"Good morning," Kala greeted. "Did you sleep well?"
I frowned. "I overslept! I've led this family for only a few days, and I'm already shirking my responsibilities!"
"You didn't oversleep," she assured me. "We purposely woke up earlier than you to forage."
"How can I protect you if you don't let me know when you're going off foraging?"
She sighed, but there was a smile on her face. "Do you know what a surprise is?"
"Of course," I answered. "A surprise is when there's nothing around you, and then a leopard or a gang of hairless apes appears from out of nowhere, or when you find a new family after yours is murdered, only to discover the leader is a female who finds fault with everything you do."
Kala crossed her arms in front of her chest. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"A hypothetical situation."
Before we had time to continue our discussion, the rest of our family approached with fruit, termites, green shoots, ant larvae, flower buds, roots, and other delicacies.
"To welcome our new leader," Kala's sister began, "we have brought gifts. You have led us well for one full cycle of the moon."
Had I? It still felt like only a few days.
One of the old males shook his finger at me. "You've got a good head on your shoulders for a youth, but you're not being very smart. When I was your age, I had a mate."
I choked on the bite of food that had been in my mouth, causing termites to crawl out my nostril. Kala struck me between the shoulders to help me regain my breath, but I feared I would never regain my dignity.
"A mate?" I asked. "I guess I never thought about it."
"You're going to be a silverback someday, and a silverback ought to have a mate!"
I shrugged. "I suppose…someday. When the time is right."
The old male shook his head. "My boy, if you wait until the time is right, you're going to die alone. You have to take a mate while you're still young enough that female know you can protect them and their offspring. Now you take my advice and find yourself a devoted mate. She'll help you with the responsibilities of leading us all."
I nodded to show I understood. I certainly didn't feel ready for a mate, but he was right. It was the natural course for life, like a river that never changed its location or direction, always flowing the same way, just as nature intended.
My first thought was what I might want in a female, but I soon realized I had a unique problem. As a lead male, I had to choose someone who was best to help me lead our family, not simply someone I thought was best for me personally.
"I will take a mate soon," I promised. "But I must have a bit of time to think it over."
I spent the day considering which female might be right for me. There was Kala's sister, but she already seemed to have her eyes on another male. It would be a shame to split a pair. All three of us would be miserable.
Zola currently had no love interest, but she was too young to be a leader. Taonga was far too sensitive to handle the responsibilities of guiding our family. Chika was logical, but she seemed to hold no emotion. Ife was far too old, nearly the same age my mother had been. Femi was of sound mind and gentle spirit, as well as youthful, but she was plagued by ill health. Udo was healthy enough, but she was hideous.
I sighed. I was getting nowhere. If I didn't find a way to choose a female soon, I'd probably end up with…I shuddered at the thought…Kala.
Then again, she knew a great deal about leadership. She had been taking care of the family since before I arrived. The others already looked to her for guidance, and she did have a kind heart.
Although I would have loved to find a way to deny it, there was no escaping the fact that Kala was the natural choice. She was best for the family. She was intelligent and caring enough to help me lead them.
I supposed she was almost tolerable. She was about my age, and she seemed healthy. She was also somewhat beautiful when the sun hit her just right, but I had never quite been able to tell her.
Later that afternoon, I sat beside her as we foraged. My heart was pounding. How do you say the words that could change your life forever?
"Did you need something?" she asked.
"I've been doing a lot of thinking about choosing a mate," I answered.
Judging from her scowl, I hadn't made the announcement properly.
"It's just that you're the most logical choice for the family," I continued.
"Be that as it may, you're going to have to do better than that," she remarked.
"Should I have brought fruit?"
Kala stared at me in silence for several moments. "Do you love me?"
"What's that supposed to mean? Don't you know whether or not you love me?"
"I don't love," I explained. "It's a maudlin emotion I'm incapable of feeling."
"I could never have a mate if we weren't in love," she answered. "A mate is someone who knows your deepest secrets and supports you anyway. Even when you quarrel bitterly, you still want to find a way to reconcile and win each other back. Your happy times are made all the more joyful by the fact that you share them together. Your sad times are made bearable because at least you have each other. Life changes every day, but after many years of change, the one thing that remains the same is that you've been at each other's sides throughout all of it. Did no one in your family love?"
"I never paid attention."
That was the wrong thing to say. Kala took it upon herself to make sure I noticed love at every opportunity. She pointed out old couples who had known each other since they were younger than we were. Once she even handed me a baby.
"Do you feel anything?"
I frowned. "It's hairless."
Kala laughed warmly. "That's because it's a baby. They all look like that at first. See? Here's a patch of hair here."
"Why is it wiggling?"
"Babies are living creatures. They move. What's wrong? Did you never hold one?"
"No." I hefted it a few times. "What's wrong with it? It doesn't weigh enough. Is it sick?"
Kala shook her head. "It's an infant. Do you know how much trouble the mother would have if it weighed three hundred pounds at birth?"
I handed the baby back to its mother. "It frightens me. These tiny creatures are depending on me to make the right decisions for our family. They're too helpless to make their own."
The following day, Kala groomed me. "Feel anything?"
"It's relaxing," I responded.
"And what are you thinking?"
"Maybe I should do the same for you to show my appreciation."
"Your favorite food is termites."
I thought a moment. "Yours is the fruit of the wild ginger plant."
"And how do you feel about knowing each other's favorite foods?"
"It's interesting." After a pause, I added, "My sister's favorite was caterpillars."
I remembered how my sister had chosen to give up the rest of her life in exchange for mine. It was my time to die and her time to continue living, but she had taken my fate to give me hers.
Why had she done it? She had been so young! Males had begun to look at her with fondness. She would have been such a great mother!
Had she taken my place as the hairless apes' victim because she felt a sense of duty to her family, or had she truly thought life would be too sorrowful to continue without me in it? Was this love?
Sometimes, I was sure I could still hear her crooning to the babies of other females in our family:
"Don't be afraid, dear.
Love will make it right.
Just take my hand,
Day and night.
Love will protect us from all around us.
I will be here;
Don't you fear.
"Love starts out small,
But grows so strong.
My arms will hold you,
Be it right or wrong.
This bond between us ever strengthens.
I will be here;
Don't you fear,
"For I give you my heart.
Yes, you shall have my heart
From this day on,
Now and forevermore.
I give you my heart.
For the rest of our days,
You'll have my loving heart.
It was an old song that was much debated. Some of the elders of our family had claimed the words originated as a love song between a male and female from two different worlds, but despite all that threatened to divide them, they pledged their eternal love and found a way to be brought together. Others claimed it was simply a mother's lullaby for a child she loved dearly. However it may have begun, there were several variations of the lyrics.
"Do you believe in rain?" I asked aloud one day.
Kala frowned. "You mean do I believe the wet drops that fall from the sky actually exist?"
"The leader of my first family always said that raindrops were the tears of those who have gone before us," I explained. "He believed that rain was always a sign that a family had suffered a tragedy, such as the death of a great leader. My sister thought differently. She thought rain was just the sky's way of watering the fruit to make it grow."
"I can't say I've ever thought about it," Kala answered. "What do you believe?"
"My first family died on a sunny day," I remarked, "so I think maybe my sister was right."
"But what if you die on a rainy day?"
I sighed. "Then I guess we'll never know for sure, will we?"
"I've already got it planned out. I'm going to die peacefully of old age, surrounded by my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I'll just be taking a nap in the afternoon sun, and I'll never wake up. Nice and easy. No last words. No rain. No maudlin display of sentiment."
"Don't you want to know you're dying so you have time to prepare yourself?"
"By no means," I answered. "I want it to be instant and oblivious. If I knew I was going to die, I'd be afraid, but despite my fear growing worse by the moment, there'd be no way out of the situation."
"Well, good luck with that."
"Because I'm more likely to die of injury or disease than old age?"
"Because you're not at all likely to die surrounded by your great-grandchildren if you don't have a mate."
"Do you ever laugh?"
Kala's question caught me completely off guard.
"Not often," I responded.
"Because you're always worried about leading the family well or because you have a fascination with appearing emotionless?"
"Never really thought about it."
I suppose I would have continued not thinking about it if it hadn't been for the time Kala took a nap out in the open. A group of children took some fruit and began smearing the juice on her hands, feet, and face. I knew it would be polite to shoo the children away, but I was too amused. When they started adding bird feathers throughout her fur, I was unable to hide a laugh. She looked like no creature I had ever seen!
When Kala awakened, she immediately asked why I was staring at her, and I laughed again. She finally walked to the edge of the nearest pool to see her reflection.
"Why didn't you wake me?" she demanded, lunging at me.
It was more of a play tussle than an actual fight. I was careful not to hurt her, and as soon as she had smeared fruit on my face, she let me go.
"And I was afraid you didn't have a sense of humor!" she remarked.
"I don't," I answered.
"Of course not." Kala lightly punched my arm.
I fell to the ground. "Traitress! How could you?"
She gasped. "I'm so sorry! I forgot what you told me about the leopard fight years ago."
"Actually, the leopard broke my other arm." I grinned. "This one's fine."
"Not for long!"
We pretended to fight again. I hadn't had so much fun since before my sister perished.
"You're different," I remarked one day.
"How so?" Kala asked.
"When I first joined this family, you acted as if you wanted nothing to do with me. Then you realized I meant no harm, but you were still a bit aloof. You're different now. You let your caring nature show. We can actually talk about serious things or even share a smile."
"That generally happens when you make friends," she answered. "If you don't end up declaring war on each other, you end up pretty close."
"Do you honestly like me, or do I just remind you of your sister?"
"In some ways, you do," I replied, "but you have your own distinct personality." After a pause, I asked, "So we're friends?"
"We aren't enemies."
"Not quite what I meant."
"We work together well enough to lead our family," Kala remarked.
"What else matters?"
"Right." I cleared my throat. "Since we work together, I think we should forage together more often so we can discuss how best to guide our family."
"You naturally end up drifting my direction whenever we forage. How could we possibly do it more often?"
"Right. Again. Well, is this so bad?"
"We work together for the sake of the family, but we never officially become mates."
Thus, Kala and I became mates…in a distant sort of way. We foraged together and groomed each other. We shared the responsibilities of guiding our family. There was no love between us, but I was content. Our distant relationship may have continued forever if it hadn't been for one rainy night.
"The wind is making it too cold," Kala remarked.
"It is cold," I agreed.
"Perhaps we should sleep beside each other like brother and sister," she suggested. "It would keep us both warmer."
Kala lay down beside me. "Don't think too much of this. I'm just cold."
"Same," I muttered.
We put our arms around each other in a friendly embrace, and Kala was asleep in an instant. However, I had never been more restless. There was something about her being so close that made me want to hold her closer to protect her from everything in the jungle. She was a strong female, but she had to act tough to protect her tender heart from breaking. Why had I never before noticed how soft her hands were? She was intelligent, kind, and beautiful.
Judging from the look on her face, she felt secure in my arms. Did she really trust me that much?
As I watched her sleep, all I could think was that I wanted her to have a happy life. I wanted to provide for her and protect her and hear her secrets and share her worries and celebrate her joys. I wanted her to be in every memory I made for the rest of my life.
She stirred in her sleep. "Still awake?"
"I…" I hesitated, unsure how to continue. "Somewhere beneath my gruff exterior, I must have a heart because you've found your way into it. I believe I'm starting to develop feelings for you."
Kala snuggled closer. "Good night, Kerchak."
When we woke up the following morning, I felt entirely foolish. I decided if Kala mentioned anything I had said the previous evening, I would deny everything and say she had misheard me or that she had been dreaming.
She yawned and stretched. "Not too bad being like brother and sister, is it?"
"It's not enough." The words escaped my lips before I could stop them.
"So you do love me?"
I turned away, but I felt her hand clasp mine. For several moments, we just sat there, looking into each other's eyes.
"I've admired you for a while now," she confessed. "I think we complement each other well, and I see the heart you try so hard to hide. I just never said anything because I wasn't sure how you felt about me."
The next several weeks were wonderful. We shared secrets and found ways to make each other laugh. Kala's gentle heart shone like the morning sun, and I found myself worrying less when she was at my side to help me lead our family.
One morning, I made the announcement. "Everyone, although I am honored that you look to me for guidance, I can no longer care for our family alone. I have finally chosen a mate. As you all know, Kala and I have become very close friends during my time as your leader, and if she'll have me, she is the one I choose to spend the rest of my life beside."
Even though we had considered ourselves to be in love for a while now, Kala looked startled.
She looked down at the ground for several moments before looking up shyly. "I will."
"You really will?"
"Of course I will!"
That was years ago, of course. Kala and I are still in love, but there's something missing from our partnership. Something about four pounds. Something soft and warm.
"Why can't I give my mate a baby like other females?" Kala complains.
"You don't have to give me a baby to earn my affection." I dry her tears. "All things happen when the time is right, my love."
"I want someone special to hold and cuddle, someone to feed and care for! I want to watch something helpless grow into something strong that can make us proud!"
She's at the point where she almost starts crying whenever she sees a baby. I still love my mate dearly, but in all the time I've known her, she's never been this close to driving me mad. At this rate, all my hair will be gray before another month has passed.
At the moment, I have no time to think of babies, for clouds are gathering, and I know another storm is on its way. I must lead my family to higher ground in case of flooding. Once again, I hope my sister was right and that rain is not the herald of tragedy, but simply a way to grow flowers.