Things always seem better in the half-light of dawn, though that’s a long way down the road. For now there’s only the unrelieved darkness and the faint call of a nightjar, and a lingering nightmare of broken pipes, water up to my knees and upset neighbors hammering at the door. A clamoring mob with lighted torches and noose might have come next had I stayed in bed. When dreams reach a tipping point it’s time to rise no matter how exhausted, and so I did, wearily, angrily, clomping down the stairs as if the force of each footstep would dislodge the dream and send it cascading to the nether regions where nightmares go to die.
A vain and futile hope. I started a pot of coffee and threw open the windows to a cool breeze redolent of damp grass and deep woods, and stared out at the flickering traceries of lightning bugs. Most wove indistinguishable patterns across the darkness but one pulsed brightly from the birch, a fallen and stationary star. Something about it felt odd, an arrhythmic cadence out of sync with the others or a radiance slightly off hue, bluish-white rather than whitish-blue, until I remembered reading about a predator that mimics the irregular phosphorescence of lightning bugs to draw the unwary into its lethal embrace. Being done in while engrossed in a fervid mating ritual seems heartless and cruel but might be the most life-affirming method there is of bowing out.
One hardly needs a reminder that the world is a brutish, dangerous place. Humans are remarkably adept at preying on one another, the ultimate mammal in terms of murderous efficiency. The lower orders have evolved into their own niches, whether omnivorous, carnivorous or herbivorous, creation’s ornate food chain where quarter is neither asked for nor given. The quest for sustenance knows no mercy.
I’ve been doing the math lately and it’s been a matter of subtraction all the way around. Several tomato plants have disappeared, strawberries absconded during the night, bark stripped from cherry seedlings, sweet potatoes decimated, even a towering pokeberry, one of the toughest hombres in the yard, sucked dry within days. Of the two small rabbits moving timorously from the safety of the brush pile, only one remains. And then the gray tabby appeared.
It was at first a pale shape stalking the twilit gloaming. As I watched, it seemed to flow bodiless above the grass like a wraith, impossible to fix with the eye, a ghostly form of tight-packed muscle and feline grace. Without hesitation I unlatched the window screen and removed it with only a faint rap as it cleared the frame, but the noise was telling. The shape froze, and seemed to constrict into itself. I sensed it watching the house as I broke the rifle and fed a heavy pellet into the chamber. By the time I raised the barrel the cat was gone.
Two days later I watched it cross the field and disappear into the thicket. Feral cats and young birds and bunnies do not a good combination make, so I trudged out to see if I could scare it off. A few well-placed stones flushed nothing but an immature robin, and a slow circumnavigation of the tangle proved fruitless. Standing there facing an impenetrable green wall, it was easy to let my imagination run riot, and I recalled the old tales of hunters going after man-eating tigers in the jungles of Borneo and India. I once relished reading their exploits, living a sort of vicarious adventure the likes of which I would never experience, so that here, even in the light of day, I imagined hidden eyes glaring out at me, fangs bared, talons flexing for the kill. An uneasy silence had fallen, whether from my own futile ministrations or of something skulking in the underbrush. After a while I went back inside, but kept the screen removed.
I remembered once hiking with my parents and brothers on an old fire road somewhere in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. We were far from the camper and dusk was falling when something crashed through the trees nearby. It approached with the sound of rending saplings and snapping twigs, not at all like the silent stealth of a deer, and as we stood rooted in place the sounds came ever nearer. I was all for fleeing but my father told us to stay. Hackles raised, I stared at the solid vegetal wall, certain that at any moment an enraged bear would emerge, take one look at us and charge. Closer and closer the sounds came, sharp and explosive, and then with a suddenness that was like a great inhalation the woods grew deathly still. It sees us, I thought. We waited, five small figures on a two-track road in the middle of nowhere, shadows rising from the low areas, barely breathing from the tension. What seemed an eternity later the hum of mosquitoes intruded, a noise so commonplace and ordinary that it shattered the spell. We were alone, and began the walk back in a humble and fearful silence.
One day, two, the yard was empty of rabbits. I watched and waited and felt sick to my stomach, alternately raging and fretting. On the third morning I drew the blinds to find the tabby lying by the broken stub of the hackberry within feet of the brush pile. It studied me as I slid open the window and unlatched the screen, and watched with golden eyes as I hunkered down to load the rifle. My hands were shaking and sweaty. The breech snapped shut with a clunk I felt sure would send the tabby packing, but when I glanced out the window it was still there. It stood facing me, tense, tail rigid, standing its ground even as I shouldered the rifle and fired.
After a while a soft rain begins falling. The telltale flashes of lightning bugs flicker out, leaving only the absolute darkness and a faint patter on the downspout, and a man looking out the window while something in the night looks back.