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Cheep…. Cheep… Tweet… Tweet… It was the unmistakable noise of baby birds in distress. My blood ran colder than the chilly forest air around me. I couldn’t tell whether it was another nightmare. But my red- panda senses kicked in nonetheless. There was a predator in our midst, my sleepy brain registered. Was it the sneaky yellow-throated marten who was trying his rotten luck? The gluttonous snow- leopard who was looking for tidbits after a satisfying meal of blue sheep? Or… Was it the most dangerous predator of all? The two-legged one?
“Predator or prey,” my mother’s voice rang loudly in my ears, louder than the piercing, twittering noises, loud enough to rouse me from my slumber. The shrill cries persisted. I stood up on my rear legs and looked around in panic when I spotted them just two fir trees away- very real little birds, hatched just a few days ago, desperately calling out to their mother, terrified of two of my grandsons skulking around their nest, sniffing and prodding the little ones like seasoned predators assessing a possible meal.
“Predator or prey,” I heard my mother’s voice taunt me again. “What will you be Sano?” She was long gone. But I could never seem to silence her voice. It served as a reminder of how I had answered her favourite query on that fateful day.
It was still dark. Heavy mist swirled through the air, unfurling like the coiling bodies of stealthy tree- snakes. I didn’t hear the single crack of a twig, the chirping of birds, the grunting of disgruntled animals and yet I knew from the dew drops that formed on the blades of grass and brushed against my fur, that morning wasn’t far. And I was still a long way from home. I could have easily weaved through the tall trees that nearly broke the white clouds, thick fallen logs and shallow pools that held fresh water from the last rain and still reached home, even before the first ray of sunshine peeked through the branches of the clustered mountain trees with flowers brighter than the birds that lived there. But I chose not to.
“We are ready to hunt by ourselves tonight, Sano” the boy cub had declared. “Please let’s try again, mama. This time we will make you proud,” the girl cub supported his outrageous request. I was so furious that I didn’t even bother biting her ear and demanding that she call me by my birth name. That’s right. I wanted them to call me Sano and I didn’t bother naming them. Names fostered a sense of closeness. What was the point of that? Most red panda cubs left their mothers when they were little less than a year old. The boy cub and the girl cub were no different. All of six months and they wanted to be completely independent. Ungrateful red balls of fluff!
They weren’t suckling on my swollen teats anymore but it didn’t mean that they were ready to forage for food! Last week, only on their insistence to learn survival skills, I decided to conduct their first real practical class in the forest and teach them to identify some predators and poisonous foods that would kill even the strongest of red pandas.
Once I described the common traits, habits and the habitat of our famed enemy, the marten, I spotted one sallow live specimen sleeping beneath a stubby fir tree. “Remember what I told you. Now, answer me, is that a friend or foe?” I asked, pointing out the marten to the cubs.
“If I answer correctly, will you name me, mama?” the girl cub asked me.
“No,” I hissed, “And if you don’t call me Sano, I will get the marten to name you. Trust me; he will only refer to you as ‘FOOD’!” The girl cub whimpered and shrank back, blinking away tears. She reminded me of my sister Chuppi- the hidden one; timid, polite, eager to please but thankfully she didn’t keep disappearing to find new hiding places. Or maybe that was a bad thing. At least that way I would be spared of those doleful brown eyes every time I refused to name her.
“Friend,” the boy cub declared joyfully.
“Is your brain emptier than the hollow of a bamboo stem? That is a foe! Martens eat us!”
“Friend!” he announced again and before I could give him a nip in his ear, he raced off towards the slumbering marten, jumped on his back and launched himself onto the fir tree, a broad grin on his chubby face. “Marten friend. Squishy rock friend!” he announced in a sing-song voice, clinging there clumsily with his climbing digits instead of scaling higher up to safety.
If the marten had been a little more alert, he would be the one grinning after having devoured the stupid cub! I wish I could say that the boy cub was like my brother, Balwaan- the brave one, but unfortunately, he was just dull-witted. And a terrible climber at that since we lived in a fir tree of medium height (some of them reached till the skies). Once they were slightly older, I would move them to a taller tree and he could master the use of his climbing digits then.
The girl cub, though a slightly better climber, fared no better. At the end of the day, I asked her to pluck all the edible berries and mushrooms in the vicinity. She swished her striped, bushy tail, widened her nut-brown eyes and scurried off only to return with the two items that would cause immediate death on consumption - a cluster of red berries, brighter than her healthy coat and the shredded discs of a sticky, white variety of mushroom that resembled little red panda snouts.
“Did I get them right? Do I get a name now?” the girl cub asked, her eyes eagerly searching mine for approval.
“Is this how you two plan to survive? You will die within hours without me!” I growled, snatching the fatal plants out of her paws and throwing them on the ground.
“We won’t die with trails,” the boy cub declared. He then lifted his tail and deposited a smelly pile of the previous day’s beetles he had feasted on. “Stinky trails save us,” he said in a sing-song voice, wrinkling his nose in disgust.
I regretted that I couldn’t fling the foul pile on his head like those ill-mannered monkeys did sometimes. “You don’t just leave all your droppings in a single place. You leave just a little to find your way,” I snorted impatiently. “You two are nowhere ready for survival training!”
“We are!” the boy cub insisted.
“Don’t you dare open your snouts about this, again. I will decide when you are ready!”
“We just wanted to make you proud of us… Sorry, ma… Sano,” the girl cub sniffed, lowering her head and scrubbing her dirty paws on the earth, wetting it in the process with her useless tears. They should have considered themselves lucky. I was purposely taking time to teach them survival skills so that they could enjoy their cub-hood. Unlike my mother who ruined mine with her daily lessons!
“We, red pandas live alone,” my mother barked, patrolling the large tree where she had built a third den for us. I had grown to like that tree which had pointed leaves that were shaped like my ears. But I didn’t think we would stay there for too long. She kept moving us for fear of predators.
“So, if you don’t act like a predator, you lot will become prey,” my mother continued. I never understood her logic. Why couldn’t we stay together? I had spotted a group of red pandas that lived together closeby. There was even a cub my age, one I would encounter later in my life. Her name was Bhoori- the brown one which didn’t make sense because her eyes were a mix of red and brown, much like the naughty squirrels who stole food from our dens. I envied Bhoori’s group. We could be like them, protect each other and not end up in a snow leopards belly.
I yawned loudly and my mother glowered at me. The rays of the morning sun, poked through the leaves of the trees, casting a warm glow on the otherwise cool forest. All I wanted to do was wrap my tail around my thin body and go to sleep, but my mother wouldn’t let me miss her red panda solitary survival training sessions.
“We may not have large, pointed teeth or claws that can slice through flesh in a single swipe like our nemesis, the snow leopard, but we are not built to be prey either. You lot, what helps us survive?” my mother quizzed.
“Our whiskers can detect even the smallest movements. We can use them to safely escape predators and find good hiding places,” my sister, Chuppi said. “We can also leave markings with our pee, droppings and the funny smelling leakage from our bottoms to locate each other.”
“What a liar! She never left a trail. Hide and seek was never fun with her,” I thought, plucking some delicious brown mushrooms that grew abundantly in a hollow beside my new home.
“We have sharp claws too. What good is a snow leopard if we scratch its eyes out?” my brother Balwaan- the brave one said. He then scraped his sharp claws against the trunk of the tree and the spongy moss fell to the ground like moulted fur.
“Good,” my mother said, nodding at my siblings in approval and huffing at me. “Pay attention. You are the small and weak one! What do we do best with our claws?”
She didn’t need to remind me that I was small and weak. My name implied just that. “Eat?” I said. To demonstrate my point, I pierced my little claw through a mushroom and put it in my mouth.
“Climb!” my mother hissed, her orange eyes flashing angrily like a merciless afternoon sun. “And you can show your brother and sister just how useful that skill is,” she waved her paw in the direction of a ring of moss-covered trees around our home.
“But I don’t climb well,” I said in a small voice while Chuppi and Balwaan sniggered.
“What will you do when you live alone?”
“Why should I live alone? We won’t become prey when we stick together,” I argued.
“Shut up! Now, think I am a snow leopard and start climbing!” my mother said, advancing on me with exposed claws.
I would teach the cubs a lesson! I lifted my paw and sniffed it. Despite the slushy earth that stuck to my soft pads, I could smell the maw-smacking aroma of tender bamboo shoots (crispy enough to chew for hours and yet sweet enough to layer my tongue and remind me of the wonderful sugary taste, long after the shoots emerged from my back end). Knowing that I had enjoyed pawfuls of those shoots without them would make the pain of their hungry, burning bellies even worse and hopefully deepen their regret for disregarding my sound parental advice.
Cheep… Cheep…. Tweet… Tweet…. The greedy cries of baby birds broke the tranquil pre-dawn silence. I looked above and surely enough, in the branches of a tall tree with leaves shaped like a blue sheep’s horns was a bird’s nest with five pale green heads peeking above it. I knew what their mother looked like- she was a fairly small bird with vivid green plumage, an orange beak that shone brighter than my fur and a black face.
“Thankless little things! Probably telling their mother that they can fetch better worms than her “I snorted angrily and my stomach mimicked the movement, rumbling loudly. Just then I had an idea! I would show the cubs just how skilled a predator I was! Plucking leaves, fruits and dead insects was one thing, but it took great skill to hunt a live animal. “We won’t leave till you teach us how to hunt like you, great, strong Sano!” I could imagine the cubs telling me with wonderment in their eyes. I would teach them no doubt but would ensure they trained for a long time.
I hated to admit it but my mother’s relentless training had made me quite a good climber and I easily found my way up and sat beside the nest. The little birds flapped their weak wings, their beady black eyes widened in fear and made loud, frightened noises, instinctively recognising me as a threat. I heard a louder flapping noise close-by, the mother. Those birds had so many children during their fifteen-year lifespan. Would she miss a hatchling or two?
“Fresh dinner awaits you here. So, which of you lot will go first?” my mother asked. She wrapped her tail around the thick tree branch of a tree with blinding pink flowers that dangled limply over our heads, petals awaiting the faintest signal of dawn to blossom and did nothing to prevent the heavy raindrops from drenching our fur. Before her was a shabby nest of twigs and wobbling around within were three little hatchlings, staring at her with little black eyes like the seeds of the tasty black berries we spat out. They were covered in soft down the colour of tender bamboo shoots.
I glared at Balwaan. He was the one who had protested the meal of month old lizards our mother had fetched us and Chuppi just stayed quiet. Now I was stuck, shivering beside them on a dangerously tall tree, while my mother suggested that we kill little birds for food! I had only eaten small dead things till then, never a warm, living being that looked me in the eye.
“The mother is out hunting. If you eat them, it must be now! You will have to pay with an eye or even a nose otherwise,” my mother said. Balwaan smacked his maw hungrily while Chuppi exchanged a hesitant glance with me.
“The snow leopard eats live things. But we aren’t bad like the snow leopard are we?” I asked.
“When you live alone in the wild, you have to eat whatever you get. Dead things, live things, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, we need to be predators to survive.”
“But we are much safer together. Eight paws can gather much more bamboo shoots and mushrooms than two paws,” I looked at my little fore-paws. “The strong one can protect us,” I nodded at Balwaan. “The stealthy one can find us dens that evade even the keenest predator,” I smiled at Chuppi. “And we will look after you too. Isn’t that much better than fighting for survival alone every day or turning into killers to avoid being killed?”
“Predator or prey. What will you be Sano?”
Just then the baby birds beat their wings agitatedly and broke into ear-splitting shrieks as if they had registered that we weren’t friendly visitors after all. “Hurry up, you cowardly lot!” my mother urged.
“I can’t,” I said, my heart quivering like the hatchlings’ fluttering wings.
With a sharp, annoyed hiss, Balwaan stuck his large paw into the nest, picked up the nearest chick and stuffed it in his mouth. He then chewed furiously, trying to drown out the muffled squeaks of the horrified bird while I closed my eyes.
“Just a month more with me and you’ll be in the wild. No doubt as prey, Sano,” I heard my mother’s mocking voice.
“Weak little Sano can be a predator,” I said to no-one in particular and reached out to snatch the fattest hatchlings who were too sated to trill loudly. SCREECH! The mother emerged from a branch to my side, orange beak opened in an angry squawk, her sharp claws outstretched, ready to scratch my eyes out. I ducked, quickly popped both hatchlings into my mouth and hurried down the tree, faster than blue-sheep fleeing a snow leopard. It was a long walk home and I would spend every step of it savouring my first predatory kill.
It must have been my new predator high that made hatchling flesh the tastiest thing that had ever coated my tongue. It was not sweet and syrupy like bamboo, but earthier like a highly flavourful mushroom mixed with the deliciously stinging taste of fresh blood. Although I had licked my maw clean of every last sapid drop, the lingering smell would invite a barrage of questions from the cubs regarding my impressive hunting skills. “Eight months to become half as fast as me. A year to sneak up on birds’ nests, undetected. And maybe another two years to get your first taste of a live hatchling. You can lick my snout and see whether it’s worth the wait,” I planned to tell them.
As I reached home, I was in a considerably better mood. So much so, that it took me some time to pick up a scent that was a stark contrast to the sweet fragrance of pine needles. It was the sour, rotting smell of sweat and another burnt odour that came from the thick hooves the two-legged predator covered their funny flat hind-paws with. Men were here! I pulled out my claws and quickly climbed up the wide girth of the fir tree that served as my home. Why were the cubs unusually quiet? They usually smelt me when I was below the tree and called out for me relentlessly. I peeked into the nest and shrank back in fear. The mewling mouths had been silent because they weren’t there!
“Get down here, Sano! It’s urgent” an angry female panda shouted loudly from below. I peeked down and saw Banjho, the infertile one. Banjho used to be known as Bhoori- the brown one. But once her group realised she was barren, she had been ousted. I didn’t know whether she had followed me once I was on my own or whether it was by mere-co incidence that she wound up living close to me and the cubs.
“I have seen you longingly look at the cubs. Have you finally taken them?” I demanded, slowly climbing down the tree.
Banjho’s reddish brown eyes were wild and gleaming, making the usually adorable red panda seem like a sinister, rabid animal.“You always were a terrible mother, Sano. But to leave your cubs unprotected from human predators is not something I even expected of you,” Banjho fumed.
“I am a lenient mother. There is a difference!” I countered, ambling up to her. “What would you know of motherhood anyway? You…”
I was interrupted by a loud smack on my muzzle that sent me tumbling to the ground, crushing fallen pine cones that lay there.
“You are a selfish, cowardly pool of vulture vomit!” Banjho spat. “You did everything wrong on purpose. You didn’t change dens. You didn’t even choose the tallest tree. You never took a keen interest to teach them any of the things we learnt even before we were weaned. You kept them weak and dependent on you so that they would never leave you like your family.”
“That’s not true,” I barked unconvincingly, “I didn’t want to be hard on them like my mother.”
“Your mother used to go on about snow leopards. But the forest has much more dangerous predators. Our numbers are on the decline because of man. We are an endangered species,” Banjho continued, completely disregarding my statement. “The birds have heard rumours, man uses us for all kinds of horrible things.” she bleated sadly, whiskers trembling uncontrollably. Banjho then lunged towards me without warning, wrapped her paws around my throbbing muzzle and pulled me close for a whiff. “Hunted baby birds to show them what a great huntress you are. So that they would want to learn to kill like you. Yet another ploy! I bet your cubs where plucked away from your home just as you grabbed those helpless little birds from theirs.”
Banjho was right. Everything I did was a trick to keep the cubs, my cubs from leaving. And my biggest scheme, of becoming the predator that my mother never thought I could be had failed miserably. “We could have been together just a little longer but I ruined it,” I thought, my heart hurting like a snow leopard had plunged its sharp teeth into it.
“Those poor sweet cubs,” Banjho wailed. “What if those evil men pluck out their little eyes and ears for medicinal soups or rip out their precious tails to cover the lacklustre fur on their revolting human heads? The rumours say so...”
I thought of all my mother’s lessons I had never imparted to my cubs and my head felt uncomfortably light, like when my mother made me climb too many trees in a day. “Banjho,” I said, my voice quaking. “I was never good at doing things alone. Can you please help me find my cubs?”
The sun quickly turned from a pleasant, soothing golden to a blinding yellow. It was for good reason that we red pandas slept during the day. My paws bore large berry-like blisters from stepping over scorching hot rocks, my tongue constantly lolled outside like a lost wild dog and yet I didn’t stop searching for my cubs. As we trudged further and further away from home, the sky turned to the faint violet of a tangy berry my girl cub enjoyed and there were still no signs of my missing cubs.
“Sano! Over here! I smell your cub!” I heard Banjho calling from beneath a giant tree that squirrels ravaged for its tasty nuts. I rushed towards her and sniffed the disturbed grass where a few pellets of droppings lay. It held that familiar fetid scent that surrounded my girl cub’s bottom.
“It’s here, too!” Banjho called out, smelling a patch of grass a few paces ahead. “She’s a smart cub.”
My heart swelled with pride. She had paid attention when I had admonished her brother about trail marking the last time! We followed the trail of droppings till we reached a small clearing in the midst of dense “squirrel nut” trees. It looked like man’s camp with three of those funny, pointy mushroom-like nests that were kept upright with broken branches. A small fire burned in the centre of those nests. Muffled, frightened cries emanated from within the nearest nest which was the largest and shabbiest one. I could smell my cubs’ fur strongly by then which was so much like my own.
“They are inside,” I said, producing my claws and crawling forward, only to be yanked back by Banjho. She pointed her twitching snout towards a giant “squirrel nut” tree where two men were standing. They carried slim black branches and wore ugly, black hooves that had the same burnt odour I had picked up near my den.
“I am not scared of them,” I hissed.
“Sano, the black twigs spray silver seeds that kill any living thing.”
“Quiet!” Banjho shushed me.
The men spoke in hushed whispers and we pricked our ears to eavesdrop on them.
“The crazy Chinese will pay us a hefty sum for both the cubs. We should have waited for the mother too. Her fur would have fetched an even better sum,” one man said.
“What do they do with them?” asked the second man.
“Make rubbish medicines. Keep them as pets. How does it matter to us?” the first man sniggered.
I suppressed a growl. How could those men just steal my cubs and talk about trading them like they were fallen fruit? They were mine, I birthed them and no one, no animal or human had the right to snatch them away and do as they pleased with them. Didn’t you do the same with those two hatchlings, said a small voice in my head.
“Something is here,” the second man said. He quickly removed the lethal black branch from his shoulder and aimed it towards the trees where Banjho and I hid.
Rustle…. Creak… The branches of the “squirrel nut” trees trembled slightly as if disturbed by a sudden gust of freezing wind, followed by a series of loud bangs. “Watch out for the silver seeds,” Banjho cried while several men emerged from the thicket of “squirrel nut” trees opposite the animal thieves. Their faces were smeared with a black substance that made them look like two-legged martens and they carried bigger, scarier-looking killer branches. The animal thieves roared like the desperate animals they hunted and fired back at them.
Banjho covered her ears unable to bear the terrible noise and the moment I felt her grip loosen on me, I rushed towards the large human nest. The inside of the nest was cold and dark but as my eyes were accustomed to seeing better with no light, I discerned my cubs, tied to a large tree stump in the centre. They clearly saw me too as I heard an excited cry and a weak warning hoot.
I rushed towards my cubs. The boy cub was alive and healthy, straining against a thick vine tied around his neck as he reached a rounded paw towards my face. My clever girl cub lay beside him, her large brown eyes desperately boring into mine for approval like they always did. “You found the trail I left you,” she said softly, her eyes closing.
I scooped her up in my arms, angry that I couldn’t cradle her because of the wretched coarse, human vine that choked her. Something, warm and thick poured down her back, that smelt several times stronger than the baby bird blood I had relished. “Help! Banjho! The silver seeds have hurt my Pyaari!” I cried.
“You named me, mama,” she whispered.
“Yes, Pyaari- my beloved one. I am so proud of you,” I nodded appreciatively at her, tears dripping onto her tiny white muzzle and she smiled a sweet smile at me. I held her close and squealed loudly like we red pandas did when we were saddened. Outside, the men still fired those terrible silver seeds at each other with deafening bangs but all I heard was the breathing of my precious girl cub growing fainter and fainter.
The noises outside finally quietened and yet I couldn’t hear my cub’s breath, not even a shallow one. Her chest no longer heaved. I stood with my dead Pyaari, as still as the ice on the mountains in the cold, harsh winter. “I’m sorry, my Pyaari.”
“Sano! I’m scared!” My boy cub whimpered and struggled against the vine, desperately trying to break free and run towards me. I gently placed Pyaari down and with a growl, I attacked the vine that restrained him.
“I will not let you die, Bholu- my innocent one,” I said. I then carried him and rushed outside the human nest. There were no men in sight. Maybe the bangs had eliminated all of them.
“Get that poacher! He’s escaping!” I heard a human yell. BANG… BANG… It started all over again.
“We have to climb to safety, Bholu,” I cried, rushing towards the tallest “squirrel nut” tree I could locate beside the human nest. I clambered up fast and looked down to ensure he was following me. To my horror, Bholu was sliding off the tree trunk. The bark was smoother than that of a fir tree and he hadn’t practised climbing on it.
“Use your climbing digits, Bholu, like this,” I dug my sharp climbing digits into the tree bark and ascended a little higher.
“I can’t,” he said, slipping from the tree.
“Think I am a snow leopard and I am chasing you,” I said like my mother, tears pooling in my eyes.
“Snow leopard? Friend?” Bholu asked naively. His next words were drowned out by a sonorous bang, louder than a row of “squirrel nut” trees crashing down a mountainside. Bholu blew a tendril of mist out of his snout with a short, raspy breath and then only blood oozed through it.
“Bholu! No!” I cried and rushed towards him but it was too late. His claws left the tree trunk completely and he fell to the ground, a pool of blood around his fluffy head. He was gone forever, just like those poor hatchlings had disappeared down my throat for good.
At that moment, I learnt that my mother had been wrong all along. We didn’t have to choose to be predators or prey to live in the forest. We all were just survivors with an equal right to life.
For months I felt sicker than the vulture vomit Banjho had accused me of being. “Be a better mother and a better example to red pandas. That’s the only way out of the guilt,” Banjho advised.
I took her advice seriously and birthed three litters. “So many little cubs to care for,” Banjho exclaimed delightedly and played with my children and grandchildren. I trained them to be independent at the earliest. I set up multiple dens but most importantly, I taught them how every little life in the forest mattered. Because a life lost was a life lost forever. Where my family lived, we never hunted any other living creature but fostered trust with them to protect all of us from the cruel predators who killed for sport.
“Predator or prey. What will you be, Sano?” I heard my mother’s voice, no doubt a barb for my defiant grandsons who were violating my rules right before my eyes.
“Get away!” I barked angrily, alarming my mother’s voice and the red panda cubs who quickly scooted away from the nest. The little birds were safe, I could go to sleep again. But surely as I closed my eyes, I heard them go Cheep… Cheep… Tweet… Tweet… Again. For a predator’s guilt never really left.