The Panther in the Sycamore

See the introduction to this series of posts: Writing on Things Southern and Past


By Joe Bageant

It happens perhaps once or twice every August. A violent red Virginia sundown drapes the land, the kind that bathes the farmhouses and ponds in reflected blood. It is as if the heat absorbed during dog days will erupt from the earth to set all the fields afire. Distant cars raise threatening dust clouds on the horizon that settle on the backs of copperhead snakes in wait of the night's coolness and the hunt. Eternity flashes in the eyes of old farmers setting out salt blocks for white-faced cattle.

It is at exactly such a dusk in 1951 that Uncle Nelson and I saw the panther. In the meadow sycamore, a panther so black it is almost blue. Neither Nelson nor I have ever seen a panther. Never expected to in our lives. But there it is. Big as life. Nelson's face shows almost holy amazement in the red light. He takes his pipe away from his quivering lip. Not that fear was a part of it, only awe of this beast. The panther drops weightlessly to the ground and glides into the loblolly pines with all its lithe power. We let out our breath. We gesture at each other for a minute, then trot for home. By the time we reach the house twilight had settled.

"Maw," I blurt. "We seen a panther down by the big sycamore. Black as night. Long and black as night."

Maw turns away from the hand pump by the galvanized sink where she had been drawing dishwater. "Never been a panther in these parts I know of," she says. But the set of Nelson's wide dark face tells her this is a true thing. "Hear that Pap?" she asks. "The boys seen a panther. A panther is a sign of war and troubles of war."

My grandfather frowns, says nothing in reply. Then he raises up his lanky frame from the kitchen chair, picks up the kitchen slop bucket and heads for the hog pen.

What about the sign of war? I wanted to know. Silence from Maw. Well, if it was a sign, I figured, Maw would sure as hell know about it. Maw knew her signs. Maw knew what poultices cured chicken pox, how to plant and reap by the almanac.

"If talk was corn that old man couldn't buy grain," Maw grumbled at Pap's non-response.

And that was all I ever got in the way of answers about the panther and the sign of war. I would one day learn that panthers were among the first beasts killed off by the English and German settlers in our region, along with red wolves and the eastern woodland bison. And that black is just one of the color possibilities of panthers anywhere on the planet. But in that day and in our world on Shanghai Road along the drains of Sleepy Creek panthers inhabited their place alongside witches, wolf trees, milk drinking snakes and other such creatures as prowled the subconscious and gave explanation to the greater unknown.

Life for some last few of us was still animated on interior levels by the idea of such spirits. Things both tangible and impalpable lived alongside one another with equal importance and the panther, sign of the devil's favorite anvil, war, was an augury waiting to be fulfilled. Indeed, the Korean War was going on strong at the time, though I did not know it. Yet, much as some part of my heart still wants to find truthfulness in a sign divined by my long-dead grandmother, I cannot. Our family, which has been birthing hard-eyed and willing soldiers for every American war since Lord Braddock's fatal march on the French and Indians, was never touched by the conflict that scorched Korea from 1950 to 1953. So I am left with no meaning for the sign, just its awesome impression. And even that impression is slipping away to the faintly aching netherworld now that I'm old enough to know the true meaning of the word "past."

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