Night of the Panthers

Under a low sky woven by sculpting clouds we ran heedless of direction. The panthers were coming.

Father thrust his torch through the snake-branched forest; mother's bony hand gripped mine. Aunt, uncle, cousins, breathed heavily behind me. The beasts were nearing, striding in velvet ripples, glaring through parted palms, ivory fangs glinting, growling an aroma of digested meat.

It was an abandoned house where we hid, smashing through the locked door, tiptoeing across the flagstones, fingering the stale fruits in the forgotten bowl, nibbling on moldy crumbs, choking on rot and decay. The wooden beds had collapsed. Termites crunched through the walls and rats scuffled among our toes. In huge mothballed drawers we slept, alongside the good silver and ancient wool, and in the skeptic glow of candlelight we watched our uncle's cadaverous face tremble with fear. The panthers were coming, sideways through the bush, crouching, pouncing, tearing.

When I woke at midnight the candles had burnt to their sockets and darkness was complete. Rain crashed on the windows. I heard a deep rumble, tussling and rubbing, a murmur of incomprehensible voices.

Lightning lit the room - once, twice - and I saw the other children as panther cubs, wrestling in their drawer, biting each other's ears, licking with rough tongues and grappling with clawless paws. Across the floor was a trail of blood. Four panthers, eyes aglow, snarled over a pile of mangled remains. I wrapped the wool over my face with human hands to await the dawn. The air steamed with heat.

In the morning there was a faded stain of blood on the floor. Mother stirred icy gruel in a broken pot as the cousins whimpered. The panthers are coming, they told me. We must flee.
Louise Norlie