Last night a cat crossed my path.
I had taken the wrong turn and was lost somewhere in the middle of Berkshire County, driving through an unfamiliar river valley:
The mountains are black against a misty moon filled sky. The car’s gas gauge veers toward empty.
Directional instincts most always mislead me so I know that I am more likely to be heading in the wrong direction as the right. Above the steep valley walls, the moon divulges little hint of east or west. Somehow I trust that the way home will be revealed. And if not, I tell myself, I can always stop and wake some sleeping family and ask them where I am. I can even sleep in my car, covering myself with the dog’s blanket from the backseat.
The road gets smaller and more cobbley. I follow a sharp right curve across a narrow stone bridge then up a hill and into a winding town. Up ahead a white cat hurries across the road. I recognize it as a cat by her manner of motion: body and head ride still upon a rapid whir of legs; and her color: there are no white wild animals in this part of New England at this time of the year. From a distance, the cat looks like a tiny windup toy. As I approach, I expect her to speed to a trot or a leaping gallop, but she does not.
Closer up this cat is lithe, small and scruffy. She moves with deliberation, heading towards a specific place with a particular goal in mind. From her body type and attitude, I guess that she is connected to a human family that allows her to wander out into this moon filled night. Unlike myself, she is most certainly not lost.
If a black cat is bad luck then what is a white cat? What luck does a scruffy white cat hold for the passing traveler? Is she a talisman for my travels? Does scruffiness detract from luck? As I head up the mountain and out of town, my mind wanders from thoughts of this particular cat and her nighttime adventures to human beliefs regarding black and white, bad and good magic, and the prejudice that our own culture holds against the dark.
Darkness of depth, unknowable things, mystery, safe hiding places, a space for dreams. Cracks in a wall, a tunnel beneath the ground. Things you cannot see. Another way of seeing things, or feeling them: an alternative spinning of a story. What is it like to have whiskers, hear ultrasound, have magnetic sight, what if you were able to hear a hurricane from a hundred miles away? Or feel a mouse sneeze from behind a door? Darkness, a path from one world into another. The resetting of an inner clock.
What is path crossing anyway? Whose path is it? Does the path crossing occur before or after one has gone by? Did I cross the cat’s path or did she cross mine? It is a path crossing, boundary blurring time of the year. The sun is at a slant, the shadows are long and a day without clouds flashes with sudden brevity. Meanderings, wanderings, byways, lost ways. Low clouds drift by in the dying day, columns of mist float down the river like ghostly giants. Losing the trail. Losing one’s way. Rustling grass, skittering leaves. A scratching in the wall. A knocking on the side of the house. Feeling your way in the dark. Hiding things. Stashing things. Forgetting where you put the things you’ve piled against winter’s cold.
Do we leave a trail of something behind us, a piece of ourselves behind as we zip or crawl, swim, run, wander, drift or fly through this world? The tail of a meteor, the track of a bear. Thunder reports the collisions of clouds. An expanding ripple, the beaver’s dive. Water laps against the shore. Evidence of things no longer present; palpable memories that deepen and elucidate the mystery of time and space.
The cat who crossed my path dropped one white hair in the alleyway as she headed home. A deer mouse wove that hair into her winter nest hidden beneath a leaf filled drain by the crumbling brick wall of a house on East Main Street in a town whose name I do not know.
What does the moon leave behind as she passes through the night sky? A haze of excited photons or something more?
I did eventually find my way home, my car on empty. I encountered no other creatures, human or non. Fell into bed and read about moss until I slept. Woke up at 1 on a pile of pillows and turned off the light. Mosses do not have roots. They depend upon a micro layer of water to coat their leaves. Without this minuscule aquatic blanket the moss becomes dormant. It sleeps. Of what do mosses dream? They dream of water, of course, says Robin Wall Kimmerer, the author of the book Gathering Moss.
Although the barred owls have stopped their hooting, the coy-wolves have been howling through the night so the dark is full of energy and sound, some of it alarming, all of it strange and supercharged with wild power. My cat rises up on the bed when she hears them. Tail bushed, hair up, she stares at the window, and her growl comes out as a low hum. Zora my dog presses close and silent against my body. There is a skittering in the wall of my bedroom. It is a productive rustling, coming from someone bigger than a mouse. I welcome the company as I stir in my bed.
The crickets have fallen silent now and the tree frogs too. It is finally too cold for them. Last week’s torrential rains washed out the uppermost beaver dam. Yet again, as is always the case in beaver territory, the world of land and water has changed dramatically. The upper pond has drained, upstream the brook is now free flowing. Shores of sand and mud are exposed. Islands emerge that have previously been under water, drowning trees are given a chance to live. Observing this rapidly evolving topography is like watching a time lapse movie in miniature of epochal geographic change. The beaver lodge is revealed to its base and will have to be abandoned, not a welcome prospect for a beaver living at the edge of winter.
Yesterday I found a nice fresh series of bear tracks on the sand by the stream. The great blue heron has forsaken my field for this newly revealed riparian environment. I go on my daily run along the stream. A sudden flash of blue startles me as this giant bird flies up with a loud flapping. Navigating the trees with grace, she flies downstream. Low along the water, she sets down her long legs, folds her wings and settles to hunt a little further on. At dusk the wood ducks call and haloo in their pipey voices. The sunsets trend towards red, orange and crimson. The dark falls faster and more absolutely with each day. The woods are mostly bare now, save the oaks and beeches which continue their fade from green to gold. The moss by the path absorbs the cold mist that now cloaks our valley. It is at its most green.
The rushing sound of the river travels from across the road and penetrates the silence of the house.