Protesters waved placards outside the museum, where civilization had memorialized ancient barbarism. Others might march against climate change or corrupt politicians; these, disgusted by the indignities inflicted for so long on the indigenous, demanded that the aborigine’s bones should not be displayed with those of the lion thought to have devoured her. Otherwise they would cremate her at last, together with the entire building.
The old woman must have been almost eighty, if she was not actually older; she was so knarled and bent, so wizened and wrinkled as to be almost unrecognisable. She could no longer keep up with the tribe — she who had once ruled its younger members, many of them probably her own children, if they had but known it. Her wisdom, her knowledge of how to survive in the outback, her ability to locate the waterholes, her skill with spear and arrows, when the targets were close enough, were the main reason why the tribe had flourished and expanded as much as it had. But no more: in future they would have to rely on such skills as they had learnt or inherited from her.
They left her in the narrowing shade of a thorn bush, with a little water in a hollow gourd, all they could spare before they went off in search of a waterhole not already drunk dry, or trampled into a rapidly desiccating morass by the milling hooves of the still plentiful game jostling for sustenance in the region. She could no longer chew meat, but a solicitous crone, perhaps her successor for what was likely to be only a short time, added the pulp of a crushed root or two.
Formerly obedient tribesmen bowed perfunctorily and she waved them irritably away, with a wry smile for some and an angry scowl for most, perhaps remembering those, including her own parents, whom she too had once left behind.
Her eldest and favourite son was the last to go, and there were tears in his eyes. Foolish boy! He raised his spear above her. “Shall I?” he asked. Her father had begged her to strike rather than leave him to starve, but she could not do it. Sometimes he would appear to her in dreams, hideously emaciated, and she regretted her weakness; at other times she would blame him for not struggling up to die in one last battle, like those he had fought so well and won when he was young and vigorous. So now she shook her head: by refusing her father’s last request she had forfeited the right to a swift death.
Her son flung the spear point-downwards into the ground beside her and turned away. “Take it,” she said. “What can I do with it now?”
“You could hunt and fight once,” he said, “why not again?” He could not accept that her strength was all gone. He left the spear and hurried after the departing tribe. She would see her father’s ghost in the last dreams she had, grinning, no longer pleading.
The night was cold; no prowling beast found her, though she heard snuffling nearby. Next day was burning hot and she drank the water, all of it. Let the end come swiftly, rather than try to drag it out. Great scythe-beaked vultures gathered in the sky, and soon some settled on the ground nearby, waiting till she ceased to move.
None of those enormous flightless birds that no longer walk on earth, that used to prey on lesser creatures across the continent, was in the vicinity, or it would undoubtedly have detected both her and her helpless condition by the amazing sense of smell that made up for the fact that its eyesight was so poor. But a marsupial lion, the last, did she but know it, had noticed her and was padding closer. All the rest of those splendid creatures that had once roamed the entire country had been hunted to extinction by various tribes of aboriginal invaders, for marsupial lions were so dangerous as to be endangered when the physically weaker carrot-shaped creatures proved more dangerous than any.
The vultures retreated to a safer distance as the lion crept closer, crouching to spring. They waited expectantly for what remained of their prey after the lion had had its fill.
The once skilled huntress struggled into a sitting position. Why couldn’t she be allowed to die quietly? Why must her last moments be so excruciatingly painful? Other creatures shied away automatically as long as they could, without understanding the imminence of their fate; she knew what would happen. Instinctively she grasped at her spear; the familiar touch of its rounded shaft seemed to give her some final ounces of strength, and somehow she gained her feet as the lion rushed, incredibly swiftly, and sprang.
Plant the shaft in the sand against the tree root, hang desperately onto the spear, and use the lion’s own speed to impale itself on the point. If I have but strength to hold it steady and aim at the throat and so down into lung and heart, as in the days when I and my warriors raced free on the open plain and slaughtered the game we needed and the predators, human or animal, that would have deprived us of it! Once more let me position the spear accurately, and not strike impenetrable bone!
An anguished roar, and the tearing claws fell limp, and the jaws drooped, a moment before the destroyer of the world’s last marsupial lion dropped helplessly upon the carcass. Their bones, abandoned by the vultures, sank gradually into shifting desert sand, to be investigated centuries later by inquisitive settlers in a country cleared for them by those who had eked out so hard a living long before.
In a museum built nearby, the exhibit that some found offensive was captioned “Remains of a lion and the woman it had devoured. It died of thirst when the pool they were forced to share dried up.”
Brian S. Lee writes in Cape Town, and admits he has not personally experienced the Australian outback.