She must have stalked the soft grass
of the inhabited oasis to sip the night water,
must have wandered silently searching
for the softest safest spot to queen her litter.
Hunger must have driven her close to the tents
of those who would stalk her for her hide,
whose guards were designed to cage wildness out,
keep the oasis only for designated specie.
Perhaps the mountain gazelles were diminished,
perhaps the Arabian tahr could not find enough water
in the close wadis, perhaps poaching endangered her prey,
so the leopardess looked to the closest habitation.
She must have watched long in a cranny of rocks hidden
by a cliff, oh my dove, perhaps some ancient memory,
sprays of henna blooms in the vineyards drew her there;
perhaps the smell of balsam still lingered in the desert air.
Quietly she settled into the long dark lawn of the oasis
where people danced beside the sweet spots of cultivated
soil yielding bloom and food, date palms and almond trees,
ancient terraces watered in sweat, guarded by blood.
Was she exalted by water from the wild goat spring,
traces of prey, Amorite, or the smell from Justinian’s
slaughter? Was Osiris at her side, or Dionysius riding
when she bore her first three cubs, brought them
to play in the grass yard at the core of the oasis––
when boldly she brought them into the bright olive light
of the desert day? She carried them by the neck, nursed
them, watched them play, taught them the land, the prey.
Did the ibex in the hills leap at the sight of leopards,
or the hare hop more softly at night? Did ghosts
of zealots lost in the caves of Nahal Hever inhabit
the leopard, spur hunger for internecine blood?
leopards moved in and out of the oasis with ease.
Perhaps they hid in the rock crevices, remembered
old cisterns, crawled through limestone layers where
water flowed from the Hebron hills, found paths through
old aqueducts from ancient settlements, hid in the brush.
Did ancient Bedouin tribes shelter the leopards in their camps?
Once leopards moved at night through walled gates
of cities: Moabite, Amorite, Hazazon-tamar; they
roamed despite hunters of hides, protectors of sheep.
Red dust of the desert, lightest limestone, roughest crags
camouflaged tawny skin, black rosettes and sinuous lines.
People of the desert grew to love leopards,
kept them safe for a time, but only a time.
The seasons of leopards are gone in the Negev,
leaving no trace but the memory of names.
All that is left us is to recite the names
of the leopards who lived in the desert.
Hummibaba was the first, who begat Shlomtzion
and Babta, who begat Amarphel, Aniga, and Tihamat,
who begat Hourdos, Tzoria, and Hariton–the lone, the last
Arabian leopard along the salty stones of the Dead Sea.