Mythic short story in the vein of Kipling’s Just-so Stories
Once long ago in the dawn of the World, when all tastes were more savory than now, all smells more pungent, all hues more brilliantly dazzling, when tigers smoked pipes—Panther was lying by a road in siesta when he happened to spy his kinsman Tiger. “Hello Tiger—and is your belly full?”
With a growl Tiger replied: “Empty, I fear. Bad luck dogs my every footstep. All the Prey know where I am better than I know the fur on my belly!” As the two discussed this, they went along through the jungle, two shining white masses (for in those days, all animals colors were pure and the same—a pure white with damascened ripples) passing together through the noontime, Panther thought aloud: “It seems to me, brother, although I cannot be sure, but we have not always failed in our hunts by just a hair, and have been forced to subsist on pine needles and buffalo milk.”
“I think you are right. It is not that it has been a long time since we have brought down a young buck or gazelle, and ate of the sweet marrow and drunk the hot rich blood; rather, I think we may never have! Our diet, however morally blameless, leaves me feeling weak. We should go ask Spider her counsel. She is famed for wisdom and can surely help us.”
Panther concurred, and they bent their paws towards the lee of the great hills to the north, where in the shadows they might find Spider and her brood. They soon descended into that bleak vale and approached the great glistening web, where the black body of Spider was suspended and always awake and waiting and watching.
“Spider! We ask your aid as equals. All our hunts have come to naught, and we are grown weary. Give us your counsel, and I pledge you our undying friendship.”
“Hee hee, young Panther! I cannot help you. But there is one who can. Seek you out the Winter King, he who habits between the plains of night and the gap of chaos. His mind surpasses mine (for he sees much as he dreams on his high throne) and knows your need. It is nine days journey hither from here.”
With a brief thanks, Tiger and Panther left. They passed up the hills into their own long shadows cast by the setting sun, and their hearts were disturbed. Even in the jungle, the monkeys chattered at night of strange things older than they, the first animals—beings cunning, capricious, confusing, and crushingly powerful. Each feared that the monarch might prove such an one.
Too soon for their liking, they stood on the summit of the hills, able to overlook all the jungle and also the Plains of Night.
The plains were flat black wastelands, with no life or movement (except sometimes in the corner of one’s eye). It was quiet, sad, and sleepy. Tiger lay down with his back warmed by the sun and his face cooled by a breeze off the plains. “Come, Panther, let us rest for the journey. This spot is soft and pleasant, and I feel a soothing sleep creeping up on me—more restful than any I have known in the constant noise of the busy jungle.”
“No, there is no time to rest. We must be away. Sleep can wait. He’s been waiting a long time already. Until then, there are things that need doing, and we shall do them, that when we do go to sleep we might say we have earned our rest and lived without reproach.”
And so they traveled, across the smooth plain in a gloaming. On the second day, their hearts wearied. On the third day, their tails quavered. On the fourth day, their paws quivered. On the fifth day, they spoke discouraging words. On the sixth day, their hearts quaked. On the seventh day, their stomachs yowled, their paws quivered uncontrollably, and their tails drooped to rest. And then they conversed by a hillock:
“Dear Panther, these plains seem endless and barren. There is nothing to eat. My whiskers drop out, my luster fades, my limbs tremble with weakness. Let us turn back, lest we perish. Perhaps Spider sees us as rivals and plays this cruel trick to slay us. But we must turn back. If you will not, then I shall make you for your own good!”
“What! Have we come so far only to be undone by bodily weakness? Spider would not lie so heinously, and nothing of such import would come easily. If you wish to play the coward and force me back—just try.”
“I had hoped to convince you peaceably, but now I see that hope is as forlorn as this quest. Be prepared!”
And with that, Tiger sprang at Panther, intending to grapple him into submission. But Panther was too slippery, and slid out of his grip. As he went, he clawed Tiger but lost his balance and toppled down the hill and into the pit.
Tiger left then, bleeding copiously from the claw marks; and you can see them to this day, which is also why panthers and tigers never meet—they have not forgiven each other.
Panther fell down, but landed hard on a gooey surface. He lay stunned for some time before he ventured glances. He was surrounded by steep stone walls, and there was a narrow track upwards more appropriate for a mountain goat than a panther.
He attempted to rise, but to his great consternation, he was stuck fast; worse, his hind limbs were descending into the sucking slough. “What a horrible fate! I cannot prise myself free, and so will be digested by this liquid night! I can predict what will happen: I will weary as I struggle, I will wail as I am sucked down, and I will be snuffed out like a candle when it pinches my nostrils shut.”
A long time was Panther trapped in that pit. First his haunches sank beneath. Then his tail disappeared. It worked its way up his torso and touched his shoulders. Panther thrust his paws up and pointed his head toward the sky so he might “prolong this miserable life, which for all the suffering, I still love dearly.” Soon, it had marched to his eyes, closed after a last look at the night above. Now it was at his ears, now coating the mouth; soon the nostrils were surrounded and all the paws (excepting the nails).
Suddenly, bony hands seized Panther and hurled him out with irresistible strength. Panther howled—it felt as though his fur was being ripped off by the slough’s stubbornness. Finally, with a sigh, it let go and Panther landed on the narrow way.
“Who are you, kind rescuer? I cannot recall anyone nearby, and I am Panther (I would know).” The dark figure faced him. “I did indeed travel with you to this dank place; I have traveled with you as long as you were. I, Panther, am your Death. I have been with you always, and know you better than yourself.”
Panther shrank away, and gave timorous reply: “That is disturbing. I knew Death would come one day, but yesterday I did not think it would be today. It grieves me to know that I am to die in a foreign land, away from all whom I know. I also fear to go where Death may take me.”
“I cannot ease your fears on your disposition; it is not given to Death to know where his charge goes. I merely take you there. But you will not die away from a friend. As I have said, I have been with you always. Let that comfort you, and know I grieve as much as you when you are taken from the world of light.”
“Your gracious words comfort me a little. Will you accompany me?” “I will go with thee, Panther, and be thy guide.”
“My thanks. But now must needs I to cleanse myself. All but my nose and claws have been stained by this accursed slubber.”
“You shall not wash that off. You may yet assume another color, but you shall never be so white again. That one color is henceforth forbidden you. But look! The Hall of the Winter King appears! You can reach it briefly.”
Panther saw that Death told sooth, but he paused awhile.
“Before I dare this, I should like to know of this Winter King.”
“Very well. He is deathless, so I know little. But I once learned this from a seeress: The Winter King is older than I, and wiser. He slumbers on his high throne and dreams of all the worlds. When he wakes, chaos wakes with him, and as he rides forth into the world on his stag, Chaos shall follow close at hand—to remake the world or reclaim its most ancient dominion. It shall be a cold and terrible day when the sky and earth shatter and all the most ancient ones come forth from their redoubts and holy places. They shall converse, and perhaps decree a new system of the world. And then spring may come again; our spring.”
And they traveled on to the hall. As they drew near, inside the open gate Black Panther espied a glint.
“O Death, it comes to me that in the black shadows of the gate there is a guard.”
“He is the first of the three obstacles. He is the watchman with a thousand eyes. No one shall pass him. He shall wake the Winter King when it is time. Once, the Shining Prince of the Spice Lands came here to question the Winter King but he could neither pass nor kill that deathless guardian.”
Black Panther walked closer. He stalked even closer to the gate. He crawled to a corner to see if he would be detected and challenged. The monster gazed on—for his instructions were that “no one shall pass”, but not that “no nose shall pass”. With a leap, Black Panther passed him into the next chamber.
In this chamber, there were 5 walls opposite them and on 4 walls were there 4 doors, and on the last but 1. Black Panther considered.
“There are 17 doors here, yet only one shall lead forward. The first 4 doors smell faintly of green shoots, and clean things, and fresh rain. They are not the right doors. The next doors smell ripe and hot, like cut grass and cool springs. They are not right either. But the last set of 4 smell cold and clean and still. The final door smells of nothing at all. I cannot thread this maze.”
Black Panther turned to Death—but he was not there. And now he was alone.
With a shrug, Black Panther intrepidly leapt through the final door.
It opened into a vast white hall, walls hung with huge & finely crated weapons, corners occupied with blazing white fires, and the ceiling decked in masses of red and green gold. At the end, on a dark throne slumbered an enormous man in red and blue robes. Black Panther crept cautiously through the shadows to the Winter King’s feet.
“Oh mighty one! Forgive my intrusion, but I beg a boon. Tell me how I might hunt my prey and always catch them.”
I hear a voice but see none. Who violates my hall and dares question me? They had better be ready to pay forfeits or wager their head!
“It is I, Black Panther, Lord of the Jungle, Death-Friend, Tiger-Clawer, Wanderer, who does enter where barred. I will risk my head!”
Very well then! You are wise O Panther, but I am wiser! Tell me of the Seasons and their smells, of which only the Immortals know!
“The Seasons are four: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and mighty Winter. They smell of growing things, of hotness, of harvest, of cleanliness and silence. Well asked was your question, well spoken was my answer: ask another.”
Very well then! You are wise O Panther, but I am wiser! Tell me of that dark place, near Chaos, that is unchanging and whose pits doom all travelers!
“That place is the Plains of Night; through it, with its sucking pits, between the jungle and your hall have I traveled to come here! Well asked was your question, well spoken was my answer: ask another.”
Very well then! You are wise O Panther, but I am wiser! Tell me this: what is that thing none have experienced, but has been with them all their lives, that all creatures hold nearer to them than their skin, but the ancients have not?
“Death it is called, that resides with all creatures, and is with them from the moment of creation. It knows them better than themselves, but of the ancients it knows aught. Well asked was your question, well spoken was my answer: ask another.”
Very well then! You are wise O Panther, but I am wiser! Long ago a man came here, filled with pride and might. Even he could not pass my thanes! Name him and his land.
“You speak of the Shining Prince who hailed from the Spice Lands and sought wisdom of you. He was cunning and strong, but could not pass your guards like I. Well asked were your questions, well spoken my answers—now your arrogance has cost you your head!”
Much have I dreamed, much have I learned, much have I known, but never did I hear of any who could contend with me in wisdom! I see now that you are indeed wise, O Black Panther. You have won your head and gained renown; spare me and you may be the questioner now.
“There is a thing I would know, O Winter King, and it is this: how might I hunt my prey with success?”
Wait in the night for them to pass by. With your color they will see you not, and you may feast to your heart’s content!
“There is a second thing I would know, O Winter King, and it is this: how may I safely return to the jungle?”
The journey back would indeed kill you, but my hall is enchanted: open the second door and you shall return to your spring-jungle.
“There is a third thing I would know, O Winter King: what lies beyond this Hall, in all truth?”
Beyond only is the region of Chaos. Where it goes no one knows—everywhere and nowhere. Of old it formed all things, and reduced its own rule thereby. But you have asked enough! Leave this place, unseen thing.
“My thanks, O Winter King. I will be grateful always.”
Black Panther stole away, and the King slept on. Through that door he passed to his home, and was greatly startled to find himself waking from a siesta nap by the road.
From then on, Panther hunted well. He played tricks on the other animals, and was accounted to be among the wisest and well-traveled of them all. They say he traveled elsewhere in the North, and finally met his end in the Spring of the world when he stole the ale of inspiration from Dark-Of-Moon. But who knows that he did not merely steal everything worth stealing and disappeared into the night to wait for the next age?