RABSON Dube worked at the wildlife orphanage. He fed the animals, cleaned the cages and helped out around the place. A simple soul, he liked his job. He drank too much, but he swore this helped with his migraines.
Tall, with rounded, barrel chest and powerful arms, the task of carrying meat to the lions and bags of food to the elephant were easy for him. The smell of rotting meat and dung from the animal cages permeated his being, but Rabson didn’t appear to notice.
At night, in a dark alley, this spectre would be scary. His appearance was alarming, mostly on account of his bright red eyes. Inside, Rabson was a gentle soul with cataracts. Son of a scout and brought up on a private game ranch, he was good with animals, understood them, liked to talk to them. In his workman clothes, old overalls, usually open to the waist at the front, and a cheap pair of plastic gumboots he blended into the background, invisible to most visitors to the orphanage.
MIDWEEK, when cleaning cages, Rabson noticed a man. Noticed the man didn’t look at the animals. He watched people only. Rabson thought he was like a leopard. He walked like one. Rabson knew this man was not there to look at the animals, he was there to look for something else. Prey? Fanciful? he thought, shaking his head slightly. However, he watched the man. Watched him look at each and every person who worked at the wildlife orphanage: the tea girls, the cleaners, even the boss.
TODAY, Saturday, Rabson cleaning the monkey’s cages saw a woman arrive from the car park. He saw she was alone; not only alone in the car, alone in her head. He saw her gaze track around, not pausing as it swept past his face, not pausing as it passed anyone’s face. Rabson knew she had seen him, had noticed him; not like most white people, who didn’t notice black people. She had seen him, but she didn’t want to see him; didn’t want to see anyone.
She was tall, and powerful, with strong shoulders and a flat stomach. She was different. She talked to the animals, like he did. She stopped and spoke to the suricats, their cages close to the entrance. Her face, like still water. Impenetrable on the surface, visible if you look under.
Rabson saw her delight when the mongoose popped up over the fake ant heap and her fascination at the bundle of scales which was the pangolin, curled up against the fence.
Most people who visited the orphanage only looked at the animals, crossing each off some sort of a mental list, before moving on to the next. This woman was different, she dragged herself reluctantly away from each cage, slowly making her way down the path, saying good-bye to each animal.
He lost track of her for a while, perhaps thirty minutes. She reappeared, climbing up a path across from the one where he was busy sweeping. He could see her face again now, saw her linger near a cage for a time, before continuing on her way.
Then, he saw her stride falter, one foot stranded in mid air. It was as if she had stopped breathing, as if she wanted to be invisible. Half way through a step, she stopped. Then she backed away one step. And then another.
With a grin, he guessed she had come face to face with the leopard, lying on his log staring at her, utterly still, completely cold. Although she was more than ten meters away, she instinctively sensed she was in danger, and she would have been, but for the double layers of diamond mesh wire between them.
Rabson knew the feeling, the leopard did it to him on occasion, and he always found its icy stare scary. Perhaps he was playing? Rabson, grateful he always had the mesh between him and the leopard, didn’t wish to find out.
Those eyes. That watchful, predatory stare. The implausible beauty of this dangerous creature, mesmeric. Hypnotic.
He was right, this woman was different. He hardly ever saw anyone react to the leopard like this. Sometimes children did. Recently he watched a boy pass that way. Unlike the woman, when the child saw the leopard, he backed away, first one step, then he kept on going, right to the bottom of the path, back to his mother.
And then she did. She backed away another step and then another. Rabson glanced back at the leopard. He had hissed at her, his lips pulled back from his teeth, exposing the inside of his throat, his pink tongue. Then, as only big cats do, he put his head back onto his paws, and closed his eyes.
The woman remained on the concrete path and watched, for a long, long time. He noticed, like the little boy, she didn’t pass the leopard cage, she returned the way she came and turned right, once more out of sight.
He was sure she didn’t know it, but she was moving towards the elephant pen. Rabson couldn’t wait to see her reaction to the elephant. He loved the elephant, loved to talk to it. Such a clever animal, playful, but never like the leopard. The elephant was gentle, had kind eyes. Rabson wouldn’t see her face from where he was working, so he wheeled his barrow around behind the lion pen.
He managed to see her talk to the elephant, and it was worth his manoeuvre. She watched it eat, watched it drink, move.
Rabson, his shoulder propped against a tree, watched her climb up the steps and sit down in the viewing platform.
He had a well developed instinct for danger, being brought up in the bush, in a park teeming with wild animals. Suddenly fear spiked his nerves. Alert, he jerked around, directly into the gaze of the man he had seen in the midweek, and Rabson knew he was not safe.
This leopard was not behind two layers of wire mesh. He was over there, less than thirty meters away, and Rabson knew instinctively he was dangerous and that he was watching him, Rabson.
Why, he wondered?
And, like the woman and the little boy, he backed away warily, back to the heap of leaves he had abandoned on the path and continued his sweeping.
The woman sat in the upstairs viewing platform for about an hour and she watched that elephant. She watched it throw sand over its back, drink, eat the fresh hay. Rabson had work to do, but he noticed when many people began to arrive, she left.
They bothered her.
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