The White Leopard

That I cannot speak does not mean that I am silent.  The pumping heartbeat, the hissing intake of breath, the endless creaking of bones – I do not need a voice to be heard.  When I sat, waiting patiently in the blind in the high tree, I did not wait to hear men’s voices – I listened for their footsteps and heard their heartbeats; there is truth in those sounds.  And that is my curse: to hear the truth though none can hear me speak it; I am Cassandra inverted.

—–

Though my speech was stilled, my rifle spoke in a tongue that even the men of Babel could have understood; it was the only voice I had.  When I was young, only a boy, my father gave it to me.  It was a heavy gift, not given without consideration.  “The lead in that barrel carries a great weight,” he said, “do not bear its burden lightly.”  So I trained and learned the trade and, only a boy, became a huntsman.  I spent many nights cradled in the boughs waiting for a doe that might feed my mother and brother and father most of all.  He could not show it, but he loved me, my father did; I know it.  But ours has been no great time for differences.  The horrible quiet of my muted tongue shamed him and drove us far from the Isles and into the white waste – though he did not speak this to me, I heard the truth.  Then the comrade came with his stiff walk and father had to don the gerb or else see fire set to our walls.  I could not follow, I was too young, though – in my silence – they would not have taken me even had I been of age.

He did not speak the words, but I knew what he would have said, “You must protect them now, son, now that I am gone.”  Of course he would not return; few men walk far beneath the ever-falling rain of war and yet live.  I meant to do him proud, to prove my strength.  I took up the reins; I hunted that I might feed them, the thin woman and the young boy.  For the first time, I felt a man.  And a man cannot sit idly while a fire burns in his heart and his enemies stalk the land.  A father must be avenged.  A man must prove his worth.

I left in the night so that the light and hope of morning might comfort my mother.  I left them a great buck, my finest mark yet.  They would survive.  We are nothing if not survivors.

I went out to the borders of our lands and made my blind.  I quieted my breathing as He had quieted my tongue.  I waited, listening.  I hunted when the need arose, and I waited and listened.  Soon they would come, searching for the pass over these lands, the Krauts whose violence and hatred had stolen father from our home even here at the world’s end, and I would be ready.  I would prove them wrong, I would make him proud.

In time, they came.

Even in that wood where every word was swallowed by silence as it fell from a man’s lips, I could hear them.  The buzz of their roaring death-engines and their rattling laughter carried on along winding paths through the snowy wood and to my ears.  I could hear their heartbeats, loud and rhythmic, as they approached.  They came alone or in pairs, walking slowly and steadily, searching out the paths their masters had ordered them to find.  They brought noise, reckless and untamed, dishonest and untrue, into that peaceful and quiet place.  With a pull of the catch, I gave them silence.

The first two were masterful kills, a single hour separating each of the fatal shots.  They were the first men I had ever fired upon.  While animals were lithe and strong, blessed with heightened sensory awareness, men were foolish and headstrong, trusting more to their minds than their hearts, though it was the beating in their chests that gave them up.  The Krauts walked steadily, the rhythms of their feet and their breath and their hearts rattling off the trees, into my range and out of this world.  Their motions were consistent, my aim true.  “Shoot rarely and decisively,” my father had said, “shoot to kill and kill cleanly.”  I did.  It took only one shot each: clean blasts through the throat, severing the carotid and puncturing the jugular in one fluid blow.

Snow piled on one and then the other prone figure as they lay in pools of red on the white ground.  There were no sounds, save the sleepy song of snowfall, in the wood.  I slept deeply and purely that first night, untroubled by fear or doubt – no man would venture, in the dead of night, to a place from which a trusted scout had not returned.

But I was not alone in the wood.

The first Kraut disappeared in the night while I slept.  Bundled tight in the crook of branches I woke to find his body gone, my work washed clean.  It didn’t add up – the hours had been too few; the snow could not have buried him so quickly.  The second body remained.  Yet the first was gone, wholly.  The ground where he had died was white, untouched, pristine, his blood sponged clean from the snow.  The fallen body, the crimson arcs of his spilt blood – they were gone.  My heart was shaken.

If I accounted the first disappearance an aberration, the second was a terror.  He too disappeared under the grey, impotent watch of the night sky.  No longer could I trust the night.  Years I had spent in the wood, I knew the nature of that place, but I could not comprehend these disappearances.  They did not fit into the harmony of the wild; beneath the tune of the wood I could hear the subtly rising hum of discord.  In the days following the disappearances, I slept in fitful bursts, never truly resting.  Sleep had hidden the agent of these disappearances twice now.  I would not let sleep blind me again.

Alone, high in my blind, I sat, awake and unblinking.  I heard and saw nothing.  The menace that had despoiled my work haunted my thoughts.  What men had moved so quickly to undo what I had done?  If they were comrades of the fallen, why did they not hunt for my nest and seek vengeance?  Were they hunting, searching for me even now?

For two days and two nights I waited.  Fear and doubt stole into my heart.  Cold sweat beaded on my brow and trickled, stinging, into my eyes.  My fingers twitched.  I jumped at every noise.  I was anxious, but not yet come undone.

At last, another scout came; the great wicked hand reached back to where it had twice been burnt.  My muscles – usually loose and relaxed – were tense and knotted, my heart’s palpitations – usually slow and steady – were an arrhythmic wreck.  Through my sight I viewed the agent of the enemy.  He was frail and thin, his eyes wide with fear, his limbs trembling in terror as they staggered forward one tremulous step at a time.

I let him come.  I let him move deeper and deeper into my net, my eye pressed to the lens and my finger hanging on the catch.  I knew that he was no threat and yet I waited with baited breath, fearing the revelation of whatever devilry the Krauts had devised that could devour men so completely.  Yet as each step brought no news, I began to feel ashamed at my cowardice.  I remembered that I was strong.  Had they sent him alone, I wondered, those filthy beasts?  Had they sent this poor, small wretched thing out to die broken and alone, forgotten at the cold, bleak end of the world?

He pulled up alongside the bole of an old tree and stopped.  I raised my rifle.  He turned his head over his shoulder and nodded silently.  It was a signal.  He returned to his forward march.  Someone was following him.

I had to kill them both, or none.  If I killed only one envoy of the scouting pair, they would find me – as sure as the beating of my heart, they would find me.  But I could not find the other.  Often my sight returned to the lead scout.  He was close and moving closer.  Soon he would be too near my nest; his untrained ears could not hear me, but his eyes would spy me out.  All my hope lay in taking the first shot.  Always I shot first.

I shifted anxiously, and put my rifle to my shoulder.  A sound – a bird’s call – rang out.  The Kraut froze, his muscles gone taught.  Here in the unknown, fear had taken him; his wide eyes began searching, searching for anything.  In his panic, he searched quickly.  Soon his eyes would be upon me.  I needed to fire, to bring him down before I was seen, but if I felled him, his unseen partner would hear the shot – my location would be compromised.  All would be lost.  Still the Kraut searched.  My pulse quickened.  I felt my heart beating through my fingertips.  His automatic found the bole of my tree and began drawing the line up to my post.  I could wait no longer.

My finger pulled sweetly at the catch – a lover’s caress.  Just as the shot exploded out of my barrel, the Kraut turned his head to look behind him.  He did not see whatever had drawn his attention.  His throat was torn open.  I turned my aim from the auburn fountain and followed the Kraut’s last gaze.  Alone in the distance was the second scout.  He was running, his eyes sneaking glimpses over his shoulder of the carnage that had claimed his comrade.  There was a great distance between us.  But my reach was long.  The first shot shattered his right shoulder blade; he stumbled, but still he ran.  The second severed the tendons in his right knee.  He fell to the ground and coughed, a thin cloud of red issuing from his mouth.  I had punctured his lungs.  Let it not be said that I was without mercy.  I put an end to his suffering.  The third shot shattered his skull as he kneeled in the snow wondering what monster had befallen him.

The sun fell and the dead men became dark blotches on the night-gray ground; I watched and waited – soon they too would disappear.  I would see the means.  I did not know for what I waited.  Logic told me that the disappearances must have been the work of men, and yet the all-consuming purification was inhuman in its completeness.  And yet there was no creature in this wood capable of such work; if the Krauts were not responsible for the disappearances, then surely whatever was had come with them, following their brazen trail of blood and smoke, lured perhaps by the smell of death, though the Krauts themselves did not know it.  This foul beast, in its stealth, had followed their train, unnoticed amongst the clamor as they marched and trampled the world beneath their feet.  It came, drawn to the irresistible stench of war by a lust deeper than any that has troubled man’s heart.

Faint moonlight fell through a cloudy sky and illuminated the rumpled piles of the dead as I watched them – ever back and forth, from one to the other – through my sight.  It was late, and I had been watching with great anticipation for some hours.  I blinked to dampen my eyes, dried as they were by the frigid winter air.  I stood on the edge of dreams, losing the battle of sleep.  The moon shifted.  The tides turned.  I saw movement.  I shifted the sight, refocused my eye.

Dark against the snow, a small horde of shapes moved towards the Kraut that had run.  They were many and they were dark.  They wriggled and squirmed in rhythmic undulations that were smooth and violent and too well ordered for many minds.  They made no sound.  The dark shapes moved and swayed like dancers.  I nearly retched at the sight.  Lowering my rifle, I turned away and buried my head in my hands, revolted by the organic and disturbing movements of that dark troupe.  As I hid, tired, under a black sky, sleep stole upon me and the dark shapes haunted my dreams – I saw them move through the wood and ravage the home that I had left behind and then climb into the sky and eat the sun.  Then I awoke and, to my amazement, morning had come – the day had not yet been swallowed by the dark and writhing creatures.

But one of the Krauts had.  The Kraut who had run, about whom the dark and wretched monsters had swayed in the night, was gone.  There was no trail of blood or of offal, no trough carved in the snow by his fallen frame as it was dragged off to its end.  Even the splattered blood that had flown from him in token of my handiwork was gone.  All that remained was a soft, gentle pit in the snow, a minute dimple on the face of the earth.

With my sight I searched the ground and the trees – I dare not leave my perch.  There were no signs of the fallen Kraut or of the mysterious army that had taken him.  I looked to the other dead Kraut, much nearer to me.  He was untouched since my blast had felled him.  His shattered body lay in a heap on the white ground, his blood arching out around him like wings.  His presence comforted me no more than his comrade’s absence.

Through the long hours of that day I monitored my flanks ceaselessly.  Often my gaze turned back to the fallen Kraut where he lie, turned to the image of Michael, Angel of Death.  My nerves were beginning to fray.

—–

I woke with a start.  I had not meant to sleep, but again the dream world had overtaken me.  Night had fallen and the moon loomed heavily above, brilliant and bright.  The wood glowed with an unholy radiance.

In the distance, movement.  I put my eye to the sight and focused through the lens, searching for the answer.  I heard nothing.  My aim drifted in and out of the trees, spiraling out from the fallen body of the Kraut.  My heart was racing, my face flush, my very skin seemed liable to steam with heat in the cold night.  At last, when my fragile heart seemed ready to burst from the tension and stress, I saw it.  The dark army.  The black horde.  The dark spots that had consumed every last scrap of the running Kraut had returned to claim another of the dead.  It was time to feed.

They came rushing on, file upon file and rank upon rank, the armies of the dark, with a blackness deeper than all the black night around them.  They moved and shifted, the edge bodies always moving faster and more elaborately than the central pillars whose unyielding steadiness held together the whole shifting mass.

As the horde approached the dead Kraut, moving closer and closer to my hidden blind, the truth was revealed by the light of the moon.  I had been deceived.  The dark monsters that devoured the dead were not some malignant masse of wretched, colonized evil.  No, there was only one – only one hideous and perilous beast claimed the Krauts that fell here, so far from their homes.  The marching darknesses gathered together on his pelt under the haunting glow of the moon as I saw him for the first time: the white leopard.

His sleek white coat, its luster clear in the moonlight, bore the spotted army.  A fell light waxed in his amber eyes as he tore into the Kraut.  The sound was hideous, the stink abominable.  High in my perch, my stare was trapped by the horror of the sight.  Terrible as the smell and sight were, it was the sound that turned my stomach.  It spoke the truth as only sound can do, and it was horrible: the snapping of bones, the slurping of flesh, the raucous consumption of all that was once a man.

I wanted to be sick, but my stomach was empty.  I wanted to cry, but there were no tears inside of me.  I wanted to scream, but I had no voice.  I was broken and I was wretched, as wretched as all that I had heard.  And I was trapped, too afraid to move, to do anything at all.

Amidst the ravenous display of gore, the leopard raised his head.  He did not search or sniff, but rather looked directly towards my blind.  His eyes bore through my own and stabbed at my heart with the icy hot tear of a frozen blade cutting into flesh.  I couldn’t bear it; I felt myself blanch and swoon.  When I came to, I was still wedged safe in my corner, but the sun had risen and the white leopard had gone, taking all remnant of another Kraut with him.

—–

I gripped my rifle and searched with my eyes.  My eyes, I knew, must remain open, my rifle, at hand.  For eighteen days and nights I searched, sleep unbidden overtaking me in waves.  Waking was dreaming and dreaming was waking and always the image of the white leopard haunted my thoughts.  He would come for me.

All the sounds of the wood washed over me and mixed into an interminable hum.  My eyes blurred and my head swam.  In the dark nights I watched as brilliant stars pierced the clouds and drew pictures across the black sky.  Written in those lights, I saw my father march out against the enemy and I knew that he was dead; I saw my mother kindle a fire and hold my brother close to her breast.  Then they were gone, washed away by the night clouds just as I had cast them aside in my foolish quest to be more than just a broken son, more than just the shame that had driven father into this waste that had swallowed him so wholly.  My pride vanished as the clouds pulled back to reveal great amber eyes, looming in the sky like two melting moons – the white leopard was watching.  Fear rattled down my spine.  I grabbed my rifle to my chest.  My eyes refocused and all was darkness and scattered light.  I saw and heard nothing.  I was alone in the wood.

Sleep became a memory; night and day, the varying stages of my fear.  At night, I feared the stars; I feared the sky and what it might show me.  During the grey days I was trapped in my blind – I dare not leave the safety of it.  I watched as far as my eyes and the gaps between trees would allow and I listened even further for any hint of the white leopard.  I listened past the whistle of the wind and the sound of the falling snow until there were no sounds that I could not hear.  Far in the distance, birds flitted and I heard their tiny hearts pounding as they battled to stay aloft.  Among sounds so fine and thin, I heard, for the first time, the silence of my broken voice.

I was disoriented.  Nothing was constant or rhythmic.  I heard faraway heartbeats fluttering in and out of random patterns; all was chaos.  The white leopard was getting closer, growing more desperate.  I could feel it in the air, I could smell his fetid stink, and I could hear the growling of his ravenous stomach.  I was not alone.  A vague shape appeared before my bleary eyes: a new Kraut.

He came stumbling into my sight, a glazed and bloodshot look in his half-veiled eyes.  All the other Krauts had walked with precision and deliberation but this man walked with a loose, irregular gait.  With a jagged movement he set his rifle against the bole of a tall pine.  I blinked and tried to refocus my tired eyes.  The Kraut was leaning against the pine with one hand, pissing with the other.  He was stone drunk.

Out here, in the white wastes, among the fields where the dead are sown, this lone Kraut had stumbled over leagues of barren earth to find himself here, in the midst of nothing save my sight.  Something unexpected washed over me and, for the first time in months, I smiled.  He was a Kraut.  A filthy, stinking Kraut.  But he was a man, a life like my own.  Perched in my blind, unseen for so long by any save those two hideous amber eyes, looking down upon this drunkard, both of us killers, I forgot my place.  The absurdity was too much, the contrast of human comedy too great.  I laughed.

It was small and stifled.  But it was not a forest-noise nor a wood-sound.  The Kraut, incapacitated as he was, was a soldier still.  He lurched about, his urine spraying everywhere as he struggled to tuck himself back into his garments with fingers numb from both cold and drink.  He drove his knee right into the steaming pool he had just made and crouched to reduce his figure.  With a great deal of slipping and grasping, he took up his rifle.

The serenity that I had felt, for one fleeting moment, was lost.  My heartbeat became erratic and irregular, my breathing sharp and shallow.  The Kraut was searching for me.  Always I shot first.  The sun was sinking.  Light was diminishing.  Soon I would lose my shot.  But I did not trust my aim – my eyes were too weary, my trigger-reflexes too slow.

If only he had run and spared us both, but he did not.  I did not want to shoot, did not will it, but my body, used to the act, followed through on the dim echoes of past action.  I did not fire the shots, though it was my finger that pulled the catch.  Three shots left the barrel, before I realized what had been done.  The first shot shattered the Kraut’s clavicle before stopping abruptly against the inside of his right shoulder blade.  The second flew just beneath the first, shearing through ribs and lancing a lung, forcing the Kraut backwards onto the ground.  The third and final shot drove twice through his left leg, as it bent to full compression at the knee, once just past his femur and once through his calf.

Moans of agony and cries in his harsh, guttural tongue reverberated in the wood.  He tried to crawl, but his left leg was lame and his right arm was failing.  Slowly, he dragged himself up so that he sat in a puddle of his own blood and piss, leaning against the great pine whose roots would drink the life that poured out of him.

Night set, darkness fell completely.  From the rasping of his voice, I knew that his lungs were filling with blood.  Never before had I fired so recklessly.  My kills were precise, accurate, and quick – decisive, just as my father had said they must be, just as I had learned.  But my father was gone, felled by a phantom shot on foreign soil.  It was my shot, of course, that had traveled the world and finished the work that my broken tongue began long ago.  And now he was gone and I was left, the thin remainder of a full man.  If only I had been stronger, if only the silence that had lain between us had been a product of only one stilled voice.

With great care I raised my rifle to end the Kraut’s pain, but the moon glinted off my lens and betrayed me.  With forlorn rage, the Kraut unholstered the pistol at his ankle and opened fire on the shimmering light.  His anger sobered him; though he was dying and drunk his shots hit close to the mark and forced me into cover.

He cursed and screamed obscenities with his bloody voice; I did not speak his language but I knew what he said: he meant not to die alone.  As he emptied clip after clip into the trees I knew that my cover would not last.  Soon I would be bare and exposed, alone among the solemn trees that would give me up so easily.  For the first time since I had seen the white leopard, I was afraid of a man.  I feared the Kraut’s eyes – I feared the look of a man who knew that I had killed him, a man who knew that his death came at my hand, a man who knew what I had done, a man who knew what I was.  I could not bear the weight.

Time was short.  The Kraut’s excitement hastened his breath and sped up the flow of blood into his lungs.  His breathing became heavy and wet.  Still he raged and still I hid.  Motion caught my eye.  Down beneath my feet, moving slowly and with purpose, the patched army had come.  The white leopard had returned.

Always he came at night.  When the sky had gone black and the glimmering stars were pale pinholes in the dark sheet that covered the world, under the seething glow of an axe-blade moon, he came, lured by the iron-smell of blood.

I heard all.  Each snowflake fell with the earth-rending rattle of a collapsing building.  Far off I heard the earth spin and the stars move, close at hand, the labored, drowned song of the Kraut’s sinking lungs.  Behind all was the steady drum-pum drum-pum of the Kraut’s heart, beating on and on as all else in its kingdom failed.

The black and white pelt broke out of the shadow and into the moonlight; the Kraut stared confusedly.  When his peril was made clear, he fired one single shot at the beast but it flew wide, the sound exploding like a cataclysm in my ears.  The white leopard flew onto him, great black and white legs singing like bowstrings.  The Kraut’s ragged torrent of screams, the sonic embodiment of hatred and anger, became shouts for mercy and pleas for help, but he did not call to his comrades or to his Fuhrer or to his God – his supplication was for my listening ears.

I turned away.  I could not bear the sight though I could not escape the sound.

Fear had finally conquered the last reaches of my heart.  Horror and revulsion came on me like the dawn of a new and terrible day.  I could not find the courage, even, to fire a merciful killing shot.  Instead I huddled close, clinging to my rifle as a child clings to its mother when nightmares trouble its dreams.  But this was no dream.

I heard the wet rending of flesh, the violent gnashing of teeth.  The Kraut’s screams, once high and full, wilted and hissed like the air from a deflating balloon.  His diaphragm had been torn.  Soon his screams were gone entirely, the sound consumed with his lungs.  Above the slopping sound of the feasting white leopard, only the rapid and throbbing beat of the Kraut’s still-pumping heart could be heard throbbing in my tortured ears.  And then that too was silenced, leaving only the grisly sounds of ravenous gluttony and the horrible stillness of death.

All through the night I heard the imprecise work of the white leopard: the slurping and tearing of muscle and the crunching and cracking of bones.  When the sun rose into the grey winter-sky after that endless night, I heard the white leopard leave – he needed no secrecy in the morning.  Fat with flesh and bones, he had nothing to fear under the morning sun.

Sunset and sunrise followed in endless succession according to the nature of the world.  Somewhere between the waxing and waning of daylight I lost count of the days.  I did not sleep.  I did not dream.  I did not hear.  Sounds rattled through my ears, lights flashed and faded before my eyes, the wind blew and snows fell, night came and then day and then night again in an unbroken loop of infinite complexity and infinite simplicity.  All was still and all was turbulent and I lay at the center of a storm that stood on the periphery of all things.

Grey evening-light flooded my eyes and my mind flew out from the wood and up above the world so that I saw our pale shimmering light, a stone dropped into a sea of darkness.  We are so very small and I, alone.  I had never and would never speak but there were other ways, other avenues of communion.  My rifle had given me a voice; now I saw that it spoke only in screams.

—–

When I fell I was neither awake nor asleep.  The gradual decay of my senses had finally permeated my limbs and, as my head lolled, my shoulders tipped backwards and were pulled by the irresistible force of gravity off of the platform.  The wind sang softly and sweetly in my ears as I descended.  My spine pushed on the earth and the earth pushed back, my lungs compressing and my diaphragm spasming.  Air rushed up through my throat and out of my mouth in a great column, flowering into the sky.

Lying on the ground, beneath the platform where I had hunted for so long, I felt neither cold nor pain.  I could move nothing save my eyes.  High above, pale scraps of cloud concealed the dim morning light.  I could not move my neck or head to see him, but his smell warned of his approach.  It was my time.  The white leopard had come.

His stink was heavy and thick and filled the air.  The loud crunching sound of his once silent steps crowded my ears.  I could hear him, smell him, and feel him before I could see him.  In my gut, my intestines writhed like agitated snakes.  His head raised above mine.  I saw now that the fur that, from a distance, had seemed so sleek and pure, was, in reality, splotchy and stained with grease, blood, and bile – it was matted in clumps and knots like the fur of some mangy dog that mercy had not had the conviction to strike down.  His eyes, those amber stones, swam in yellow liquid.  The scent of rotten meat was on his breath.  But those teeth, o yes those teeth, were sharper and whiter than I had ever dreamed.  They gleamed as they hung like slivered moons before my eyes.

Still I could not move.  The white leopard breathed slowly, his breath shallow; it hissed against the soft song of the winter wind.  At last I heard the words.  All my life I have heard the gentle things that lie beneath that which other men hear, but now at last I heard something subtler and more sinister than any sound I had yet discerned – under the ragged hiss of his breath, I heard the white leopard speak unto me.

“Feed me,” he intoned in terrible whispers.  He stood above me, his body growing and shifting into strange and unnatural shapes.  “Feed me as you have done, feed me until there are none left, feed me until I am sated and you will be spared.  Swear it.”

But as he spoke the words I, who have listened and not spoken for many long years, heard the truth in the sound, the truth beneath his words.  The white leopard lied.  His hunger would never be sated.  He would never rest from his feeding.

Standing tall above me, the grey sky at his back, the white leopard heard only silence.  His hackles raised and his dark pupils widened as his brow narrowed.  “I will be fed,” he said.  In a slow stroke, he drew one rancid and stinking claw across my swollen belly, freeing the snakes that hid inside of me; they poured out in a hot stench of death and bile and slithered out into the world.

High above, the grey sky parted and, for a moment, I saw the blue firmament.  Wind poured down through the opening in the clouds and stirred the air.  The fresh currents chilled my open lungs.  The white leopard reared his head.  The wind brought some new smell that that troubled the great beast.  With one sweeping motion he piled my guts back into the cavity of my stomach and sealed the wound with his wicked tongue.  He shook his thin shoulders as he hissed at the wind.  His bones rattled in the air as he leapt off of me and vanished into the wood.  The sound of his steps faded into nothing.

A bird sang in the distance and woke my stunned senses.  My head throbbed.  My lungs ached.  My spine creaked.  Then my ears came alive and I heard the sound of footsteps, a man’s footsteps.  I could move.  I struggled to my knees and listened; the steps were quickly approaching.  My rifle was nowhere to be found.  My heart began to race.  I was no soldier, I held no secrets – I had no value to the Krauts except in death.  This was the crop I had sown.

The sound was closing fast – the Kraut was almost upon me.  Despairing, I raised my eyes skyward to my tiny platform.  There I saw my hope: my rifle, during my fall, had snagged itself on a branch and now hung several feet above my head.  I leapt and grazed the weapon with my outstretched fingertips but it did not fall.  I could hear the Kraut’s breath.  I leapt again and the rifle slipped – I heard the breech click and drew back out of fear that it might fire.  Above the pounding in my temples, I could hear his steps, his breath, his heart.  I took one final leap and grabbed hold of the rifle and, as we fell to the earth, it emptied its chamber with a clamorous shot – the hollow ringing of the barrel told me that the cartridge was empty.  My heart sank with the weight of my defenselessness as I bound up off the ground and raised my sight.  An arm’s length from the end of the my rifle stood a trembling Kraut, his automatic trained on my temple.

He too was young.  A thin streak of blond hairs frosted his lip.  His skin was pale and fresh and pure, an unripe fruit.  His eyes were all pupil.  He had never killed a man, that much I could tell.  There is a change in men once they have fired a killing strike.  It is not a thing easily done and it weighs heavily on the heart.  My father once told me never to fire in game or jest, that each shot is a wager, a wager with God that your soul is great enough to have earned the life it takes.

His muscles contorted and twisted under his skin where the struggle raged.  Could he pull the trigger?  Was his worth enough?  He was not decisive – or maybe he could not hear, did not know, that my rifle was empty.  The harsh sounds of his tongue struck out at me.  I did not understand his words; it did not matter.  He shouted again and shook his gun.  For a fleeting moment, I thought that I could smell the stink of the white leopard, but a clean wind blew through the trees and washed the stench away.  My weary eyes focused.  Slowly I withdrew, step by step.  The Kraut stayed his ground, but he did not fire.

I backed through the woods, always facing him, using the trees as cover.  When I could no longer see him through the maze of trunks, I turned and ran.  My legs were cramped and weak, and still I ran.  I ran, knowing that the Kraut would not follow me and knowing that if I stopped, if only to catch my breath, fear would take me and that I would hole myself up and wait, itching at the catch, until some other Kraut had killed me, and then, worse than any Kraut’s dagger, the white leopard would take me into his slavering mouth from which there is no escape.  I could not elude him again.

Out of the wood I ran, past the empty home, and beyond the white waste.  I ran because I had to, because I knew that I could not stop until my legs pumped and my heart beat so loudly that even those whose hearing is so weak could hear its rhythm.

I ran and, for many years, did not stop.

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