I Have Become the Leopard
by Arthur Davis
Flies. Everywhere flies, biting, taunting, and sucking. A haunting, whispering cloud following me into sleep, pursuing every living creature long after they’ve died. They are part of the landscape as are the grassy plains, the wild brushfires, the lion, and rhinoceros — only far less particular about where they graze.
Overhead a female hawk eagle searches for a meal that will sustain her children until they’re strong and sufficiently trained to leave the nest. Under the fire of a searing African sun, she will cruise between the valley below and the vultures riding the crest of the warm currents above. Also searching.
This is a nomadic life of combing and replenishing, as it has always been. I roll over onto my stomach, split my jaw open, and stretch out my forepaws. It’s time to rise from the night and shake off the moisture from my coat. To beat a trail, though today I will not graze or forage unless game is readily available.
I rest back on my haunches, licking away the fire where the lion’s claw ripped into my right hindquarter. Flies again, hunting for their morning meal, find my wound more than they had hoped. I chase them away with my tongue. It is soothing, and will cleanse. If it doesn’t heal, I will die. Not quickly, but all too soon.
* * *
Had I known the lioness was stalking the young Thomson’s Gazelle, I would not have pursued. I had come upon a fattened, spur-winged goose only the day before and was not grasped by hunger. But my instincts would not permit me to bypass such a satisfying opportunity.
Having wandered off from the herd, the gazelle was grazing indifferently, as if it had abandoned reason and caution. Possibly, in the turmoil of a chase, it had been separated from its mother. Or perhaps she had been taken by the pack of spotted hyenas I saw canvassing the perimeter of the herd.
I crept to the fringe of tall grass and waited, vigilant that the wind might still turn against me. I thought the child was alone. I was wrong. Almost fatally so.
I was close enough and fortunately not so aggressive as to launch myself sooner or I would have run headlong into the lioness, who leapt from the bushes just as I did. We converged before either of us knew of the other’s presence. The lioness swung around, sweeping out defensively with her forepaw as I spun and clawed myself to a halt.
* * *
I’ve been wounded worse. Once, as a goshawk in an arid land, I lost a vital flight feather when a peregrine falcon shot from the sky in a withering attack. As a crocodile, I ambushed a herd of zebra crossing a swollen river and for my resolve was savagely kicked, leaving the right side of my skull reeling in pain.
That I have been more successful than injured has led me to my present path. I have killed so much game there is a blur of squealing and twisting, of feathers and crying froth. Pulsing squirts of blood have crisscrossed my face and shot over my back as I disemboweled my prey.
This day and the next few will decide if this life will end before I would have liked. I have been many animals before. Flying, swimming, slithering, tunneling, prowling — but never have I been a leopard.
I move off from the swarms of flies that are drawn to my wound and lethargy. The sun crested in the sky long ago. But there will be no relief from the heat and the choking dust sucked up by the swirling winds, not until nightfall when the herds have eaten and satisfied themselves that they are safely through another day.
By then I will have ranged at the heels of gazelles, gemsboks, wildebeests, and impalas, waiting along with the lions and cheetahs and pack dogs until my turn came, and then cutting out the weakest, most infirm. It does not matter if you live in the air or water or roam in the dark for food as I do; the weak, slow and inattentive live out their lives more quickly than most. And the lion does not draw a distinction between the unlucky and those with questionable judgment.
I can survive many days without making a kill, though not as long without water. I picked up the scent of water last night, but the racking wound forced me to discontinue my drive. I sought refuge, sanctuary.
It is too early to judge the measure of my narrow escape. Though today the pain does not feel as threatening. I can still see the lioness’ open jaws. Startled, her instinct was to flail out, defend herself and take down the intruder with one vicious swipe of her paw; indignant, annoyed that I had warned the gazelle and almost deprived her of an easy meal. Had I not been as agile, had she not been, for just a second, indecisive as to whether she wanted to pursue the gazelle or punish the intruder, I might not be here — wound, hunger, thirst and all.
The wind shifts, a trio of suricates stand lookout on top of their raised mounds searching the horizon for food and danger. These mongooses are too far away and, at the mouth of their burrow, unreachable. I have had them before, but not as a leopard. And this sensation of knowledge rings alone where before there was silence. I recall crushing the neck of the mongoose and watched its life spread red around my paws but only because the taste of it is less desirable than most prey. A distinction I have never made before.
I also recall slashing the throat of a newborn impala, but not as the three-year old leopard I am. These memories, events that do not come to mind naturally, are easily misplaced or overwhelmed by the immediacy of my journey on the plains. Yet there is a difference. If I survive this wound, I may live long enough to understand. Though I do not know what advantage that will give me when evading those who pursue me, or locating those upon whom I feed.
I feel the spirit of my past is different from before — to the extent that I can recall a before: images, events, escapes, and kills assuming other forms, is something I have not seen in the eyes of other animals. I have become aware of myself, my life and circumstances and relevance that are being fed by a force that I cannot clearly identify. Perhaps that is best. My struggle must be confined to the present, not distracted by speculation about my past.
Impala ahead! The pungent scent of their musk and droppings is strong on the wind. As it will be for all the great cats and those who plunder in pursuit and scavenge behind their tailings. This lesson I learned from my mother. Looking up, staring at the blood-soaked coil attached between her shaking legs to a place where I began. It is a vision I will never forget. And it was in that same instant I recalled the male gharial I was before this birth, and in moments of flight and recent reflection, a bonobo, the pygmy chimpanzee, dancing from limb to tree, delighting between the green canopy and golden sky, which left me with a freedom I’ve seldom found.
Now I am of the earth. Leaving scent and stalking scent. Tethered to grass, scrub and sand I must make do with the hearts of springbok, gazelle and eland and the ancestors of those I have been. I prefer the sweet, gentle taste of ming berries, the tight thickness of nuts found only high in the forest, the lingering softness of bananas and tang of mangos. And yet springbok and gibbon seem preferable to fish and floating carrion.
My mother severed the link between us with her teeth and washed me with her tongue. We were one. For many days, we remained close until I learned what she and my ancestors had taken a lifetime to collect, and now, because of a lion’s flashing claw, it may not be enough.
I recognized her smell before anything. Her touch was new; only her tongue was strange. I scampered to my feet, momentarily blind, but already alert to her stirring. She was vulnerable because I was at her side. And I, like all children, would be for some time. She brought me kill, sacrificing herself that I might be nourished and grow.
Her insides remained fresh to me until my maturity drove me from the pack — or was it her natural insistence? That day the sky blackened and roared like a wounded lion. Rain fell for days afterwards. I sought protection in a granite outcropping that sheltered me from the torrent and my loss. Except for the light in my mother’s eyes, I’ve never seen the sparkle of comprehension in others that I see in pools of watery reflection.
The looks in the eyes of macaws and giraffes are quite similar. Spirits driven from one dawn to the next dusk to spend the night in seclusion and not succumb by accident or fate to the jaws of a more adept predator. This difference troubles me. When left to my own — to wander, to hunt, to establish my own territory, or to find a mate — it is ever on my mind. Why do I question my succession?
Another leopard joined her. They sniffed after each other but the hesitation was perfunctory. It was her sister. She sniffed me, establishing a link that instantly endowed me to her brood. There were six of us. Myself, my mother, her sister, and her three offspring. That is not unusual.
Floating as a goshawk, I knew that leopards give birth to two or three cubs. Then I noticed the difference: my aunt’s twin girls are a season older than the male, who is not a week older than I. More protection for us in the future, but a greater handicap now. Two adults torn between four children. Many mouths to feed and protect from lions and — worse and more deadly — the spotted hyenas.
The hyena has high, sloping shoulders, a coarse coat, a large muzzle, and long teeth. It is the second-largest meat eater in Africa. Its tan and reddish coat blends in with the scrub and parched underbrush. The spotted hyena can take down a bull wildebeest. Hyenas rove in packs of at least twelve, with eighty in reserve. They fear nothing. They are the most ruthless, aggressive pack animal alive. Hyenas will not be intimidated or chased away from a kill, so pervasive is their hunger. That was an even earlier lesson I had learned.
My mother prodded me to my feet again and again that day. I preferred to roll about, taunt my siblings, and dance close to my aunt’s tolerant side. She was more severe than my mother, utterly without emotion. Her children respected and feared her. They stood away, patiently distant until she came to rest, unsure unless she gave them a signal to approach and suckle. I took my mother’s milk without permission and stumbled about, making whimpering sounds of satisfaction she knew might endanger our safety.
That first day of life passed easily. I fell asleep. The pride did too. A rich land will do this. Food was plentiful. It is told in the eyes of the hunters. As a falcon, I traveled among the thermals during storm and famine — and watched. I always ate. When it rained, I feasted. When there was drought I was nourished by an ample supple of fresh carrion. There is no dry season for those of the air. Thus, my preference is driven not by interest but by a thirst for life. Who would not want to be offered such permanence? There is less danger in the air than anywhere else. Not in the grass, and certainly not clinging to the muddy riverbanks.
Am I the only one who is aroused by this conscious distinction? The first year of life told me so. I watched my brothers and sisters, their disorganized scampering preparing them to hunt and track and stalk and cut out the weakest from the herd and to race to that spot where the frightened might be directed. To make the most of each attack, for the expenditure in time and energy is too great to waste. Like most cats — except for the lion, who will kill and eat once in every four or five hunts — I will eat only once in ten. I will take food from the cheetah and pack dogs while relinquishing my kills to the lion and hyena.
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by Arthur Davis