a cat tale

When Chief Sutherland backed up along the lengthy unpaved driveway of his ranch, he did not see the little cat. Like the countless others he had caught out of the corner of his eye from time to time, it was a stray: in this case, a lean black female. His wife had a habit of leaving cans of tuna fish out on the front porch for these "orphans," as she called them. Though he didn't mind the critters--they kept the mice problem to a minimum--he told her it wasn't a good idea to encourage tenancy. In spite of his advice, she had been feeding this one now for a week.

Still, he felt sorry--and guilty--when he stopped and got out and discovered exactly what he had run over. He hadn't really felt the cat's death; he had heard it. As usual, he had left his windows open the night before to keep the stuffy summer air out of his truck--the dust of potato fields mixed with hot leather for 12 hours could asphyxiate a giant. The silence at that dawn hour relented only to the purr of his engine and the sound of four new tires slowly rotating over gravel--until he heard the sound one encounters when peeling the lid from a can of luncheon meat. It was not the noise he would have expected a living thing to make as its spine and rear legs cracked under the three-ton pressure of a city-issued SUV.

But there it was--half flat, half solid, like the unfinished work of a taxidermist. Its pink tongue stuck out between its sharp saber teeth. Its tail, behind the squashed midsection, pointed straight up like a straw from a malt shake. The Chief felt his heart drop below his gut, and he sighed. "Well," he said. "You've made me right."

He wished, on his way to the station, that he hadn't pulled forward after he'd heard the initial noise, and therefore run over the poor thing twice. It now sat, wrapped in today's newspaper, on the seat beside him. He tried not to look at it, tried not to smell it, as he squinted out the windshield at the fog. He only hoped a coyote didn't step unwarily through the low cloud onto the highway so he could add its life to his list of victims.

He felt embarrassed that he had scooped up the remains of the cat and placed it into the SUV without going back into the house to tell Mary Pat. She was asleep, anyway, he reminded himself, and waking up to that would be an awful start to her day. She had weathered a rough few months getting over her mother's death, and he told himself he was doing the right thing by keeping it a secret, at least for now. On their four acres a thousand cats had come and gone. This one had gone, and it didn't really matter how, though he would have preferred that a coyote had taken it. That's how they usually went.

He heard a beep from the radio on the dashboard and he heard Officer Harold, his only deputy. "Are you there, Chief?"

He picked up the mouthpiece and clicked the button. "Yeah," he answered.

Officer Harold spoke with his usual goofy cadence, and it made the Chief even more sad to hear his friend sound concerned: "Just checking, Sir. You're a little late."

"I'm on my way. There's just a lot of fog this morning."

"There's always a lot of fog," Officer Harold said. "See you when you get here."

"Roger," the Chief said. He put down the mouthpiece and rested his hand on the seat beside him, but he pulled it away quickly and put both hands on the wheel when he remembered the cat. He had tried to curl it up onto a bundle, but the newspaper, bloody and wet from having sat on the dewy lawn, had started to unfold, and a lone black paw stuck up out of the pile.

The dawn quickly grew from its childhood into full-blooded adolescent morning, but the fog had lifted only a couple feet. Yellow light streamed in through the open window, dropped away, then returned with an earnest brightness. He reached into his front pocket and pulled out his sunglasses. He put them on, but something was wrong. The view was orange, not yellow, and he realized he had put a bloody thumbprint on the center of the left lens. He reached up and yanked the glasses off and let them drop onto the floor in front of the passenger seat.

The fog rose above the truck, and he felt as if he were driving through a long tunnel. He could see the corrugated fields all around him, with young potato plants beginning to sprout. A huge yellow farm contraption--not a tractor, but some other machine he had never before seen--glinted in the projected, sideways sunlight. At first he thought it was parked, but then he realized the machine was moving slowly by itself, rolling up and down and wobbling as it meandered over the black dirt of an unplanted field. He pulled over and stopped the truck and put on his lights. They alternated blue and red and made the low cloud overhead pulsate like a vein on the side of a lawbreaker's forehead.

He left his door open and walked around the front of the truck. He watched the tractor or whatever it was make one more half turn and then, like a wounded horse, fall over on its side. It was a silent fall, buffered by the soft soil, but the sound of the buried wheels struggling to turn made up for the lack of a crash. He walked quickly down into the gulley and stepped up into the field and advanced on the machine as if it were a crime scene.

He looked around. For miles, it seemed, he could see the dark earth rolling out toward the yellow horizon, squashed flat like a quesadilla by the wide white cloud. But he was not alone. A coyote, grey and cinnamon with tufts of white on its thin sides, jogged toward him, probably accidentally, and he jumped back as it ran up over the road and disappeared.

He climbed up into the cabin of the yellow manmade beast and looked for keys--there were none that he could find, but he did see a red button that he assumed was the injection--or the on/off switch--and he pushed, then pulled. He realized that he should probably have shifted the machine out of gear before turning it off, but the engine made the sound of a whinnying mare and then percolated and died.

He was bent in half, his legs dangling out the door, his butt in the air and his head filling with blood as he hung upside down. As he began to back out, his cap fell and bounced away to the opposite end of the cabin. He reached out and tried to grasp it, but he could barely touch it with his fingertips.

He felt something similar to a bee sting on his ankle, and then another nick a little higher up his leg, and then suddenly several painful pinpricks climbed up his thigh, along his hip and quickly over his back.

"Ouch!" he shouted. He gave up on the hat as the sensation neared his neck. He pushed himself up and out into the summer air.

He fell to the dirt ground next to the exposed rusty guts of the vehicle and reached back just as the thing seized the collar of his freshly ironed shirt. He felt fur in his hands and wrapped his fingers around what he could. He pulled and yanked. It was like extracting packing tape from a cardboard box. He winced as the claws relented, and he threw the animal to the ground. It turned around and hissed.

He sat up quickly and backed away. The black cat sat down on her haunches and began to lick her paw, as if he had merely injured her dignity. He knew he hadn't hurt her by tossing her onto the pillowy berm of the unplanted field. She seemed fine, in fact, as if he had never run over her in the first place. He backed up some more and stood. He reached up to scratch his head, and it felt awkward without his cap.

The cat glanced up at him sorely and he shrugged. She stood up, put one paw out on the unstable soil, then another, found her footing and stretched. Dirt dropped from her belly like falling snow. Her tail uncurled and rose into the air, and he remembered it sticking up out of his driveway like a garden hoe not ten minutes earlier.

She scampered off then and ran quickly along a deep furrow in the direction of his house, seeming to know which way to go despite the fog and the repetitiveness of the view in every direction. He watched after her until he could no longer make her out against the black earth.

He turned and climbed out of the gulley and walked to the truck. He hoisted himself up into the cabin and closed the door and looked over at the empty, scattered newspaper beside him. He shook his head. Of course he had heard the expression that cats have nine lives, but he had never in his life witnessed such an uncanny reincarnation. He couldn't believe it. He would have a story to tell when he got to work.

As if cracked with a hammer, the fog broke into pieces, and the sky, with scattered clouds here and there, turned a turquoise blue. It reminded him of the Indian bracelet he had bought Mary Pat from one of the gift stands on the other end of the county. He turned onto the main east/west street that divided Crooked Corners and wondered if his wife had climbed out of bed yet. He wondered if she would laugh at his story--or even believe it. He made a mental note that he would have to file a report about the tractor or whatever it was called. Officer Harold could make the rounds and see if any of the local farmers were missing a rather large and unwieldy implement of some sort and tell them to lock the thing up at night.

It was not a surprise to him, really. There were kids in town who loved to go out on summer nights and make trouble--a lot of them from the far-off country of Panoland who seemed to have nothing else to do but make his life miserable. One of them had probably started it and laughed as it drove off on its own. The darned thing might have been going around in circles all night long.

He could see the station about a half a block away when the paw touched his leg. He flinched and let go of the wheel for a second, and the SUV swerved and crossed into the wrong lane. The cat hopped on his lap, and her claws dug into his legs. "Ouch!" he said again. "Ouch! Get off!"

He grabbed the steering wheel and tried to straighten out the truck as he grasped at the cat with his free hand and pulled it off.

The truck didn't cooperate, and he saw the back of the parked patrol car too late. He slammed on the brakes after he had already crashed, and the sirens of both vehicles burped and then turned on.

"Ouch, damn it!" he shouted, and he yanked the cat from his lap and tossed her out the window. He saw her land on her feet and scamper off, and he sat back. He threw his palm to his forehead and meant to push back his cap, but it wasn't there.

Officer Harold came running out of the front door of the station with his mouth open, his eyes huge behind his glasses and his gun withdrawn.

When he saw that it was the truck, he replaced his weapon and slowed down to his usual ambulatory gait. He stepped up to the window as Chief Sutherland tried to catch his breath.

"Sir! What happened?"

"It's a long story," he said. He tried to stop panting. He almost took his foot off the brake, but then remembered to put the truck into park. He turned off the engine and sat back. His air bag hadn't deployed, and he wasn't even wearing a seat belt. Maybe he had nine lives. He reached out and tried to switch off the siren, but it wouldn't stop wailing, and with the patrol car's siren also going strong, it was like listening to two feral cats singing a duet.

Officer Harold seemed flabbergasted, but the Chief knew it to be his deputy's normal disposition. He got out and stood, checked himself over and found no bruises. In fact, the impact had been a light one despite the folded-up rear end of the patrol car. The truck seemed to have no damage at all.

"I guess we'll have to file a report on this, too," he said.

"What?" Officer Harold shouted.

He sighed. "Would you mind trying to turn off those sirens?" he asked. "I need to make a phone call." He handed Officer Harold his keys.

He went inside and closed the door, but he could still hear the wailing through the grey brick walls of the station, even as he passed the empty jail cell and went back into his office. He reached up to take off his hat and swore at himself, then sat down and looked at the phone.

He didn't know if he would be able to explain it to her. But he wanted to talk to Mary Pat. He picked up the phone, but it rang before he could dial. "Crooked Corners Police Department," he answered.

"Ed," he heard. It was Mary Pat. She seemed startled and relieved to hear his voice. "I just tried to call you a few minutes ago."

"Why?" he said. "What's up?"

"You remember that cat that was wandering around the front yard the last few days?" she asked.

He hesitated. "Yes," he said slowly, the "s" hanging onto his tongue. "I think so."

"I have bad news. A coyote got her." His wife sniffed. He could tell she had been crying. He hoped she wouldn't start again. "I saw it a few minutes ago," she explained. "A scrawny grey coyote shuffling along the back fence with the poor cat hanging from its mouth. I was going out to get the newspaper, and it wasn't there, so I looked for it on the side of the house."

Chief Sutherland sighed. He drummed his fingers on the desk. He didn't want to blame her, and he would explain that to her later as he hugged her and held her close, but for now he said, "Mary Pat, I wish you wouldn't feed those cats."