Featured Short Fiction: Rachel Wright

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Bagheera at Large

Rachel Wright

 

JULIA counts twelve missing pet posters during her nightly walk: eight cats and four dogs. She worries that Bagheera isn’t getting enough to eat. He’s a big cat, and these are small animals. She tells herself that nobody puts up missing posters for opossums or raccoons. Nobody reports snakes or chipmunks missing. Still, Bagheera is an inexperienced hunter, and if he loses too much weight or muscle mass, he’ll never have the chance to improve. She hopes that he’s familiar enough with people not to think of them as food—even Finchie, he hadn’t eaten—but she’s not sure she believes it.

When Bagheera was small, just a kitten, really, Julia would feed him in bed. He’d lie on his back between her legs, ravenous, tugging on his bottle so mightily that she had to use both hands to keep her grip. Often after feedings her arms were so tired that she didn’t have the strength to lift him from her lap and return him to his pen, so she’d stretch out next to him, watching him sleep, his mouth parted just enough to display his tiny teeth. She brushed the milk out of his whiskers. She let her fingertips drift over his paws—massive, powerful, even when he was an infant. When he stretched or yawned in his sleep, exposing his delicate-looking razor claws or his small, curved fangs, her heart skipped a beat, a primordial response, though Bagheera, then, was almost as helpless as a lamb.

She hadn’t thought enough about the lethal animal he’d grow up to be. When she’d pictured their future together, she’d imagined lazy afternoons in the sun, his muscular, ebony body gleaming beside her. And it had been that way for a while. But now her black leopard cub has grown into a hundred and fifty pound animal capable, under ideal circumstances, of running twenty-six miles an hour, pouncing twenty feet, jumping vertically ten feet. Bagheera, as an adult, is a skilled climber. He can see at night, and, because of his dark pigmentation, he can disappear just by stepping into the shadows. Julia will never see him again, not unless he wants her to.

She wanders the streets of her Atlanta neighborhood at night, not with the expectation of finding him, but in the hope that Bagheera will sense her presence, recognize her scent and the rhythm of her footsteps and know that she is near. She likes to imagine that he is following her. She smiles at every rustling leaf, every snapped twig, every click, clang, shuffle, and pop. She aches with the desire to scratch the downy fur behind his ears, to feel his face bump against hers, his whiskers tickling her neck. To hear the choked moans and half-roars he makes at night, the vocalization of every minor opinion, the reassuring roll of his oversized purr. To experience the singular, exceptional trust in one shared glance.

She walks for hours every night, hoping he will come to her, until her feet ache and her legs want to give out. She tells herself that Bagheera will appear to her when he’s ready to come home. He will nuzzle her thigh as she loops the harness she carries around his legs and chest, just as he used to, and he will walk beside her on the leash, behind the houses that don’t have fences, in the shadows under the trees. He’ll lie curled in the back seat, exhausted and content after his adventure, as she drives the back roads to Finchie’s cabin in the Appalachians, where nobody ever visits. And they’ll live together there, just the two of them, just like she always wanted.

 

JULIA can’t help wondering about the missing woman, Hannah Gable, who lives, or lived, a few streets over from Finchie’s house. She’s been gone almost two weeks, and she’s on the news every night—national now. Julia wonders if she ever met the woman, if they ever crossed paths while she was out looking for Bagheera. Maybe they’d smiled at each other, waved. Maybe they’d called hello across the street as Hannah jogged one way and Julia ambled the other, her attention pasted on the shadows. Perhaps, while Julia was out searching for Bagheera, Bagheera had been stalking Hannah.

Hannah had recently had a baby, had taken to jogging in the evenings to rid herself of her baby weight. Julia wonders if Hannah had noticed anything different the evening she disappeared. If there was silence where there should’ve been squirrels chattering, stillness where there should’ve been birds roosting for the night. Had she sensed, mingling with the odors of cut grass and open flowers and urban dust, a new smell, earthy, mammalian, unidentifiable? Had she noticed a wavering in the darkness around her, a shadow that did not match the shape of the tree above it, a hint of motion almost too dark to detect?

Julia imagines that Bagheera could have seen the missing woman’s round, postpartum belly as alluring, tasty as a bonbon, that the muscles Hannah had worked so hard to build and tone would have been that much more appetizing to him, that her running would have appeared to him as a game, concluding in a delicious reward. Could he have followed her from the shadows, silent, watchful, waiting for her to stop to tie her shoe or catch her breath? Or perhaps he would have chased her, having grown accustomed to pursuing his prey, having learned to appreciate the hunt, to enjoy the dinner better when he worked for it.

Then again, maybe Hannah Gable’s husband did kill her, as Nancy Grace, bug-eyed and sneering, suggests over and over on her show. Maybe she was mugged, murdered, tossed in a ravine. Maybe she decided she wasn’t cut out for domestic life, ran off and took a lover. Maybe the two of them are, at this very moment, on a beach somewhere, drinking fruity cocktails. Who is Julia to jump to conclusions?

 

JULIA met Finchie for the first time when she was alone at a bar in Milwaukee after a particularly hard day at work, her fingers still bleeding where an unruly Shih Tzu had bitten them during conformation training, rage still pulsing through her at the way the dog’s owner had blamed her when she reported the attack. The bar was packed when she arrived, and she’d taken the only seat she could find, on a stool next to the man who, three weeks later, she would marry on an ill-advised whim. Finchie had looked her up and down lasciviously, and she’d almost gotten up in disgust. But he’d offered to buy her a beer—not a drink, a beer—and it had seemed just like the sort of thing a friend would say, if she’d had one.

So she accepted his offer, and the next one and the next one, and before she knew it, he’d hooked her with his southern charm and his bottle-blue eyes, and she was sitting forehead-to-forehead with him, baring her soul. She was flattered by his attempts to appear sophisticated for the sole purpose of impressing her. It made her feel important, to have this older, more established man falling all over himself to make her think he was special, powerful, worldly. She found his loneliness attractive—as attractive as he must’ve found hers. Finchie owned a small, rickety traveling circus, and he told her elaborate stories about the places he’d been, the things he’d seen. He made promises about places he would take her, things he’d show her. Until Bagheera came, though, he never once kept any of his promises, and the only places he ever took her were the fairgrounds and dilapidated stadiums and empty parking lots of cities like Canton, Tulsa, and Boise.

At some point that first evening, he’d leaned back on his stool, took a puff on his cigar, and said, “Tell me about your dreams, Julia.” That was the moment he’d gotten her, when she admitted that she had always fantasized, since seeing Beastmaster at a sleepover when she was ten, about training big cats—tigers, lions, leopards. The tiger in the movie, Sultan, was supposed to be melanistic, she told him, but it was just black hair dye. “He died a few years after filming,” she’d added, “from licking at the dye on his fur between takes. But I didn’t know that then. I just thought he was extraordinary.”

At the end of the night, when the bartenders were wiping down the bar and collecting the final tabs, Finchie leaned in close and whispered to her with whiskey-tinged breath, “I can procure you a cat.” He drew back and winked at her, and Julia surprised herself by leaning forward to kiss him, though she did not believe his slurred promise. Nor did she believe it the second time he promised, or the third, or any time after that. It was just a line, one he would stop using the instant it stopped working, and the more he talked about it, the more plans he made and supplies he bought and logistics he went over, the less she believed him.

And yet, whenever he said those words, “You’ll have your kitty yet,” she wanted so utterly for it to be true that she became putty in his thick, dry hands. Indeed, he’d whispered them in her delighted ear as they passed by the county courthouse in Baltimore on a crisp November morning, and she ever after believed that it had been that phrase that led her to follow him into the courthouse and marry him on the spot. There was no other explanation.

They’d been married three years before he made good on his promise, right around the time that Julia began to suspect that the circus was a front for a long list of illegal activities—drug trafficking, moving stolen merchandise, and so on—which seemed more in line with Finchie’s sensibilities, although he certainly had the charisma of a circus ringleader.

Once Bagheera was in her arms, Finchie began to grumble that she had only married him to get the cat. But Julia knew it wasn’t true, if only because she had never believed that he could really do it.

“You used me,” he said as she lay in bed with her back to him, Bagheera snuggled against her belly, his purr almost a growl.

“Then why am I still here?” she asked.

“He’s my leopard.”

She looked at him over her shoulder, trying not to laugh. “You tell Bagheera that. See how he reacts.”

It was true, though, that Bagheera was the reason she stayed. There was nowhere else to take him. And it was also true that Bagheera had appropriated whatever affection Julia had retained for Finchie after three years of his pomposity, his grandiose lies, his mean drunk. Before Bagheera’s arrival, when she was still traveling with the circus, she used to lie awake in their trailer in the mornings and pretend Finchie’s window-rattling snores were the rumbling of a great cat, asleep on his back, the tufts between his giant toes exposed when he stretched them. Driven out of bed by shame and self-loathing, she’d pull open the curtains and watch the sun rise over the parking lot of whatever mall in whatever second-rate city they were camped in, and remind herself, in all bitterness, what she had truly been seduced into.

 

SOON after Bagheera arrived in the middle of the night while the circus was setting up for a run in Tuscaloosa, Finchie decided to send Julia to Atlanta, to his big house across the street from Springvale Park, and to train the leopard there.

“More stability,” he said. “Don’t want a nervous cat. Don’t want him around folks ‘til he’s trained up.”

Julia had agreed, though deep down she knew it was a terrible plan. But she had been tired of Finchie’s constant complaints about the ways she neglected and mistreated him, tired of his jealousy, especially toward Bagheera.

In order to avoid questions, they renovated Finchie’s cavernous basement themselves while the circus was on break, soundproofing it from wall to wall and ceiling to floor so the neighbors would never hear Bagheera scream. At the foot of the basement stairs, they installed a steel gate with bars they could look through to check Bagheera’s mood and a double padlock to ensure that he couldn’t escape. Finchie built an elaborate habitat, including a six-foot climbing structure with platforms at different heights, a hammock built out of old fire hoses, large boxes for Bagheera to crawl into for privacy, a four-foot, Berber-carpeted scratching post and an assortment of Pilates balls and old tires for him to play with—all carefully designed so that Bagheera wouldn’t get bored but also wouldn’t get strong or agile enough to become unmanageable.

The night they finished, Julia allowed herself to be grateful to Finchie, impressed by his industry. But when the circus was due to leave again, Julia could barely contain herself. She watched Finchie pack his bags for the three months he’d spend on the road, only half-listening as he went over the training protocol and schedule they’d agreed on. And since it seemed to make his leaving easier, she let Finchie believe that she was sad to say goodbye to him, just as he pretended he wouldn’t be having affairs as soon as he was on the road without her. Then he was gone, and they were alone.

Over those first few weeks, the rules Julia had agreed to began falling away. She knew that Bagheera was different from the dogs and pot-bellied pigs she’d trained in the past. When Bagheera grew up he would speak a language that was not her own, and his sense of belonging in the world would be incongruous with the world that he was in. He would be both lethal and ill-equipped to control his lethality. This was her job as his trainer, his caretaker. She was not a mother, not a playmate, not an equal. Bagheera’s very survival—and her own—depended on his believing unequivocally that humans were his superiors, and not to be crossed.

The problem was that Julia did not believe this. How could she make him believe himself to be inferior to her, of all creatures? She, who had none of the grace of movement, none of the strength or agility or elegance that was Bagheera’s by his very nature. By then, she had fallen in love with him. She had fallen asleep beside him, stroking his ribs, secure in the warmth of his company. She had stared into his magnetic, honey-gold eyes, which seemed to look into her depths. She had become intimate with the patterns of dots and semi-circles hidden under the black coat that was all anybody else who laid eyes on him would see; the particular rhythm of his ghost striping was known to her, and her alone, like a constellation of freckles on a lover’s inner thigh.

The first thing Julia did away with—and, in retrospect, the last thing she should have gotten rid of—was Bagheera’s bite inhibition training, a technique she had often used on bigger dogs and pigs. It consisted of gagging Bagheera by sticking her fingers down his throat whenever he nibbled at her, so that he learned to associate biting with gagging. But Bagheera’s throat quickly became too big for her fingers to be effective. Instead, Finchie showed her how to use the nightstick she was meant to keep hanging on her belt. But the practice of sticking the thick, heavy plastic down the young leopard’s throat was so barbaric and seemed so unnecessary, given Bagheera’s temperament, that she gave it up as soon as Finchie returned to the circus.

The nightstick itself and the pepper spray that she had promised to keep fully stocked in all corners of the pen soon followed the gag training into retirement. Julia didn’t like the stick hanging from her belt—it restricted her movement and bounced against her leg, leaving nasty-looking bruises, and Bagheera was so docile that keeping either weapon on her felt unnecessary. There was always the fire extinguisher in the stairway if something happened, though even that she rarely tested.

The clicker, a long, extendable pointer with a button on the handle, which made a clicking sound when pressed, was the only training implement Julia held onto throughout her time with Bagheera. She would point the stick in the direction she wanted Bagheera to go, click the button and, when he went to the desired spot, she’d click it again and toss him a treat. She considered it humiliating, reducing Bagheera’s natural hunting instinct to chasing a stick, like a dog, for a sardine or a chicken liver. But she’d had success with the clicker before, and Finchie was adamant about seeing results in the regular video updates she sent him; otherwise, he had a tendency to show up unannounced and make life miserable for everyone.

There also should have been another trainer with her at all times, watching Bagheera for signs of aggression, defensive posturing, or overstimulation, but the problem there was obvious: nobody else could know about Bagheera, since he was illegally obtained, illegally housed in a residence, and unlicensed. Finchie had promised to have all the necessary papers “drawn up” as soon as training was completed—one more of the sticky ways he made it impossible for her to seriously consider leaving him. The only person who was able to help her was Finchie, and he was only in town a month or two out of the year. Julia didn’t press the issue; she was perfectly capable of monitoring Bagheera’s mood herself, and Finchie, when he was around, was more of an instigator of Bagheera’s bad behavior than a hindrance to it.

But Julia’s mistakes went well beyond bad training techniques. Her entire management of Bagheera’s life had been inappropriate, dangerous. Their first wrestling match for instance, had begun when Bagheera accidentally knocked her over as they rolled a Pilates ball back and forth. She had knocked him halfheartedly on the rump and he knocked her back with his nose. He had been gentle, but Julia had known she should stop the game, especially when Bagheera swiped at her legs and she fell over, his large, round eyes dilating over her as she lay, weak and helpless, on the ground. He’d seemed delighted in the discovery of his strength, and Julia could not bring herself to handicap him. Like a mother wishing to encourage his self-esteem, she’d turned rough play into a regular treat after a productive day of training.

The cruelty of keeping an animal like Bagheera cooped up inside began to weigh on her, too. Big cats needed to be outside, where they could see the sky and smell the fresh air and stalk small animals. The reasons for keeping Bagheera locked inside were myriad, but it just felt too cruel, too unreasonable, to force him to live the way Finchie had ordered. She began taking him outside at night, just in the back yard at first, on a leash, though it wasn’t long before she dispensed with that, too.

She’d sit on the back porch after the sun went down, drinking a beer and squinting into the shadows, trying to detect her almost-invisible leopard by the sound of his footfall as he zipped around the yard. The thick boards of Finchie’s eight-foot privacy fence wobbled as Bagheera ricocheted off of them, barking gleefully. He liked to wriggle his spine against the monkey grass bordering the porch and scratch his massive claws against the bark of the old hardwood trees in the yard. He soon took to climbing them, as well, to jumping up the trunk five, six, eight, ten feet and shimmying up into the branches until he was completely out of sight. But he always reappeared right away when she called to him, clicking the clicker, chicken livers and giblets waiting for him on the ground. The branches would shake, leaves drifting down to the grass, and then he’d slide down the tree like an afternoon shadow, chips of bark flying off of the trunk as though fleeing him. She heard his rumbling, snapping purr before she made him out, his bright eyes glowing through the darkness. By then, it seemed natural to let him roam the house during the day, and eventually the only time Bagheera ever spent in his pen was during training and when Finchie came home.

And once, when she’d had a small cut on her hand from a glass she’d broken, the bleeding not yet staunched by the bandage she’d applied, he’d sniffed at her wound under its layers of gauze and nuzzled her, agitated, and she had unwound the dressing and showed it to him, tiny bright buds of blood blossoming on her arm until Bagheera applied his wide, pink tongue to them and washed them away.

 

TWO months after Bagheera’s disappearance, Julia hears a scream. She’s in the kitchen, the TV blaring background noise at her, and when she hears it her heart lifts, even though Bagheera only makes that sound when he’s agitated. In fact, she has only ever heard him make it once before. Still, she drops the plate she is rinsing and dashes into the next room to see, almost expecting to find him waiting for her.

He’s not there, of course; just the television screen, flashing a photograph of a young man in a do-rag shaking hands with the Dalai Lama, and a woman’s voiceover says, “A young hero’s screams for help? Find out tonight at 11.”

Julia’s heart drops. She sits hard on the floor and listens as the woman on the news talks about the man, a reformed gang member, part of an organization that intervenes in gang-related violence on the street. He is credited with saving dozens, if not hundreds, of lives from gangs.

According to the newscaster, he’d been out walking near his old gang’s turf earlier that night, when he was attacked. He’d called 911 but never managed to say a word. “All the operator heard was this terrible—almost inhuman—scream,” the newscaster says. The scream plays again, and the certainty that it is Bagheera settles on Julia’s chest.

By the time the police arrived, the man was gone. There was no sign of him in the area, not a drop of blood or a single witness. Just his cell phone, the screen cracked, lying in the gutter where he’d dropped it just after making the call.

The people on the news think he was attacked by a member of his old gang, or a member of a rival gang against whom he had transgressed before his redemption. They don’t know what’s out there. Julia tries to tell herself that the Old Fourth Ward, where the attack took place, is out of Bagheera’s territory, too far from his home for him to hunt there. There’s too much traffic, too much light, not enough trees. But she knows that wild leopards’ territory can stretch as far as thirty-five miles, more if there are no rivals to compete with. It’s well inside the realm of possibility that Bagheera might expand his hunting ground to the Old Fourth, just a couple miles away from Finchie’s house.

Julia closes her eyes, rubs at her temples. If Bagheera is expanding his territory, then she can no longer track him. He’s moving further from home, from her. If he’s hunting people now, Julia has really lost control. If she’d ever had it to begin with.

Back at the scene, a reporter interviews a woman, prowler lights flashing purple around her. She is weeping, near hysteria: she heard the scream from her apartment, where she’d been in bed, trying to sleep. “It didn’t sound like no person screaming,” she says, her voice shaking. “That scream done sound like a animal. I ain’t never heard nothing like it.”

 

WHEN Finchie came home from the road, everything was different. As much as Julia worshipped Bagheera, Finchie feared and despised him. If Julia was the doting mother, Finchie was the ne’er-do-well father; if she was the starry-eyed mistress, Finchie was the jealous rival.

She would have liked to tell him that he never stood a chance, that he had been doomed from the moment he brought Bagheera home. He should have known better, after fifty-odd years of playing the field, than to expose his wife to a better man, even if that man was a leopard. He might have thought she belonged to him, but it had never been true.

In the beginning he’d tried to make light of it. She used to grab her pillow from the bed at night and take it down to Bagheera’s pen, and Finchie would call after her, “Be sure to use protection!”

He liked to check on them when they were training. “Make sure there’s no funny stuff going on,” he’d yuk, ambling downstairs to the basement. But it wasn’t really a joke.

He would open the gate at the bottom of the stairs, unannounced, and make his way toward her. Bagheera would freeze, eyes like flickering flames, tail switching like a rattler’s and the rest of his body hard and gleaming as obsidian. Finchie would look at Julia, but he’d be watching Bagheera out of the corner of his eye. He’d place a proprietary hand on the small of her back, or give her ass a slap, kiss her neck for spite, and she’d wave him away with a breathless laugh, flushed, nervous.

Julia liked to imagine that she and Bagheera were off in the Appalachians, alone but for each other, and the trees and the birds and the flowers, somewhere Finchie couldn’t get to them and they never had to worry about neighbors or police or training. Bagheera could hunt deer and boar and turkey and whatever else was up there, allowed for the first time in his life to indulge in his nature, and Julia would make trips into Helen for supplies. Just Julia and Bagheera, safe and sound and happy, in perpetuity. Bagheera was a different creature when they were alone. He was soft and cool and placid, his rumbling vocalizations like water bubbling over smooth river stones. He batted a red Pilates ball back and forth with her, like a kitten with a ball of yarn. He took steaks from her fingers, slow and tender, his teeth sinking into the bloody flesh like a spoon into thick cream, purring as he licked the juices from her fingers.

But when Finchie showed up, Bagheera was less predictable. He’d crouch at the back of his pen, ears flat against his massive skull, nostrils flaring at the Finchie’s odor. Julia told Finchie not to come to training but her request only seemed to exacerbate the problem.

It was no surprise that Bagheera didn’t like Finchie, given his style of intrusion into Bagheera’s territory. When Finchie showed up, it meant that Bagheera would be locked in his pen all day and night, alone most of the time, unable to go outside, sleeping alone in his “tree,” though Julia tried to get away when she could. In the pen, Finchie was loud, his gestures grand and sudden. He poked at Bagheera with the nightstick, waved the clicker in his face, and manhandled Julia. Finchie seemed to agitate Bagheera further every time he showed up. And when Finchie finally returned to the circus, it took days, weeks, longer every time, to bring Bagheera back to his usual temperament, to return him to his routine.

During the first couple years of his life, Bagheera showed remarkable restraint in his behavior toward Finchie, though Julia must have known deep down that if nothing changed, a showdown was inevitable. But when that showdown came, it happened so fast that afterward she could never quite work it out in her head, as though the memory was a road map, impossibly crumpled, forcing her to ask herself how did we get here?

 

THERE is a video on YouTube that she watches when she gets despondent. She’s watched it thousands of times, alone in her big, empty house with a bottle of wine. The video is of a lion called Christian, who was rescued as a cub by a pair of actors from Harrod’s department store and raised in the actors’ apartment. When he was several months old, they sent him to live in a wildlife preserve in Kenya. The video was shot when the actors returned a year later to check on his progress. In it, Christian stands staring at them for ages, his amber eyes round and unblinking, his mane now full and wild—the mane of a fully-grown adult. Then he starts running, straight toward the men, who are frozen in fear, asking themselves if the visit was a grave mistake, until he reaches them and stands on his hind legs, wraps them in his limbs, and nuzzles them, purring, the men’s knees buckling, almost, under his loving weight.

Julia sits at her desk wiping tears away every time the lion meets his former caretakers, dreaming of the day when Bagheera will once again sweep her into his arms and kiss her face, and all will be forgiven.

But Bagheera is not a lion. Lions are social creatures by nature. They develop deep, lifelong bonds. Their males are not hunters, but loafers, occasional protectors. And Bagheera has a history of violence against humans—at least one human, but it seems more and more like an ongoing history.

Now, since the second death, when Julia’s out walking, every rustle of leaves above her, every shadow in the corner of her eye, every brush of wind frightens her. Where she was once comforted by the possibility of his presence, now she feels vulnerable. She doesn’t know if the eyes she senses on her are really there or if they are just in her mind. She can’t help asking herself if Bagheera is not the animal she thought she knew. Still, she goes out every night, unable to stay away, even if it means an attack. The possibility of reunification is too attractive.

 

JULIA had known Finchie was coming by the way the hair along Bagheera’s spine prickled, the way he put his head down and arched his back. She knew this before she heard her husband’s inane whistling or saw him lurching down the basement steps.

She placed a hand between the leopard’s shoulder blades and murmured to him, turning just in time to see Finchie appear at the gate. He ambled up to the pen and Bagheera let out a livid snarl she’d never heard from him before. Startled, she looked at Bagheera, flicking his long tail, his eyes hot as molten lava bursting out of igneous stone, even as she heard Finchie turn the handle on the gate.

“Better not today, babe,” she said, trying to sound casual, the tiny hairs along the back of her neck rising to attention. The gate whined open. Julia took several steps toward the intruder, her hands out, but he charged ahead.

“What y’all up to in here?” he blustered, perturbed at the rebuff.

“Just working,” Julia answered, trying her best to shuttle him back through the door.

Maybe it was already too late. Or maybe there was something else she could’ve done. Maybe it was bound to happen from the beginning. It was impossible to know. Afterward, she was unable to get the sequence of events straight in her head, how one thing propelled forward to the next.

There was a struggle, a jostling of arms and hands and elbows and fur as Julia tried to figure out who was tangled up where, and somehow the two humans managed to pull themselves out of Bagheera’s pen. The gate clanged against its frame, bouncing a couple of times before resting, about six inches ajar. Bagheera seemed as shocked as everyone else at what he had done, pacing the back of his pen, exhaling intermittent bursts of hot air that made Finchie and Julia both jump.

At first Julia thought she was the one who’d been mauled, covered in blood across her chest and abdomen. But it quickly became apparent that Finchie was the injured one, thick beads of scarlet oozing through the white of his shredded shirt. Finchie, sprawled out on the stairs, saw the wounds and his face paled and he started screaming again, and when Julia tore his shirt open and saw the four long, deep lacerations Bagheera had inflicted, the world began sparking at the edges as she tried to remember to breathe.

Crouching over her injured husband, Julia realized that Bagheera had gone silent. She looked over her shoulder and saw that he had gone still, except for his tail, twitching like a fish in the mud, his eyes trained on the incapacitated Finchie.

“It’s not too bad,” she announced, trying to sound calm. “It just needs some stitches. I’ve got a needle and thread, and we’ve got that good bourbon in the wet bar.” Finchie didn’t seem to be listening, his eyes glazed over, his colorless face covered in a film of sweat, but she went on, trying to make her voice soothing. “We’ll get you drunk and stitched up in no time.”

Julia tried to pull Finchie to his feet, but he was so heavy, so groggy. Bagheera pressed his feet to the floor, crouching low, staring, unblinking, at Finchie.

“Get up,” she said, panic seeping into her voice now. “Get up.”

She slapped Finchie’s cheeks, gentle then harder, as the injured man began to return to himself. He helped her pull him to his feet and she led him, slowly so as not to startle Bagheera again, up the basement stairs. She tried to smile and said, to lighten the mood, “You’re gonna have a great story out of this.”

But Finchie pulled her to a stop, his face as white as his suit. “You listen to me girl: that animal is gone. You hear? Gone.”

They both saw him at the same time, springing up the stairs, soaring through the air toward his rival, paws before him so that he resembled, in an odd way, Superman in flight. Finchie reached for Julia, but she freed herself, scurrying up the stairs as Bagheera took the old man down. All of this took a second, maybe less. Julia stared, mesmerized, for a second before snapping to attention and grabbing the fire extinguisher that hung in the stairwell. When she got the thing working, the pressure knocked her off her feet and sent the icy mist everywhere, so that Bagheera’s dark form was hidden behind a cloud of white.

When it settled, he was in his pen, stretched out in his hammock. Finchie was mauled unrecognizable. Julia exhaled, feeling woozy, as Bagheera ran his rough, red tongue along his claws, like a man shining up his rifle.

 

IT’S a house not far from Finchie’s, a house she’s walked past a hundred times.

She drives past on the way home from work. She’s forced to stop in front because the road is closed to one lane, a police officer letting people go through the other way at a snail’s pace. In front of the house, cops are shuffling reporters out of the way, police photographers snapping pictures, flashes popping all over the front yard like an electrical storm. She watches a distraught homeowner on the sidewalk, his hands over his face, his shoulders trembling as an officer questions him. Squinting into the back yard, Julia catches sight, with a sickening stab of recognition, of a hand—unimaginably small—dangling from one of the branches.

The car behind her lays on its horn, and Julia startles back to life, where the cop directing traffic approaches her, swinging his arms down the road. She steps on the gas.

She manages to find coverage on the radio of a press conference given later that day. She listens at her kitchen table, picturing that tiny hand hanging from the branches. She tries to measure her breathing.

Then she hears the words she’s been dreading: “We cannot rule out, at his time, the possibility that this child was attacked by an animal. Obviously, that possibility raises all kinds of questions, which we can’t answer at this time.”

The statement does, indeed, raise all kinds of questions, and the reporters ask them. “Where did this animal come from?” “Any theories as to what kind of animal this is?” “Has it killed any other people that you know of?”

Julia cannot deny that Bagheera has done this killing, cannot rationalize what he’s done. And yet, she also cannot shake the image of him nuzzling her hip and purring, coat brilliant and slick, eyes bright as lamps. She cannot loathe him as she knows she should.

She looks out the window. The leaves, brilliant oranges and reds, are beginning to drop. The smell of fall is everywhere now, and she knows that the little cover Bagheera has will soon be gone. Perhaps that’s how this last body was found, the bright canopy drawing the eye to the treetops, the thinness of the leaves revealing something lodged in the crook of the branches.

Where will he sleep when the leaves are gone? How will he stay warm? How will he hunt?

She’s read stories about leopards: frail, starving man-eaters who clawed through the walls of mud huts to get at the quaking human meals inside. They’d claw right through, those massive paws like shovels digging through clay and straw, egged on by the sounds of screams inside, sniffing at the holes they’d made, nostrils expanding to inhale the scent of the people within. Then, a golden eye, watery blue around the edges, pupil dilated, would peek in as though to confirm that dinner was huddled at the back of the hut, warm and trembling and delicious.

 

THERE’S a possum on her doorstep, its neck broken, mouth wide open, pointy teeth on display. A single drop of blood, like spilt wine, on its gray-white fur. Julia wraps her arms around herself and peers into the darkness. She sees nothing, but that does not pacify her.

She steps over the carcass, and out into the night.

The sky is bruised purple. Each step forward is tentative, no step easier than the one before it. Step, deep breath, step. Her eyes struggle to make sense of the shadows shifting around her, the thousand shades of darkness. Downhill in the distance, the flashing blue lights of the remaining police cars bounce off the roofs of houses. It’s hard not to gravitate toward the safety of that commotion, the swarming police and the bright lights, knowing that Bagheera will not return there. It would be so easy to walk down that hill, to touch one of the cops on the shoulder, murmur a few words about what has happened. She could do it with so little effort.

But then, who would believe a story like that? Who could accept that this distraught woman approaching police with some crazy story about her lost leopard is telling the truth? And even if they did believe her, what would happen to Bagheera when they found him? They don’t let animals who attack humans, especially human children, live. And then what would happen to her? When they realized that she knew and didn’t let on, that Bagheera was with her illegally in the first place? What would happen when they found out about Finchie?

The wind blows a rush of dry leaves across the street in front of her, scattering like fleeing rats. She shivers, brings her shoulders up to her ears. The wind stops, but the rustling of leaves goes on around her, and she finds herself checking over her shoulder.

She fingers the leash in her hand, listening to the clinking of the fastener on the harness, feeling foolish. How can she possibly believe that if she saw him now he would come to her, allow her to fasten him up and lead him away, the way he had before his freedom?

She knows Bagheera now, where she refused to know him before. He is a wild animal, always was. And though this acknowledgment feels like a loss—one that she may never overcome—it also feels correct. It is his right, his very nature as a leopard, to strike fear into all he encounters, even those who love him.

He is no longer her Bagheera. Maybe he never was. He belongs to no one. He has no name. He is just a leopard, in a world not his own, trying to survive.

 

JULIA knew, standing over Finchie’s body, that it would be some time before he was missed; he was prone to disappearing and reappearing without warning, sometimes for months at a time. And with the circus about to wrap up its tour until mid-summer, Julia figured she had two months to figure out what she would tell people when they started to call the house looking for him.

Still, she told herself, mopping up the blood on the stairs, Bagheera locked safely behind the gate, they would eventually start asking, and Julia wasn’t sure how many people knew about Finchie’s newest project—or who they were.

What if they did get suspicious? What if Finchie had some sort of contingency plan for just such a scenario? She couldn’t put it past him, paranoid as he sometimes was. What if someone showed up tomorrow, or next week, looking for him? What if that person called the police when he wasn’t there? What would they do to Bagheera?

Sensing her concern, Bagheera jumped down from his hammock and made his way to the gate. She met him there, passing her hand through the bars for him to smell. He licked her palm and nuzzled the bars, purring.

To hell with cleaning, she thought. To hell with Finchie, and his body. She was going to get Bagheera out tonight. She would take him away, up to that cabin in the mountains, just like she’d dreamed she would. Without Finchie there to chase them, they could really escape.

She brought the bags out to the car first, piled them into the trunk. Then she returned for Bagheera. She’d fastened the leash hastily around his neck, too excited to bother with his harness, which she’d looped over her shoulder. She hadn’t considered that he might try to get out of it. He never had before. But the second she opened the car door, pointing the clicker at the back seat for him to get in, he pulled away from her, hard, almost knocking her over, slipping out of the makeshift collar as easily as if he did it every day. He loped a few yards away and stopped, turning back to look at her.

Julia stopped breathing, sweat dotting her forehead. Her arms stretched out in front of her, palms up, pleading, her eyes locked on his.

One paw, indecisive, dangled in the air, as if it was this paw that held him back from fleeing.

Bagheera watched her for a moment. His eyes met hers, two slender gold rings gleaming in the dark, and a chill shivered through her.

“Come back,” she whispered to him.

He set that velvety black paw gingerly on the ground. He set his paw down, and he vanished.

 

NOW, barely a block from where he escaped, Julia stands on a hill and watches those blue police lights flashing. She knows she can’t go to them, and she knows she can’t wait for Bagheera any longer. Now that he’s been on his own, now that he’s hunted and eaten what he wanted, now that he’s slept in the trees and grown into himself, what reason does he have to return to the house where he was kept prisoner? Why would he ever come to her now, with her harness and her clicker and her sardines? Why would he let her lead him on a leash and drive him out of his territory, even if he does remember her? There’s an ache in her throat as she turns to go home, understanding that she will have to leave for the cabin without him, understanding that, one way or another, she will never see Bagheera again, understanding that this is the way it ought to be.

She turns, and there he is, crouched in the shadows on the sidewalk a dozen yards away, watching her. How long has he been following her? And why? Her breath catches in her throat and she blinks away the tears welling in the corners of her eyes. She does not know whether to be afraid of him or grateful for his return. It doesn’t really matter.

He stands there for the longest time, a living, breathing shadow, watching her, his honeyed eyes unblinking. She spreads her arms wide, her heart filled with exquisite terror.

 

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