The leopard was first sighted on a Monday morning. Walking around the railway tracks of the Tonovil Railway Station.
The morning was misty and those who were waiting for the 6:15 memu at first thought that the silhouette belonged to a dog. But then the creature emerged from the mist, slowly, graciously, timidly.
Since the time was only around 6, there weren’t that many people at the railway station. Not that the Tonovil station was known for the crowds that would come there to board the trains. Not exactly.
Lying between the district of Tarancha and the forest that borders the state of Dohga, Tonovil was a sleepy little town. The town’s loudest claim to fame was a government funded aquarium which but had to be shut down when the government that initiated the program was replaced with another in the subsequent election. Apparently, the latter government was not a huge fan of fish. More importantly, they unearthed certain improprieties in the ways in which the previous government had started the project- not all of the fund meant for the aquarium was spent for that purpose, it turned out. So they simply moved the fish to another aquarium in another district that consistently attracted a good flow of tourists.
Anyway, the leopard didn’t attack any of the people on the platform. Not at first, at any rate.
In fact, the beast looked as afraid of the four or five passengers present there as the people were of him(At this point, they didn’t know if it was a he or a she, of course).
But when the people began to start running, the panic seemed to have affected the leopard as well. And the leopard too began to run. Since it was in a panic, it ran in the same direction as the people- towards the footbridge that would take them on to the platform on the other side.
The leopard is a fast runner, especially when compared with people. Particularly, people who were still somewhat sleepy and who had to get out of bed so early because they didn’t wish to miss the train that would take them to work on time. Finding these human obstacles irksome, the leopard attacked three of the people. None of them were injured gravely, but they were certainly scared out of their wits.
The beast climbed the stairs to the footbridge before any human. It was only when he was crossing the footbridge that he saw that there were more humans on the other platform. That’s when he stopped in his track. Looking ahead and behind, he saw humans on either platforms. He felt trapped. The panic which earlier spurred him to run like the wind now turned into a states. Almost a paralysis- like feeling which canceled all his movements, except for that of his heart muscles.
The humans are going to kill him. He felt certain of it.
It wasn’t the first time he was seeing humans. They sometimes came to the jungle. They hunted at times, using stick -ike things that fired. Though he has never seen them killing any of his kind, he has seen enough killings to know that the humans were not exactly the most benevolent creatures you could come across in your life.
As soon as it was learned that a leopard was in the station premises, the station master reported the matter to the police who in turn relayed the information to the forest department. The officials from the forest department took more than half an hour to reach the railway station. Their office was some 23 kilometers away.
“I am sure that by the time we reach there, the leopard must have killed at least 10 people!” one of the officials kept muttering throughout the ride. Something which didn’t make the ride any easier for the three others present in the jeep.
But even though the man- a pale skinned mustachioed man with a long forehead and perennially worried looking eyes, kept muttering the same thing over and over again, none of the others asked him to stop. Indeed, they barely showed any sign of having heard him speaking. For they knew only too well that Murugan was something of a paranoid, and with good reasons too.
About a dozen years back, one of the lions in a zoo broke out of its cage. Murugan was among the ones who was brought there for aid. He was mere meters away from the lion when it shred to pieces a child- a 4 year old with glimmer in his eyes who was looking at Murugan, hopeful about a rescue, even as the lion proceeded to chew on his neck.
That incident unhinged Murugan. And no one was surprised about it.
Thankfully, for Murugan and everyone else involved, the leopard hadn’t killed anyone by the time they reached the station. And people have assisted the three injured, taking them to the hospital. The station master- a man with superior presence of mind(and who was also an alcoholic-which is irrelevant to this story) has evacuated everyone from the station premises, including the ticket collector cum communications officer who was the only other official in the railway station.
Seeing that the casualties were zero, Murugan breathed a sigh of relief. Feeling his muscles relaxing, he moved cautiously towards the footbridge where the beast was walking up and down as thought it were already caught in a cage.
Hearing the sound of approaching footsteps, it looked up, and saw Murugan slowly moving towards it.
Seeing the stick-like object in the man’s hand pointed in his direction, the leopard whimpered.
After the leopard was taken away by the authorities, almost an hour passed before anyone came to the railway station. And the first person to arrive was one of the men who was there earlier for the train, when the leopard was first sighted.
When the man walked in, the station master was giving orders to a woman to clean up the blood that was spilled when the leopard attacked the passengers on the platform.
“Excuse me, sir?”
The station master looked at the source of the voice. “Yes?”
“I presume the memu has already gone?”
Being a small town, everyone knew everyone else and the station master knew that the man had to get to work in the next district.
Offering him a smile, he said, “The train, in fact is running an hour and a half late. You are in luck!”
The man smiled back.
For the ensuing couple of days, the key topic of conversation among people of all denominations- castes, religions, sexual orientations, sex, likes and dislikes on television shows- was the leopard. A few men who worked in the forest office 23 kilometers north to the town were from the town itself and it was through them that they came to know about the developments. And the developments were truly astonishing:
Development no: 1
It was evident that the leopard was famished, having not eaten for a considerable amount of time. Now, how did the veterinarian appointed by the forest department came to know about this, no one in Tonovil seemed to know, neither were they too keen to learn about it. Neither was there anything astonishing about the fact that a leopard could be famished- When many members of the most dominant species on the planet frequently went without food, what surprise was there in a beast of the wild- one that is diminishing in numbers, going without food for long hours?
No, what was surprising was that when they brought it food- in the form of a live goat and a couple of rabbits, the beast didn’t kill them. And on one instance, when the leopard did make a kill- snuffing the life out of a rabbit, it didn’t eat it. This, according to the veterinarian, was the “most baffling thing I have ever seen!”, as related by one of the Tonovillians who worked in the forest office(related over a couple of bottles at a toddy shop in the evening with friends).
Development no: 2
When the veterinarian entered the cage in which the leopard was temporarily being held, to make a closer observation, and when he petted the beast’s back, the beast at first looked agitated. Nothing surprising about that.
But when the vet- an expert with wild animals, spent quite some time with it, it began to warm towards him, seeing how he meant no harm. And when the man petted him, gently stroking him on his back, he lied down with his head on the man’s lap, just as a loyal pet dog might do.
Development no: 3
While the leopard was thus lying with his head on his lap, the veterinarian noticed something else. A peculiar smell. A smell that he wouldn’t have expected on any wild animal, especially something that’s supposedly ferocious like a leopard. A closer inspect of its fur confirmed his suspicion – it was indeed the smell of shampoo. He surmised that the beast was shampooed not more than three days ago.
“In fact, the veterinarian was sure that the fragrance of the shampoo was that of the same brand used by his wife!” says the Tonovillian who related this to a captivated audience at the toddy shop. But the audience thought that this last bit of detail must be an add-on by the man who was telling it. For the man was known for his skills of exaggeration.
Four days of observing the beast in captivity was enough to convince the authorities that it was a domesticated animal.
One theory was that the animal belonged to a circus company who released him. But the theory didn’t hold much water. For one thing, nearly two years have passed since the rule that made it illegal for circus acts to have wild animals’ illegal in the entire nation of Kjinsoni was passed. So, if someone were to release their animals- it would have happened long ago.
The only other plausible theory was that the leopard was kept as a pet by someone. And has been released for some reason.
“Judging from its weight and physical condition, I would say the leopard is at least two years old. And the older the get the more they eat- at least, until they get really old. So, maybe whoever had him for a pet found the expenses of keeping him progressively higher,” commented the veterinarian.
“So, what do you think we should do?” the chief superintendent of the forest office, a somber looking man asked. His lopsided lips gave him the appearance that he would rather be anywhere other than wherever he was. Always.
A point which the veterinarian has noted on many occasions, and which made him smile. As it did now. But hiding the smile out of politeness, he said, “I think we should keep the beast for three to four weeks, see if it shows any sign of its latent wildness surfacing. If we do see any such sign, we may release it to the wilderness. Otherwise, I reckon the prudent thing to do would be transferring it to a zoo.”
The chief superintendent nodded, looking gravely at the leopard in the glass cage- it was presently eating a piece of goat liver which an attendant had given it- cut to pieces like the leopard were a kid that has to be fed. The serious expression in his face notwithstanding, the superintended didn’t know much about leopards. If the veterinarian had recommended that they dress up the leopard in a skirt and Tee with the words “I don’t rock, I roar!” and made it dance in the attire, he would have gone with it.
The only reason why he was the head of the office was that he was influential. He hoped that he would be able to handle this leopard situation well. If they screwed this up- if they were to release the leopard to the wild and it ended up dead, making the animal protection groups make a hue and cry, they may look closely at the credentials of the chief superintendent who made such a decision.
“Yes,” he said to the veterinarian. “I think what you say makes sense.”
“Leo! Leo!” Thages called his pet’s name again. His voice- deep and sonorous resonated across the jungle. But there came no roar in reply.
Thages ran in all the directions, climbing up trees, getting on boulders, swinging on vines across lakes and going into caves to inspect, all to see if Leo was anywhere to be found. To see a human shaped black hole-which is more or less what Thages looked like, running around a jungle looking for his pet would have freaked anyone out. Thankfully, no human was around.
The last of the hunting party had left almost an hour ago.
Dusk was coming in and birds were making their way across the sky to their home. For some reason, the sight of the birds in flight made Thages even more aware of his own sadness. He was a being that stays dormant- asleep most of his life, coming awake once every century or so and staying awake for the next couple of years-give or take.
And he predates the dawn of man by at least 80 millenia. In all that time, never, not even once has he experienced companionship like what he enjoyed with Leo- his beloved pet leopard.
No, to say he was just a pet would be devaluing their relationship.
“He’s more like my son,” Thagesmutterd to himself, gazing sadly at the stretch of forest green from a higher vantage point, a stretch that extended all the way to the horizon, a stretch devoid of Leo. “And to think that I almost killed him!”
It was the first time that Thages woke out of season. There were almost two decades to go before it was time for him to wake up, if the natural laws were to be followed.
But the moment he woke up from his slumber, drenched in sweat from head to toe, he knew that it wasn’t time yet. It was more an abstract feeling than anything tangible, but one that was enough to make him convinced that something was wrong.
What brought him awake was, in fact, the unnatural heat in the jungle, which was in turn the result of global warming. Of course, Thages wasn’t acquainted with the concept of global warming, so he didn’t make the connection. All he knew what that unless he took a dip in a cold lake immediately, he would burn from the heat, or so it felt.
He distinctly remembered a small stream with crystal clear water running not far from where he had lied to sleep. But walking up to the spot, he found that the stream was completely dried, leaving behind not even a mud track. He had to walk almost half an hour before he came across a stream deep enough for him to take a swim.
After a long bath, he came out of the water feeling famished beyond belief. After all, he hasn’t eaten for eight decades.
He wanted to find prey. Hopefully, something in the vicinity since he didn’t want to travel far to make his first kill, which he would have to do on an empty stomach.
But Thages knew that such luxuries were hard to come by in a jungle, especially when his appearance- blacker than the night, like a smudge in the atmosphere, moving like an amorphous ghost, his limbs ending in long black fingers which looked more like roots dipped in tar than fingers, would have any animals who beheld him running.
But not so the leopard, he found to his surprise.
The leopard was lying asleep at a cave mouth on an incline not far from the stream where he just took his bath. Indeed, the leopard was snoring. Beside it was a cub, finding amusement by chasing its own tail.
The sleeping leopard was its mother. Its father had left her soon after impregnating her. The mother was left to fend for the child as a single mother. And fending for a child on one’s own was tiring task. Something that could send one to sleep at unexpected moments, being tired beyond belief, a tiredness so deep that you wouldn’t wake up even if you heard the sound of splashing water made by an unwholesome black smudge of a creature from a nearby stream.
Not that Thages knew any of this. Neither was he interested in knowing about it. All he cared about was to make the kill- to transfer the sleeping leopard into his belly where it would be digested and transformed to energy.
He would have preferred some animal like a deer or a monkey- there was a special delight in consuming pure vegetarians.But he wasn’t complaining.
One leap and he would be up there at the cave front. Even if the leopard were to come awake and tried to flee in that time, he could easily chase it down- he was fast, damn fast. So, thanking the forest for an easy prey for his first kill, he climbed up the incline.
By the time the leopard came awake- she really liked to sleep, Thages already had his arm raised, ready to bring it down across her face. With one clean swipe, Thages broke the mother leopard’s neck. And within two minutes after that, he cleaned all the flesh from the dead beast’s body, licking his mouth after devouring the last of the morsels of flesh, burping satisfied.
It was only after the burp that he realized what he just did- he ate up the beast while the cub stood looking helplessly just a few feet away. Hardly a cool thing to do, thought Thages.
I have to do something, he thought, feeling that he couldn’t bear the weight of the cub’s gaze on his face anymore.
He moved towards the cub with decisive strides, determined to end the cub’s life as well. The grisly sight of his mother being killed and eaten must still be etched on his eyes, Thages thought. So, it’s better if I Kill the cub asap. It would hardly be compassionate if I were to let if suffer the memory of its mother’s brutal murder for long. In death, let it find peace!
With such noble thoughts, Thages moved towards the cub. But the cub stood its ground, not out of bravery but because it was petrified with fear. It began to tremble all over like a cartoon cub. It’s round eyes became wider and it whimpered multiple times as a prelude to crying.
All of which the beast of ages found to be a bit too much of a cute-attack. Before long, he found his dark heart melting and decided to adopt the cub.
He would keep the leopard cub as his pet, he decided. And if there comes a day when I couldn’t find any other prey and my stomach rumbles, maybe I could make a meal out of it, he added in his mind even though he knew that the chances of him doing that was as low as the earth actually benefiting from humans- the thing was just too darn cute!
About humans, Thages had a couple of things to say- if only someone would listen.
For one thing, he couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that even though the species displays the highest levels of rationality, they just keep on procreating. It’s like they can’t recognize a failure when they see one. No, that’s not quite right- Thages knew. For the last time he came awake was just a few decades after industrialization kicked in for good. And he had witnessed with his own eyes how meticulously the humans streamline their manufacturing processes, identifying the faulty production methods or products and fixing it with aplomb.
This meant they knew only too well when they encountered a failure.
But the short-sightedness, or rather the blindness in recognizing failure was displayed only when it came to themselves. One can say that it was an innate sense of self-preservation which prompted the species to preserve themselves. But on the other hand, you see humans destroying each other- physically, psychologically and spiritually all the time. See them in action at such times, you would be hard pressed to believe that they have any sense of self-preservation whatsoever.
No, Thages couldn’t understand why the members of the entire species wouldn’t collect themselves at beaches around the world and just walk into the ocean, never to surface again. What a blessing that would be to the world!
Another thing that Thages has found curious about humans is their obsession with amusement. Rape, theater and movies, music, sarcasm, brunch, picnics, strolls, books, political conquests, murder..all these things and more have many a time, amusement as the core reason. It’s like the entire species is restless and amusement is the only drug which could calm it down. Only, the calmness rarely lasts. It’s an episode which moves as swiftly as shallow infatuation. And on they go, seeking the next drug fix. On and on and on.
Crazy species! he had thought.
This time, he didn’t even bother going out into the ‘civilized’ world, he didn’t wish to move among men, and definitely not among women, whom he considered to be the lowest kind among the lowest species. He spent almost his entire time within a radius of 10 kilometers inside the forest, playing with his pet, telling him stories. Having seen events unfolding through millennia, Thages could give Irvin Welsh a run for his money when it came to storytelling.
He had a great time hanging out with Leo- for that’s what he named his pet.
“Leo? Why would you name me so?” asked the cub when Thages told him that that’s the name by which he would be known from now on.
They were seated beneath a peepul tree, on a giant black boulder, enjoying the cool wind and the shade which the overarching branches of the tree afforded. Thages has been thinking of naming the leopard for a while now. More than two months had passed since he killed the little one’s mother- an episode which still made his mouth drool- the first meal after a slumber of decades always tastes special.
Throughout this time, he has been addressing his pet as “Hey!”, “Yo!” “Woohoo!” or sometimes simply “You!” Hardly the terms which helped him express the full extent of love he felt towards him. This became even bigger a problem as the relationship deepened and he found his love for the cub getting even stronger. And when he began to look forward to the hour of day every day when the cub would come awake after sleep- just so he could spend time with him, he knew that the time has come to name him.
Leo was one of the first names that popped in his mind.
The beast being a leopard, the idea of having the first three words for its name didn’t require any great leap of imagination. Dissatisfied with his own lack of creativity, he started thinking hard. He came up with such disasters as ‘The cute one’ ‘Four legs, two eyes in a cute bundle’, ‘Jam’- after the idea that they two jammed together, having fun telling each other jokes etc., ‘Spotted sport’, ‘Speedy beast’ and ‘The only one(for me).’ Even a cursory glance through the names would make one realize that Thages was high on descriptive names but low on creativity.
Psychologists say that if you sleep well, you will wake up feeling refreshed, and your creative powers would benefit because of that. That may be true with humans. But not so with something like Thages.(Since the existence of Thages is unknown to human scientists, we should settle for the special name of ‘something’ in the absence of a scientific alternative).
So, after a few days of futile thinking, he decided that Leo was the best of the lot.
“Leo, huh? How dare you give it my name when it’s not a lion?”
The question was raised in a masculine voice. It came from behind the boulder on which Thages and the leopard sat. Looking behind, Thages saw the one who asked the question- a lion who stood majestically like only a lion could, looking royal, ferocious with its squinted eyes.
Not that Thages was scared- he has had too many lions as meals down the ages to be scared. But still, even he was impressed by the posture that this particular lion assumed- one that a wrestler might assume in the ring to signal to his opponent that ‘Your time’s up!’
“What’s it to you!” said Thages in a firm voice, standing up. “I would name my pet whatever I wish to! It’s not like you have a patent on it!”
“Yes, I do!” roared the lion. “Maybe not in the legal sense of the word, but still everyone knows that I’m the king of the jungle and Leo is the name that goes only to the king.”
“Oh, is that so?” the bafflement in Thages’ voice was genuine, for if ever such a rule existed, this was the first time he was hearing of it. “So, your name is Leo, I presume? I must tell you that I have never seen you before,” he added.
The lion looked away before answering. “Yes, you probably haven’t seen me before, I haven’t been this way in a while. But I am the king of this jungle, though my name isn’t Leo.” This last part, he murmured, lower than the gentle wind that was blowing.
“What was it that you said?” Leo said, cocking an ear.
“I said, my name is not Leo,” the lion said in a just-about-audible tone. “I am Jack!”
“Jack, Rack, Rat, whatever it is that you are called, I have named my pet Leo and that’s not gonna change!” said Thages proudly.
“Then, you would experience the ferocity of my teeth!” It was a phrase that Jack’s father used to shout before he made an attack on a prey. Jack began using it after his father’s death, partly to keep his old man’s memory alive, partly because it sounded cool.
But Jack’s father was cleverer than the son and had used the phrase only before jumping at such things as jackals and deers and such- never at a being that verged on the supernatural, having powers which none of the other animals in the forest could match. In fact, his father had told Jack never to engage with a black smudge like being if ever he came across it- a pearl of wisdom the old lion passed down to him. But Jack had thought it was simply the old lion’s senility talking.
So he leaped. On towards Thages’ chest, which expanded with anger.
The lion was flung back to the ground from which he leaped by a whack delivered by Thages’ hand. In the process, it hurt like it has never been hurt in its entire life.
“I will be back! I will exact revenge if it’s the last thing that I ever did!” he roared before running away with his tail between its legs.
Thages stuck his tongue out and made a farting noise which was totally not fitting for a being of ages but completely fitting given the circumstances. More importantly for him, it made Leo laugh and at this point, there was nothing more pleasing to his ears than the sound of his pet’s laughter.
Leo grew up under his watch, from a little pup that would fit in his palm to a full grown adult that could shake the braches of even the biggest trees in the jungle as he climbed up. But though he grew up, Leo remained a child in Thages’ eyes. And the latter always treated him like that, telling him stories before, even bringing him food, never letting him exert too much.
As for Leo, he had a great time growing up under the protection of Thages.
After a while, every creature- dwelling in the surface, or below-ground or avian, came to know about the black beast. Many among them have heard stories told by their parents or grandparents about such a beast that came awake once every century or so, then walked around the jungle, consuming a lot of beings before eventually going back to sleep. They had always thought that the story about the beast was just that- a story, part of the jungle’s folklore. But now that they knew better, they cowered in fear every time they heard the beast’s distinct footsteps- louder than anything else would make in the jungle.
And they also knew that Leo was the beast’s pet. For this reason, whenever he came across a creature, he would be treated with respect, respect that verged on the fearful. Leo had to admit to himself that it felt good.
It was only humans whom he feared.
The humans came once every while, in small groups, carrying guns and other utilities. They would make a lot of noise-mostly shooting up innocent animals, but also with their drinking and singing in the night. They came with fire, and that’s why none of the creatures could attack them, Thages had told them. Even Thages himself was afraid of fire.
What scared Leo most about the humans wasn’t that they shot fires, or killed animals in the process. After all, beasts killing other beasts was the rule of the jungle-nothing unusual about it.
No, what scared Leo was the irrationality of the humans’ actions. He has observed the humans in action from a safe distance a few times, the comforting presence of Tages by his side. And he has seen how the bipeds would simply kill for fun. Half the time, they left the carcass behind. They wouldn’t even approach it, let alone eat it.
It didn’t make sense to Leo. And a creature that killed just for pleasure was something to fear, he knew instinctively.
The humans were there on the day Leo disappeared from the jungle.
Two separate groups of humans, consisting of volunteers and officials of the forest department. They weren’t out for a hun though the guards did carry guns- with tranquilizer shots. They were there to take the census of the wild elephants- the big ones have been diminishing from the jungle steadily.
That Jack-the lion chose just that moment to appear before Thages, along with two of his crony lions, to pick a fight with the beast of ages might have been the doing of fate, or maybe just a coincidence. Whatever it was, there they were, standing in front of Thages, exposing their teeth in an ugly snarl, fixing their ferocious red eyes on the black being, challenging him to fight.
Thages was never one to back down from a fight. Not even when a herd of velociraptors made the challenge in another epoch did he back down.
Compared to those things, three lions were like putty in his hands. But the putty did make him run, giving chase. Each of the lions ran in different directions once they realized that trying to win in a physical fight against Thages was akin to trying to devour their own tails-a sheer physical impossibility.
Thages was not going to let them get away that easily. He gave chase to each of them, hunted them down, gave them a thrashing that they would remember to their dying day, breaoke the ribs of one of them, and even made a meal out of another’s foot.
In his rush to get his assailants, he left behind Leo. Leo would be safe, he knew, for the leopard was left deep within a cave where the humans wouldn’t come looking.
But he failed to take into account Leo’s almost irrational fear of humans- fear which amplified the sound of footsteps manifold in the leopard’s ears.
The footsteps originated from a ledge a few feet away from the cave, one which would have led the humans away from the cave. But in his panic-stricken state, Leo felt sure that the humans were walking towards the mouth of the cave. Any minute now, they would enter the cave, point a gun at him and shoot him.
His life would end within the cold confines of this cave.
And he was just waiting here like a sitting duck!
‘Wait in the cave, don’t go anywhere!’ was the command that Thages had given him before he went to fight the lions. But Leo was sure that Thages would prefer him alive than dead.
And so he ran out of the cave, and then to the right, away from the sound of footsteps and chattering, away from the ferocious beasts with guns who roamed freely in the jungles that had such animals as lions and leopards in it. Crazy beasts that killed for fun. Crazy beasts that came to the animals’ territory and sometimes took a bath in the cold waters of the stream. Crazy beasts that were fearless!
Unlike I. I am so afraid!, Leo thought as he ran, willing his legs to carry him as far as possible, away from the threat of humans. From somewhere he heard the sound of a gun.
The humans had started killing! Leo ran even faster than before. Ran without looking where he was going, ran through regions of the forest he has never seen before.
At some point, he began to hear human chatter again. It was another team of humans. They were just entering the jungle from the prairie that edged the forest on the southern side. The sounds came somewhere from his left and when he looked up, Leo saw the tips of guns and the capped heads of humans appearing. Tthey were coming up an incline.
He could turn to the right and run, or he could turn and run back towards the heart of jungle from which he just fled.
The problem with the first course of action was that he would have to exit the jungle and get into the wide open prairie which he could see even from here- a vista without a single tree in sight, and nothing for him to hide behind. If the humans were to sight him, they could easily shoot him dead. On the other hand, if he were to run back to the jungle…No, that was too much for the poor leopard to think of. The team of humans that just entered from the prairie was small, not anywhere near the number of humans further in the jungle.
Lesser number of humans= less scary. That was the simple equation on which the leopard operated.
Taking a deep breath, Leo leaped out of the forest and into the prairie- for the first time in his life, he exited the perimeters of the jungle. Coming out of the coolness of the jungle, the heat of the burning fire-like prairie atmosphere felt like an assault. It even made him whimper- something that made him think, once again, how weak he was.
His own weakness made him roar in anger. A roar of impotent rage. And also stupidity.
For it was only after the roar escaped his mouth that Leo realized what he just did.
An act of sheer stupidity which gave away his position to the humans.
Without stopping or even looking back, he ran. With every step he took away from the forest the thought that he was helpless, that he couldn’t take care of himself without the aid of Thages, became louder in his mind.
But he didn’t have the luxury to turn and ran back into the forest.
Even as he was running away, he heard the sound of humans who presently came presently came out of the jungle, attracted by the sound of his roar.
Had he looked back he would have seen one of the men raising a tranquillizer gun, taking careful aim, readying himself to pull the trigger that would down the beast in flight. All of them were certainly baffled by the fact that a lone leopard was running away from the jungle, without there being any particular reason. A few of them kept a close watch on their immediate vicinity, wondering if there were others in the pack. They were more than just a little relieved to find that the leopard was a lone agent in this action-whatever it was.
The first shot from the gun went way off the mark, what with the animal running not just fast but in an uneven pattern, as leopards are wont to do.
The second shot went even farther off the mark.
By the time the man with the gun made himself ready for the third shot, the creature had passed out of range. Lowering the gun, he gave the others in the team a sheepish grin. The rest of them began to wonder just how safe they would be when they moved further into the jungle, with the gun in this man’s hands.
As for Leo, he kept running, running as fast as he has ever done in his 2 years of existence on earth. If the circumstances were different, he would have derived some joy from this running, feeling the wind on his face and the dried grass of the prairie under his hoofs. But as it was, he didn’t have time enough to slow down and enjoy the run.
The only thing he wanted was to get away from the dreaded humans.
But even as he kept putting more distance between himself and the jungle behind him, he heard the roar of some unknown creature shattering the relative peace of the prairie. The roar was coming from somewhere to his left. It sounded like it came from no one animal, but from a herd. Like a herd of elephants was rushing in his direction. But the roar was not like any sound that elephants might make. But Leo did feel the ground beneath him vibrating, like how it would be when a great herd of elephants ran.
Perhaps it’s another creature that comes awake every century, like Thages, he thought.
The memory of Thages brought a fresh batch of tears to his eyes.
But more than sentimentality, it was fear that had the upper hand on his mind at the moment. He wondered if this unknown creature that was rushing in his direction would also be hungry. And if yes, would it eat him, or would it just go for such animals as deer and rabbits?
Leo slowed down. He hoped to catch a glimpse of the creature. His idea was simple- if the animal(s) looked fearsome, he would run back towards the jungle. He knew that no matter how ferocious an animal was, it wouldn’t be a match for the irrationality of the humans, who would take care of it, as easily as they squashed a bug between their fingers. He would lead the animal(s) to the humans. He knew that by doing so, he would be risking his own life- the humans may not discriminate when it came to killing, but given the situation, he thought the risk worth taking.
On the other hand, if the source of the roar turned out to be a meek animal-chances of which were low, judging from the ferocity of the roar, he would ran on, maybe even ask for help from the newcomer.
But he needed to see the unseen creature(s) to make such judgements.
But no matter how hard he strained his neck and looked in the direction of the roar, which kept rising, he couldn’t see anything, blocked as his view was by a thick clump of trees.
But as the roar approached even closer, he saw a parrot perched on a bracnch of a tree taking off and flying away.
That couldn’t be good, he thought. Birds didn’t fly away like that unless there was some ferocious beast around.
And presently, the beast came rushing, right in front of Leo’s eyes that widened with surprise.
It was unlike any beast he has even seen in the forest.
It was long and moved in an almost straight line, with a mad determination that put in his mind the thoughts of human irrationality. For even though this beast moved fast- too fast for something of its gigantic size, there didn’t seem to be any objective to its running. Certainly, there was no prey in front of it that it hunted.
Leo took a couple of steps back, feeling rather apprehensive. But at the same time, he was also fascinated by the beast- as anyone would be at the sight of something strange, something they were witnessing for the first time in their life.
He stood watching as the beast was snaking past him. And snaking is the right word since the beast appeared to him like a never-ending snake. It was taller than Thages by at least a couple of heads but it was as long as..well, he couldn’t say how long it was because it just kept moving, more parts of its tubular body coming out from a curve behind the clump of trees.
Leo looked around to see if there was anything else around to witness this miraculous beast, other than himself. He felt an overwhelming urge to share this magnificent sight of a beast that roared stronger than a herd of elephants with Thages.
To his consternation, he found that there were indeed other beings not far from him- the humans he had thought had gone back into the jungle by now.
The man with the tranquilizer gun walked a few feet ahead of the rest of them, determined to regain his pride lost when his shots missed the target(not once but twice) before. Leo could see at least two other men in the team with guns at the ready, walking behind the man who was apparently their leader.
And none of them were looking at the wondrous beast that was passing by. They all had their eyes on Leo and Leo alone. Though Leo couldn’t see the human’s eyes clearly from this distance, he imagined them to be deep, red and scary.
Turning around, without thinking, he ran towards the train/beast that was passing by.
So far, the beast hasn’t done anything to suggest it intended to hurt him, let alone kill. In fact, the beast’s direction of progress was taking it away from him.
So, he ran, hoping that it might be able to help him out. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to catch up with the beast enough to make a conversation with it. The beast’s face was way up ahead by now, and he had a bit of running to do if he were to catch up. But he was determined to try.
But even as he ran, the beast picked up pace. And fast though he was, Leo realized that he wouldn’t be able to keep up for long. Already, he found his ribs aching with all the running he has done so far. Though a leopard he wasn’t exactly someone who got regular exercise. Back in the jungle, it was always Thages who went for the hunt, and brought him the kill. The maximum physical efforts that Leo ever had to expend included running up a tree and lying down on one of its branches, as he liked to do sometimes.
He panted hard, his mouth feeling dry, his head aching and his chest feeling as though it was ready to burst when he saw one part of the beast’s belly lying open. Perhaps, it was a wound- someone, probably the humans had hurt him. Yes, it has to be the humans! The more he thought of it, the more Leo became convinced of the idea.
Presently, he heard the sound of humans shouting behind him. They were quite a way behind him and the sound of the rushing train was too loud for him to hear the distinct words. So, even if he could understand human speech, he couldn’t have heard.
Not that Leo needed to understand the language of the humans to know what they were shouting to each other. He could guess as well as the next leopard. They were all shouting one thing in a single voice: “Kill the beast! Kill the beast!”
Without looking back again, without thinking any further, Leo leaped into the open bogie of the moving goods train. He didn’t face any troubles leaping onto the bogie- no hanging on to the edge with his paw until the last moment like in a movie. Though he was performing the manuevre for the first time in his life, it all went smooth.
And as he moved deeper into the darkness of the bogie and lied down beside a stack of crates, he derived comfort from the fact that at least in ambience, the bogie was somewhat akin to the cave where Thages had asked him to wait before he went after those wretched lions.
Both were partially dark, both had an opening which brought in light, and both were hopeful sanctuaries from the vagaries of humans.
By the time Thages got back to the cave after doing unto the lions what most respectable publications would consider ‘unprintable’, the humans had all left. More importantly, there was no trace of Leo to be found.
Knowing Leo, he surmised that the leopard must have fled in fear of the humans, and cursed himself for having left his pet alone. “I should have known something like this might happen! Shouldn’t have taken such a risk! Though I am practically immortal, it seems that the immortality doesn’t come with the benefit of wisdom!” he admonished himself.
A monkey that was hanging from a nearby tree by its tail wondered what the strange black thing was muttering to himself.
Wisdom may not have been his strong suit, but the eons-worth of evolution has sharpened Thages’s senses beyond the wildest hopes of a mad scientist engaged in developing super-sensory perception. This was particularly true with his sense of smell.
After spending a few moments in the cave where he had left Leo- and where the spotted one’s smell still lingered, he moved out, following the scent, reaching in no time the edge of the forest and then entering the prairie that lied beyond- finding suddenly the that the scent disappeared by the railway track.
It didn’t take much of an imagination to figure out what happened. The leopard had boarded a train.
“Fool, fearing humans, he has now gone to the heartland of humans!” he muttered.
Dusk settled soon enough, snuffing out the light of the sun as easily as though it were a candle.
Thages didn’t have to wait for long after that for a train to pass by, a train which he boarded even as it was moving, without anyone noticing.
By the time he reached the Tonovil station, it was almost 10 in the morning. Daylight meant that it would be hard for him to conceal himself from human sight.
Hard but not impossible. Millenia of experrince has made him an expert in merging with the shadows of living things and inanimate objects, hopping from one to the next, existing in the dark even during the day.
Even before the train reached the Tonovil railway station, news has spread through the train about the leopard attack that happened there.
And once the train halted for the passengers, many in the train eagerly looked out of the window, as though the leopard would still bee roaming around on one of the platforms.
Thages got out along with the shadow of someone who had to get down at the station. In fact, the person who got down did so to take a leak on the side of a wall, having found the overwhelming stench inside the train compartment’s toilet repulsive.
While the man was taking a leak, his shadow, or rather one layer of it, peeled itself off and made away beyond the railway station, in search of his lost pet.
All Thages had to do was hang around at the local toddy station to hear the latest news about the leopard.
Since the discussions were among men who were inebriated than was considered ‘safe’ by a long measure, many bits of information they carried sounded exaggerated. But Thages could still glean the gist of what they said.
He understood that Leo was being held temporarily by the forest officials. He got the location of the place where he was kept. He also heard that the leopard was actually not a leopard but a shape shifting creature and that soon as the officials got it within a cage, it transformed itself into a fire-breathing dragon.
This last bit was probably the inebriation speaking, thought Thages.
Without losing much time, he proceeded to where Leo was being held captive. En route, he felt his stomach rumbling. Now that his date for departure- or rather another long sleep was looming up, his appetite too was heightened. It was as though his body knew that it wouldn’t have food for a long time and so asked for even more perishables than usual.
Thankfully for him, he found a goat that was tied to a post in the backyard of one of the houses he passed by. He stripped the goat to mere bones with his teeth, burped when he was done and moved on.
The cage in which Leo was held was transparent.
Made of extra-fortified glass, the cage was manufactured in a Chinese factory and iweighed almost eight hundred kilograms. It had two fist sized holes to allow in oxygen, and also a latch-like mechanism through which one could push food in.
There were about a dozen such cages in the facility, Thages saw. Almost half the cages were empty and of the ones that had occupants, none of them held one as big as Leo. In fact, every other cage had such harmless creatures as a cockatoo, a deer and in one cage-even a couple of squirrels. Thages wondered why humans would bother keep squirrels in captivity. Especially such charming looking ones- one of them had a cute small vertical line on its head. Also, he had noticed that in the squirrels’ cage, the fist sized holes have been plugged, making him wonder how the tiny creatures could breathe.
But such considerations fell from his mind when he approached Leo’s cage.
He has entered the facility almost two hours ago. But he was unable to approach the cage so far because a man with a gun- Murugan- the man who has seen a child being devoured by a lion, sat on a stool not far from the cage, keeping his eyes on the supine Leo as though he expected the latter to spring up and destroy the cage and come out to eat him any moment.
There was something in the man’s eyes which suggested paranoia.
So, Thages thought it better to make his move when the man wasn’t there.
In all his eons-spanning life, he has never been shot at, not even once. He had a feeling that he would be tough enough to survive bullet wounds but he wasn’t willing to test it.
If he were to make any sudden move, the paranoid man would surely press the trigger without thinking. No, it’s better to wait.
He was beginning to think that the bottom of the man with the gun was fixed to the wooden stool when someone called from outside, “Hey, Murugan! What are you doing in there? Come out here and help us move this thing!”
The man named Murugan stirred as though from a waking sleep and went out to help the others with whatever that they needed help to be moved.
Thages used the opportunity to approach Leo’s cage.
To say that Leo was held was an exaggeration. At least that’s how it appeared to Thages from the way the beast was lying down, with his chin resting on an extended paw, his eyes shut, a couple of chunks of flesh lying beside him on the cage’s floor-graciously provided for by his current keepers.
Finding him in such a comfortable position, Thages breathed in relief. He knew that Leo couldn’t fend for himself. It was good to know that there was someone to take care of him.
Thages tapped on the glass of the cage. He had to do this for some time- almost an entire minute before Leo came awake.
“Why-what?” Leo muttered as the cobwebs of sleep were still lifting from his brain. But once he saw Thage’s face-which was just an oval blackness with two pale holes for eyes, and hence nothing to look at, he excitedly yelped.
“Shhh..there are people outside and they might hear! Keep your voice low!” Even though Thages said so, he too felt emotions welling up inside him at the sight of his beloved pet.
But I shouldn’t let myself get carried away by emotions, he thought.
He has had time to think of this on the train ride. And it was now time to tell Thages about what he thought.
“Come on, let me out of the cage! Let’s go back to the forest! I am sorry that I disobeyed and didn’t stay in the cave!” Leo was so excited that he could barely stop talking.
Raising a hand and shushing him, Thages said, “Listen Leo, I think it’s better if you stay with these guys!”
That doused Leo’s excitement as efficiently as though he got slapped across the face.
“What?” he muttered, looking at Thages as though he was seeing him for the first time.
Thages took a deep breath. Throughout the train ride, he had played out this scenario in his mind over and over again. “If there’s someone to take care of Leo, if I could be sure that he would be fed for life, I would do this..” he has hammered the idea into his mind with so much force that it has become indistinguishable from the fabric of his mind.
But still, now that the time has come to utter the words, he found himself chocking up.
Unlike humans and other creatures, Thages didn’t have the capacity to cry. He did have tear ducts but somewhere down the line, evolution has found it to be an unwanted feature. But the part itself remained in his body, without function, like a museum piece.
Without tears, Thages sighed- which was the highest expression of sadness that he could summon.
“I think it’s good that these humans, they are feeding you. From what I heard, they are going to transfer you into a zoo where you would be well looked after…I should have taught you the tricks of hunting as I promised you. But then, I just delighted in looking after you.You see, in all these ages, I have never had the privilege to look after someone. Though I assumed that it would be one drab chore, it turned out to be extra-ordinarily beautiful. For the first time in my life, I had feelings which I have never experienced before. Indeed, these were feelings that I never thought I could experience! It was beautiful. I got carried away, and pampered you like anything. Kept forgetting that one day I should leave and you would have to fend for yourself….And now, the time is upon us when I have to leave. Two, maybe three days. I can feel it…I always feel it when the time is nigh. And it would be brutal if you were to be in the jungle after I’m gone. You know how it’s a jungle out there…”
Thages thought of something else to say, but no matter how much he racked his brain, he couldn’t come up with anything. At least, nothing that would make his action of not teaching Leo how to hunt sound okay.
“You know, I actually thought that one day I might eat you to satisfy my appetite..Goes to show that you never know how things would turn out, no matter how long one lives on this earth,” he said eventually.
Leo merely nodded. He did look sad but Thages felt that all things considering, the leopard was taking the news rather well.
“So, this is goodbye, is it?” said Leo.
The earnestness of the question almost made Theo’s heart break. “Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“So, we are never going to see each other again? Never, ever?” Leo asked, craning his neck, as though yearning to reach for a good answer that hung just a little distance further.
Thages swallowed. The honest answer would be yes.
He knew only too well that even if Leo were to have a good life, being treated well by his keepers at the zoo, he wouldn’t live for more than another fifteen years. Unless another heat spell prematurely woke Thages from his long sleep before that, he didn’t see how they could see each other again.
But he couldn’t bring himself to say it.
Instead he said, “Yes, we would meet again. The next time when I come awake, I would come find you. I promise!”
Leo’s eyes widened, his pupils glinted with delight. “So, I would live long enough for that?”
“Of course, you will,”said Leo, waving his hand in the air as though it were a silly question.”In fact, if you look after yourself well, if you stay out of trouble and don’t invite injuries, you would live long enough for us to meet twice. That’s two centuries we are talking about..”
Leo’s mouth opened wide in awe. “Wow, all the different foods I could eat in that time! And the hours for which I could sleep. It’s all gonna be awesome!”
Thages nodded, delighted at how delighted Leo was.
Hearing the sound of footsteps just outside the metallic door to the facility, Thages turned his head in that direction.
“I guess I should be leaving now,” he said to Leo. He reached a finger through one of the cage’s fist sized holes. Leo touched him with his paw.
Thages swallowed once again. ‘Goodbye, my dear!’ he wanted to say, bit found his threat constricted by the weight of emotions, like a lump of coal was stuck in there.
Turning around, he walked towards the door.Peering out, he saw Murugan coming in. He waited behind the door until the man entered, before he exited.
He didn’t look back as he merged with the shadows of the trees that surrounded the facility, swifting from one shadow to the next, thinking of all the good times he has had with Leo, wondering if he would have such a relationship ever again in his life.
Murugan wasn’t aware of the black smudge in the air which exited the facility soon after he entered.
His eyes were fixed on the leopard in the cage. He walked up to the cage, planted his feet apart like he was inside a wrestling ring, ready to take on his opponent.
“I see you curled up inside the cage, looking all cuddly and cute,” he muttered in a slow, hissing tone, looking at the leopard like a snake trying to hypnotize. “but don’t think that you are fooling me. You might be fooling the others- including the veterinarian by your cute antics- like licking the back of people’s hands and resting your head on their lap, like you were a regular cat and not a wild animal. But mark my words, you can never fool Murugan. Murugan has seen what a wild animal can do- even one which has spent years in a cage in a zoo, familiar with humans. It just snuffed the life out of a child with the kind of brutality that’s possible only with you wild animals! So, don’t think that you won’t have Murukan’s eyes on you-all the time. Even after you are moved to the zoo, I would come there, just to observe you. If ever I feel that you are up to doing something funny, I would hurt you, and hurt you so bad that you would wish you were never born! Do you hear me?” he spat the words out.
Leo yawned, half-sleepy, wondering what the human was on about.
Now that he has spent some time in the company of humans, he was finding out that the bipeds were not as bad as he thought they were. Not only did they give him a good bath, they also brought liver and flesh pieces in frequent intervals. They certainly didn’t intend to starve him. Which meant they didn’t want him to die.
On the contrary, they wanted him to thrive!
Already, in his mind, Leo was replacing Thages-his old master, with a collective of humans who would be his new master.
Thages sat, alone in the twilight on the boulder by the peepul tree where he has spent a lot of time with Leo. It was their perch, their private space, the terrain which no animal in the jungle would breach- not even the apes that could be so nosy.
He held in his hand a bottle of shampoo which one of the humans had left behind a few months ago. He had seen one of the humans take a bath in one of the pools, frothing himself all over with this shampoo. He was fascinated by the forth, and understood its principle of cleaning a body instantly. He thought how wonderful it would be to lather Leo in such froth, making his fur shiny and even more beautiful!
And when he found that the humans had accidentally left the bottle behind, he thought some God had thought He would make Thage’s wish come true.
Thages wasn’t pleased with the idea that humans would come this far into the forest and have the nerve to take a bath, as though the jungle was their private bath. But such breaching of space was getting more frequent, he could see. He had already figured out that the jungle was more than half diminished from what it was the last century. Humans are taking over, everything else was failing.
But he was thankful for the shampoo bottle that the human left behind.
It took some cajoling to get Leo to submit himself to shampooing.Leo was naturally suspicious of everything that humans have made.
“The froth might be okay for humans but for animals like me, it might be poison!” he had said when Thages made mention of the shampoo the first time.
Even after Thages applied the shampoo on his own body was he placated. Only when he saw how saddened Thages was at not being able to shampoo him, and thereby pamper him some more did he agree to the idea.
Looking at the long white bottle of shampoo in his hand, Thages welled up with emotions. Not for the first time in the last couple of days, he felt that it would have been nice if tears still came from his eyes- it would have been nice to have some sort of outlet for all these emotions.
The sun was already half-down on the horizon. For a few moments suspended in an indecision as to whether it should come up or go further down. Thages yawned. The great yawn which preceded the great long sleep. The sound of his yawning lasted for minutes and was carried all over the jungle by the wind.
The apes heard it, so did the tigers, and the lions and the elephants and the squirrels and the rabbits and the wild pigs and jackals and cuckattos and parrots and zebras and jiraffes and hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses and swans and corocdiles and alligators and snakes and coyotes and wolves and foxes and other birds and animals both familiar to humans and those that weren’t. All of them heard the sound of the great yawn, which sounded to them like the earth was breaking apart, like the heavens were being torn open, like the ocean was caving in on itself.
And they all shuddered, and ran back into their caves or holes or whatever burrows they hid themselves in times of calamity.
But the great yawn was prelude to no calamity, it was just the forerunner to the sleep of ages. Thages lied down on the boulder, merged into it, his body and the boulder indistinguishable. He would come awake in the next century- or if the heat woke him prematurely.
Before lying down practically unconscious, overcome with as sleep deeper than the deepest sleep you could imagine, his hand released the shampoo bottle, there to lie by the boulder.
Whether it would still be there when Thages came awake the next time, and if it was, would he remember its significance, only time could tell.
The man’s closely cropped hair glistened with sweat. The red checkered shirt stuck to his back with sweat. He had to wipe his brow of sweat every minute or so, which was making it hard for him to work.
He was one of those who sweated a lot-even during the winters if he were to go for a walk, he would sweat like he was made of water. Even as a child, this was the case. It was this feature of his which made his father say to him as a boy, “You sweat like a pig! So, you better not find yourself doing menial jobs for a living. You better learn hard, and get a job which you could do sitting down in an air conditioned office!”
But of course, he didn’t listen to his pa- what self-respecting kid would? He would hang out with his friends anywhere other than the school and before long he dropped out and started doing oddjobs. While most of his peers were still in school, he was earning money. And that felt great. For a while, at least.
For sooner than he though, most of his peers were office workers-people who had bank balances and owned such things as houses with landscaped lawns. Meanwhile, he worked in quarries and such places from where they obtained the raw materials for people to build such fancy homes and lawns.
In fact, the task that he was currently involved in was something like that.
It was a logging contract, because of which he was in this jungle with 40 other men.
The scale at which they were cutting down trees, he was pretty sure that they were overreaching- crossing the limit of what was allowed. He had engaged in work of this kind enough to know such things. And the way they were blowing up boulders and ferrying the rock pieces back, it was illegal as the night sky was dark.
Not that he minded. As long as he got paid, they could blow the entire forest for all he cared. In fact, if it was an illegal operation, they may even pay the men more than was promised- to ensure their silence regarding the nature of the operation.
Wiping the sweat off his brow, he finished laying down the explosive around the boulder. Of the entire team, he was the one most equipped to deal with explosives, having performed jobs of the kind in many quarries before.
But even he was unsure about whether the explosion would leave the peepul tree that stood beside the boulder unmarked. The explosives were arranged optimally, so that only the boulder and the immediate surroundings would be affected. But, when you’re dealing with explosives, you could never be completely sure.
“Ready to blow!” he called out in the loudest voice, so that anyone foolish enough to still be hanging around could clear their asses off.
He himself began to move away from the big black boulder which was when something struck his foot. Looking down, he found that it was a plastic bottle. The label on it revealed it to be a shampoo container.
He couldn’t help but smile at the sight of the bottle, lying on the forest ground so far from civilization. Okay, maybe not so far- a couple of hours walk would bring you out to the prairie which ended the forest, but still, he was amused by the thought of someone coming all the way into the jungle and taking a bath-using a shampoo for crying out loud!
He kicked the shampoo bottle as though it were football. It hit the trunk of the peepul tree at the foot of which it lied like a cub alongside its mother.
Five minutes later, a small yet loud explosion shook the forest.
Thages didn’t get time to respond to the way he was rudely woken. By the time consciousness dawned, it soon died, for good.
Thages’s dying thoughts were horrifying- seeing his own body parts blowing along with big chunks of rock. The thought about a certain leopard and a shampoo bottle also crossed his mind. But before he could draw the connection between them, his life that began in some misty past long, long before the age of dinosaurs, finally came to an end.
Almost half the roots of the peepul tree came apart in the explosion.