None of the magics that traversed my childhood can compare to his apparition. Nothing I’ve conceived so far has succeeded in blending refinement with ferocity so superbly. During the ensuing nights, I implored his presence, amused at first, but ultimately impatient and on the verge of tears. My mother used to say that one day I’d end up dreaming about bandits from having played at them so often. And, indeed, by the vacation’s end, persecution and infamy, rage and blood haunted my nights. During that time, going to the movies meant enjoying a single feature with slight variations from one showing to the next: the unchanging subject was provided courtesy of the Allied offensive against the Axis armies. A single afternoon with a triple feature (during which we watched with unspeakable delight mortars rain down on a phantasmagoric Berlin where buildings, vehicles, temples, faces, and palaces dissolved into a single immense lake of fire; epic pledges of love, a penumbra of air raid shelters in a London of broken obelisks and large buildings without facades, and Veronica Lake’s tresses impassively resisting Japanese shrapnel while a group of wounded soldiers was being evacuated from a rocky islet in the Pacific) was enough to cause the roar of bullets to pierce my room that night while a multitude of mangled bodies and the skulls of nurses propelled my startled self to seek refuge in the room of my older brothers.
Fully aware of the risks, I invented contrived games that no one found amusing. I replaced the customary antagonism between cops and robbers, consecrated by custom and fashion, or the new one, between the Allies and the Germans, with other savage and extravagant protagonists. Games in which panthers launched a surprise attack against a village, frantic hunts in which panthers howled in pain and fury after being snared by ruthless hunters, bloody fights between panthers and cannibals. But neither they nor the frequency with which I read adventure books set in the jungle made the repetition of the vision possible.
His image persisted for what seemed like a long period of time. I carelessly set out to prove that the figure was becoming increasingly weak, his features gently blurred. The trampled flow of forgetfulness and recollections that is time destroys the will to secure a feeling forever in our memory. At times, I felt an urgent need to hear the message that my half-wittedness had prevented him from delivering the night of his apparition. This enormous and beautiful animal whose shiny blackness rivalled the night traced an elegant course around the room; he walked toward me, opened his jaws and, seeing the terror that gripped me, closed them, offended. He left in the same nebulous way in which he had appeared. For days I blamed myself for my lack of courage. I cursed myself for daring to imagine that this gorgeous beast wanted to devour me. His expression was friendly, supplicant; his snout seemed more eager for play and petting than for the aftertaste of blood.
New hours quickly took the place of old ones. New dreams eliminated the one that for so long had been my constant passion. The panther games not only came to seem foolish, but also incomprehensible, as I could no longer remember with precision how they began. I was able to return to my lessons, to buckle down and practice my handwriting and the passionate handling of colors and lines.
Twenty trivial, happy, profane, intense, hazy, awkwardly hopeful, broken, deceptive and dark years had to pass in order for last night to arrive, when, to my surprise, as if in the middle of that barbarous childhood dream, I heard once again an animal pant as it penetrated the adjoining room. The irrational that courses through our being at times adopts a gallop so frenzied that we cravenly seek refuge in that stale set of rules with which we aim to regulate existence, those vacuous canons with which we attempt to halt the flight of our deepest instincts. So, even in sleep, I tried to appeal to rational explanations: I argued that the noise was caused by a cat going into the kitchen to polish off the table scraps. Comforted by this explanation, I dreamt that I fell back asleep only to reawaken soon after, sensing, with absolute clarity, his presence next to me. There he was, opposite the bed, contemplating me with an expression of delight. In my dream, I was able to recall the previous vision. The intervening years had only succeeded in modifying the setting. The heavy dark wood furniture was gone, as was the oil lamp that hung over my bed; the walls were different, only my expectations and the panther remained the same: as if only a few brief seconds had passed between the two nights. Joy, mixed with a hint of fear, coursed through me. I recalled in minute detail the first visit; attentive and astonished, I awaited his message.
Haste did not grip the animal. He paced before me languidly, tracing small circles; then, in a single pounce he reached the fireplace, stirred the ashes with his forepaws, and returned to the center of the room; he stared at me, opened his jaws, and finally decided to speak.
Anything I might say about the happiness I felt at the time would only impoverish it. My destiny revealed itself in the clearest possible way in the words of that ebony divinity. My feeling of elation reached an unbearable degree of perfection. It was beyond comparison. Nothing – not even one of those few ephemeral moments in which we glimpse eternity upon discovering true happiness – has ever produced in me the effect achieved by his message.
The excitement awakened me, but the vision disappeared; nonetheless, those prophetic words, which I scribbled down immediately on a piece of paper that I found on the desk, remained alive, as if etched in iron. As I returned to bed, half-asleep, I couldn’t help but know that an enigma had been solved, the true enigma, and that the obstacles that had reduced my days to a single horizonless time fell vanquished.
The alarm clock rang. I looked with delight at the page on which those twelve enlightening words were inscribed. Leaping to read them would have been the easiest course of action, but such immediacy would not have been in keeping with the solemnity of the occasion. Rather than yielding to that desire, I headed to the bathroom; I dressed myself slowly, carefully, with a forced parsimony; I drank a cup of coffee, after which, trembling and slightly shaken, I rushed to read the message.
Twenty years passed before the panther returned. The amazement he engendered in me on both occasions cannot have been gratuitous. The paraphernalia with which the dream was marked cannot be attributed to mere coincidence. No; something in his eyes, above all in his voice, seemed to suggest that he was not the mere image of an animal, but rather the possibility of communing with a force and an intelligence that were beyond the mere human. And, yet, I must confess that the words I had scribbled down were nothing more than an enumeration of trivial and anodyne nouns that made no sense. For a moment I doubted my sanity. I reread them carefully, rearranged them as if I were trying to piece together a puzzle. I combined all the words into a single, long word; I studied each syllable. I spent days and nights in minute and sterile philological combinations. I succeeded in clarifying nothing – scarcely the knowledge that the hidden signs have been consumed by the same foolishness, the same chaos, the same inconsistency from which quotidian events suffer.
I trust, however, that, someday, the panther will return.
Image © Michael W. May