A young lion once set out on a journey to look for his own pride. He was strong and proud, at the prime of his years and could no longer stay with the family that had watched him grow. It was time he found his own life and forged his own family. And so he did as he must and turned his back on his kin to begin his journey.
He traveled far and wide in search of a new home and a family. But wherever he went, he found none of his kind willing to be his pride and little prey to sustain him. He was chased away by other lions defending their prides, wounded, deprived of food and company. But still, he kept prowling the jungle for a territory of his own.
And when the jungle yielded nothing, he traveled beyond it until he reached the desert. Under the scorching sun, thirsty and famished, he climbed the dunes, desperate for prey and shade. He walked all day and found none. But when the night came, he saw a distant, reddish glimmer on the horizon. His strength renewed by hope, he ran all the way toward the light until it was just a few steps away. Suddenly before him, an oasis stretched, a verdant treeline surrounding a small lake.
Parched, the lion forgot about the light, ran to the water and drank until he could drink no more. And when his belly was full of water, his eyes began to wander to the trees in search of prey, for his dying thirst had sparked his hunger again. He found no animals on the ground but when he looked up, to a lonely, blackened branch just above the water on the other side of the lake, he saw a beautiful, radiant bird with glittering reddish-gold feathers that looked almost ablaze, so brightly colored they were. The lion had no doubt that this was the source of the light he had seen before.
The bird perched calmly on the branch, seemingly ignoring his presence. He quietly walked the margin, moving closer to it, intent on capturing the beautiful creature. Moved as much by hunger as by fascination, the lion could not help but desire this extraordinary prey. And so he sneaked his way through the reeds and the bushes until the bird was within reach. And he pounced.
But the bird had seen him and it took flight just as the lion jumped over the branch. Flapping its long wings, it flew out of reach of the lion, and set him alight, for she was a phoenix and her beautiful feathers were made of spark and flame. The poor lion landed on the grass, suffering horribly at the flames that consumed him, rolling on the ground to try to put them out. But they were divine flame and all he did was spread them to the trees and bushes around him until the whole oasis was ablaze. Maddened by the fire, he jumped in the lake. The flames died but not before all the water had evaporated and the lake was no more. By morning, the oasis was gone. And so was the phoenix.
Again, the lion found himself in the desert and although his belly rumbled with hunger, he roamed all day up dunes and down dunes until the coolness and darkness of night fell around him. Again, he saw a faint, red light in the sky and again he traveled for many hours in its direction. This time, he did not reach a lake and there was no oasis. Instead, he found only the blackened skeleton of a burnt tree and, reclining against it, a female spotted deer. The lion approached it as stealthily as he could and pounced on the recumbent animal. Dehydrated from the desert heat, the deer did not move or try to escape and soon the lion was feasting on his prey.
As he ate, however, he noticed the reddish tinge of a light shining above him. Lifting his eyes to a low hanging branch of the carbonized tree, he saw the fiery bird that had escaped him the night before. His mind inflamed by fury and vengeance, he climbed the tree and leapt to catch the phoenix. But again, the phoenix took flight and her flaming feathers brushed against him and set him on fire. With no water around, the lion roared in pain and rolled desperately in the sand, setting fire to the tree and to what remained of the deer. By the time the flames had died, the tree had crumbled to ash and the deer was carbonized and inedible. Morning dawned and the fire had burned the lion’s mane completely. His fur was gone, his skin now black as coal. And the phoenix had disappeared.
This time, the lion did not travel by day, choosing instead to lie down and nurse his wounds. He waited patiently for the night to come and only then did he rise to prowl the night for the red light he knew must be shining somewhere. He would catch the phoenix, he swore to himself. Even if he died in the flames of its fire, he would catch the bird that so mocked him. He found her in a hollow among the dunes, squatting over a pile of dry twigs and branches, slowly grooming her feathers and plucking from them tiny sparks that she would then spread around her. Impelled by his anger, without a second thought, the lion ran down the dune, his black skin mixing with the night shadows. And pounced.
By the time the phoenix saw him, it was too late. He caught her wings under his mighty paws, pinning her to the sand. She struggled to free herself, again her feathers set him alight but to no avail. He roared in glee as his prey squirmed under his weight.
“You, who have mocked me with your beauty and freedom, fall now under my might.”
The phoenix struggled and in her struggle, her beautiful feathers broke and fell. Her flames died. Her light dimmed. The lion looked down at his prey and was horrified. For the prize he had seen in the beautiful phoenix was no more and under his feet lay instead a pale bird looking at him through dull, dying eyes.
“My death be on you for I cannot live if I cannot be free.”
Moved by these words and by the suffering of the beautiful bird he once coveted and resented, the flaming lion took a step back, releasing the phoenix. With a gentle tap of his muzzle, he rolled her so that she lay on her stomach and then nudged her to take flight.
“Go and live,” he said. “For I gain nothing but regret from taking your life.”
The phoenix lifted her head to the heavens and wrapped her wings around her body, her flames sparking once again into life.
“May blessings find you, great king of the jungle, for the mercy you show tonight,” she said.
And with that, she burned brighter and disappeared in the flame, extinguishing the fire that burned the lion’s blackened skin. Soon, the morning followed and the lion set out again to cross the desert. He walked for many hours, finding nothing but sand, beginning to regret his sparing of the phoenix’s life when her body could have fed him for a day longer. And when the night fell…
The horizon glimmered red. Faithfully, the lion followed the light he knew must lead to the phoenix and arrived at an oasis. No, not an oasis, he realized, but a great jungle on the other side of the desert. His heart overcome by joy, he ran under the cool, green cover of the trees until he found a spring of the purest water. He drank and bathed and played in it, glad to leave the scorching heat of the sun behind him. And when he looked toward the bank, he saw two feline eyes staring back at him. A beautiful lioness, her fur a bright orange color, stood staring at him in fascination.
And it was thus that our young lion finally found a home and a mate. He lived many years in this jungle and had many descendants, who inherited the darkness of his fur in large stripes over the bright orange of their mother’s coat. They were the first tigers.
As for our phoenix…well, he never saw her again but to all of his children he would say, “If you ever find yourself lost in the desert, follow the red light.”
Where anger is power, mercy is wisdom. For true strength lies with the kind and good fortune lies with the strong.