Fiction: The Leopard Girl

THE LEOPARD GIRL

by  Tim Lees

It was the same place, the old shack with the tin roof and the potted plants outside the door; but it looked smaller this year, now that he was growing up. Inside, there wasn’t room for him and Dad. The old man came home broody, sullen, and Michael found excuses to go out, to lose himself around the town or by the sea. He saw the boys again. They sat on pavements, smoked their cigarettes, and even now, thirteen or fourteen years of age, complained about the town the same way that their fathers did. He listened, wishing he could join in, too, but feeling something glamorous about the place, for all of that: a sense of mystery, of secrets waiting to be given up… He felt it more this year than ever. He could hear it, even in the boys’ disgruntled drawl, their bored talk and their gossip. He could hear it but he couldn’t reach it. He was too young still, too new to be considered one of them. They called him “Mikey” and they sent him to run errands for them, but he’d no real hold on their attention, or their time.

He watched women in the High Street, the girls in pleated skirts, the grocer’s wife lifting the veg racks in her massive, muscley arms. On Sundays, men wore suits. The women wrapped their hair in sober scarves. The town band played old show tunes in the hut behind the print works, and the thin sound seemed to follow him along the streets, a remnant from a dim, forgotten time.

It was a small community. He knew the faces even if he didn’t know their names or what they did.

Tradition mattered here. It kept them safe, it kept them from the changes that might otherwise have overwhelmed them. He understood that now. It was as if the place existed under sufferance, perched on an abyss where the slightest jolt might topple it, and shatter all they’d managed to preserve.

*

Some days, strange winds blew from the hinterland.

The sky changed colour and the air in town grew sharp and edgy; once, he touched an iron rail and felt it tingle through his hand, as if the whole fence had become electrified. Then people shut their shops, went home from work. They closed their businesses. That was the nature of the time: you never trusted anyone on days the dream winds blew. People had moods. They saw strange things. The rooftops rattled and the newspapers blew down the street like tumbleweeds. The trees were full of noise…

Much later, he’d imagine that the leopard girl had come on such a wind, blown from the empty lands where no‑one went, the dream places, out far beyond the hills.

He made up stories, thinking of her, getting hard inside his pants but never moving, too conscious of his father in the other bed, the old man’s breathing, loud in sleep.

*

The town rose steeply from the bay.

Sand drifted in the lower streets. It filled his shoes with fine white powder he could never fully empty out, no matter how he tried. The buildings on the front had balconies with old signs hanging from them: GRAFTON, BELLE VUE, PARKING. Further on, the lanes were narrower and busier, the little whitewashed houses packed with people. On the hill, the mansions stood. These were the places where his father worked, trimming the hedges, doing repairs, cleaning the guttering. Each day, Michael brought his father’s lunch, a little bread, a slice of cold meat or some cheese, whatever was available. At first, he’d been resentful of the chore; later, saw the way it lent a structure to his day, gave him an air of independence there. He’d pass the boys and nod to them, never too friendly, never looking like he needed them. He didn’t tell them he was carrying his father’s lunch. They didn’t ask. Nothing he did, it seemed, could possibly concern them or arouse their curiosity; and he was too grown‑up now to imagine he’d bamboozle them with games.

His father came back late, most nights. He smelt of booze and cigarettes, and stumbled in the dark, trying to get undressed. He wouldn’t put the light on. He’d got a drunkard’s courtesy, those times, moving so slowly every step would take an age.

Inevitably, Michael woke. He lay there with his eyes shut, feigning sleep. Sometimes his father muttered to himself. It was uncertain, broken‑up, like hearing one half of a phone call.

Michael guessed it was his mother on the far end of the line, though what she told his father in those blurred, one‑sided talks, he never could make out.

*

The sand looked grey, this time of year. Only a few old fishermen still went down to the beach to tend their boats, drawn up behind the groynes, out of the wind.

One day he found a strange thing, lying in a puddle on the sand, caught in a whirl of gulls. He shooed the birds away. They circled near and shrieked at him indignantly. The object might have been a small dog or a lamb, perhaps, but so mutated that he couldn’t tell. Black knots of weed entangled it. A fattish, blue‑grey tail with a translucent fin stuck out behind. “It fell into the water and it grew a tail to save itself,” he thought. A year ago, he might have buried it. Now he poked it with his shoe, watching the little, half‑transparent creatures, shrimps and lice, that wriggled in its open belly.

Only when he left, the birds came down again. Their clamour filled his ears. It was as if a storm had fallen on the sands, frantic with greed, effacing everything: the feeding frenzy of the gods.

*

He had been travelling for four years, ever since his mother died.

His father couldn’t settle. It was always just a few months here, a few months there… They moved between the coastal towns, sometimes inland, though never far. This was the winter town. Michael dreamed about it in the summer, when the beaches would be full of girls. He’d never seen it that way, but he’d heard the boys tell stories, talk of what they’d done, or claimed they’d done.

Also, he heard about the leopard girl.

Chink Loomis said he’d seen her. He’d been out one morning early, in the sand dunes near the Little River. Said she lived down there, somewhere, away from people, where the townsfolk wouldn’t see. She’d got no house, only a nest made out of grass, he said. That’s what she lived in.

“And she’s nuddy, right?” His chin stuck forward, and his eyes were bright with glee. “She hasn’t got a stitch. You can see everything.”

Chink was a tall, thin boy, who looked like he’d been stretched out past his proper height. He had a big red scar on one hand that went part way up his forearm, where doctors had removed a growth when he was young. The flesh looked rubbery and puckered, and he scratched at it as if it troubled him sometimes.

Chink was the oldest, and he worked down at the bakery, three days a week.

Michael listened, but he stood outside the group. He tried to judge when it was right to smile or laugh. He tried anticipating their reactions, joining them, acting like one of them. He caught the way they lounged, leaning on walls or squatting on the steps. He dug his thumbs into his pants pockets, the way he saw they did. When he began to get their actions right, to blend with them, he started to relax.

He saw Chink’s cleverness was all in surfaces, the look of things, the what and where… All facts and figures. It still impressed him, only not the way it had. He hung back now, keeping his judgment, uncertain how much to believe.

*

The tin‑roofed shack lay on the edge of town, a half hour’s walk from Little River. He visited the river when he could. He even saw her, once, weeks afterwards, not in the dunes but in the rough country behind. She was a long way off. He didn’t notice her until she moved. Then something seemed to streak across the hillside, very fast, below the skyline. Once it stopped, it seemed to vanish.

Michael put his hand up to his eyes. He didn’t think about the leopard girl at first. He just kept staring, trying to work out what he’d seen. Only when she moved again, he caught a vague impression of her shape ‑‑ not animal, four‑legged, as he’d first supposed; but upright, moving with the rapid caution of a fox on open land.

She disappeared into the spinney close to Cotter’s Field. He thought of going after her (“You can see everything…”), but couldn’t budge. It felt like somebody was pressing on his chest, trying to force the air out of his lungs. His heart was racing. His hands shook and he held them to his sternum, trying to ease the pressure there.

He waited for a long, long time, watching till his eyes began to ache.

She didn’t reappear.

*

He kicked a ball around with one of Chink’s friends, Harry Moe. Michael stood in goal. Moe pranced and feinted, mimicking the crowd’s applause, then turned and whacked the ball at him, trying to catch him off his guard.

It was Christmas Eve. White wedges had been painted on the windowpanes to look like snow, although it never snowed here any more. Michael wore a loose shirt and a vest. The air was mild. A pale haze hung across the world, so that the sunlight came down pallid and diffuse, the far hills disappeared like ghosts after the dawn.

Abandoning their game, they stopped for milkshakes at the Bluebird Cafe. Someone was grumbling about livestock: “…all they found was skin and bones, man…”

Michael turned round slowly. Three men, farmers, sat with mugs of tea, but none of them was talking now. Then Moe unscrewed the salt cellar, giggling as the stuff spilled, and the owner chased them out.

“I’ll charge you for it, too, you bloody tearaways ‑‑”

Moe made V‑signs with both hands, but only when the man was out of sight. “Fart‑bum,” he yelled. “Old fart‑bum ‑‑”

*

Michael’s father gave him a big red and purple kite for Christmas, diamond‑shaped, the tail weighed down with twists of rag.

“To fly,” he offered, awkwardly, as if it needed explanation. “Down on the beach… You and your friends…”

They ate cold lamb in sandwiches. Later his father went out to the pub, explaining that he “had to see someone”. So Michael went out, too.

He found Chink and the fat boy on the prom. Chink lay back full length on a bench, eyes shut, his hands behind his head. The fat boy draped himself over a bollard, frowning as if deep in thought.

“Jane Millikan,” he said at last.

Chink nodded to himself. “Good handful. Yeah. Two good handfuls. Why not?”

“Mary Compaine?”

“If I was desperate, you know?”

“Paula Binns?”

“God sake, man…”

“Gina Nesbitt?”

“You’re sick, you are, that’s what. You’re bloody sick ‑‑”

They were both laughing. Gina Nesbitt, Michael knew, lived in the road up by the school. She must have been at least sixty years old.

The litany went on for several minutes. Names, and verdicts. But they never talked about the leopard girl, or not with Michael, anyway. She was too strange, too different from them… To look was one thing, but any more… He tried to think about it and got a weird sensation, like something catching in his throat.

Sometimes he thought he saw her in the town. A movement at the corner of his eye, reflection in a window… But always, when he turned, she’d gone.

He knew she must be near. He didn’t understand, but he could feel her, somehow, like a special scent, the way you feel the seasons change, or sense the rain before the clouds have even gathered in the sky.

*

He found her one night, rooting in the dustbins by the shack next door. He thought it was a dog at first. He went to shoo it off, but when she moved the moonlight caught her dappled pelt, turning it silver, and he knew.

She seemed to flick out of existence for a moment. He could hear her breath. Then he saw her once more, deep down in the shadows, motionless. Each time she stopped she seemed to vanish, and he stared into the darkness, half-imaging her shape.

He couldn’t bring himself to say hello.

He made soft, soothing noises, as if calling to a cat: tchtch… He took a step towards her, holding out his hand, until a low growl like a truck engine suddenly froze him in his tracks. Was it a person or an animal in front of him? He didn’t know. He caught her odour, faint and warm, tangy with urine, and yet much too mild to be unpleasant.

Abruptly, then, she broke her cover, and she ran.

She made no sound. She moved so quickly he could hardly tell which way she’d gone. Far off, he heard the shush of breakers on the shore, like the echo of some ancient factory machine, like spindles turning, shuttles rushing back and forth.

He stumbled over rubbish from the up‑turned bins. Beneath his foot he found a doll, one arm gone, its nylon hair all shiny white under the moon.

Was this what she’d been looking for?

*

“We ought to talk,” his father said. “You know… The way we used to. We ought to do things, you and me…” His face was dark from working out of doors so much. It never paled, even in winter‑time.

The man made gestures, fumbling for his words.

“I don’t know what you’re thinking any more,” he muttered, helplessly.

Then he went out again, and Michael was alone.

*

A yellow sky rose like a wall above the hills. He begged for offal and old bones down at the butcher’s shop, to feed a dog he didn’t have. That night, after his father left, he laid them out, a careful trail across the wild land down behind the shacks.

He waited.

It took two nights. Then, the second morning when he looked, the lures were gone.

He went back to the butcher’s once again.

“Some appetite,” the man said. “Big dog, is he?”

“Very big.” He said the first breed he could think of, then, his favourite, the best.

“A standard poodle,” he explained. “Called Rex.”

*

“Dad,” he said. “I had a dream last night…”

His father shook his head. “Nobody dreams these days. Only the land dreams now.” But he insisted, and at last his father told him, “Well then… Perhaps it was the echo of a dream.”

He knew his father still didn’t believe him, though. He dug his hands into his pockets, hunching up his shoulders till his collar brushed against his ears.

“I did,” he said, under his breath. “I did, I did, I did…”

*

Chink held the book out teasingly. The boys all gathered round. They peered and grinned. The fat boy bucked his hips, pretending to a hard‑on like a wooden spar.

Once Michael would have huddled up with them, craning to see, but now he only glanced and hurried by, as if he’d got a mission to perform.

People were talking about animals: dead animals, dead sheep, dead birds… And lambing season coming up, as well, they said.

They’d had this kind of trouble other years. The older ones remembered it. They knew what needed doing. But instead they sat around, waiting for someone else to act: the mayor, the police, or else some outside agency…

While they did that, he knew that she was safe.

He laid the trail again.

*

She was his own height, but looked smaller, for she crouched habitually. She was aware of him. She knew that he was there, back in the dark behind the window. She came cautiously, mistrustfully: but not afraid.

He hoped she recognised him now.

He’d left the marrow bone out in the yard. Beside it was the little plastic doll.

He watched her hesitate a moment, then seem to slide herself into the light, eyes huge and luminous.

Her fur was dappled, like a lynx’s or a lion cub’s, more than a leopard’s. On her belly, it was pale. He glimpsed a tufting, a thickening of hair between her legs. His breath caught. He saw her breasts were slight and girlish, naked bar a gentle, near‑white down. Her arms were long and slender, and the muscles moved within them, visibly, like pistons in a sheath of fur.

His belly hollowed, watching her.

Seeing her grace.

She stepped into the yard as if she bore no weight at all, a dancer, unconstrained by human rules. Her feet ‑ her paws ‑‑ were large. Dirt smeared her toes. She moved towards him, elegant, implacable.

He noticed a clear patterning of marks, a trio of dark dabs across one shoulder, like a fleur‑de‑lys tattoo.

She reached down quickly, snatched the bone up, then the doll, and clutched them to her belly; her movements were like liquid, almost too swift to be seen. Her head was massive. Cat-like. Pointed ears twitched, flicked, responding to some sound he couldn’t hear. Her jaws were long and powerful, thrust forward in a muzzle like a beast’s. She gripped the bone and stared straight back at him; her black lips curled, revealing teeth of such enormity and sharpness he felt a sudden chill, knowing that these were weapons meant to kill, to murder in a second, if she chose.

And then his terror passed.

A snarl? No, not a snarl. A smile. A smile of thank you; shy, and cautious, and intelligent.

*

The boys would act as beaters.

Michael stood aside, wanting to be somewhere else, but knowing he’d be thought a coward if he didn’t join. He held a saucepan and a heavy, short stick. Some boys had home‑made weapons ‑‑ Chink bore an asegai almost as big as he was, a broomstick with a knife tied to it; but all that was just for show. The executioners were farmers. They hid beside the river, waiting for the boys to drive their quarry down, onto their guns.

All night, Michael had lain awake. He’d made his plans. He’d thought about them till his head buzzed and they’d seemed as real as if they were already done and over with: he’d leave the others, circle round, run through the woods and warn her; he’d give away the gunmen’s hide, somehow, or else ‑‑ most nobly, and most damningly ‑‑ he’d interpose himself, a human shield, between the killers and their prey.

Even as the sun came up, he’d still believed these options would be open to him, still felt he was free to choose.

Now though, beneath the eyes of Chink and his companions, and the nearby adults, he’d no course other than to join the hunt, beating his pan half‑heartedly, or yelling when he thought someone was watching him.

They started out from different points, in fields and copses, all across the landscape, drawing slowly closer to each other as they walked.

It took all afternoon.

The sun was small and white, giving a little gentle heat. Michael fell back. He detoured, climbed a bluff to get a better view of what was happening; hopeful, but frightened, too. All round, the clatter of old kitchenware, the ululation of the beaters, set up resonances in the atmosphere. Small creatures fled. The birds took flight as if tugged violently into the sky. The air itself appeared to shiver and vibrate.

Ahead, he saw the line of trees that marked the Little River, and their journey’s end.

The town no longer held him then. He wanted to be gone from it, away from Chink and Harry Moe, from all the girls in pleated skirts, the gossip that he only part‑way understood. He wanted to deny he’d ever envied that – deny what he was part of now.

And yet, he knew, to any onlooker, he’d seem like one of them: another hostile resident, another willing soldier of the hunt.

And that was how the girl would see him, too.

The beaters closed on one another. Michael ran behind their lines. The briars snagged his ankles, bloodying his socks. He fled down to the beach. The wind tore at his hair. The ocean raged, and drove great waves against the shore, clawing and battering.

And that was where he found her. Or where she found him.

She slipped so quickly from the shadows of the cliff the world around her seemed to freeze. Time stopped. She knew that she was hunted and her hiding place was gone. Her great jaws moved, the blackened lips split open on a row of massive teeth. He held his hands up. “Please –“ She ran at him. His feet slid in the sand, his legs gave way. And then she leapt.

He felt the wind of her flight, the taloned feet that missed him by just inches; and when he looked again, she was already far along the beach, running at a speed it was impossible to guess; while overhead, the seagulls screamed.

*

At evening, small groups of people moved across the land, uncertain now, devoid of purpose.

Their noose had come apart. They wandered, one way and another, sometimes with a sudden, last‑ditch burst of pot‑clanging and yelling, as if attempting to summon back their old enthusiasm. Once, a few shots had been fired; but it was only someone venting his frustration shooting blackbirds.

She had eluded them.

For all of Michael’s plans, she hadn’t needed him. She had escaped alone, by luck, or cunning, or some other means he couldn’t guess.

She’d gone, he knew. She’d never come back now.

He wished he hadn’t been so scared, wished he’d had the presence to explain, point out he’d had no choice, he hadn’t really sided with her enemies… Excuses flickered through his head, but they were feeble, useless things. He couldn’t answer his own accusations. He couldn’t even hope to answer hers.

*

“What’s this about a dog?” his father said. He wanted to sound angry, but it only came out puzzled and unsure. He fumbled with his jacket collar, turned it up, then down again. “It made me look a bloody fool. How’s your dog? he says to me. How’s your bloody dog?

Michael didn’t answer. He stared out of the window, at the new year’s growth already brightening the bushes and the trees. Soon, the foliage would be so thick it might hide anything, anything at all…

His father, at a loss, pretended to be hunting something in his pockets, as he often did when he was trying to stall for time. Then, giving up, he said, “Is it a dog you want, then? Is that it?”

*

The bus driver had helped them stow their cases in the hold. The bus was almost empty. Michael and his father sat apart, both gazing at the scenery. Now there were flowers by the roadside, bright red poppies, yellow daffodils, brought by the fresh spring rains. A single cloud hung in the sky, slowly dissolving in the morning sun.

He’d hoped to feel the dream winds once again before he left, only they hadn’t come.

He closed his eyes, the sunlight warm and red against his lids.

He could imagine, very clearly now, the texture of her fur, smooth as a cat’s, clotted with dirt and burs; he’d reach out with his hand and gently brush her clean. The fur would have direction, like a current, like the sea. He brushed it all one way. His fingers traced the patterns of it. The dapples. The fleur‑de‑lys. Then, underneath, he felt the muscles sliding on each other, smooth, like well‑oiled cables, so powerful he knew that, had she truly turned on him that day, nothing on Earth would have preserved him from her wrath.

The muscles tensed and moved. She reached out and she put her arms around him, tenderly; and held him there, forever.

*

His father asked again from time to time just what he wanted. A dog? A normal home, in one place, like his friends? His father seemed to think himself responsible for Michael’s listlessness, adding to the air of guilt he carried round with him. But Michael couldn’t tell him it was something else, something his father had no bearing on; he couldn’t even find the words he needed to explain.

He took the kite with him, but then, before he got around to flying it, the struts detached themselves, the sail bagged like an empty shirt. When he noticed that, he hid it from his father, hoping to spare the old man’s feelings.

He never saw the leopard girl again.

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