The Cat Came Back

Time stands still when the watcher becomes the watched

| Utne Reader January / February 2007

I came around a corner and there was a mountain lion. It was a big male, tail longer than my arm. I stopped in dappled ponderosa shade. I was close enough that I could have tossed a pebble and hit the lion's tawny block of a head. He was facing the other way, lapping water out of a muddy hole in the Blue Range near the Arizona-New Mexico line.

I lowered to one knee-not what you should do around a large predator, especially a cat-but it was what came to mind. The first thing I wanted was to have the upper hand, which for me meant being invisible.

I had wanted to see a mountain lion this way for a long time. So often I am the one who is watched without knowing it, perking ears I never know are there. Now, I was crouched on the ground staring at a lion that had no idea I was here, studying the way its head grazed the water, how its shoulder blades lifted like shields as it drank. I was traveling alone in the wilderness, seven days of gear on my back. I let my pack off my shoulder and rolled it gently to the ground. Any thoughts I had been thinking floated away unfinished. I became a shadow, a ghost, something not here.

When it was done drinking, the lion turned and looked around. I took the faintest breath, my body light as a leaf. The lion's bright, glassy eyes passed over mine, and I let its gaze wash through me. I was nothing but a shape among stumps and rocks. The lion did not see me. It walked away from the water hole with fluid authority, slipped into the forest, and was gone.

After a while I stood. I grinned; I'd gotten my wish. I left my pack behind and headed for the water hole. In case the cat was still around, I clattered rocks as I went, knowing that it would turn suddenly, surprised to hear me, affronted perhaps to have been watched, and then would sprint away, leaving me far behind.

At the water hole I found fresh tracks in mud, round lobes of paw pads and toes. I was just leaning down to dip a finger into one of the prints when I thought: This is where animals are caught-bending down at a water hole, spine exposed to all the world. Just in case, I glanced around. There was the lion. It had doubled back behind me and was reclined in juniper shade, watching me as if I were its morning show, tail looped across the ground.

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