by David Cabela

The scent of yesterday’s grass fire hung in the hot, savanna air. Dust from our steps seemed to rise straight up for long moments before drifting silently behind us in a southern whisper of a breeze. The impala’s hind leg we had hung days before was, once again, baking in the midday sun attracting flies with its rotting stench. And now a familiar and guarded hope accompanied us as we checked it for the third day in a row.

I studied the shadows too diligently as we hiked down the trail, but, in my defense, I had never seen, let alone hunted a leopard before. My only knowledge of them came from Corbett’s accounts of man-eaters and photos of famed professional hunter, Cotton Gordon’s, ripped up scalp after an unfortunate encounter in Tanzania years before.

It was, in fact, my first time in Africa and I would be lying if I said I was not afraid. Of course, I feigned bravery in front of my new bride and my new friends—but back then I lived lies more than I avoided them. Back then, my relationship with Christ could hardly be considered even lukewarm—an occasional trip to church, but only under protest. I believed, of course, but I cannot say I even understood what I believed. I had always been taught that Jesus was the Son of God and that he died for our sins, but had never taken the time to explore what that truly meant. My parents lovingly tried—I rejected. I guess I was too blinded by self-involvement to see who I was supposed to be. My ongoing transformation has taken many years and                                                                                                                  the kind of patience and love from God that I                                                                                                                             cannot fathom. 

Even then, hiking to inspect a putrid piece of meat, He was begging me to just give Him a chance. But like the self-absorbed “cool kid” whose own ego blinded him from the lonely kid in the front of the bus, I mostly ignored His efforts. I still ignore them far too frequently today.

It is only in looking back when I can see that I am that lost sheep and that I am loved so much that He is willing to follow me anywhere in the hopes that I may one day come home for good. And it is only in looking back that I see He joined me on a leopard hunt and revealed to me these many years later, that there is beauty in everything—even if it is hidden in the darkness.

Adunya, the head tracker, walked slowly around the tree where the bait hung. He ran his finger along claw marks on the trunk. Then he climbed the tree as if he had spikes on his hands and bare feet to reposition the bait which the leopard had gnawed on the night before.

The tracks are big,” Hartley, our professional hunter, pointed out a well defined paw print in the soft, dry dirt.

“What do we do now?” I asked.

“We build a blind. And then we wait.

I soon discovered that waiting for a leopard is a lesson in patience. Quiet patience. Nobody talks. Nobody whispers. And if you move even slightly, everyone and everything hears you. Sweat breaks free from the prison of your skin and silently slips down your temple. An ant walks along a thick blade of grass carrying the wing of an insect five times its size and you swear you can hear its tiny footsteps. You can, in fact, hear things you have forgotten existed. A tickle of wind in the branches above. The sound of your breath. And fainter even than that, the whispering voice inside you which you can only hear in the most silent of moments. What it says depends on who you are, where you are in your journey, and how willing you are to hear it. If you only hear the condemnation, it will eat you from the inside. But, if you listen long enough and accept your weakness, you will hear the kind of love that can heal the deepest of wounds—self-inflicted or otherwise. For me, in that leopard blind, it was a voice I recognized, but had forgotten—and it was a voice I would continue to ignore for far too long. But for a moment, I heard it, and in that silent evening, I encountered a sliver of peace I did not deserve.

Dusk faded the edges of the day and as I peeked out of the blind, I saw the shadows become one. I listened as the night crept in with its unseen, mostly imagined, threats. Baboons in the distance chattered softly. Insects buzzed and squeaked nearby. Something rustled the leaves scattering the ground. Two hours had passed in that false silence.

Hartley sat to my left and my wife, Shari, sat just behind me. She did not even have the luxury of peeking out the shooting hole to see the shadows. Glancing back, I could no longer see her. Darkness had consumed the blind and most of the world outside. The leopard had not come.

I remembered my father telling me he had once spent fourteen evenings in a leopard blind without success. Fourteen nights with only your thoughts to keep you company. I wondered what demons he must have battled in the blackened silence. It had only been a few hours for me, and I could hear the accusing whispers of my past, my present, and the threats of tomorrow. I guess you have to face those whispers at some point before you can appreciate, or even, accept the magnitude of true forgiveness. That night, those many years ago, I was just beginning to hear the whispers. Fear dominated my reactions to them then. At least until the baboons began to scream as if they were being attacked.

Hartley leaned his shoulder into mine then tilted his head closer before whispering almost inaudibly, “he’s coming.”

Every thought. Every demon. Every silent accusation disappeared, consumed by a new unseen beast lurking in the darkness.

Shooting light had ended some time ago, but we had previously discussed sleeping in the blind in the hopes of catching the leopard feeding at first light. Now, I regretted my rash acceptance of that plan. We were on the ground, in a cramped blind made of nothing but grass. Sleeping in those conditions without a hungry leopard prowling around outside would have been impossible. Now, I knew one of the world’s fiercest predators would be lurking out there all night. A predator that thrived in the deepest black. This beast could slip in silently, tear into the blind and attack us if it so desired. Sleep? Yeah right.

As the baboons continued their frightened protest of the leopard’s presence by screeching and screaming and barking, Hartley whispered one more time. “I will turn on the torch briefly to get a look at him. If you want to see, be ready when I tap your knee.”

Maybe, just maybe, I would feel his tap over the pounding in my chest or the twisting mace in my belly.

I waited, listening as the baboons voices trailed off into distant chattering then silence. Listening as soft deliberate footsteps slowly touched the ground seemingly inches away from our position. At that moment, I felt helpless and I had never felt more blind. I heard a soft growl so close and so menacing that it felt as if it was directed toward me.

Hartley had warned us multiple times not to look directly into the leopard’s eyes if it stuck its head into the shooting hole. For all I knew, the leopard was staring right into my eyes. So I closed them knowing it could not become darker by doing so. I closed them and I listened to my knee joined by my fingers in an uncontrollable tremble.

After a painstaking minute, I heard a quick scraping. The leopard must have been in the tree. After another minute, Hartley tapped my leg. Opening my eyes, I expected to be able to see—I was still in total darkness.

Finally, Hartley clicked on the flashlight.

We could finally see. Not only that, we could see clearly if we followed the beam of light. And what we saw was one of the world’s most beautiful creatures—a leopard standing on a thin acacia branch, the light seemingly illuminating all its grace, power, and stealth. It slowly turned and stared at us. I stared back, mesmerized by its penetrating and calculating gaze.

The moment suspended itself as if nothing existed besides the beauty in the light. And I immediately wanted to share it. I knew I should not risk moving or making any noise, but what if I missed the opportunity to share this gift with the person I loved most in the world?

I had to risk it. And for a moment, she saw the leopard. Its sharp gaze. Its beautiful rosette coat. Its perfect balance of elegance and hidden savagery. It ended up being a big female. After making sure we knew it was not afraid of us, it slipped down the tree and disappeared into the night.

The darkness had been so black, so terrifying, so inescapable, but a light had pierced that darkness and revealed a beautiful truth that would stay with us forever and teach us there is nothing to fear in the blackest of nights if you allow the light to show you the way.