Black Leopard

Rebecca Buchanan

[Note: this story also appears in Written in Wine: A Devotional Anthology for Dionysus (Bibliotheca Alexandrina).]

**Inspired by on the true story of Eddy, a black leopard born and raised at the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Conservation Center**

“Male and female. Fully grown, far as we can tell. ‘Course, he had no papers on ’em, so I doubt they’ve had their shots. And ya can see how skinny they are.” Walt shook his head and tipped his hat back on his head, the badge flashing in the sunlight. “Come from a bad situation, these two. All the drugs we hauled out of his place.” Another shake of the head. “Hell, he was probably feeding that crap to the cats.”

Gabe took a few tentative steps closer to the cage. It was up on the back of the truck, putting the two black leopards right at eye level. The female had shoved herself into the back corner. Ears laid flat, her nose curled in warning. The male paced the small space in front of her, snarling. Iridescent black spots glinted in his dark fur.

Gabe looked over. Denise was on the far side of the cage, hands stuffed into her pockets against the cold. Her nose was starting to run. She was closer to the cage than him. He could see her lips moving and knew that she was making soft murmuring, cooing sounds, trying to calm the cats.

The male rounded suddenly, leaping at the bars, at Denise. She took half a step back, then steadied herself. The air echoed with the sound of the big cat hitting metal. Walt swore.

“Yeah, they been that way pretty much the whole time. Why I brought Tommy along.” He waved to the deputy, safely tucked away in the cab of the truck. Tommy looked away and scooted lower in his seat. “Sorry to dump ’em on you like this, but you’re the only place around here that could take ’em. County can’t afford to ship ’em out, assuming we could find a zoo or sanctuary that would want ’em. Feds don’t want ’em. So, ya know, it’s you or ….” A shrug as his voice trailed off.

Gabe made some quick mental calculations. Food. Vet. Medications. The last fund drive hadn’t brought in nearly enough. They would be out of money and running on credit by the end of the month — even without two more mouths to feed.

“We’ll take them,” Denise said. Gravel crunched under her boots as she walked passed, towards the house. “I like his eyes.”

Gabe sighed. His breath crystallized momentarily, then vanished. The male hissed at him. “Yeah. We’ll take them.”

It was an hour to unload the cages, line them up with the side pen door, and coax the leopards into their new habitat. Tommy ventured only reluctantly from the safety of the cab, chin tucked down. As soon as the leopards were in the pen, the door closed behind them, he was back in the truck. Walt shook his head, shook Gabe’s hand, and climbed in beside his deputy. The truck rumbled down the road, passed the tiger and lion pens and over the creek, around the curve, and was gone.

Gabe turned back to the leopards. The female sniffed hesitantly at the oversized doghouse inside the pen, a heavy piece of tarp draped over the entrance.

“That’s home,” Gabe told her. She looked up at him; her eyes were a darker yellow than that of the male; closer to amber. Her lips curled, revealing predator’s teeth. “Gonna be cold tonight. Not good weather for tropical cats like you.” He nodded at the doghouse. “Better get inside.”

She snarled at him, hunkering lower.

“Right,” Gabe sighed, and turned on his heel.

The sun was setting behind the Rockies. This high up in the foothills, the mountains overhead, night descended in only a few minutes. Warm light glowed through the kitchen window, becoming brighter as the air around him darkened. The security lights immediately around the house flickered, sputtered, came on, casting his shadow in many directions. He could hear the tigers prowling through the grass in their pen, on the far side of the house; some unfortunate rabbit or prairie dog had found its way in. The rustling grew louder, a brief, terrified squeak, and a satisfied crunch.

He kicked the dirt from his boots on the “Welcome to the Asylum!” door mat. “Hey.”

“Yeah?”

He found Denise in the kitchen, warming up leftover casserole. “Tigers got in some practice.”

“Good. They kill enough of the rodents I won’t have to worry about the garden this spring. Johar.”

“Hunh?”

She nodded at the baby name book flipped open, face down, on the counter beside her. “Means jewel. For his eyes. Like yellow diamonds. Devaki for her.”

A silent dinner. No news from either of the boys; too busy with girls and school. Gabe went out one last time to check all the locks. The tigers ignored him. A couple of the lionesses bounced up for chin scratches; he reached through the chain link fence to rub their warm coats. The bears were nowhere to be seen; hidden away inside the “caves” he and the boys and Denise had built of rocks and boulders one summer. The female leopard — Devaki, he reminded himself — was tucked away inside the doghouse. The male …. He peered around, eyes narrowed. The pen was much smaller than the acres devoted to the tigers and bears and lions; only about thirty square feet; but it still took him some time to pick Johar out of the darkness. The cat’s head turned, yellow eyes pining him.

“You’d kill me if you could, wouldn’t you?”

A low, rumbling snarl.

Denise was already in bed when he returned, warm in her ratty old cotton nightgown. Papers covered with numbers were strewn across the bed. “We won’t last the month. I can try to get more hours at the office. Maybe round up some more clients on my own; people always need help with their taxes.”

He nodded, weary, stripping down to his boxers and socks. He climbed in beside her. She was warm and smelled of winter grass.

“Need to call the Doc tomorrow,” he mumbled, voice trailing off. “Maybe we can work out a trade ….”

II

The hyper-efficient secretary whose name he could never remember informed him that the Doc was out of town. Some conference in Denver. But there was a sub filling in for him, and she would be right out, yes she would.

The cats didn’t like Joy, either. Devaki curled back her lips, snarled for a few minutes, and then retreated into the doghouse. Johar refused to move from his corner, tail tip twitching, eyes yellow and angry. The vet studied them for long minutes, from a safe distance, through the bars. Her pen moved back and forth, jotting rapid notes. She was shaking her head.

“Bad coat color. Too skinny. Gums look bad, too.” More scribbling. “I’ll give ’em the full round of vaccinations. Some high caloric food, too. Fatten them up. Hope they string up this guy by his gonads.” Furious scribbling.

Gabe cleared his throat. “Ah, about the meds and the food. We’re getting kinda low on funds ….”

Joy shot him an irritated, exasperated look from the corner of her eyes. “I’ll put it on your tab. Doc says your good for it.” The pen went in her pocket and she flipped the notebook closed. A few quick skippy steps took her to her little VW. Gabe stumbled and caught up with her. “You got boys, right? How are they?”

“Good. We think. Been a couple weeks since they called or wrote.”

Joy shrugged, rolling her shoulders. “Eh. I was the same way. Wanna help me with the shots?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Joy pulled out two collapsable polls from the trunk, and a black chest with a biohazard sign on the side. “Probably a good idea to keep them away from the other cats.” She straightened one poll, then the other, flipped open the chest, and inserted a syringe into the end of each poll; balletic; not a wasted movement. “At least for now. These are definitely not sociable cats.”

A few feet away, Devaki poked her head around the heavy tarp and hissed.

III

“Gabe! Gabe, come quick!”

He heard her from the shed where he was carving up the deer, butcher’s apron stained. Roadkill, hauled in by Walt and Tommy. Hands red, breath frosting in alarmed puffs, he ran towards her voice.

He found Denise beside the leopard cage, crouched low. Johar prowled restlessly in front of her, long tail lashing. The female, Devaki — nowhere in sight. Inside the doghouse.

“What? What?” He skidded to a halt.

“Ssshh!” she hissed at him, not looking up. She poked her finger at her ear.

He bent over beside her and Johar snarled. Paced some more. A muffled chirp, a high-pitched mewl, from inside the doghouse.

“I’ll get some deer.” He was upright and walking quickly across the icy-watery gravel. “Get the cage lined up with the pen.”

He heard clanging and banging behind him as Denise maneuvered the wheeled cage so that it lined up with the pen’s side door. By the time he returned with two great handfuls of red, furred meat she had the cage locked in place. He dumped the meat through the bars. His nose was beginning to run; he sniffled.

“Ready?”

Denise nodded.

They hauled on the ropes, pulling up the side door of the pen and the cage door. The way lay clear for the cats to get to the venison. Johar approached first, but wearily. He circled and circled around the pen, sniffing at the entrance to the cage, backing away, sniffing again. He stuck his head in, backed away, then his head and shoulders, backed away, and finally leapt, coat rippling in the bright daylight. He attacked the meat, tearing. Brownish gold fur stuck to his chin, now a reddish-black.

At the sound, Devaki stuck her head through the tarp and that was their first sight of the cub, hanging from her teeth by the scruff of its neck. Denise made a small breath of sound, a sigh of wonder and pity. The female cat disappeared back into the doghouse. Johar had devoured nearly all the meat. Gabe ran back to the shed, grabbed more handfuls, and trotted quickly back across the sloshy gravel. Johar let loose a ferocious snarl-growl at the sight and smell and threw himself at the bars. Metal rang. Gabe threw in one handful, towards the back of the cage. Johar tore into it. He threw the other handful closer to the entrance. His hands were cold now, deer blood momentarily warmed now freezing to his fingers.

Devaki emerged again. No cub. Gabe swallowed hard. “Come on, girl,” he whispered.

She padded slowly around the doghouse to the side door of the pen, where the meat lay just inside the cage. She sniffed. She showed her fangs. She leapt, teeth closing and tearing. Denise dropped the cage door. There was an indignant, outraged howl from Devaki. A laugh bubbled up from inside Gabe as the cat gingerly pulled her tail from beneath the cage door and it locked into place.

Denise was around him and running towards the main door of the pen. Key, lock, key, lock and she pulled the door open. Gabe was right behind her, pulling off his butcher’s apron. Denise tentatively pushed aside the tarp and leaned in. High-pitched, frightened mewling greeted her. She murmured and whispered and finally pulled back out, a tiny black ball in her hands.

Gabe held out the apron.

“The apron?” She sounded outraged. “Well, now we really can’t bring him back.”

“We weren’t gonna anyway,” he snapped, wrapping the apron around the tiny cub. Eyes of clearest sapphire looked right at him, unblinking. More mewling and crying.

Inside the cage, Devaki snarled.

Across the compound, the tigers and lions rumbled.

He trotted across the ground, the cub tucked against his chest. Behind him, he heard Denise locking the main pen door and re-opening the cage door. Devaki was still snarling. Johar seemed to care only for his meal.

Up the steps and inside. He pulled towels from the linen closet and dumped the cold, bloodied apron in the sink. The towels were blue. They made the cub’s eyes an even deeper sapphire. The cub whined piteously, then took a bite at his fingers. “Hey, there,” he chided, and couldn’t help grinning.

Denise banged into the house, skidded to a stop beside him in the kitchen. “How is he? She?”

Gabe lifted the cub over his head. “Definitely he.”

“Don’t rub so hard.”

“Well, he’s cold.”

“He’s whining.”

“He misses his Mama.”

Denise was beginning to bounce impatiently. “Don’t worry, you’ll get your turn.” He grinned down at the cub, rubbing gently. “Don’t you worry, kiddo. Your Mama and Daddy wouldna known how to take care of you proper. But we will. Yes, we will.”

IV

“Kana.”

Gabe glanced up at his wife. He pushed his bifocals out of the way, eyes slowly refocusing. “How’s that?”

She was in the rocking chair. The cub was in her lap, stumbling around, mouth fixed to a baby bottle. Formula dripped down his chin and chest and all over the towel spread across her lap. “Kana,” she said again. “It’s a good name. Means atom. You know, tiny. And he is tiny. It’s a girl name, but it still suits him.”

“Works for me.” He turned back to the papers neatly spread across the kitchen table. “Got another notice from the electric company.”

“Don’t worry about it. I get paid tomorrow, and I’m getting more hours at the office next week. That should pay a bit of it, enough so they don’t cut us off.”

Kana hiccuped and burped and vomited formula all over the towel. He continued to vomit all night. They fed him every hour and a half, taking turns so that one of them could try to sleep. He drank a bit of the formula, burped, drank a bit more, and then vomited. Denise sang to Kana while she tried to feed him, the same songs she had sung the boys when they were colicky and irritable. The cub made few sounds in response. His sapphire eyes grew dull.

The second night they called Joy, very late.

“Urgh,” she mumbled. “‘Kay, yeah, sure. Be right there.”

Her bug puttered into the driveway in the deep dark of early morning, headlights startling the tigers and lions. Several bears trundled out of their shallow caves to see what was up. Tires fell into deep ruts carved by heavier vehicles in the early thaw. Gabe could hear her swearing before she even clambered out of the VW and stepped into a puddle.

“Ow. Yuck. Alright, where’s my patient. He better be cute.”

Kana whimpered a few times as Joy poked and prodded and turned him round and shined a light in his eyes and down his throat, but otherwise he was silent. “I assume you’re giving him the usual goat’s milk,” she asked, and Gabe nodded. Joy pulled a wad of fur off his back, revealing dry skin beneath. “Yuck.” She held Kana up in her palm and looked him in the eyes. “You are not supposed to be sick. You are supposed to love the goat’s milk. All the kitties love the goat’s milk.”

She held Kana out and Denise gratefully uncrossed her arms and took back the cub, holding him close.

“Try cow juice,” she instructed. “I’ll talk to George. He’ll probably just be getting up as I’m driving passed. I’m sure he can spare you a few gallons.”

Gabe walked her out to her car. “Thanks, Joy.”

She waved her hand dismissively and tossed her black doctor bag in the passenger seat. “Eh. Call me in a few hours — after I’ve gotten some sleep.”

George was able to spare a few gallons, but Kana vomited that up, too. Two more days of sleeping and feeding in shifts, of cuddling the increasingly lethargic cub. He rarely opened his eyes now.

Joy drove back up, this time in broad daylight. She took a swervy, serpentine path around the deep ruts and puddles in the driveway. The lionesses seemed to think that was funny and started chasing one another around their pen, powerful strides devouring the acres of grass and rock.

“So, you don’t like the cow juice, either, hunh?” Joy glowered at the cub, who offered only a pitiful chirp. “Alrighty, then, time for Plan C. Or D. Dog milk.”

“Seriously?” Gabe gaped.

“Yep. Don’t know anyone who has any to donate, though. You’ll have to pay for it out of pocket.”

“No problem,” Denise answered immediately. She cuddled Kana closer. “We’ll pay.”

They found a distributor out of Colorado Springs, and had it express shipped. Two days later, several gallon bags of powered dog’s milk arrived. Denise opened one, wrinkling her nose and eyes at the soft poof of powder. “Well,” she sighed, “at this point I’m willing to try anything.”

Kana sniffed at the formula bottle. Gabe held the cub close to his chest. Kana sniffed again, eyes barely open. Then he opened his mouth and started suckling. Every hour and a half after that, in shifts. He burped and threw up once and Gabe held his breath, afraid. Then Kana burped again and started suckling again. And he kept right on feeding, all through the day and into the night and into the next day, and his eyes opened and deepened to a shining blue, and his legs steadied and carried him across the tiled kitchen floor and back again.

Denise called Joy, ecstatic to share the news. She got the hyper-efficient secretary. Doc was back from his conference-turned-minivacation. The sub was gone.

V

Kana grew, and so did Johar and Devaki. He was no longer so tiny, but they kept the name. Eventually, they began to mix ground venison in with the dog’s milk; the same venison they fed his parents. Then solid chunks of meat in the milk. Then meat dipped in milk. And Kana continued to grow, coat a rich black, iridescent spots glowing in the spring sun. His eyes lightened, developing a yellowish tinge. His fangs sharpened. He loved to chase rabbits and birds around the house, sinuous tail snapping. Gabe would leave the table piled with bills to watch him, and laugh. The tigers watched him enviously, and the lionesses, too, who would go sniffing around their pen in search of prairie dogs to chase. His parents watched from inside their pen, yellow diamond and amber eyes, and Gabe was uncertain what they were thinking.

The days lengthened, summer approached. It got too hot and Kana got too big to share their bed anymore. They piled comfy old blankets on the floor. Kana refused to use them, at first. Even after he figured out that he was supposed to be sleeping on the floor, he would end up in their bed again before sunrise.

And then one night, near the height of summer, Kana awoke with a start that jolted the bed. Denise snorted awake, pulling her arm from around Gabe. Kana leapt elegantly from mattress to floor and padded over to the door. He butted his head against it and turned bluish-yellow eyes up at Gabe. He mewled expectantly.

“What’s the matter, kiddo?” Gabe pulled on a shirt and shorts and broken old sandals. Denise could find only a knee-length night shirt. She stepped around Kana and opened the door until the chain caught. Gabe saw her chest tighten. Kana pawed at the opening, trying to fit his head through.

“Gabe,” she whispered. “The pens are all open — ”

” — Do you hear music?” he interrupted.

With a surge, Kana pushed through the opening, ripping the chain from the door. The handle banged into Denise’s stomach, making her wince, even as she was reaching for the cat. They were both shouting “Kana! Kana!” and following him through the maimed door, into the driveway, towards the leopard pen.

Gabe stumbled and stopped as a bear trundled passed him, then another. The larger, golden brown female, trailed by the smaller darker one. They looked up at him and grinned and continued on towards the leopard pen. The smaller leapt up onto her hind legs, front paws waving, and roared, a great joyous roar.

He realized than that the security lights around the house were dark. Only the light of moon and stars illuminated the driveway and the house and the shed and all the pens and the over-towering mountains. And in that light he could see more bears and bear cubs and a great maned lion and younger lions and noble lionesses and lion cubs and thick-jawed tigers male and female making their way across the compound, towards the leopard pen. All of them, all the cats and bears, dozens and dozens, eyes and teeth shining in the night.

” … Gabe …? Should we get the tranqs?”

A tiger brushed passed him, rust orange fur rubbing his thigh. The great cat hrumphed at him, waved his head, seemed to nod towards the leopard pen —

— except it wasn’t a leopard pen anymore. At least not as he remembered it. The chain link and metal bars were grown over. Great strands of ivy, thicker than his legs, wound up from the ground, around and around and around, covering the pen so that it completely disappeared … or maybe the pen had changed, become the green pulsing ivy, dense with leaves and clumps of grapes, purple and deep red and greenish-white and deep golden and sweet pink and rich brown and peach.

Music poured out of that impossible arbor, flutes and drums and other instruments he couldn’t place but which made the hair stand up on the back of his neck and his legs twitch in anticipation. And into that arbor the lions and tigers and bears padded, alone and in groups, into a space that should have been too small for all of them.

He felt Denise curl her fingers through his.

“I want to see,” she said, and they stepped forward together.

The smell of grapes and greenery and earth grew stronger as they approached. The music became more insistent, beat into his marrow. Gravel gave way to soft moss and grass. Vines curved overhead in an archway, and beyond …. Their land. The sanctuary. But different. Moonlight and starlight only, but enough for him to see clearly. The creek bubbled and burbled. No pens of chain link and metal bars, but arbors of vines and trees enclosing wide open spaces of rich grass. Caves that were truly caves, great irruptions of earth, deep blackish-brown, not small piles of rock. Jagged mountains, carved by wind and rain, a deep purple-black, so old. And the tigers and bears and lions, racing and chasing, in and out among the trees and through the arbors, roaring and snarling joyfully. And there were other things racing among the vines, things with horns and women with wild hair, though they went so quickly he couldn’t quite —

— A man with goat legs and horns curling from the top of his head skipped passed Gabe, blowing on a flute. Another followed, blowing on pipes. And a third, pounding on a drum hung round his neck. They circled round Gabe and Denise, once, twice, again, then suddenly ran into the middle of the open space where Kana and Johar and Devaki lay at the feet of a … man?

Gabe squinted. Though the mountains and vines and creek were clear in the moonlight, this man was hard to see. He might have been a boy. Or, maybe a man grown with a full, curling black beard and a leopard pelt around his waist. Or a man clean-shaven, but with ram’s horns curling from his forehead. Or maybe he was a ram. Or a goat. Or a boy with shaggy black goat’s legs. Or a tiger. Or a man with a rust orange tiger skin across his head and back.

The boy/man/animal laid one hand on Devaki’s head. The leopard whined and thumped her tail ecstatically.

“They should never have been his. He was envious of their grace and power, and so sought to control, and then destroy them. They were wounded and needed to be healed. So I sent them to you.” It was a boy now who smiled at them, eyes shifting between every shade of purple. “And they are healed now. I wanted to take them with me. A forever of dance and joy and drums. But they have grown … fond of you, in their own way. The littlest, especially, loves you. I could not break his heart.” He was a man again, nude but for the black, iridescent spotted leopard pelt around his waist. “A night of joy, as thanks.”

The sun and the moon arced through the sky together, and the stars moved into new patterns. The mountains rose up on their mantle-deep roots, pushing clouds aside. Trees jumped up, skipping back and forth across the creek. Bears took flight and tigers walked a rainbow arch. And the music moved through his marrow, the flutes and pipes and drums, and he danced and laughed and sang and Denise danced and laughed and sang, hair wild.

And he awoke to sunlight so bright his eyes ached. His hand tightened and something bit into his palm. The concrete beneath him was warm, and so was the metal at his back, and he suddenly realized that he was in the leopard pen. Somewhere across the compound, a bear growled and a lion snarled in response. Kana was sprawled across his chest. Devaki leaned so hard against his right leg, snoring, that it had gone numb. He turned his head slightly, still squinting against the sunlight, and saw Denise, flat on her stomach, drooling slightly. Her hair glowed, and she was smiling. Johar was half across her back. At the turn of Gabe’s head, he looked up, eyes bright yellow.

Gabe realized than that were the same color as the diamonds in his hand.

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