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The Black Panther

Zai Whitaker

It is the monsoon time of year and stiff sharp winds shoot through the Grass Hills, eastern offshoot of the Highwavy mountain chain in the Western Ghats. Like arrows they pierce the waist-high grass, bending the silky tassels and making neat furrows like carefully parted hair. Bending and straightening as the wind dies down or suddenly surges forth, the gyrating grass brings life into the rock promontories which keep quiet watch on the dungeon of mist and fog hovering over the froth of a stormy river.

The boy takes his fishing rod and walks down to the stream which skirts his cabin. It is a simple bamboo rod: he has an iconoclast’s distaste for the fibreglass ones which are widely advertised. Reaching the rushing white water, he hides behind a tall grass clump and with a gentle flick, casts upstream into the epicentre of the current. The swift billows of water take the line just past the big boulder where the fish like to crouch with stealthy patience. Flicking their tails to keep their balance in the swirling water, they wait for a grasshopper dislodged from the bank, or crabs drifting by. The boy, huddled over his knees, feels a tug at the bait. A fat rainbow trout hesitates, then darts forward and is hooked; Stephen will not be able to land it where he is because of the boulders and overhanging vines so he steps into the shallows. He pulls in the line, hands working like pistons: and jumps on the fish which is flopping about on the grass. He dislodges the hook and jabs his thumb down the trout’s throat — avoiding the sharp teeth — and jerks the head up. He hears the crack of the vertebrae, Krrk. The fish shivers once and is dead.

Wet shoes and jeans ooze water. He takes his pocket knife and slices the fish open, pulls out the guts in one adroit movement of thumb and forefinger. Stripping a frond of silver-green bracken he stuffs it into the empty cavity to prevent rot. He leaves the fish in the shade, tail in the water for coolness, and continues to fish.

An hour later he is back in his cabin, picking the flaky white meat off the fine ivory skeleton with the serrated contraption on his pocket knife. He pumps the brass primus stove to make a cup of black coffee, changes into dry jeans stiffened by rain and sun. He lifts from an open tin trunk a pair of earphones, arcs them around his head and plugs the jack into the beeping receiver which he carries to the door. Turning away from the wind, he pulls out the antenna, cues in the receiver. He listens. High-pitched, peevish shreds of sound prick the air and Stephen’s eyes soften with gentleness. He speaks to the wind. “Evita. She’s back. Thank God.” Returning the tracking device to its tin home, slinging binoculars around his back, scooping up a weather-proof notebook, he’s off.

He follows the curved, bracken-fringed path which loops in and out along the stream, then strikes off into a grove of gnarled rhododendrons. Behind him on the eastern frill of ridges the sun is hurling yellow and orange beams on the grasslands but early clouds block the colour. This is the season of high rushing streams and thick ground fog, the only time of year when elephants come to the mountain grasslands. The cloud cover gives them safety and thrice, Stephen has suddenly come upon one as a cloud bank moved, startling both boy and animal.

Evita’s den faces the east and she sits in the entrance immobile as black stone. The sun lights up her ebony jacket with sequins of fire. There are gold nuggets in her eyes, a look of deep dreams as her two kittens draw milk with kneading caresses of their soft small paws. Now and then  she looks up into the hide where Stephen is writing his notes, green arrows flashing in her eyes. He has almost finished his PhD field work and is the only biologist in the world who has been able to study the rare, melanistic form of leopard in this remote highland habitat. He may also be the last because poachers are after them for the almost unbelievable price of their skin. Apart from the regular fashion industry, rich and powerful African tribal leaders covet them as part of their ceremonial attire.

Stephen has hundreds of hours of observations, many of them about Evita’s life as it is now, when she is raising her second litter. One, a runt, has died and he watched her carry the scrawny rough corpse to a depression behind the cave, drape it gently over a grass patch and roar her mourning into the afternoon winds.

Watching her, and feeling her watching him, he feels ennobled, touched with grace. He reads in Evita’s eyes messages of comfort, imagines she is directing him from the depths of her panther soul, core of one being to the core of another. Writing his notes, working his stop-watch, raising and lowering binoculars, his mind re-creates its usual triangle of connection between Evita, the child Stephen, and his mother as she sat in their Springfield home twenty years ago.

Dad had left him and driven away with Juliet, Mother’s best friend. This was called divorce, he learned. He’d waved but Stephen, sensing perfidy, fisted his hands in his pockets. Mother wouldn’t leave the kitchen and wept for days before they took her to the sanitorium. When she came home again her eyes had changed, transmogrified to hard stones set in skin the colour of fading newspaper. Dad had left him and taken away, in a sense, Mother as well.

But Evita’s eyes are mother-eyes.

She is waiting for Raol to come with meat; by now her flanks show in sharp angles from weeks of hunger: and were there marks of tabefaction in the crinkles of her forehead? Still looking into the mind of the boy she moves away from the kittens who have finished their meal. The boy is beginning to resent the dilettante ways of her mate, who comes and goes with the careless freedom of a truck-driver. She deserves better. Now she hears him coming, points her ears forward: Stephen moves in his hide and snatches the camera trigger in readiness to record the encounter. She moves forward on her haunches, waiting, and Raol appears but his worst macho tendencies surface and dropping the barking deer, he springs up on a stubby rhododendron and sharpens his claws on the deeply fissured bark. She dare not go for the meat but must wait for him to offer it.

His mind remembers the times after the abandoning with the clarity of a film strip. “You’re the man of the family now, you’ll look after me won’t you?” She asked this again and again with sobs in her voice and eyes. He knew he had to, because it wasall his fault, he knew it from the way Dad had looked at him. He’d wanted so many times to ask her this, clarify the guilt once for all, but never had the courage.

When Raol enters the den she crawls to him submissively, licks his face, purring, nudges at the meat in his mouth. But he pushes her away, turns to face Stephen’s hide and stares thoughtfully ahead as if trying to remember something. It takes Evita a long time to cajole and humour him into surrendering the meat and the boy, sharing her humiliation, wishes to punish him. The anger of many years has seeped into his bones like bitter resin.

The monsoon leaves the High wavies, and the elephants leave the high hills to return to their deciduous habitat in the plains where flowering bamboo awaits them. Soft new tahr fawns wobble jerkily after their mothers as the big males — saddlebacks — keep their eyes rooted to the high boulders where a leopard may be hiding, waiting for the right moment to strike.

Just after the last big thunderstorm they get Raol; an agent is paying huge sums for black panther skins. They have been exterminated everywhere else and even here in the Highwavies only three or four remain. Their obsessive loyalty to one den makes them easy targets.

No more subservient purring and begging for Evita. She hunts on her own now and brings back wild boar, tahr and spotted deer for the cubs, who are growing fast. But a vicious attack by a saddleback unnerves her, makes her timid and skittish; there’s also the hint of a limp in her front right leg. In a month she becomes a cripple, dragging the useless limb like a trailing branch.

From his hide the boy watches her return to the hungry waiting cubs with smaller and smaller prey; crabs and lizards: and cuff them for fighting over the pittance. Finally he cannot bear to see the hoping eyes as the mother comes in again and again with her feeble offerings, or her helpless gestures of appeasement. He breaks the naturalist’s code and interferes.

In college he was a 3-Star archer and has brought his bow with him. With it he sets out on a hunt for Evita. A slow but tireless walker, he cannot hope to carry back sambar or tahr and on the afternoon of the second day, begins stalking a displaced family of wild boar. A smallish sow is gravid and her heavy, slow, hopeless gallop shows promise of success. As the mid-afternoon sun begins to slide slowly into the western valley she lumbers up a rise with two young males and prepares to rest while they snuffle around for tubers. Stephen sees her clearly in the twin orbs of his binocs, notes the bloated stomach pulsating with the wriggling unborn puppies and, keeping downwind, walks towards his prey. He stoops low to shorten the elongated shadow loping ahead of him and finds himself hugging a clump of bracken within a few feet of the sow; he has miscalculated the angle of his descent.

Her long kind eyes look ahead unseeing and every now and then she shifts to re-position her litter. Around her are patches of flattened grass and bracken; perhaps she has started making her den though it seems to Stephen to be too exposed. With a pang at the thought that she will not need it now, he positions his hands on the bow. Feeling the sureness of his purpose slipping away he makes a clean sideways leap to a boulder on his right and crouches behind it. Catching the movement in the far corner of her vision the sow squeals softly in alarm but only half turns her head, breathing hard so a jet of light dry soil arcs upwards. Stephen knows that this lethargy means she will drop her litter soon. He avoids the soft mother eyes and chooses from his quiver a metal-tipped broad-head arrow, places it across the bow, takes aim, pulls back, aligns it again, and fires. A horrid shriek cuts the whistles of the wind and the sow stumbles to her feet as ruby blood shoots out of the hole above her left shoulder. But her slow movements give him enough time to re-load his bow and the next shot only leaves the agitated turmoil of the imprisoned litter.

It’s almost sundown by the time he has trussed the carcass and dragged it to Evita’s cave. It is empty; now the cubs hunt with her. He watches from his hide, knowing that the human smell may make her reject the food. But she has got used to his presence; perhaps she’ll allow him to provide meat and he is already planning different carrying techniques, choosing good hunting places.

She returns hungry, the she-panther, cubs whimpering by her side. The boy holds his breath, looks on with pleading in his eyes. She lets out a loud wail of confusion and clouts the cubs as, mad with hunger, they pounce on the meat. Howling and whining with Valkyrian grief she nudges the meat with head and paws until it falls into the ravine outside the cave. The boy can hardly hold up the binoculars and in any case he can’t see through them, they are misty.

A fortnight later the cubs have starved to death. Evita is once again the lonely wanderer of the windy grasses.

With Raol and the cubs gone she is his once more and Stephen, spending more and more time in the hide, revels in the possession of this exclusive relationship among the lonely mountain meadows. For a while despair eats at the happiness growing deep in his gut; he begins to feel her days are numbered: the infected paw has got much worse. Then there is a sudden, dramatic improvement and her leg strengthens, the limp is gone. But regardless, and breaking the naturalist’s code again, Stephen decides to offer her meat once more. It works: she slurps delicately at the barking deer fawn he has found, like a child exploring ice cream with curling tongue-tip. Then she takes it away inside and he hears the crackle of bones. His heart lurches painfully with pride.

By the time the next monsoon brought greenness to the grasslands, his field work was done, and almost time for him to leave. Evita was hunting successfully and also enjoying Stephen’s occasional offerings. She looked sleek and content, her black velvet shining like a newly brushed carpet. She looked straight into the bigger look-out he’d made in the hide, watching him with quiet interest. Once, wanting to get closer, meet her on her own terms, he tried to take the meat to her instead of leaving it when she was out. He walked slowly towards the steep descent down to her home.

But she notices the movement immediately and retreats into the den. The confused sawing wails unnerve him and he returns to his hide. Perhaps it is too soon. He will try again and one day it will happen. One day he will crouch at arm’s length from the mother panther and slowly, very slowly, reach out to touch the satin folds of her back. He knows this must remain a vision, for her sake; he has already crossed the holy boundary. But he dreams about it.

The boy turns in his sleep, hair sprayed on the pillow like a fan. The shrill creaks of the camp-cot hinges bring him into a state of half wakefulness. Fingers flip on a torch and a yellow cone of light falls on a watch enclosed in a fluorescent orange sphere which continues to glow brightly even after it is dark again. Then the moon, a perfect gold coin climbing the crags of the clouds, sends a shower of light into the cabin and as a few drops fall on him the boy covers his eyes with an arm heavy with sleep. It is midnight.

The beams of moonlight squeeze through the spatter of rat nibbles on the curtains and settle on the few objects strewn about the spare cabin. The wind, picking up speed, gently claps on the wooden walls, the clouds re-group quietly around the smooth-sailing moon. Inside, the light shifts, picks out the big petromax lamp suspended in mid-air like a bird of prey. In the improvised sink of bent metal sheets a frying pan collects drops from a leak in the hollow bamboo pipe which is the only piece of plumbing in this jungle habitation.

The cabin returns to darkness as the moon floats away, veiled and unveiled by the swift cloud masses. The moon-gold washes the air, settles softly on a tuft of grass, a still pool, or perfect living bouquet of orchid blooms.

The low, despairing You-two, You-two of a night bird wakes a troop of langurs and there’s a brief treetop commotion. A silence sweeps the high hills once more, filling the patches of riparian forest, the few wind-stunted rhododendrons, the ferny tresses bordering secret streams. Then suddenly the world cracks with a sound so sharp that the animals don’t respond; a sound that drives the silence deeper into the earth. The gunshot hits cliff after cliff and the echoes ricochet off escarpments to fall, spent, into the depths below.

The boy has been pushed into waking. He blinks away disbelief and peels off the warm sleeping bag, pulls on gloves and woolen cap. He knows that sound; in his two years here the night has thrice been wounded by this net of fear. And now fear and the fear of loss lacerate his drumming heart as he stoops for the ear-phones and arcs them over his head. Picking up the receiver, he steps outside and into the icy wind.

The pitch and frequency of the beeps tell him again what he already knows and he raises an arm in a gesture of helpless pain, trying to shield his mind from the knowledge. He returns to the cabin, knowing he must wait till sunrise, giving time for the poachers to leave, but then stumbles out anyway to wade through the moonlight and darkness towards Evita. He knows the way like the back of his hand, knows also how to walk noiselessly, knows a ledge from where he can see the den.

Evita has been shot at the den entrance and at first Stephen stands rooted in surprise, she looks so alive; but then he sees death in her shoulders. There’s no knowing when the poacher’s armed men will arrive, to remove and take away the skin; but he spends an hour under the great round mourning moon which is now shocked into stillness and sits suspended over the boy and the panther.

As the sun rises he sits on the fishing rock, very still and quiet. An eagle owl shrieks on a neighbouring plateau and the echo meanders. Then his sadness breaks loose, silencing the birds as the forest makes space for his grief. In the days ahead his heart feels both heavy and light at the same time, and he will understand later, how Evita’s end was his beginning. He begins to clean and pack his study equipment for the journey out of these grasslands, his hell and heaven for the past two years.

Zai Whitaker is an author and conservationist. Her books include Cobra in my Kitchen (2005), Salim Ali for Schools (2003), Andamans Boy (1998) and Kali and the Rat Snake (2006) among others. She has studied and worked with people of the Irula community, who are snake catchers and is a director of the Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society. She lived and taught in Kodaikanal for thirteen years and was also the principal of Outreach School, Bangalore.