In the Selva
Steam rose hot around Tepin as she sat peering through the dense foliage, making the already limited view even more nearly impenetrable. It was difficult for her to control the shaking of her hands as she gripped the shaft of her spear in one hand and heavy cord around Meztli’s neck in the other. A deep rumble came from the beast under her and she answered with one of her own. The huge panther was complaining that the mixture of scents in the jungle prevented him from tracking their prey; the ones who were also tracking them. She patted his shoulder and purred, reassuring her friend that she didn’t expect him to be able to. “We will have to keep moving and watching, and hope we can find them before they find us.
Tepin had been friends with Meztli since the big cat was just a kitten that she had found injured and dying in the forest several years before. Tepin had only seen seven summer at the time and she wasn’t supposed to be wandering off on her own. That never stopped her, though. She supposed, thinking back, that it had been foolish, that she could have been killed by any number of things, but somehow she had always felt like the forest was her destiny and her home. She hid the cat for weeks, feeding it scraps salvaged from her own bowl and spending as much time with him as possible. That part was easy because she had been orphaned two years before and the family that took her in hardly noticed whether she was there or not. The difficult part was finding sufficient food for the growing cat. Tepin was a good hunter for one so young, able to move silently through the jungle and possessing a deadly aim with a spear, but game was scarce near the village and she wasn’t supposed to go away on her own.
Roving deeper into the jungle one day, she found a hidden game trail that paralleled the walking trail used by the villagers. After that it was a simple matter of setting snares and checking them every day. With the steady supply of meat, Meztli grew rapidly. Too rapidly. It was as if he was trying to become the largest creature in the world. It was his eyes, though, that caused her to name him Meztli. His name meant moon, and the little girl thought his eyes looked like two bright yellow moons. They became friends and spent every possible moment together. Tepin didn’t know where he went to hide when she wasn’t’ around, but he somehow always knew when she was coming and would meet her by a small stream hidden in the bottom of a ravine. They would spend hours there, playing games that involved hunting and pouncing, or lounging in the shade. His friendship became the highlight of her young life.
Tepin kept the hood of her cloak pulled up to shield her face. She wasn’t hiding from the sun, because very little penetrated this far down into the jungle. She kept it up for camouflage, to hide herself from unfriendly eyes. Meztli needed no such help with his midnight-black coloration, but Tepin’s fair skin would stand out. Her clothing caused murmurs among the villagers, but it was functional and necessary for blending in with the shadows of the forest. Supple leather boots rose to her knees and served to protect her legs from scratches as she rode Meztli through the trees. A sword of hardwood embedded with slivers of obsidian was strapped to her back. Today she was regretting having left her bow in the hut. Meztli could smell the enemy and had sent her warning of their approach. She had left in a hurry, forgetting bow.
As time passed, the cat grew larger than any panther Tepin had ever seen or even heard of. They spent so much time together that they developed a language, partly of words on her part, partly growls, moans, and other panther sounds, and partly thought. She took it for granted, but came to understand that other people could not communicate with animals like that and was wise enough to hold her silence, not letting the villagers know. She was already enough of an outcast anyway. The pair hunted together every time she could escape the watchful eye of her foster mother, which was often. They would spend hours tracking through the jungle, her intelligence and his animal power proving to be a deadly combination. By the time she reached her fifteenth birthday, she had already become the most prolific hunter in the village.
Trouble was afoot now, though. Disaster had struck, and Tepin was in danger. She had been seen by warriors from a village to the south and followed. Their chief coveted her and would have her. It puzzled her how any man could have the skill to track her when she was with Meztli, but maybe he just got lucky. She finally got away, but curiosity filled her young heart and she went back to the area the next day. Sneaking in close to where the men were sitting, she overheard them talking about the demon who rode a ghost through the forest. She almost laughed. Were they talking about her? The men were obviously terrified, thinking that she was a supernatural being, but as was the rule with men, when they got together, they began to boast of their skill and lack of fear. Before long, with much goading, they had outlined a plan to track her down and capture her.
Tepin could hear the slight rustle of leaves and knew it was not caused by the wind. There was no wind. The birds and monkeys that were normally so noisy had fallen silent, adding to the sense of foreboding growing inside her. She was in danger. Her senses told her that she was trapped, with a deep ravine behind her to the left and a steep cliff to the right. The warriors blocked the remaining sides. Flight was not likely, so she would have to fight. Fight and die, because she would not allow herself to be captured. Captives only had two possible fates, and neither appealed to her. She would either be sacrificed on an altar, her blood spilled to appease the gods, or she would become the plaything of the cacique, the chief. For a moment she mulled over the choices, then decided that she would not be taken alive even if she had to finish herself off with her own knife. Patting her boot tops, she made sure that her obsidian knives were still there, then checked the ones in her belt and hefted her spear, letting it balance in her hand.
Meztli rumbled again and then began to growl deep in his throat. This time Tepin did not silence him. They knew where she was, so hiding was over. With a crash, the leaves off to her left burst open and three men stepped out holding spears. As if on signal, two more emerged from the right and five in front of her. Ten! She had battled men before, and more than one at a time, but ten? She shook her head and let out her own growl as the men began to cautiously approach. They were courageous enough to come after her, but seemed unsure now that they could see her and Meztli in front of them. Their eyes were wide with a combination of wonder and fear at the sight of the enormous cat and the woman astride him. Tepin almost laughed at the sight, seeing some of their knees trembling.
For years Tepin and Meztli hunted together. With his speed and animal instincts and her intelligence, they were a formidable pair, and had no trouble finding enough game. Most of their time was spent lounging in the forest, resting and communicating in their own language. Her ability to understand him grew as they did, and sometimes she wondered if the big panther was actually El Balanque, the black jaguar god. No matter, he was her friend; her only friend.
Being hunted was a new experience for both of them, and not one they enjoyed. Tepin also hated the thought of standing there calmly waiting to be attacked. With an unspoken command and a scream that sounded like a panther, the two leaped into action, bounding straight toward the five men in front of them. Tepin threw a knife at a man to her left and another to her right. The first fell with the knife embedded in his eye while the other took it in the throat. Two more knives followed, and another warrior fell. The fourth managed to dodge, throwing his spear as two other warriors launched arrows. Tepin felt the wind from them as they passed over her just as Meztli landed among the group of five. Swatting his massive paws to the left and right, he felled two, then crushed the skull of another in his massive jaws. Arrows were flying at them from the two remaining warriors to the left as Tepin alit to bring her spear into play. She threw it at one just as an arrow caught her in the side, burying itself to the feathers. She looked down at it with a stunned expression, but felt no pain at first. Meztli finished off the two men in front of him and turned to the last two, leaping after them as they threw down their weapons and fled. Eight of their comrades had been slain in mere moments, and they decided not to suffer the same fate.
Tepin sank to the ground, a gray haze forming over her eyes as the cat bounded after the men. She didn’t cry out from the pain that had finally hit, but sent a powerful thought to her companion in her mind, causing him to stop the chase and return. He whined in response to her moans, circling and nuzzling her. He seemed to be urging her to get up, to run, but she did not respond. Weakness was taking her, and she let her head sink back to the ground, hood falling to reveal her beautiful face and coal black hair. “I’m hurt.”
She had growled the words in the language she shared with her friend, and he responded, “Die?”
“Yes, I die.”
Meztli turned his face up to the unseen sky and let out an ear piercing scream of pain and rage. It was almost as if the arrow had sunk into his own heart instead of hers. “No, not die!” he moaned. “Not leave.”
Tepin was almost at the end of her strength, “I’m sorry. Tired, weak. I die.” Her voice trailed away and became silent, breath slowing, becoming faint. Meztli stretched out his huge body next to hers, trying to keep her warm, to keep life in her, but he could feel her heart beating more and more slowly until it finally stopped.
Time passed. An eternity went by in a few seconds. It was a scene of unspeakable heartbreak, but there were none to witness. None saw as the big cat wailed his pain and loss to the forest. None saw as he finally rose and stood over the body of his lifelong friend, considering, then slowly lower his face to hers and breathe into her. None saw as the form of Tepin’s dead body began to change until it took on the shape of a cat and as the black clothing she wore became fur, sleek and black and healthy.
Her eyes blinked rapidly and she stirred, inhaling deeply into new lungs. Meztli sat back on his haunches, eyes shining as he thought to her, “Not die. Not leave. Live. Live again. Live forever now.”
Tepin rose and stretched, reveling in the sleek feline form she now wore, “Yes, I live. Live forever. Live with you.” The two panthers touched noses and then turned, bounding silently away into the jungle.