I begin with all the proper preparations: lunch consisting of a basil-rich pesto fortified with fresh garlic and fried ground venison, served with somolina al dente. Followed by bitter half cup of instant coffee brewed strong, drunk while sitting in half lotus a foot away from the hot tub, staring into the rocks. A little inspiration from Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dali Lama, on breathing, smiling and walking meditation.
I set out. Mind rolling with the rock and reggae rhythms of the night; present in the now-mind. My steps slow, measured. I see the trees approaching, my vision widened to the edges with the extra time I take. I've already turned back to put away the tapes I would return to Julie--not today. Today is for solitude. I walk. The air is mild, not to say balmy. Overcast all the way to the hills across the lake, snow patches on rockslides and clearcuts. Bluish-gray the distance casts on rocky hillface; steel-colored the water. The bare branches in the foreground; feet padding thin snow underfoot. Air clear in the nostrils. Counting steps, in, out.
Up the hill of the driveway, I consider what is a block. Around here,
the network of old skid trails we call driveways? It could be anywhere,
off into the woods. And so, I take the old cat-track veering up into
birchland, and walk. The branches scrape against the nylon of my coat,
the denim of my pants. Leaves and twigs occasionally crunch or snap
underfoot. It occurs to me how walking in the woods like this is the
way of the hunter: wary, watchful, slow, alert, patient, steady. At
one with the world around, with the animal world. Indeed, all around
me I notice bare patches of brown leaves in the snow, where the deer
have bedded for the night.
It is with such thoughts in mind that I see it: a deer on its side half-covered with sticks and leaves, and clumps of hair, over the yawning cavity of its broken ribs, its stomach and chewed meat, its pooled blood. Dogs? A careless hunter? I bend and work the front legs--still pliable. The blood looking and smelling fresh, the musky odor of the buck mixing with another, more sinister spoor. The ground around the kill is scraped of snow where the struggle took place. Then, on a snow-covered log near the body, I see tracks: a large dog? No, these pads are more rounded, more like those of a cat--a cougar.
I follow the tracks away, in the direction I'm going. Do I really want to stalk this killer? It couldn't be very hungry, at least. I check up at the rough-barked, thin pines around me.
No, not lurking there. I walk on following tracks, until I see a line of deep-set deer tracks angling up the hill. Where the tracks practically converge, I decide to go back to see how it happened. Did the cat sneak up and surprise the prey as he slept?
Back at the scene, I stoop for a closer look. Of course the ground has been scraped to cover the half-eaten cache for a later date. I feel a back leg, and discover it's bent sideways, broken. I feel under the body, where it's met the ground, and can feel live warmth still. How did it die?
Did it start out with a leg broken in a fall, which made it vulnerable in a chase? Or did the cat hobble it with a crippling twist of that leg at the knee-joint?
I inspect the neck and see only a small superficial wound of missing hair, a ragged spot of torn skin. Those ribs are chewed in half, the liver and most of the loin meat on the upper side torn away, as is the upper portion of hind leg.
The smell of blood and meat and vitals is powerful, rich, almost heady with promise, even for my own already satiated palate.
After all, I, too, am a hunter.
I, too, kill and eat of such meat.
© Nowick Gray
"Cat Tracks" appears in the 2014 collection, My Country: Essays and Stories from the Edge of Wilderness.
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