Art by Manik Raj Nakra
By J. Shores-Argüello
The farm that Pío’s mother left him grew nothing but clouds. It was at the very top of the mountain that looked over Cartago, Costa Rica’s holy city, and up there in the towering high you could just make out a flea-sized white speck, the rambling basilica in the far below, kickdrum heart of the country, where the water was Mary-touched and bottled for the sick. Well, you could see it on a clear day. Since it was a cloud forest, the chances were slim. On the top of the mountain you never knew if you were the thing living closest to, or farthest away from, God.
The farm was a sloping green covered in gnarled trees. More than any tourist beach or palm tree, this was the Costa Rica of the family’s imagination. Pío jostled in the passenger seat of the old Toyota 4x4 next to his cousin Santi as they worked their way up the gravel mountain road. Pío held on to the handle above the door while his cousin fought with the steering wheel. When they got to the cabin, Santi went out to tend the cattle, to give them their sweet feed, calm them with ear-spooned coos so he could give them their monthly injections. Pío stayed behind. His job was to cook, a chore he’d taken over from his mother after she’d died.
Pío committed to making an olla de carne, an old stew that he’d made a few times before. A confluence of short rib, chayote, yucca, and plantain. Like most Costa Rican food, it featured subtle ingredients, magic hidden in the technique. He’d not exactly asked his mother to teach him these things when she was alive. It was simply that she’d grown weak, couldn’t lift the huge pots anymore. So Pío had found himself making soups, pounding out balls of masa between plastic sheets with a thumping speed. But that olla de carne. He’d never gotten it to come together perfectly, and now that his mother was gone, Pío couldn’t ask her what he was doing wrong. He’d decided to try cooking it on la leña, on the old iron stove at the farm. Pío hoped that the smoke, the wood heat, would be the difference, would bring some of his mother’s touch back to the soup.
Pío cooked, step-by-step, a long and fragrant process. Night came and Santi returned, an hour or two later than he’d said he would. A calf had gone missing, he explained. Not entirely surprising, as the farm abutted a huge and poorly fenced national reserve. Santi had gone looking for it, but with no luck. Pío told Santi that he wasn’t worried. The calves had been born around the time that his mother had died, when none of the family’d had time to check in on them, and so they were wilder than any of the animals that they’d ever had. Sometimes they didn’t come for their feed, sometimes they let you look and look, call and call, and nothing. Just when you put them down as dead, frozen solid, or fallen off some terrible cliff, they’d come ambling out of a cloud to chew on some grass at your feet. Little bored Lazaruses, caring nothing about your worry, their eyes blinking, huge lashes opening and closing like moths. Still, the calves were worth a lot of money, and Santi was right to have given it a good long look.
Dinner was ready, and the cousins pulled out ladle after ladle. Pío’s long fight with the iron stove, with feeding oxygen to the fire, had been worth it. It really was his mother’s olla de carne; part of her was in the room. As they ate, a sane warmth spread through their bodies. The magic of simple ingredients made simply, the magic of disparate things made whole. They should have left it there. They were already warm. But the clouds came in thicker, bell bugs started playing their night striations, and the lights from the far city below muted entirely. These were the signals; they had always been the signals. It was time to drink.
So the two young men drank. Santi’s father had gifted the cousins a bottle of Flor de Caña to last them their few days on the mountain. “To keep you two warm,” he’d said. It was a good time at first. They lifted small glasses of self-perpetuating rum, flower after flower. They got out the cards and worked the rabbit ears of their old TV. After a few games, a few bueno-pero-no-te-enojes, a few drinks, Santi got it in his head to go looking for the calf again. “Let’s just walk out to the reserve one more time,” he said.
They walked into the saturated night, mud and seedlings underneath their feet. Their flashlights reached a few meters, enough for them to see a bit of the cloud-forest trail but not enough to walk confidently. Pío let his light wander onto snaking vines, huge umbrella-sized leaves, delicate fern work. Yes, his mother had died, but everything else was just as it had always been.
Until it wasn’t. There, in a curve of the trail, Pío thought he saw something in the mist. He narrowed his eyes and could just make out an animal-like shape. Pío painted over it with his weak light. A big animal. No, Pío thought to himself, can’t be. Clouds can collude with darkness to make you see things that aren’t there. So, instead of running, Pío pointed a trembling finger at the so-called animal. He asked Santi if he saw anything there in the darkness. It was important that Pío did it this way. He didn’t want to tell Santi what he thought he saw. He didn’t want to influence his cousin, to seed any toothy image into Santi’s imagination.
“What, you see the calf?” Santi asked.
“Just look,” Pío whispered.
Double take, triple take, the shake in Santi’s voice. “I think . . . I think that’s a . . . panther.”
At least that’s what Pío imagined his cousin said. Pío had already started running back to the cabin, his flashlight’s beam bouncing wildly. He heard Santi following him. Two animals running running, with one big animal close behind.
Santi first, then Pío made it to the cabin, both unharmed, unchained from any world they knew. They pulsed, sirens replacing their breath, sirens replacing their brains. Eventually, they calmed down. Fear waned. Wonder waxed. Out of danger they started laughing, smiling. The joy of being both alive and more than alive. They could’ve lived inside of that feeling for a long time. It was too bad, then, that the moon happened to be full. When the cousins realized this, they couldn’t let the panther they saw just be a panther. Swallow after swallow of rum and staring at the moon—that’s all it takes. The two of them began calling the thing they saw a moon panther. “No, no,” Pío said, “a ghost panther,” and Santi couldn’t help but agree.
This added supernatural element stopped them from examining if they’d even seen a panther at all. It stopped them from considering the alternatives: the panther-looking tree stump explanation, the coyote explanation, the lost calf coming back to them explanation. Instead, they each became their grandmother as they told the tale of the panther in the way that she’d tell it. They took on her rhythms, her structure, her way of fastening magic onto everything. And so, half a bottle of rum left, the idea of the terrible beast grew.
Now that it was a story, it was easy for the cousins to agitate themselves into heroes. Santi, especially, had decided that the ghost panther must have dragged their little calf away. That was his great plot point and it caused turmoil to kick around in his body. What if it wasn’t dead yet? What if it was out there afraid and alone?
The cousins went to their neighbor’s farm, hoping to talk to him about the panther, but no one was there. Instead, they raided some of his chiverres, so huge that they could barely carry them with two hands. On their way back to the cabin, Santi had Pío climb a steep slope and toss the giant gourd down at his head. Santi macheted it with a single stroke before it could brain him. Strength, that’s the way Santi deals with impossible things. He grounds himself in his body, builds trust in his own muscle. Up on the slope, Pío was surprised to see a patch of hortensias. Funeral flowers. And Pío remembered how his mother’s kitchen had so recently overflowed with them. Pío held a delicately petaled head, closed his eyes, and out there in the cloud forest it was a funeral again, funeral everywhere. This worrying of memory, that’s what Pío does with the impossible, a habit just as destructive as having someone toss a gourd at your head.
Back at the cabin the cousins sat in rocking chairs on the porch and let the hours empty the rest of their bottle. Santi rocked back and forth. Neither cousin spoke. Then, with no warning, Santi leapt out of his chair with a perfect certainty, a deliberate speed. He grabbed a bamboo staff in his left hand, the machete in his right, and without saying a word he marched into the dark toward the preserve. Bamboo in his left hand. Machete in his right. Pío took a brief accounting and realized that Santi had not grabbed a flashlight. Another bit of math and Pío realized that this meant he’d have to go too.
Pío found himself behind his cousin, sweeping the light back and forth as they charged through a cloud. The cousins were moving fast. Bell bugs again, big leaves again, ferns again. And finally, that same panthery part of the trail again.
They stopped. Spotlight to the left, spotlight to the right. Pío was surprised that it was so easy. Because there in his flashlight’s beam, as clear as any truth that Pío had ever seen, he saw light reflecting in two perfect eyes, glowing circles floating there in a cutthroat night. “Ghost panther,” Santi whispered. The bleeding of afterlife into life, the fury of ephemeral beasts, all of it was just there, staring at them. No tree stump had eyes like that, no dog, no lost calf. No mistaking.
The cousins tried but couldn’t move out of the panther’s gaze. They expected the eyes to move toward them, but they didn’t. Instead, the cat’s eyes just shimmered. Moon panther. The eyes looked deeply into Pío, casually explored all of his unseen parts. Nothing in his life had ever known him that way. There was a high-pitched moan and Pío couldn’t tell if it came from his own mouth or the panther’s. Pío fell to his knees, and at that moment, the two eyes dissolved into the dark, impossibly gone. Ghost panther.
Pío jumped up and ran. Slipping on mud, he made it five steps before two new eyes appeared out of the nothingness in front of him. A new panther, the same panther, cutting off his escape. Santi, not expecting his cousin to stop so suddenly, ran into him and they both fell. The eyes above them.
And there in the cloud-made mud, Pío looked into the eyes. Now it was his turn to see deeply. Time did not pass as Pío realized that he’d wanted this moon panther into being. He’d needed this toothy spirit to come and find him. He was desperate for it. Because if this ghost panther existed, then his mother could still exist too, somewhere in the afterlight. It was coming for him because he’d asked it to come. He’d asked it with every daydream he’d had about his mother, with every old meal of hers that he’d insisted on making, with every time that he’d thought his way into a void. And right there, in the dark of his mother’s farm, he decided that if he had to die to prove the unprovable, that the border between this world and another was tissue thin, well then he’d die.
“Yes,” Pío said to the panther as his cousin tried desperately to pull him up out of the mud. “Yes,” to the spirit, to the devil about to devour him, “Yes.”
But on top of the mountain you never know if you are the thing living closest to, or farthest away from, God. On that night Pío gripped mud. He held his breath and presented his throat. But again, the eyes would not move. Pío lay there and wept. He was begging now, “Come for me, come for me please.”
That’s when it happened. No ghost panther, no moon panther, but the blinking on of a dozen other fireflies. All of them hovering, shimmering in the suddenly mortal night.