by Mary McMyne
The pit is deep, eight paces wide by eight paces tall, filled with large stakes that jut from the bottom, sharpened stones at each tip. The stones glitter, silver and black-pointed in the sun, when I remove the vines my husband has woven with moss and dead leaves to cover them. No matter how the panther falls, she will land on at least one. I shudder, thinking of her beautiful multicolored hide, the way her eyes flash when she circles our fire at night, avoiding us, as if she knows the harm my husband means to her.
She has never bothered us, in all the four moons I have lived here with him, despite what Elēl tells us about her predilection for human meat. I doubt she would unless we threatened her cave. Often, I’ve seen her lazing at its edge, watching her cubs play, in the morning when I go to bathe in the spring. At the sight of me, her muscles always tense, and her claws dig into the stone. But as soon as I look away, she relaxes. This is why I want to sabotage the trap. She is not the threat he claims she is.
The sun dances on the surface of the spring, and the trees whisper their encouragement as I pull the vines back over the pit, removing some of the leaves he has woven into them. I pull them out randomly, hoping he will think the wind has strewn them, and the panther–whose eyes glimmer with intelligence–will see the holes and avoid the pit. I cannot bear the idea of her cubs circling it, mewling desperately, after she falls in.
When I volunteered to come here, I had no idea what I was getting into. Nothing could’ve prepared me for the horror, the beauty, of flesh. From the beginning of time, up there, we had no word for singleness. Elēl had been one of our brightest. In the void we all inhabited, he shone with a great and powerful light. The day he fell, suddenly, inexplicably, his light divided the heavens, and we sang a song of sorrow at his loss. When he sent his message, much later, from the world where he landed–a dark earth he said had come to life with his light–a ripple of joy beamed among us. Who will go to him, we sang without words, wondering if it was possible for one to answer. I was relatively bright and new and curious, only recently spun from gas and dust, so it didn’t seem absurd for me to try.
Sometimes I wonder if I should regret that I did.
Within instants of raising the singular voice I didn’t know I had, I was falling. And then, suddenly, there I was, encased in skin, breathing oxygen, staring at the being Elēl would have me wed. There is no denying the pleasure of sex, but Elēl follows us everywhere, a stray beam of sunlight, a tongue in the flames. Every time I turn around, there he is, lecturing me in that booming voice of his, so deep something of it hangs in the air–a hum, like bees zooming in and out of a hive–in the silence after he speaks.
“What are you doing here?” my husband says, now, as he comes out of the trees.
I look around for Elēl. He must be here somewhere–in the sky, the sunlight glinting on the water–if he sent my husband to catch me at the trap. “I came to bathe in the spring.”
He holds out his hand. “Mind if I join you?”
Remembering the last time we swam together, I smile. “I’d love that.”
On our way toward the spring, he pauses to study the missing leaves.
This is her work, I think, examining the pattern of holes in the vines. But I decide not to let on that I know, holding her hand and making small talk. I’d prefer to swim–and couple, as we usually do, in the spring–before we bicker again.
Four moons ago, when Elēl said he would call her into being, the sky split open to reveal a storm so black I didn’t want to see what came out. But Elēl was the source of all life, he said, the light that fell boundless over everything. I trusted him. And then there she was, swimming out of the storm, this gorgeous creature with dark skin the color of earth, black hair that swirled in the wind. The most beautiful thing I had ever seen, drifting to the ground, her toes pointing down, down, her eyes glistening with impossible light.
What is she? I wanted to ask, but I didn’t have the words. All I had was my heartbeat, the thump-thump, thump-thump sounding loudly in my ears. I had only been alive a short while, and that was the first time I was conscious of it, when she set foot on that clay and quickened my heart. As her toes touched the earth, the storm vanished into the horizon, and the night sky sparkled with stars. I felt the urge to pray. I could not believe Elēl had created her for me. She glowed, like the moon and stars. But she was flesh, too. How sinuous her arms were, how balanced her shoulders, and the muscles in her thighs, her hips. When she looked at me mutely, I was surprised at how much her eyes resembled mine when I saw them reflected in the spring.
In the four moons that have passed since then, I have noticed a number of differences between us. The way her voice buzzes, like a growl, when she speaks. The way her fingernails grow more quickly than mine, like claws. She has to file them, daily, with the pumice stone she found at the bottom of the spring. But I find myself distracted by the shine of her skin, her hair, the softness of her thighs and breasts. The insistent hardness, the pressure between my legs, when she touches me.
It is easy to forget everything else.
Something about the way the light dapples the water makes me nervous. I can see patterns, energy, leaping from ripple to ripple, as we dip our toes in the spring. I close my eyes and raise my face to the sky, let the light wash over my eyelids, trying to pretend Elēl isn’t watching. The spring is warmer than usual. Underwater the sky is the color of opals, and the leaves on the trees beside the spring are a distant, vague green. I love the water with a passion that my husband thinks inexplicable. It reminds me of before. I swim circles around him, letting my flesh brush his, wondering how much he saw of what I did to the trap.
The first time he told me he wanted to kill the cat, we fought. I had only been here a handful of sunsets. He and Elēl had been on a spree ever since I arrived, wandering about, putting words to things. Dove, hummingbird, bee. Apple, leaf, tree, branch. Lake, sea, stone, opal, panther. As if the world was theirs to name! They gave me one too, but the word tasted funny in my mouth, with its celebration of my singleness. In the heavens, we had no need for words because of the song of being, the ever-present stream of noise and light we shared. Now that I am flesh, I’m more interested in exploring the way this world intersects my boundaries. What I like best about this form is swimming and eating. And my husband, of course, late at night, when we lie together beside the fire, breathing in one another’s breath, touching, silent, wordless. In those moments I am glad to have been called down. Before, I hadn’t known what it was to be alone, or the pleasure in filling that lack.
Swimming around him like a fish, I suspend myself in the crystal cold water that bubbles up from the spring, my hair floating and swirling behind me. My flesh tingles each time it touches his. He smiles and pulls me up out of the water, letting his fingers slide over my wet arms, pulling me toward him. After we kiss, when he enters me, I feel as whole as I did up there, one with everything, fulfilled, the contrast with my usual state–these last four moons–beautiful and terrifying.
When it’s over, we lie on the flat rock beside the spring, letting the sun bake our skin, until he sits up. “I saw what you did to the trap,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m going to fix it. I won’t rest until the panther is dead.”
I do not answer, or open my eyes. I claw the moss of the stone, my knuckles curling with rage. He has no understanding, it’s clear, of anything but his own shape. He is too full of singleness.
That night, beside the fire, I tell her all the reasons she should want me to catch the panther. The cat is a beast. Our enemy. A predator, one of the only creatures who could hurt us, hurt our children.
Not long after Elēl called her into being, he told me that one day–one day soon, if we kept up the pace at which we were coupling – her belly would grow, and she would give birth to a creature so small it would fit into the palms of our hands. A child, to love and care for, to make in our own image, like he had made us in his.
These past few days, I have begun to see the signs Elēl said I should watch for in her. Hunger, a swollen belly, a keen sense of smell.
“I think you are with child already.”
The fire crackles between us. The night creatures–crickets and owls–sing. She touches her stomach, looks down at the small swell beneath her navel.
I put my palm on her belly, which is hard. “You bear all the signs.”
For a moment, we watch one another in the flickering light of the fire, its shadows leaping between us. Then she presses herself into my chest, and I kiss her neck. I don’t want to ruin the moment, but I have to tell her. Maybe now, she’ll listen to reason.
“The cat is a danger,” I whisper. “To you and the child.”
“No,” she says, pulling away. “Stop.”
“You haven’t seen the way it kills. Once, from high in a tree, I watched it bite directly through the skull of an antelope. Its hooves kicked once and then froze, its life stopped in an instant.”
Her eyes grow large and round, and she shakes her head. “It has its own children. Three cubs.”
“They will grow as large and sharp-toothed as she.”
Round and round, we go, like this, for hours. I need her to help me carry its carcass from the pit the next morning, but she continues to argue, her eyes bright as the fire beside us, until she grabs my shoulder, her long fingernails digging like claws into my flesh.
“No,” she hisses. “I won’t help.”
When he stalks off into the darkness, I want to follow him. But I can’t follow him for the rest of his life, the way Elēl follows us. In the end, we are separate. I spend the night in the clearing where we usually tend the fire together, alone, eating roots and nuts and tubers. I touch the swell below my navel and wonder if life truly stirs there. Sleep eludes me.
When the flames begin to lick and dance blue and gold and orange, snarling into the shape of a tongue, I sit up.
“Why won’t you listen to Adam?” Elēl’s voice booms, the fiery tongue moving with its rhythm. “He knows what is best.”
“The panther won’t hurt us.”
“How do you know?”
“She is afraid.”
“You do not understand this form, or fear.”
Then the blue and gold and orange tongue falls apart, and the fire goes back to crackling.
In the sudden silence, I wonder if Elēl is right, if I’m mistaken about the cat. I cannot help but question whether he is truly the source of all life, as he says he is. The stars existed before he did. He only called me here. I touch my belly, again, and remember – not for the first time - what happened when he fell. I hadn’t been around too long before that, but I had been around long enough to know what usually happened when one of us died. There had always been warning before, a time of great sorrow when the noise the dying one made swelled and we all sang. There had been no such time for Elēl, and I was beginning to suspect why. What if he wasn’t satisfied with being one of many? What if his fall had been intentional?
I stand and kick dirt over what’s left of the fire. The flames hiss. When they die out, in the cold night air, I shiver, rubbing my bare flesh to stop the chill.
The stars mutter their approval as I rush into the trees.
The panther is most active at night. I have watched it for many days, as Elēl instructed, learning its habits, its peculiarities. Every creature has them, he says. At midnight, I’ve learned, the panther may be anywhere–its whereabouts are unpredictable–but just before dawn, it stops to drink from the spring before it returns to its cave. Each night, it slinks the same way through the trees to the water. It takes the same route back to its den.
This is how I knew where to dig the pit.
As I climb the tree above its path, just before dawn, I remember what Elēl said the day before. It is time to kill the cat. The cold season comes. Its meat will save, if you rub it with salt from the sea. When I told him about my wife’s reaction to the idea, he laughed. If she doesn’t like it here, she can leave. I’ll find you another. A replacement.
Now, I turn his statement over in my head, wondering what he meant. Where would she go, if she left? A replacement?
And then, as the dark of the eastern horizon begins bleed with pink, there she is, running through the brush and thorns toward the trap, screaming my name. Her voice is strained, her face pink in the dim light. Her condition seems, already, to have affected her capacity for breath. When I do not answer, she busies herself, again, pulling vines off the trap. I feel myself awaken between my legs as I watch her bend. Misguided though she may be, she is beautiful, especially with her swelling stomach; the thickening of her hips only accentuates her waist. As she works, the sky brightens infinitesimally in the east, and it occurs to me that the panther has probably already begun to make its way back. I drop from the tree and hurry toward her, imagining the beast biting into her skull, its teeth puncturing the swell of her belly.
Planting myself between her and the beast–the way it comes every morning, the way I know it will come today–I pull a stone-sharpened stick from the pit.
“Wait.” She clutches my shoulder again, the same one she hurt before, her eyes wild and searching. In the dim light, in the mist, they look darker than mine, not brown but black. “Everything he’s taught you is wrong. He made you to worship him.”
I move out from under her grasp, shake the pain from my shoulder, trying to make sense of her words. “What are you talking about? Of course he did. He made us in his image.”
“Get back,” she says. “The panther will not hurt us.”
Behind us, the leaves rustle. In the trees, the cat’s eyes flash, yellow and wide open.
I raise my spear.
She roars. For the first time in all the times I’ve seen her on this path, she roars–an explosion of breath and sound, a terrible rumble in the dim fog of morning–disembodied, her fur nothing more than a vague discoloration of mist. Only her eyes are apparent, yellow ghosts that meet mine for a fraction of an instant. Then she disappears in a blur of movement as my husband lets fly the spear.
It happens too quickly. There is no time for me to scream, no time for me to grab his arm and stop him. There is only the spear flying through the air, whooshing through the mist behind her as she leaps toward the pit. And then she is screaming, a horrible yowl of terror and regret from its bottom. There is a depth, a pain, to her yowling; I can tell she is thinking of her cubs, what will happen to them once she’s dead.
It’s too much. My knees buckle. I shake. A sound swells in my throat, a song of sympathy, a song of remembering, the song we once sang in times of sorrow up there. Its simplicity surprises me; I had forgotten how beautiful it was. I want to laugh and cry at once. My flesh begins to glow, brighter than it ever has before, becoming radiant.
My husband covers his ears, hides his face.
But the hum in my throat only gets louder when he stumbles to the pit to end the panther’s suffering. The hum in my throat only gets louder when he comes to comfort me, and I see the blood on his hands. As I pull away, a competing light begins to pour down over us, over him, from the trees. Elēl, I think, the word like a plague, my skin crawling. My husband stares at me, the dark irises of his eyes, usually the color of earth, reflecting the light from my skin.
There are so many creatures I would rather be, if creature I must be. Panther, hummingbird, bee. Anything that doesn’t speak. Anything that still remembers the song of being.
I close my eyes and touch my belly.
“Don’t leave,” my husband says. “Please.”
But when I open my mouth to answer him, there is only the song in my throat, now almost deafening. I cannot form words with my tongue. I cannot tell him that I am closer to beasts and birds and insects than he is, that I do not want to bring a child into this place. I can only stare at him mutely–my Earth-eyes sad, unblinking–until the song in my throat explodes and the sky splits open to carry me away.