“Isn’t this where that woman was murdered?” Dev said with glee in his voice.
“What woman?” I asked.
“Look.” He pointed to the trees lining the dirt trail that we were on. One of them had a dark red stain high up on it. The stain looked like it was a part of the tree, falling into the bark’s grooves. There was a lighter stain below it, which had faded under the hot Indian sun.
“I heard about this,” Dev said. “She lived close by. Then one day, when she was all alone, some man snuck in and cut her throat. But she didn’t die. She just walked out into the jungle and put her handprints on the trees so that the police could follow it back to the house.”
“Did they catch the murderer?”
“No, they never knew about the blood.”
“How did you know about it, then?” I asked.
“Shut up! My brother told me about it, okay? He heard it from one of his friends who was here last year and they found the blood, too.”
“Yeah, your brother is always right, isn’t he? Like the time he told you to—“
“Why is it so high on the tree?” Amir interrupted, his neck straining as he looked up at the mark. We were the shortest boys in class so it might not have been as high as we thought it was, but it certainly looked like a giant had put it there.
“Who cares?” Dev said. “Let’s look for the other ones.”
Logic and reason often evades nine year-old boys when there’s something gruesome to see. We knew that this story was probably just as made up as the rest of them, but we did everything in our power to believe it was true. We loved having a new mystery to solve, a new adventure to go on, and most importantly, a story to tell the others.
We carried on, drifting even further away from the main tourist area where our class was. The entire fourth grade had come out on a field trip to the national park so that they could teach us how they were trying to preserve this natural habitat. There were five classes altogether, so we had to take turns doing different things at the park. Our class had spent the morning travelling on a bus along the safari route, looking at lions, monkeys and some rare, white Siberian tigers hiding in the shade of their little caves. When we broke for lunch, the three of us snuck off from the rest of the group to do some exploring in the jungle.
Further down the path, the trees thickened and expanded out over a hill to our right. I tried looking for a trail into the jungle that might lead to a house. Scanning the tree line, I felt a strange sensation, like we were being watched. I looked closer and stopped dead in my tracks when I saw it.
“Hold on,” I said quietly, feeling my voice tremble—more out of awe than fear.
The other two, having walked a few paces ahead of me already, turned back with annoyed looks on their faces.
“What is it?”
They followed my gaze to a tree not far from us. There, crouching on one of the branches of a giant fig tree, was a large feline. Black spots speckled its golden fur, which shone bright where the sunlight came in through the leaves. Its big, dark eyes stared into mine, not blinking once.
“Leopard,” I whispered softly.
The leopard had definitely been stalking us for a while. It froze when we made eye contact. Maybe it thought we hadn’t seen it. Then, when we moved along, it could inch itself closer, pounce and take one of us off into the dense jungle where we’d be lost forever.
“What do we do?” Amir asked.
“Just stay still and look into its eyes,” I said. “It’s working so far. Maybe it’ll give up and go away.”
“Oh God, we’re going to die.” Dev was sobbing.
The sound of a car rumbling down the trail from where we had come broke the minute-long stalemate. A Jeep, completely caked in mud, pulled up beside us. The dust it kicked up hung in the humid air. The park guide shouted, “There you boys are. You had everybody worried; we told you not to go out into the jungle alone, it’s dangerous. Who knows what could have happened to you. Come on, get in and I’ll take you back.”
We gratefully ran up and pulled ourselves in. The seats were hard and the leather hot against our skin but it was a relief to be in the safety of the Jeep.
“I thought I told you not to go down the trail with the red markers,” he said.
As we started to drive off, I looked back at the tree. The branch was bare; its leaves just blew in the breeze.
Saurabh Ananth is a former graphic designer and recent graduate in advertising and marketing. Being in an industry that’s driven by storytelling, he was naturally drawn to fiction. When not writing, he’s usually trying to learn something new. He hopes that he can develop his writing skills in 2016 and publish more short stories throughout the year.
See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops, writing retreats, and creative writing courses in Algonquin Park, Alton, Barrie, Bracebridge, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Ingersoll, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Orillia, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, St. John, NB, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Windsor, Halton, Ingersoll, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.