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from the October 2016 issue

Black Panther

Wong Koi Tet’s childless man, desperate for an heir, resorts to superstition to jack up his potency.

Ong Par had been waiting for over three hours, frozen in a squat among the chaotic shadows cast by the crisscrossing branches of the trees towering over him. One thought occupied his mind all this time: that he might not have a son to perform his last rites. He was light-headed from the smell of his own sweat mingled with the hum of the swamp insects and the humid tropical heat unique to jungles in low-lying areas. It nearly made him believe that he could see twenty years into the future, all the way to his own funeral.

He saw his wife, whom he had married when he was barely twenty, now wrinkled with the passing of the years. Whimpering softly, she inched along with the cortege of friends and neighbors, some of whom he did not recognize. They were like a loose army of ants trundling beneath a rumbling, leaking sky. Imagining this procession without an heir that would carry on his family line, Ong Par shuddered. He took a deep breath. The swampy phosphorous-tinted air bit sharply, immediately reminding him that he was in a deserted jungle in the northwest part of the island. His eyes locked on Or Soh, the fat black sow sprawled on the ground thirty yards away. Ong Par peered into the dancing shadows, hoping to see the telltale glint of light reflecting from the eyes of a black panther.

Or Soh was the size of a hippo. A nylon string around her leg tethered her to a peg that had been hammered into the cracked, dry ground. She had struggled and yowled at first, but her cries had soon turned hoarse and muddled under the burning sun. Weak and spent, she had flopped onto a tuft of grass, looking like a stack of burnt tires.

It had taken a lot of persuasion and an entire crate of beer, enough to get a few men drunk, for Ong Par to be allowed to take Or Soh out of her sty behind his cousin-in-law’s house. He had explained that the fortune-teller had suggested that proximity to a sow would imbue his wife with positive energy. But in fact, Ong Par had other plans. Ever since the panther had escaped from the zoo, it had been Or Soh’s fate to be tied up, deep in the rainforest, to be used as helpless bait.

Listening to his neighbors and chatting with fellow workers at the dock, Ong Par had managed to piece together the tale of the panther’s escape. The narrative hewed to the basic facts but did not sacrifice colorful detail. When Ong Par himself told the story, he too would sometimes get carried away in the heat of the moment, letting his imagination run wild. However, he was always careful to leave out one particular detail, which no listener would have thought to ask.

Earlier that year, he had gone to Lau Mok’s shop to buy the things needed for the Lunar New Year. The shop was small and run-down but within its plywood walls were pans, bowls, pots, and ladles, all the household wares that the villagers needed for their daily lives. This was where Ong Par learned for the first time that the government had started to clear the jungle near the village to build a ten-acre zoo. To the north and south of this area lay two reservoirs, while to the east sat a colonial housing estate and a club that admitted only the British and rich local businessmen.

“Animals locked up in cages . . . would anyone go see them?”

“I hear it’s like that in foreign countries, lots of animals, so lots of visitors.” The green veins on Lau Mok’s neck were showing. The usually poised and steady businessman was unusually excited.

“We’ve got lots of animals here, why would anyone go look at those animals?”

“All we’ve got here are cats, dogs, chickens, ducks, and filthy pigs. There, they will have tigers, grey bears, elephants, and lions. Have you ever seen those?”

Ong Par hesitated. He wanted to mention the five-foot-long crocodile he had once seen in the river near the village entrance. But he stopped himself, knowing his tale was not as impressive as the stories Lau Mok told about tigers, bears, elephants, and lions. The scar on his left ankle still hurt from the bite of a wild dog, and he could not help imagining a pack of wild animals breaking free from their cages.

“What if they get out?”

“Do you think those government officials don’t know what they’re doing? They have hired many foreign experts. Those cages are made of the best quality steel and the height of a few men. No matter how high the animals can jump, they cannot escape.” Lau Mok then started to talk about the old days when he worked on a rubber plantation in Malaysia. The surrounding forests were full of tigers, but the laborers were never afraid of them. The bolder ones even used their rubber-tapping knives to hunt the tigers, then skinned and deboned them to enjoy a tiger feast.

The villagers had heard Lau Mok’s tiger tales many times. Ong Par left the shop, raised himself on tiptoe, and stared in the direction of the impending zoo. He wondered if the appearance of such a newfangled development nearby would mean that the village’s days were numbered. Perhaps their world would change completely.

The new zoo would only officially open in the sweltering month of June but the nightmarish prophecy that had come to Ong Par so instinctively came true soon after the Lunar New Year. Prior to that, an Indian tapir and a spotted deer had escaped, drawing the concern of both the authorities and the public. This time, it was a young black panther that had just been captured in the wilderness of Siam.

In those days, the authorities still published a list of the year’s ten most wanted criminals. When the panther’s empty cage was discovered, they responded as if they were facing a similar formidable enemy. Several hundred policemen were swiftly deployed to cordon off the zoo and the surrounding forest. Countless traps were set. Dragnets were erected in the day, torches lit at night. Armed and tense policemen searched the stone ridges, low hills, and dense forests around the clock. Some people said they had not seen so many policemen enter the jungle since the extermination of the Communists. Others speculated that this was a conspiracy to stop people from going out late at night.

People talked about the escaped beast as if they had seen it with their own eyes. The animal was magnificent and wild. It could smell humans from a distance away and flee. It could disappear in the blink of an eye into a cave or up a tree, vanishing without a trace. It could even move like the wind under the cover of night and appear right beside the men who were hunting it. Each day they speculated, huddling in groups: Has the devil-like panther perhaps been captured by someone else? Or has it left the jungle to wreak havoc elsewhere?

There were reports of panther sightings and tracks every few days. The constant speculation was ready fodder for those barren times, slaking the people’s thirst for distraction. Ong Par would get an immediate update whenever his nephew Ah Kun got wind of new rumors. They would set off the following day with Ong Par loading up the cart of his delivery tricycle with ropes of different sizes and colors, several not-too-sharp knives, a three-legged stool made from pieces of discarded furniture, and a bolt of tightly rolled mosquito net, squeezed into the cramped space that also held Ah Kun and Or Soh.

Ong Par had to rely on Ah Kun as his guide, the young man mapping their route based on the descriptions of the panther sightings in the news reports. Sometimes they prowled around the catchment on the east side of the swamp. Sometimes they ventured southward near the plantations just on the edge of town or delved into the fern forests by the lake. The panther seemed to be everywhere, causing unrest. It seemed the beast could leap out at you, from nowhere.

Once, Ong Par even bought seven or eight durians weighing about five catty, saying they could be used for throwing at the panther. In the end, both of them ate up all the durians after waiting futilely for an entire afternoon, while Or Soh chewed happily on the discarded seeds.

From where he was lying in wait today, Ong Par could clearly see the nonchalant sow in his sightline and glimpse Ah Kun hiding among the rocks. The light was fading. The birds flew home as the sun set, making raspy noises as they fluttered low across the canopies of trees. Ong Par stood up to signal to Ah Kun it was time to pack up and go home, and they hoisted Or Soh onto the pull cart. Vexed by yet another wasted day, Ong Par laid the blame, as usual, on his nephew.

“You must have read the newspapers wrong. There’s nothing here at all, not even the shadow of a ghost. All your education is good for nothing.”

Ah Kun, so exhausted he could barely open his eyes, decided not to rise to the bait. After all, it was harder to catch a panther than to see a ghost. Besides, he was accustomed to being the target of his uncle’s frustrations. Ever since Ong Par started taking him on these secret expeditions, Ah Kun had not seen his uncle smile once. At first, he thought Ong Par was after the reward offered for the capture of the panther. But observing the desperation in his uncle’s eyes, he knew things were not that simple. Still, he did not dare to ask for the real reason for fear of another scolding.

Riding his tricycle home with the sun at his back, Ong Par decided to abandon this crazy panther project before his wife and the villagers caught on. This endeavor had obsessed him for weeks and they seemed to be getting suspicious of his true motives.

Ong Par had always been bothered that he could recognize only the Chinese characters of his own name but no other. Following the affair, he comforted himself that it was his ability to recognize the character “par” for “panther” that allowed him to guess what the newspaper headlines were saying.

He was the only son in the family and was a boy at a time when those around him had just survived a terrible period of war and disaster and so understood the importance of being educated. His parents had always hoped that he would at least complete primary school. On his first day of school, he had brought along his schoolbag, but when the teacher with the thick reading glasses was not paying attention, he had taken off his pristine white shoes, placed them on his seat, and snuck out, disappearing like a wisp of smoke. He had run barefoot toward the village and dashed into his house, crying and gasping.

His mother had taken the cane from its place on the wall to whip him but the harsh blows had only caused him to stop crying and stubbornly wipe the tears from his face. His father, waking from his afternoon nap, had calmly appraised the situation, taking the cane away from his wife and eyeing Ong Par, who was cringing under the table. “If he doesn’t want to study, so be it,” his father had said. “A beast of burden or a man, it’s his fate.”

That was one of the few things that Ong Par remembered his taciturn father saying to him. He also remembered how his father had once guided his hand as he traced the strokes of his name, all the while reminding him of the origin of the “par” in his name and the “haw” in his sister’s. Their names mirrored the Chinese characters in the names of the wealthy Aw brothers, and he had wanted his children’s lives to be as illustrious as theirs.

Another time, Ong Par saw his father sitting in a dark corner by the well with Widow Chen. His father had hastily removed his hand from her lap before warning Ong Par not to tell his mother. A few days later, Widow Chen had waylaid him and shoved a handful of sweets clumsily into his pocket, rubbing his head and praising him for being a good boy, as Ong Par stared at the mole at the corner of her mouth, agitating like a fly in the throes of dying.

His parents had passed away before he got married. He often said to his wife, “My father once told me that it’s fate whether one becomes a beast of burden or a man.”

After he got married, Ong Par found work at the city harbor as a coolie, carrying sacks of rice. Later, when his sister entrusted her son to him, he worked together with his nephew to unload cargo from the lighters docked at the quay. The meager pay was barely enough to live on, but still Ong Par longed for a son. His sister had determined long ago with just one look that Ong Par’s wife would not bear children, though she had never once said this out loud. After almost ten years of marriage, Ong Par and his wife had not produced any offspring.

That year, the government launched a family planning campaign. The explosion in population had been like a wild beast that had broken out of its cage. Ong Par became the butt of jokes, the uneducated man who took the lead in complying with the government’s directive. Some people even speculated about his sexual potency behind his back.

He had gone to what was considered the most efficacious temple for three days’ worth of “holy” water, but this had not worked. Then, he spent half his savings on a checkup at the hospital in town. After examining the couple, the doctor had concluded that both were healthy and suggested that perhaps their problem was due to stress. Ong Par was so incensed at wasting such a large sum of money that he stormed out of the hospital and spat onto the ground. “What a quack! How dare he say I have mental problems? He’s the one with problems!”

In his heart, Ong Par remained cocksure that he would find a solution. He never passed by an opportunity to ask for fertility tips, and this resulted in his consumption of several recommended “ancestral recipes,” all supposedly foolproof. Among the things that went down his throat were: sea turtle eggs, shells and all, procured from heaven knows where by a friend; fat frogs stolen from a farm in a neighboring village; a brimming cup of steaming blood that had gushed from a python sold by a rural slaughterhouse; and all kinds of obscure roots and barks. These superstitious remedies occasionally left him battling diarrhea for an entire day and did nothing to temper his anxiety and confusion about the future.

Perhaps he had been more affected by what the doctor said than he was willing to admit. When it came to his marital duties, Ong Par was never in the mood anymore. Even when desire occasionally reared its head and nagged at him deep in the night, Ong Par preferred to get out of bed, gulp down some cold water, and go back to sleep. Of course, his wife started to realize that things were not quite right and even lost her temper once. Ong Par had moved as if to strike her but someone paying attention could not have missed the anguished self-reproach in his bellow: “Can’t make a baby anyway, what’s the point of doing it?”

It had occurred to Ong Par that he could try to follow his father’s example and find himself a mistress, or at least a cockwarmer. Even if he could not get a son out of the affair to carry on the family name, it would prove that he could still get things done in that area. He really thought he had exhausted all means until his friend Ban from the warehouse reminded him that there was a ritual he had not tried yet. But how on earth was he to find an animal’s penis? This question caused Ong Par quite a few sleepless nights.

“Any animal will do?” There was a sudden gleam in Ong Par’s eyes, as if he had sighted prey emerging from the fog.

“A fierce one is preferred. The more savage it is, the more powerful its thing will be, and that will definitely work better.”

Ban sounded so confident that Ong Par trusted him entirely. One night when he could not sleep, he strolled to the entrance of the village to have a smoke. His gaze lingered on the stray dogs scavenging for food. These dogs have spent too much time around humans, he thought. They have been tamed into submission and have lost their natural aggression. He found himself inexplicably panting, like how he had panted all those years ago when he ran away from school.

Only when news broke that a black panther escaped from the zoo did Ong Par realize that his prayers to the village’s earth deity had been answered. The first time he led the clueless Ah Kun into the jungle, Ong Par had even slaughtered a chicken first to give thanks at the temple. He asked the gods to protect him and give him courage so he could capture this ferocious beast alive and cut off the thing that protruded from its lower abdomen, hanging between its powerful hind legs.

Once the deed was done, he would follow the instructions he had been given on how to brew and bottle it, and consult a fortune-teller to choose an auspicious date to uncork the concoction and down it all. Then, after an amorous tussle, he would plant an Ong family seed in his wife’s belly, and they would have an heir to honor them and bring them offerings after their death, saving them from a fate of becoming a pair of lonely forsaken ghosts.

Not long after Ong Par ended his efforts to capture the panther and its penis, the zoo announced its opening. Ah Kun found a new job as a clerk and Or Soh gave birth to ten piglets. Ong Par adamantly refused to visit the zoo, and he was equally resolved not to touch his wife. A sourness lingered in his heart, and he could not forget that elusive black panther.

But time heals all, and the black panther that had struck fear into everyone’s hearts was no exception. The memory of the beast began to fade. Some believed it had perished in the jungle, or swum across the straits to a neighboring shore. Then suddenly one night, the panther came roaring back.

Almost a year after its disappearance, police found the animal in a canal near the race track. It had tried to shrink into the shadows but could not repeat its feat of melting into the night. The policemen started a fire on one end of the canal and set up a net on the other end, trying to force the panther to run into the trap. They even fired their guns several times over the canal.

But the panther’s wild nature had rekindled during its escape. It refused to budge, choosing to die rather than surrender and was burned alive a few hours after the standoff began.

The next evening, everyone gathered at Lau Mok’s shop to read the newspapers. The story of how the fearsome beast perished in the ambush was splashed across several pages. In the photographs, the animal lay on its back in the canal. Its stiff carcass had to be removed with a crane. Lau Mok said it was a pity that the panther had not managed to get farther away and had to end up dying like this; the authorities had had it in for the animal from the very beginning. The others chimed in, chewing over every detail, as if they were savoring a great upheaval that marked the end of an era. Only Ong Par pressed closer to the newsprint, scrutinizing the dead panther in the photographs.

“Why can’t I see anything?”

“What can’t you see?”

“Where is his thing, down there?” Ong Par picked up the newspaper and flipped through the pages with great agitation, his complexion taking on a greenish hue as if he were tangled in jungle foliage. Everyone looked at him, trying to get an inkling of what was going on. It was a laughing Lau Mok who solved the puzzle first.

“It’s female, how could there be anything down there?”

Ong Par stood on the sidelines while everyone else continued their heated discussion. Suddenly, the familiar sounds of the jungle began to reverberate all around him, enveloping him in the murmurings of its creatures. He felt as if he was turning into something completely alien.

That night, Ong Par got into bed after drinking himself into a stupor, waking his wife. Before she could launch into a tirade, he started to paw at her and she found herself pinned beneath his weight. She could smell the alcohol fumes coming off him, then came a hoarse cry like the keening of a broken beast. Ong Par’s wife came to know once more his bestial nature, and a year after the death of the black panther, the couple and their two-month-old son made their first visit to the zoo.

                                               

© Wong Koi Tet. Translation © 2016 by Hong Xinyi, Lee Chee Keng, and Tina Sim. All rights reserved. Translated as part of Translators Lab 2015, co-organized by The Select Centre and Writers’ Centre Norwich. The Chinese-to-English track was facilitated by Shelly Bryant.

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