In far-off Sassaquin, where its people inhabited ageless hedges, lived a young child named Willow. Under the thick hedge branches prowled a sleek black panther, always watchful, always hungry.
Rain had not fallen for many days and slowly the hedges’ leaves began to wilt and wither. The hedge-people’s rainwater held in tightly woven baskets dwindled and they began to worry. A Council meeting was called. None of the elders had ever experienced a drought and thirst kept them bickering. Old men wagged their fingers. Women rocked on their heels.
Willow spoke up shyly, “Why are we so scared of the black panther? Has he ever harmed any of us? He is so old he must be wise! He might know what to do.” The Council leader searched Willow’s eyes. “Perhaps you are right. Go and ask him where he drinks. But be careful, child.”
Willow watched the panther. When the time was right she lowered herself from the hedge branches onto his back. She grabbed soft folds of neck fur to steady herself and leaned toward the panther’s ear. “Listen, Panther,” Willow commanded in a loud voice. He stopped and cocked his great head. The child smell itched at his nostrils. “Go on, girl,” he growled, “I will listen. Be quick.”
“We lack water. You eat in the back woods. You must drink! Please help us find water.” Willow felt light-headed and cramped. She kept bumping her head on branches that hadn’t been so low before she spoke.
“To send me a child is an insult,” the panther grumbled, speaking to the hedges. “I was sure a child or two would drop by chance and I could eat it.” His hedge-hidden audience gasped. “I have watched and waited while your young played. A habit is hard to break.” He shook his head and almost dislodged Willow, who was becoming a heavy burden.
“I couldn’t figure out a way to climb up between your branches. But I do know of some water…” All the hedge-people strained to hear. Voices buzzed caution.
“It may have been easy to get down from the hedges, Willow, but can you see a way back up?” He smirked maliciously. Many hands reached down, waving, stretching to help. A voice sternly called out, “Let her be, Beast!”
“I suppose we can bargain,” snarled the panther. He toyed with the idea of eating the girl. One sharp bite, a deliciously slow swallow and he would have his wish.
“What a Smart-Aleck!” Willow cried out, “I can find water without you!” She worked her arm under his soft belly, until she held him fast. Clearing the branches, she stood up. The cat, bold with his wishes and threats, had not noticed her growth. She tossed him down where he crawled, belly brushing the ground, to hide under the cool porch where no one could scold.
She reached the water quickly. “Ah, cold water!” Willow stretched slowly to shake off her dream of living in the hedgerow. She picked up the hose and caught the flowering hedge in a drenching shower, making steamy rainbows in the hazy sunlight.
2010 K B P