Sojourns with Big Cats in Triptych
by Laurie Easter
The rental property where we live is not that remote but access is a challenge, so you have to want to get there. The first half of the road, while straight and flat, is full of deep, rutted potholes. During the last trimester of my first pregnancy, rather than be jostled in the car, I would get out and walk the quarter mile before crossing a wooden plank and cable suspension bridge hovering over the creek.
Walking across the bridge is not bad, but driving takes getting used to. The gravel drive slopes upwards before dropping down, and you can’t see where you’re headed, kind of like driving off a cliff. You must have faith the tires will land on the two planks and not in the grooves on either side. Then there’s the bouncing and swaying once your vehicle lands on the old wood boards. Exiting is much the same, sloping upwards over a threshold before dropping down again. You feel relief as you know no matter where you land it will be on solid ground.
The driveway climbs a hillside so steep that at one critical juncture a slab of pavement was laid down to initiate tire traction and prevent cars from sliding backwards down the mountain. It makes the property, bordered by BLM, a solitary space for wildlife to cohabit.
One afternoon, while caring for my infant daughter, a neighbor from around the mountain arrives at our back steps on horseback. “Do you have a phone?” she asks. “There’s a cougar in the woods back here that is very ill. I think we should call Fish and Game.”
She tells us how she and her son were traversing the mountainside on their horses when they saw movement in the bushes. A cougar was lying in the dry leaves of the oaks and madrones, convulsing. She shows my husband where the animal lies, only a few hundred feet behind our house. When he returns he says, “That cougar isn’t going to live long.”
I’ve never seen a cougar in the wild, and the prospect intrigues me. “I want to see it,” I say, so he describes how to find it. I leave the baby in his care and go searching in the woods.
When I arrive, the cougar is dead.
It lies camouflaged in the dry, crackling leaves, its eyes wide open but sunken into its skull and rolled backwards slightly. Its mouth remains in a snarl of bared fangs. The sandy colored coat has no luster. Its body appears emaciated. I slowly inch closer, hesitant, even though I know there is no life left. This powerful hunter had once been full of grace and ferociousness. I still feel vulnerable in such close proximity. Those piercing eyes, frozen in a painful fury, can no longer see me.
I awaken to horrific screaming. It’s not human screaming, although it sounds like a woman being raped and tortured or possibly a baby being torn to shreds. It’s blood-curdling, sending shivers up the spine. My body tenses. I wrap the quilt tighter around myself, hold my breath, lie still, listen. More painful shrieking, as I imagine limbs being ripped, shredded. I am a light sleeper since becoming a mother. My subconscious has been trained to listen for subtle sounds: a choke, a muffled cry, a murmur from a bad dream. Murderous shredding doesn’t top the list of usual nighttime sounds, and I nudge my husband and whisper, “Steve, are you awake?” He grumbles. How he manages to sleep through such a sound baffles me, especially when we live in an uninsulated school bus, a temporary situation as we build a cabin on our newly purchased property. “Steve, do you hear that?”
A high-pitched screech pierces from the uphill side of the meadow, an arrow that shoots night terrors through the forest, hitting its bull’s eye in one of the nearby trees. “That,” I say.
He sits up in bed and says, “What is it?”
“I don’t know. But it sounds terrible. Go check it out.” Our toddler sleeps undisturbed on one side of the futon, which is wedged in the back of the bus on wooden pallets on the floor, flush against the back door emergency exit.
Steve grabs the flashlight and stumbles down the aisle past rough-hewn kitchen shelves, an aluminum sink set in two by four framing, and a worn blue lounge chair next to an upturned wooden utility cable spool used for a table. He reaches the driver’s seat just past the rusty woodstove and pulls the lever that opens the folding passenger door. He hasn’t turned on the flashlight yet. The night is jet black; there are no shadows at new moon. He descends the two steps at the bus’s opening and moves forward a few paces on the withered grass before turning on the flashlight. The button clicks and a beam of light cuts through the air. From the open meadow, something charges furiously towards the light, low-down on the ground, trampling meadow grass, branches and leaves. “Oh shit!” Steve cries and bounds back up the steps, shutting the door with a frantic swing of the lever and runs to the back of the bus.
“Something ran straight at me when I turned on the light. It went up that tree.” Steve gestures with the flashlight to the tree standing next to the bus. “I also heard the gait of a large animal go up the knoll. I think it was a cougar.”
“What ran into the tree?”
“I’m not sure.” Steve peers out the window and shines the light up into the tree. There, in the crook of a branch, a few feet from the back of the bus, sits a masked bandit. “It’s a raccoon. And it looks like its tail is missing.”
The next morning the tailless raccoon sits curled on the branch, dark face weary, body bedraggled. The poor thing merely glances at us like an indifferent housecat perched on a window ledge in sunshine, without the crisp flick of a tail. Our active presence does not disturb it. It shows no fear. It seems comforted. We are the light at the end of its tunnel, the source that saved the hunted from the hunter. The tree the raccoon rests in is directly above the chicken coop. I decide it poses no risk, so I let the chickens loose for the day. As the clucking birds prance out of the cage and scratch for bugs in the dirt, the raccoon turns its head to follow their path, the most deliberate movement it makes the entire day.
The forest is a black vacuum of silence at new moon and no lingering haze of light from town exists because town is thirty miles away. I sit up in the darkness. Cougar screaming has chilled me awake. And even though this time I know its source, the sound is as daunting and creepy as the last time I heard it those many years before. I check to see if my cat, Lacey, is lying on the bed in her usual spot but feel nothing. I fear she is outside about to become cougar-snack, so I slip out of bed. I go out the back door, navigating my way, via flashlight, to our gravel driveway.
The rocks are rough on my bare feet, and jagged edges dig into my soles. Scanning the flashlight back and forth along the driveway, I move slowly over the shale. The night’s coolness settles on my pale skin. “Here, kitty, kitty,” I call, clicking my tongue—tut, tut, tut—in my usual way. My mind is singular: Find Lacey. Tut, tut, tut, I click. “Here, kitty, kitty,” my soprano voice sing-songs. I walk the three hundred feet to the curve in the road still calling, “Here kitty, kitty,” still swinging my flashlight from right to left then right again. Then I stop, suddenly consumed by anxiety. I feel nocturnal eyes scrutinizing me from behind. I think, There is a big cat nearby. It can see me, but I can’t see it. All I want to do is get back to the house. I want to run, but I know running is wrong. All the warnings say to make yourself look as large as possible, pull a sweater or jacket up over your head, wave your arms, don’t back down, make yourself intimidating. But I’m completely naked, a glowing pale body of flesh. I have no sweater or jacket. I have nothing but a small flashlight. I’m the least intimidating I can be standing helpless in the black night. I’m a walking dinner invitation.
I turn back towards the house even though instinct tells me that’s the direction from which I am being watched. My heart rate quickens. I walk faster than when I first ventured out, no longer calling for my cat. The air is quiet except for my breathing. When I reach the lawn, a false sense of safety comes in the form of oak trees beside the house’s shadowy mass. I take advantage of the opportunity of being awake and outside, and squat on the grass to pee. Living as we do with no bathroom sporting a flush toilet, it is a natural fact to pee outside. We are human animals, following instinct and marking our territory.
As I squat on the lawn, no longer human-like walking on two legs but animal-like in a crouch, out of the oak tree across the driveway from the lawn, the tree I walked beneath only moments before, maybe fifty feet from where I now squat, I hear the landing of a large four-footed animal on the ground. I shine my light in that direction, but fear has slowed my reflexes. The beam slices through the darkness to find only branches, leaves, a solid trunk. The cougar has already silently moved. I stand, not sure which route to the house is best: the front door? The back? I briskly walk to the house, praying please don’t eat me even though there has never been a known cougar attack on a human in the state of Oregon.
When I get inside, I shine the flashlight around the living room. Curled up in a soft gray ball on the rocking chair next to the door, Lacey sleeps undisturbed, as my husband does in our bedroom, oblivious to my excursion.
Once in this safe confine, my poor judgment dawns on me. Cougars can jump up to twenty feet straight from a standstill. I forgot that part, never thinking to look up into the trees where they take shelter. I imagine this scenario over and over again: The cougar leaping up onto a branch and stealthily hiding in the tree as I exit the house, its intense cat eyes watching me as I walk directly beneath it, seven maybe ten feet below.
If only I had raised that light and seen its sleek muscles poised under tawny fur. If only I had gazed into the glow of its amber eyes.
About Laurie Easter
Laurie Easter‘s writing appears or is forthcoming in Chautauqua, r.kv.r.y, and Under the Gum Tree, among others. She holds an MFA from Vermont College and has been awarded a fellowship by the Vermont Studio Center. She writes from her home in Southern Oregon, where she lives off the grid and on the edge of wilderness with her husband and daughter, a leopard gecko, two fish, six hens, Roxy the dog, and Lina the little cat. Visit her at www.laurieeaster.com.