THE ESCAPE OF RILKE’S PANTHER
by Tom Teti
Yes, you want to know what it was like for me. What did I feel? How stupid. I felt many things. I’ll tell you:
The air was wonderful, the night air of summer. Swift movements and my innate speed produced the hum of a breeze on my flanks. I was surprised that I had such force after so many months of indolence, but I was sharp. I wasn’t even bothered by the city’s sewer stench, I was euphoric.
It was my first run since, well, since the first capture. Dark day of my life. Aahh, I shudder… Hisss! Brutally hot it was, sun beating down without mercy. I took an early nap on a tree branch – I had just tupped that queen, lovely young one. The briefest respite. Then, they came for me. She ran, with not so much as a howl of warning. The collar was already around my neck when I woke, and I could see her shambling through the veldt grass into a thicket. I stared sadly after her. No more on that; they took me.
To Paris. There, I bided time until the weather became warm, then I took advantage of an inebriated keeper, come to feed me last and at dusk.
I looked for a place to hide on the lovely Rue Cuvier, a very quaint street, with pittosporums and mulberry trees. I needed to lose myself before dawn. My plan was to make my way to another foresty area they called, I think, the Bois des Vincen, or like that. I would know it when I smelled the severe, deep resin fragrance of evergreens. Trees in great number strut their essence. There I could go unnoticed for a time, be free. I did, however, worry that it might be predictable. Visions of harmful men advancing under torches, with nets and guns and cages ready, caused me to discard that choice, much to my everlasting regret; the forest would have been my equalizer.
I cleared a fence with a ‘whoosh’… it was so close. The rust of the wrought iron reached my nose and the pointed tips rang with a high-pitched vibration from the light brush with my soft underbelly. My months of inactivity in that cell was taking its toll; I was tiring.
Oh, did I want to let out a resounding “Yahhahhaorhhh!” – that’s how good it felt to be free! Then I saw men and forced myself down, staying put, behind a stone bench. Fortunately, they were engrossed in complaints about work and wives, did not even look my way. The first line of that poem ran through my head:
“Passing back and forth the bars his
gaze is grown so weary that it doesn’t
grasp anything anymore.”
He was right about the weariness; wrong about the grasping. I grasped everything, so much so that I grew fatigued from grasping. It immortalized me, that meager verse, immortalized me without a name. I go around with his name attached to me for the rest of my days. He looked like a priest without a God; I shudder to think of living in his skin, all things being equally important, no relief from his worrying brain. What kind of a life can one have with no triviality?
The men gone, I began bounding again, yesss. Love the word, ‘bounding’, to bound, leap, spring… Cavort? No, too tongue-in-cheek. Hop? Too primary school. Bounding by the Seine… Bounding past the tree-lined brook, like Uncas, the Bounding Elk, le Cerf Agile! I took a row of boxwoods in a single bound (hah), Yup-up-pah! It was exhilarating!
O’ the agony of repeating the same mistakes! My bounds were becoming labored; I was fatiguing. I would need strength to run if and when I would be discovered, so I climbed a sturdy old oak, thick with the greenest leaves, so green they looked black, crept to a spot where no one from the ground could see me, and lay artfully along the perfect branch, a foreleg depending charmingly below it. There is an “ahhhh” to a beautiful night. I basked in the ‘ahhhh‘ of the night. That was my undoing…
I had tired myself out so, in the first three hours of my freedom, covered so much territory at rapid pace, that I slept like the dead. I woke to the clanging bells of fire wagons. It was early morning, the crowds had not yet come to gape, but the tree was surrounded by netting, and men chattering panicky orders to one another, craning their heads upward with glances in my direction.
Discreetly, I lifted my head to survey. They had me surrounded. They did not see me from below, but my back had been exposed to anyone crossing the street. The choices were these: make a show of fury, growling, roaring, showing teeth… to what end? I would end up caught and exhausted; run… I would end up caught or shot; to attack… I would be shot for certain. The next line in the poem invaded my brain:
“To him it’s as if there were a thousand
bars and behind the thousand bars, no
This disrupted my strategic speculation, the irony too painful. But as the police and zookeepers and doctors gathered below me, I saw a chance, albeit a slim one but the only one, to turn it to my advantage.
I lay down again on the branch and feigned sleep. Voices on the ground played guessing games about the situation. Then they were closer. Firemen were helping the ‘experts’ get a good look at me. They marveled at my inert condition; my ears detected the inestimable relief they were experiencing. Two of the ‘experts’ entered into a lengthy disagreement about whether or not to sedate me. One of them thought that I might have taken ill and been in a fragile state. I prayed to be spared that ignominious gibbet, for that would ruin my plan. But before they could settle the question, a surly police sniper fired in the air, a prank to scare the scientists, no doubt. Men with guns grow libidinous in their itch to use them. Yet, it startled me, enough to make me go rigid on four paws, and the men holding the nets closed in.
They were hapless, I felt I could have gotten away easily, but it would be risking that the cretins who had fired their rifles in sport might hit me by accident. I pretended to be confused, frightened and misguided, waited to feel the net around my back, then thrashed left and right a little, made a few belly protests, and fell into it.
They could have lowered me to the ground with a bit more deference. But who am I kidding? When have I ever been shown any deference but by feeders who think I’ll bite their hand off, and that tortured soul who wrote the poem. So, to no one’s surprise, I was unceremoniously propelled back to ground level with a cloud of dust and bruised ribs.
I let them hustle me into a cage. The doctors were still in the tree so there was no one to shoot me up with any narcotic. My plan was to keep a docile profile until I would be delivered back to the Menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes, then make a bold break when they opened the cage. There would be less people around then, the gendarmes would be gone, just handlers and officials. Then I could listen for an owl’s hoot and head for the tall trees.
What I could not have anticipated was that my recapture would be so muddled by the Paris police. First, they caused me to be dropped from my tree by fooling around with rifles, which meant that the zoologists were fifty feet up in the air when I hit the ground. They had to do something with me quickly, so they caged me and put the cage in the back of a police wagon. An overzealous captain told the driver to go to the station, that he wanted to file criminal charges against me, saying I attacked the night keeper while escaping and he might not live. Great publicity in that, prosecuting a panther. A first! It wasn’t a bit true – the keeper got knocked down when I busted through the open gate; the ass was drunk, as he was every night, and he got onto this kick of trying to get me drunk, pouring brandy into my water, singing songs, asking me to sing with him. I played along. We caroused a little, he thought it was funny to watch me lope around with a slight hitch. That last night, he was tipsy, as usual, and when he went to pour the brandy into my bowl, I swiped the flask out of his hand and deep into the hay- lined corner of the cage. You should have seen his face – totally blank, staring at his lost brandy, then at me, then back to the brandy, then to me again. I just lay there, blinking like I was a drunk enough to nod off, confident of what he would do. Sure enough, he unlocked the cage and crept in on his hands and knees to retrieve his flask. The rest, as you say, is history, but I did not ‘attack’ him. Why he should think that would help him I don’t know; he was sure to be fired, after all.
The police captain, though, was too much. What the little pissant really wanted was to have the scribes follow him so he could make a very public show of his accomplishment, saving the citizens of Paris from a raging wild beast. Two dead-looking gendarmes loaded the cage onto a wagon and away we went.
We arrived at the station and the captain was already talking to reporters. The two dead-looking gendarmes carried the cage; I was most docile. I waited for the flashbulbs of the photographers to go off, then threw all my weight to one side. The cops fell down on the front steps of the station, the cage went corner over corner like a child’s building block dropped down a set of stairs, and I tumbled with delight. The captain cried, “Oh, merde!” halting his press conference and scrambling for cover lest my cage popped open and I would be again, free.
It didn’t. It wasn’t part of my revised plan anyway; I only did it to rain on the little snot’s parade. Six men picked up and maneuvered the cage inside the station, more flashes went off, questions flew at the captain like locusts with the reporters trying to follow me inside. (I wonder if they ever thought of interviewing me?) But the captain was done and ordered them all off the steps. Cursing and watching my every move, the six men carted me into a room in the basement.
The captain came in, red-faced, his temper barely held. He pulled his body up into military position and pointed a stiff finger at me. “You are causing me an extraordinary amount of trouble tonight, you stupid cat!” His anger made me laugh. “I will return,’ he declared, and moved his pointing finger above his head in very dramatic fashion.
As soon as he was out of the room, the biggest of the men, he had grimy moustaches and bad teeth, kicked the cage.
“Shut up,” he growled.
“Fuck you,” I said; I think my volume scared him for a second.
“Black panther bastard,” he growled again. “Look at this bastard staring at me, heh?”
It was true, I was staring. He was so repulsive and dumb I forgot my manners.
“Yeah, the black bastard,” said another one, off to the side. I slowly turned my head and stared at him. He was little and dumb; I was starting to understand that they were all unintelligent. He held my gaze only for a few seconds
“What’s he doing, Arnaud? Why’s he looking at me like that?”
“Because you’re so pretty. Ass! He’s a wild animal and you’ve got him in a cage, he hates your guts… Panther bastard,” he repeated, then he kicked the cage again, this time with all his might.
I let out a ferocious roar and hurled myself against the side of the cage again, turning it over. The guards yelped and scattered, muttering curses under their breath. The big guy screamed at me: “I’m going to shoot you yet, cat! Your hide will be on my bathroom floor!”
“Go scratch yourself, degenerate,” I said, and licked a paw. I knew he wouldn’t do a thing. The captain wanted me alive to make a show of getting me back to the menagerie, with plenty of attention from the press. Just then, the door opened and a ‘She’ entered. The men straightened and stood; even I adjusted my posture. She was beautiful! Her face betrayed a certain shock at what she had stumbled into, but she recovered quickly. Her wide dark eyes narrowed and absorbed her surroundings. Her face was white, and smooth, her hair like the night, her clothes form-fitting, and she had a wonderful form. The dress was lavender/grey, with small touches of pomegranate, here and there, utilitarian yet, extremely fetching. She carried a large book with her and a wooden box.
“Get me a bowl with water,” she ordered, and the little guard jumped out of the room. “What are you up to, Arnaud?”
The big guard, my enemy, gave her a sheepish shrug. “Nothing, Mlle. Tresselin, just having a little fun with our guest.”
I spat, and he glared at me. The little one came back in with a white enamel bowl.
“Captain LeDuc wishes a sketch of the panther – you can all wait outside,” she told them.
“We can’t leave you alone w-”
“I am fine without your-”
“You’re not safe with this kil-”
“-presence making the animal more unruly. Out. Now.” They filed out with guttural objections. The big one, Arnaud, stopped at the door.
“We’ll be just out in the hall… if you need us, Mademoiselle.” Then he winked at her, and mouthed an insult to me. I blinked and said: “Go take a long shit,” and he was gone.
She took the bowl and placed it against the outside of my cage. “Here now,” she spoke in deep, soft notes, like the low range of an oboe. “Drink a little… be calm…” Her voice, a moment ago no-nonsense and authoritative, very stimulating in a female, was now soothing, assured and equally stimulating in its opposite.
She took ten paces, marked a spot, brought a chair and crate to it, and placed her box on the crate. Then she pulled out crayons of all colors, and I soared with the flattering prospect of my image being captured for all time, and by her! She removed the jacket that covered the top of her dress. Her shoulders were attractive under a sheer bodice, her bosom modestly prominent, if only with two teats. I wished her on all fours.
She was about to sit down, when I caught her eye. She stood in profile, but her head pivoted, drawn without explanation into the smoky lights of my eyes. Her face went slack, the lips parted, her own eyes expanded with a fear driven by excitement, not dread. Stillness held for a full minute – it was then I knew I had her. The poem came to me again:
“The supple gait of easy, strong steps,
turning round in the narrowest circle,
where a great will stands stolid.”
I faked an attempt to drink the water, as though I couldn’t reach it, which I couldn’t without a completely indecorous stretch of the tongue and my nose smashed up against the bars. Then, I was up, ranging about my little cell, giving my haunches an extra lift, flexing the forelegs, gracefully, and coming to stop so as to lift my head slowly into a connection with hers – she thought she made it happen.
Her hand went up her neck. She ran two fingers inside her collar, then pulled a comb out of her hair; the tresses fell, glossy and forever, to one side of her face. “Oh, you can’t reach that, can you?” She came over to me. “Here, you need water, I know you do.” She glanced toward the door, leading to the guards in the hall. The idiots had not put a lock on the cage, had merely secured it with a heavy chain wrapped around several times. I could not have managed it, but she set about the task of removing it, which took less than a minute. She watched me all the while, bearing into my eyes. To my surprise, I could not avoid her gaze any more than she could deny mine.
The cage opened. She placed the water inside. I drank, slowly, glancing up at her in between deliberate laps of my tongue. She stroked me gently, down the right flank, making purring sounds. What I should have done was break, fly out and take my chances. After all, I thought I was only pretending. But I was kidding myself; the sight of her had arrested me, her voice had numbed me, and the petting was sending me into orbit. We were in a mortal lock with each other.
I let out a discreet belly rumble. “Is that good?” she said. Her hand had moved under me. I made another rumble. “Yes… Yes… Let’s see, what can we call you? My name is Claudine.” Claudine, I loved it! “Hmm. What can we call you?” She looked so closely into my eyes that I licked her. “Aahh! Rabelais! That’s what I will call you. You will be my Rabelais!” With that, she hung her arms around my neck as if I were some stuffed toy given to a little girl for her birthday.
Yes, I should have run like the wind, I knew it. Even when I nudged her with my break, a soft push over onto her back, I knew that I should run. But I was just as certain that I could not, would not run. She lay there, unprotestant, even invitational, on her back, one knee bent to the left, the tip of a finger in her mouth. My wand sprouted, not playful but severe and cardinal. She noticed and closed her eyes in a half faint.
With one swipe of a paw her top layer was removed and her bosom bare. “Oh!” she blurted. I licked her belly and up between her breasts to her neck in one long, continuous stroke, from the nave to the chops, as they say. “Oh, no! No, we can’t!” Her voice was strident, yet soft, and most tellingly, private. “It is too, too, auh, fantastical!” Then, I went around the base of each of her mams, gently, I thought. She flinched, “your tongue is so, ah! … dry,” but not in complaint.
She hoisted her skirts and fumbled with undergarments; I helped. Soon, her private junction lay before me in its secret splendor. I lapped in patient bliss; her chest heaved. “Oh…, …no!” But she didn’t mean ‘no’, on that I would have staked my life, which was decreasing in value with every second I indulged my maleness.
I pawed her, tried to turn her, tried not to mar her beautiful skin, hairless but for a downy, dark lanugo. But it was so vulnerable that she scratched and bled at my most considerate touch. She moaned and bit her hand to stifle a scream. I took her frontally, as I had seen the primates do. She squirmed and sang a song like the tribes in my homeland might. I could not find my groove in that position, but Claudine caught on and turned herself onto her knees. There I flourished in complete, foolhardy indulgence, my forelegs wrapped around her waist, my eyes closed, my ears conjuring sounds remembered from sultry nights on the savanna.
The little dumb guard opened the door and stuck his head in, appearing to have a question on his lips, but as he saw an empty chair his eyes widened. Then he saw us, ‘en unite’, as it were, and they near popped out of his head. “Help!” he shouted, turned to run and cracked his nose on the door. “Agggh! Help! Agggh!” he yelled a second time. I looked down at my beauty, my exquisite Claudine, and said, “I might love you, you know, if I had the chance. Truly, love you… But I must fly.”
“Oh, Rab, be safe, please, please!”
I eased myself away from her, cursing the pain of interruptus, but with a deep breath, was at the door in two bounds.
“Where do you go?” she called in a restrained yet frantic voice.
“There’s a bronze temple in the Jardin des Plantes, if you want to find me. La prochaine… Forgive my rough touch.” She rolled to face me, smiled and said: “Never!” And with that, I was gone, up the steps, down the hall, knocking down the big coward of a guard – he was so scared he fouled his pants – and out the front door.
I bounded past shrieking, gasping onlookers who had gathered outside the police station. Chaos burgeoned in my wake, but I took no heed, I went streaking round a curve in the street and smelled water.
In front of me was the Seine. I thought for a half-minute about swimming across, but my appreciation of water is extremely conflicted. Besides, I had told my Claudine where she could find me, so, as police alarms newly filled the night, I turned back toward the Jardin des Plantes.
It was lush and fragrant. My nose picked up scents I can still summon with ardor, wild rosemary and night blooming cereus. My sensory joys were crashed by evidences of a grand hunt underway, a hunt for me. Sounds of it were all around and, though not imminent, I was not prepared for how close they were and how intense.
I caromed in and out of brush and shrub, deep into the western end of the park until I came to the temple, perfectly neglected in the dark. Tired again, I sat in imitation of one of the statues, and grew despondent. The sounds of hot pursuit would not abate, the dawn threatened, and I felt not safe. I must have been dashing in finite circles for an hour or more. Then, she was there.
Barefoot, wrapped in a blanket of municipal issue, she ran with a frantic haziness. She looked all around her but could not determine me, so effective was my impersonation of the stone lion beside me. I let out a rumble. Claudine saw me and flew to me.
“Oh, my Rabelais, my poor, poor, tortured, wonderful Rabelais! I have found you.”
“Yess, my dear, yess, do not cry.”
She locked her arms about my neck and kissed my face; I licked her head.
“I am filled with joy to be with you!”
“And I with you. How are your love wounds?” I asked, still concerned that I had hurt her.
“What I feel I only feel because of you. It is not pain, but ardor. “
My ears twitched. “And how did you get here?” My concerns turned to the sounds of my would-be captors closing in, because, then, I knew. The chicken-shit captain had released her so that she would lead them to me. My tree was chopped down with me in it.
“What, Rab? What?”
Through all of my recapture, we simply stared into each other’s eyes. I did not struggle; she did not scream, which surprised me. She endured the wretched moment with great fortitude. I endured it with great sadness. They threw the net over both of us, atomized our precious circle with something that stank of the unnatural and sedated us both. We resisted taking the fated breath as long as we could, but in the end, we did it together, and then the lights in our eyes went out.
She came, for a time, every Tuesday, when the crowd was sparse. The officials at the Menagerie looked the other way. I’d seen her give money to one of the keepers. She would draw me each time in a large book (actually, two large books). They had me sedated all the time; I was a shell of my old self. The poem came into my fuzzy head daily:
“Just once in a while
the curtain of the pupils lifts silently–”
One day, when the weather was damp and there were even fewer people around, she climbed the iron fence in a light fog and began speaking to me, whispering almost nonsensically of the anguish of her nights and daybreaks, alone. Tears fell from her beautiful dark eyes. My tears were never seen, for the cursed medicine had stifled the moisture, but they were there. The guards caught her and removed her, for good.
I imagined her, after that, outside the menagerie, pacing the perimeter, finding just the spot that would give the best view of me. I knew she was there, somewhere. Sometimes I even thought I had glimpse of her, and at those moments, the rest of the poem-a would lodge in me like a sleeping demon:
“Then an image enters and passes through
the tense stillness of the limbs—
and fades when it reaches the heart.”
That part he got right… Fucking poets.
Tom Teti is well-known as an actor, director and teacher in Southeast Pennsylvania. Less well known is Tom’s writing over his entire career of more than 40 years. He lives in Malvern, and is a founding member of Malvern Arts.