April 6, 2019

A PANTHER AMONG MEN by Laura Diaz de Arce

"Ah, Sharp-Tooth, I see you
have met the odd-feathered ones..."
The Heron does not make a good fool.

This is one of the things Short Tail’s mother taught her before they were separated. The Heron is patient and quick with the swipe of his beak. Do not play or try to make a meal of one. You can do so with the Anhinga, with the Stork, or even with the Vulture, but you should leave the Heron alone.


She thought on this memory while bathing in the sun one day, licking her claws clean of fish as a Heron stands true in the distance. It occurs to her that this Heron has been hunting in the same territory, and with a lazy scratch at her tree, she wonders where it has laid its nest.

Short Tail spent many a day like this, lounging in a knuckled tree in between snacking on the fish that were plenty, or the armadillo for a challenge, or picking a fight with a gator to ease the boredom. Deep in the swamps there were dangers, but not for her. She was the danger, with her reflexes, her claws, her teeth sharpened on bones of prey.

There was the occasional bear, of course. Even though one may make good eating, she knew more than to test a full grown beast. There were the storms, storms that battered the trees for a whole day and then some. And there were the other dangers, like a snake with painful bite or the dry season with sickly standing water. Short Tail’s mother had taught her well, and she navigated the dangers with nary a care.

Then, of course, there were the humans.

She had heard little of them, and seen even less, but what she heard was nightmarish. They made large nesting areas, and they carried things that could wound from a distance. She had seen a pack of them once, as she hid in the canopy of some large oaks. They had odd fur over their skin in patches. They were awkward, walking on two legs like a bear about to strike, yet they were unsteady cutting through branches. They made much noise and their scent was offensive.

Surely, these could not be the predators she could have heard of?

It was only when she saw them later dragging the bodies of three bull gators that she believed the tales. They did not feast, as would have been honorable, or store the remains in a tree. No, they made these loud noises from their mouths, like the call of a Clapper Rail. It was unnerving, and it made Short Tail push up on her haunches. Did they wish to attract attention?

Perhaps they did. For all their awkwardness, their loudness, they had no fear. They had no respect as they pounded through trees and sawgrass. Their odor, unusual and unnatural smells. Salt of their sweat having made the air acrid. They left, and the watery land was better for it.

Short Tail rubbed the sweat spot above her tail against the tree as she stretched. She was restless with the memory of such trespass, and she padded her feet against the ground. Picking through the bush, she made her way to the Heron to sit and watch the bird hunt its meal in the slow moving water. She sat by water, a few stretches away from the Heron when it addressed her.

“Ah, Sharp-Toothed one, have you come to make me a meal?” The Heron said, not moving to look at Short Tail.

Short Tail remained beyond spearing distance. “No Tall-Beak. I have fed today, I only wish to watch another hunter at work.” Short Tail’s mother had always made clear that most creatures were easily undone by flattery.

The Heron chuckled. Within that laugh, the bird moved with lightning quickness to scoop a fish into its beak. Still laughing as the fish went down its throat. “Then watch. And learn what a little awareness can do.”

That is what she did. They sat in companionable silence, the Heron eating and sunning. The Panther half asleep in the light.

After a time, Short Tail, no longer content with the silence mused on things like the rains and the weather. “I have heard thunder in the distance, but have see no rain.”

“That is not thunder Sharp-Toothed one.”

“Then what could it be be?” She asked, an eye half open, her face laying on her paws, feigning sleep.

The Heron did not reply., choosing instead to move upwards, flying to a nearby tree. Short Tail was only glad that the fellow beast could not make a meal of her with its unsettling silence.

In the weeks after, the dry season came. The rains were gone and animals moved. New flying beasts moved into abandoned nests. There was new fish in the water, but there was a sense of scarcity. Short Tail grew hungry, for in the years before there had been deer to hunt, now it seemed there were less, and less vulnerable. Ponds had dried, and the low water kept away the fish. Of those left were staunchly guarded by gators. This dry season was scarcer than years before.

Short Tail grew thin, tired and desperate. In the middling heat, she licked her grande teeth and remembered when there was flesh there. It was on such a day that she came upon a familiar scent. Blood. Fresh and aromatic cutting through the brush in the early morning. She bounded beneath the eaves of a gumbo limbo onto a curiously bare trail. In the center of the path was a set of clean meats.

Blood. It called to her, and in her hunger she was hypnotized by the scent and the sight.

If Short Tail had not been as hungry, she would have been more cautious. She would not have stepped so suddenly into a bare path, towards clean and carved meat. If she had not been so hungry, she would have heard the click underfoot as she approached the meal.

But Short Tail was hungry, and tired, and eager. Thus she did not think to question why fresh bloody food was before her, why there were no vultures nearby, nor did she hear the click as she stepped close.

Just as her nose came close to the meat…

SNAP!

CRASH!

A large cage came down from the trees trapping Short Tail!

No longer hungry, she growled and scratched at the metal bars. Short Tail had thought herself smarter than this, and instead had gotten herself trapped. After knocking her claws for hours, she whimpered while licking her paws.

“Ah, Sharp-Tooth, I see you have met the odd-feathered ones,” said the Heron, who had flown into the vicinity.

Short Tail moved her face away from the Heron, too ashamed to face the bird. “They do not hunt with honor. Go away before they come back.”

The Heron looked this way and that, studying the caged panther. “Have you eaten what was left? For it smells odd to me. And I saw another become ill after eating what the odd-feathers left.”

“No. I am not so foolish.”

The Heron laughed. “Ah, yes, though foolish enough to be trapped.”

Short Tail hissed at the insult. “Leave! Let me be beset in my misery!”

The Heron flew off, leaving Short Tail to sulk alone in her cage, waiting for the arrival of the humans and knowing she would be too weak to do anything. When just a short while later, the Heron appeared with a large fish and dropped it between the bars.

“Eat Sharp-Tooth. For you will need your strength if we are to get you out of this.”

Short Tail greedily ate the fish and as she sat, a little less famished then before looking at the Heron and asked “Why?”

The Heron did not look at Short Tail, choosing instead to examine the cage. “Because, you called me hunter. You knew me for what I was.”

Never had Short Tail been so thankful for her mother’s teachings.

After a time, The Heron located a mechanism, and after getting the opinion of a nearby crow, Short Tail was able to push open the very heavy door. Before the Heron could leave, Short Tail called. “Tall Beak, I have escaped, but what of others? Should we just leave it as it be?”

“What do you propose then?” said the Heron, beak moving this way and that.

“That we show these what they have crossed upon.”

They gathered the other creatures of the land, water and air. The handed Racoons, the large alligators, the armadillos and the vultures and ralied them to their cause. These two-footed ones do not hunt with honor. They said. They destroy what is around them. They take for sport and do not eat.

Soon, in the trees were animals in alliance of the swamp, waiting for the humans to come and collect their spoils. It did not take long. They could smell the humans first, a stink that made lynx sneeze. They came upon the cage and began to screech at one another.

On Short Tails roar, they launched forward. The Humans were not prepared for the creatures to come forth at once, and they began to run, the snapping turtles on their heels.

It is said that they were too scared to hunt in that part of the swamp afterwards. It is also said, that you should never think the Heron a fool and that flattery will get you anywhere. Even out of a cage.


Laura Diaz de Arce is proof that you can't take the girl out of the swamp, even after it has tried to kill her. She is the author of Monstrosity (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07PNP1Y9H?tag=creati0a5-20) which features two stories originally published in Enchanted Conversation. You can find her on her Patreon (Patreon.com/QuetaAuthor) and overusing Gifs on her Twitter @QuetaAuthor.

Art: Marc Franz
Layout: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff


2 comments:

  1. Fantastic post.

    Really enjoyed reading it and it held my attention all the way through! Keep it up.

    Read my Latest Post

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is an amazing story! I really loved it and it inspired me.

    ReplyDelete

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