“Hey there, you! Ever tasted honey before?”
That was the only scrap of dialogue that Paka was certain she heard that day during the height of the summer rains. Though it wasn’t raining at the moment, its presence was evident in the verdant foliage that dappled the trees and the soft, supple blades of grass that blanketed the plains.
“Yoo-hoo! Are you there?”
It was a persistent, melodic voice that kept calling to Paka from somewhere above her head, from the branches of the slender tree she lay under, no doubt. It sounded as if it came from a small creature, a very small one, but Paka’s stupor from her recent meal didn’t make her want to raise her head and crane her neck to see exactly what the noisemaker was.
“Hallo hallo! Big brown cat, I’m talking to you!”
Paka sighed and flexed her muscles slightly, allowing her body to stretch out even further on the soft ground, with which she felt she was slowly merging. In a few hours, she thought, it would be impossible to separate her from this wonderful…
“All right. I’m coming down to see if you’re awake. No teeth, ‘kay?”
Paka ignored the insistent whatever-it-was. She would’ve continued to do so if the whatever-it-was hadn’t suddenly flashed in front of her eyes, hovered erratically for a moment, and landed with a tiny flip of wings barely a foot from her face.
If Paka hadn’t been so weighed down, she would have nearly jumped backwards in surprise. All she did on this occasion was blink once or twice and stare at the miniscule thing that now stood before her.
It was a bird. A very small bird, about the size and shape of a finch. Its entire body, save for a light patch on its chest and a dark spot on each side of its face, was a dull brown. It was a bird so incredibly ordinary and unremarkable in both color and shape that at first I found it exceedingly odd that Paka should remember so much about it. Of course, assured Paka as she related this tale to me, the reason was to come later.
“Ah,” piped the bird, “So you are awake. Why didn’t you answer me?”
Paka stared at the feathered thing. Though it occasionally twitched its head and alternately tapped its feet, presumably ready to flee at any moment, it seemed utterly unafraid of her.
“Hey, I asked you a question, Fluffy! Asked you two, in fact – what’s your answer – answers?”
Paka, slowly becoming more alert as she watched the bird’s flighty actions and listened to its quick, high-pitched patter, suddenly realized something that she hadn’t realized in her overstuffed daze. She was so startled that she could hardly put her thoughts into words, but eventually she did:
“You’re a female.”
“That wasn’t an answer,” snapped the bird, “To my questions or to any question, I’m sure!”
“I wasn’t listening,” Paka slurred, now determined to gather her thoughts. “What did you ask me?”
The bird sighed – Paka was certain it was a sigh, but from an avian this small, it sounded more like a nasal whistle.
“I asked if you’d ever tasted honey before?”
“No – what‘s ‘honey’?”
“It’s the most marvelous thing there is,” mused the bird, hopping to the left. “It’s thick, it’s flowing, it’s rich…and finding it is half the fun!”
“But what is it?”
“It’s something to eat, of course,” said the bird, bobbing her head like a parrot.
“I just ate.” Paka muttered.
“’Ate’ meaning you and your buddies stalked, chased, killed and eviscerated a helpless thing with hooves, yes?”
“Well, honey is different,” said the bird with a hint of mystery in her voice. “Very different.”
“It’s made by bees. I’m sure you know what bees are, hmm?”
Paka cringed, raising her head and shifting her weight so that she was no longer lying flat on the grass as she did so.
“You mean the nasty little striped things that have acacia thorns sticking out of their – “
“Yes, yes,” said the bird promptly, hopping back to its original position. “That’s right. Well, the honey comes from their homes, and it is truly marvelous, let me tell you…”
“How would you know about all this?” Paka asked, beginning to wonder if this bird was completely crazy after all. “Bees’ homes are up in the trees, and something as tiny as you getting within a branch’s length of their hive would be stung to death in a second!”
The bird paused, lowered her head, and tapped a toe that was barely wider than the smallest twig.
“You don’t know what I am, then?” she said in a low voice.
“Ah. Well, the humans call me and my kind ‘honeyguides.’ Pretty imaginative, eh? They call us that because of what we do.”
“You guide honey?” asked Paka, still not thinking as clearly as she usually did.
“Ah…” said the bird, knowing full well that mocking Paka’s words might earn her an inside view of a lioness’s stomach, “Close, close, but not quite.”
The little brown creature took to the air, landing atop one of the tree’s protruding roots which formed a small arch above the ground.
“We guide others to the honey,” it said, its tiny head extended as far as its neck would allow, speaking as if it were whispering the greatest secret of the world to Paka. “One of us first finds a beehive, then someone who looks like they might be hungry for honey, and then we lead them to the hive.”
“Who eats honey, though?”
The bird stared wistfully into the distance.
“Many generations ago, humans would follow us to the hives every season, it seemed. They thought we were – I dunno, magic, or something. Those were the days. Gad, I wish I’d lived back then…oh yeah, we guide ratels to the hives too, and even baboons sometimes, although they’re pretty much…”
“Wait a minute,” said Paka, finally awake enough to rise to a sitting position and stare at the bird that still perched steadfastly on the raised root. “I don’t get it. Why would a little thing like you spend so much time just guiding someone to a beehive so that they can eat this honey? Why? Showing humans and badgers the way to a free lunch is just plain ridic – “
“You just answered your own question, Lioness,” the bird said softly.
“’Free lunch.’ That’s why I guide them to the honey. ‘Free lunch.’”
Paka looked down, not understanding the honeyguide’s words. The brown bird swooped down from the root, landing in front of Paka’s front paws, flicking its tail.
“Lookie: When a human, ratel or baboon wants honey and follows one of us to the hive, he can’t just take the stuff, savvy?”
“But humans are smart, and ratels are strong. They find a way to get rid of the bees, or at least get them out of the way so that the human or ratel can open the hive. See?”
Paka furrowed her brow, the honeyguide’s bizarre motives starting to make sense in her mind.
“Yes. And once they’ve opened the hive up and gotten all the honey they want, there’s still plenty left over for someone like me.”
“The free lunch, yes.”
“So you all live on honey?”
“Oh no,” peeped the guide, pacing the ground agitatedly. “We eat what most other birds our size eat. We just happen to have a preference for the contents of honeycombs. And we don’t just eat the honey, no no.”
“What else do you eat, then?”
“You’d be surprised at how much is in a beehive besides bees,” said the bird, half to Paka, half to the horizon. Her attention seemed to have wavered. She stared off into space for a few moments before fluffing her feathers excitedly and fixing her gaze on Paka again.
“So do you wanna follow me?”
Paka still doesn’t know why she agreed to follow the honeyguide. Perhaps part of her still wanted to know whether this bird was stark raving mad, or just eccentric. Or both. But for whatever reason, Paka was soon walking after the little bird, which flew ahead of her in a majestic swooping-and-soaring pattern from tree to tree. She would pause at each perch and call out to Paka to keep up, chattering songs intermingled with her words.
“Come on, come on!” she sang. “Over here! This way, this way, Meat-Muncher! I promise you, this will be worth it!”
“Do you always swoop and sing like this?” asked Paka, pausing before a large shrub that the honeyguide currently occupied.
“Of course,” replied the bird, ruffling her feathers proudly.
“Have to draw attention to myself,” the bird twittered. “Have to give them something to look and listen for. Otherwise they might lose me, or even worse, lose interest. No free lunch for them or me. Yep, yep, gotta draw attention to myself if I want someone to follow me.”
Paka examined the mouse-sized animal that resembled a dirt clod with feathers.
“Yes, you certainly do.”
“Well,” said the guide, fluttering her wings, “Onwards, then, my meat-eating friend!”
And she took to the air again.
“Hurry up, hurry up! Move those legs now! Gah, you’d think an animal with four legs would move faster than one with just two, not slower!”
“You know,” Paka panted as she tried to keep up with the swift bird, “You haven’t told me your name yet.”
“Name?” asked the bird, looking over its shoulder, making a fair attempt at a hover, giving up, and landing on a nearby stone. “Why would I need a thing like that? You in your nice prides, you have names, but us…we live alone. With no one close by who knows you as anything other than a light snack, there’s really not much point in having a real name, is there?”
The honeyguide had a good point. A very good one. Paka nodded in agreement. With thousands of birds that barely knew each other, often scattered across miles of land, it was no wonder that one of their number should have hardly any sense of identity.
“You…” said Paka, looking down at the humble bird. “Can I call you Hoyden?”
“Hoy-den? Is that a name you’re giving me?”
“Yes…just so I can call you something instead of ‘bird.’ Is that okay?”
The bird with the pending name twisted her little head around, examining Paka through each widely spaced, dark gray eye.
“It just seems to fit you, I guess.”
“Hmm. What is your name?”
“Hmm,” said the bird ponderingly. “That means ‘spot’, does it not?”
“’Spot’ or ‘cat.’”
“You fit your name very well,” remarked the bird, eyeing the prominent specks on Paka’s cheeks.
“Thanks,” said Paka. “So…Hoyden?”
Paka smiled fondly.
“Let’s go find that honey.”
Hoyden attempted a smile (not an easy feat for an animal with a beak), then took off, swooping through the air for several yards before coming to rest on a branch of a small tree. Paka took off after her at a leisurely lope.
“Wait,” said Hoyden as Paka neared her perch. The bird had suddenly frozen in place, her head turned to one side.
“What?” asked Paka, halting abruptly.
“You smell that?” Hoyden murmured, her head still pointed in the same direction, towards a clump of grassy shrubs.
Paka casually sniffed the air.
“Yeah,” she remarked. “Smells like someone’s just killed something.”
Paka tells me that she later realized that Hoyden’s observation was very unusual, since nearly all birds have no sense of smell, with vultures and honeyguides being two noble exceptions. I suppose I’ll have to take her word for it. It does, however, seem reasonable for birds with such specialized diets to have keen noses.
Hoyden flitted up to a higher branch and craned her neck in the direction from which the odor originated.
“Yes…and it looks like some undeserving guys want to get that ‘something’ for themselves.”
“Take a look. Just keep walking that way, I’ll tell you when to stop.”
Paka hesitated, looked over her shoulder at Hoyden, then shrugged and slowly moved forward, into the shrubs. She had barely gone a tail’s length when she heard a shrill twitter from Hoyden, and promptly halted. She heard voices a short way distant, and could see partially obscured forms through the tall grasses. She cautiously lifted her head.
In a wide clearing surrounded by grasses that grew shorter than the ones Paka was concealed in, a male cheetah stood over something small, white, sleek, and partially devoured. Standing around him and his kill were several jackals, golden-furred with dark backs, all of which looked scruffy, unpleasant, and ravenous.
“Hey, Mister Kitty,” said one of them in a husky, leering voice, “Did you catch this all by yourself, or did you need help?”
The cheetah sniffed with an air of disdain, then lowered his head, trying to swallow as much meat as he could before the jackals decided to resort to violence to separate him from his food. The time that this would happen didn’t seem that far off.
“My, aren’t we antisocial today,” crooned another jackal. “What’s wrong? Run into a tree that you didn’t see because you were going too fast?”
The other jackals snickered and Paka rolled her eyes. Typical canine humor.
“Hey,” began the jackal that had spoken first, “Is it true what they say about you cheetahs?”
He asked the question in such an innocent, yet audacious manner that the cheetah had to respond. He looked up from his kill with brooding amber eyes and a long, sloping nose.
“What’s true about what?”
His voice was deeper than Paka would have guessed. It sounded weary, weak, and somehow sad.
“About your teeth,” barked the first jackal. “Is it true that your teeth are so tiny that they can’t pierce any animal’s skin unless someone positions them above it, then bangs you on the top of your head?”
His companions laughed again. The cheetah winced as if he had been dealt a physical blow, but then went back to his meal, trying to ignore the other carnivores as much as he could.
“And do you really chirp like birds and bark like us instead of meowing or roaring?” queried the second jackal, showing equal delight in tormenting the spotted cat.
“And don’t you pant like us when you stop running?” asked another.
“Oh yeah, and the paws!” said the first jackal. “Do you guys really have claws that you can’t pull in like all the other cats?”
“Stop it,” the cheetah mumbled, not even looking up from the carcass.
“I bet they ain’t real sharp if they’re out all the time,” continued the jackal. “They must be as dull as…
“Heyyyyy…” he said with a mischievous glow in his eye. “I remember now…you guys have paws like dogs, don’t you?”
“Either steal my kill or find another place to scavenge,” growled the cheetah, beginning to tremble with frustration and rage. “Just make up your mind.”
“No really, I heard it from somewhere, and I’m positive that you do…Lemme take a look at those tootsies and we’ll see if…”
It all happened in a heartbeat. The jackal had swiftly stepped up to the cheetah and dipped his inquisitive head down to get a good look at the cat’s paws. As he did, the cheetah’s head snapped up, the bloodstained mouth open, teeth bared. As the jackal quickly leapt back to his original position, the cheetah suddenly did something that Paka never would have imagined a cat doing. He barked. A loud, resounding sound that made Paka blink her eyes and question her sanity. She had never known a feline to make such a noise. She had known cheetahs to be a little unusual, but barking like a dog?
“Woooooaaah.” muttered the provoking jackal, his eyes wide. The way he said the word made Paka think that he was as startled as she was. She was very wrong.
“So you do bark,” he continued in a snide, sneering tone. “My, my. With those paws and that voice, I’d think you guys are part dog! Whaddayou think, guys?”
“Oh oh oh!” yipped one of the younger scavengers, hopping up and down. “I heard something! Something about them!”
“I…uh…” stammered the pup, who seemed just a bit verbally-challenged, “It was something one of the human-guides said…y’know, the ones in the big, shiny, noisy things with the big round legs that roll?”
“Do cheetahs chase these ‘big things?’” chuckled the first jackal. His joke wasn’t received well, but two of the jackals, who were familiar with the habits of their domesticated cousins, laughed for all they were worth.
“Well…uh…no,” said the verbally-challenged jackal, “But when the big thing stopped by one of them…”
Here he stopped and pointed to the still-fuming cheetah.
“…I heard one human-guide say something like…those cats…when humans throw something…those cats…they run after it and bring it back.”
The first jackal threw back his head and howled with laughter.
“You hear that, Fido?” he said to the cheetah, who was still shaking with barely contained fury at this barrage of shameless taunts. “You guys have a fetching instinct! You must be part dog to have that! Hey, think I should find a stick and see if Fido wants to play?”
“It’s disgusting, isn’t it?”
That voice didn’t come from the cheetah or any of the jackals. It came from a spot barely a foot from Paka’s right ear.
She whipped her head around sharply, but relaxed when she saw that it was only her honeyguide companion, Hoyden.
“Well,” she said, “Isn’t it?”
Paka glanced back at the jackals surrounding the cheetah’s kill, who were now mocking the poor cat in the worst possible way, making diminutive barking and yipping noises, prancing around like antelope.
“What? The carcass?”
“No,” muttered Hoyden in exasperation. “The way those good-for-nothing-but-eating-your-leftovers guys are tormenting that cheetah. It’s disgusting.”
“Oh. Yeah, it is.”
“Somebody should teach those smelly beasts some manners.”
“I’ll be right back.”
But Paka barely had time to react as the honeyguide disappeared in a flurry of wings, gliding and swooping towards the taunting jackals and the distraught cheetah.
“Hoyden!” Paka hissed. “What are you – “
“Howdy, boys,” Hoyden twittered from her new perch in a bramble situated barely a yard from the squabble. “What’s goin’ down?”
The jackals stopped mocking the cheetah and fell silent, glancing about, trying to find who had spoken to them.
“Over here, you great oafs,” piped the honeyguide in a pleasant voice. The first jackal that Paka heard speaking finally spotted the tiny bird, and his look of curiosity quickly morphed into one of smug amusement.
“Well, well,” he said. “A talking mouthful! What brings you here?”
“Say,” said another, “Aren’t you one of those guide birds?”
“’Guide bird?’ What’s that? Some bird that leads humans who can’t see around like your domesticated relatives?”
The sharpness of her wit seemed lost on the youngest jackal, which stared blankly for a moment before one of his companions spoke up:
“He means, ‘Are you a honeyguide?’ You sure look like one to me.”
“Hey, I think you’re right,” said the first jackal, peering towards Hoyden to get a better look at her. “So…you’re a honeyguide.”
“Yes,” replied Hoyden tersely. “What of that?”
“Met any handsome badgers lately?”
“Don’t give me that! Seems that every time I see one of your kind, they’re flitting around and singing their hearts out to honey badgers! What’s wrong, your own mate so boring that you want to court a member of a different species?”
This made nearly all the jackals snicker, while those who didn’t snicker were laughing in high-pitched yelps. Hoyden was unmoved by their insults. Paka suddenly realized that with the jackals focused on Hoyden, the cheetah was forgotten for the moment. The slender cat also realized this, and was using the inattention to his advantage, gulping down as much of his meat as he could before the jackals tried to harry him away from it.
“No really,” continued the first jackal, “you sing to them, wait for them to come a little closer, then flit away for a bit, then sing again! Why do you do that? Playing hard-to-get?”
The jackals giggled even more, and another jackal took the opportunity to add to the abuse:
“Yeah, it seems that you’re never without your beloved ratels, eh, pretty birdie? I’m surprised your amor isn’t here now!”
Hoyden made a tiny “hmph” noise and ruffled her feathers.
“I’m surprised you guys seem to unafraid of honey badgers.”
“Why should we be?” asked the first jackal. “They’re just bad-tempered, smelly, hairy old hermits!”
Just like you, apart from the “hermit” bit, thought Paka, grinning to herself as she started to enjoy Hoyden’s little conversation with the scavengers. The honeyguide herself seemed to be pondering the very best reply to the jackal’s question. Finally, she spoke:
”You do know what body part honey badgers always go for when they attack, don’t you?”
All the jackals seemed to simultaneously cringe and quiver with discomfort. However, the young, verbally-challenged one still seemed quite clueless.
“Uhh…whaddaya mean?” he asked.
“What male body part…” said Hoyden, in a deeper, threatening tone.
The verbally-challenged jackal was about to open his mouth to speak again, but one of his buddies quickly drew close to him and whispered something in his ear. As he did, the expression on the younger jackal’s face slowly changed from confusion to realization to revulsion, and finally to barely-controlled fear. It was all Paka could do to keep from laughing.
“H-hey now,” began the first jackal again, his voice filled with obvious unease, “B-b-badgers don’t really do that…do they?”
“Of course they do,” said Hoyden cheerily, “They do it with any male that corners them, be they jackals, men, even lions. Scary, eh?”
“That’s not true!” protested the first jackal. “It’s just something someone made up!”
“Maybe it is,” said Hoyden, turning her head slightly, “But my ‘amor’ is actually right over there, in those shrubs…“
Here she pointed with her wing towards a clump of bushes…the bushes behind which Paka was hiding.
“…So how about I call him out so we can see for ourselves whether he goes for that part or not?”
One or two of the jackals shuddered at this, and one or two others shifted uneasily. They obviously had no idea whether Hoyden was bluffing or not, but they certainly weren’t eager to find out the truth. There was an awkward pause for a few seconds. Suddenly, one jackal that was desperately trying to find a way of ending the conversation finally noticed the cheetah they had been trying to get a free meal from a few minutes earlier, now almost half finished stripping his kill, thanks to Hoyden.
“Hey fellas!” barked the jackal gleefully. “We forgot about Spotty here!”
The cheetah stopped eating and stiffened slightly, the coarse, spiky hair between his shoulders bristling like a porcupine’s spines. The first jackal turned to face the spotted cat and grinned, despite Hoyden’s futile attempts to call his attention back to her.
“Say,” he crooned, his coolness returning almost immediately at the prospect of tormenting the feline again, “You’ve just about had your fill, wouldn’t you say, Kitty? How about sharing a little, hmmm?”
The cheetah growled as the jackal edged closer, and flicked out a paw and snarled as the scavenger once again tried to swipe his hard-earned food out from under his nose. It seemed as if the taunting had officially started again.
Paka sighed. She’d had enough. With her eyes partially closed, she began to nose her way through the thick shrubbery. The sound of her approach caused nearly half of the jackals to yelp in fear, and one of them would have run if it hadn’t been for his suddenly wobbly legs. Paka chuckled. Perhaps the jackals had swallowed Hoyden’s little fib after all.
A few seconds later, she emerged from the dense vegetation. The jackals who had cried out in terror seemed temporarily relieved to see that she wasn’t a ratel, but then reality kicked in.
“LION!” squealed the verbally-challenged youngster, his tail tucked between his hind legs, flattening his body as low as he could without actually lying down. “BIG LION! Run!”
“Quiet,” said Paka firmly, just loud enough to be heard above the yelping and whimpering.
“Big girl lion?” queried the youngster in a barely audible whine.
“Quiet,” Paka repeated. “Listen, you slobbering mongrels, I won’t hurt you if you promise to get out of here. Every pointy-nosed, black-backed one of you.”
There was silence, then a frantic nodding of heads from every jackal that cowered before her.
“NOW,” Paka boomed. The jackals needed no further instruction. They scattered like rabbits, each one heading in a different direction. Once their footfalls had faded, Paka turned to look at the cheetah, who was still standing guard over his kill, shaking with fear at the sight and sound of his new enemy. She quietly moved a step closer to the slightly smaller and leaner cat, who winced and shivered even more, glancing about with wide eyes, trying to decide whether to run or stand his ground.
“You…you can have this,” he choked out, motioning towards the partially eaten carcass. “It’s all right…eat all you want…go ahead, I won’t stop you…but…but please…”
“I don’t want your lunch,” reassured Paka. “I’m not even hungry. You caught it, you defended it, you should be the one to eat it. Just try to finish it before some even nastier bone-pickers show up.”
The cheetah stopped shivering. It examined Paka closely, then down at his meal, then back at Paka.
“Thanks…” he whispered.
“Sure,” said Paka, turning and walking out of the little clearing. Hoyden, who was perched on her twig through the whole event, took wing, and was soon moving directly alongside Paka, albeit a few feet higher than the young lioness.
“What was that all about?” the honeyguide piped.
“I hate jackals,” replied Paka. “Doesn’t everyone?”
“But all for the sake of that cheetah?” Hoyden persisted. “No lion gets that close to a cheetah unless his intent is to steal its lunch!”
“I told you, I just ate.”
“Then why?” asked Hoyden, swooping so low that Paka felt a breeze from the bird’s wings on her cheek. “Don’t tell me you pitied him, there’s just no room for that sort of thing out here, when someone’s always trying to eat you or your food…or both!”
Paka frowned. She had been acting on an impulse when she scared off the jackals, and for some reason, sparing the cheetah as well as his kill just seemed like the right thing to do…but why? What possible reason could there be for a lion defending a cheetah?
At last, it came to her.
“Well…to tell you the truth, Hoyden…I feel sorry for the little guys.”
“Sorry? How so?”
“Cheetahs aren’t like jackals…or lions. Or any other type of Hunter that I know of.”
“They don’t eat carrion. Even when times are lean, they only eat fresh meat, so they’re out hunting almost every single day.”
“So they never scavenge?” Hoyden asked, her tiny voice filled with wonder.
“I dunno. It’s like they’ve got some extra-finicky trait that won’t let them eat something that’s already dead…maybe it’s a pride thing, or maybe they just can’t eat carrion. I just don’t know. But if I’d let the jackals make off with that cheetah’s kill, it’s not like he could bully a smaller Hunter into giving up its meal. He’d have to just track down and kill something again. And maybe again after that, if something else decided to steal from him then.”
“But they’re the fastest beasts on the savannah, aren’t they?” protested Hoyden, “So hunting for them should be easy, right?”
Paka sighed and shook her head.
“They’re no luckier than us in the chase. Every Hunter has their own obstacles to overcome. You may be safe as a meat-eater, but it comes with a price.”
Hoyden exhaled in a wheezy whistle, and flapped along silently, contemplating all this new information. The grasses sighed in the gentle wind as brooding clouds began to move in over the mountains, like the first great herds of the season.
“You know something, though,” Paka finally said, “I’m surprised that the jackals didn’t get a little edgy around that cheetah after what you said about honey badgers.”
“Why’s that?” asked Hoyden.
“You know how cheetahs look when they’re cubs?”
“Uh, that too, but they also have these bushy manes that cover them from their heads to their rumps.”
“Sounds like something that would put your males to shame.”
“Yeah – do you know why they have those manes, though?”
“Hmmm…” pondered Hoyden. “No. No, I don’t.”
“The manes make them look like honey badgers!” said Paka, giggling. “So that predators leave them alone!”
Hoyden stopped in mid-swoop, hovering a short distance from Paka’s left eye.
“Is that true?” she asked.
“Yes, it is!” Paka laughed.
“And does it really work?”
“I wouldn’t know…I guess it has to work, otherwise there wouldn’t be any cheetahs today!”
“Well,” said Hoyden, a hint of mischief in her voice, “If your cheetah friend ever finds a mate, maybe he should invite those jackals over to see the kids, don’t you think?”
Paka can’t recall a day when she has laughed harder than the day she spent with Hoyden. After her laughter from Hoyden’s quip had mostly subsided, the honeyguide cautiously asked whether she was still up to finding out what honey tasted like. Paka managed a nod, and once again, the little brown bird began her aerial acrobatics, leading the tawny brown lioness onward through the tall, green grasses lit by the late afternoon sun.
“So, what’s it like, living in a ‘pride’?” asked Hoyden as she airily flitted along a short distance ahead of Paka.
“Crowded,” admitted Paka as she walked along. “But at least you’re never alone.”
“I can imagine. How many males do you have in your pride?”
“Last time I counted, just one. Others come and go, though. And there are a few male cubs…”
“Ah, cubs,” said Hoyden wistfully, alighting on a twig protruding from a patch of brambles. “How many of those do you have?”
“Me personally, or the pride as a whole?” asked Paka, trying to focus on Hoyden’s tiny face from where she stood.
“The pride as a whole.”
“Oh. Maybe seven or eight. Three mothers, two or three cubs each.”
“I thought you lions had seven or eight cubs each,” said Hoyden, as Paka drew even with her.
“Any lioness who had that many offspring at once would be a legend,” Paka scoffed. “The most I’ve ever seen in a litter is five.”
“How many were in yours?” asked Hoyden, who seemed to be a bottomless pit of questions.
Paka stopped walking. Her brow furrowed.
“I can’t really remember…I think there were at least three of us, but…one of my sisters died.”
“I’m sorry,” said Hoyden, blinking several times in quick succession and cleaning a wing absently.
“Her name was Ifama…I barely remember it, but I know she died. It happens all the time in prides…some cubs just lose the will to live, or get killed by another Hunter. I was one of the lucky ones. Some of them don’t even get to see their second season.”
“I guess we’re not that different after all,” remarked Hoyden, gazing at the horizon. “We’re in danger as soon as we’re born.”
“Did you have any siblings?” Paka asked without thinking.
Hoyden’s head whipped around as if she’d heard a predator coming. Then she relaxed slightly, but her dark gray eyes still had that tense look about them.
“Yes,” she replied slowly.
Paka decided not to pursue the subject any further. Hoyden’s startled reaction and taciturn reply led my daughter-in-law to believe that the honeyguide’s siblings had either died, become prey for a larger bird or another equally ambitious animal, or possibly both. Paka didn’t know how the Hunted perceived death, and she wasn’t terribly eager to find out. Yet.
“So,” Paka said, hoping to change the subject to a brighter one, “Where’s that honey, Hoyden?”
Hoyden looked at Paka, then turned her head and sniffed the air with her large nostrils.
“We’re almost there!” she cheeped, her spirits picking up immediately. “Just a little further!”
With that, she launched herself into the air, swooping and soaring dramatically through the air, so swiftly that Paka was obliged to run in order to keep up with her. Paka began to sense a strange humming noise in the air, which seemed to intensify as she followed Hoyden.
Finally, barely half a minute later, Hoyden braked in mid-glide, and maniacally hovered in place, calling out louder than Paka had ever heard her before.
“There it is!” she shrilled, gesturing with her left foot in the direction of a gnarled, stout tree. “The hive! The hive! The hive! It’s there! Over there!”
“Could you pipe down and let me look at it in peace?” Paka growled, beginning to grow tired of Hoyden’s constant serenades.
“All right, all right,” Hoyden whistled, quieting down almost immediately. “You’re a carnivore. I don’t want to be eaten, so I listen…”
“Shhhh!” Paka hissed. This time Hoyden went dead silent. Paka could now hear that humming again, louder this time, and seeming to come from the “hive” that Hoyden was singing about. The hive seemed to be a folded, lumpy mass nestled in the crotch of the tree, low enough to the ground for Paka to reach, provided she stood on her hind legs. The unceasing drone grew louder as Paka approached the tree, trying to determine the source of the noise…
The bees. Of course, Paka suddenly realized. And what a lot of bees there were. Hundreds – perhaps thousands – some in the air, some closer to the ground, some crawling all over the hive itself – all buzzing at once. It was a mesmerizing sound. It made her ears quiver and the hairs along her back stand erect. Paka had certainly seen bees before, and assumed that several of them would make them same dull hum, just at a louder pitch. But the sound that the swarm made was like nothing she had heard – or felt – before.
“So this is where they come from,” she finally said.
“Yes,” confirmed Hoyden from her newly acquired perch in a prickly shrub. “This is one of the smaller hives I’ve found, but I’m sure there’s oodles of honey inside.”
Paka cautiously stepped closer to the hive. She paused and listened to the thunderous droning. Every few seconds, a bee would zip past one of her ears.
“You crack that thing open, of course,” replied Hoyden.
“And get stung to death by all of these guys?” Paka countered.
“Don’t worry about that.”
“Don’t worry? Why not?”
“You probably haven’t noticed,” said Hoyden, swiveling her head sharply, “But it has gotten much cooler in the time that it’s taken to walk here.”
Paka breathed in through her nose. The air, she discovered, had indeed dropped in temperature. She looked westward and noticed that the sun was slowly nearing the horizon, as thick clouds blossomed and enfolded it.
“That’s right,” said Hoyden. “Almost sunset. And have you noticed how those bees are moving?”
“Not very fast,” observed Paka.
“Indeed,” said Hoyden. “When it gets cold, they start to slow down. I estimated the time it would take to get to this hive and made sure that the heat of the day would be all but gone by the time I brought you here. By now, those buggers should be downright lethargic, and hardly capable of putting up a fight.”
For a few minutes, Paka scrutinized the hive. It seemed fairly easy to reach, and it wasn’t nestled that deeply in the tree’s hollow. One good swipe would probably tear it open…hopefully the skin of this hive wouldn’t be any tougher than that of a zebra’s belly…
Paka slowly approached the tree. Bees still flitted by her, but there was nothing aggressive in their behavior. Perhaps the lack of heat had indeed drained their strength, but she still felt edgy. Small as they were, they outnumbered her roughly a thousand to one. She paused again. She was now standing at the tree’s base, looking up at the papery mass tucked between its main branches.
“Take your time if you need to, Cat!” called Hoyden. “I’ve guided a lot of first-timers out to hives, and they usually hesitate too.”
Paka did this, but only for a few more moments. Then she gave a determined snort and reared up on her hind legs. As she planted her forepaws against the tree trunk, she took in her first complete view of the hive. It was roughly spherical, but constructed from an alien substance, nothing like the familiar, blobby mud out of which termite mounds were built. The buzzing sound was almost deafening, and dozens of bees were swarming over the hive’s surface. Paka felt herself slipping into a trancelike state from the loud thrumming noise and the strange vibrations made by the bees’ wings. She managed to shake the feeling off and started to ponder the best approach to opening the hive.
Unable to think of any other strategy, Paka slowly raised her paw with its claws extended, and raked it down the surface of the bees’ home. The insects instantly seemed to grow more active at this brazen attack, and Paka quickly realized that danger was imminent. Muttering an oath, she dropped to all fours, turned tail and ran from the tree as quickly as she could. Even a cheetah would have been impressed.
“It’s all right, it’s all right!” bleated a familiar, trilling voice from a few feet above Paka’s head. “They only have enough energy for a few yards, then they have to turn back or spend the night outside the hive!”
Paka stopped – only after she had run for a half-minute more – and cautiously turned her head and listened. There was no swarm of bees following her and no dull thrum of wings heralding an approaching one. Apparently Hoyden had been right once again.
“Nice reflexes there,” said the subject of the previous sentence, alighting on the ground in front of the still panting Paka. “I guess I should’ve warned you about that, hmm?”
“Very funny,” snapped Paka.
“Hey, sorry,” said Hoyden, “They put up a pretty feeble fight at sundown, but at least you had the sense to run. You can never get too far away from bees when they’re ticked. They should be pretty calm now, though.”
“Yes. Now follow me. If we’re both going to get stung, at least let me the first.”
Despite her better judgment, Paka followed the flitting bird back to the squat hollow tree. Paka had torn a deep gash in the hive, and the portion of the hive that up until recently had filled that opening was now drooping down the tree’s trunk, slowly dripping a viscous, golden substance.
“Ah-hah! Dinner is served for me,” twittered Hoyden, swooping up to where the torn-out part of the hive was most intact. Landing close beside it on the trunk, she began examining the inner layers of what Paka could only call the “hive-skin”, which seemed to be of multiple layers of a strange, whitish substance that formed a tessellation of tiny, six-sided cells. Paka drew closer to the tree and observed this strange new wonder with silence and curiosity.
Then she turned her attention on Hoyden, who seemed to be eagerly pecking at the hive-skin.
“Are you eating that?” Paka asked.
“What, the wax?”
“If that’s what that…that skin is made out of, yes.”
“Well, I am eating some of the wax, but what I’m really after are the grubs,” said Hoyden.
“What are those?”
“See those tiny white things in the wax hollows?”
Paka squinted at the hive-skin, and noticed that in some of the cells there were some incredibly tiny white creatures, more blob than beast. She looked dubiously back at Hoyden.
“Yummy yummy,” chirped Hoyden cheerily, pecking at the skin again. Paka grimaced and averted her gaze. Then an errant thought crossed the surface of her mind, as it had done at least twice before that day.
“Hoyden, what about the honey?”
“Can’t you reach it?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
“I mean I don’t know what honey looks like!” said Paka, stamping a paw and getting a little frustrated. Hoyden peered down from her perch.
“See that gold goo dripping down from the hive’s innards?” she asked.
Paka saw it and nodded in reply.
“Well, that’s it!” Hoyden said, returning to her meal of wax and grubs, something she seemed to be greatly enjoying.
Paka observed the dripping liquid, the reason why she had forsaken her much needed after-meal siesta and tramped halfway across the savannah, following a bird, of all things.
“Go ahead and try it!” hollered the bird. “You won’t regret it. Trust me.”
A drop of honey quivered tantalizingly at the tip of a strip of hive-skin, moments away from dropping to the ground. Paka approached it, opened her mouth and extended her tongue just in time to feel something thick and moist drop onto it. She closed her mouth and her eyes, trying to focus on the flavor of this strange new substance.
“Well, how is it?” called Hoyden. “How does it taste?”
Paka tried to formulate a suitable answer to the question. She had actually been mulling over the same one inside her head. She slowly opened her eyes.
“It tastes…wet,” she finally said.
“And what else?”
“Gooey. It’s pretty gooey.”
“Well,” said Paka, beginning to feel slightly disappointed, “Nothing. Aside from the texture, it doesn’t taste like anything.”
“Doesn’t it taste sweet?” asked Hoyden, sounding concerned. “Doesn’t it taste like the scent of flowers made flesh?”
“I’ve never really taken the time to sniff flowers,” said Paka truthfully.
“But you really don’t taste anything?” tried Hoyden again. Paka caught another drop of honey, checking to see if it was any different than the first.
Hoyden made a contemplative noise and stopped feasting, trying to find an explanation for this confusing turn of events.
“Hmm… “ she said slowly, “When I’ve guided humans out here, some of them have praised me, saying that the honey was rich or delicious…but though all of their praises were different, one word they always used to describe the honey was ‘sweet’. I’m not sure if I know what the word means myself, but the humans seemed to love the honey for that particular quality. I guess…I guess lions can’t taste this ‘sweet’.”
“What about the honey badgers and the baboons?” asked Paka. “Can they taste it?”
“You know, I never thought to ask.”
“Well, it’s all right,” said Paka. “I had a lot of fun today just the same.”
Hoyden still seemed puzzled and put out, and didn’t seem moved by the lioness’s sympathetic gesture. She pecked sullenly at the hive-skin for a few more minutes before stopping, either full or put off her lunch (or dinner, in this case). Paka decided to change the subject.
“Where did your species learn that trick?”
Hoyden brightened slightly at a question regarding her greatest skill.
“I honestly can’t say…” she said. “I don’t know that much about…”
“I mean, is it a genetic thing?” interrupted Paka, “Or was it passed down from parents to chicks?”
“I tell you, I don’t know,” answered Hoyden, swooping down from the tree and flitting off to a perch in a nearby sapling, probably a descendent of the great tree the hive was nestled in. “None of the honeyguides I’ve met know either. It’s just one of those things.”
“What about your mother?” Paka persisted, trotting up to Hoyden. “Was she unfamiliar with your species’ quirks as well?”
Hoyden froze. Her head twisted left and right, her eyes wide. It was the same way she had acted when Paka asked her about her siblings. Paka peered closely at the tiny bird, which was now staring ahead in a trancelike state.
“I’m sorry,” stammered Paka. “Your mother…she didn’t die, did she? I thought you birds were helpless for the first few weeks of your…”
“She didn’t die,” said Hoyden in a hollow voice.
“Then why are you acting so strange? You’ve reacted like this every time I’ve asked about your family…Why, Hoyden?”
There was another pause, silent except for the sigh of the wind in the grasses.
“You don’t want to know,” the honeyguide said dully.
“Yes I do,” insisted Paka. “I’ve seen and heard of weird stuff dozens of times, surely your explanation won’t be any weirder.”
“You don’t – “
“I do,” snapped Paka. “Just tell me, Hoyden. What happened to your mother? Did the two of you have a falling out, or what?”
Hoyden slowly turned to face Paka, with a woeful look in her eyes.
“I didn’t have a mother,” she said slowly. “That is…I didn’t have a biological mother…”
“What do you mean?” Paka asked, confused already. “I don’t get it.”
“You aren’t familiar with the way my species lives, are you, Paka?”
“I’m hardly familiar with the way any bird lives,” Paka admitted.
“We don’t build nests. We don’t find or hollow out nesting holes for ourselves either. We use other birds’ nests.”
Paka pondered this for a moment.
“So you were raised by another species?”
“Yes. My egg was laid in a tree hollow. I think my foster mother was a bee-eater.”
Hoyden’s distraught look had yet to leave her features. Paka spoke again, but this time, very gently:
“What else, Hoyden?”
Hoyden looked Paka straight in the eyes.
“I never saw my siblings. Alive or dead. When my eyes opened for the first time, I found myself in an empty nest.”
“What happened to them?” Paka whispered.
Hoyden gave the impression that she was carrying the weight of a rhinoceros on her shoulders. She quivered slightly, a dozen emotions flickering across her face within two seconds.
“I happened to them.”
“It must’ve been a few days after I hatched…I remember thrashing around with my beak, poking and ripping at things…my foster mother must’ve gotten rid of them when she found them…”
Paka was almost numb with horror. The little voice, sounding so innocent and vulnerable, resonated inside her head like thunder. It was a long time before she finally found her voice.
“That’s just the way my species is. Other birds live this way as well.”
“But…” said Paka, still almost breathless, “Why?”
“If I knew, I’d tell you right now. I guess someone tried it way back when, it worked, it caught on, old habits die hard.”
“But killing the children of your adoptive mother…”
“Hey, don’t you kill things on a regular basis, Paka?”
This caught Paka off guard, but fortunately, only for a split second.
“I only kill what I need to survive!”
“Well, there you go,” said Hoyden simply. “I killed them because I needed to survive. It was me or them.”
Paka glared at the honeyguide, her astonishment slowly turning to anger.
“You said yourself that one of your sisters died, didn’t you?” Hoyden continued. “She died so that you could live. In some other world, you might’ve died while whatshername lived.”
“Her name was Ifama,” yelled Paka, “And she died naturally. I didn’t kill her, not like you killed your…your…”
She had to stop. Her emotions were starting to boil over, and she was starting to shout incoherently. She lowered her head and tried to gather her thoughts. Remorse wrapped tightly around her chest and made it hard for her to breathe.
“I’m sorry,” she managed to gasp. “I’m so sorry.”
Hoyden didn’t reply. There was a gentle flutter of wings, but Paka didn’t realize that the honeyguide had taken off until she raised her head up. She slowly followed the little brown bird, now barely visible in the darkening twilight.
She started looking at the trees and rocks that they passed, looking for familiar landmarks. The trees suddenly seemed different to her. It was as if each one held a nest, and inside each nest, the hatchlings of one bird were being murdered by another hatchling…
Paka shook her head violently, trying to cast the morbid image from her mind. Then she looked up again. They were passing a large baobab tree with an unusual growth on its side. It was a lumpy hemisphere that appeared stuck to the trunk, with a tiny hole in its center.
“Hornbill’s nest,” muttered Hoyden from up ahead. “They find a hollow, the female gets inside and the male seals her in with mud. He feeds her and his chicks through that opening.”
Paka decided not to ask Hoyden how she had known that she was looking at the nest. She didn’t even feel like asking those sort of questions now.
But there was another question that she did feel like asking…
“Have you had any offspring yet?”
“Have you?” the bird retorted.
“No,” Paka admitted.
“Neither have I. I don’t have any plans to fly to a male, and I have no real desire to do so yet either. I guess it’s just as well.”
“Why?” asked Paka, before she could stop herself.
“Honeyguides with my genes wouldn’t mix very well with the rest of the flock,” Hoyden said, the tart edge of her voice beginning to reappear, “I mean, think about it! Honeyguides that feel grief after murdering their foster siblings, taunt jackals for kicks and get into deep philosophical conversations with lions! If I reproduced, I might become responsible for the extinction of my entire species!”
“Seriously, Hoyden,” said Paka, beginning to feel more like her old self again.
“All right, maybe I wouldn’t wipe the Greater honeyguide off the map. I’m still not that eager to mate yet.”
“I guess I’m not either,” admitted Paka.
“Well, if you ever do decide to do so, at least your offspring won’t murder their siblings,” Hoyden quipped.
“Hey, let’s not start that again,” said Paka quickly.
“Good idea,” said Hoyden. “I guess that whole foster parent thing really is an old habit, something that some honeyguide tried long, long ago, and discovered that it was better than raising chicks herself. I’m sure some lion decided to get a bunch of females together and start a pride once upon a time. He probably thought it was better than hunting down a mate and killing his own food, like all the other cats.”
“Maybe,” said Paka. “Maybe.”
“I guess I should apologize for telling you my species’ darkest secret…most honeyguides would say it wasn’t any of your business if you’d asked them about their mother and siblings – or they’d probably have just flown away, I mean who other than a half-crazy bird talks to a lion – but like I said, that’s just the way it is for us. I say life’s tough, but don’t spend the whole thing thinking about death.”
“Wise words,” breathed Paka, her eyes suddenly drawn up to the now starry sky.
“And I should probably also apologize for dragging you away from your tree in the first place,” continued Hoyden. “I’m sure most carnivores would have had me for lunch for a trick like that – leading you for nearly a mile for something that felines apparently can’t taste!”
“It’s all right,” said Paka. “Really.”
“Is it?” asked Hoyden, landing on an exposed root protruding from the ground.
“Good. Is this your tree, Paka?”
Paka looked at the tree she and Hoyden were now under, and was surprised to see that it was indeed the same tree that she had been sleeping under hours earlier. She answered Hoyden’s query.
“Wonderful,” Hoyden chirped. “I guess it’s about time I left to find a place to roost for the night, then.”
She took off and started to speed away, but she stopped before she had gone a dozen yards and asked:
“This name you’ve given me…”
“May I keep it?”
Paka thought about this for a moment.
“Sure. Sure you can.”
Hoyden twittered jovially and swooped off into the night.
“Just don’t tell any other honeyguides who gave it to you,” Paka shouted after her, “Or they might think you’re crazy!”
“Too late! They already do!” shrieked the tiny speck, as it vanished among the distant trees with a loud, chattering call.