Rapau wanted nothing more than to scratch the mosquito bites that covered his exposed thighs, and the will it took to ignore them was becoming harder and harder to maintain. He sat in a hunter’s squat, and had done so for nearly two days, and could maintain it for perhaps another day, if necessary, but no longer; it wasn’t just the insect bites that worried him, his muscles were starting to knot and twitch.
He was not a hunter yet. Not unless he came home with the hooves of a jabali, the wild pig, as proof of his ability to support his tribe and future family, and if his brother, Awe could be trusted, there was a girl in his village who had been giving him moon eyes, and he let himself daydream of the proud hunter returning with not one, but two jabali for the Hunter’s Moon feast.
But the dream could not last, not with insects in his ears and itchy sweat that trickled down his back and chest. He wanted to wash, but the diagonal striping of black mud on his torso was not just for camoflage, it masked his scent as well, and no jabali would come near a hunter who stunk like man.
His stomach rumbled quietly. He had eaten no food for nearly a week, to further mask his scent, and had taken only water, which took long minutes to bring to his mouth from his resting hand. As far as the jabali, and any other creatures who happened to be nearby were concerned, Rapau was not even there. That was the idea at least, but the test was hard. Not just the hunter’s skills that were required, but the patience that was needed even more. Rapau had an idea that those who had failed their tests and cast out of the village were not bad hunters, they were impatient ones, and he vowed to endure a thousand more bloodsucking mosquitoes and another week squatting on his aching legs before he gave in to his weaknesses. The face of his father swam in his mind and the stern, but proud look that he saw regarding him gave him the strength to not give up, and he banished his aching legs and his rumbling stomach and his itchy all-over to the back part of his mind.
Though there were nearby slots from the jabali’s hooves and a source of water nearby, Rapau had not even heard a wild boar since he chose this cloistered spot to wait in nearly two days ago. Hunter’s wisdom and his father’s constant lessons told him that once a hunter chose his killing ground, it would not do to second-guess or move around. “The hunter must become the jungle”, his father often said. “Only then will the prey feel safe enough to let down its guard. That is when you strike. Not before.”
The heat and humidity of the day was wearying, though, and he was so hungry. For a few moments he let his eyes slip shut and had wild, vivid dreams of spears and gnashing tusks, before he jerked awake, certain that something had moved nearby.
In his ear, so close that he could feel the breath on his skin, he heard a liquid, bubbling sound, full of bass and rumble. The rolling sound was not a growl. There was no menace in it. It was a constant, rhythmic sound, full of motion and variation.Out of the corner of his eye he saw the pelt of a great cat, golden and spotted in black. Fear pumped into him and only his father’s warnings stayed his panicked flight. “Never run from the jaguar, boy, for you are only two-legged and he has four. Never act like prey.”
Rapau, only ten years old and not yet a man, could be excused for voiding his bladder onto the steaming jungle floor. His next action, however, would have earned him a beating from his stern-faced father, for a hunter who acts without thinking, is no hunter at all, but a fool, and worthless.
Rapau, as slowly as he raised his hand to drink, swiveled his neck and looked into the eyes of the great ghost of the rainforest. It was a female, there could be no doubt, and she was huge. Her great, golden eyes seemed to stare into him and he swam there, lost, for a few minutes, listening to the she-cat purr into his awestruck face. The cat was seated, but upright, and her thick tail was tucked up close to her heavy, muscular body.
Rapau could not find any moisture in his mouth to swallow. He scarcely breathed. He did not want to die, not yet, not before he became a man, and he did something else that his father would not have approved, indeed something that would have maybe gotten him exiled for sorcery.
He reached out, very slowly, and rubbed the great jaguar’s ears. She purred louder and half-closed her eyes, letting the boy rub and scratch behind the soft, velvety ears and on the top of her large head. As he did this, she stretched out a bit and lay down next to him, letting the boy stroke her from head to tail along her back, all the while purring and licking one great massive paw.
Suddenly there came a sound of sticks breaking and a boy cursed the stupidity of his father for sending him out here to probably get eaten by one of the great river monsters, the lizards of armor and teeth.
Rapau darted his head around to see one of his kafu, his age-mates, a complainer named Huayna, stupid as well as clumsy, blundering through the underbrush, sending the indignant birds flying and squawking with alarm.
Huayna saw Rapau at the same time, and a large, goofy grin split his face, revealing two shattered front teeth, lost in the Games last harvest. “Hey Rapau! Did you find your jabali yet? I haven’t seen anything, and I’m so hungry, do you have any food and … hey – what’s wrong?”
Rapau turned to the sleeping jaguar, but it was gone. There was no sign of her, not a branch was swaying and not a twig had been bent. Even the undergrowth she had been lying on was springing back to reach again for the sweltering sun, and the boy jumped up, spear in hand and babbled, “Did you see her? Did you? She was magnificent! And she was lying right next to me! I can’t believe it! Wait until I tell my father and brother about this!”
Huayna was close enough to reach out an arm and he half-shook Rapau, not liking the crazed look in his eyes and yelled, “What are you talking about? Who is she? Have you been seeing visions again? Remember at the Games and that proud idiot Yaco got into the shaman’s tent and ate all the ololiuqui meant for the Festival of the Dead? That was so funny! He was barking like a dog, remember, and-”
Rapau yelled back at him, “You didn’t see her? The jaguar? She was lying next to me and she let me pet her!”
Huayna looked at him with open disbelief. “Jaguar? You are drunk again. Jaguars don’t let hunters pet them, you stupid engañar, they crack their skulls open like a tuerca!” He started to taunt Rapau again, and was thinking of how he could blame his failure to kill a jabali on Rapau, about how he could say he was drunk and making noise and acting the fool.
Rapau, however, had other ideas, and lit off into the jungle, and was soon gone from view, leaving Huayna to cry out to “Stop! Wait for me!” and lumbered after him as the insects droned on and the parrots gollicked to one another and the lazy, rolling river, slid past, drowsing in the thick humid air of the summer afternoon.