Their rosettes are islands in oceans of fur. Their rosettes are eyes, in a pelt that is all eyes as perhaps the earth’s pelt is, looking out at space. I think of the French word ocelles for these eyespots they wear, these giant water lilies floating on a backwater of fur, water hyacinths caressing the buds on their paws as they swim across, head up, limbs paddling soundlessly under the surface to surprise a caiman and kill with one bite to the brain.
I have been observing Aramis the black jaguar for four years. I buy annual passes to the zoo at Vincennes in Paris, make notes, take photos, but mainly I just watch, all day. His portrait graces the cover of my sixth collection Fauverie, and there are six poems about him inside. In some poems he shapeshifts into my father, and redeems a bad man who vanished into his own wilderness and reappeared to die. Sometimes he is just himself, the Yaguara beast I watch. I always think I will do the rounds, see the lions at the other end of the park, and I do sometimes make it to the pumas. At least I always visit the lynxes and wolverines, as they are nearby, but I don’t stay long before I’m drawn back to Aramis. If he’s asleep I sit on the nearby rock, in case he springs into action.
I fell in love with him when he first arrived at the Ménagerie in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes, where he resided for two years. He was two then, huge for his age. He is not entirely black, but a dark cocoa, the black roses clearly visible; the large blossoms on his back have spots in the centre like anthers. His tummy is silver around the posies. I mention his tummy because Aramis has a benign temperament and loves nothing better than to roll on his back when the keepers visit his night-lodge. He is so docile that I’ve seen the girl kiss him on the muzzle through the mesh.
Once, his stomach had to be slit open, because he swallowed a hose-head. What was it like to shave his fur, to prise apart the constellations of his intestines? To me he is the night sky. To the Aztecs he was the god Tezcatlipoca — the Smoking Mirror trickster who haunted volcanoes. To many tribes he is a shaman in disguise. He is my Amazonian rainforest on four stocky legs and a curious upright tail — a tail that is always asking what’s going on beyond the enclosure where a gardener prunes the bushes. His sky is enclosed in mesh, because he was once a master leaper of skies, roaming the Milky Way in his cloak of stars.
He is the Amazon in Paris, darkness in the city of light. His muscles taut as Notre-Dame’s flying buttresses; his fangs are white as limestone gargoyles. His eyes are gold. Sometimes they are big as rose windows, sometimes small as a confessional grille. They avoid people’s faces. They look beyond us, at the tapirs opposite, or towards the keeper who is feeding the bush dogs next door. Green clothing attracts a glance, because the feeders wear green. Aramis has looked straight at me several times.
Was it as Rilke described it, that glance? Was I admitted into his eyes then released? Or was I like the man in his ‘Black Cat’ poem, trapped in the ‘golden amber’ of his eyeballs, ‘suspended, like a prehistoric fly’? His glance is an arrow but not one drawn by Cupid. By Artemis, maybe. I like to think he remembers me; his ears prick when I talk to him. I’m often apologising to him — for taking pictures, for the fact that I can visit him like this and he has to put up with it. For having explored his homeland.
Now that he is six, Aramis has a new interest, Simara, a young female. She is in training to be his mate. If Aramis is placid in temperament, she is the opposite: she is like the Amazon in daytime, sunlight flooding through the canopy to throw leaf-shadows on the whirlpools of her fur. She does not sleep. Every log surrounding the waterfall has been chewed and ripped, every banana bush flattened. I’m writing about her in my next collection, Mama Amazonica, where she becomes my mother, all-powerful during manic highs. She is the rainforest in a straitjacket. It’s easy to love my mother when she is Simara because, however frightening she gets, jaguars are innocent.
Simara’s eyes are eau de Nil. They are oxbow lakes where piranha shoals flash. One night I stayed until ten, for the late-night opening. I was alone at the picture window in front of the pool. She came and lay on her back against the glass on the ledge, tipped her face back towards me and stared. I faced my mother’s gaze but did not get eaten. I talked to her gently. Afterwards, Simara shot across to gnaw a log, dragged it into the pool and raced towards me with it in her mouth. For an hour, she swam back and forth, thrashing the water to foam, somersaulting through hoops of water so fast I jumped.
Last December the zoo announced they were going to try ‘contact’ — to let the pair meet. I rushed to Vincennes as soon as I arrived in Paris. Aramis was at the back as usual, roaring. But when the dividing partition slid open between the two outdoor areas, it was Simara who snarled at Aramis, Simara who scratched his nose. Three keepers were in attendance, one with a direct line to the vet. I had only to look at Aramis’s jaws to see why they were worried. He could kill her with one nip.
But he followed her and she led the way, round the poolside path, to the front rock, where just before she had lounged like a queen. Up Aramis climbed to join her and they tussled. I knew they were unlikely to mate; Simara wasn’t yet old enough to be in heat. This was the first stage in a protracted courtship. But Simara took the lead, jumping on his back, biting his neck. Would he be injured? He fought back, and I saw how much bigger he was. He was being gentle, even though again and again she drove him to the water trough to drink, exhausted by her attacks. And even when she annoyed him, and he asserted himself by showing his fangs and snapping at her, she knew to cuddle him, to rub her face against his.
Then the hatches opened to their night-quarters and the dangerous date was over. I went back to my rented room, thinking about the joy they had expressed. It was as though all the boredom of solitude and captivity, for a time, had gone.