Panther in the Woods

By Karen Bjorneby

Listen to Karen read this story at the Big Ugly Review #7 release party:

Annie June lives a half mile down the gravel road from me, in a house surrounded by chain-link fence, motion detectors mounted at every corner. I'd been staying with her eight nights, since the night I was knifed, and then on the ninth morning I woke to blistering heat, to a rising sun smeared yellow and spotted with red like a cracked and bloodied egg, and I knew it was time to go home.

"But what are you going to do to feel secure?" Annie June asked. She is a thin-shanked woman with tight gray curls on her head, and she sat at her blue Formica kitchen table, seashells strewn in front of her. She combs the beaches for these shells and then decorates them with false gems, sells them to tourists who never stop to think that seashells are free to anyone and need no jewelry. She will sell anything she can. I believed by her question she was angling to sell me motion detectors.

But I knew exactly what I was going to do. I was born in 1938 and named for Eleanor Roosevelt, who my mother thought the finest lady ever lived. And now I'm fat and old. My knees swell and my breath rattles and on hot days – and down here they're all hot – I sweat like a hog. I drive a big blue Plymouth Duster and I'm slow hauling myself out of it. But long ago, I used to hunt with my granddad, in the days we had to kill our own meat. The day my granddad first handed me a shotgun he said: a body is either hunter or prey. He said: decide.

So I told Annie June, "I plan to go right back to that Seven-Eleven, find the son of a bitch who knifed me, and then I'm going to lame him. I'm going to shoot him in the foot."

I expected mealy-mouthed protest from her. We were not friends, Annie June and I. For ten years her two silly poodles with their pink and purple painted toenails had yapped at everything moving past her place, and for ten years I had threatened to throw rat poison over her fence. But the doctor who'd stitched me up gave me drugs, which forced me to call Annie June for a ride home. By the time she'd turned off the highway onto the gravel road, those drugs had worn off and pain clanged deep in my belly, so when she offered her spare room and breakfast in bed, I said yes. One of her dogs, the one with purple toenails, jumped up onto the bed and slept every night beside me, its soft furred warmth nestled up under my arm, and the feel of its tiny heart beating with mine was both welcome and a grief – I remembered my own baby girl, grown now, nestling beside me in pink fuzzy pajamas. I have gotten so old so fast.

Anne June didn't even blink at my plan. "Well, in that case," she said. She rummaged in her kitchen drawer, pulled out two handguns, thunked them down on the table amongst glittered seashells. "This here's a nine, this other's a .357, take your pick."

Which made me think, then, that Annie June was not such a foolish woman after all.

I'm at the very end of the gravel road, in a clapboard house up on cinderblocks, backed up against scrub pine and mangrove. Out beyond the mangroves, sandy flats open up into still water. There's an avocado orchard across the road from my house. It's been bought up by real estate developers who will one day plow under all the trees. Until they do, I help myself to the fruit.

By the time I walked the half-mile from Annie June's, my breath wheezed and tiny teeth chewed at my stitches. It was my fat that saved me, the doctor said. The knife hadn't got through to any vital organs. Which didn't mean those cuts hadn't cut deep. I took a moment to rest on the porch, beneath my petunia baskets. The purple petals drooped limp and heat-exhausted. Insects hummed like tight electric wires, I slapped a mosquito off my neck, and then I heard, from back in the woods, a deep-throated yowl. A triumphant cat cry.

A panther lives back in there. A Florida gray – one of the last in the world. I taught seventh grade English for thirty years, and I've seen so many things disappear from here. Heron, osprey, flamingo. At sunset when the crowns of the pine trees are backlit by yellow and orange flame and the breeze smells of salt and fish, I imagine what it must have been like when flights of birds rose to fill the sky. My husband died eight years ago and I miss him every single day.

Inside, my house was as I'd left it, that night I drove to the Seven-Eleven for strawberry ice cream. There'd been a police story on TV I wanted to watch with that ice cream. Granddad's glass-fronted gun cabinet sat in the front room, where it had always been, angled in a corner behind the slip-covered sofa. I hadn't opened that cabinet in years, and I had to think where I stowed the key, and then I remembered I'd put it on top of the thing, and then I had to fetch the stepladder. I balanced my girth, my wounds, my sweaty hands, and I found the key, and then I climbed back down, slowly, slowly, to solid earth.

It had probably been thirty-five years since I'd broken down a shotgun, cleaned it, oiled it. But hands remember what minds forget. That gun was a beautiful thing, if you'd a mind to find beauty in a weapon – walnut with silver inlay. In my life, I'd shot and eaten squirrel, rabbit, wild turkey, deer.

He'd smelled. That's what I told the police. He'd smelled rank and musky. The two cops wore holstered guns. They leaned against the hospital wall and jotted notes. I had pulled into the parking lot of the Seven-Eleven. Mine was the only car. I had hauled myself up out of the Duster, turned to lock it, and then he was on me, on my back, flying at me, yanking my hair, slicing me like a wild thing, screeching, while I yelled, scratched, kicked, bit. I'd have given over my purse. But he wanted me. I remembered flickers of knife blade, scraps of yellow t-shirt, blood-rimmed white eyes, jagged teeth, dirty bony fingers. I remembered grunts and hisses and curses. I remembered stink and fear and piss and sweat. Most of all I remembered that knife. I was doing well, I told those cops, to say for certain my attacker had been human and not creature.

Steam rose up from the avocado orchard. Ghostly wisps of cloud streaked the sky. Two buzzards reeled overhead, into the baleful eye of the sun. I drove past Annie June's place with the shotgun lying across the back seat of the Duster, and her two poodles ran up to the fence and yapped at me.

I headed north on Old Colusa, passing the lumber shop, the donut shop, a rusted out gas station, to the junction with Quail Roost Drive. And then I sat under the blinking yellow caution light, looking at that Seven-Eleven. Heat hung in a sick shiver over the concrete lot. Light glared off the white walls and shimmied in the tinted plate glass windows. There weren't any other cars. Everyone with any sense was indoors, in dim air-conditioned rooms. I didn't have to do this, I told myself. I could go into that store, buy the ice cream I'd never gotten, go home, watch the police outsmart criminals on TV. I knew that if I locked my gun back into the cabinet, no hand would touch it again until I was dead and my daughter cleared out my things.

Behind the Seven-Eleven, green jungle plants massed and tangled. That land had once been planted for nursery acreage, but the owners had given up or died or just didn't give a damn anymore. Now their carefully tended flowering shrubs and vines and palms and elephant ear grew wild, wrestled with saw palmetto and strangler fig and scrub pine. People camped back there, I knew. It was exactly the kind of place my attacker would go to ground.

I heard my granddad's raspy breath: decide. I heard that cat-cry of the panther in the woods. That baleful sun beating down on the hood of the car. Beating into the blood beating in my temples. I drove through the intersection, into the parking lot, into the exact space I'd parked that night.

It was so damn hot. I locked my purse in the car and licked my lips. Through the tinted windows, I could barely make out the shadow of the clerk inside, reading a magazine. I hefted the shotgun and then stood a moment, dazed by the heat, struggling to breathe. The sun was burning up all the oxygen. My lungs couldn't quite fill up, and my knees wobbled. My bloodstains still spattered that concrete, and already they looked old and rusted, like ancient history.

That smear of green jungle – it looked so cool and inviting, like a fresh green spring. I imagined moisture beading up on the waxy leaves of the growing things, I imagined sweet damp earth. A scar of shell and limestone gouged through the green, and the instant I stepped onto that trail, I knew that everything I'd imagined was a lie. Beneath those wild orchids and those giant elephant ear the air was fetid and putrid, gasping and panting like the inside of a hound's mouth. Noise hummed all around me. Yellow jackets and mosquitoes and fire ants boiled up out of the earth and swarmed the corpse of a black beetle in the middle of the trail. A crow cawed.

I'd gone deep into the woods behind my house before. I'd found an old Indian midden back there. I'd seen shadow paler than shadow, a ghost shadow, slink between the trees, and I'd wondered if that panther grieved to be one of the last.

Swamped by green, I stopped, listened, sniffed. Rot and dirt and standing water. Gardenia. And wood smoke. Yes, I thought. Yes. I would creep down this trail to the encampment. I would surprise him. I would force his back up against a tree and then I'd make him look into the barrel of my gun. I'd make him know he was going to die. And then I'd take careful aim at his ankle.

I crept through that jungle and then, in one quick intake of breath, noise stopped. No crows, no mosquitoes. Then I heard human voices, murmuring. The chink-chink of metal on metal.

I edged past saw palmetto, a holly berry branch lashed my arm, I scraped past hibiscus, crept through green, until, all at once, the jungle opened up into a stand of pine trees, a matted shaded clearing. Smoke billowed out from a campfire. A man sat on a log in front of the fire, his back to me. He wore a yellow t-shirt. Beyond him a green canvas tent sagged and a rusty blue trailer listed behind a battered VW van. I shouldered my gun and drew slowly near.

When I'd closed to about fifteen feet, he stood. I tensed like a blade, I pumped the shotgun, and the double click was unmistakable. He whirled, his face wild with fright. "Good God, don't shoot us." He held a baby in his arms.

Soon as I spied that baby I pointed the gun at the ground. But I didn't relax. My jaw was tight as a hammer and my stomach muscles, beneath my girth and stitches, fisted into big hard knots. "You knifed me."

"No, ma'am." He shook his head in protest. "I'd never do such a thing."

Stiff black hair covered his arms. His face was thin and shadowed blue. He looked like my attacker, I thought. Like the slivers of him I remembered. He was wiry. "You have on a yellow t-shirt. So did he."

He juggled the baby in his arms. "This shirt? But lady, there's lots of yellow t-shirts."

Even at a distance, ripe unwashed smell rippled off him in waves. "He stunk. Like you do."

"Well, I'm sorry about that." The twang in his voice was as tightly strung as the rest of him. "We haven't put in plumbing yet."

A red-haired woman in a faded denim jumper crawled out of the tent, followed by a little girl. The woman saw me and quickly came to take the baby from the man. She didn't say a word; she didn't ask one question. The little girl was about six years old. She clutched the hem of the woman's dress and nibbled at a Hershey bar and looked at me with big blank eyes.

The man ran his fingers through his hair. He didn't take his eyes off my gun. He spoke over his shoulder to the woman. "Honey, tell this woman I didn't knife her."

Did he?

The red-haired woman slid her eyes to the man, and then she took a half-step toward me. "Do you know anything about baby rashes?" She pressed her cheek to the baby's head.

I did not. My daughter had had the usual – chicken pox and prickly heat and hives. I'd swabbed plenty of Calamine, but that couldn't be called knowledge. "No."

"Look, we're just folks having breakfast," the man said. "Honey, tell her."

She took another step toward me. The baby began to fuss in her arms. His face was red and wretched. He looked boiled.

Behind her the man said, "I'm just making coffee here." He gestured to a tin pot on the fire. Not taking his eyes from me, he bent sideways to the fire, lifted the pot off the flame.

The woman edged closer to me. Heat steamed off that baby. Heat and smell. Sweat and snot and fever. It was maybe eight months old. She lifted the baby's gray t-shirt and pointed out a sprinkling of red spots across its belly. "I been wetting him down," she said, "then this here rash sprung up."

A mosquito lit on the baby's forehead; she flicked it off and it left a tiny blood smear. The little girl still clutched her mother's dress while she ate that melting chocolate bar. Mosquito bites welted her arm.

"You're welcome to set a while and have coffee here," the man said to me.

"No thank you. I don't sit with criminals."

He shrugged. "Suit yourself."

It was so hot. My belly burned. It was hard to breathe through the smoke, the heat, the stench. I wanted to shoot this man and have done with it. I wanted to go home to a cool cloth draped across my forehead and a big tall glass of sweet iced tea. But that baby distracted me, kicking, fussing, arching.

"You giving it baby Tylenol?" I asked.

The woman bit her lip. "Wet cloths is good enough." Her voice twanged just like the man's. It wasn't a twang from around here.

The man poured himself a cup of coffee and stirred it with a spoon. He stayed over by the fire, a good fifteen feet away, sipping his coffee. "Did he hurt you bad, the guy who knifed you?"

"I'm all right," I said.

He smiled and his teeth were small and even and white. "Were you scared?"

I licked my lips, tasted salt. I felt a headache starting, like white light drumming on metal. "Yes."

The baby began to cry, its boiled red face tight with agony, and the woman jiggled him in her arms. She started in on a story I couldn't follow, in a soft twanging buzz, like thick steel strings being plucked, about a sister-in-law, an apartment building, a boss at the mill, a car wreck, a sheriff who might have been married to the sister-in-law or maybe married to the sister-in-law's in-law, an illegal warrant, someone's neighbor's mother's cousin who was a shyster lawyer, a loan at a technical college. My head throbbed. "We came down here for the construction," she said.

What construction? There wasn't any construction down here. Then I blinked and saw the future spread out before me, so close I could reach out and touch the crisp cut green of it — hewn pines and mown down avocadoes and houses houses houses and golf courses cascaded with sprinklers, diamonds of water spraying out over the entire state, while alligators crawled into swimming pools and catfish walked across asphalt and the ooze below sucked and opened, one great dark yawning sinkhole. I blinked again and saw the little girl had let go of her mother's dress and had found a Barbie doll from somewhere. She sat on the ground and stripped the Barbie of its astronaut suit. That baby's rash troubled me. Measles, I thought. Scarletina. All the new diseases I had never heard of and all the ancient ones creeping back.

"The county hospital's just up the highway," I said. "You don't have to pay."

The woman shrugged. She looked away. "Paperwork. We don't truck with all that."

The man set his coffee cup down on the log. "So what were you planning to do?" he asked. He moved closer, stood behind the woman. "Kill him?" He smiled a smile like that was a joke we shared.

I didn't smile back. "Maybe."

But that baby would just not stop kicking, fussing, and I could barely stand it. I wanted to scream at that woman, I wanted to slap her, tell her to get that baby some Tylenol, get him to the hospital, make him shut up. It was so damn hot. Any minute those pine trees might just burst into flames.

"Maybe you just wanted to hurt him," the man said. He spoke in a quiet voice. The baby cried in a piteous rhythm. The little girl swung the Barbie by its long blonde hair against a tree and made a thwap, thwap, thwap sound.

"I would understand you wanting to hurt him," the man said. He said some more things, in a quiet voice, words I couldn't quite catch beneath all the other sounds, the Barbie hitting the tree, the baby, the beating my head, and the drone of something else — heat, insects, nerves, evil. I wanted to go to bed. I desperately wanted to go back — not to my own house, but to Annie June's. I wanted to sleep in her guest room with one of her poodles curled up beside me. I licked my lips. I tried to focus.

"I'm hungry," the little girl said.

The baby cried.

Tiny white dots circled in my vision. "Never mind," I said.

"Then again, maybe you just wanted him to say he was sorry."

I nodded. I sagged. I felt a tear prick my eye. I wasn't prey. I was a person.

He edged toward me, slowly, with a catlike grace. It was the grace in him that something deep in me noticed, it was the slow and careful glide of his legs, his taut hips, his thin wiry waist, that roused me, that made me coil myself back together, that made me lift my gun and hiss, "Back off."

He was so close now I smelled every bit of grease and grit on him; I could almost feel the wiry brush of every stiff hair on his arms.

"Back off, I said."

He smirked. He kept coming. "I believe I'm the one owed an apology." He jerked his chin up – displaying all the predatory finery of his face, his sharp cheekbones, his nose carved and proud, his white and even and sharp teeth. "Say it. Say you're sorry."

"For what?"

He waved his arm around, encompassing the clearing, the pines, the jungle. "This is my house. These are my kids."

"We're good people," the woman said. The baby fussed. The little girl sucked her finger. While the man kept coming, thrust his yellow t-shirted chest right up against the barrel of my gun. My finger stayed taut and true on the trigger. My nerves sang. The mosquitoes sang. That crow cawed again. "Back off," I said, one more time. "I will shoot. I have before."

He stared hard at me. "I didn't knife you."

I knew it. I knew it by his teeth, which were too white. But that didn't matter anymore.

He wrapped his hand around the barrel of my gun, pressed it to his chest. "Go ahead," he said. "Do it. Blast out my heart, right here in front of my wife and kids." He flung out his arms, he flung back his head, waiting.

The pines shivered. The green hissed, my granddad hissed, deep in my brain: decide. And oh, my finger, my finger – it couldn't, it wouldn't.

Which he'd known. He'd known me all along.

He ripped the gun from my arms and pointed it at me. I cried out, looked to the woman, helpless, pleading, and she looked away. No one said a word, except for the little girl, who knelt with her back to us and sang a song to the Barbie.

"I didn't attack you," he said. "Do you hear me? I was not the one. But you come here with your gun and your vengeance, what did you think would happen? Well, maybe now, vengeance is mine. Ain't that what folks say?" The man jerked his head to the trail. "Let's go." He prodded my fat buttock with the gun. "Sweetheart," he called back over his shoulder. "Gather up the kids, some things. We're getting out of here."

I stumbled up that scarred gouged trail. The jungle blurred green. Insects, plants, birds, the sun, yipped in my ears while shame hung round my neck, a heavy white stone, so heavy I wished he'd shoot me right there. I felt revealed in all my prideful weakness.

In the parking lot, I saw how my own bloodstains on that concrete had already smeared and merged with a hundred other stains, coffee and soda and urine, and the scraped litter of food wrappers. Behind tinted glass, the Seven-Eleven clerk only looked at our rag-tag procession, waved, turned back to his magazine.

"Drive us to your bank," the man said. He folded himself into the passenger seat and held the shotgun in his lap, the barrel jabbed into my gut. The little girl scrambled into the back seat, swinging the Barbie by her hair, and the woman nestled in behind the man, holding the baby in her lap. He'd finally fussed himself to sleep.

While I started the car, the man searched my purse. I backed out and then, at the intersection, beneath the blinking yellow light and the hot sun, all I could think was that I wanted to go home, I wanted to walk in the orchard and pick an avocado, I wanted to water my petunias and listen from the peace of my porch for that panther cry – and I made a mistake, a terrible mistake: I turned south instead of north. Toward home, away from the bank, and then I didn't know what to do.

I drove and drove. I drove faster and faster. I passed the empty concrete fortress of the junior high where I used to teach, I crossed over Dogfish Creek but the fishermen had all gone home, I passed Big Daddy's where the drinkers were all inside under smoky blue light. I thought: the bank, the bank. Each time I passed a turn-off, I thought: now. Stop. Turn around. But I couldn't, my hands couldn't turn. In all that heat, I was frozen.

We came to nothing. Nothing but tomato fields and stunted corn and white-feathered egrets plucking worms from fallow ground. Drainage ditches and land crabs and mudholes where reptiles slept with one eye open.

"Dammit, woman, where is this bank?" The man poked the gun into my belly, hurting me.

The baby woke and cried. The car windows were all rolled down and heat slapped past my face.

"Mommy, I'm hungry," the little girl said.

The woman didn't answer.

From the corner of my eye I saw the Barbie's legs. The little girl walked the Barbie up and down the ledge of the front seat. She walked the Barbie up onto her father's shoulders. She stuck the Barbie foot into his ear.

"Goddammit," he shouted, and right then I knew I would die. He reached his free hand around and seized the Barbie and flung it out the window, and I saw it in the rear-view mirror cartwheel across the road into the reeds.

Telephone poles ticked by, one after another after another, until the land shrank around us and at last we reached sand and water, the rusted metal drawbridge over Blackjack Sound. We rose up and up and up onto the bridge. Blue water spread out in calm relief to my eyes after so much sweltering green. Light flickered like small spirits. Seagulls chattered past the car, but I could barely hear them for that terrible noise singing from the hot white sky. I didn't want to die. But I could see, right through the glass in front of me, how this would end: I would finally find another branch of the bank; I would get out of the car and he would march behind me with the gun; we would enter the smooth hush of the bank; and the guard, who would be just a kid, would whip out his gun; he'd call the cops on his radio; they'd all come with their guns. For a minute, for just one minute no one would do anything, anything at all. Then one gun would fire, and then they would all fire, crash bang slam, and shots would ricochet everywhere. An armageddon of our very own.

The guttering light, my salt tears, the hot panting air, my horrible vision – I didn't hear the bells, I didn't see the warning lights, and then I did hear. Metal shrieked, the concrete shuddered, space yawned empty before us. The drawbridge, opening.

I braked, hard. The car swerved. We careened around, we hit the railing, the car jolted, my neck jolted, my head careened around, and that baby flew up out of the woman's arms. It flew right up out the open window. It flew into the blue, over the rusted railing, up out over the water. It seemed to rise. For one long moment I was certain one of those seagulls would catch it. Must catch it. Must catch that baby to its wings and carry it to a nest and lay it gently down onto straw.

But that small compact form rose and then fell and fell and fell. No cry. No sound at all. So silent, all of a sudden. Down, down, down, into the water. No splash. I couldn't possibly have heard a splash.

In the back seat, the woman howled. And then the man howled. The little girl looked up at them both and then started her own howling.

And then all four of us were out the car, onto the roadbed, in a row on our knees clutching each other. Sammy, Sammy, the woman said – and so I knew than it had been a boy, and had a name. We all four wept as only humans can do, peering over the rail, into the waters that had closed over that child. And in my head, over and over, these words: forgive me, forgive me.

These days I send checks to Renee, for that was the mother's name, and her daughter Briana, because that is the least, the very least, I can do. The man, Anthony is his name, sits in jail, waiting for a trial that won't come for another year at least. When the cops came, I said, "Arrest me! It's my fault!" But law is not the same as justice.

Sometimes I visit with Annie June, helping her with her jewels and seashells and we talk about the criminals running this country, the war we cannot get out of. And then, if my shame is more than I can bear that night, I borrow one of those poodles to take home and hold as my own comfort. There is a temporary peace in that.

Though I still hear that panther cry out in the woods. I know it's not the last — it will find a mate. It will bear young, and those young will feed. They will teethe.