The cat rested. He lay as he’d been before, not wanting to deal with the things that had been circling around in his head. He knew he was risking a small bit by returning to the bear ravaged den, and he hated the scent the grousing, rolling predator had left behind, but it was his cleft and his part of the river bend. He had nothing else, except for the beaver. The beaver was not present, however, so the cat waited. He was not hungry, although he knew he needed food. His ability to quickly identify, pursue and catch small prey was so great, and the prey so plentiful during the warmer months that he only suffered from hunger pangs during the darkest times of winter. The last winter had been his second, the first having been spent either inside the den or very close to it. He licked his paws, then used them to clean the sides of his head. He could reach several of the scratches he’d received when he’d risked everything by jumping from one tree to the other so high in the air, so he licked those too. The scene played back in his mind, which was disconcerting. Vivid recall of physical activities was uncommon to him, yet the scene of the bear climbing the trunk of the tree, attempting to reach, kill and then eat his body graphically appeared before him as if overlaid on his view of the river just beyond.
Would a leap out and down into the river have ended with better results? The water would not have scratched him, but would the water have been enough of a cushion for his body when he struck the surface for him to survive? He didn’t know. He knew he could swim, although he had only performed that odious task a few times in his life. He licked another scratch, irritated that he had so many small areas of his body that had been so affected. The water might have been a better choice, he decided. The bear could have pursued him by crossing the river, but the raging speed and depth of the water would have sent the animal, even though large and strong, far down the valley before it got across. It would have been much easier and less of a risk for the cat, to leap back and forth across the river while the bear worked and struggled to swim through the same series, and then recover the lost ground along the banks.
One misjudgment in jumping from tree to tree that high up in the air did not consider in any of his reflection at all. He licked his paws again. The tree was a great retreat from danger. His decision was made. In the future, he would leap into the river from it if so threatened.
The beaver reappeared as if sensing that the hard thought going on in the cat’s mind was at an end.
He stared intently at the wet creature. The beaver had come out of the water cleanly, totally soaked but seemingly oblivious to that fact. The animal settled in his usual position, his big flat tail floating on the surface of the passing water, bent to the downriver side by the current. It was as if the beaver was keeping his tail in the water to make certain the life-giving and saving water was there. The beaver made no effort to lick himself at all. It stared back at the cat with big wide eyes, its outer eyelids wide open, its nostrils flaring open and closed every few seconds. Without warning the beaver’s inner transparent lids slid open and the animal’s dark shiny eyes were revealed. They were bright luminous eyes.
He lazily closed and re-opened its own feline eyes. The move was a natural one of acceptance between cats. The cat then looked away. The second measure of respect was given. To stare into another cat or predator’s eyes was to invite attack. Looking away was not a prey sign, it was benign, but still a measure of acceptance and identification.
The beaver didn’t blink its own eyes, instead, he grasped at some small twigs in front of it, and then slowly feeding them into its mouth. The beaver’s ability to manipulate the sticks in order to get them into just the right position to eat impressed the cat. Paws were so much more valuable for running, and claws for climbing that no comparison could be made with the small digits manipulating wooden snacks. The cat licked its paws, while nonchalantly looking at the beaver again. The thoughts it had about beaver paws, and their use, was his third mental occurrence in short order. He’d never thought about paws or other body parts of any animal before, including his own.
He flicked his bad ear. What had happened to it remained a mystery, but it was bothersome, not because of the pain, which was lessening quickly, but because there was no reason for it. The storm had come and gone. Somewhere in the middle of the storm, that he could barely remember, something had happened that caused a serious but not a terminal injury to his head and paws. The tingling had finally faded from his paws and there was no blood he could sense from the ear wound, but the ear itself was not the same. It was tattered a bit, split not totally controllable like the other, and still painful.
He also noted the very slight movement required for the Beaver to slip back into the river. The animal swam away, the entire bulk of its thick stubby body under the water, only the very top of its head visible as it cut a slight depressive “V” through the roiling moving liquid. It did not look back. The cat watched its head disappear, before going back to licking his paws.
The new threat did not come as a sound in the distance. It came when the cat caught a very slight movement further down the river by the water’s edge. There was no identifying the threat, but it registered throughout the cat’s body that it was a threat indeed.
He was back in the tree in an instant, its travel to the same spot it had occupied when the bear had come for it. The cat lay on the same branch and looked down, wondering if the new threat would have as good a discerning vision as the bear had somehow had.
The threat was a hominid, one of the rare tall creatures that occasionally roamed through the high grass, fully advantaged by height. The hominids could see over the tall grass as they moved, which was nearly as important a talent as the cat’s gift of speed.
The cat had only been truly afraid of the bear when it had gotten close to reaching it when climbing up the trunk of the tree, but the hominid generated a deep foreboding fear even when not fully visible and still far in the distance. The cat had only observed the tall stick-like creatures at a distance, but for some reason, he had a basal fear that ran right up and down his spine. The fear made him lay flat, instead of having his head erect to attempt to view the approaching creature, moving directly toward the cleft down below and the base of the tree’s trunk.
The twittering noises of the forest stopped, only the sound of the river’s rushing waters rising up to make any sound at all. There was no wind. The cat waited. He was patient while waiting in the brush for prey, to the point of being infernal. Other than moving fast, the cat’s primary talent was unmoving, unblinking and long waiting patience.
He waited through so many breaths that the branch in front of his nose had become moist. Finally, mostly due to the injuries he received from the bear and the pulsing small pain transmitted from his damaged ear, he could stay completely still no longer. He turned his head to the right, craned his neck slightly, to give him a clear view down past the curve of the branch, and scanned the forest below. The bipedal creature was there. It was impossible to miss him. He squatted by the side of the river not six cat-lengths from the opening to the cleft. He squatted with his back to the river as if fixated on what might be hidden in the cleft. Even in the strange sitting position, the hominid appeared to be small for his size. The cat decided that the creature was not very old, like the cat himself.
The creature occupied the exact same portion of the riverbank as the beaver had so recently laid upon.
The damaged ear, all on its own, twitched several times. The cat could not help but move his head slightly in irritation. The creature by the river didn’t miss the movement high above. Its head tilted sharply up. The cat dodged its own head back out of sight.
He reacted by not by moving again, instead of laying its head flat in desperate ephemeral thought. How was it that first the bear and then the hominid could spot the cat when its natural coloration and almost total stillness should have made it undetectable? The cat had no answer. He listened. There was no foreign movement, although the twittering forest creatures still remained silent. The creature was not climbing the tree, as the bear had before it. The cat started breathing again and waited. His position in the tree was not one that could be maintained for long periods. He was going to have to move at some point, even if that movement was only to peer out once again and survey up and down the valley to measure risk potential in leaving the heights of the tree to return to the cleft.
The hominid creature remained where it was, except this time the dark eyes of the thing stared upward into the cat’s eyes.
The cat realized that there was no point in pulling his head back in. He stared into the other animal’s eyes before looking briefly away to see what else might have come along to cause worry.
There was nothing. A slight wind had begun to move the leaves around a bit, but that was it. The cat looked back at the creature and took stock. The thing had no claws. That was instantly apparent. The creature had small flat teeth, unlike the giant potentially killing choppers of the beaver. The creature moved vertically on its two thin rear legs but had not been able to move fast the times the cat had witnessed similar creatures in movement.
If the cat could have sighed, it would have. The creature was another of the unexplained and unexplainable anomalies of life in the forest. The cat rose itself up on the rounded body of the branch and stretched. He yawned at the same time. There was nothing to be done for it. There was no need to take a painful and risky leap to the other tree and certainly no cause to dive into the river’s uncomfortable and potentially deadly water. The creature did not give any appearance of being a threat. The cat began to descend to the ground. He did not descend the way he’d come up, however. The creature seated below might appear overly large and not dangerous, but it was still something to be considered a threat.
He began to circle the trunk of the tree, digging claws into the thin but tough bark and proceeding slightly downward each time it went around the trunk. The cat had watched squirrels closely, to try to figure out how they descended a tree with their heads down and staring out, while their tails waved behind and above them. The cat’s claws were pulled sideways by the unnatural weight of his body moving down at the slight angle, but he could see the floor of the valley the entire time of the climb, and the creature on the river bank half the time.
The creature never moved anything but its eyes, which remained fixed on the cat’s descent, and then remained so when the cat entered the cleft from above, quickly moving to the upside down “V” opening and settling into a prone position. The cat lay and looked back.
The major reason the cat had made the decision to enter the cleft and not surrender his territory any more than he already had was because the creature was about the same size as he was himself. The bear had been about three times the cat’s size. There was little return on engaging in combat with another predator so much larger in size. The result, without total surprise, a swiping attempt at a death blow and a quick departure from such a contact, was nearly preordained. In the wilds of the forest, size mattered almost entirely.
The cat lay, its paws extended forward, its own eyes focused on the creature, but not looking directly into its eyes. The adult creature was not an adult at all, he decided. The adult was a boy creature. A child. The child carried one of the long-pointed sticks that cat had witnessed seeing in the past. The creatures threw the sticks by gripping them in their raccoon hands and using their long arms, but they seldom hit anything. The cat decided that he wasn’t afraid of the boy or his stick. More than that, the cat also decided that he would not allow the child to force him from his home territory. The cat had no other territory. Since assuming possession of a large swath of the forest encompassing the river bend, the cleft and the great high trees that populated the forest area, the cat had not experienced any territorial contest with other cats. As far as the cat knew, there were no other cats in the area. Other predators passed by his area but, like the bear, never stayed for long before moving on.
“I see you are a cat of some sort,” the boy said, suddenly, his clear small voice cutting right through the slight banter of leaves driven by the wind, and the constant rushing gurgle of the nearby river.
The cat lay head up, paws forward, paralyzed. The boy’s noises were stunning, not by their nature but by their directness and low-level intensity.
“This must be your place by the river,” the boy went on.
The cat stared but did not move. Beavers made no noises, didn’t stare pointedly, and ate the kind of sticks the creature carried.
“You’re thin, lithe, and you don’t look like you’ve eaten much lately,” the boy said, his hands moving very slowly to a pouch tied to his rough belt. His fingers worked at untying the leather cords holding the pouch together, but his eyes never left the cat’s eyes.
“I’m going to leave a bit of dried meat here,” the boy said, molding a round, near fist-sized, ball of meat with both hands, and then carefully setting it next to him, glancing back to make sure the location wasn’t too close to the water.
The cat began to lick first one paw and then another, studiously looking away from what the boy was doing, only glancing back every once and a while to make sure he was still there and doing whatever he was doing.
“So, you don’t mind,” the boy said, retying his pouch back together.
“At least, I don’t think you mind. If you minded, you’d have left unless you think I’m trying to steal your territory. We can’t have that. No, I’m just visiting. My tribe moved on. I can follow and stay at a distance from them, or I can remain here and stay at a distance from you. It might as well be you.”
He stopped licking himself and went back to staring. He knew he did not understand any of the noises the boy was making but also was shocked once again by the thought that he knew the boy was trying to communicate something.
The cat’s ear twitched again, all on its own. He tried to look up at the disobedient thing, but it was set too far back on his head to see.
The boy got up slowly, taking his stick and hefting it a few times as if to try it out.
“Better get something for dinner, unless you’re providing, which I somehow doubt,” he said before slowly walking away.
He looked back several times, as he made his way upriver, but the cat paid him no more attention. The cat was hungry, and the scent of the meat over-ruled his new-found thought process as well as his intense curiosity about the creature.
The boy was gone for some time before the cat moved. Very gingerly he eased out of the cleft and approached the ball of meat. He smelled the scent of the boy all over the area where the creature had been seated. The scent of the boy was combined with the scent of the beaver. For some reason, it was a good mix although the feeling was only a feeling and not one of the new kinds of thoughts.
The cat was turning back from the water’s edge to inspect the meat when his own image flicked across the water’s surface. The cat froze in place and then turned back to stare at the water again. The surface cleared and was flat for a few seconds. The cat stared down at his own image. An image that had one ear split down the center and white as winter snow. The cat stared longer, in disbelief. The bear, and the creature, they’d seen the ear. The cat was no longer invisible in the forest, as he’d always been before.
He turned to the ball of meat, so disconcerted by the image that he wolfed it down without breaking it apart to inspect and sniff it further. Everything was changing in his small, short life. The cat returned to the cleft to lay down and sleep.
His former den was all he could think about as his eyes closed and his breathing slowed. There were no creatures, bears, balls of meat and especially no cats with split white ears.