Solidarity

The bus made a mid-day refueling stop somewhere in Wyoming. It was a couple days past New Year’s, the bus was half-full, and we were all going straight through to Chicago: a temporary almost-family, bound together by the driver’s friendliness and his encouragement of collective decision-making about our stops. And bound too, I guess, by the hostile weather outside, wind and snow buffeting the bus as we crossed the roof of the continent.

We smokers already had a camaraderie of our own, hurrying off the bus at every stop and huddling together near the door, helping each other get a light in the high wind. At this particular stop, a white college kid returning to Madison let it be known that he had something more than tobacco to share, so several of us followed him around to the back of the convenience store. It was strong stuff, but the wind gave cover to our coughing and quickly carried away the illicit smoke. Everything slowed. We began to talk — or shout, really — about whatever meant the most to us: music, sex, Jesus, poetry (that was me). The weak sunlight took on an epic cast.

A blast of the horn summoned us back to the bus, but we weren’t quite the last on board. In a pattern that was soon to become familiar, a 30ish African-American woman shepherded five young children back into their block of seats near the front, re-arranging their pillows and blankets, while the rest of us looked on solicitously. Plastic trash bags bulged in the overhead luggage compartments; I remember a small bedside lamp protruding from one of them. Each child clutched a small treat from the store, and solemnly began to eat. “Those are good kids, man,” someone murmured.

Then we were back on the interstate. A card game started up a few seats away, but the level of jollity receded as the miles passed, and the engine’s throb and the roar of the heaters made an auditory cocoon into which many of us withdrew. “Let me know if gets too hot for y’all back there,” the driver said. I shut my eyes, and quickly opened them again: the darkness inside was spinning like a slow whirlpool. I turned and fixed my gaze on the horizon with the devotion of a child hungry for one steady thing.

Storytellers

They are on vacation with their oldest granddaughter, who will turn 12 in a few days. En route to the historic district of one small city, a building collapses half a block ahead. A huge cloud of dust rises up; traffic slows to a crawl. The grandparents take a quick glance and look away, but the girl watches intently as emergency crews pull a body from the wreckage. “He’s still alive,” she announces.

They decide not to take the walking tour after all, and continue driving to the next state park. As soon as they get out of town: “Tell me another story, Grandpa!”

“He makes up these exciting adventure stories, starring boy and girl detectives just about Eva’s age. I don’t know how he does it,” Mom tells me later. “I can’t do that. The only stories I can tell her are things I remember — true stories. I said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t make things up the way your Grandpa does.’

“I told her about England — I was just a couple years older than her when our family went over there. She wanted to hear all about it. I told her about the friends I made, and how everyone revered the teachers so much. I explained the way the school system was back then, how kids’ futures would be determined by what kind of high school they attended. She didn’t think that was right.

“And of course I told her stories about the relatives, dwelling on the parts that I thought would interest her. I told her about that time back in Maine, waking up at 4:30 in the morning and telling Bruce, ‘Nanna just died,’ and finding out the next day that she had, at that exact time. And then when we were singing hymns at her funeral, bursting into tears when I got to the third verse of ‘Beneath the Cross of Jesus.’ It turned out that had been Nanna’s favorite verse of any hymn. It is a very pretty tune.” She starts to sing it.

I take, O cross, thy shadow
For my abiding place;
I ask no other sunshine than
The sunshine of His face;
Content to let the world go by,
To know no gain nor loss,
My sinful self my only shame,
My glory all the cross.

The granddaughter’s eyes go wide. She wonders if she will be that clairvoyant herself when the time comes. That night at the motel, she and her Nanna stay up late watching a DVD of the old musical “Oklahoma.” Grandpa watches a little bit of it, then retires to the bedroom. Too much tension and violence, he says. It would disturb his sleep.

Not altogether Charlie

One day, driving in the hollows above Tyrone, looking for an entrance to the state gamelands, we drove down a rutted, unpaved road and past a rusty trailer whose occupant had come outside to stare at us. The yard was muddy and full of junk — old cars, refrigerators, whatever was too big to fit in the trailer. The man stood next to the road, head cocked to one side, mouth gaped open. “He’s not altogether Charlie,” my Dad remarked. A few hundred yards further, the road dead-ended with no gamelands signs in evidence, so we turned the Scout around and headed back. The man was still there, waiting for us. We stared; he stared; we didn’t stop.

Thirty years later, for no good reason, I think of that incident. The sky is orange with sunrise. I’m standing out by the road, gawking at another “v” of swans heading north.

*

Via Negativa hasn’t been altogether Charlie for the past five days or so, but we hope to have it back in shape in a few hours. After that, it should be faster and more reliable than it was before. I’m grateful to my cousin Matt for trouble-shooting and for continuing to let Via Negativa live rent-free at his place (which is a bit fancier than a trailer). He just replaced the virtual couch, but it may us take a little while to break it in.

Thanks to everyone who wrote to express concern. I really appreciate it.

Bringing the violence home

Naivasha was somewhere I went a long time ago and looked on the dreamy sight of a lake alive with pink flamingos. Now people there are killing each other, wielding machetes and burning houses. Of course it isn’t more tragic if it’s somewhere you’ve been, or if it’s happening somewhere beautiful. But it certainly brings the shock and tragedy of violence home to you.
tasting rhubarb

What if that 4:00 a.m. knock on your door doesn’t come from some plainclothes agent of a sinister government, as we’ve always been told to expect, but from the folks down the street, whose kids are in the scout troop with your kids? And what if there isn’t even a knock? They burst into your bedroom and stand wavering, as if trying to decide whether the sight of you naked and violated is worth all the mess and bother. They’ve armed themselves with simple but effective weapons that might have been disguised, up until now, as spading forks, or hedge clippers, or aluminum bats for a pick-up game of softball down at the park. Oh, and their leader cradles a 12-gauge shotgun, or some other efficient guarantor of a polite society. You must leave — now, he announces with a melodramatic solemnity which in other circumstances you might find laughable. The Martinezes started an argument about it, and they’re dead. That would account for the blood and the heavy breathing, the flushed excitement on their faces. Honey, get the kids in the minivan. Tell them we’re going to see Abuela. And for once, the kids listen. At daybreak, creeping through the subdivision with your headlights off so as not to attract attention from the roving bands of local teenagers, you catch an odd movement from behind a backyard grill: sudden wings, a flash of pink. Then another, and another: one by one, the flamingos are abandoning their calm green lake. A silent V slices through the dawn sky.

Old farm photos revisited

I’ve been scanning some historic photos of the farm from 1919 (view slideshow). Between that, and working on qarrtsiluni, I’m out of time to write a post today, so I thought I’d reprint a post from last summer, slightly edited, and accompanied this time by some of the photos it describes.

1. The Children’s Picnic

the children's picnic 2

Seven girls sit on the lawn around a picnic blanket. The year is 1919 or 1920, so of course they are all wearing dresses. They range in age from three to about fifteen. One girl wears a bow in her hair; she is six years old, and her name is Margaret. We don’t know the names of any of the others, because 81 years later, Margaret can no longer remember who they were. The teenager might have been her cousin Phyllis, she thinks.

The photographer takes three pictures of the children’s picnic, which will make it possible to pinpoint its location — on the lawn above the kitchen — even after eight decades have elapsed and almost everything has changed. In the background of one photo, a martin house and a large bell stand loom above the unfamiliar foliage. In the first two photos, the girls look stiff and serious — all except for Margaret, who grins impishly, at home here on her Great Uncle George’s farm. Then they go back to their picnic, raising spoons to their lips. The pet collie, whose name is Snap, appears as a blur of movement off to the left. Margaret’s eyes follow the dog; you can almost hear her calling for him to come. But he isn’t interested in joining this strange feast, which seems to include nothing but a small pile of oak leaves in the center of the blanket.

*

2. Charles in the Garden

Charles Schroyer in the garden

Two-year-old Charles stands in a large patch of turnips, or perhaps rutabagas. Behind him, the barn is brand-new, painted a shade of darkness that must be red. Above the corncrib, rows of fruit trees where we have only ever known a field stretch all the way up to Sapsucker Ridge, which is dimly visible in the distance. In dreams, I sometimes visit another version of the hollow that lies right over a ridge we’d somehow overlooked, where the orchard was never bulldozed out in the 1950s and the old farmhouse was spared its extreme makeover into a faux plantation home. Everything is twice as big and twice as far — the way things looked when I was small.

Margaret’s little brother still has uncut, blonde curls and wears a long-sleeved white dress. He stands with his feet planted firmly in the garden path and grins at something off to the photographer’s left. With one arm raised he points high above his head, as if leading the ranks of turnips on to glory.

*

3. Light and Shadows

Jacob and Mollie Plummer with mule cart

In the middle of the road below and to the right of my front porch, Jacob Plummer stands in his Sunday best with one hand on his hips and the other resting on the rear wheel of an open carriage. His wife Mollie sits up in the carriage holding the reins. They’re hauling what look like steel gates, or perhaps the springs for a child’s crib. The horse has his head up, clearly intent on getting back to the barn. At the top of the photo, a limb from the balm-of-Gilead poplar tree that used to stand at the corner of the wall until its death in the early 1970s blocks much of the background. The bottom third of the photo is a double exposure. On the near side of the road, the sky starts over with much less balm-of-Gilead in it — a sky which, judging from the sharpness of the shadows cast by man and horse and carriage, must be a clear blue and not this barren field of white that we see.

*

4. Harrowing

harrowing the field 1

The hired man and his son have paused in their harrowing of the freshly plowed field. It’s spring; the trees at the edge of the field still look skeletal, and there are splashes of white that could be shadbush. The newly emancipated stones have dried in the sun, making them clearly visible against the darker soil. The man is bearded under a floppy felt hat, and wears a long-sleeved white shirt and dark pants held up by suspenders. In the first photo, the camera is tilted, making him appear to stand at an angle to the ground, like the gnomon on a sundial. In the second photo, they’ve turned away from the photographer and gone back to work, the boy astride the left horse holding a switch, the man behind with one foot on the harrow and his hands on his hips as the iron teeth sink once more into the mountain’s thin red clay.

*

5. The Siblings

Richard and Margaret Schroyer

Richard is twelve, and doesn’t know what to do with his hands. In one photo, we see him in profile against a tree with his hands held awkwardly behind his back. In another photo, he stands in the road halfway up the hill toward the barn with his hands thrust into the bib pockets of his overalls, frowning at the camera. In a third photo, taken at the same spot, his little sister has joined him. His hands have now disappeared behind the front of his overalls, elbows a little less awkward at his sides as he stares at the ground to his right. A wide-brimmed hat nearly hides his new haircut. Margaret appears to imitate his posture, resting her weight on one leg and thrusting a hand into the pleats of her dress. The dog is nowhere to be seen. Stifling the vivacity that will carry her through nearly ninety years of life, Margaret stares straight into the lens. I find it strangely difficult to look back.

Proof

I scatter a level tablespoon of dry yeast on the surface of the warm water — three-fourths of a cup, blood temperature — in the yellow mixing bowl that belonged to my mother’s father’s mother. Hard to call it an antique, since we use it almost every day. In fact, I just took it off the dish drainer: my mother used it to mix a dessert custard an hour ago. The paint is a little chipped around the rim, but otherwise it’s in fine shape. It’s a two-quart bowl, ceramic, and with a steep-sided shape that’s hard to find these days, so for reasons more practical than sentimental my mother lives in dread of someone dropping and breaking it someday.

This is called proofing the yeast: waiting for it to show signs of life. Not so different from proofreading a text, really. While I wait, I grind rosemary, measure out a quarter cup of olive oil and a teaspoon of salt, and get the flour out of the cupboard. I’ll start with a half-scoop of white flour, then make up the rest — two to three cups, I guess — with medium-ground whole wheat. I tried adding some durum wheat flour for a while, but I couldn’t tell the difference. For whole wheat pizza, I’ve found that using a heated stone and adding the sauce right away are the most important things. Otherwise you end up with something you need to cut with a steak knife.

But that’s a couple hours away yet. Right now, I’m still waiting for the yeast. I stand looking out at the back porch, where my mother hangs the birdfeeders. The black barn cat crouches over a vole burrow below the steps. A little farther downslope, a brown leaf rises on a sudden gust of wind and reattaches itself to a low-hanging branch. I stare in disbelief. It’s too cold out for butterflies. There aren’t any birds that look like that. I walk into the next room to look through another window, but now I can’t find the leaf. I go back into the kitchen and look through the back door again: the leaf, or whatever it was, is indeed gone. So is the cat.

Yesterday around noon, as I was waiting for a batch of bread to finish, I stood here and watched a small woodchuck eating the young leaves off the black raspberry canes. The woodchuck stood on its hind legs to reach the canes, which it held between its teeth like corn on the cob, delicately nibbling the inch-long leaves. They had burst from their buds two weeks ago, just before the cold returned, and have hardly grown since. This wasn’t the fat and handsome fellow I watched through my own kitchen window two weeks ago; in fact, it looked as if it might have gotten a bit too close to that other chuck. There was a long gash in the fur of its lower back, and its tail was missing. “Scarbutt,” I said to myself, thinking of Al Pacino.

With the cat gone, the birds filter back. All the sparrows are still around, including the swamp sparrow, who is proving something of a bully. He scratches like a chicken in the thick layer of sunflower seeds on the ground below the feeders, and chases anything that comes within a one-foot radius.

There’s a flash of gold at the left-hand feeder. Two of the goldfinches have nearly completed the changeover from drab olive green to their namesake summer plumage, but the mountain doesn’t seem quite ready for them yet. Over half of our daffodils and forsythia have yet to bloom, to say nothing of tulip poplars, sugar maples, oaks, and other green and gold things. I suppose the molt is triggered by length of daylight, and if turning early makes goldfinches more visible and vulnerable in a world of later springs, then perhaps selective pressures will favor late-bloomers — so to speak.

After five or six minutes, the yeast still on the surface has organized itself into ridges in a two-sided, symmetrical pattern strongly reminiscent of a brain viewed from above. Unfortunately, I don’t have my camera handy, and there’s no way I can get it from the other house before the yeast expands further and erases the pattern, so I won’t have any photographic evidence. I almost said “proof,” but that’s a term that seems distinctly out-of-place in the digital age, when proofsheets have disappeared along with the public’s confidence in photos as true depictions of reality. It’s a striking apparition, though, this brain of yeast. It’s still in my mind ten minutes later as I knead the dough — such a joy without the stickiness of the sugar (honey, molasses) required for bread! — and feel the bubbles begin to pop against my palms.

Minor incident in the history of intercultural exchange

I slept fitfully as the vacuum cleaner went back and forth above my head. Doors slammed, feet pounded down the stairs, furniture slid and rumbled on the hardwood floor. The same dream over and over like a skip in a record: me alone on the line for a four-in-the-morning rush, a blizzard of slips, drunks hollering for their omelettes. And then more shoes overhead, a boombox switched on — Kenyan dance music, loud — and the tromping becoming rhythmic, coordinated. The doorbell buzzing and buzzing. Damn, must be a party! Each of my housemates probably thought the other had told me.

Our paths did cross: in front of the T.V. in the living room, usually, where the more religious of the two would sit every morning in his robes, fresh from praying toward Mecca, to watch a chirpy female aerobics instructor while he sipped black tea. It’s good exercise, Dave! he’d insist, quite seriously, when I tried to tease him. The other, also named Salif, rarely hung out at home, except sometimes to make couscous stew in the kitchen and pound on my door whenever I played music he didn’t like, which was often.

I dragged out at ten, showered, and pulled on a ratty Metallica t-shirt and checkered, gray-and-white chef’s pants wide enough for a clown. I moved slowly, dreading what I knew I’d face upstairs: the entire African Students Association packed into our living room, dancing, glamorous, laughter in a dozen different languages suddenly falling silent as the hairy white guy emerged from the cellar, dressed for the graveyard shift.

Capsule

It’s hard to remember a time when I haven’t been somewhere else, barely conscious of my immediate surroundings. With high-speed internet, high-definition TV, video games, iPod, cellphone, all the buzzing distractions of the latest flame war or celebrity gossip, sometimes I can go for half a minute without even remembering to draw a breath. If someone else were in the room with me, they’d probably notice the sudden, sharp intake of breath and assume it indicated surprise, or some other strong reaction. But the great thing about being entertained 24/7 is the way real surprises are kept to an absolute minimum. Surprises interfere with comfort.

But one day, I couldn’t ignore it any longer: something fungal and pustulent had flourished in my neglect. It was like something from a B-grade horror flick. At first it grew in a corner of the living room, and I thought I could simply ignore it and continue to focus on the screen, any screen. But then it drifted forward on an army of pseudopodia and colonized a small backpack I carried with me everywhere I went, because it had handy compartments for laptop, water bottle, cellphone, PDA, digicam and umbrella, not to mention a hidden pocket with three, 20-year-old tabs of LSD that I kept on hand as a hedge against apocalypse.

What the hell was it? I didn’t care; I just wanted rid of it. It swelled into a purplish brown pod or capsule some eighteen inches in diameter, and I began to get a little apprehensive. I went down to the fire station and got someone to blast it with a hose, which peeled off the outer, spongy layer and revealed something even more repulsive underneath — a kind of amorphous, yellow goo. I had seen this kind of thing before, I realized, but I couldn’t remember where. Perhaps in a blog?

I abandoned the pack, but the thing took human form and began to trail me. It turned into a quiet little girl with a runny nose and a head permanently bowed, as if mortified by shame. Quiet people scare me — it knew this. Quite people, and girls. But I began to feel responsible for her, and re-shouldered the pack with her in it. Fortunately, she hardly weighed a thing, being at some level still just a hollow capsule.

It was spring, and the trees in the park were just beginning to burst their buds. I went and looked at the fountain, which had been turned on for the first time that morning, and found that I liked the sound of the water better than any of the tunes in my iPod.

Passers-by began to notice the creature in the bag: Your daughter? they’d ask, and I answered Yes, because it was easier than telling the truth. My loathing had subsided, but not the feeling of dread. Finally, though, I stopped being a coward and spoke to her.

I had sat down on a park bench with the pack and its strange passenger resting beside me. I think you can go now, I said. She raised her head and I looked straight in her face. I saw she was a full-grown woman now, and not at all bad-looking. Her eyes focused on something beyond me, and she smiled the vaguest of smiles. Then she stood up, slung my pack over her shoulders, and joined the stream of pedestrian traffic. I lost sight of her in less than a half a minute. I took a deep breath. It was almost noon.

After the cold

spectacled owl on eggsIt was a strange virus, not only in its intensity, but in its effects, as well. One writer at the New York Observer referred to it as the emo flu, because of the unaccountable feelings that lingered for a week or more after all other symptoms went away.

It was the strangest [flu] I’ve ever gotten, and I’m not alone in thinking it was weird. Indeed, I feel compelled to alert the world, or at least this city, about the extraordinarily subtle and insidious sequelae of this contagion going around.

When I call it the “emo flu,” it’s not a metaphor. I don’t know if it’s medically an influenza virus, but whatever the nature of this melancholy microbe, it’s worth a warning.

It begins with familiar-seeming mild flu-like symptoms (mild in my case, more severe in others), but then tails off into a long, etiolated fugue state in which something more than flu-like lethargy, lassitude and inanition paralyzes you. It’s not just a neutral world weariness, it’s Weltschmerz–world-historical sadness: Some mournful, emotional, deeply despairing, unremittingly sad and despondent sense of life seizes you and won’t let go for at least a week afterward.

That’s not been my experience at all. For me, the only noticeable depression was right at the beginning, which is hardly unusual — in fact, I can often tell when I’m about to get sick by such departures from my otherwise generally cheerful mood (though granted, given my general worldview, mine is the kind of cheer associated with whistling past graveyards). I was impressed by the tenacity of the virus, its ability to plug or irritate sinuses, ears and throat at the same time. What I have now, though, a week and a half after I blew my nose for the last time, is far from depression. It’s more like a heightened state of well being, accompanying a profound reconfiguration of my habits and interests.

It began innocuously enough. With everything blocked up, sleeping was difficult, so I began to keep odd hours, sleeping from midnight to three, reading until seven, then going back to sleep until ten or eleven. Whereas before I had been an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of guy, within a few days after contracting the virus, I had become a total night owl.

Nothing out of the ordinary in that, surely. But I also began to notice that strong light was painful to me. I had always turned on an incandescent lamp on my writing table after it got dark, in order to avoid eyestrain from the computer monitor, but now I found I preferred to read in the dark. Fortunately, a lot of my favorite blogs use templates — skins, as the cool kids call them — with black or dark gray backgrounds, and I found these much easier on my eyes. I created a new category within my Bloglines subscriptions just for dark-skinned blogs. I also reset the background color of my word processing program to midnight blue with white text; it looked just like the WordPerfect default screen from twenty years ago.

My house has always had a certain cave-like ambience, which I’ve enhanced by planting trees in front of several of the windows. Now I found myself installing shades and curtains in addition — a needless luxury if you live as far out in the woods as I do, at the dead end of a mile-and-a-half-long, gated driveway. The problem is, ever since coming down with the “emo flu,” I’ve developed an extreme sensitivity to sunlight. If I spend more than fifteen minutes in it, I actually begin to feel nauseous and have to scurry back inside if I want to avoid throwing up.

I’ve never been a fan of sunglasses; I don’t even really own a pair, and for a couple days I managed to get by with squinting and pulling my hat down as low as I could on the rare occasions when I had to leave the house during the day. Then I remembered that there was a pair of sunglasses in the corner of a small, shrine-like arrangement of odds and ends that I keep in a disemboweled cabinet television set in my living room. A guest left them behind ten years ago, a couple weeks before his death from a heroin overdose. I remember how skeletal he had looked on that cold, January day, and how he had retreated to an upstairs room to sleep until the sun went down, while another friend and I huddled around the wood stove.

I retrieved Ben’s sunglasses from the television shrine and began wearing them, but I find it only affords a limited amount of relief. The best thing is simply to stay indoors with the shades drawn until after dark, if at all possible. It helps that we’re now over a month past the autumn solstice, and the hours of daylight are outnumbered by the hours of darkness.

The good news, though, is that aside from this realignment in my sleep cycle, I feel better than ever. As evening comes on, I find myself filling with the same kind of creative energy that I used to feel first thing in the morning. Often, I get too excited to sit still and work, and I go off on long jogs through the woods. Fortunately, there are over ten miles of trails on the property, and the hunters and I keep them mostly clear of fallen logs and branches, though my night vision is so good, it hardly matters. Vitamin A, you know.

I’ll tell you, there’s nothing like returning to normal — it makes one appreciate all the things we otherwise take for granted. For the first few days after getting over a cold, one takes special delight simply in being able to smell and taste and hear things clearly again. This time — due, I’m sure, to the unusual severity of the cold — that illusion of heightened perception has persisted for close to two weeks. My newly nocturnal habits doubtless play a role: without bright lights and colors to distract me, after the noise from the valley has subsided, it’s amazing, some of the things I’ve been able to detect. Last night, for example, I heard a porcupine waddling through the leaves from a hundred yards away. I had a sudden vision of rushing up to it with a stick, flipping it over, and killing it with a fast bite to the jugular, though I have no idea why I’d want to do that. Three nights ago, the heavy footfalls of a gravid female black bear were not quite the first thing to alert me to her presence. I had caught a whiff of something sharp and dangerous and stopped dead in my tracks. I felt a degree of fear and a desire to flee that I’ve never felt around black bears before. When she whuffled in my direction, I nearly shat myself.

It’s funny how the virus seemed to contain the seeds of its own destruction. I feel so much healthier and more alive now, I’ll be surprised if I contract another cold for a very long time. Before, I was in serious danger of becoming a mouse potato, but now, there’s almost nothing I’d rather do than go outside, with no other goal than to slake my thirst for contact! Contact! as Thoreau put it.

I mean that quite literally. For example, despite the lowering temperatures, I often find myself leaving shoes and socks behind. My feet are toughening by the day — or rather, by the night. I’m seriously considering dispensing with other articles of clothing, too. I mean, why not? When you run, you hardly feel the cold. It’s not like there are neighbors to complain, and besides, it’s dark out. I’ve never been interested in nudism before, in part because I am hairy in parts of my body where most folks seem to find hairiness a positive affront. But now I’m beginning to think of a thick pelt as a good thing, particularly with winter coming on. It may be just my imagination, but it even seems as if it’s been getting a little thicker in recent weeks. There’s been a lot less hair in the bathtub drain, though, so probably what’s happening is that I’m just not shedding as quickly as I had been before.

It’s hard to say. Another luxury of living alone is that I don’t have to spend much time in front of the bathroom mirror. Even when I brush my teeth, I barely give my reflection a passing glance, though I probably should. Lately my teeth have begun feeling different, somehow, and they seem to require a lot more brushing to get rid of the stench from an ordinary meal. I may even take up flossing. It seems like such a civilized thing to do.

self-portrait as lunatic

Looking for water

leaf pool

The afternoon sun catches the bobcat full in the face where he rests under a boulder near the top of the talus slope, waiting for night. It wakes him from a pleasant dream of raiding a mouse’s nest and crunching down an endless supply of succulent squirming hairless mouse babies. He blinks, and tries shifting around to get away from the sunlight, but the small shelter, which stinks of porcupine, barely accommodates him as it is.

The sun makes him thirsty. He remembers the last time he came this way, finding a series of small pools right over the crest of the ridge from here, near the edge of an old field. It’s worth a try.

He emerges cautiously onto the rocks, his pupils narrowing into needles against the glare. Fortunately, he’s only two short leaps from shade and the shelter of the trees.

The air is still. It feels strange to be walking around in daylight, with his mind still half in dream. The sounds of his own footsteps in the leaf litter don’t seem nearly loud enough, and there’s a disconcerting sense of sameness to the various odors that reach his nostrils, as if everything’s been tainted with some kind of poison from the sun.

He clears the fringe of laurel and walks through the open woods along the flat top of the ridge. When he reaches the spot where he remembered finding the pools, there’s nothing but mud. He sniffs, and draws back. The only moisture here is from the hind-ends of horny white-tailed deer, who never seem to mind pissing where they drink and shitting where they eat.

The bobcat continues north along the ridge, remembering a brushy ravine that leads down to the creek. He never sees the pair of deer hunters, a married couple, dressed in blaze orange and sitting against a tree about fifty feet away. Colorblind like all bobcats, he will never see the yellow and orange and red of the autumn leaves, not even when he returns a week later and finds some rainwater to drink in two of the pools that had been dry on his earlier visit.

By that time, the hunters will have told and retold their story of the bobcat to almost everyone they know, and it will have taken on a certain mythic dimension, despite the fact that they are scrupulously honest about the details, the animal’s small size, its apparent lack of caution. It starts becoming possible to imagine what the world must look like to a bobcat — how it can be so wary, such a good hunter, and yet so oblivious.

It is, after all a cat, and we know cats. Everyone knows about cats and water, how particular they are about pulling their whiskers back and only breaking the surface with their tongue. Drinking from the creek is one thing, but still water must make a wild cat especially cautious. Can’t you just see him, catching sight of this other cat in the water and jumping back, then maybe sneaking up on it and touching it with his paw?

Well, I’m sure it won’t be the first time he’s ever drunk from a pool during the daytime. But yeah, I’ll bet he still does a double-take.

The omniscient narrator finds himself unwilling to speculate further. It’s all too easy for those of us who see in color to think we know exactly what we’re looking at.