Ecotones, Cold Mountain Review, Special Issue on Extinction, Fall 2017
“The Florida panther folded into the jungle. She planted her bullfrog-sized back paws into the spaces her front feet had marked. Lately, there’d been biologists, sometimes riding their mechanical beasts, sometimes afoot, tracking with guns, chasing her even when she lunged tree-to-tree. Her paws became like leaves overlapping on the forest floor.
Sometimes after they’d left, she’d sniff deer carcasses, tempting but reeking in an alarming way. She managed to take one doe and drag it through nightfall to her den and let her four cubs feed. All but one awoke from their groggy, near-lethal sleep the next morning.
The panther’s three younglings, one male, two female, were beginning to taste the burnt sweetness of adulthood. Their wrestling had taken on violence, usually sheathed claws drawn. Blood rain-dropping on skin. One more would die before adulthood, and if it wasn’t the male, he would need to travel out of state to find his own turf.
The children’s father was only six years old himself, in competitive prime, the killer of another panther who wandered up from the Everglades, young, lusting, unknowing. The mother had found the intruder male’s body, yellow eyes gazing at the dampness of the world, neck tendons exposed, haloed by flies.
The female panther was ravenous, but when wasn’t this true? Even engorged on adult boar, she still felt the pangs in her loins that whispered to her she’d need to be on the hunt tomorrow, for four times the feed that she needed herself, meat to supply her insatiable kin.
She angled in from the forest towards the well-used game trail. The cracks in the fallen bark, as well as the shape of the matted floor tunneling in the reeds, revealed it had recently been crossed. A signal crossed her brain like a bright light that animates a room.
There were strings, like charcoal pearls, of fresh scat leading to a water confluence. She leapt from the ground and hooked around a cedar trunk, squirreling her way up to a branch, aloft but to the side of the tracks. She’d hunted this trail unnumbered times, rotating between the fauna highway and a fresh, cool spring that broke through the Earth’s skin, where fawns drank.
She sniffed the air over the amphibious trail. Over a few hundred yards, a river otter urinated, and a python devoured alligator eggs. Only occasionally did she find anything besides deer and boar to eat. But the life waited there, and her nostrils printed the bulletin in her mind. There were new feces, up trail. Perhaps two hours old. Time as sparks attached to the calls of her stomach, the radar of her nostrils, the penetrating urge to drag kills for several hours over the wooded swamps to her home and dine after her children.
A smell penetrated the air: the alluring and milky scent of ripped deer buttocks. Another animal’s kill. There was a weaker female in an adjacent territory. The panther leapt off her perch and chased the odor…”