For them, the days without rain are the longest. Dry, barren clumps of sapless bark and shrivelled earth stretch out to the graphite horizon; the air around the house is lifeless, the ground flat and overspread by an ashen and sullen sky. A day of it is bearable, but a week is tiresome and now it has been weeks on end. No water tomorrow and he may have to go find it. Take her with him and she might not survive the journey, leave her behind and she may not be alive when he gets back.
She is the leopard in the garden. He found her hidden in a bush six months ago, when the only sign of her was a slowly spreading circle of blood across the cracked ground. A wounded creature, when he helped her recover she became strong again, as is their nature, but now she is weak, and he has no bandage that will heal her thirst.
He watches the humble beast lower herself gently to the dusty ground, tucking her brave head in towards herself. Different circumstances and it could have been them that outnumbered and outlived us. If they had, the world would have been as much theirs as it ever was ours. The old man wonders if she is loyal to a fault. The sun is beginning to set and soon she will move slowly back across the yard and into the open shed. There is a cage for her there, though he has never locked it and never will. There is straw for her, and he leaves the door open when it is warm and pulls it almost shut when there are harsh winds. But he has no water for her, and perhaps she would be better leaving him so she can get it herself. But she won’t. Is that loyalty? Or is it that in the six months since he saved her, he has inadvertently broken her again?
This is not his true home. That was with his wife, but when she died he lost attachment to their house and everything they had there, including his very way of life. He sold it and bought this, out in the middle of nowhere, far from what he had always known, confident that the money acquired in doing so would mean he could live out his days, if not in comfort, at least at financial ease.
In the kitchen he pours a glass of beer from a large bottle and sits at the table and eats bread between large gulps. When the bread and the beer are done, disappearing as one, down to the last swallow, he decides: No rain tomorrow and I will go. It is not that he lives out of reach, but there is little to bring people here. Those he might see – the postman, who has nothing to deliver; the people in the village, who he cannot reach since his car, like everything else, overheated; the neighbours, who would not come to him for help, nor appreciate him going to them – are all absent from his life. Even if the neighbours were prepared to offer him water, what would they say when he wasted it on the beast in the garden? He is keeping an endangered animal, undeclared, on his property; not everybody would agree with it, and if he can’t have enough water to share with the leopard, then what is the point in having any?
When it’s time to leave he fills a backpack with canisters, and she makes her way towards the front door and lies down near his feet. Her face, her mouth and nose, look dry. The sun is rising behind the house. Get to the water before noon, before high sun; find shelter to avoid the harshest hours; return, and hope she is alive and well to receive him. He hardly knows if he is fit to make the journey himself; to take her with him would be do double the odds, push their luck and ask for trouble. Yet as he thinks to walk away from her, his feet don’t move.
He lowers himself and looks at her face. In a previous life his wife said she could see him in their son’s eyes. Perhaps when he dies, people will see him there still. But when the leopard dies he fears there will be no eyes like hers left to see her in.
‘Come on,’ he says, and claps his hands, because he has never given her a name. She looks up at him. ‘Come on.’
As they walk, the wide open plane means that though they are some distance apart, they are together. He knows this land is not new to her. Before she became weak, before the trough in her garden ran empty, she hunted. He doesn’t like to think about it, like a spouse who knows there partner is having an affair but decides never to acknowledge it. It is not naivety as such, but an innocence which he prefers to bestow on her. Killing, ruthless and gruesome, though necessary, is not something he wants to picture her doing, in case acknowledging that one sometimes has to kill to survive, leads to him one day believing that he should be allowed to kill her.
‘How’s your leg?’ the old man asks. ‘Mine are starting to feel it a bit, if I’m being honest. And we’re only half way there, aren’t we? And it isn’t my leg that was in a bandage for so long. How’s your leg?
‘It’s very hot, and you feel it when you move like this, like the sun has become aware of you and is closing in. Is this the way you came from, when you found me? Or are we moving further still from where you were? I used to live out here, though well past where we’re going.’
He wonders if she is listening at all.
‘But you probably don’t want to hear about that; I know I don’t. So I won’t say it. But just you remember, I’m in charge here. If your leg is sore, just remind yourself it’s one foot in front of the other and each step gets us closer.
‘You know, I try to keep you alive because that’s all there is left for me to do, all I have to live for. It’s a difference I’m making. But you know, just as big a difference would be to take my gun and put a bullet through your head; to wave good-bye to you all. For some men that would be the thing to do, just to have done something. When you get to my age, you understand that, in a way.’
When he sees the well ahead of them he is at first relieved that there is no one around it, then worried for the same reason.
‘Where is everyone?’ he asks, but gets no reply. For the last few miles she has been loitering behind him, ignoring his every word. ‘You’re tired I suppose,’ he says. ‘Me too.’
As he steps forward his fears are confirmed: the roof is half collapsed, lying across the mouth of the well, separating them from the water beneath. The sun is high above them but he is in no mood to wait. As he feels the harsh, grey stones of the well, he holds his breath for a second, tenses his body, breathes out, then pushes against the roof with all his strength. In his mind he is aiming his force at a forty-five degree angle, trying to push it away from where he stands, but not quite across the mouth of the well; he doesn’t want it to go into the well. As the roof reaches the incline it stands for a second back where it belongs, above the gaping hole below. He waits to see if it will fall back towards him, collapse down, or go forward. It does the latter, and to his relief veers off to the left, just as it had in his mind’s eye, breaking off to the side and away.
‘There,’ he says. ‘That’s that done for a start,’ but the leopard is lying against a tree in the shade, seemingly oblivious. He feels sweat on his forehead and rubs his shirt sleeve across his face. His dry lips feel like they might tear.
The rope from the well is gone, but the bucket remains, and he decides he can recreate everything else. He takes the largest log of wood from the remains, tips it up and rests it on top of the well, wedging it between the gaps in the lose rocks. He has always considered himself skilled, but it is a trait from his youth, and now his hands have a shake and he isn’t sure of what he’s doing. He empties the steel canisters, rope and knife from the backpack, and considering these things of only half use begins to tear into the backpack itself, ripping off long strips of thick green material and removing the large, plastic buckle from one of the straps. He takes the strips and uses them to tie the buckle to the centre of the log, positioning it so the rope can pass through. Whether this will help or not is secondary to the fact that it is the only thing that might help, all he can do to improvise and improve the situation. Therefore he is going to do it. His hands shake as he passes the rope through, but he feels better for knowing that he is giving them their best shot. He brings the rope back round and ties the bucket to the end, then lowers it into the well. He feeds it down for what feels like an age, before he hears the wonderful splash of water.
The weight is immediate. As he begins to pull the rope up it feels heavy in his hands, even worse than he’d imagined. The rope feels weak and as it grinds against the wood he worries that it is getting weaker. The buckle keeps the bucket in line, but doesn’t make it any easier to pull. It saps energy from him and he feels his control waning, until finally his arm slips. He re-grips the rope in time, but he has lost his momentum and struggles to regain it. He pulls but nothing moves. He hears a snap, then silence, with nothing changing but the weight in his hands, before another small, enviable, splash.
When he wakes he is lying against a tree, with the well in front of him and the roof lying around it, but no sign of his other endeavours. The leopard is gone. He thinks of all the things he has done for her and how he has failed with this one. He worries in his usual way if he has done everything he could, and asserts, as usual, that no one ever does, and anyway, it’s of no consequence, because doing your best is of no real help if you’re doing the wrong thing in the first place. Above all he is thirsty. As he sits up he hears a rustling in the leaves behind him. The leopard appears at his right shoulder. All he sees is her face. The dirt and sand are gone, her lips and nose are wet, and she says nothing as she rubs her head against his shoulder and turns and disappears into the bushes again.
ANDREW MAGUIRE has an MA in Creative Writing from Queen’s University Belfast and is employed at South West College, where he writes and edits ‘Way Out West’, which won best blog at the 2017 European Digital Communication Awards. He’s a primary organiser of the Omagh Literary Festival. His short fiction has been published in Blackbird, The Incubator and The Honest Ulsterman.
Image: InspiredImages via Pixabay