Isaac and the Leopard: Complete
June 10, 2009
Isaac waited in the rushes, the dank smell of bog and rot and summer shortening his breath. He watched for bubbles and golden eyes above the scum. He was patient, attentive and calm; there was nothing of the frantic boy in this staid and quiet hunter.
The soft plip of one breaking the surface froze Isaac. He willed himself part of the reeds, part of the water. More surfaced; he marked each skirt of ripples, figured his reach, then struck smoothly, a series of muted splashes the only disruption. The first few lacked the fullness Isaac preferred; their slender, crooked bodies squirming out between his fingers. He let them leap free to the water, his quick hands beneficent. He crouched deeper, toes splayed in the silt bottom; waiting for the pond to forget him. Minutes passed, the boy’s sun heavy back pushed him closer to the surface, near inches from crayfish returning to feed. Minnows darted in the shadows of his feet. He found a guilty peace in this part of hunt, something fraternizing in the communion. Years later he’d mourn these burrs of empathy, and how they’d fueled his cruelty.
Isaac was uncompromising in his predation. He avoided the bark and mossy cowards: their timidity and disguise marking them ill-suited for his purpose. The few he’d bothered to catch had been martyred in hot ash: the heat and soot arresting them, grey and statuary, in some fantastic torment. The Bulls he left alone. They were regal and resonate, too few, and too sure of their place in the pond, to be taken. But the leopards, fierce and lucid and numberless, were ideal participants for his game. He moved in careful increments away from the bank, seeking out telltale spots in waist deep water.
Isaacs’ slow progress trailed no wake; his arms held high above the water. The pond deepened in the middle, precipitously in places, so Isaac sounded the bottom with shuffling feet, avoiding the sucking mud and sink holes. Leeches gathered sporadically about his naked waist: fat black motes hanging in rough constellation along his back and hips. Isaac let them feed until they fell of their own accord; he was greater than their hunger. More connected. The pond bottom pitched downward, the reeds rose up in his periphery, edging out the tree and power lined horizon. His world securely contracted, Isaac shook the weight and distraction from his shoulders, immersed himself in the deeper waters of the hunt.
The high static buzz of crickets built around him, muting the birds and babble of the nearby stream. Isaac admired the defiance of the song, how something so vulnerable would surrender its cover to be known; to announce its place. He considered a roar of his own, but knew the voice in his chest was so much smaller than the one in his head. And besides: there was business at hand. Isaac folded away the little hurt, the angry swallow, and cast his eyes across the pond. He sighted a Leopard. A slow fury percolated up from beneath his hunters mask.
Thick and emerald grey it sat on the tallest branch of a drowned tree. The black spots on its back congealed into a Rorschach crow, or, some oddly winged bison. Isaac considered, wary there might be some message, some meaning, in the shape. He circled right in the chest high water to get a better look: the wings were vestigial, but clear; the rest of shape was illegible; something hunched and ancient; denied flight and crueler for it. The Leopard shifted under his scrutiny, turning its glyph covered back to the northern bank. There was an omen here, but he couldn’t figure it. This was a significant creature.
Isaac pushed away his misgivings: he’d take extra care to honor it once it was caught, but he couldn’t worry about its importance now. His standing in the pond was at stake. The leopard watched him approach intently.
Isaac circled west and towards the sunken tree; the Leopard moved higher up the branch, calling a slow “rrrrrrRRRRPpppppp” at his approach. Was there recognition in it? Reproach? The Leopard narrowed its glassy, golden, eyes into unreadable slits. Isaac hung in the water, unable to proceed, this placeless frustration tightening around him, fouling his instincts: Did it know why he was there? Would it run?
The Leopard shifted, bowing in its crooked back so its belly faced the sun. Its eyes closed in bliss and Isaac felt slighted. Diminished. Less careful now, Isaac stepped up from the earthy bottom and onto the slick tangle of the trees submerged roots, turning his body until a heavy shadow covered the basking Leopard. Algae smeared beneath his feet, snails burst in crystalline pops of onomatopoetic horror. The tree shuddered as its base loosed in the muck; the Leopards eyes flashed open. Isaac slipped backwards on the root, a low branch drawing a deep scratch across his chest. He did not cry out. He did not splash or claw for purchase. He slid quietly back into the water and waited for the Leopard to jump, the distil haze of his blood vanishing around him.
The Leopard held its ground. Imperious, it roared again “uuuuUUURRRPppppp”. A dozen lesser calls sounded in return, louder for their chorus. Isaac bobbed in the murky water, trying to mark the hidden singers: he’d have words with them when once the Leopard was caught. The next verse began, the callers arrayed in a rough circle around him. Isaac felt the water cool suddenly; sickly strands of weed coiled and clung to his legs: something had changed and he felt unwelcome. Then the Bulls joined the chorus: regal, and resonant, and terrible. Isaac settled deeper in the water, treading slowly, leaving just his face and hands and crown exposed. He knew now he’d been there too long, but the hunter’s demands were upon him. He struck his hands across the water in a loud slap, stilling the choir, and then lunged forth towards the Leopard.
Weeds tore away in brutish separation, Isaac’s lunge ripping them from body and root. The water seemed to recede as much as Isaac rose; the world falling out from under his leap. Alarmed, the Leopard sought the air; Isaac reached and reached, forcing the hollow of his palm into the Leopards path, his long fingers closed shut around it .The world returned with force, sending the tree stump hard into Isaac’s stretched and open ribs. The branches pulled long strips from his side, the impact splintering his breath painfully throughout his chest. Isaac gasped and clung to the Leopard as both tumbled into the murky water.
The pond’s chorus returned; a spray of birds and grasshoppers taking flight punctuated the rising keen. Isaac was too focused on his prize to note the change in song. The alarm.
Isaac swam to the bank, sore and slowed by his clenched fist paddling. The Leopard made an indistinct gurgle in protest of its capture. Isaac loosed his grip and peered through the gap between finger and thumb; The Leopard “urrrpp’d” a final warning. Immune to appeal or epiphany, Isaac held the leopard tighter: a hunter did not give up his prize. Letting out an exultant whoop Isaac began to scale the bank.
The first rock sent the hunter spinning away. The second dug a deep groove in the side of Isaac’s head. Isaac touched the wound and couldn’t make sense of the blood. A third rock grazed his cheek.
“Fucking freak…the fuck you doing in our yard!”
A pack of older boys burst through the reeds, their long legs churning the shallow water to mud. Isaac tried to explain, to show he belonged, but they were too many and too suddenly upon him. The first punch closed his eyes and spilled the Leopard from his open palm. Nails raked his neck and back, Isaac stumbled and was forced down into the water. The muck of the pond filled his throat; the bottom refused him purchase to rise.
Slow knees thudded into his ribs and pressed him down into the mud. Even crushed into the silt he could hear their raucous laughter, their taunts, deeper for passage through the water. A sick frustration burned in Isaac’s chest. Eventually, the weight of the older boys lifted; Isaac dug his hand into the bank and fought to keep from rising, gasping in stinging lungfuls of water: let them be murderers. Isaacs’s chest burned, black spots filled his vision; panicked hands clawed him from the bottom, pulled him roughly over the bank, through the reeds, to the neatly manicured lawn beyond.
The boys gathered in a cluster around Isaacs twitching body. The oldest fought past Isaacs’s thin, flailing, limbs to pound his back. Isaac clenched his eyes against the hot tears, and his jaw against the rising gorge; another hard blow loosed them both. Isaac gagged vomit and pond water onto the grass, his traitorous lungs spasming out the last of his surrender. His defiance. Isaac shook and wept, staring furiously at the ground, wishing he was within it.
The ring of boys fell away like like ash; stirred by the backwash of remorse that sudden cruelty brings. Isaac was left alone and defeated, the pond denied him. He lay a while, wondering at his loss, then crawled to his feet and made his way home. The Leopard was forgotten.