She calls three nights running. A mountain lion calling for a mate. Short, choppy calls—pitiful, almost.
The first night LD jumps out of bed, grabs the shotgun from the rack. He chambers a shell as he runs down the hall—white stick legs flashing from his boxers.
I stay in bed and listen to the slam of the back door, wait for the crack and echo of the gun. No sound. Then the air is filled with LD’s breathless cussing, the slamming of the back door, and the clunking of his boots down the hall. How did he have time to put boots on?
I switch on the lamp as he comes into the room, try not to roll my eyes at the flopping tongues of his work boots- unlaced, of course. His knobby knees shine from underneath his droopy boxers, the white t-shirt stretching thin across his ever-swelling belly. Damn, did he look pregnant.
LD is breathless as he kicks off his boots, leaving them in the middle of the floor. He’ll trip over them in the morning when he gets up to pee and raise holy hell because I’ve left them in the floor. Let him, I think. The bed is warm, and I’m not getting up to move his damn boots.
“Perkins at the feed store told me that Darrell seen tracks along his north fence line. Big cat tracks. I told him Darrell’s full of shit. Ain’t been no big cats around here for nearly a hundred years. They’s done cleared out or been shot. But damn it, now they’s back. Probably ‘cause of that damn global warming.” He clears the chamber on the shotgun and puts it back in the rack over the chest of drawers.
“You don’t believe in global warming,” I yawn, burrowing a little deeper beneath the quilt. I know when LD gets in the bed he’ll raise the blankets way up high and all the warm will rush out. I’ll be left with his cold, skinny little legs scooting across the mattress to warm up against my thighs.
“Don’t sass me. It ain’t nice. You’re always sassing me.” He comes toward the bed, and sure enough, the quilt goes up in a rush and with it all the warm. I shiver as LD’s cold body slides beneath the covers.
“Don’t put your cold self up against me, LD. I’ll push you right out of this bed.” I listen to LD huff a bit as he settles into his pillow. Then I switch off the light. “So you think it was a big cat out there?”
“’Course. It was a big cat. Prowling around here after my calves. That’s just my luck: all the cows are fixing to calve, and a damn cat shows up. It’ll wipe us out.”
“You make it sound like the cat is here just to kill the calves.”
“’Course, it is. Why else would it be here?”
“I thought it was here ‘cause of global warming.”
LD huffs out a long, hard breath, “You are a wearisome woman.” Another huff. He turns his back to me. It is a surprisingly skinny back given how round his belly has become.
You’re wearisome, too, LD Johnson. So are your cows.
So are the chickens, I think the next morning as I follow LD around the chicken coop, looking at the cat tracks in the mud. The tracks are big, the size of my hand, maybe. The cat has circled the pen, never seeming to stop. The stride is long and even in the mud. Whatever that cat wants, chickens ain’t it. It had never stopped moving- hadn’t turned around- just circled the pen, then moved on to walk along the pasture fence.
The chickens are fine—strutting, pecking feed from the muddy ground with not a care crowding their tiny little chicken brains. LD is pulling on the wire sides, tugging to see how strong it is. It sags a little between the posts like it always does. Too long a stretch of fencing and not enough posts. I had told LD that when he sank the posts fifteen years ago. He’d told me to mind what I knew and hush about what I didn’t. I can tell a sagging fence as good as the next person. Well, better, since the next person was LD, and he hadn’t seen the sag. But I’d hushed.
LD pulls on the sagging fence again and looks across the chicken yard. “I’s looking online this morning, and they says the best way to keep the chickens safe is to put wire across the top of their yard.” He shakes his head. “Damn, that’s gonna cost,” he spits, “Damn cat.”
“We put the chickens up every night, LD. Unless that cat can pull a latch, how’s it going to get to the chickens? You don’t need no top across the yard,” I pause, “Another post on the long side would be good.”
He cuts his eyes to me and spits again, “Would you hush about that goddamn post? The fence ain’t come down in fifteen years without that post. It ain’t gonna come down now.”
“It might if the cat jumps on it.”
“That’s why we need to put wire across the top.”
“I thought the wire across the top was to keep the cat out of the yard.”
“It is,” LD splutters for a moment, “Stop confusing the issue.”
I'm silent for a moment. “Well, if we put up the chickens every night, I don’t think we need to put wire across the top of the yard.” I stare at the print in the mud next to my own tracks. It seems like maybe a toe is missing or is short. Or maybe it didn’t sink down in the mud as far as the others. “That wire will just cost money. Who knows how long the cat will even hang around? They move around, you know.”
“Oh, you’re the expert on cats, now?” LD shakes the fence again, “You’d better keep those chickens up at night. We can’t afford to put wire across this whole yard. And I don’t want a bunch of damn dead chickens.” He walks off toward the pasture to check on the cows. I can see the whole herd—all fifteen of them—huddling against the east fence in a patch of early morning sun. None had calved during the night, and none had been ate by the cat.
I watch the chickens a while longer. They scratch and peck and mutter to one another. I hate those chickens. I have for years. I can never get away from them, not for more than a day. The cows can roam around the pasture and tend to themselves but not the damn chickens. They are like toddlers who never grow up. They have to be fed and watered, kept safe from what will kill them and from their own stupidity. They lay eggs unless it’s too hot or too cold or they aren’t in the mood. Then they eat and mutter and take up space to no good end. Sometimes when I am truly sick of them, one ends up in a pot. But that is never as satisfying as it should be. LD fusses that I’ve killed a laying hen, so the flavor is soured by his bad mood.
I go back inside out of the cold and warm my coffee in the microwave. It is bitter now, but I drink it anyway. The coffee’s bite fits with the cold air and LD’s mood and my own need to move but no place to go. I sit down at the computer and hit the internet icon. The mouse settles into its waiting blink, and I wait with it. Connections take a while out here.
The cat on the computer screen stares back at me—a kiss-my-ass look on its face. The gray-gold eyes are smart and predator-cold. This animal knows its strength, knows it rules where it roams. I think of the cat’s silent walk around the pasture, the tracks in the mud. She didn’t take a cow last night because she didn’t wanted to. She’d had other hungers on her mind.
She’d been calling for a mate. The audio clip that finally loaded blares the call through the house in a scratchy echo of what had woke us last night. A mate, I think. She’s not looking to take out the cows or the chickens - though she would given the chance. Her real need is to feed that urge that is pushing through her body, heating her blood, making her roam further than normal. I used to know that drive. Those waves of desire that could turn off good sense and push you into corners you didn’t even know you were in until years had passed. The difference between me and the cat is that she has enough sense to tend to the desire, then send the man packing.
That night LD paces the house back to front to back again, shotgun hanging loose in his right hand. I suck my breath when I see him—he is always so careless with that damn gun. He’ll kill me or shoot off his foot one day. His boots clunk on the wood floor as he mutters to himself about the damn cat. He’s shut off the lights in the front room and the kitchen, and the snow that fell in the afternoon glares white in the moonlight. There are dark patches in the snow where the wind has pushed the powdery flakes away to mound against the barn. I stand at the kitchen door for a while listening to LD stomp and mutter, and I watch the tree line on the far side of the pasture. Like I’d see the cat in the dark.
I leave LD clomping through the house and go to bed. I lie in the dark thinking about those giant paws padding across the crusted snow and then across the soft-frozen ground with the saggy, ice-burnt grass. I think of her long body weaving between the trees, those eyes searching through the gray light of night for the answer to her hunger. I wonder if a male roams nearby. If he marks the trees with his spray and his claws and if the female sees the marks, breathes the scent and decides. Is there a decision? Or is there just need?
I stretch out my legs in the cold sheets, straightening from the ball I’ve curled into for warmth. I shiver as the chill spreads over my body, then tighten my calves and my biceps. Then I am winding my way through the trees, the gray moonlight reflecting against the snow. I can feel the bite of the night air on my face. I breathe in deep and watched my exhale puff out in a cloud that disappears as I walk through it. I am pacing through the snow, following my hunger. I come out of the trees on the ridge overlooking the farm. I look down on the small mound that is the huddled cows, the larger mound that is the barn, the squat mound that is the house. I stand there, breathing in the air, the scent rising up from that tiny valley and know there is nothing there that can feed my hunger. I turn away, slipping back into the woods where the snow is ankle deep, untouched by sun, protected from the wind.
Her calls come at 3 a.m. and seem even more pitiful than the night before. LD is in the bed, but he jumps awake, grabbing for the shotgun where it leans against the wall. I switch on the light.
“Why’s that gun against the wall?” I watch him grapple with the shotgun. “It’s supposed to go in the rack when you ain’t dragging it around.”
“I don’t drag the damn gun around,” he chambers a shell, “Ain’t no sense in putting it up when I’s just gonna get it back down. Use your brain, for God’s sake.”
I lean back against the pillow, listen to him clomp down the hall. He hasn’t been in the bed. He’s been on top the blankets, muddy boots still on. I listen to him as he slams out the back door. I’ll have to mop the floor again in a few hours. The dog tracks in less dirt than LD, and it has four feet.
The cat calls again. The sounds remind me of the calico we’d had years before—the one who’d had two litters of kittens every year because LD wouldn’t pay to have her fixed. She’d roam around the yard calling for the males. Her voice was pitiful, like the need for a mate was so great that her very being would shatter if some tom didn’t find her and take her then and there. The cat outside sound like that calico only bigger, louder. The need is no greater, though. She just has more voice to send those calls far and away through the crisp air.
Then there is silence.
LD spends the morning walking the eastern fence line again. I tend to the chickens then go in out of the cold. I watch him from the kitchen window for a while. His plaid coat is a blur of black and blue in the distance. He looks like a block on stick legs as he trudges along, stopping to look at cat prints. I go to the computer and wait for an internet connection.
“That damn cat has been all over the property,” LD rants when he comes in for lunch. He starts for the table, then stops when he sees me pointing at his muddy boots. “Damn, I’m going right back out after lunch.”
“And I just mopped this floor. I ain’t looking to mop it again today.”
“What the hell else you got to do?” He kicks the boots off in the direction of the door. Clumps of mud fall off as the boots tumble to the floor.
“I’m going to town. And even if I wasn’t, I ain’t mopping up dirt you track in ‘cause you’re too trifling to take off your boots.”
LD plops down at the table, “What do you need in town? I don’t want you running out the gas just ‘cause you want to go gallivanting.” He looks at the plate of chipped beef and gravy that I set before him. “This is it? This is all I get for lunch?”
“There’s a pie, LD. You ain’t gonna starve,” I look at his belly pushing up against the table’s edge, “Not for a while anyway.”
“I got a thyroid,” he tucks into the food as though he’s not eaten in a week.
“Yeah, and it works just fine.” I’m tired of his thyroid that works just fine. And his mama’s thyroid - which worked just fine until the day she ate herself into a diabetic death.
“Why you going to town?”
“We need some groceries, and we’re ‘bout out of toilet paper. If it snows again this weekend like the weather says, I don’t want to be stuck up here with no milk or toilet paper.”
“It ain’t gonna snow.”
“Whether it snows or not, if I don’t go to the store, you’re gonna be wiping your ass on the Sears and Roebuck by Monday.”
LD grunts his assent and settles back into his tirade about the damn cat. I should be happy that he has something new to talk about. I get tired of his cattle and his chickens. I get tired of hearing what Perkins at the feed store has to say about the Middle East and China and education and liberal assholes. I am so tired of this tiny life on this tiny mountain. The cat is something new, but I don’t want to talk about her. More, I don’t want LD talking about her, hoping to shoot her so he can say he’s done something. I want to think about her long body weaving through the trees—lean and strong, looking for a mate that will plant his seed in her body then move on. She will grow her young in her body, birth them, raise them, leaning on nothing but her own strength and smarts.
“Is there more?” LD pushes the plate toward me.
It’s on the stove, I want to say. Get up and get it yourself. But I don’t. I go to the stove and fix another serving, loading the plate with the thick gravy and the hope that the next time I have to get up it will be to fix his pie.
The road out to the highway is dotted with snow patches, but most of it is clear. The sun is bright. Another day in the 40’s with good sun and the snow will be gone, melted into the soil and the creeks that run only in the spring. Snow never lingers in the Ozarks. It will fall, sometimes just a dusting, sometimes heavy, but always it’ll be gone in a day or two. Like it landed here by mistake and can’t wait to be gone.
When I get to the highway, I sit for a minute, listening to the front end of the car rattle. I keep telling LD the car needs to go in, but he never drives the car, so what does he care if the front end falls off? I look up and down the highway—no traffic. The highway is already clear of snow and ice; even the patchy slush is gone. There is just some grit along the shoulders—salt from the road crews. It lingers after the snow disappears, getting tossed up on windshields and making a determined grime that seems to eat the paint right off the car.
I look south and think about turning the rattling, groaning car that way just to see if it will make it the thirty miles to Interstate 40. It always seems to me if I can get the car that far then some sort of curse will be broken, and I can ride away west, free. There are things I want to see out west—the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, those cliff dwellings where the Indians just up and disappeared. And the ocean. I want to sit on the beach, look out across that big water and listen to those waves. I want to watch those waves and think about where each has come from. How it’s made its way across the earth, pulled by the moon—no choice in where it’s going but going just the same.
I turn the car north and head toward town, listening to the rattle from the right front axle and fighting the shimmy that rises up every time the car hits fifty mph. There isn’t much traffic, there never is in the middle of the day. A few farm trucks loaded with feed bags are making their way back into the hills after a trip to the co-op and a burger in town but no one else. I follow the wind of the highway up and down and around hills, braking hard once when a coyote darts into the highway. What the hell you doing out in the middle of the day, I think, fighting the car’s hard pull to the right when I brake. The coyote darts back off the road, looking back over its shoulder at me as though it wants to ask me the same thing.
Don’t know. Don’t rightly know. We don’t really need toilet paper or milk. But I couldn’t have stayed another minute in that house with LD stomping around the pasture, tracking mud in and out, and bitching about the cat. There are days I think I might take the skillet to the side of his head just to make him hush. I know it won’t knock any sense into him. But it might make him quiet for a while. Those are the days I drive into town because we need toilet paper. Or milk. Or bread. Anything will do. I drive down the road to the highway, think about driving south to the interstate, then drive north into town.
There’s only been once I’ve forgotten to bring home what I’d gone after. LD didn’t know the difference. I’m not even sure if he knows where the toilet paper is kept.
There isn’t much wind, so I sit on a bench in the town park, watching the water wind its way through the rocks in the creek bed. That creek goes to the Illinois which feeds the Arkansas which dumps into the Mississippi somewhere south and east of here. And the Mississippi dumps into the Gulf. I watch the water passing me and wonder how long it will be before it is lost in the Gulf, turning into salt water that circles the globe and will someday fall again as rain. That is the thing about water. It is never still—not even the water in lakes and ponds. It is always moving- pushed around by fish and toads and turtles- evaporating into the humidity that bathes the Ozarks in the summer. It is always in motion.
Like the cat.
And I sit. There is a highway stretching out to the horizon where I can disappear, but I sit watching the water run and thinking about the cat until the cold settles into me and I have to get back into the car.
I'm putting up the chickens in the purpling light that evening when the cat calls. I freeze, standing in the mud with three or four of the dumbest birds still pecking around my feet. There is a second call—maybe from the ridge above the pasture? The sound seems all around me, and then it is sliding down my spine in a shiver. It goes through my arms to my fingertips, through my gut, and down my legs. Her hunger gnaws at me as though it is my own hunger. Then it is my hunger, and I remember that hunger. The need that once pressed through my body at a touch, a kiss, a breath on my neck. I know again what it is like to seek a mate, to need a mate and to need nothing else. I had been that hunger once. Now with the cat’s call, I am that hunger again.
My eyes close, my head tips back to trap the call that chills my spine, to hold in that need that has been lost for so long. The wind picks up in the dusk and plays across my face, chilling my skin, making the shivering hunger that grips my body stronger. I feel that I can be across the pasture in a step or two, be in the woods. I can walk next to my sister, learn again of hunger and need. Learn again to move with desire, because of desire. Our bodies will weave through the trees, climb the bluffs as though they are steps. We will be chilled in the night air but warmed by our moving, by our hunt, by our hunger. We will bed down at sunrise in some deadfall of limbs or hollow along the river. Our bodies will warm the space, fill it with our musk. We will sleep there in our own company.
The slamming of the back door jerks my head up; the spine shiver escapes in a gasp. LD is stumbling down the back steps, his shotgun under his arm. His coat is half on; one boot is only half laced.
“Where’s that damn cat?” His head jerks back and forth as though there are a half dozen cats in the yard just waiting to pounce.
“Probably up on the ridge.” I am cold now. The chills that run through me are empty and aching. The hunger still gnaws, but it is down deep like a half-starved animal ready to eat itself just to live a little while longer.
“By God, I’m going up there,” LD starts toward his truck, hitching at his pants as he walks.
“No, you’re not.” I don’t know the voice that speaks those words. Maybe it is the hunger that speaks or the last bit of the cat’s call that had surged through me like a possession.
LD turns back. He spits, “What did you say?”
“I said you’re not going up to the ridge.” I come out of the chicken pen, leaving the last two stupid birds walking around each other in circles. If they can’t get themselves to bed, then they can just freeze their feathered asses off. “You’re not going to shoot that cat, either.”
“Oh, I’m not?” LD is trying to sound sarcastic. He really just sounds spoiled.
“No, you’re not.” You couldn’t shoot that cat if you tried. You can’t hit the broad side of a barn, and she’s smarter than you. “That cat ain’t after your cows. She ain’t after your chickens.” I stop in front of him. “She’s after a mate. That’s what her calling is all about. She’s trying to find a mate.”
“Bullshit. That cat is after my cattle.” LD spits again.
“If that cat was after your cattle, your cattle would have done been took.” I look over at the small herd in the pasture. “You ain’t done a damn thing since that cat showed up except run around waving your shotgun and cussing. And counting your cattle each day.” And good thing there’s only fifteen or you wouldn’t be able to do that. “You ain’t put no more dogs out there. You ain’t brought the cattle up to the barn. You just left ‘em out there.”
I go cold. I go really cold—all the way through. You son of a bitch. “You’ve been baiting that cat. You’ve left those cows out there hoping that cat’d come up so you could shoot it. So you could be the big man with a gun that shot a big cat.”
“I ain’t done no such thing,” LD is red in the face, “You’re dumber ‘n I thought you was if you think I’d be letting a cat take my cows.” He wipes at his nose. “You don’t know nothing ‘bout cows, so you don’t have nothing to say on this,” he turns away, “I’m going up on the ridge. I’m going to find that cat, and I’m going to kill it. We don’t need no cat roaming around these farms. People’ll thank me.”
“If you kill that cat, LD, so help me God, I’ll put a bullet in every one of those cows’ brains.” I pause. “And I’ll wring the neck of every one of those damn chickens.”
That half-starved animal isn’t hiding down inside me anyone. It is out. It is in my face, my hands, my back, my shoulders, my eyes. My voice. It is me. I am the hunger and the need. And when LD turns back to me, he sees it.
“You’ve done lost your mind.”
“No. It’s right here with me.” I start toward the house, my hands in my jacket pocket. Each step I can feel the hunger shifting about in me, looking for a place to settle in and be. I want to get inside, sit down, and be with this creature. I want to know it. I want it to stay.
“The chickens is still out,” LD calls at my back. “There’s two you gotta put up.”
“You want ‘em put up, then you put ‘em up.” I pause at the door, looking at LD and then at the chickens. “My chicken tending days is over.” I let the door slam behind me. I like the whomp the door makes as it strikes the frame.
Inside, I glance at the calendar as I slide from my coat. It is early January. Another couple of months, and the early spring flowers will be out. The backyard will become a carpet of tiny blue flowers and tiny white flowers. The weather will start warming, birds will start coming back, the creeks will be running hard and fast with winter rains. Sometime in late March, if the cat breeds, she will have her cubs. Sometime about then, I can see my car turning south toward the Interstate.
I feel the hunger settle into my gut. I put my hand over my belly—the protecting mother’s hand over the womb. I will feed this new life. It will grow.