A Short Story by Bekah Ferguson.
In a rock den, deep within the Amazon basin, three panthera onca cubs were born.
The middle cub’s name was Amias and for those first few weeks he did nothing but snuggle up against his brother, sister, and mother. His little sightless world, though simple and soundless, was happy. Their mother nursed and nurtured them all, nuzzling and licking their fur with great gentleness and care; she came from a long line of black panthers and this was the first litter she’d had. Soon Amias began to see and hear. He learned that his mother’s name was Genoveva, his older brother was Eduardo, and his little sister, Pabiola.
Their den remained dark at all times, save for the green-tinted sunlight peeking through the cleft opening. Amias could only make out the contours of his siblings and an occasional glint in their eyes. His mother he knew to be sleek and black, however, for sometimes the sun glistened on the fur of her back when she exited the den.
A few months passed by and the cubs had learned to walk around without falling. Each dawn and dusk, while their mother was away hunting, the three siblings stayed put, dreaming about the mysterious outside world as the cacophony of birds and insects continually filled their eardrums. Eduardo was the boldest of the three, being the oldest by merit of birth order, and he often went to the cleft opening to stick his head out and look around, even though their mother had told them it wasn’t safe to do so. Amias contented himself with the information his brother imparted, being too timid to go near the opening himself. One day Pabiola joined Eduardo’s side, which was a great comfort to Amias, for she assured him that what Eduardo saw was what she too saw. Like their mother, they both had gleaming black fur, visible only when they stood in the entrance of the den.
Soon Eduardo and Pabiola wanted to do more than just stick their heads out. So, they stepped fully outside one morning, disappearing from view.
Amias’ heartbeat quickened and he slinked toward the opening, not wanting to be left behind. He summoned all his courage, took a deep breath, and stepped halfway out. His brother and sister weren’t far ahead yet, picking their way through ferns and bromeliads. He let out a yelp and they looked back at him, gasping in tandem when they did. At first he thought they were surprised because he’d been brave enough to try and follow, but their stares were so wide-eyed, he looked down at his paws to see what was the matter. When he did, his own breath caught in his throat.
His fur was tawny, like a muted sunbeam, and evenly coated with spots as black as his sibling’s whole bodies.
Eduardo and Pabiola returned to the cleft in the rock and asked him to move into a patch of sunlight so they could see him better. When he did they confirmed that his whole body was indeed pale and spotted. They wondered if he was sick, or somehow less developed. Yet he could walk with sturdy steps just as surely as they could, and jump and leap too. He didn’t exactly feel ill but his heart fluttered in his chest now; tummy tight.
Mother won’t like that you’re different, they told him. You’d better hide it from her.
But how could he keep it a secret? Soon she would wean them and they would need to go outside together to drink from a stream. They’d all been anticipating the day. The moment she saw him in the sunlight for the first time, she’d know.
We need to find a way to cover you up, Eduardo suggested, to make you look more like us. They all agreed this was the only solution. But they didn’t know how it could be accomplished, since none of them had yet explored the territory. So for the next few days, whenever Genoveva was away hunting, they snuck out together and searched the areas around the den.
It wasn’t long before they found the wallow of a group of musk hogs.
The musk hogs were creatures with dainty hooves, tusked snouts, and bristly fur, and when the three cubs barged into their clearing, a foul-smelling musk filled the air as the hogs ran for cover. In their smelly wake was the mud puddle. Eduardo approached it first, testing the ground around it and dipping his paw into the water. He scooped up some clay from the bottom and coated one of his brother’s forelegs with the muck, letting out a whoop as he did. That’s it, he said, cover your whole body with clay. So Amias did. It wasn’t nearly as black as panther fur though, much more of a brown like the musk hogs, but it would have to do. Better than having these curious spots, he supposed.
Pabiola watched onward with a frown, but didn’t speak.
The mud dried as they made their way back to the cave and his limbs soon felt stiff. Bits of dirt crumbled off but enough remained intact to hide his fur. He was itchy all over by the time they were back inside the safe darkness of the den, as though zigzag beetles crawled up and down his skin. Despite being accustomed to the humidity of the rainforest, his body couldn’t breath under the coating of mud, nor could he lick his fur to cool down. But he tried his best to ignore it, languishing on the rock bed of the den and longing for relief.
The next day he snuck out for a new coating of clay while his mother was away. None of the cubs knew when their mother would finally take them outside with her and Amias didn’t want to risk being unprepared. But the day after that, he got caught in a rainfall on his way home, which washed all the dirt away. This filled him with dread as though he’d swallowed a stone; the clay disguise was not going to be enough. Nevertheless, he waited for the rain to cease, and returned to the wallow for another coat.
Up until now, Mother had been a safe bosom to him. The den being dark didn’t matter—just having her there, or soon to return with food, was all he needed. But now he had to sleep by himself rather than snuggling up to his siblings, for fear that his mother would sense the mud; and when he nursed, he stayed far from her face to avoid being groomed. This isolation and loss of nurture was a new experience for him, and the stone in his stomach grew heavier still. Now the darkness did matter: it pressed inward, threatening to engulf him entirely. He couldn’t even pounce around and play with his siblings anymore to pass the time—it would ruin his clay coating.
Then the much anticipated day finally arrived: Genoveva announced at dusk that it was time for them to learn how to drink from a stream.
His brother and sister left the den first and he reluctantly followed, hoping his costume was still intact. He trailed behind them, keeping within the cloak of fanning ferns and hanging vines. His mother’s round eyes, luminous like wet leaves, narrowed whenever she looked back and met his blinking gaze. His chest soon deflated. After a while, he avoided eye contact altogether.
When they reached the clearing, though shady and grey-cast in the setting sun, he could no longer hide behind his siblings. Genoveva stopped him short with a growl. Then, shoulders rolling, she moved around him with a penetrating gaze.
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