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THE PANTHER

The panther sat there on its haunches then blinked and, quite unexpectedly, yawned; stretched those jaws wide exposing rows of dazzling teeth, a huge pink tongue and the dank curve of that throat of death. The beast turned away sharply, looked up and into the canopy beyond, his yellow eyes scanning the treetops. The end of his tail flicked alarmingly.  Suddenly the panther was on his feet, distracted, staring deep into the jungle. With an agitated lash of his tail the beast angled away to walk a few paces into the open, then slowly begin to run across the clearing and into the night.

Little Joshua was frozen to the spot. He was four, five meters up, nestled in the fork of two branches, hidden from everyone, or so he thought, by a thick wall of leaves. He heard the faintest swish of leaves in the distance; a small bird flew up shrieking its disturbance – suddenly, ferociously he was on full alert as the unmistakable sound of something approaching tore him from his thoughts.

There it was again; a crack, that jungle whisper as a leaf is pushed, a branch snaps, the smack of vine and root. Something was out there. The little boy froze, just the thump of his heart to keep him company – that and the beast in the forest. The noises continued, to his left this time, moving through the thick undergrowth, circling him, cutting him off. Joshua looked up at the tree, to his left, to his right, then snapped his face back in the direction of the next sound. Behind him. Closer now.

He could hear the panther’s breath, a guttural purr in the sudden stillness. The insects stopped around him, the jungle hum came to a halt. There was just his heart and that breathing, that circling, solemn sigh of the cat. He was frozen in the moment. There were no words for this fear, there was no sound he could make to express it – this was fear beyond gesture, a rigid, stretching fear that pulled his vertebrae apart, sent a cold river of horror down his spine, slowed time, distended space, exposed the white blankness behind the realm of sight.

He was beyond contact, beyond his grandfather’s help. Joshua’s fear echoed all the way to the resort, rolled free over that black beach, even, for an instant, flew over sleeping Daniel, straight into his soul, jerking him from black dreams.

The fear was picked up by the old man drinking kava on the point.

‘You have him now, Steven,’ he whispered, ‘take your time.’

*

Steven padded through the jungle towards the intruder.

The undergrowth parted just a few meters away. The boy’s eyes widened as the cat appeared through the leaves, gliding gracefully into view. Now even his heart stopped as the purest note of fear rang out over the island, a high pitched vibration to stir any soul that could hear. The boy’s grandfather felt it; he rolled from side to side in frustration, unable to see, defeated by the very forces he had set loose. The child was detonating the space around him in his terror, setting up shock waves that deafened any attempt at contact, defeated concern, deflected care. He was on his own.

The panther snarled at Joshua exposing those long yellow fangs. Its eyes narrowed as it stopped dead, staring, a thin line of drool ran out of one side of that stretched mouth and a savage growl pierced the silence.

*

Dogster sat bolt upright in his sleeping bag, ripped from his dream by an urgent sense of unease and a thin, piercing scream.

‘Kill him,’ whispered the man on the point.

‘Joshua! Say the words!’ hissed his grandfather.

Steven’s father was sweating. He knew what would happen if blood was spilt.

*

For an instant those piercing eyes landed on his. The great cat sprang straight up towards the terrified child.

Joshua couldn’t move or scream or disappear. He was frozen, paralyzed with fear. A thin, high wail rose from his throat, a pitched bird sound that brought the jungle alive. The panther flew, legs outstretched, muscle rippling in the moonlight, climbing through space to reach the boy. Joshua watched in horror as the jaws of the animal flew closer, eyes aflame, eyebrows arched, a splash of drool in the corners of that great, gaping mouth. He drew back in his hiding place and watched as the panther reached the top of his leap, that snarling face only a meter from the boy, front claws grasping at thin air as it finally started its downward journey. The young boy gasped and, as he did so, tumbled out of thin air and onto the warm earth of Sulphur Bay.

*

The old man cried out in shock then let out a long wheeze of relief.

‘I thought I’d lost you,’ he said and pulled the amazed child into his embrace with a gesture of warmth and love that surprised them both. Then, with a deep intake of breath, he screeched into the night, a banshee shriek of danger to wake the village, to gather the men and send them on to fight.

 *

Dust flew out from the cat’s paws as they hit the dirt but the animal absorbed the jarring shock in every joint, bending with the force of it, haunches rippling. The cat recovered immediately, looked briefly over his shoulder at his tree, snarled and turned back into Steven.

*

I know, I know…

Drugs. Too much Carlos Castaneda as a young man. I’m sorry. I think it was the powdered frog.

*

PRODIGAL TOURISTS

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