When she saw her cousin Nirmala Devi going toward the forest that afternoon, Susheela Bhattacharya tried to dissuade her—hadn’t she heard there were leopards about?—but Nirmala merely snuffed and kept walking. The people of the Pipli village had seen signs of the cats’ presence for weeks: paw prints in soft morning earth, missing goats; and then, that morning, some of the men had spotted one nearby. As Susheela later told the reporter from The Hindustan Times, “Nirmala wouldn’t listen, just brushed me aside.” But Susheela hadn’t put up much of a fight; Nirmala had been stubborn even as a child and her family knew better than to oppose her. So when Nirmala swaggered defiantly past, Susheela looked down at her youngest daughter (who peeked around the doorjamb to see what was happening), swept her into the house, closed the door, and dragged a rice sack over to prop against it.
Nirmala had herded her animals indoors like everyone else to keep them safe for the night, but since they wouldn’t be able to graze, she needed to gather fodder for them. If she didn’t, the braying would be intolerable. There’d been a peculiar moment before she went out, as she watched the forest, when Nirmala felt as if she’d lived all of it before, as a little girl or in a dream. It was late in the afternoon, and golden sunlight on the tall grass burned away the shadows that might have helped reveal the ripple of a predatory slink; the cats could have been anywhere. It was all dreadfully familiar. She suddenly knew, as if recollecting, that the leopards had transformed behind the screen of reeds into luminous magical beasts endowed with a power of invisibility that allowed them to stalk their prey in the form of light, insubstantial until they pounced.
She’d watched the grass carefully as she strode through it, into the ochre shadows of the forest interior, burrs catching on her skirts and pricking her thighs. She swung her sickle idly, listening to the flowering tips of reeds tap the blade on the downswing. Arriving at a patch of good moist grass, she stopped and listened for danger—padded footfalls? Rustle of reeds? She’d know it when she heard it, but all she heard was the crinkle of the spongy forest floor rebounding from her steps and the winding sirens of magpies. So she went to work, intending to cut only just enough to keep the goats quiet. She was almost finished when she heard Binder scream.
Thirteen-year-old Binder, a boy from the village, spoke to the Times reporter from the hospital. He said he’d been out trying to finish some chores for his mother after school that day, but the truth—his secret—was that he’d been waiting to meet Lakshmi, the fifteen-year-old sister of a schoolmate. They’d been trying some kissing lately, and figuring out what all else there was to do. That afternoon, though, Lakshmi’s parents had kept her indoors because of the leopards, which Binder, having skipped school (being far too lovelorn to get his head into a book), hadn’t heard about. He’d spent the day wandering, chasing snakes, throwing rocks at buzzards, by now willfully ignoring the fact that the late sun likely meant Lakshmi wasn’t coming. The leopard must have watched him for some time. Even so, he might have left the forest unharmed had he not scampered down the bank of a dry river and put himself in the defenseless position of bending over, his buttocks wagging irresistibly before the beast.
Binder had seen something fall from a tree into the riverbed, something that writhed when it landed. He made his way down to it: a bird, just hatched, pink, wet, scraggly, its blue lids still shut. Red ants had already begun crawling over it. Binder bent down and nudged it with a stick, hoping it might just flap off. He later remembered hearing the sound of the leopard sliding down the embankment behind him, but he’d ignored it at the time; these were his village’s woods; he was safe in them.
The first strike felt like a thump on the bottom (to the Times reporter, “Not too bitey, more like when the teacher swats your arse for misbehavement, you know,” at which point Binder’s mother swatted his leg for the swear). He was thrilled—Lakshmi must have sneaked up on him, he thought. But when he tried to turn around to greet her, his right leg didn’t respond; he sat down hard, which was when he saw the leopard.
It sat just a few feet away, red-smudged mouth slightly open, one paw raised, waiting to see what Binder would do. It seemed nice at first, like maybe it just wanted to play. Then the heat of pain from the bite rushed to Binder’s head, and he saw bright blood in his lap. The leopard crouched; Binder screamed.
Nirmala gathered up her skirts under the parcel of grass, gripped the handle of the sickle, and tramped toward the sound. When a raspy note of panic cracked Binder’s cry, she began to run. At times, she thought she’d lost him; he stopped screaming for awful seconds, and she couldn’t discern his direction. Then she found herself at the top of the embankment, watching the boy drag himself backwards as the leopard playfully tore at his shins. She dropped the fodder—cut grass fell in clumps on the dark dirt—and pounced.
Binder told The Times that he initially thought a demon was visiting him, a form of Kali perhaps, when he saw Nirmala Devi descend from the sky. She looked like one of the characters he’d seen in Mughal battle paintings: the madness of war was upon her, twisting up her face; her teeth looked small and efficient, her eyes wide and white-rimmed.
The crescent edge of Nirmala’s sickle, sticky and green from thrashing, glowed in the orange sunset when she brought it back beside her ear. The leopard, intent on its prey, only just then sensed her and turned around, tensing its shoulders and dropping low. Nirmala struck. When the sickle slowed to a halt on the backswing, the edge of the blade was clean. The leopard swatted its nose with a paw and sneezed. Binder watched a laceration appear: a line of bright welling red drew itself across the bridge of the leopard’s snout and then bisected both eyes. The cat went wild.
Nirmala set to work, hacking away. The leopard got a lucky mouthful of her arm and nearly shook the sickle out of her grip, but Nirmala transferred it to the other hand, pulled the leopard closer by its own clamped jaw, and slashed overhand at its hindquarters, severing the tendons. The beast sat down.
Binder found it a little bit funny. He hadn’t mentioned it to The Times—it seemed ignoble—but nine years later, at twenty-two-years-old, lying in a pasture late at night with Mamatha (his greatest love yet), he told her how he’d laughed out loud at the cat, deriving sweet pleasure from seeing it receive the same injury it had inflicted. Then he’d gone quiet, looking up at the stars, a hand under his head to prop it off the dewy grass, a hand stroking her hair. Mamatha said, “What, Binder?” and touched his chest beside her cheek.
It haunted him, he said. Not the laughter, but what happened when Nirmala heard it. In the midst of the kill, she looked at him, and he comprehended the enormous danger of the situation—his first glimpse of mortality. And then the blind cat lunged at Nirmala’s ankles and dragged her down, bringing the fight to its level, the dirt. The thing that nibbled his conscience all these years, he told Mamatha, was this: he would have run. Had he been able to wobble to his feet and stumble off, he was infinitely certain that he would have. In fact, he’d attempted to stand up throughout the fight. He told The Times that he’d tried to get up to help fend off the leopard despite his injuries—hoping to preempt any truthful accusations Nirmala might make—but his real intent had been to leave this woman, his mother’s cousin, to fight the deadly predator by herself, probably to die.
“I deserve any judgment you might make of me,” he said to his sweet Mamatha, turning his head to the dark earth. “But you should know what kind of a man I am.”
Mamatha laughed a little laugh and said, “Oh, Binder, you were thirteen. Any boy would have run.” And she nudged his thigh with her thigh, and he swore to himself that he would marry her and never stray.
Nirmala recovered from her injuries at the Indus hospital in Shimla, on the same floor as Binder. The reporter (a retired biologist from the Central Potato Research Institute, now freelancing for the Times’ Himachal Pradesh supplement) visited Nirmala there, but only used one detail of her story in the finished article. He got most of his information from Binder, Binder’s family, and (when he went to Pipli that day to photograph the dead cat) the other villagers.
Most versions of the story were fairly consistent: by the time they’d arrived at the river, the fight was over. Binder, pale and waxy, clung to the crumbling earth of the ravine’s far bank, his lower half the same dark red as the radius of stained sand beneath him. Nirmala lay on her back. The leopard sprawled on top of her, its head resting on her breast, face turned toward her chin, jaws open. Its teeth lightly gripped her throat where it had tried to suffocate her. The reporter’s black-and-white photographs featured the stringy exposed meat of the leopard’s haunches and the inky smudges where its eyes had been.
The villagers said they’d rushed down to pull the dead animal off their cousin before carrying the two brave Piplis away to safety.
The end of Nirmala’s account was different, though, a difference that amounted, really, to a matter of seconds, but,to her, it seemed to be the important part. The reporter asked about the fight, seeking a first-hand, blow-by-blow description that would make for exciting reading. But Nirmala claimed to remember very little up to the point when the leopard overtook her. Of the whole incident, the most vital moment for her was this: she looked up, away from the flashing teeth, to the wall of the embankment, and her heart swelled with hope; a group of villagers stood at the crest of the hill, looking down.
She told the reporter that she had an indelible image of their faces in her memory. She’d examined them frequently, and she understood that each of them was afraid for her, loved her, and wanted to come to her aid despite their fear. They’d looked as terrified as Nirmala felt, but she knew they would presently deliver her. Then she’d felt a bite to the shoulder, and another, and the villagers looked on. Their faces changed: Nirmala was no longer among them. They’d given her up to the dead. Not one of them would help.
The reporter did get one gory detail out of her about the remainder of the struggle: she’d held her sickle above the leopard with both hands (at the angle one might use to peel a potato) and dragged it up the cat’s spotted side. Its coat sloughed away from its meat; it caterwauled and thrashed. Nirmala tried to trap its head close to her chest to minimize the biting. The leopard, smelling the soft skin of Nirmala’s throat, tried but lacked the strength to close its jaw around her windpipe. It panted against her, finally beginning to wear out, its heart pumping blood fast to channels that would not send it back. Nirmala felt the cat’s chest throb against hers. Then she felt its heart pause midbeat and leave off for good.
The reporter stayed up all night before the deadline. His article briefly recounted the major events up to the end of the fight, and he had a closing paragraph regarding Nirmala and Binder’s recovery. Another paragraph, though, one sentence long, scratched out on a notepad, was giving him some trouble. The article would be fine without it, neither praising nor condemning the villagers. After all, he had no way of knowing which version of the end was true—Nirmala was convincing, but her account was uncorroborated; he had many more sources to support the villagers’ version. If he put the line in, the Piplis would be angry, and they would have the right to be. But if he didn’t, he would be missing something.
His initial motivation for taking up journalism in retirement had been a desire to do something meaningful. Potato research was important in its own, indirect way, but he’d hoped to find a truth through his assignments, his stories, that was visceral and real.
The first waking magpies crooned and wheezed—the sun would rise soon. He typed the line in a compulsive rush, dizzy from the long night, heart patting his ribs.
A large number of villagers who assembled near the spot hearing the cries of Nirmala watched the encounter from a distance and none of them came forward to rescue her.
He attached the article to an email, sent it to his editor, then crept into the bedroom and slid under the warm blanket beside his wife. He saw the leopard’s wounds in the dark, and he saw Nirmala’s bandaged face, and Binder’s sidelong glances. He saw the faces of the villagers most vividly, looking down from the top of the embankment.
The truth, he decided, wouldn’t be found in a factual version of the events, although he wasn’t sure where it would be. It was wrapped up somehow in this curious phenomenon: Nirmala, haunted by the vision of those faces, had spread the image like a blight from her mind to his; now they shared it, and he felt compelled to spread it further.
But why? The meaning of the transference was likely too far beyond the reach of his old tired brain—he still awoke each morning thinking he was late for work at the research center, he forgot to buy important items at the supermarket, he lost his keys daily. His mind, at this late stage in life, seemed to have grown eyes like a tuber: eyes that stare strangely out, maybe at the heavens, maybe at nothing.
Sam Miller’s fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and at AGNI Online. He is a former police detective, currently completing a JD in Atlanta. He plans to move to Massachusetts with his wife and daughter to practice law and write. (updated 2/2013)