I Have Become the Leopard
by Arthur Davis
This day I am hidden, patient in the underbrush. The wave of grass rises up on both sides, protecting me as it did the lions yesterday. A herd of gazelle. Many will give birth in the coming days. Many will die in the coming weeks as hunters pick off the young and feeble. Only those who are born to speed, agility, and good fortune will escape and pass quickly into adolescence. Life in the herd is dangerous, though in the anonymity of such numbers, not without its benefits.
I rest. My hindquarter begins to burn, a sensation that does not concern me as long as it is soon relieved. If it is still inflamed by tomorrow, I will not live long. I wait for the scent of cats and pack animals, and those who fear them both. I hear only the sweep of wind scratching the top of dry grass. There is safety here, but no prey and no water.
But something else. The wind has shifted. I get up and pace about, still secluded, though unusually pensive. As though I should be moving on. I do not feel threatened as much as curious. There is something distinct and distant in the air. I know it from before, from long ago, though I am uncertain in which life I first encountered it.
I move slowly away from the underbrush, constantly aware of my injury and limitations. I am the hunter. Wary. Always ready. Now I must think differently. Wild pack dogs, even a pair of hyenas, might tree me and simply wait for others to join in the kill. I am not who I was yesterday. I cannot concern myself with the possibility I may never be again.
The scent intensifies. I pause and crouch, my snout to the soil. My hesitation is great, but I must not let it cripple me. I crawl closer as flies, once settled in the grass, are roused and swarm into my eyes, nose, and ears. A few lengths every so often.
There is the smell of death. Of great defeat and greater danger. A covey of white-backed vultures begins to gather overhead. That will bring the lions, and with them will come the hyenas. I have not much time. I cannot suffer curiosity at the expense of my life, which is already in great jeopardy.
I should not have taken this course. I am wounded, no match for an encounter. I am no match for my own curiosity and combativeness. I decide to pull away when the wind shifts again, as it does at this time of year, unpredictably, and I recognize the experience of death. I turn back into the wind, crouch down, and step to the fringe of the clearing.
A giant beast of an elephant lies bleeding from a gaping wound in the side of its skull. Three creatures move about on their hind legs cutting away its two giant white tusks. They make quick, high-pitched, unsettling noises. They lift the tusks and set them into something I have never seen, which swallows them whole and roars away. I watch apprehensively, as they trail off into a dry riverbed. Soon they are out of sight, though the dust kicked up from their flight can be seen casting a shadow over the land for a great distance.
I am left in doubt. Who would want elephant tusks? They cannot be eaten and are of no importance in hunting except for those who first possess them. How could these creatures benefit from such a conquest? And at the sacrifice of such a magnificent animal?
I have seen these creatures before: not necessarily here, under this sun; and not, if memory serves, merely as hunters. I will make an effort to clarify my suspicions; not for purposes of curiosity, but rather that I may be assuaged that I have not repeated a lifetime in such skin.
I get up and examine the carcass. It is a female elephant. The largest animal I have ever seen. The meat is fresh and there is moisture in fresh meat. There is also death. The vultures drop lower. The lions, even members of different prides, may be drawn to a kill of this size. I decide to withdraw downwind.
As I take cover in the grass, I see pack dogs moving in from behind, their low murmuring howl signaling their intentions. If I stay, I will be caught in the savagery that is close at hand. I am no match for anything but healing.
I track a wide arc back to the trail of the impalas. They will lead me to water. I must drink today, or tomorrow I may not have the energy to venture out. Without water, even what remains in a mouthful of fox, I am going to die. The wound is not as painful, but it may fester and become deathly. I am exhausted, and the sun has not yet joined the horizon. The incident with the lion has made me cautious, something unaccustomed to my nature.
My aunt was the first to encounter the maturity of my true spirit when I scent-marked a tree already stained with the urine of a large male lion. She tried to warn me, but I wouldn’t have any of it. I urinated and dropped feces at the base of the tree. It was foolish. My mother came up and dragged me away. We never went back to the hillock. I do not recall why I was so defiant, other than the fact that I believed my territory was wherever I pleased it to be.
That was some time ago, and yet my memory reaches further back in time, beyond my life and into the lives of gharials, eagles, and cobras. Among these echoes is an even stronger sensory pattern that I could only speculate upon. There are images, similar to those of the gibbon, but larger, whose habits and speech eludes my recall, but who I am uneasy about.
I come to a band of acacia trees stretching out for some distance. They will allow me to flank the impalas in cover and observe their watering hole. I prefer fruit trees, which attract less attentive parrots, trumpeter hornbills, African green pigeons, and starlings.
From my vantage point, the sweep of the grassy plains opens up into a vision of ill-tempered animals roaming from one dry lakebed to another. The lush foliage is all but gone, either eaten or burned off. Mudflats wither and crack. Even the hardiest will suffer. Some will dig watering holes under dry streambeds, but the brief gurgle will not support many searching tongues. Others will drop off from the herd and cling to strips and patches of forest, unaware that the lion, the most territorial of all animals, rests in their afternoon shadow. I have hovered above sand dunes, watched great nesting colonies of heron, ibises, and stork blacken out the sky in search of elusive freshwater marshes.
The rest of the afternoon is expended with getting into position, resting, and coating the wound with my tongue. There is nothing else to do but wait. The herd is made up mostly of impalas, intermingled with zebras and wildebeests. This is quite common, the entire herd is brought into jeopardy as the mass of life grows to cover the grassland. I can live off many kills and, while instinct has taught me to accept insects and birds, I’ve always preferred a chase before a meal.
What I prefer comes as a surprise. I prefer the gentle flush of tidal estuary waves against a mangrove, the small animals that live in the lowland rain forest, the simplicity of taking down a dik-dik, palm thickets that are free of flies, the highlands and verdant plateaus, stalking flamingos in seasonally flooded marshes, the taste of palm nuts, warm and humid air and heavy rain, dense foliage, scrubby grassland whose only attraction is enormous baobab trees with branches sheltering nesting blue-bellied rollers, parrots, and barbets. Savannah woodlands with wide grassy plains, gallery forests, rivers flanked by borassus palms and thick with duikers, red-fronted gazelles, bushbucks, patas monkeys, scissor-tail kites and cranes. Always cranes, whose flesh I prize above all others.
A large troop of savannah baboons, the largest of its family, advances into the path of the impalas. There are about thirty of them, though troops can amass up to two hundred animals. There is nervousness among the herd. A new species attracts new predators. The mix is unsettling.
However, the baboons, themselves capable fighters, expend their energy cleaning and preening and gathering into clearly defined groups. The dominant females and males, the children skittering among the elders, searching for approval and acceptance. They scream, mate, eat, and rest under the broad canopy of branches.
It is in those branches that I would have taken my next kill. Into those notches in the high branches, I would have carried my prey secured in my jaws. It is in those branches, safe from other cats, I would eat. However, not today. Now I am as earthbound as the rhino, though there the comparison ends.
Soon I am alerted. The wind has not shifted, though there is something close by. I do not fear the intruder, but the impalas should. I lift my head and see the thick golden collar of a massive lion. He is shepherding two other males into position. They are there for the ambush, not for the kill. That will be left for the females waiting on the other side of the herd. A well-orchestrated technique will take down one or two large impalas and will amply feed the lion pride. If they get wind of me and feel I have compromised their hunt, I will be chased down and killed. I drop myself down to the earth as they pass close by.
The three male lions rouse the herd, which stampedes toward the waiting females. As the trap is sprung, I get to my feet. I am taken by their contained stride, by the effortless power of their assault, their graceful arrogance, and the presumption of their heritage. This is their land. Every other creature is here at their sufferance. They will not condone temerity or transgressors. I cannot help but wonder what it would be like to be a lion. To be totally fearless. To be totally feared.
Thoughts like these lead me to question my past, which does not augur toward a successful future. It is at best a point of interest that animals do not possess. Then if that is true, what does that make me? Am I more than the leopard? The sum of my past?
The dust settles. Overheated lions decorated with bloodstained muzzles stand triumphant over two dead impala. There are eight lions with enough fresh carrion to keep the pride content. As soon as the herd sees that the kills are complete, they return with excessive energy to grazing and securing their young.
Toward the fringe of the herd is a broad watering hole surrounded by clusters of uprooted junipers that have long succumbed to the elephant’s destructive feeding habits. A family of zebra is staked out one side of the watering hole, while baboons gather on the other. Impalas slip in between.
I must drink. The thirst is making breathing difficult; my heart races to keep my body cool. I could wait another day, but then I would be weaker, more vulnerable. Less audacious. Then there would be no room for any more miscalculations.
Under the mask of confidence, I move out of the clearing. At this heightened pace, my injury is deeply uncomfortable. Before the vultures signal hyena and lion, several impalas notice my presence. They whinny an alarm which sweeps through the herd. I pick up speed, not making for the watering hole at first, but in that general direction. They scatter, reminded of the more fearsome pride that attacked only moments earlier.
The baboons pull back from the watering hole, not frightened, though heedfully suspicious. The zebras lift their heads indifferently. A zebra has nothing to fear from leopards. I approach the pool, stop, scan the horizon, growl contemptuously at a clot of frightened elands, and proceed to drink. More than necessary, but anxious lest it be my last.
The water is cold. I cannot wait too long; my weakness may alert others, especially the two young approaching hyenas. They glance over at the muddy waterhole, and then continue their advance on the lions. In the distance, double their number head toward the lions at a pace that will quickly bring them into confrontation. I take one last gulp and leave, aware that I must not let on how difficult this journey has been.
That night I sleep in the crown of a broad acacia. I have found an old tree with a thick branch that is over three of my lengths from the ground. I am fearful that being too close to the herd will draw my enemies to me. I need the herd, for if I am to live, I will have to make a kill soon. If they leave, I will follow. If not, I will remain here until I heal or die.
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Copyright © 2012 by Arthur Davis