Eyes of the Snow Leopard
K. S. Hammond
My eyes flew open. Terror seared my soul. Something was out there in the night stalking, smelling, waiting. Any moment it would leap through the tent and carry me away. I could almost smell its wild scent wafting through the Himalayan night.
"Get up Naresh!" My voice was trembling and I was shaking in every cell of my body. "Something is out there!" I kicked his sleeping bag to arouse him from a deep slumber.
Naresh was aware of my keen sensitivity. He'd experienced it a month before when I refused to drink the tea. He had laughed at me then, but the joke was on him. He came down with Typhoid fever and would have died if I had not insisted we get vaccinated in London. We'd only had time for one booster and had to fly to India, missing the second one. But the vaccine had saved his life. He'd only had a 'mild' case of Typhoid that kept him in bed for two weeks with a high fever. So he respected my intuition, which had warned me not to touch the tea from the local stall beside the road, as we'd made our way up into the high mountains.
So he crawled out of the sleeping bag, eyes wide open.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Something is out there, Naresh. I can feel it in all the cells of my body!"
"OK then, I will build up the fire. Stay close to the tent, Kat."
He did not have to tell me that. I was clinging to every shred of willpower I processed not to scream in terror.
We'd been backpacking for a week into the high Himalayas. The place we were headed is called 'The Valley of Flowers' and is nearly impossible for most people to reach. According to the Sherpas we met later, twenty people had lost their lives trying to reach these heights, dying from heart attacks or falling to their deaths from the narrow paths and dangerous cliffs. But this place was considered one of the most holy places on earth. Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion, had received enlightenment here, as had other countless sages and saints. So we were determined to reach these heights.
We had only a small axe to cut firewood, a tiny tent and enough freeze dried goods to last two weeks. We'd made our camp beneath a large outcrop of rock, underneath its shelter about 100 feet from a rushing stream and tumbling waterfall. I'd made fun of Naresh for spending the entire day dragging thorn bushes and piling them into a circle around the tent.
"You won't laugh if we are visited by a tiger or snow leopard. They are here in these parts."
"Well, as you know Naresh, the cat is my spiritual twin," I'd laughed. "We mustn't fear them. It is man with all his nonsense that we need fear. Why, I'll bet any bandit would love to lay their hands on the rupees in my pocket."
"Never the less, we have to build protection, Kat. There are no people here to help us and if one of us gets caught by a tiger, we are done for."
I'd laughed then and went to pick wild berries for our lunch.
Naresh's voice was laced with terror. The ring outside the firelight was pitch black. One could only see about three feet from the firelight.
"Oh my god! Something huge has just passed by. I can see its shadow!" The axe in his hand trembled. We drew closer to the fire. Hours went by. We stayed beside the fire, to afraid to move.
The fire roared upward at least ten feet. While I was picking berries that morning, Naresh had been gathering fire wood, and now he piled it branch by branch upon the seething inferno. Naresh's face took on a sarcastic expression. He turned to me and a sneer appeared upon his handsome face.
"Look at you Kat. The Cat is supposed to be YOUR spiritual guide and friend and you are terrified. What a hypocrite you are!" He turned around and fed the fire.
I stood looking at him from the back as he piled on more wood and the flames leaped higher. Suddenly something came over me. I took a mala (a holy necklace made of beads given to me by one of India's great saints,) and made a decision then, never to live in fear of another being, especially the great cats I so loved. If I was meant to be killed and eaten by a wild tiger or snow leopard, I would give myself willingly. Besides, perhaps she was starving due to our stupidity and stealing her habitat so that very few animals were now available. Or perhaps she was old and tired and unable to hunt anymore. In any case, we were toast, if she really wanted to eat us. These great cats are highly intelligent and she'd lie in wait for us somewhere on the trail. That being the case, we had no options at all. An axe against a Tiger or Snow Leopard?
I don't think so!
I turned around and quietly stepped over the thorn barrier into the black night, holding my mala and singing quietly a chant the Saint had taught me. If I were to die at the hands of a Tiger or Leopard, it would be quick. She'd simply grasp my by the throat and it would all be over. So I would make this last gift to her and her cubs willingly, if it were my destiny.
Facing my terror and knowing it could soon be over, I experienced a great calm. Then joy flooded through me, for I knew that I would be spared this night. I looked up at the figure of Naresh, small now, still with his back turned. He did not know I was gone.
I lifted my eyes up to the high mountains and caught my breath. The tips of the mountain were aflame with the first rays of the rising sun. All my senses were tuned like a harp and I could hear the rushing waters below me and smell the clear clean air of the pristine Himalayas.
Naresh suddenly turned around.
"Kat! Where are you?" "KAT!"
He could see nothing from within the circle. Yet I could see everything.
"I'm out here in the dark, Naresh." I snarled like a wild leopard, and then burst into laughter.
He was still blind as a bat and stepped over the barrier, holding the small axe high above his head. My hero. When he finally stumbled to where I stood, he grasp my arm.
"Come on Kat! It is dangerous out here. I saw something..."
"Naresh, look at the mountain. We are safe. I can feel it. She passed us by."
But I was exhausted and we had some hot tea and crawled into our sleeping bags.
"Get up Naresh!" I almost shouted. "Something is coming!"
Once more he struggled out of the sleeping bag into the early dawn.
"What is it this time?" He said. "Is the leopard here again?"
"All I know is that something is coming and we have to get out of here!" I said.
"Let us have some breakfast and coffee first," Naresh said.
"NO! We have to leave and NOW!" I was getting excited and could smell danger.
And so we broke camp, put out the fire and took down our thorn barrier. We took down the tent and crammed everything into our backpacks. We slung them on to our backs and began the strenuous climb up the side of the hill.
It was then that we saw them. Naresh's eyes grew huge and his face paled like snow.
A herd of wild buffalo thundered toward our camp site. We could observe them from the safety of the top of the hill. They seemed enraged as they smelled our presence, and bellowed again and again as they stomped and hurled the thorn bushes we'd left high into the air. They slashed the earth with their hooves and milled around in the area we'd been.
"Boy are they angry."Naresh said.
"This is their territory and they can smell our intrusion," I said. Then I remembered a story Naresh had related to me while we were on the train. He's been chased by a water buffalo and had stepped on a nail. His foot pouring with blood, he barely escaped with his life, as he'd slithered underneath a fence just in time.
I could feel the sarcastic smile spreading over my face. I just could not resist:
"There is your spirit creature. Why don't you go down and say hello?"
"Are you crazy?" Naresh exclaimed. "The water buffalo is one of the most dangerous if not THE most dangerous animal in the wild.
I just smiled. Great peace filled my soul from my adventure the night before.
"Oh dang, Naresh. I forgot my walking stick. I simply must have it!"I said.
"You are crazy if you think I'm going back down there!" Naresh scolded.
"What's the matter, you a scardy cat?" I teased.
"Well, if you think it is so easy, why don't you go down there? After all it is your damn walking stick."
"You are absolutely right," I answered, slithering out of my pack.
"Wait Kat, I was only teasing," Naresh said, suddenly terrified.
"I'll be right back," I said, going back down the hill.
The group of buffalo watched me as I made my way to the tree where my staff leaned. They backed up and formed a semi circle. I was less than ten feet from them as I quietly walked toward the tree. I talked gently to them. They could smell my scent and I am convinced they knew I was a vegetarian as I do not carry the scent of dead animals upon me.
I will never forget one cow. She had one blue eye and one brown. I told her how beautiful she was. She lowered her great head and watched me as I took the stick in my hand. She then backed up slowly. I know she looked upon that stick as a weapon, but I held it in a non confrontational way and climbed back up the hill.
Naresh did not speak a word as we made our way up to the government run camp beside the river. Then we went in search of The Valley of Flowers.
Fast forward twelve years into the future;
I was working for a charter airline and flying all over the world. I belong to Snow Leopard Trust (www.snowleopard.org) and was excited beyond words. I'd been a member of the Trust for several years and had yet to behold a snow leopard. I'd visited the web site and found out that they had a snow leopard in Leipzig, Germany where I was going to be laying over for 24 hours.
With my heart in my hand, we visited the Leipzig Zoo. My companions were part of the crew and they were overjoyed at the beauty of the zoo, at how well the grounds were kept and the wonderful gift shop. But I only wanted to see the leopard.
That day had dawned cold and rainy so few people visited the zoo. We had it all to ourselves. After an agonizing hour of visiting other sites with the crew, I was growing impatient.
"I can just see it now!" I whined. "After all this effort, getting lost while walking and fooling around with the monkeys and reptiles, the damn zoo will close and I will not have seen my snow leopard!"
"Come on Kat," Enrique said. "Let's go find him now."
The first of three huge cages caught my eye. They were surrounded by trees and the first cage was hidden. I could see a leopard there, but wanted a closer look. I gazed around and sneaked over to the side to get a better look. My crew had sundered off and left me.
The great leopard was not a snow, but beautiful never the less. He was guarding his meal and snarled at me. I loved it.
"Madam! Please come over here!" A voice split the quiet. Dang, they saw me.
Yet I was overjoyed to meet the biologist who was studying the cats. He forgave me immediately when I told him I was a member of the Snow Leopard Trust.
"Yet I have never seen one up close." I sighed.
"Well, we have two, a male and a female. We have to keep them separate, as the female will only accept the male during mating season which is in January. We had a cub last year, but we lost her. It is not easy to keep them. We'll try again in January, when she comes in season."
He then escorted me to the cage.
The male was frozen in time, his great head sticking into the wires of the barrier. He could smell the meal of the leopard in the cage next to his. Yet the cages were separated by about five feet and his enclosure was covered so he could not see the leopard next to him. But he could smell him all right and his meal. He did not move a muscle, as my friends returned and tried to get his attention. He totally ignored us. He's seen it all I am sure; whining kids and people calling out to get his attention. We were unworthy of his majesty.
After a few minutes, everyone left. The biologist to study at the next cage, and my friends, after being ignored by the leopard, to greener pastures.
Yet, I could not leave. I looked at his beautiful winter coat, more lovely than any mink. His graceful figure stretched out as he watched the blank wall for any sign of movement. I was beside myself with his beauty. It was almost too much to bear. Never in all of my life, have I seen such a magnificent creature. I so much wanted to see his face, his eyes…his soul.
Softly, I began to purr. I was only about ten feet from him yet it seemed he was light-years away. Then, he began to turn his great head. It was so slow, so graceful. I could not move and was stuck to the spot as though I was welded to it. I had begun to tell him how beautiful he was. How sorry I was that his kind was endangered. I'd closed my eyes and sent pictures his way from my mind...of the high Himalayas and the beautiful Valley of Flowers, fed by seventeen waterfalls and countless glaciers, a place that is heaven on earth.
I closed my eyes for an instant as that great head turned. When I opened them, his golden eyes were locked upon mine. In every cell of my being, I felt his magnificence, his glory. All barriers fell away. There was no more 'I' or 'He' only one great love.
All I could say was "I love you. I love you so much…"
Then he closed his eyes and opened them slowly, as he held my gaze. He had given me a kiss in the way of the great cats. Then, as he listened to my voice, he turned his head slightly and a look of absolute bliss came over his beautiful face. I knew then why I'd been spared on that cold night in the Himalayas. Perhaps it was to help his kin, to try to save his race from extinction that the Great Spirit had spared me.
I stood for five minutes caught in his power, and then he slowly turned his head again to sniff the barrier between him and the other leopard.
I was drunk with joy. We'd communicated in the way of all beings and the message was that we are all one. My heart felt like it was a wild rose blown wide open and filled with light. I will never forget that moment etched upon my heart, nor his golden eyes, full of sunlight. But if I could come back upon this earth as another being after my death, it will surely be in the form of a Snow Leopard.
"Endangered Beauty," Winner of National Geographic's International Photo Contest 2008. Stephen W. Oachs, Photographer