, before he knew she was upon him, and then striking down Hare, and many others. But Lightning never struck out of vengeance. Cheetah too must only strike according to the needs of her nature, when she was hungry, or when she was in danger. But not out of vengeance or spite.
“Let the Tortoise decide,” she said. For in truth, she could think of no contest by which to prove herself. Whatever Tortoise decided, Cheetah would do her best to best him. She feared what her mother might do if she lost and was made to forfeit her claim. Perhaps she would be struck down. Perhaps she would be ignored. Such thoughts made Cheetah, who was typically even-tempered, feel glum.
But then Tortoise spoke.
“We have raced on land and we have raced on the river. Let us race in the skies.”
As before, there were gasps and whispers, and when they died down, Tortoise explained. In the plains nearby, there was a chain of towering rocks that spanned from one cliff to another. Tortoise and Cheetah would leap from one cliff to the closest rock, then the next rock, and on, until reaching the far cliff. Whoever reached the far cliff first won the race, and the entire contest, and proved that he or she was the true child of Lightning.
Some of the animals knew of that chain of great rocks. Each was at least ten times as tall as Elephant. The rock towers were far enough away from each other that any animal with wings could hop and glide from one to another. Any animal without wings would be mad to try. But if any animal could manage it, it would be Cheetah with her powerful legs. She might leap through the skies like lightning.
If he attempted it, he would surely fall to his death.
Queen Baboon silenced the assembly of animals. She looked to Cheetah.
“I must refuse this race,” Cheetah said. While the other animals only guessed that she might make those leaps, Cheetah knew she would. She knew that chain of rock towers well. She had often tested herself by leaping from rock to rock. She had stranded herself once. She found a way to scramble down the rock, tumbling, and falling. She had broken some bones, but she had recovered. She had grown stronger. She had become faster. The next time she attempted the chain of towering rocks, she made it all the way across. The skies had been stormy that day. Lightning flashed in the clouds, as if her mother were urging her on. But no other being was there that day or any of the other days when she repeated the feat.
Cheetah knew she would win the race. She eyed Tortoise with suspicion and confusion.
“Nevertheless,” the king said, climbing upon the queen’s shoulder so that all the assembly could see and hear him. “Let the race proceed. As before, you have three days to prepare. We will assemble at the eastern cliff on the fourth morning.”
After the assembly departed, buzzing amongst themselves about the third and final contest, Cheetah approached Tortoise.
“What is your game, Tortoise?” Cheetah asked. “You will surely lose this race before it has even begun, as you lost the first one. You cannot leap. What kind of trickery are you planning?”
“Have I used any trickery thus far?”
“Perhaps you have and I’m not clever enough to see it. Or perhaps you have been saving all your trickery for the end of the contest.”
“If I attempt any trickery, the king and queen will see it. They are far cleverer than I am.”
“Perhaps,” Cheetah said.
She narrowed her eyes, but there was more than suspicion in those eyes. There was sincere regard. She wanted a worthy opponent, Tortoise realized. And if he remained honest, perhaps she would consider him worthy.
“Or perhaps you pity me,” Cheetah said. “If that is so, you must stop. I do not need or want your pity. I want a true contest to prove my lineage from Lightning.”
“And you shall have it, three days hence.”
The day of the race arrived and all the animals gathered to watch. Cheetah was nervous to have everyone watching. But she was also proud, for none had ever seen her perform the feat of leaping. She was eager to show them.
No one expected Tortoise to leap at all. So unlike the first race, the king and queen were present not at the finish line, but at the start of the race. Cheetah planned to leap ahead to the far cliff, where the king and queen had left their judges, then leap all the way back.
She watched Tortoise make his slow and steady way to the top of the cliff and she felt a pang of pity. But she felt no guilt. He had chosen the race. Perhaps he had chosen one she could win on purpose, not for nefarious reasons, but to give himself a gracious way to release his claim without appearing false.
To make the leaps, Tortoise and Cheetah had to start some way back from the cliff drop. When the race began, Cheetah dashed ahead. Just as she reached the cliff’s edge, she leapt. She soared into the air. She began to arc downward, and she saw the next rock. She landed upon it, ran and leapt again and again. She was not even halfway through the course when she heard a commotion from behind.
She landed on her next rock and tumbled to a stop. She rose and turned to look behind her. What she saw filled her with horror.
Tortoise was almost to the cliff’s edge. He was not stopping. He was going to try to jump.
“Stop him!” Cheetah cried, for he was about to fall to his certain death. But either no one heard her, or no one was willing to interfere in the contest. She had been certain that she would make it to the other cliff and back before Tortoise was anywhere near the cliff’s edge. He had moved much faster than he had on the day of the foot race.
Cheetah backed up until she was at the edge of the rock tower. She did not know if she had enough room to attempt a leap. She had never stopped and turned around from midway before. She had always let her motion carry her forward. She ran and leapt. She made it to next rock, and the next. She did not look at Tortoise, she only looked at the rock ahead of her. She leapt and leapt. Finally, she was there. She saw that Tortoise had leapt too. He was only inches from the ground, but she did not think he was capable even of that much. His hind feet left the ground. He was in the air before the cliff’s edge. If Cheetah did not reach him now, it would be too late.
Cheetah collided with a rock. At least, it felt like a rock. But it was actually Tortoise. He was like a rock, large, heavy, and meant to be anchored to the earth. She did not know if she had hit him hard enough to push him back. If not, then she too would fall to her death.
She slipped past Tortoise as he spun beneath her. Then she saw the ground. She braced her feet and landed, running several feet before coming to a stop. She gave an angry growl to the assembled animals, even the king and queen, before she turned toward the cliff’s edge. There, just before the drop, she saw Tortoise.
He was lying on his back. She padded toward him.
“Will you help me right myself?” Tortoise asked with no fear, regret, or remorse in his voice.
“Only if you promise not to try jumping off that cliff again.”
Tortoise said nothing.
Cheetah sighed. “Very well.” She turned away.
Tortoise began to laugh. “I promise,” he said. “Please, help me right myself.”
Cheetah nudged him until he could rock himself and flip back onto his feet. The king and queen and the assembly of animals approached. That was when Cheetah noticed that Hare was missing. Tortoise must have occupied him somehow. If anyone might have intervened with Tortoise’s preposterous attempt, it would have been Hare.
“I knew you would save me,” Tortoise said. And Cheetah realized that had been his plan all along. But she did not know why.
“You knew I would try, you mean. But you couldn’t have known I would reach you in time.” Cheetah frowned. “You risked both our lives. Why?”
The race was not completed. The assembly buzzed with guesses to what would happen next. The king and queen were clearly tired of the contest. But they were obliged to see it through.
Cheetah stood beside Tortoise. Both watched the assembly argue amongst themselves. Suddenly, the sky darkened, and all gazed overhead as clouds gathered, thickened, and grayed.
Before their eyes, a bolt of lightning struck the ground where Tortoise and Cheetah were standing. The lightning did not strike and vanish, but it poured down from the clouds and crackled. From within its midst, Tortoise walked out.
He laughed at the points and whispers. He was unmarked, they said. Surely, he was the child of Lightning. They could not see Cheetah at all. For the lightning surrounded her, embraced her. Surely, she would not survive such a strike.
Like a water jar that was emptied, the clouds poured the last of their lightning on Cheetah. The air sparked around her. The clouds thinned. The day brightened.
Cheetah too was laughing. She was alive, but she was changed. Her golden fur was dotted with black spots where the lightning had charred it.
The assembly began speaking all at once. Queen Baboon raised her arms to silence them. She waited until they all quieted down.
“There is no need for her child to claim Lightning,” the queen said then. “For Lightning has claimed and marked her child.” She turned to Cheetah. The king turned to Cheetah. They both bowed to her.
Cheetah bowed to her king and queen.
“You descendants will be marked as well,” Queen Baboon said. “None shall dispute your heritage or theirs hereafter.”
“Tortoise’s claim was false,” the king said. “His fate is in your hands.”
Cheetah looked at Tortoise. She smiled.
“All is forgiven,” she said, raising a brow. “So long as Tortoise throws us a feast, grander than any he has thrown thus far.”
Hare forgave Tortoise too, especially when he heard about the feast. Tortoise had tricked his friend and trapped him in a net so he could not intervene. With all the animals at the contest, no one had heard Hare’s cries for help until they all returned home.
Both Hare and Cheetah were eager to know Tortoise’s purpose in lying about his parentage. That evening, at the grandest feast he had ever thrown, Tortoise sat and spoke with them.
“If you make many friends, you are less likely to be eaten,” Tortoise said.
Cheetah purred. “If all you wanted was my friendship, why didn’t you just ask?”
“Would you have accepted?”
“Of course!” Cheetah thought for a moment. She was, after all, known for her honesty. “Well, perhaps not.” She had thought lesser of Tortoise, and many other animals, before the contest. But it was true that she no longer wanted to eat him. More so, she felt admiration for his courage and cleverness, and curiosity still for his motives.
“The lightning did not harm you,” Cheetah said. “But you are not Lightning’s child, so why would that be?”
“I did not lie, exactly,” Tortoise said. “I am not the son of Lightning. I am her brother. For I am descended from her mother. I am the son of Light.”
Cheetah sighed. “Then you have put us through all this ordeal for nothing. We never needed to be friends, for we were always family. I could hardly eat my uncle, could I?”
Hare shook his head. “It wouldn’t be proper.”
“Wait!” Cheetah widened her eyes in sudden reverence. “Light is one of the seven Necessities. You are the child of a Necessity.”
“You believe me then?” Tortoise asked. “No challenges?”
Cheetah looked upon Tortoise as he sat against the glow of the evening sun. The light seemed to embrace him, not intensely as lightning would, but softly. She did believe him. But she knew that many animals would not, now that he had deceived them once.
But even if he had claimed to be the son of Light to begin with, few if any would have believed him. Humble Tortoise, rich but otherwise unspectacular. How could he be the only child of a great Necessity? Then again, he was generous with his riches, just like his mother.
“You were just helping your poor niece all along,” Cheetah said, her pride deflated just a bit.
“Helping? Did I help you win that foot race? Did I help you swim to the end of the river? Did I help you decide to turn around and abandon your cherished claim to your heritage only to save your rival? That is something Lightning has never done, do you see? She has never saved another. But her daughter did, and she was filled with such pride, she felt compelled to embrace you.”
Hare twitched his nose. “How do you feel about all those spots marring your bright golden fur?”
Cheetah had been dismayed by the spots at first. Then she had chastised herself for her vanity. Then she had seen the spots reflected in the still waters of a pool and thought they were beautiful. Then she chastised herself again for her vanity. At last, she reminded herself that they were not signs of vanity. The spots were the mark of her heritage.
“My spots do not mar my fur, dear Hare. They mark it. They mark me for what I am. I am Cheetah.”
Tortoise nodded proudly. Cheetah puffed out her spotted chest.
“I am the child of Lightning.”
Copyright © 2016. Nila L. Patel