I was about to doze off with my sweet, old friend. Serafina is my rescue pet leopard. She's been with me for years. She knows me and I know her. And today had been an especially exhausting day. So right after dinner, I snuggled in with my bottle of Bud, my recently purchased copy of the latest Jim McWhinnie novel and the peace and quiet of a September night in Liverpool.
With a sweet sip of the good stuff, page one. I didn't even get to the first word, when the Westminster chimes of my well-priced doorbell rang.
"Heavens to Betsy!''
I went to the door and found nobody there, only a package wrapped in brown paper waiting for me to adopt it as something new of mine.
I have this thing about packages ... I just have to open them ... and when I opened this one, my life did take its turn.
The package was massive. I wondered how I had missed the sound of the van which must have delivered it, then remembered that Serafina had been purring particularly loudly, just before the doorbell rang.
I stood on the doorstep, looking up at the top of the package. Then I walked around it. How was I going to get it into the house? I looked at Serafina, but she was tucking into her nightly side of gazelle, and didn't seem inclined to assist me. I pushed on the side of the package, to test its weight. It seemed to move easily. I put my arms around its middle and hefted it. Yes, it was light, so I carried it the few steps past the threshold, and closed the door.
Serafina came over and sniffed it, then rubbed her lithe body against it. Then, disinterested, she went back to her half-carcass and recommenced her mauling and chewing.
Tentatively, I peeled a side of the brown paper. Underneath was a corrugated cardboard box. I tore off the rest of the wrapping and balled it up, then threw it into the corner of the room, whereupon Serafina started to play with it.
There was not a single marking on the box, and I was suddenly fearful about opening it. I went over to Serafina, and coaxed the brown-paper cat-toy from her powerful jaws, receiving a swipe of her claws on my wrist, for my trouble. No matter. I already had a criss-cross of leopard-scratch scars all over my hands, wrists and forearms. That was the risk one had to take when adopting a wild, predatory feline. I knew she didn't mean anything by it. Sweet Serafina. She was a pussycat, really. I took my shirt off and wrapped it around the gash, and then unrolled the brown paper.
I'd wasted my time, and sustained the injury in vain. The package was addressed to me, sure enough, but there was no return address. I could not delay any longer.
I turned the box on its side - it was too tall to open from the top -and tore off the parcel tape on the end. Then I lifted the flap.
To my surprise, I heard a whisper.
''Open other end''
So I did. I looked inside the box, and saw...
Serafina looking at me from the other end. She crawled inside.
I crawled inside too, and we met in the middle.
I looked at Serafina.
Serafina looked at me.
Serafina spoke, in a deep, dark, unleopardlike voice.
I looked at Serafina again and she wasn't Serafina anymore. I looked into his long-lashed brown eyes and stroked his soft cheek. He stroked mine.
''I'm your birthday present.'' the gorgeous creature formerly known as Serafina said. ''Happy birthday, and thank you for rescuing me. I have waited for this moment since I was enchanted all those years ago and turned into a female leopard. The spell could only be broken on the fortieth birthday of my rescuer.''
''Can we get out of the box now?'' I asked. His breath was rather smelly. It still smelled of dead gazelle, lifted enchantment or not.
''Of course.'' He backed out of the box. So did I. We stood up. Outside the box,and drawn up to his full height, he was much less attractive. I wondered if there was any way could turn him back into my sweet, undemanding but boisterous, female leopard.
I guessed not.
Oh well, I thought, as he approached me with his arms outstretched. The novel about the tree would have to wait.