To Laurent Tailhade
From the underground caverns of the arena, the cage was pulled up slowly, dragging her with it like a thick piece of night. And when the gates opened to the splendid light of the sky and the beast found the mantle of purple-stained golden sand beneath her steps, she basked in the light, believing herself a goddess. Young, dressed in the royal mourning clothes of black panthers, wearing a scattering of enormous topazes all along her limbs, she cast the pure staring gaze of those who encounter for the first time, at the edge of great deserts, their sinister virgin image. Her feline paws, powerful and childlike, seemed to move on drifts of down. In three light leaps, she reached the center of the ring. There, seating herself with sinuous grace, all other affairs, including the scrutiny of the imperial loge, seemed of little importance to her. She licked her sex.
Near her, quartered Christians hung from crosses red with blood. A dead elephant, like a tumbled colossal wall, blocked off a whole section of the extraordinarily blue sky with its gray mass. In the distance, a strange clamor arose from a cloud of pale forms writhing in the circles of tiered seats. The beast, having finished her intimate toilette, put her muzzle to the ground to seek some reason for these cries of rage. She found them inexplicable; her cold and methodical morals accepted the utility of murder without yet understanding its various hysterias. From over there, she heard the muffled rumble of a sail beaten by the wind, the whining of branches cracking from lightning. She let out a mocking meow in defiance of the storms. Without haste, wanting to show the spectators the gentleness of real wild beasts, she sat down to dine on the flavorful mass of the elephant, disdaining the human prey. She drank leisurely of the steaming liqueur flowing from the monstrous cadaver and cut herself an ample rag of flesh. The feast finished, she planted herself on the remains of her meal and shined her left paw with care. Two days before she had been set free, in the darkness of her prison, they had scattered unworthy meats seasoned with cumin and peppered with saffron to excite the devouring fire of her insides; but the crafty huntress had abstained, having known longer fasts and more dangerous temptations. Hardly ignorant, albeit virginal, she already knew the thirsts of the burning noons of her homeland, where birds cried dirges sighing after the rain; she knew the poisonous plants of great tangled forests where forked-tongued reptiles dripping venom tried to hypnotize her; she knew the fat weight of the sun and the absurd leanness of her victims; the anxious vigils under the eye of the treacherous moon that would send her in pursuit of the shadow of prey always just out of reach. From these unlucky hunts, she had kept the instinct of a poor warrior, and asked only for a modest share in order not to be dizzied by this blessed other world in which carnivores, now the brothers of men, seemed to be invited to solemn feasts. She chose her piece without arrogance, wanting to appear well-mannered in the presence of appetites less natural than her own.
A naked Christian, pathetically armed with a flail, surged over the elephant’s hindquarters, driven by unseen executioners. He slipped in the curdled blood and rolled headfirst. Cries rose. He grabbed his flail again and his pale lips twisted into a smile. He did not want to use it, even against the beast who was going to slit his throat. He sat down with his clear eyes fixed on the enemy. She made a playful gesture with her paw, meaning: “I am satisfied!” And she stretched out, eyes half-closed, whipping her tail in perplexity. In a silent duel of curious gazes, the Christian seeking—despite his expected surrender—the secret of beast tamers, the supreme power of sole will over the brute, and the free beast struggling to determine the power of this species when it is naked.
A clamor roused them from their peculiar daydream. They were now the center of the bloody revel, and no one, truly, understood this manner of entertainment. A sudden anger invaded the spectators. Bestiarii were called, horses galloped toward the elephant, whose heavy mass was dragged and pulled to its feet; face to face, the two adversaries continued to eye each other. The Christian refused the fight and the panther, no longer hungry, did not feel the need to tear him to pieces. A bestiarius dashed forward, threatening them with his sword. With a single graceful leap the animal avoided the impact, and the Christian kept his melancholy smile. Shouts reverberated from all sides. The storm burst, ghastly. The bestiarii rushed the beast, who declared herself capriciously for the weakest of them. They rested their lances on braziers, brought spears coated with pitch and burning feathers, called dogs trained to cut bulls’ hamstrings, filled pots with boiling oil. All their hatred turned in an instant toward the mad young animal, flicking her flanks with her indecisive tail, wondering what all these war preparations meant. The bestiarii left her no time to return to her senses. They swooped down on her and set off a disordered race through a track littered with corpses. The panther fled, taken with superstitious terror. The world was ending! Pell-mell, pursuers and pursued knocked against the bodies of men and animals under the people’s immense laughter; this new foolishness amused them. From all sides, they threw rocks, fruits, and weapons at the frenzied beast. Patrician women hurled jewels that whistled terribly as they crossed the space, and the emperor himself stood up and stoned her with silver coins. With a last desperate leap, the panther, drunk with rage, bristling with arrows, surrounded by fire, took refuge in her still-open cage. They closed the gate and the dark trap descended below the arena again.
Days and nights flowed by, all atrocious. From time to time, she let out a mournful mew, a call to the sun that she would never see again. She had developed a reputation at the circus and they subjected her to all sorts of torments. A coward, they said, she had refused to fight, and could no longer claim the rank of noble animal. The caretaker of the imprisoned wild animals, a very old slave, took no pity on her even though she had split her mouth open by biting the blade of a sword. He only gave her the scraps from the neighboring cages, bones that had already been gnawed, foul, rotten things that piled up in the cesspit of her cage. Her fur, soiled with filth, became covered in wounds; young boys had teased her by nailing her tail to the ground until, with a painful effort, she ripped it away from the nail, leaving behind some skin. The old slave amused himself by taunting her, offering her one hand while the other blinded her with a handful of sulfur. He burned off one of her ears with the crackling fire of a torch. Deprived of air and light, her mouth always full of bloody drool, she wailed dismally, looking for a way out, beating the bars of her cage with her skull, tearing at the ground with her claws, and deep inside her, a mysterious ache grew. Because she grumbled in such a sinister way, the order came to let her die of starvation. Worthy deaths, like strangling or a pike to the heart, were no longer for her. The beast understood. She went silent and lay down in one last prideful pose and, pulling her wounded tail in close, crossing her gangrenous paws, closing her fiery eyes, she dreamed while awaiting her agony. Oh! The forests cracking under storms! The enormous suns, the pink moons, the birds crying over the rain, the green spaces, the fresh springs, the young easy prey whose life she could drink in a single swallow, the great rivers spreading out their mirror where wild animals could lean down and be haloed with stars… Little by little, the dying panther’s brain was dazzled by old visions. Oh! Distant happiness, freedom! A movement of mad despair reminded her of her destiny: she saw once more the golden arena sand stained with purple, the gray mass of the gutted elephant, the hard smile of the Christian, and finally the furious cries of the bestiarii, and the torments, all the torments! Her nose resting on her crossed paws, she seemed to be asleep… perhaps already dead. Suddenly, the darkness of her prison dissipated. A hatch had just slid open above. Descending from heaven into the hell where the damned beast crouched, the svelte white form of a woman appeared. She was carrying a hunk of goat meat in a raised fold of her tunic, and balancing a vessel of water on her shoulder with her right arm. The panther rose up. This creature all in white, she was the old caretaker’s daughter.
“Beast,” she said, while behind her was a whirlwind of light as blonde as her hair. “I have compassion for you. You will not die.”
Detaching a chain, she pushed open the bars of the cage and dropped the hunk of goat meat at the threshold, then set the full vessel down calmly.
So the panther drew back on her haunches, luckily still supple, made herself tiny so as not to frighten the child, watched her for an instant with phosphorescent eyes that had become as deep as chasms. Then she pounced on her throat and crushed her.
When we think of animals set loose in the arenas of the Roman empire, we tend to think of lions. “Panther” refers to a melanistic variation of either a leopard, in Africa or Asia, or a jaguar, in the Americas. In this short story, Rachilde imagines a black leopard caged in the darkness underneath the arena, visible only because of its glinting eyes. The animal’s color is a deliberate aesthetic choice, as is its species and sex: “panthère” in French, unlike “lion,” is a feminine noun. In both the action and the language of the story, the first thing the panther does is to display her sex.
I have preserved this aspect of the story by referring to the panther as “she.” I have also tried to preserve Rachilde’s luxuriantly long sentences, lingering, as she does, on both the cruelty of the arena and the panther’s yearning for home. French style, especially French style from the end of the nineteenth century, accommodates these sinuous sentences. English syntax is simpler. This is not necessarily a loss. The panther draws back on her haunches in a long sentence, slow and tense. Then she jumps—quick, short, final.