Something stirred inside Duma. Something dark, restless and wild. It called to her from the depths of the jungle, luring her from a life where nothing ever changed. Her tribe had spent centuries dancing to the same old drum, lulled by the same old songs.
But Duma longed for more.
“There is nothing more,” the elders said, but she didn’t believe them.
While spring splashed through the umbrella trees, she sheltered in her zebu skin tent, beading bone necklaces. Endless bits of bone dripped through her fingers and clattered to the ground.
“Pick those up,” Maame said, not bothering to look up from her loom.
Duma didn’t move. “We’ve strung enough charms for a hundred warriors.”
“It is our way,” Maame said. “Afterward, you will help me weave.”
Duma scrabbled for the carved bones, her anger swelling like the storm. Why make crafts instead of rebuilding the tribe’s strength? In ancient times, her people feared no one. But something had been lost.
As soon as the sun escaped the clouds, Duma tore outside. She climbed a towering jackalberry tree and searched the savanna for signs of their enemies. In the distance, cheetahs raced through swaying grass, leaping like lightning.
“Come down here,” Maame shouted. “You should be useful, not dreaming away your days.”
“I won’t weave blankets when we need to defend our people.”
Maame threw up her hands. “Then gather herbs for the medicine man. You’ll fall sick someday. At least consider that.”
Duma shimmied down. “I’m not just thinking of myself.”
“You don’t think at all.” Maame cuffed Duma’s shoulder. “Thinking is for chiefs and medicine men. Not half-grown kids that hide in trees.”
Duma stormed out of the village. Grit filled her nose as she dug up violet tree roots, their tendrils tangling like empty rituals. She abandoned the herbs and stole to the burial grounds.
As she neared the bluff behind the tombs, the tall tiger grass rippled around her. Painted cheetahs dashed over the worn rock face. She touched their vivid gold. Beside them, faded brown figures pounded deerskin drums.
It must mean something.
Duma cast spiky sugarbush blooms on the graves, seeking guidance from her ancestors.
Strange words whispered in the wind. Hazy images rose in her mind. The painted cheetahs seemed to come alive.
That night, fierce Gazi warriors raided nearby clans. The Chief told of their terrible ways while the whole tribe trembled.
Duma did not tremble.
She heeded a call no other could hear. She crept to the medicine man’s tent. Inside, she dipped her fingers in his golden ochre clay and began painting. Her body grew tawny, her spirit untame. She streaked her long, coarse hair. Then, with charred wood from the evening fire, she drew on spots. A scent beckoned in the warm air. She dropped her coal.
Swift as hope, silent as a lost memory, she stalked through the village, out into the shadowy jungle. The gnarled roots of the kapok tree snagged her feet. Thick snakes hung in coils from its branches. She shuddered and pressed on. Where were the cheetahs that prowled through her dreams? She swept aside a curtain of liana vines.
And there they were, in a carpet of moss and ferns—lithe bundles of golden, spotted fur, heaped together, fast asleep. As the sun rose, glittering through the emerald leaves, the cats stirred, turning their amber eyes on Duma. She crouched, bared her teeth, and joined their morning hunt, her hair streaming behind her like a torch.
Hours later, she returned to the village. Her sisters scoffed at her dirty face. Maame punished her for painting her body and running wild. No one believed she ran with cheetahs.
She ran again and again.
Then one evening, Duma spied Gazi scouts much too close to home. She dashed back to the village, trailed by her snarling cats, their dappled coats bunched in ridges along their spines. Children clung to their mothers as the cheetahs stalked around bonfires, casting long shadows over the leather tents.
This time the elders believed her. They caught up their weapons, taking no time for paint. The women and children rushed to a vine-covered cave.
But Duma refused to hide.
She heard the cry of the Gazi and raised a cry of her own. She and her cheetahs circled the village, moving so fast they were a blur. They kicked dirt and leaves into the air and then burst out of the cloud. The Gazi fled, screaming of spirits and dangers too terrible to face.
When the dust drifted away and the bonfires sprang back to life, the elders sought to honor Duma. She had saved them all.
But she was gone.
They searched the tents, the village, the river. At last they found her at the burial grounds, scattering flowers and sharpening her nails, a coalition of cheetahs purring at her feet.
R. H. Roberts writes in Oklahoma amid the fun and chaos of seven children, one husband, two pets, and she’s not sure how many cows. Her work has appeared in Metamorphose Magazine and has won numerous awards. She loves travel, hiking, and pretending to be a cheetah. Find out more at http://www.RHRoberts.com where she blogs sci-fi/fantasy and real-life adventures.