It was horrid and bright to open his eyes. Better to stay enshrouded in ruddy darkness. But other signals were… penetrating too. His gullet came unfastened, pulsing and melting, and a sour bulge of liquid rose and – oh fuck, he sat up too late – popped and disgorged into his cupped hands. This liquid inch he cradled between his palms, it had weight and mass, and the gluey but slippery consistency of watered cornstarch. He considered, as the sweet smell of ketones, sickly and artificial rose, how much like an offering it was with its grains of rice and bilious yellow tint (plus he was bent on his knees in the sand). That smell quickly became a shriek. A nostril twitched. Revulsion clenched him, and he flung it in the pit.
Oh… oh, ugh… please don’t do that. Please. That’s where we eat.
A female and Western someone said that, one of the other rafters, a voice he recognized, the bossy freckled one who paid for her own holiday. He looked at her. She looked at him. She scorched wood in the fire pit and turned it. Sparks twisted loose and rocketed upwards.
Food glued to fingertips felt repulsive. He plunged them in the damp grains before him and yanked them out again. Red and grey filled crannies, nooks and wrinkles, and fell in tiny streams. Shining mica particles tumbled in the threads and winked in the light. Most stayed stuck. Even as he rubbed. A hollow in the sand remained without crumbling.
His freckled interlocutor, with her wide fleshy cheeks, dark eyes, prim little frown and dismayed expression pointed to his hands:
You are disgusting. Why wouldn’t you rinse them… in the river?
He considered the grit on his hands, and the bloated carcass swirling down the rapids.
Their rafting guide lifted his head. He held a pan he was grinding silt against to clean the grease from.
Plus… plus… here is this point, sahib: you may wash your sins away in this river. May I walk you to this bank?
No, no, I can manage. Thank you.
He lifted himself from the sand. Grey poured from his smoke-steeped clothes and tumbled from his poisoned flesh. His insides sloshed and gurgled. He surveyed his domain. Where he lay was a mark. Where he thrashed and rolled there were flat scuffs in the wind-blown undulations, and a long smear leading from where he crawled to the pit.
How easily he could chart his progress. But on the periphery were signs he could not decipher so easily. As fresh as his they were – maybe fresher and certainly crisper – a wobbling trail that circled him twice then led back up the tall slope and disappeared into the woodsy tangle of trees and spiny brush.
He dropped to his knees to look. Ebb tides of sludge sluiced through him and collided.
You gonna barf again? Do it away from the communal area – please.
He did not respond. There was an interior pad about the size and shape of his balled fist – but the ground was punched in far deeper than a boot-print. Radiating out on one side were four nubs as long but much more substantial than a thumb. They were tracks, animal tracks from an animal at least as large as he. He felt someone walk up beside him.
The guide crouched. He studied the tracks. He beckoned a closer look with one hand.
These are small for tiger.
With the other he pressed a palm beside the print to steady himself and measure.
But perfect for leopard.
The circuit around the sleeping American was not so far off the leopard’s usual route. Each evening’s prowl had its tripartite purpose: To find food and squirt urine jets – that is to re-inscribe the boundaries of his domain where they abutted against the other leopards’ (and tigers’, and feral cats’ – though he thought of these more as nuisances than peers, indeed the dank smell of their urine and mere thought of their scat piles made his whiskers crumple in disgust) – and if he felt like risking internecine conflict, he might to nudge his boundaries forward and theirs backwards with his jets. But his final task was the one he took the most pleasure in. On his midnight prowls, before he left his own mark he took a moment to sniff deeply and consider the boundary scents of others; to steep in the pheromone tags of his brethren and sift through them hunting for signals, for must, for weakness, for the continued survival of his peppery brood – three cubs, two males, one female, each marking their own little worlds now – whom he knew only from a fierce rut from a splendid ruddy bitch who padded into his domain one lonely afternoon. She was long gone.
(Some would have say there was a fourth purpose too – to patrol his area for danger – but leopards are afraid of nothing.)
He came away with his domain freshly mapped each night. And as he slept through the day, and his body twitched and his whiskers wiggled with dreams, he roamed his lands again and again. Gliding above them sometimes or sometimes plunging in, weaving in and out, plotting escape routes, points of ambush, lines of sight, lines of communication; learning his scoop of land so intuitively it became a part of him, the shape corresponding roughly to the hollow hemisphere of his paw as he spread it swipe.
Some contours within were always the same and always would be the same, unless the river shifted, which it not yet had. The spines of rock that pleased him would stay the same, as would the tributaries feeding the great river below that he could lap from, the general shape of the gorge and the slope down to the riverbank. Those never changed. Other elements were fluid. The sand lining the river. Depth of cover. Colonies of rats. Mud puddles filled with biting fleas, scorches left by lightning strikes. The trails to and from the water sources, romped by every creature – these always existed, but shifted, at the whim of the mass of them. He charted the monkey blinds, those foul tempered, foul tasting things who posted lines of sentinels who screamed alerts as they saw him, and pelted him with shit if he came to close. There were caches of food, kills he hoisted and hid the better to let them linger in their juices before he sank his fangs inside; the meat risked spoiling the longer it hung but the risk of a writhing mouthful of maggots thrilled him too.
But his maps were not just functional. They had their flourishes too. Flat patches of dirt he enjoyed rolling around in as a freshly whelped cub. The shaded copse his mate first prowled into and howled for his seed. The scent marks of ancient leopards he kept alive with his own squirted palimpsests. And finally he plotted the strange encroachments of man. The terrifying black strip they laid that smelled faintly of sun-baked bowel. The swift screaming things that traversed it were somehow associated with them, leaving clouds of flatulence and peculiar flotsam and jetsam in the gullies running along side.
Their most recent arrival was less dramatic yet somehow more beguilingly sinister.
As the great river receded and the grey sands were revealed beneath, a single smoke belching beast would one day lumber down the gentlest part of the slope. Like an elephant it was averse to steepness. (This message was encoded for posterity.) Four men clambered out and built flimsy nests and dug a great burrow they filled with fire.
That night as he made his rounds he chanced upon a mark he never sampled before. A faint trace left on unusual oblong dome that felt as if it had been ground down by man many years before. The scent was barely alive. He placed his nostril close. Some weren’t worth preserving otherwise his nightly rounds would take an eternity. But this one addressed man. In a whisper of soft reeks it spoke of a wounded was stranded on a sandbank during one monsoon. All he had to eat were corpses. And the only corpses that washed ashore were men. They were astringent, sour metallic, and rank all at once. Yet he developed a taste eventually. And when the waters receded he slaughtered hundreds. Then disappeared, leaving his dominion empty.
As the fire died down, he slunk down across the cool, dense, sand. The air was moist and vivid, stirred by the churning of the waters. The nests billowed in the breeze. How easily he could rip one apart but as he approached the perimeter of one his paw snagged on a thin line. Like a massive cobweb. He shrunk back from it, afraid a sentinel would screech the line would stick to his fur but it only twanged. Still he strayed well away. He approached a strange oblong that wasn’t made of stone. He dragged his muzzle against it, taking in a whiff dried river minerals and then a choking sent that made his fur bristle. He was about to leave and return to his route when he found a lone sleeper by the dying fire.
Water dried and left crusts of minerals on his skin. His fingers tasted of salt. The sun stung his goose-puckered flesh. The last of the rapids. The river spread out before them and became languorous and slow. Ahead of him in the raft the freckled one took off her helmet. And she turned to him and as she did a beam of light fortuitously ignited her hair, which roared a more crimson shade of copper and as she leaned forward, her blocky lifejacket pulled away from her, revealing a plunging chasm of cleavage, sunburned pink and freckle dusted flesh that disintegrated into shadowed scoops of pure white. She held her helmet in her hands. The straps hung off. Frayed and grayed with sweat. She leaned off the boat and dragged the helmet in the river. She pulled it out again and held it before him. An inch of water drained through the circles of polystyrene – masses made up of millions of bubbles – that pulled and twisted the curled copper hairs she had left behind.
Hold this, will you? She said.
She scooped a long cord of damp red hair over her shoulder revealing a long length of speckled neck. He caught her smell as she took it from him again. Milk and salt and musk, it drew him closer. His muscles ached from rowing but bathed him in a dopey soup of soothing relief.
But for the rush of current against the rubber sidewalls the raft was silent.
A squat stone marker sailed past. The Interlocutor pointed.
Say. Now what is that? She said.
That is one commemoration to the Great White Hunter. The guide said. He pulled his mouth back and shuddered with laughter, revealing blazing enamel and bubblegum pink gum that charred to well-done burger on its periphery. For this man! Panar leopard – he ate 400 men. Very cunning cats! Monsters! They lift the roof, drop in, scoop up baby and snatch her in his jaws!
Why do you say that?
He was very nearly eaten.
Were you very really nearly eaten?
He nodded. Circled and sniffed, he said.
She placed a freckled finger on his wrist. It pleased him.