“We are the hollow men,” T.S. Eliot wrote in a poem of the same name, but I suspect he wasn’t referring to males recuperating from the stomach flu. It’s odd that when I review this past week I see the days like railcars in a long and winding train, with several standing out with a sort of clear bubble on top like ones I’ve seen for Alaskan sightseeing excursions. Those, obviously, were days when I was under the weather, as they say. It’s peculiar that my brain would conjure such a fanciful image, but then the past week has been more fever dream than any sort of reality. I can’t explain it.
Events during that time are vague at best, the stuff of nightmares only dimly recalled. My dreams were feverish, with the same scenario endlessly repeated and me flopping in sweat-stained sheets unable to sleep or fully wake. My restless legs tormented me with an unseemly vengeance. The toilet, a squat ceramic altar of last resort, mutely received my gradually-diminishing offerings until my ribs felt staved in. I shivered, I shook, I heaved, I retched. During this spell autumn finally arrived with stunning rapidity, and frost sawed the joints of the leaves until they fell in heaps or scattered on November winds like windblown mariners. By day our house was assaulted by hordes of Japanese lady beetles swarming the air and sneaking uninvited through entrances known only to themselves. And late one night, while the stars were crisp and sharp, came our very own Grendel.
Its arrival was announced with a crunch of bones and the almost-scream of something being dismembered. A sharp thud against the wall, an inhuman growl, feet scrabbling ground that offered neither escape nor foothold. Sheba bolted for her cage. I froze at the desk, my blood congealed twice over.
Our rabbit is not the only one who believes that monsters stalk the night. In better times I might have blown this off to a bobcat or coyote, but the sickness that riddled my carcass had wiped out any sort of reasoning or logic, leaving in their place an all-encompassing nausea and exhaustion and a mind that preferred white space over thought process. In that blank state of mind, fighting back thoughts of rushing to the bathroom to give up the pittance of food I had earlier ingested, I gathered the pellet rifle, broke the barrel, inserted a heavy pellet, and snapped it shut. I slipped through the door as quietly as possible and padded around the house.
The flashlight threw a cold blue flame. Its illumination was moody and ghostly and seemed to heighten the dance of shadows. The far trees proved a slatted barricade framing the distant lights of town. Underfoot the grass was damp and spotted with soggy leaves. The yard was empty.
I was drawn to the gaping darkness of the shed. As I approached the doorway something large hurled out and skittered sideways. It scaled the fallen hackberry without hesitation and disappeared into the greater darkness as if taking flight. So brief was its appearance that I was left with nothing but motion to identify. Not a bobcat for its long tail; not a coyote nor fox nor raccoon, but something else. Inside the shed was the bloodied pelt of a rabbit, and in a corner was another.
The image my enfeebled brain evoked was of a fisher, a large furbearer of the far north. As this is patently impossible in the wilds of Kansas, I chalked it up to Grendel, the monster of Beowulf. Under a blanket of stars anything is possible.
Having one’s stomach forcefully emptied is bad enough but the real trial comes afterwards. The refilling is prolonged and fraught with setbacks. It’s actually a form of food amnesia. The stomach remembers nothing and the taste buds are whacked out and it’s never sure what will taste good, bad or even stay down. My craving for coffee and spicy foods was erased with nothing in its place to fill the gap. Compounding the healing process was the discovery of a hiatal hernia. My first try at food was oatmeal—which isn’t much of a meal but it was a start. It stayed down. That in itself was a minor victory.
Lori met the beast the following day. She walked to the shed to retrieve something when it bolted out at such speed that it caught the doorjamb and became airborne and ricocheted off her shoulder. “It’s a cat,” she said later. It was the biggest cat she’d ever seen.
I saw it there in the dusk as it left the shed, stalking out to hunt. Feral cats have been described as nature’s perfect serial killer, but beside that they also possess an almost preternatural sense of their surroundings. It knew my location and the direction of travel before I knew myself. It slipped out of rifle range with a gracefulness that left me impressed in spite of myself.
A call to the police chief netted a live trap, which I set out one evening as light bled from the sky. Opening the can of cat food for bait almost doubled me over. It’s not just the stomach that has to learn how to walk again. The flu had left me with heightened olfactory senses but they were far too squeamish to derive much pleasure from.
Each night I ate a little more. Each morning I checked the trap. I shook out the neighbor’s cat, and then another, and not for the first time wondered what goes on in our yard when we’re not looking.
I knew Grendel was trapped before I poked my head in the shed. The cat snarled and paced and threw itself against the metal grid as if by force alone it could gain its freedom. Its talons raked the air as it hissed and spat. For a long moment I stood there in the dark watching it, queasy as its fury, the very hatred it projected toward myself and all who would reign it in.
Lori was up when I walked inside. I took the rifle and slipped a box of pellets into my pocket. Her look was one of opprobrium.
“I take no pleasure in this,” I said, and went into the night to slay the monster.