That afternoon though I had learnt to read
I found the public library rather boring,
My mother, wanting peace, said I could go
Upstairs alone to see the town museum.
I climbed the winding stair and pushed the door,
It creaked, no other sound and no-one there.
The air was still and angled light cast shadows,
The room was filled with cabinets and things
That seemed as though they all were waiting for
Someone to come into their quietness.
I tip-toed down the aisle with nervous steps
And passed the old town stocks in solid oak
Complete with metal clasps and ancient locks,
A row of slender clay churchwarden pipes,
A puffed-out fish of football size and spikes
All round its leathered skin — a floating mine,
And here a fire engine like a baby’s pram,
Its handles hinged to make a water pump.
In this dark corner, glaring through the glass,
A creature like a leopard stands, as tall as me
And twice as long. I read its name aloud—
“The Once”. It seems to crouch, about to spring,
With fierce glittering eyes and teeth like knives,
Its claws as sharp as broken glass, designed
To rip and tear at living flesh. It looked
At me beyond the glass and through the stillness
Of that quiet afternoon, and then I knew
This monster meant to get me, and I fled.
That night I could not sleep, I knew the Once
Had not forgotten me but was it still
Locked in its case or has it magic power
To step outside through solid half-inch glass
As darkness comes to shroud the silent room?
Does it softly pad along that quiet aisle,
Go past the fire pump like a pram and by
The puff-fish with its swollen leather skin,
The clay churchwarden pipes upon their stand?
Does it pause before the heavy door or pass
Right through and down the winding stair and out
Into the street to sniff the air and seek
This house where now I lie in fear and dread?
Is it slinking through the streets with measured
Oh, is it coming here?
Last week I visited my natal town
And went to see the library and that room.
Perhaps I should have known that all things change,
The room refurbished, light and airy had
Become a gallery showing modern art.
I asked the staff what had become of all
The old museum stock, the fish, the pipes,
The fire engine that looked so like a pram,
And especially that animal, the ‘leopard’.
They did not know where it had gone, but I—
I think I know.
I think it’s slinking like a shadow still
Through silent streets, or padding softly like
A nightmare Nemesis along those dark
And hidden labyrinthine pathways of
* Pronounced ONSE — ‘Once’, I later realized was a misspelling for ‘ounce’—the snow leopard