Once a panther was well aware of the spell it cast over all who came to the zoo. It had long felt the eyes of visitors linger on its lithe form as if they yearned to reach out and caress it but didn’t dare. Whenever it paused in its fluid stride and looked back towards them, it saw in those eyes a fascination that could not bring itself to turn away and sensed in each jugular a pulse that churned a moment and then raced on. What were they looking for? The panther suspected their presence here had less to do with it and more to do with what they wanted it to be. Their expressions suggested that the shadowy figure they watched so intently was never shadowy enough, never distant enough from their own well-ordered lives to match the spellbinding lure of danger and the unknown. To the panther it always seemed they eyed it as if they hoped to see death take on flesh and spring into the open. But if death was what brought them by the busload, expecting perhaps to smell it on the panther’s breath as it passed close to them, why put themselves to the trouble? Any blood on its fangs was watery and cold. None of the panther’s food came from its own kill anymore. Slabs of thawed meat were tossed to it with the regularity of these visitors’ own mealtimes, and its claws had grown as dull as their fingernails with disuse. Perhaps they came half wishing it would break through the bars and maul a patron or two in front of them before being shot by guards. With the panther gone, though, which of the other great cats in the zoo could replace it in their communal yearning, in the hushed strain of their desire? The lions and tigers and jaguars and all the others were too well known to suggest anything that couldn’t already be safely defined, as if understanding had long ago taken their measure in full. But a panther still prowled just on the other side of experience and thought. A panther was still a riddle of deadly enchantment. Was it the pull of what they most feared, then, that brought them together to share a frisson of seductive horror, unable to come closer but unable to leave as well until the panther itself freed them by turning to walk away? Did they go home feeling somehow more alive for having stood within sight and smell of life’s violent end? The panther lay in the gathering dusk after the zoo had closed and mulled questions like these. The fact that killing was necessary to survive, it instinctively understood. But why death, as unpredictable as it was inevitable, should hold this hypnotic power over human beings wasn’t at all clear. To turn death from a necessity into an emotion, a wish for something that could appall and entrance at the same time, into something that defied definitions in a life otherwise made so secure by them, left the panther shaking its head in wonder. What unfathomable creatures these were.
Copyright © 2003-2004, revised 2007, by Geoffrey Grosshans