Mountain Lion

       for John Peck

Listen to a recording of Barry Goldensohn reading this poem. He flattens his haunches deep into the brown leaves— invisible under the ferns on the cool forest floor. It is inescapably clear he’s here—his yellow eye marks every step I take.

I carried my thirty-eight
for six months after I caught
sight of him crossing the road
until I felt foolish and stopped.

Like the stealthy Bengal tiger,
driven by hunger, not rage,
he’s a merciful cat when he kills
with one spring from behind
and one bite to the neck.

Bengali woodcutters wear
a backward facing mask
which baffles the tiger’s spring
while the woodcutter walks to safety
praying and trembling—the tiger,
impotent, stalking behind him.

I’m resigned to the reign of the cat.
He allows my trek through these woods
with provisional forbearance
but I shake in his real presence,
wait for him to learn
my desperate masquerade
and walk with a double face,
the one in front that ignores him,
that pokes my way through the trees,
and the one facing back that sees.