We left the building that had given us shelter from the late heat of the day, strolling in pairs or small groups behind our guide and other guests. We had been sitting queued in chairs, waiting for our turn to orderly go into the dining hall after a wonderful afternoon spent exploring and were chatting casually with new friends and people in proximity to us.
While inside the cavernous building, one of the women towards the end of the row had stated she was gluten intolerant and a staff member, kindly had brought us back a sample of the desert they were serving that evening. A decedent cake that was made of mounded sliced strawberries covered by a marzipan style crust, which was then frosted with a black forest cake type of icing. There was no wheat, dairy or eggs in the ‘cake’. We had passed the plate around so people could look at it or sample it, if they chose to.
As we walked along the slightly winding, dusty road, we chatted about the ingenuity of the desert and its lack of traditional ingredients and making comments about how delicious it was, eagerly looking forward to our traditional type meal of our hosts and the delicious desert.
“I still can’t believe they made that cake without any eggs.”
“I know, it really was amazing, I’m going to ask them how they did it so I can copy it at home.”
“So will I, even though no one in my family has any of those allergies. We actually have 6 Buff Orpington hens that we raise for eggs.”
“I didn’t know you raised chickens! Don’t you have to have a rooster with them to keep them from picking on each other?”
“Of course!” I said. “You know what a bunch of peckish hens act like without needing to preen for their fearless male leader!” My comment made us both laugh.
We were along the side a very slight hill, which had wound its way past a field. The mature corn stalks to our right were over 6 feet tall and on the other side of the dirt road, was a small farming fence and what appeared to be a crop of potatoes, with big broad leaves reaching about 4 feet high. We were just coming up to what looked like a parked farming truck on the left side of the road, which had a large shipping container type box, high up on the back of the truck bed.
You could hear the quiet chatter of our companions, just ahead of us as they moved out of sight, as they turned the left bend, past the truck, angling down into the small green space, between the fields and into the shadows cast by the trees and rapidly approaching dusk. The sun had just sunk behind the tree line directly behind us, taking the last sun of the day from us, leaving us in a shaded path, with a rapidly approaching night.
“I actually have a single rooster, but instead of using a normal sized male, I went for a bantam Seabright male since the girls will still listen to him, even if he is only 8 inches big.” I held up my hands showing his approximate size.
“Well, 8 inches seems like a perfect size for any rooster” my companion said with a suggestive giggle, which made us turn towards each other and burst out laughing at the same time. The bantering humor was a continuation of our easy camaraderie of the day.
Over her right shoulder I could see the top of the corn stalks move, drawing my eyes and a questioning look, even as I heard the quiet sound of something rushing out through them. Still laughing, I watched a dark shadow burst out through the darkly shadowed line of corn. She saw the laughter change to horror on my face, as in a frozen moment I watched something take its low, leaping lunge towards us.
Her head whipped around into the direction I was looking and we both went from laughter to screaming, and we both instinctively started to run away from the quiet sound of a large animal descending on us, in the fraction of a moment it took us to register that something had burst through the cover of corn and onto the road. Other than the slight rustle, all we heard was the thud of heavy paws hitting dry ground 5 or 6 times.
As my head turned forward to the direction my body had started to run, I could see over my right shoulder that what looked like a large black cat, shiny even in the minimal dusk light, blending into the dusk and shadows, sweeping massive paws forward towards our legs. My companion was to my right. She stumbled hard into my shoulder as the cat either made contact with her or in her attempt to evade its sweeping strike.
Over the intensity of our screams, I heard the first actual sound the animal had made; the snarling guttural sound of a hunting panther. In the three or four running steps it took us, we were beside the truck and as she slammed against my shoulder, I leapt upwards to grab the rail and struggled to gain a foothold on the container and scramble up to the top. I could feel her body being jerked away from contact with mine.
The cat had her.
She was kicking, screaming and crying as she struggled to keep running forward. I looked down and could see her struggling, trying to get around the truck, to get into the cab, to get away from the panther. The cat lunged again, shifted, struck out with another massive paw. I could hear her sharp pitched screams mixing with the tearing sounds and angry cat noises as its massive head twisted, biting and slashing at her. Frantically, I dug into my front pocket, pulling out my lanyard which had a whistle, and on every exhalation I blew frantically as hard as I could, trying to distract the cat and to get the attention of our group and guides.
I was terrified the cat would come for me instead, drawn by my whistle, horrified that I couldn’t stop what was happening to my friend, but needing to try. I lay on my back, just past the edge of the roof, pounding the container with the heals of my feet, as I held the whistle to my mouth with hands shaking so badly, I feared dropping it. The pounding of my heart was so loud in my ears that it blurred the horrible, gut wrenching sounds of my friend being mauled.
Over the sound of my ragged breath and sharp, warbling whistles; over the noise of her fading screams and the cats attack, I heard the frantic noise of foreign men yelling in their native language, as they came running towards us, up from the path. It didn’t matter. I already knew it was too late. In the deafening silence between the noises, I could hear the gurgle of blood and imagined the death throws of my friend as she was dragged backwards and under the vehicle. At best, she was mortally injured, laying just 10 feet beneath me.
But for the Grace of God, I was on the left side of the road which had left her vulnerable as the first one in the cats path as it had stalked us, unaware. I could hear men running, yelling, arriving at the truck; I heard the crack of gunfire, the urgent shouting of what must have been directions. I wasn’t alone anymore. I was going to survive.
I heard a few seconds of the tall leafy greens rustling, with what I assumed was the cat darting off, back into the dark fields before I realized I was still weakly blowing my whistle as I lay on my back sobbing; in fear, in horror, in relief that I was still alive. I could smell the dust, the iron scent of blood, and the pungent scent of male sweat from the men who had arrived to chase the cat back into the forest.
She was dead. I didn’t have to understand their language to know what they were saying. You could hear the anger and knowledge in their voices as they dragged her from beneath the truck. I could hear someone climbing up the truck cab, presumably to get me off the roof. I couldn’t seem to move, even knowing they were coming up for me. All I kept thinking, was that my sanctuary had been her death trap.