The Cat Came Back

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.

I did not move. I thought this was as close as I would ever get
and I burned the image of this lion into my memory. How long would
it stay? How long could I just stand here and stare?

Not long. It rose from the shadows. It stepped out and began
walking straight toward me. Fear gulped through my blood. I was
prey at the water hole.

Wait a second. This isn’t supposed to happen. I’m a watcher, an
observer. I am human.

And it, I realized, is a cat. This is what cats do. Evolution
has designed a hunting family of animals able to digest meat and
little else, the strapping blueprint of its body so perfect that
the cat has hardly been added to or subtracted from in 30 million
years.

The lion came slowly and deliberately, yet very quickly it was
20 feet away. I pulled a knife from my hip. One claw against eight
claws; the advantage was not mine. I swallowed all of my fear.
There was nothing else I could do with it. The lion was already 10
feet away, and my world was nothing but its gray-green eyes. It
looked straight into me. I was being gutted. The lion began
circling me. Its body was so uniformly sculpted that I could see
where muscle gave way to bone in its face, whiskers hanging under
their own weight. Its tail waved back and forth like a fencer’s
sword.

There are so many rules about animal encounters, about barking
or bluffing, standing tall, spreading out so you look bigger. But
there was no time for these tricks. I now had only the trick of
confounding the lion’s attack pattern. I followed it with my eyes,
with all of my body, not giving it any glance behind me.

This went on for minutes, hours, days. My entire life.

Then it let go of me. The lion turned and moved away. I don’t
know why. I wasn’t the right shape. I didn’t run, giving it my
back, as it expects of prey overtaken by fear.

As quickly as the lion had approached, it was gone. I stood
there, feeling as if I was made of porcelain, as if everything-my
body and the world around me-would break the second I moved. Every
loose end, every frayed thought I ever had was gone. For that
moment I had been no more than a shadow standing in the presence of
the absolute.

Craig Childs writes from Crawford, Colorado. Reprinted
from
High Country News (July 24, 2006), an award-winning
newsmagazine that covers the West’s communities and natural
resource issues. Subscriptions: $37/yr. (24 issues) from Box 1090,
Paonia, CO 81428; www.hcn.org.

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.