The four of them walked towards Regents Park: Miss Samson the governess, a little girl Amelia, her brother Samuel and his best friend Chester, at a brisk pace, since the days were getting shorter and the air was too chilled to stop long. On the sidewalks, across the boulevards, past the marketplace and Church street, the boys were fighting. Chester would sometimes ignore Samuel enough to take Amelia's bonnet and run ahead with it. Even though it mussed Ameliaís locks, he never got the reaction he wanted-Amelia never chased him, never wrinkled her doll-like face to cry or scream. She was too well-versed in good manners. So instead Chester and Samuel chased each other with bows and arrows, wrenching free from the chain of hands. Miss Samson would call after them, careful not to shriek like someone from the lower classes, although her cockney dialect marked her. Each boy dared the other to progressively crazier feats of bravery, although the repeated nightmarish fairy tales their elders wove for them as they would nod off to sleep each night acted as a barricade for their adventures. They would glimpse and turn away from seeing too much of the market, the shadowed door jambs, the cobbled alleyways.
As they walked towards the London Zoo, which had a black panther as a featured display, fire jumped between Chester and Samuel; when one smoldered, the other added a flame. Only the little girl kept quiet, occasionally slowing the governess' gait to pick a clover, or to touch a railing or a stone.
When they got to the zoo, the boys became animals, mimicking the pigeons and geese and parrots' squawks inside the aviary. They rushed through the aquarium, pursing and kissing their lips against the glass, fogging the colorful streaks of rockfish, goatfish and seahorses that swam closer, eager for another meal. The glass of the display would clear before the fish turned away in confusion and disappointment.
Chester and Samuel continued their play within a certain circumference of the two females, as if they were actors in a mobile theater, and Miss Samson and Amelia were simultaneously the observers and the observed.
"I bet you couldn't," Samuel yelled back, almost tipping into the vat of water. "You'd get squashed."
"I could dive and swim to that ladder in time," he pointed.
"Go on," said Samuel, smiling.
Chester threw his blazer and hat to the cobbled ground. He assumed a diving position.
"What in Heaven's name are you two doing?", screeched the governess. "Get back here!"
The boys giggled and resumed the group's traipse across the zoo.
They came to the panther. The cage bars were rusting, and inside the panther splayed out on the one thick piece of wood that was gnarled and knotted like the branch off an ancient elm, that covered all the space within. Beneath the branch lay a large bowl of water, with a brown ring lining the inside, and a few crumpled oak leaves in suspension on its surface. Next to that, a couple of large bones, the marrow chewed down, and hundreds of tinier bones and blood stains scattered upon the cement floor in a collage. The children were silenced by the sight at first, but Miss Samson glanced over it quickly, not wanting to remember it later, in her mind's eye, or worse, in her dreams. So she strolled over to the sign outside its cage.
"Listen, everyone!," she read, "It says on this plaque that this is a Black Panther, a Panthera onca, subgenus Panthera and that he hails from the jungles of South America, and doesn't eat vegetable matter but animals only. `The panther has rarely been seen and Henry is one of four captured from the wild. Two panthers, a male and a female, are in Paris, and all attempts at'", she blushed but continued,"`-mating them have been unsuccessful. The fourth is in the Brooklyn Zoo in the United States and is the newest addition to-'--Samuel, stop hitting the cage; what an awful noise you make!"
"`Henry is on loan from the Antwerp Zoo and has been there for 15 years, and by the zooís best estimates is almost 18, which makes him the oldest living panther in captivity. Although panthers are regarded as violent in their native habitat, Henry has always been content and peaceful. This does not excuse any of our visitors from straying beyond the ropes that surround the panther's cage. FEEDING ANIMALS IS PROHIBITED. DANGER! KEEP BEHIND THE ROPES AND AWAY FROM THE CAGE.'"
When the governess finished reading the sign, she turned her back to the cage. She leaned over the railing on the other side of the street, and watched the horizon over the simulated savanna where the ibex were supposed to be, although they were most likely taking shelter from the grey sky in the little cottage nearby. "I should probably tell him something soon," she thought, about Mr. Haynes' proposal. "It isn't proper to keep him waiting." She wanted to keep waiting for David to return, though he hadn't in years, and hadn't written in months. "But I can't take care of someone else's children forever! He's crazy to expect that of me!", she thought. "Mr. Haynes is a good man," she told herself.
While the governess turned her back, the boys collected an armory of sticks and pebbles and acorns. They pelted the panther, testing who had superior aim.
One of them knocked the cat on the back of the head, but the panther never turned around, never growled at them. "Maybe he's dead," said Samuel.
"Couldn't be," said Chester. "Let's try something else."
Amelia, meanwhile, sitting on the metal bench in front of the cage, stared at the monstrous cat. The animal was black and shiny and almost as big as her Papa. He was sleeping, his eyes slits, his face and color much like her Midnight, whom she wasn't allowed to bring to the zoo. His cage wasn't very big; it reminded her of Midnight's wooden box with a pillow and blanket inside, a nice comfortable bed, but Midnight didn't like to be there all the time. She wondered when the big cats' friend would appear and take him out to play. Besides, he couldn't be too comfortable lying on a branch. He needed a box with pillows and blankets.
As Amelia stared, the panther watched her through the slits of his green eyes. He never moved, except for the rise and fall of his ribcage, and he uttered no sound. It was Girl-child he spoke to-only she knew how to listen. He wanted to ravish her. He never thought of the older woman-she was dead: no fire, no light. The girl-she was all-seeing-the sky's million eyes at night. She knew the way a river knows, quiet, unassuming, present. He looked into her eyes and there he felt a great sadness, sad because he saw something in her eyes, something he could not touch. He dreamt of fondling her, ripping her apart, saving her, saving her all for himself, devouring her and guarding her jealously from the ravens, the vultures, the rodents. They would never have her bones; she would be his. Then he refocused and the bars of the cage reminded him that she was apart-she was as far away as the stars or the sky. So he whispered, "Little girl, come here, I won't bite."
Again: "Little girl, come here. I won't bite."
And again, in a rhythm soft and subtle, like a purr.
Amelia walked underneath the rope. She grabbed a handful of candied nuts from her little sack and held her open palm out, through the bars of the cage. Slowly he bent his head closer, hardly opening his eyes. The panther licked her palm lightly, the tongue coarse and sticky, knocking some of the nuts off, so they scattered like pebbles onto the stone floor. Eventually his tongue returned to his mouth, and by then, few nuts adhered to it, and he kept those waiting in his jowls. He licked and nuzzled her hand. She did not wipe it; she liked the warm wetness. She kept reaching into her bag and filling her tiny palm with tidbits. The miniature hand, the gentleness, aroused him and calmed him until he fell sleepily into another world, the world of his dreams.
Meanwhile, Chester and Samuel poked the panther with sticks. "See if he won't scream now," yelled Chester, more to Amelia than Samuel.
The panther kept nuzzling and purring in the girl's tiny hand until a growl arose in him. A growl that his innards made when he hungered, a growl that arises in the ocean when the tides turn from low to high. A growl that tore him away from his dreams of the girl and the dark canopies he came from, so that he snapped at the stick and took Chester's hand inside of him.
The boy pulled away, that was his first mistake, as the panther's jaws engulfed his hand, engulfed his prize. The panther no longer focused on the girl as she stood there, screaming, her trembling hand still inside the cage. The governess screamed. A chaos of voices started to get closer and the panther closed his eyes....
The boy was numb. His eyes and mouth froze open as he yanked his arm, but each time he did, the panther gripped harder, until the boy went limp. The panther felt a tickling at his paw. Flies, thought the panther, those annoying flies. It was a soft touch, a coercing touch. It was the girl, trembling, her hand gently running up and down his leg. The panther started purring to that. He went deaf to the barrage of voices, the screaming crowd coming closer and pulling away, the crowd a sea, its tides coming in, its tides not at home. He forgot the boy and the stone thing in his mouth, the way he was sucking on it. She was rubbing and singing a melodic tune. She was singing to him, the kind of nocturnal singing when everything has gone underground, when everything murmured and wept like a stream. She was singing like this, so he forgot his grip, it loosened, and the boy fell backwards into the governessí arms. The panther stood there unmoved, his eyes closed, letting her rub all of him, as much as she could reach with her short arms and the barricade, and he pressed against the bars so that she could rub him some more. But a man pulled her away, and she did not fight him, pulled her away while the panther was already in a deep sleep, in his dream world of dark canopies, a monkey's yowl, birds' echoing screeches and the hot breath rising from the stream rushing below, quietly reminding him of himself.
abridged version published by Storyhouse