THE PASSION ACCORDING TO THE PANTHER

NAOMIE JEAN-PIERRE

 

for Sara “Sartjie” Baartman and the women we cage
 
 


There are days like faces. They contort. There are nights like dreams. They restore. When they tell this story, I want it to be known that I did not struggle against flesh and blood. When they tell you who I am, I want the day and night there as witnesses.
 
Day

 
Ntanda B.” 1 opened her eyes to a rather unusual sunrise. Paws outstretched before her intuitively, activating each muscle. Heavy, yet awake to every sense. Breathing in for the first time, she had never smelled like this before. And now, to find that she had become a black panther, firm. She was not a black leopard 2 as she might have suggested, but a panther as she was told. At first, she simply marveled at the greyness of her sunrise. Later, it was her cage that fascinated her. She was used to far more clever cages than this, she thought. She was taken in lastly by the black fur that shrouded her body. Quite taken. It shone with the most magnificence, too radiant for cages. All the colors of it, from root to tip, danced like the colors of her childhood. It heaved up and down in ways her breathing had never moved before. It was this strange heaving that had awakened her. It was like the kind of waking that happens just as something or someone has risen to leave. Nonetheless, she felt she must begin her day’s work. This was not Ntanda’s first time dreaming or travelling in other forms. She had often found herself becoming one thing or another in her dreams. Though that is not what this was, dear reader, Ntanda supposed it would be no different. Uma would be calling for her soon. Her suitors would be approaching the compound about now. So Ntanda closed her eyes to lift the dream. That usually worked. She clenched her eyes together. There I am, she thought and felt for the endless black walls of her eyelids. Her heavy body lulled back to sleep and hoped that the right door in her mind had opened. She would run through to the other side.
 
Night


 
Ntanda ran home through the berry laiden dust of the village, picking up the new blue and red fruit that spotted that morning’s path. Her white dress was filled with the red clay that also marked her heels and calves. The sun rose a different shade of orange and amber each morning and the children filled the folds of their shirts and dresses with as many berries as they could hold before the feet of busy adults crushed them by noon. Ntanda loved the sounds her beads made against her chest. She was squeezing clay and berry juice in her palm when the summons drum came echoing through the rolling hills. A hand came down on the folds of her dress, swiping away her morning catch.
 
“Ntanda, the village is waking early this morning. Can’t you hear the baobab weeping? No time for berries,” her grandmother said. The other children ran past her into their respective homes, letting berries fall from their grasp. The sound of their clacking beads faded into the ether, melting into the sound of drums.
 
“But Uma, I was so close. Just this one time . . . can’t the summons wait? The village can sleep for ten more minutes,” and as she said this, the drums beat louder. The ancestors were calling some poor soul home. In that drumming, Ntanda heard a kind of summons for herself. The girl walked slowly into her Uma’s compound, dropping the remnants of berries.
 
And some may say she was a woman. She learned to work to a faster drum. She learned to dance and raise cattle. She learned to cook meat. She learned to fold a burdensome day of chores into her red scarf and sit on the leaning branches of the baobab tree. At the height of twilight, when the sky ran purple in every direction, she would lean her head against the leaves and watch the men who entered her Uma’s doorstep to court her. The matches, young and old, would descend the hill with a train of cattle trailing behind them. The Unozakuzaku 3 from the clans would come dressed in their red ceremonial garments. The negotiations were often long, with Ntanda never present for when summoned. Ntanda’s uduli 4 was high because it was well known that she still wore her first beads. When they left, the men always sounded the same. Their reports would spread to each inkundla 5. “Useless woman,” they would grumble on their return. One after another, with heads bowed, they groaned about Ntanda’s stubbornness to her clan. “Ntanda is a woman who won’t marry,” they grumbled. “She desires no new beads and dishonors her ancestors”. “She is a leopard who does not acknowledge her spots,” they would say. “That kind of beast has no place in the animal kingdom,” they’d say. Ntanda watched and listened from the tree as they grunted, smiling and clicking her beads together.
 
Every now and then, after her chores, Ntanda would fall asleep in the bends of the baobab tree. Curling her body against its wide trunk, she would yawn and let her arms and legs hang limp. She would pick a fruit, a lone survivor, from the branches as she slipped down the long copper trunk at midnight, bursting it beneath her feet and watching the powdery insides vaporize. It was not unusual to see her face smeared in the white powder at night, to see her grazing cattle in the morning with baobab seeds peppered in her hair. All of this came and went to the rising of amber and the setting of suns. To the beating of more frequent drums. And so she was her own kind of woman. And she never married, and she never apologized.
 
One night, after her usual sit in the tree, Ntanda walked into the compound. To her surprise, Uma was up late preparing the house for visitors.
 
“More suitors, Uma? Just tell them I am not interested.”
 
“Ntanda, where have you been all day?” Uma said panting. “You were not present even for your sentencing . . . useless girl. . .” Uma snapped. This was not Uma’s way and Ntanda’s nonchalance evaporated.
 
“It is as the elders said. It is as they said,” she said as she scrambled around.
 
“Uma, all this for a suitor. . . ?”
 
“This is no time for your pageantry,” Uma spun to see her granddaughter. She held her shoulders in her hands. There was fear and reproach in her face. “There will be no more suitors for you. They have come. It is like the Uyayalwa 6 have always said. They have come.”
 
“Who, Uma? Who has come?”
 
“Have you not heard the drums? The drums summon daily not for the dead. You were summoned! For trial today. . . but you were not present. The drums beat for you. They beat for us all and now they are here to collect yo—there is no time, here put this on,” and Uma swiftly placed an intricately folded robe into Ntanda’s hand.
 
“Trials, the living, the dead?” Ntanda chuckled. “Next, you will be telling me that the tokoloshe 7 is coming to get me. I am no child, Uma”.
 
But the laugh was stuck in her throat. She clenched the robe in her hand, letting it unroll. It had a hood and stood almost of its own accord, tall and erect. It was an otherworldly black, yet somehow many colored. Ntanda touched the fine thread. Each thread was speckled from root to tip with the colors of her childhood, her youthful womanhood.
 
“Listen, Tanda. There is a look that does not see you. It forms you,” she whispered, then she paused to listen. “Remember to avoid the look, Tanda.”
 
Uma pushed her only granddaughter through the hall door. “The look will be one that does not see 8.”
 
“Dress, hurry. Try to remember that your Uma loved you dearly,” she whispered.
 
“But, Uma why all the fuss. . .”
 
And though Uma had no time for tears, she cried. Though she was too strong for sentimentality, she let it slip down her face as she swept dust through the last open door. With the broom in her grasp, Uma pushed Ntanda forward. She did so with a force uncommon even to Ntanda. Before she could struggle. She sunk into the deep open mouth beyond the door. Look away, Uma whispered as she swung the door closed. Ntanda turned to see Uma’s expression. But Uma’s face, her words, and her aged hands faded beyond Ntanda’s view. Ntanda found herself swallowed in the black space. The smallest crack in the door had closed. Then it was shut.
 
The way was shut. Confused and in the dark, Tanda held the robe out in front of her. The hall was coated in thick darkness and she felt for the walls. Sensing for a moment that she was beyond her sight of herself, she anxiously opened the robe. She threw the garment over her shoulders and head, feeling it come over her like new skin. It was all she could do. She heard the front door open, then close. She heard the sound of feet, just through the other side. They walked as to a different kind of drum. She heard many voices, but none like her Uma’s, all negotiating the price of some fine beast.
 
“She must be a rare beast. The crowds in Europe will fall in love. The excitement, the horror when they see her,” a man said giddily.
 
‘Enough,’ Ntanda thought to herself. Her hands jerked for the door knob, but seemed to miss it. “You think by now you would know your own own hands,” she thought aloud. She grabbed for it again, but the handle fumbled along her fingers, which now felt too large for such a thing. She found herself wondering why such a thing existed at all. A handle on a door? The more she tried, the more she heard her nails scraping against the door like metal against wood. ‘Is this not the right door, the door in my Uma’s house?’ she begged inwardly.
 
“Let us have a look at her then. I can hear her growling anxiously,” one said.
 
“Yes, a look. But please do be careful. We wouldn’t want an accident like last time,” said another.
 
“Yes, of course. We will need her in perfect condition in order to make the trip.”
 
“Is that right? The only of her kind. Simply untrue, there are hundreds of them all throughout these jungles.”
 
The door began to shake. The robe grew heavy on Ntanda’s shoulder, weighing her down. As Ntanda made her descension, staggering, then crawling, she felt a sudden shaking, like all the leaves of the baobab tree crying out and falling at once.
 
“Uma. . . Umakhulu!” Ntanda manage to yell.
 
“How remarkable. Simply remarkable.”
 
“We’ll. . . we’ll have to name it, of course.”
 
“. . . she . . . she is all I have,” she heard Uma say.
 
“Umakhulu!” Tanda yelled. “Umakhulu!”
 
She roared.
 
 
Day


 
The first thing Tanda felt as she opened her eyes was the absence of bewilderment. Of course this perpetual gray was her new sky. Her purple, her people had cast her out. Even her rage, it seemed, had abandoned her. In its place was this shiftless grey that never changed. That was the first prison. The next day’s fright was that all they were going to feed her was this meat. Not only was this sad for Tanda, as she was vegetarian, but what made it unbearable was that the meat they fed her was so bland. They did not use any of the spices she was used to back home. “No worries, we will take good care of her,” one of the men had said to her grandmother. A little salt, she begged. All they heard was, “purr. . . purr. . .”. That was her second prison. They only threw more slabs of the raw stuff about her. They held it out to her on long, sharp tools and when she begged them to stop, because of the awful smell, they awed at her agility, the sharpness of her claws, the weight of her paw. She longed for the baobab tree and the berries she often snuck between her teeth.
 
‘What had I done?’ Tanda thought. Of all her faults, Tanda could only think of the times she had rejected her suitors because they brought her meat instead of fruit. Because they imagined for her a domestic life just as small as this cage. She was tired of explaining that she was a vegetarian, that she enjoyed long hours gazing at the world through the many branches of the baobab. That she enjoyed picking the ripest berries from Uma’s compound and crushing them between her teeth. And just for that her grandmother had sold her into the hands of three heinous foreigners? Their tongue was rough and their odor was as molten goat cheese. They rambled on and on of their victories, yet there was no salt to show for all their conquerings.
 
                                                                         A sleeping panther will remind us of a fallen jungle.
                                                                         See, we have chopped its branches and cuts its trees. They
                                                                         are nothing and their best beasts we have collected
                                                                         from all around. See here, the Great Panther of Africa.
                                                                         Look how she eats out of our hand. Look at her teeth!
                                                                         What can you make of them but the grave of a thousand
                                                                         pulsing hearts.

 
They practiced their chants as she awaited arrival. Where were they? Where were they going? Who were they going to see? These men were not like her other suitors. From what she gathered, none of them were men of regard or intellect. One was this brutish man, carrying and swinging a long sharp blade wherever he went. The other was this failed orator. He yelled the entire way, the bulge of his belly shaking. The third showed some promise, but nervously moved about, overwhelmed by the things he needed to count and write. He walked nervously between the orator’s shouts and the swings of the other’s sharp blade. None of her suitors had ever been this depressing. How could Uma think to shame her this way? Tanda understood that she was to be observed by a medicine man the next day, which made her was quite happy because she thought surely he would recommend something for the man with the terrible anxiety. But when the medicine man appeared, she was shocked to find him in such a worsened state that she wondered what kind of a barbaric place Uma had sentenced her to. He was twice the orator’s size and that much more in anxiety. He couldn’t even approach her, and Tanda saw him marking something on the other man’s papers. Surely, he could at least tell them she was not a panther, but a black leopard. Or then he could perhaps relay to them that she was a woman, a kind of human even. But none of that would be seen.
 
The elders of these people were also presented, along with several others who came just to look upon her. They came with such a fuss. Each one was announced ceremoniously, but they all seemed to have the same name. Lord this and Lord that, doctor this and doctor that. They made even more of a fuss when she laughed at the dress of their women, when she bared her teeth. One of the women even collapsed. Then the men shot her with a sharp twig that numbed her limbs. She sloped to the floor, and still they bound her with ropes. She was not accustomed to the traditions of other elders, but she tolerated it to be polite. One even sat on her, holding her down to pose for the others. They took turns doing this. They passed little pieces of paper to the little man with anxiety. He would busy himself with counting it.
 
“But while I was held down, was I happy? Or was there—there was not—an uncanny, restless something in my happy prison 9,” Tanda thought.
 
Then, when they thought her asleep, Tanda could see the elders gather about her. She could hear and feel the women admiring her figure from afar. ‘Your ceremonies are disgraceful’, she wanted to say.
 
“Look at that,” one would say.
 
“How monstrous, how hideous a shape!”
 
At the sight of her now languid tail, the men all took out their measuring tapes. Despite the beauty of her spotted coat, they went on and on about its darkness. They missed the beauty of Uma’s robe entirely. Her spots would be evident under a more benevolent sun. This one was much too grey for anyone to see her. Instead, they focused on the length of her tail and how far her mouth protruded. But most of the attention was given to her behind. They played an awful game of it, sitting various items just above the arch in her back, and setting bets for which was the largest item. All of this she pretended not to see or feel, but Tanda explored the faces of these foreigners with a new ache growing inside her. It was a hunger. She had felt it stir in her belly as soon as she was held down. She had never before wondered what meat tasted like. Now, she thought of it all the time. She imagined their heads between her teeth and how she might crush one of them like the berries she was so used to. She imagined their heads would turn the color of her favorite berries. Oh, she craved the blues and reds. This, too, only stirred her pains. Though she knew the thought was murderous, she could not help but wonder. Would they taste better than raw meat? Would they taste like the berries of Uma’s compound? In the end, she suspected that they might be just as bland as the meat they served her. So, she thought it better to feign sleep than to suffer to eat them.
 
 
Night


 
One night, Tanda slept long through the morning, there being no sunrise to greet her. In her dream, she could unlock the door of Uma’s hallway. She did not have to feel for the walls, but walked right through to the outside. She was wearing the robe and now she could see it, more beautiful than all the purple sunsets beneath the baobab tree. As she walked through the compound, Uma shouted at her from the base of the baobab tree, saying “The village sleeps in this morning . . .”. As she said this, the summons drum began to beat loudly and the sky turned a burnt grey. The dust and the berries faded away and the baobab and Uma’s compound turned to stone and smoke. Then, it began to pour down grey rain. Ntanda found herself walking in a strange land, where people spoke a strange tongue. Her robe was all she had to remind her of home, but here its colors shocked the passersby. Some ran into the middle of the road. Others shrieked and fainted. Some chased her with sharp objects and brooms. ‘All this over a bit of color?’ she thought to herself.
 
“Now I see you,” someone said to her.
 
He was hidden behind grey smoke. “There, we have been looking everywhere for you.” Ntanda felt a clenching about her waist and looked to find her bottom grasped. A jeering face of ill teeth smiled between her legs. Her robe was thrown over her shoulder and her breast exposed. One or two of them held her breast in their hands, comparing them to all manner of rounded things. Another waved a piece of paper in her face. Before Ntanda could not make out its markings, they posed around her waist with sharp knives and measuring tape. When she objected, they waved the paper again and sternly pointed at its markings. She found herself longing for the baobab tree, then for the cage, then for the sweet comfort of tightly set bars. Anything but this, this body of hers which was now being been passed through lock and bolt. It passed through eyes and language, through a life of grey, from rough hand to rough hand. And so she was a black woman. Passing through the white mind.
 
 
Day


 
When Tanda awoke on the third day to find herself still a panther, she forgot the taste of fruit. There was a throbbing in her head that she was not accustomed to. She began to eat meat, however unseasoned. She growled at command and sharpened her claws against the metal bars. About this time, she had a special visitor. He was from an exhibition, a collector of rare species that would revitalize his circus. ‘The Great Panther of Africa’, he said behind blossoms of grey smoke.
 
“She will be perfect. I have a cage that is quite suitable for her. We will have to wait ‘til this last trend dies, which should be rather soon,” he added.
 
Tanda growled, baring her teeth just before she was immersed under a different kind of sky. The cage was slipped under a velvet black veil that hid her from the outside world. To outsiders, the cage was a black box, the latest trend from the colonies. She, in turn, was under a gaze of total whiteness, the underside of the black veil. It was pure white, but it was as if the light had gone out. The cage took its final voyage and, under the white veil, Tanda fell under a deep sleep.
 
 
Night


 
The last of the purple sky was dipping beyond the folded hills of her village. From the baobab tree, Ntanda could see the stars weigh in on the land as the night grew thick with shadows. Finally, coming forth, cutting its way through the forest, Ntanda viewed three hatted men. The first had a hat like iron. It was so tall and solid, cut like a tree stump. Bouncing from the top of the hat, was a little ball that hung by a tiny braid. In his hands, swung a blade that shone under the moon. He went cutting a path where there never was one. The second wore a tall hat of some stiff cloth that slumped like a rotting tree stump. All the while, he spoke loudly behind the first, holding a piece of paper. He shouted, declaring this and that to an audience of no one. The third was rather feeble looking. He was a small man in stature and he wore a short, bowl shaped hat with wide brim. He was well behind the others because he frequently paused to inspect everything with a shiny round object on his eye. And he went about mumbling, naming things and giving them a price. They did not descend from the hill like the other suitors Ntanda had seen. Instead, they cut through the sacred places and walked straight past the baobab tree where she sat. Suddenly, the first one turned around as though he had forgotten something. And started to hack it down. The second man began to shout louder, holding the paper to the moonlight and even grew giddy as the tree began to lean. I, Ntanda, tumbled out in time to see it collapse. In time to see the second man between the branches that now touched the ground. He commenced again to declare a thing over the fallen tree as the last man observed it closely, mumbling as he inspected its leaves. I began to cry at the stump of the baobab tree, but they could not see me. They walked past, right through Uma’s compound and into the house. The baobab, whose roots had grown deep for generations before Uma’s compound, whose slender branches had quieted me to sleep, whose infinite curves and bends had held my head in its lap, now lay distorted and gaped on the floor. ‘This was your fate!’ I cried. Then echoing sharply through the night, I heard the second man declaring:
 
“A fine price, that is. A fine price.”
 
“Remarkable. . .”
 
“. . . she’s. . . all I have. . .”
 
“You do accept her royal highnesses . . .”
 
“Nonsense!”
 
“Give the woman her due. . .”
 
And like elk or springbok, they carried quite the load away from Uma’s compound that day. They heaved a robe of black with spots quite visible even under the moon. Ntanda listened as the second man held the paper and declared, “Do you take this . . . as your lawful . . . Do you solemnly swear to love and to cherish . . . giving all your worldly possessions . . . then in the name of His Majesty’s Royal Department of Federation Compilations Court . . . I’m sorry, you do, don’t you? Yes, of course you do. You’re welcome . . . I now pronounce you . . .”. He clapped his hands thrillingly as he got to the last part. The other two struggled with the load, making it difficult for Nanda to hear his last words. They made their way through a new path in the forest, overrun with fresh sap and squashed baobab fruit and berries from the cut trees. There was a new beat, a summon Ntanda had not yet mastered. It was sharp. No, slower, lighter—heavier, hollow.
 
 
Day


 
When Tanda awoke from her sleep, it was like waking right when the door had closed. Right as someone or something had left the room. There was that throbbing something in behind her eyes again, trying to remind her that she was herself. She practiced muttering her name over and over. She practiced sitting in the baobab tree, pretending to lean her head against its thick branches. Is that it? Yes, that must be it. The throbbing slowed. No, not that. The other one, something else. She could see it. It sits in the tree. It eats something called berries. Then, all of its branches folded into a neat piece of paper that fit into this cage. My name, my name, what is it? The thing seemed to disappear completely from her memory, along with the names of her favorite berries, her Uma’s last words to her, and the colors of purple. She tried etching her name onto a cage bar, but only succeeded in inscribing five jagged claw marks. She roared in pain when she realized that over a period of seconds, hours, days—how long had she been away from her sunset?—she had lost her human condition. Can a panther cry? No reasoning power kept her fast inside her own skin. 10 Her skin was inside the veil. Her name was folded on that piece of paper and her claws, in desperately trying to make out its markings, tore it to shreds. Can a panther cry? When Tanda opened her eyes to the white veil, she found herself completely lost. She was seeing through the same eyes that she had seen through her entire life, but her eyes were prisoners of another’s form. In her confusion, she whispered what she knew.
 
“I am not a panther. I am not a panther,” she repeated.
 
So she paced the cage like this, looking for some memory of herself, until she settled on nothing but the white veil. Soon, she craved more meat no matter how raw. There was no stench that would repel her. The throbbing pain drummed behind her eyes. Soon, she gazed on her black fur. She no longer saw her spots. The many colors of her childhood held no meaning for her as they danced despondently. And when the cage came to a stop and the white veil was pulled away, Tanda was surrounded by eyes. The look will be one that does not see. ‘I know how to fold the day’s chores in my head scarf’, she thought. ‘I have rejected dozens of suitors.’
 
“Look at the panther, Mommy! Look at its claws!”
Throwing tiny cuts of meat into her cage, the onlookers gasped and trembled. Some even threw tiny berries. “What are those?” Tanda thought. They held their breaths in fear and awe.
 
“How repulsive . . .”
 
“How black! . . .”
 
“Stand back”, a man shouted. “Panthers do not eat berries. They like meat! Watch me feed her.”
 
                                                                                                   An eating panther will remind us of a fallen jungle. . .
                                                                                                   See, we have chopped its branches and cut its trees. They
                                                                                                   are nothing and their greatest beasts we have subdued . . .
 
“Yes, berries. . . I recall something of berries. I think. No, I am not a panther. That’s the one. . . no, no no. It’s something else. It must be. . . I know how to fold the day. . . into my . . . handkerchief? Right? No. I am not a panther.”
 
Tanda growled as she tore bitterly into the slabs of meat, crushing the berries beneath her paws.
 
                                                                                                   See here, the Great Panther of Africa! Look: how she
                                                                                                   eats out of our hand. Look at her teeth! What can you
                                                                                                   make of them but the grave of a thousand pulsing hearts.
 
“Mama, see the panther! I’m frightened,” the little boy said as he threw himself into his mother’s arms. “Mama, the panther’s going to eat me up.”
 
“Frightened! Frightened!”
 
“Exotic. . . Hell, look! It’s getting mad!” a man shouted.
 
                                                                                                                  See here, the Great Panther of Africa!
 
“I am not a panther. That’s it! There are no panthers in Africa. I am a grh grh. . . Sure of this one. I am a grh grh,” she menaced.
 
“It’s mean, Mama! Look!”
 
“I am a . . .grhgrhhhh”
 
“I am. . .grhhh. Someone. . .please. . . tell them there are no panthers in Africa. There are people who sit in baobab trees. There are suitors and drummers. There are black leopards with spots.”
 
Tanda felt the sharp little stick 11 thrust into her backside. She shrieked with pain to the sound of clapping hands. And as the cage doors opened, and the smell of berries faded from Tanda’s nostrils, her body went numb. Then, as the various white hands seized her about the waist, they began to make her into a panther. They clenched the panther’s jaw into straps and commenced to file down her claws.
 
                                                                                                      Look! How she eats out of our hand. Look at her teeth!
 
Then Tanda saw. As if for the first and last time, her eyes saw this world she had been bequeathed. There before her was that world. She stared at the lifeless body of a man in the cage across from her. He was thinned to nothing. His ribs were trapped in his pale grey skin. His mouth was opened with hunger and with a little of something else. He had a curious smear of white about his lip. He had died with a triumphant smile curled on his desperate face. Perhaps the man never found something he liked to eat and he died happily. His cheeks were hollowed out and even the meager straw of his bed attempted to inch away from his cage. She wondered. Did he choose his cage? Had he felt free? Had he negotiated the terms of that freedom? For reasons she could not understand, while staring at his placid grey body, her mouth watered. She envied his choices.
 
“Well, clear this out now!” someone yelled. 12
 
They slipped the lifeless body into a ditch just behind the cage, straw and all. They buried him. A strange, foreign drumming began to sound as they pounded the door of the earth shut over his body, a summoning home. My summons home, Ntanda thought. Her languid body jolted with a final punctual instinct as the drum beat boringly. She felt her robe one last time. She imagined resting underneath a purple sky.
 
“The panther is all right,” one said.
 
“Remarkable. . .” said another, taking off his tall hat.
 
The beast’s eyes fell slowly like the baobab tree whose branches bend to its feet, weeping. Can a panther weep? The animal woke up a final time to the sound of lock and bolt, to the bleakness of life passing under grey skies, going from rough hand to rough hand. And so they had themselves a panther. She would learn to leap. She would learn to like their meat. She would learn to not miss freedom or the color purple. She would learn to brace herself under the company of eyes that possessed her meaning. Look away. Look away. Night.
 
 

The Panther’s Epitaph

 
“. . . Look here, man! Have you never heard of the great panther? The panther. . . or leopard or animal of whatever species. . . was fed raw meat to her liking. She loved it so, she became drunk off it. . . that is, for the three cat years that she, later re-classified by zoologist as a “he”, lived. She died rather early in her youth. Something to do with syphilis 13 or bad meat. There was really never another like her. The owners missed her so much that they had her claws and her bottom embalmed. They had her genitals and her eyes pickled 14. Her fur and its radiance was sold hair by hair and became quite popular among the ladies, who wore them in tail-like fashion down to their hems. It was à la mode for a period. She made twice the sales in her death than in the three years of her life. So, you see, even a dead panther produces profit far exceeding the gains of the hungry working man. You must have heard of it. Her remains stood on exhibit at the Grand Museum of Paranormal Species until the year 2002. It was one of the longest running exhibits in Europe. That is, until some ruthless group requested to give the animal a ceremonious burial in her jungle. Foolishness, foolishness. So there she rots away now, under some bush. But no more of that. What are zebras going for these days? Everything is about zebras. . .”

 
 
 


 
Epilogue

The panthers we cage are not at all panthers. They become panthers. They are caged several times over in what seem to be very “happy prisons”. They survive the cages of patriarchy, of empire, and of race only to be historicized by indifference. They are inscribed by rough hands. They narrowly escape the gaze or the pen or the paper that defines them as panther or leopard, that governs them as native or other. Those distinctions have very different connotations depending on what side of the cage you are on. The women we cage rarely have that choice. They are forcibly lured, if not captured, and endure a slow erasure. They are rarely recorded in history books. Read them as parable or mythos, as rumor or nightmare, as Venus or Hottentot—we ask only that you leave us their names. Leave us their names so that we might resurrect them out of cages. Perhaps we may yet (re)member them, recognize their names when we see them scratched obscurely onto cage walls. We might reconstruct them out of scattered remains. Their four-clawed calligraphy appears only as animal scratch marks. But look again. Who knows? We may yet see them. We look again. We see purple sunsets and somehow we etch them onto better parchment.
 
 
 
 
1 Ntanda is the female name for Ntando, an isiXhosa name that means “will”.
2 A black panther is the melanistic color variant of any big cat species. Black panthers in Asia and Africa are leopards (Panthera pardus).
3 Negotiators
4 Bridal price or dowry
5 Family home, or place where courtships are discussed
6 elders
7 a potentially malevolent, hairy, goblin-like creature who attacks at night
8 Hasek and Kafka or, The World of the Grotesque. “The look would be one that does not see. People often look at each other without recognizing who they are, And indeed, who are they?” (78).
9 The Passion According to G.H.
10 Lispector, Clarice. The Passion According to G.H. “…reasoning power kept me fast inside my own skin” (7).
11 A dart
12 “A Hunger Artist,” last paragraph.
13 It was presumed that Sara Baartman died of either syphilis or kidney failure due to heavy drinking
14 Sara Baartman’s remains were casted, her genitals pickled, and her physique is rumored to have attributed to fashion of silhouette bustle skirts and dresses of the mid-1800s, distinguishable by their cage crinoline silhouette support.
 
 

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