I look up from my prey, immediately alert. I don’t know what it is but something’s changed. The air tastes all wrong: it’s bitter and dead. My handsome whiskers twitch with irritation. The jungle has always been moist and thick with liquid, earthy heat but not today. Today, it is dry, like a riverbed lost to time and drought. I don’t like it.
I shake my hide, rippling my patterned coat over giant muscles made for hunting and climbing. Then I start to eat, tearing at the leathery skin to get at the meat, the scent of food so good I am lost in the visceral delight of eating. Crack. My ears prick. I look up from my kill and my attention is caught again by the intensifying scent that has started to cling to everything. It is an acrid odour I’ve known before on the black patches of earth the humans leave behind when they move on. Crack. Nose in the air, I sniff and turn my head to check the dense forest around me. Here I stand and listen intently for several minutes, my powerful paws lazily holding my food down. Bold in my mastery of the environment, I challenge any scavenging simpleton to take it from me.
But that smell. It’s all wrong and it’s making my tail writhe with anger; or is it fear? Perhaps it is fear. That’s not something I’ve felt much before and it sits uncomfortably with me, like fur on a man. It’s making my hackles rise.
Crack. That noise. Crack. There it is again. Crack, pop. It’s happening more often and it’s getting louder. I need to move. Whatever it is, it seems to be closer. There’s a quiet roaring too: a kind of maddened heave that blows through the upper branches and sends hot shivers through the trembling leaves. Time to go.
I gather the bloodied neck of my prey, still warm and wet, and hold it in my jaws. The fresh, tender flesh is making me salivate. It’s excruciating: I haven’t eaten for days but I can’t eat now. Something is wrong. Tickled by the rough hairs on the deer’s wirey neck, I shake my head and the carcass shifts slightly. I turn away from the cracking noise, which has become a sort of constant crackling hiss. I start walking.
My paws, at once familiar and ghostly strange in a new creeping mist, are padding lightly across mulch and twigs. Around them, the scurry of tiny creatures is fast changing the landscape into a rhythmic, roiling sea. Another crack. Fire. Waves of frantic fur fall over themselves to flee from the flames I can now feel but not yet see.
The roar is getting louder now. It’s punctuated by the agonised groaning of failing trees. Trees that I have known. Trees my claws have scratched, my back has rubbed. Trees I’ve climbed for quiet naps in friendly branches. They held my colossal frame like it was that of a docile cub. Now those same trees are splitting, ripping from themselves, splintering. I can hear it all. I dig my claws in and run faster.
I’m fast and proud of it. I leap past beasts who passed me long before. They crawl along in fatal, tormented impotence, whilst I power gracefully through the fevered storm. The rancid, spitting air is thick with the feathers of brightly coloured birds. Flying creatures big and small, are fleeing now, fighting for space amongst the creaking twigs and scattering leaves of the canopy. They shriek and cry to one another, calling for their friends: screaming warnings.
My paws: the same old silent friends who stalk for prey, are filled with electricity. Tiny prickles streak up and down my limbs. I dare not look back now; dread has crept like wet cement around my heart and frozen my breath. I cannot stop, although my lungs are raging for clean air. But I have to drop my prey. I haven’t the energy to carry it. God knows when I will eat again. I am stumbling and my proud rib cage is heaving, surging, all out of rhythm. Unsure of itself. I try to steady my breathing.
The smoke has changed now. It’s dark and black and filled with bits that float like ghostly snowflakes. They taste like bile. My eyes are stinging: blinded by smoke and fear. Panic flits across my mind like lightning on a still lake. Impotence is not for the likes of me, nor a cage of fire. From somewhere deep within my frame, a guttural moan becomes a roar of thunderous rage that will be heard even in this harsh cacophony. I will not be caught as prey to the flames. I spring.
I run blind: long whiskers sensing the gaps, sensitive paws finding a path. Thrown off balance by broken branches, I roll and run again, pressing my sharp claws to the ground. I use my great weight and momentum to crash through the trembling undergrowth. All the time the heat is on my back and the noise is in my ears, suffocating my thoughts. Just run. Run.