We meet Roland, his family, and the swamps
The swamps were, in truth, his refuge. His refuge from his father, his mother, and the tension of the two opposing wills colliding. He went to the swamps when he couldn’t take it anymore, when the strains of his father’s verbal abuse were too great to stay in that house that he so loved, yet, for the time was so miserable for him. True, every time he almost kept himself from going, fearing that finally his father would snap, releasing the flood of violence he knew he had been storing up since it all began. The swamps were, in a way, the reason that the whole mess was here in the first place. His father, with his pains from the horrible car accident, the weariness of one who had worked hard all his life, the ‘fuzziness in the head’ as he called it (which he claimed he got from killing Gooks on the Ho Chi Mihn, but both Roland and his mother knew was passed down in the family) and the distress of never getting what he felt he deserved, wanted to go to Baton Rouge, live in a small house with no swamps, no animals, no life as far as Roland was concerned, without the extreme burdens and stresses of living off the land. His mother knew how his father suffered, how badly he wanted to live the rest of his life in minor luxury, off his savings, in the city, but she, and Roland as well, couldn’t bear to leave the swamps. The swamps were their lives. They loved every single little characteristic of the swamp, so much that Roland refused to think that it was selfishness, instead of love, love of that wonderful place they had been born, had lived, had joyed, had cultivated, that kept them there. So when his father ‘got mad’, as Roland and his mother called it, he went deep into the swamps, if only to talk his sorrows to the noble cypress trees, the beautiful dragonflies, all the creatures that he so loved, to set his thoughts just so he wouldn’t go crazy. He often reflected how ironic it was that he went to that very same place that all his problems originated from to soothe them. It was in the swamps, (which were officially named ‘marais noir’, though just ‘the swamps’ was all the identification they really needed in Roland’s area) during one of those spells of his father’s madness, that his story begins.
Roland discovers the tracks and the beast
Roland wandered aimlessly through the swamps, doing everything he could to calm himself, because his father was mad again. He felt he thought best when he was walking, and to make his walk seem to have some other purpose that to walk off his problems, he engaged in his favorite activity. Actually, it wasn’t a single activity, but a collection of activities that went together, that he called ‘exploring’ for lack of a better word, a conglomeration of identifying plants, tracking any sign he could find, evaluating what it meant, occasionally drawing a peculiar specimen, and generally remarking on things or places he hadn’t seen or been to before. On this day, he went into a drier part of the swamps that didn’t require a pirogue to get around, a part he went in less often. He came upon a bank of mud, and chanced to look forward, to plan the path he was taking through the thick scrub that always grew right between the edge of water and the edge of forest. Out of the corner of his eye, just almost missing it actually, he saw what looked at first to be some particularly large-and strange-looking tracks. He knew that the mud bank would be the perfect medium for leaving tracks, and they looked very interesting, from the distance, and went to investigate. He was shocked at what he found. There, a trail of nine huge prints, almost as wide as his palm when he spread it over the tracks, with no claw imprints, one palm pad and four toe pads, (no heel pad had been imprinted in any of them) huge step lengths, and the largest stride length he had ever seen, even on a bear. They were rather like enormous cat prints, a little wider proportionately, and with a lump in the back of the palm pad. He cursed himself for not bringing his plaster mold-making kit, and reasoned that he had to remember what it looked like in detail so he could look up what it was when he got back. Then he remembered that to go back to his house would be to go back to the fuss; he had forgotten in the excitement of finding the print. And then the print came once again to the front of his mind; he leaned down, examining the curves, the stride and step length, the shape and composure, just as he would if tracking wounded game, and cursed himself again for forgetting his drawing pad. Well, he did the best he could, and would have the fun of discovering what had left the track.
When he got close to his house, he didn’t hear yells and slammed doors, which would have meant his father was still fussing, nor did he see the idle cloud of smoke that meant his father was smoking self-rolled cigarettes on the back porch, stewing in his own anger, and so Roland knew that he wasn’t there. He, too, had gone to the swamps to take refuge, but in a different way, to take his anger out on the land that he blamed for all his problems. Roland would not miss him; he had dreaded another of his father’s ‘talks’, where he would tell Roland that he wasn’t mad at him, that he loved him (for he really did love Roland very much, and Roland knew it too, in fact, it was not completely for himself that his father got mad, it was in part because he thought a life in the city would be better for his son) that it was his mother’s fault, that he hated how Roland was mixed up in this but that he couldn’t stand it any longer. For some reason, these ‘talks’ were more wrenching than all the rest of the fuss. Roland remembered the time he had refused to have a talk with his father, remembered the look of shocked insult and disappointment on his face. He thought that he had taken it the wrong way, thought that Roland didn’t want to talk to him at all. Roland wanted to go immediately and look the track up in his field guide, but somehow he felt that would be a sort of anti-climax, and decided to try to figure it out by himself, to savor the mystery, to make each swallow of suspense last. How to go about his was, at first, a matter, but Roland decided to use critical thinking, which he had learned in school, that he always thought of as almost pointless. He resented following a set sequence of examining the facts, the problem, and deducing the cause, but was forced to admit that it was effective. He sat down with a pencil and a piece of scrap paper and wrote:
possible animals that left the track:
And, after a second of self-debate, on the risk of appearing foolish, wrote down also:
He laughed a little laugh at himself for the last one, crossed it out considering that all the descriptions he had heard of Sasquatch prints were not at all what the track looked like, and then crossed out beaver, on account that very little about it was like the print he had found (he knew it would be crossed out to begin with, but added it to the list hoping it would bring to mind something else more similar, as they had learned in school). A bear wouldn’t fit either, the stride length was too long, the gait wrong, the tracks in general were not much alike, and because, with the prints he had found, a comparison between front and hind foot were very similar, whereas a bear’s front and back paw prints were very different. As for ‘Large bobcat’, no bobcat on earth could grow to that size. But something else……… a panther! Just exactly fitting the track! Oh, the damn G-men (government men, the silly city folks) said the Louisiana panther was extinct, but the country folk new better. Every once in a while, some old coonass in the swamps or a redneck in the stiks would see one, but the stupid G-men refused to recognize the sighting, so after a while nobody reported them. And just to think, that he had seen one! Some of the greatest hunters, the people every body looked up to, hadn’t seen one, and here was Roland, with one in his swamp! Wouldn’t that make a fine thing to tell to he boys! He would have to make a mold of the print to back his story.
Roland in the first week of the panther
Roland was very content for the next few weeks. His father had slowly become less and less fussy until he wasn’t mad at all, but Roland knew it would just be a few weeks until he found something new to fuss about, then would get mad again, like he always did. In addition to that, the panther was visiting a pool daily. Roland had made the discovery the day after he had found the original track way. Of course, he had gone back to the place he had first seen the tracks, and after a little disappointment that he only ‘re-found’ the tracks of yesterday, he slowly worked his way in a circle around them, checking every inch of ground along the mud bank, until, to his delight, he found new ones, going to a particular pool of water known to Roland that somehow never stagnated much. He concluded that the panther had been drinking the water. Roland went back everyday after that, making sure to disturb nothing, to leave as little sign as possible, so as not to chase the panther away. To have it leave would be a tragedy indeed, and, in fact, Roland had vaguely considered not going at all, for he was sure that, sooner or later, he would do something to scare it away. Of course he decided against it. To have a panther in his own swamp was far too grand a happening to leave unexplored. He was sure he (and his panther) would be the point of envy of the local boys for the rest of the summer at least. He made sure to keep the location of its drinking pool secret, for fear that one of them would come and scare the panther away, either accidentally, in their un-knowing folly, or on purpose in jealousy that he had such a superior beast in his swamp, although his fears were unfounded, because none of the local boys would dare wander as far into the swamps as Roland did. None knew the swamps like Roland, not that any boy would admit it. So he went back every day, just as the panther went to drink at the pool every day, and more than once Roland was half scared to death, thinking that he had accidentally run across the panther itself. He accepted the fact that new tracks were made everyday as evidence that he was well covering his scent and hiding the sign he had the misfortune to leave, so found no reason to stop his visits. Once, the tracks were washed away by rain before Roland came to see them, and he was afraid he finally had scared it away, until he remembered that it had rained. Roland was so involved in the panther that he had dreams about it, read everything on panthers he could find, changed his favorite animal from dragonflies to panthers, and began to think of this particular panther as ‘his’, though he had no more claim to it than the land his family borrowed from God. He even decided to call the week ‘the week of the panther’, in celebration of the Oriental’s way of calling each year after an animal they respected, and later, as the fever refused to die down, the whole month of May would be named after that beast.
Roland in the second week of the panther
Roland was very worried during the week after he had discovered the existence of his panther in the swamp, not because of his father’s fresh madness, but because of his increasing interest in the creature. He found that he was kept from sleep at night thinking of what his panther was doing, how great it would be to see it, how beautiful and dangerous if must be, and just about all the interest a person could have in the daily life of one individual animal. When he closed his eyes, he saw the panther’s prints along that first track way he had found. More than once during a night , Roland thought of pursuing his panther, tracking it down, just to see it; he had no idea what he would do when he found it, other than to stare at it. He would quickly banish such idea, though, both for fear of developing an obsession, and because he knew all too well what a startled and panicking animal of that strength, size, and power could do to anything it recognized as a threat. During that week, Roland’s friend let him borrow a blowgun, made from hollowed-out river cane, for hunting, and five metal darts, that came from the store. After so much hunting by bullet and arrow, death by dart was a new experience, one he enjoyed. He did, however loose one of the darts shooting at a wood cock, at which the friend he borrowed them from was not at all pleased, since his family, like Roland’s, wouldn’t be going to the store in the city again until June, and it was only the middle of May. He noticed later that same week that his panther’s tracks had changed in some way that he couldn’t quite put his finger on; until he realized that its right-side stride length had grown shorter. He wondered what could have caused it, fearing that it had caught one of the strange swamp diseases, where an animal became lame in the back legs at first, then had problems where its leg joints set and tendons retracted, and ultimately the animal just sat down and died, the meat turning gray the whole time; but he ruled that out, considering it was the right front paw’s step that had shortened the stride, and his father said the disease always affected the back legs. He concluded it probably just had a splinter in its foot. He wished he could take it out for his panther.
Roland in the third week of the panther
In the third week of what he called the panther, Roland was sure he had developed an obsession. He had contracted a terrible monomania. He was now totally and completely inflamed with the desire to track it down and see it, though he knew how foolish it was. One day, June thirtieth, he decided finally to act on it. He took with him a large satchel, full of all the things he would need, for he expected to be gone three or maybe four days, and, as an after thought, asked his father if he could barrow the combat knife, that had been standard issued for the marines in Vietnam, that his father had more than once attributed to saving his life. He thought it just seemed fitting. Surprisingly, his father gave him permission to use it. Roland had a bit of trouble attaching it to his belt, (thinking that may have been why its production was discontinued around the middle of the war) and, in the end, attached it to the strap of his pouch, which went over his left shoulder, (the bulk of the pack sitting on his right hip) where it sat as the knights had buckled swords on their backs. He set out after a day and a half of preparation. First, of course, he went to his panther’s pool, where he knew there would be new tracks. He followed them on for half of that day, until he came to a distant part of the swamps he had never been to before. There, he tracked the prints until they suddenly ended at the base of a large swamp maple. Roland stood there, in dumb astonishment and confusion, not comprehending what had happened, then, in that second of horror and shocked realization, looked up in the limbs of the tree to see a huge blur of cinnamon-tan and white coming down on him. He was knocked to his back by an extremely heavy weight, which rested on his chest and legs, and seemed to threaten to crush him. It dawned on him then; the panther had climbed the tree, and had just pounced on him! Roland felt, all of a sudden, a horrible, tearing pain in his arm, the panther’s claws slashing deep, grinding on his bone. Then an equally bad pain on his chest, the claws scraping his ribcage. The panther sat on his legs, with his front paws on his chest, swatting him with its razor-sharp claws, shredding his flesh to ribbons, while Roland vainly tried to block its blows with his hands, that seemed so puny in comparison to the beast’s. Then it reached up, for his face, slicing down from his forehead, across his left eye, and ending by pulling up the flesh of his left cheek. He could feel his eye being torn out the socket, the optic nerve being pulled tight and then snapping. Too late, he threw his right fore arm horizontally across his face, and felt the panther dash the muscle and tendon to tatters. But just then, his fingers touched something; the combat knife his father let him use. Wrenching it from the sheath, he brought it in an arc upwards, and slashed out the panther’s throat in one quick and clean movement. Blood gushed down and the panther twitched and shook, further mixing Roland’s wounds with mud and leaves, beating his chest in its death throws, to where it was hard for him to breath.
And then his panther died. Roland sat for a few moments, until realization hit him that he had killed the wonderful panther, one of the last of its kind, the panther he had so obsessed over. And he hated himself for doing it. He sat there a few moments more, before struggling to move the dead panther off him; it was very heavy and it took him a while. Even afterwards he was so weak he had to eat all of the snacks in his pouch, and then make his way home.
I suppose you want to know what happened to Roland afterwards. His father managed to keep from madness for almost a month and a half, a record, in truth, and even then his mad spells were not serious. Roland’s mother doctored him up, but warned that the scarring would be bad. Roland didn’t mind, he always thought scars were just as good as tattoos, and had more interesting stories too. Roland’s father offered to buy him a glass eye, but Roland refused, saying he wouldn’t have a damn piece of glass in his skull, while his mother doubted that the doctors could create a ball of glass to match the blue hue of his remaining eye, of which she was intensely proud, though she was forced to admit that it originated from his father’s side of the family. So, his mother made him an eye patch of some jet-black, soft, and think material that Roland could never remember the name of, and, after a little bit, embroidered on it, in the perfect center with silvery thread, a stylized dragonfly, which was now Roland’s favorite animal again. Not that he didn’t like panthers any more, he still loved and respected them more than any animal on earth, it was just he didn’t feel that he had the right to claim them as his favorite, since he had killed one of the last of its kind in Louisiana. He was, as he predicted, the talk of the locals for all that summer, and much of the short fall as well.
I suppose you also want to know what happened to the panther, too. Let me assure you, absolutely nothing was wasted of it. Roland and his family decided to make a sort of party of it, inviting friends and relatives to come eat ‘panther gumbo’, which none of them could ever claim to have had before, even Roland’s Uncle, who was regarded as the best hunter around.. Roland almost forgot to check the panther to see what had made him change his stride, and, to his shock, discovered, imbedded in the front right paw, a blowgun dart, which he promptly returned to his friend, who was at the party anyway. After the ‘panther party’, which his father miraculously stayed happy through, he proclaimed he was going to get the panthers head mounted for Roland with the money he had been ready to set aside to buy him the glass eye. They sent it to a local taxidermist, who did a fine job. The last thing of note in the story is the engraving on the metal plate put on the plaque that the panther’s beautiful head was affixed to. The taxidermist asked what they wanted engraved, and Roland decided to put on a poem. He was disappointed when his mother could conjure to mind not a single poem about panthers, thinking it sad that such a majestic creature had not a single ode in his name, but she did think of some other poem (was it by Reinyard? his mother couldn’t remember) with the end result that the plate read:
The beast of Marais Noir
Killed by Roland on May 30, 1999
And then the poem right under it:
Yet each man kills the thing he loves;
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Which Roland thought to be very appropriate.
so, critique is welcome, dont be scared to be harsh, and whatever.
Edited by man_in_mudboots, 18 May 2004 - 08:35 PM.