Norman Thomas di Giovanni

    Panda by Susan Ashe

    She sat back on her haunches and seemed to be scratching herself. The scientists, who had her under surveillance, were worried abut her, for, though she was in cub, she was very thin and disinclined to eat. Now, spurning a small climp of fresh bamboo, she sniffed the air. As if scenting something disagreeable, she lumbered off into the densest part of the undergrowth.

    At midnight the moon rose, illuminating the bamboo forest, revealing that it was little more than a large grove in a dying landscape. But the night's brightness seemed to reanimate the panda. Hungrily she tore at a few leaves. She began to crunch them in her broad jaws, then, after a moment, unable to swallow her mouthful or sickened by it, she retched and spat out a green wad of half-digested matter.

    Hours passed. In their homemade lair half a mile away, the scientists set up equipment to try to record the panda's nocturnal habits. A cry of pure savagery - the snarl of an ounce - came from the craggy mountains behind the forest. The men shivered. But the panda only lifted her head. In the pied light of the moon, her eyes were bruised with melancholy. One of the scientists reached for his notebook. Scribbling in it, he tried to express a notion which had come to him that her clown's colours made the panda's solitude more unbearable than ever. But he cancelled the sentence because the idea seemed fanciful.

    Unseen, the panda headed out of the forest. When she reached the snowline she appeared to double in size and then to split, and it became evident that somewhere along the way she had been joined by a male. Together, the two animals made tracks through the snow, their flanks and their ringed eyes dark against the surrounding whiteness.

    Around dawn, they came out onto a narrow ridge. Ahead of them, the mountains reared in a wild jumble of peaks and precipices. For some moments the two animals stood outlined against a greyish-mauve sky, then they vanished into the landscape.

    Nearby, a team of photographers and their guides were searching for the pandas. The group had been living rough for three weeks and now they moved slowly and with difficulty. Each day they picked up the trail and followed it until nightfall. Each night, the pandas woke and marched until dawn. As yet, the team had not come in sight of the animals.

    The guides were afraid. They knew that the female panda had eaten her latest cub and that the two adults were making for a cave high in the mountains, where they would die. Nothing could be done about this; it was the way of pandas. In the cave, angry at being followed to their secret place, they would turn back into demons. Then they would disguise themselves as pandas and come down the mountain and terrorise the village. Everyone knew, including the demons, that it was against the law to kill pandas. The animals would maraud without fear.

    'The pandas are starving,' the woman photographer said to the guides. 'They are going to die. That is why they are making for the cave.'

    'Yes,' the chief guide said. 'They will die but they will be reborn. It is the destiny of pandas.'

    'Pandas do not molest man or woman or cattle or sheep,' the woman said. 'They eat only bamboo. The bamboo is dying. The bamboo always dies. It may be that it is too late to save any pandas, but with our photographs we must try.'

    The guide saw that these photographers could not tell the difference between pandas and demons. He fell silent.

    'Take us to the cave,' the head photographer said. 'Then the two of you can go down and join the rest of the party at the snowline. If we are not back in four days, you must come up and look for us.'

    One of the guides pointed to a dark smudge on a rock face. That, he said, was the pandas' cave. He knew because, caught out in a storm, he had once sheltered there. The cave was full of panda bones. The photographers thanked the guides. They left, dropping out of sight behind the steep angle of the mountain.

    The next day, the photographers climbed towards where the guide had pointed and set up a tent. Then they entered the cave. It was dark as a tomb. The team leader, a tall thin man, shone a torch, muffling its beam with his fingers.

    'Look at that,' gasped the other man, a shortish fellow with a beard.

    The other two followed his pointed finger. In the depths of the cave a magnificent heap of white and black-brown fur lay motionless. Two pairs of eyes gleamed in the darkness.

    'God, aren't they beautiful,' the woman breathed. 'I can't bear to think of them lying there until they die.'

    'Couldn't we feed them?' the bearded man asked.

    The tall man shook his head. 'They wouldn't eat. And even if they don't die now they'll soon starve anyway.'

    The three fell silent. After a while, the bearded man said, 'How long do they have?' He seemed agitated, stroking his beard continually as if the act might calm him down.

    'About a week,' the woman said. 'Then wolves will get them.'

    'So it could be any day?'

    The woman nodded. 'They're very weak or they would never have let us get so near.'

    The bearded man controlled himself with an effort. Slowly, he advanced into the cave. The pandas watched him. He crept forward a yard at a time. Stretching out a hand, he touched the flank of the male animal.

    The female twitched an ear.

    'She's still alive,' the woman whispered. 'Come on, let's get started.'

    At the mouth of the cave, the tall man and the woman busied themselves with their cameras. From time to time, the bearded man, who had remained beside the pandas, put his gloved hand to his face as if he could not bear to look at the dying animals.

    All morning the woman and the thin man moved about the cave, shooting from every angle. In the afternoon, while it was still light, they went outside and took shots of the scenery. Then a wind blew up, and the weather began to close in. They called to their companion, and the three made their way down to their tent under a sky purple with snow.

    In the tent, the tall man heated water over a stove and dropped bouillon cubes into three tin mugs. When the water boiled, he filled the mugs and handed them round.

    'We shall have to sit it out,' he said, rummaging in a bag, and pulled out some sausages. 'We've got enough food for about five days. The storm can't last that long.'

    The other two sipped their soup.

    'I can't bear it,' the woman said after a while. 'I just can't. Those superb animals.'

    'What I don't understand is why they came up here,' the tall man said. 'The guide said there was enough food in the forest for one pair but that these two, the only ones left, seemed to have given up.'

    'If an animal were starving, wouldn't it eat whatever it could get hold of?' the bearded man asked.

    'I don't think so,' the tall man said. 'It wouldn't know it was food.'

    Again the three fell silent, gloomily stirring their mugs.

    'This reminds me so much of that time in the Kalahari when we came across the old bushman couple,' the woman said to the tall man.

    His face clouded over and he looked uncomfortable. 'They knew what was going to happen to them,' he said. 'It was their custom. This is not at all the same thing.'

    'What was going to happen?' the bearded man said.

    'They were too old and frail to keep up with the tribe,' the woman told him. 'So the others built them a shelter and gave them an ostrich eggshell full of water.' She ran her hands through her hair. 'The old people just lay there. They knew lions would soon get them.'

    The wind had been rising steadily, and the woman had to shout.

    The bearded man raised his voice. 'What did you do?'

    'We offered them food, but they didn't seem to notice it. It was as if, because the tribal custom said they had to die, death was the only thing they could see. We put them in the truck and headed for the nearest town.'

    'What happened to the old couple?'

    'They died on the way.'

    'So you never got your picture.'

    The tall man jerked up his head. 'What picture?'

    'The one of them being torn apart by lions?'

    This time the silence was jagged.

    The thin man began to cook. He stirred sausages on the stove. 'You're in this too,' he said. 'These pandas are going to die, and we're just here to record the event.'

    The bearded man was not listening. He had begun to pull string after string of sausages out of the bag. Struggling into his snowsuit, he stuffed the sausages down inside the jacket. Then he fastened his hood and plunged out into the snowstorm.

    'For God's sake!' The thin man threw himself after his friend.

    'Don't be a fool,' the woman said, pulling the thin man back inside. As she spoke, a gust struck the tent, almost tearing it apart. The man and the woman gazed at each other. The wind racked itself up another notch, and a desolate shriek came whistling down the mountains.

    The storm blew for six days. When it subsided, the sun came out. It fingered its way into the cave, where the she-panda opened her eyes. Her ears twitched faintly and then she took a deep breath. With a supreme effort, she heaved herself to her feet and crept towards the mouth of the cave.

    Outside, the snow was dazzling. All the contours had vanished. The female panda took a few steps, her nose low. Stopping, she began with her last gram of strength to dig. Deeper she went, and deeper. A man's face gleamed palely up at her. The panda sniffed, lowered her muzzle to the man's chest and began to tear at his red suit.

    The heat of the dying body had kept the sausages from freezing solid, and now the panda's hot breath warmed them. She tore into them. Finding nothing else on the stiff scarlet corpse, she made her way towards the buried tent, following her now faultless nose. Here, she ate her fill of sausages, tearing them out of the fastened kitbag. Then, catching the last string in her teeth, she set off back towards the cave.

    The male had little more than the strength to open an eye when the she-panda dropped the sausages in front of him. For a while he sniffed at them, just as he had at the dying bamboo. Then he too began to eat.

    Some hours later, the sun now plunging behind the derelict forest, the pandas lumbered back down below the snowline. They continued their route for several days, stopping only to eat a few sheep and goats that had been penned up in a mountain hovel. The herdsman ran off, gibbering with fear.

    The pandas made their way down the mountain until, above a village, near a stream, they found a dry niche among the rocks. Here they rested. That night, they went down to the village and ate two cows, a cowherd, and a dog. Then they disappeared back up to their den.

    By the end of two months, the pandas were fit and healthy. As well as another small flock of sheep, they had eaten a woman and her old father, who had gone out together to find what was preying on their animals. The female panda was in cub.

    Some time passed before news leaked out, because the villagers - knowing they were dealing with demons - were not surprised at what had happened. Afraid of angering the demons still further, they refused to answer questions but attempted to appease the demons by staking goats out on the hillside.

    It was decided by the authorities and people from the outside that bandits had done the killings. Or jealous neighbours. A couple of villagers were marched off. The she-panda was sighted again. The scientists saw her eating bamboo shoots. She slept much of the time, they reported. But this was the way of pandas.

    First appeared in The Yellow Nib, Volume 2, 2006.

    Susan Ashe has published numerous translations from the Spanish and Italian, among them Bernardino Zapponi's Fellini's Casanova (1977), Grazia Deledda's After the Divorce (1985), two anthologies of Argentine short stories, Celeste Goes Dancing (1989) and Hand in Hand Alongside the Tracks (1992), and Pilar Bonet's Figures in a Red Landscape (1993). Egmont has published two of her children's books, Cuda of the Celts (2003) and Fillet and the Mob (2004). 'Panda' is the first of a series of short stories.

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