For weeks I have been walking under the sun striking vertically, white, like the blinding sky crossed by brilliant birds, who leave a trace of snow in their wake, high above. For a long time I have lived far from men, like a dishevelled king. My kingdom is vast and as pure as stone. I long ago left the mountains and black earth of Sétif where I was born, urged by my nature to become a nomad once more. I set off on an expedition of no return which, I know, will take me to the ends of the earth, as I discover its immensity. I am a wanderer impelled by necessity, the hope of finding my land, far to the south, whose generous slopes will give me descendants, the sacred quest of my flesh, Oh Heaven, Oh thou who I feel quivering far from my simple soul, give me a family. Oh God of the sand and the stones, I am so alone...!
There is nothing but a memory left of my footsteps in the snows of the Atlas Mountains. My warrior ancestors, with their luxuriant black hair, fought in the arenas of Rome against other captive heroes, their cruel and bloody glory coming to an end behind the same bars, in the subterranean night of the gladiators.
My ancestors found nourishment in the desert. There, we were lords. Scorpions, snakes, rodents, sometimes a gazelle caught by a water mirage came to meet my hunger and my gaze of gold and cold copper. I no longer share my meals, in the ancient ritual that was the essence of my tribe, my family now decimated by pitiless creatures, robbers of land with no battle cries, no power, no magic other than the instantaneous death they inflict without respite.
My own cry, specific to my clan, can be heard over more than twenty miles, it is more powerful than that of the mountain eagles, louder than the desert wind, it tells of our journeys and our watering places, our hunting, and our loves.
The females who bring our children into the world killed them during the final days of our existence so that others would not. We accepted our end. We withdrew into ourselves, on a minuscule piece of land with no prey and no vegetation, up high, right at the top of the mountains. We made way for them, but it was not enough. Others came to massacre us. So I fled.
Sometimes I still cry out, I hope, I wait for a reply, like a vital need. I seek life. I want a family. That cry which arises out of my animal entrails, I know it to be a cry of unspeakable anguish, and infinite sadness. Then I lie down in the shade of a large stone, panting, solitary, and stare endlessly into the far reaches of the desert, hoping to see a silhouette like mine with which to mingle our colors of night and fire.
I long ago left my borderland of rock and twisted trees, I transgressed our immemorial laws and now make my way through unknown territory, ever further south. My heavy steps now sink into shifting, burning sand, where vipers with pale yellow horns dart menacingly in sly zigzags, disappearing as if by magic into the middle of nowhere. Sometimes I look up and see the migrating birds hastening past in squadron formation. Last night, I even caught sight, in the distance, of a large, glistening bird collapsed on the sand. A man came out of its stomach to speak to a child with a mane of hair the color of dry grass. Despite the hatred I feel for them, I did not approach them. I am so tired. I can sense that there is a watering place not far off, but when I reach it, there is a strange yellow snake by it, the kind that sends you to the other side in less than a minute... My destiny lies elsewhere and I leave behind me the vestiges of men.
Where are the wadis, those streams of my youth where we used to go to drink, play about and love each other...?
Where are the rocks, warmed by the sun, where we used to sleep in summer...?
I am a king with no country. A scraggy king with a topaz stare who stumbles about under this white sun, the dazzling Southern Cross. As I walk, my feet are cut by the sand roses. I leave drops of blood behind me to fertilise the gray sand. At night, my cry soars up to the limits of the sky and I mourn my solitude and hunger. For three days now, I have been retracing my steps without noticing, I no longer even have the strength to hunt. I make do with wretched and shameful prey, the seasonal wadis are not completely dried up everywhere and the signs I detect in the behaviour of the birds, in the scents of the air and the vibrations of the earth tell me that men’s houses are down there, in the rocky valley, nestling in a tiny patch of green, where once we had established our cruel reign of beauty and power. Now it is time, beneath this sun of fire which has witnessed our arrival and our end, that I, the last of the kings of this territory which stretches from Kabylia to Mauritania, should fight my last battle. I am alone beneath this sky of fire, my chest full of rolling thunder, I am hunger and vengeance, I am solitude, and my cry fills the valley with one last song of glory.
I am Panthera Leo Leo, as the Romans named me. The last lion of the Atlas Mountains.
Translated by Wendy Cross