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February 02, 2007
In the esteem of the jaguar

In shadowed undergrowth I hear an animal moving clumsily through rickety branches. I stop and peer ahead, thinking, bear. No. It has to be human. No one else travels with such a heedless gate in the wilds, dry branches breaking underfoot. This is a piney, almost tropical mountain slope in northern Mexico, where I have been walking with a companion whom I have not seen for a few hours. We got split up in the undergrowth this morning, and I figured we would not find each other until tonight, back at our camp. In the havoc of vegetation before me I am just able to make out my companions pack, and his burnished hat brim ducking into paths cleared enough for javelinas or coatis, but not for humans. He has no idea I am here. I imagine exactly what he is thinking. He feels alone right now, wandering through his own tangled, private wilderness, nothing to answer but his every footstep and the haywire branches in front of him. The second I am sure it is my companion and not a bear, a grin comes across my face. I slow myself and study his movements, thinking that if I am stealthy enough, I can sneak up and scare the crap out of him. Ill leap on his back from out of the shadows. This is how he and I travel together, testing each other, watching for tracks, alert to the smallest flit of wings or snort of air. If one is so careless, this is his chastisement, a prank, a delightful moment of terror. I skulk off to the side, reading the steep, mountainous angle under my boots. I plant my palms across my thighs as I steer my weight through the brush. My mind is set on the slow, persistent task of paying attention, losing sight of my partner, but staying with him, listening ahead for tendrils of sound, his hard boot soles landing stride after stride. The terrain makes it difficult. Gullies lead in and out of each other, and down their embankments I have to slow even more so he does not hear me sliding after him. I go to my hands and knees, bowing under branches where something the size of a large dog has been clearing its own habitual path. The animal even left some tracks. Though they are little more than scuffs, I can see it was here recently. But my thoughts are not on animals. I am fixed on my companion walking at the edge of my hearing, his sounds coming from a faraway room. I follow him through pines, brown-bark columns of old growth leaving little space to pass. He leads me out of the woods and onto a steeply pitched incline covered with oak brush and knee-tangling manzanita. I damn near have to walk like a snake to keep quiet, shoulders swerving around twigs and crooked limbs, one hand touching ground, the other lifting a branch out of the way. For a moment, I lose him, but soon pick him up again. His walking has changed. He is quieter now. Maybe he has spotted an animal, a white-tailed deer, perhaps even a bear, and he is stalking it for a better look. I have to move even more softly, stepping on the outside edges of my feet, rolling to the ball, half hovering, half moving. High grass and Apache plume obscure my vision, but I am getting closer, now able to hear his every footfall. I can almost see him, my ears forming an auditory vision of his headway. I have to stop from smiling. I feel like a master tracker, expert trickster, just about to make my kill, ready to rush forward at a blinding sprint and dive onto my companions back. His shriek will be well worth the effort. Though I cannot yet see him, I know he is fifteen feet ahead of me. I calculate that I can be on him in three seconds, hardly enough time for him to turn and get his brain focused on me flying at him. My muscles tense and relax, tense and relax, looking for the window, the right moment to bolt. Then I hear his voice. He is calling from far away. I freeze. Ahead of me, the sound of walking ceases. I stand up straight, head barely clearing the brush, and I can see my companion about 400 feet up the slope from me. He is shouting about something he found, a huge, angry rattlesnake. He wants me to come up and see it, biggest rattlesnake hes ever encountered. Still, I do not move, and a single question crystallizes in my head. If not my companion, then what am I stalking? As I add up sounds I had been following, the realization comes quickly. I was tricked off my companions trail, and now am following an animal with soft, even steps. Weighs about as much as a grown man, but is not a man. How could I have missed the cues, stillness and shifts? I am following a jaguar. My companion must have spotted me some time ago, watching me as I pushed my way through scrub. I shout up to him, Listen, can you have a look around me. Do you see anything else, any animal? He is quiet for a moment. No. Just you. Wait a minute. Theres something in front of you. My eyes throttle the brush. Nothing is there. Not a flick of fur. Not a sound. How close? I call desperately. How close is it? There is a huge, pissed-off rattlesnake in front of me. You really should see this. How close? I demand, trying to keep my voice calm. I cant see it. Where was it when you could see it! There it is again. Something big is moving in the brush. His voice sounds startled, letting go of the rattlesnake entirely. Where is it? I call. Is it moving toward me? Its coming around your side. I crank my torso, looking both ways, seeing a hundred jaguars, seeing nothing. Which side? Downhill. No, wait. Now I dont see it. Its...its gone again. I wait for my companions next words and my focus fills the space around me, my entire body electrified, as if I have become nothing but a single sensory organ. Jaguars are different from mountain lions, much heavier and more aggressive. They attack from the front rather than from behind, tearing out your throat with their teeth. I cant see it, he calls again. Time escapes me, turned into vigilance so taut that I cannot think a single word. I am breathing through my skin. My hands are out, floating around me, fingers extended, ready to do what, I do not know. I can sense the big cats body through the air, its hind legs bunching at the ground, ready to leap. I look so hard into the brush that I no longer form the image of the jaguar in my mind. I see only color, light, shape. It is as if a blindfold has been taken off of me. I am suddenly seeing the world for what it is. I see it, my companion shouts. Its way out ahead of you. Its moving down the slope at a pretty good clip. Youre all clear. Shadows, like veins, cross my hands and boots. My face feels hot. I refuse to move, knowing that when I do I will have to laugh at myself, expert trickster, indeed. I will have to walk to camp, build a fire, tell a story. But none of this happens yet. I do not even lift my hand to wipe fear off my brow. I stand still, remaining in the esteem of the jaguar just a moment more, even after it is long gone. Panthera onca .........

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