Metropolitan Homesick Blues

Southampton Stories & Other Stuff

THE FERAL

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The Feral was awarded Honourable Mention in the 2008 Dorothy Shoemaker Literary Awards Contest and published in The Changing Image by the Kitchener Public Library

The Feral

He sat on the edge of the porch stoop – waiting. It was almost four o’clock. That’s normally when she would cautiously raise her head above the notch in the trunk of the willow and leisurely scan the perimeter.

The old tree’s canopy covered the entire front yard of the boy’s new home. On hot summer afternoons the willow’s welcome shade extended from the edge of the driveway to the porch at the front of the house. Taller than the farmhouse, the great sweep of its drooping branches provided safe haven for birds. The tall grasses around its trunk sheltered small animals. But, they all stayed well away from the deep hole in the notch of the trunk. That’s where she slept for most of the day.

Disturbing her resting place meant trouble for any intruder. The boy experienced this the first week he arrived. In the morning, while waiting for the school bus, he looked back at the willow and plotted the best way to climb it. That notch was just a few feet above the grass. It would be a simple to get a leg up to the main cross-branches and an easy path to the top. Later, after school, instead of homework, he began his conquest of the willow. 

Just as he placed his foot on the notch, a low guttural growl came keening out of the hollow darkness. He tried to peer inside but the high-pitched wail coming from deep within had the voice of imminent danger. Retreating a few steps, he picked up a fallen branch and poked in the direction of the unholy noise. A serpentine hissing and slashing of leaves by invisible claws sent him running to the safety of the porch. 

Something in that sound resonated deep in his memory. Staccato flashes unreeled a loop of incessant screeching and squealing synced to unfocussed pictures of a car on a rain-drenched mountain highway. He put his hands to his face trying to block the flashing light behind his eyes. He did not want a replay of that vision strobing in his mind. It was too painful. He pushed it deeper into his subconscious.  

When he felt calm return he looked back at the willow. That’s when he saw her. They looked into each other’s eyes as if searching for some touch point that would connect them. But it was a long, languid stare full of menace and unspoken warning. 

A slight disturbance in the grass caught her attention. Without a second look she jumped down. She was hungry. It was time to hunt.

The boy watched her slip quietly into the high weeds. “It was just a cat. Thinks she owns the willow,” he told himself. Behind him the screen door squeaked open.

“I see you’ve met the feral,” said his grandfather with a chuckle.

“The what?”

“The cat that lives in the willow. You best leave her be. She can be a mean one if you get too close.”

“Yeah. I saw that,” the boy replied, turning to acknowledge his grandfather’s presence. 

“Feral cats are loners. This one’s no different. She won’t let you near her.”

The grandfather looked directly at his grandson and reached out to put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. With a shrug that spoke volumes the boy shifted his weight in a way that made the old man hesitate and pull back.

“No, you just can’t get close to her,” he said looking directly at his grandson. It was a summation of the problem between them. 

For weeks now, he and his wife had tried to unravel the solitude the boy had spun around himself. They felt his sadness. They shared his grief. They lost their only child in that accident. With the death of their daughter and son-in-law there was no one else to take the boy. At a time in their life when the stamina and concentration required to raise a child had long left them, they were faced with doing it all over again.

 Children were supposed to outlive their parents. Burdened with the fatigue of old age they only had enough energy to care for each other. Privately, each wondered if they had the will to get through the uncertain years ahead. But, there was no other option. 

Money wasn’t a problem. Most of the farmland had been sold off. They kept the house, the barn and a few acres of forest with a stream running through it. Their plan was a peaceful life of leisure with now and then visits from their grandson. Raising a young boy on their own unsettled them. It was never part of their vision.

His nightmares disturbed them the most. Every night since he arrived they found him standing at the foot of the bed, arms outstretched, reaching for someone or something he desperately wanted to hold. On his face was a pleading look that brought his grandmother to tears. To wake him she softly spoke the name his mother gave him when he was a baby. 

“Adie, I’m here,” she would say gently touching his hand. He would blankly stare at her, then wordlessly return to his bed. The morning after the first incident they asked if he could recall his dream. He looked at them with the same blank stare of the night before and slowly shook his head. They never asked again.

The feral could feel the cycle of her day changing. As it grew warmer she slept longer avoiding the afternoon heat. It was usually well after four o’clock when she climbed out of the cool darkness into the late afternoon light. Satisfied that everything was as she had left it, everything including that young boy watching her from the porch, she sniffed out the remains of the mouse she buried the day before and devoured it. Hunger satisfied she was off to patrol her hunting grounds. The hunt would take her mind off that meddlesome boy. She felt that she had warned him away for good.

Sniffing the air the feral stopped in her tracks. Her muscles tightened and she pressed her body close to the ground. Her fur puffed out catching what air currents and motion she was sensing. Although there was a slight breeze ruffling the grass, she shut her eyes and listened for the high-pitched sound mice make when hunting. Low to the ground, stopping every few steps, she stealthily crept closer to her quarry.  Feeling the distance was right she sprang. The mouse, sensing danger ran. In midair the feral suddenly changed direction. Her instincts were right. With one swift pounce she bit the mouse at the top of its neck, raised and swung her head, breaking the helpless creature’s back. As quietly as she came she left with her prey. 

When she returned to the willow she was startled to see the boy standing there peering into her lair. Instantly hair prickled all over her body. Pupils dilated into slits of anger. She flattened her ears and furiously swished her tail. The mouse fell from her mouth as her low guttural growl let him know he was trespassing. 

The boy’s tentative steps forward infuriated her. Backing up against the willow she flattened herself against the trunk. When he took another step forward she flew at his legs with a fury. But, he was just as quick and jumped back before her claws could find their mark.

“Adam come away!” His grandfather’s voice broke the tension. 

As the boy turned, the feral disappeared into the hollow. She felt safe in the darkness. She knew he was gone but her anger stayed. Sleep finally drifted in and crowded out all the thoughts that were upsetting her tight little world. Her willow was not for sharing. Surely the boy knew this.

Breathing hard Adam stared at the dead mouse. He felt a need to pick it up. He could feel its warmth and noticed a small trickle of blood at the back of its head. The feel of hot metal shot from the dead mouse searing his palm. A flash of memory. He dropped it. Adam stared at his hand. There was nothing there. Still shaking he grabbed the dead creature by the tail, tossed it into the notch of the willow and ran.

Thunderheads towered high in the evening sky. To the North rolling thunder resonated continuously. Sporadic lightning illuminated the dark gathering clouds. Adam was sitting on the porch when he felt a chill cut through him. The willow’s branches swirled helplessly in the roaring wind. Closing his eyes he tried to shut out the familiarity of that sound. Somewhere in the back of his mind a night such as this was waiting to replay the fragments of a painful memory.

“A cold wind always blows before the rain.” 

Opening his eyes Adam saw his grandfather.  Over the old man’s shoulder lightning danced in the sky. A deep rumble of thunder announced the beginning of the evening’s storm.

“We’d better get ourselves inside.”

“Can I stay and watch for a little while?”

His grandfather remembered how his daughter loved to sit on the porch swing during a rainstorm. There was something in a storm that fascinated her. Rain, wind, thunder and lightening dancing in unison seemed to carry her away to another world. He wondered if that could be the reason she lost control. Had she been hypnotized by the storm that night? 

“Can I stay?” 

Reality brought him out of his reverie. With a gentle warning that Adam must come in when rain hit the porch, the old man stepped inside to find his wife. She was probably thinking the same thing.

The feral stirred not wanting to wake from her deep sleep. Sniffing the air she sensed the change in temperature. Above her branches twisted in the wind. Thunder echoed in her hollow chamber. Curling up tighter she tried to make herself invisible as rain fell hard outside her lair. There was protection enough deep in the hollow. Overhead, branches thick with leaves would keep her dry. Breathing a deep, uneasy sigh she closed her eyes content to wait this out.

Lightning lit up the darkness in the yard. With each flash Adam saw the tree’s branches bending back and forth as if an invisible hand held the trunk and snapped it like a whip. Lightning and thunder struck as one all around him yet he stood stoically, mesmerized by the hypnotic repetition of light and sound.

In the fleeting brilliance of each flash his mind began replaying a vision – a car speeding through a night just as this. Heavy rain drenching the windshield, wipers whipping back and forth like the branches of the willow. Without warning lightning seared the night, lighting up fallen rocks in front of the vehicle and just as quickly shrouding them with darkness. In the minuscule moment between light and dark, life and death were decided.

Adam felt himself flying. 

He saw himself standing beside an overturned car staring in at the faces of his mother and father. A nauseating aura of helplessness overcame him as he struggled with a car door that would not open. Tears mixed with rain on his face. Grabbing a small boulder he smashed the window shattering it into small crystals that fell on his hands and arms. Brushing them off he felt the pain of glass cutting into his hands.

“Adie, don’t cry,” he heard his mother say as everything around him receded deep in to the darkest recesses of his memory.

Still heavy with sleep the feral wasn’t sure what was happening. She felt hands close around her body and the lightness of being lifted into space. When the rain hit her she screamed. Obeying her first instincts she dug her claws into the hands holding her and bit down hard. Twisting her body she brought her hind legs up against the pressure and scratched fiercely until the grip on her torso loosened enough for her to squirm away. Landing in the wet grass she looked up and saw the boy standing over her. As his bleeding hands came towards her she ran. 

In a flash of lightning Adam saw her disappear into the deep grass. After the thunder he heard the creaking sound of splitting wood. In the darkness he felt the willow’s branches brushing his body. As he lay on the wet ground he heard his grandfather calling him. With the weight of the branches holding him down he could not answer. 

Drenched and angry the feral watched from a safe distance as a beam of light swept the grass with an agitated sense of urgency. When the beam moved up the willow she saw her home, just above the hollow, charred and still smouldering in spite of the rain. A large branch lay on the ground with the boy beneath it. She shook to rid her fur of the water and watched the beam of light come to rest on the boy.

s “Adam.”

“Mom?”

“Adie, I’m here.”

“Grandma?”

Gentle hands brushed leaves and rain from his face.“He looks OK,”Adam’s mind raced.  Where’s the car? Are my mom and dad safe? What are my grandparents doing here?

Confusion. His mind wildly processing visions, memories, and questions emerging from a buried memory into a startling reality. 

“Adie take my hand, “ said his grandmother. 

Slowly he stood up and allowed himself to be cradled in his grandmother’s arms. 

“Your hands and arms, they’re scratched and bleeding,” said his grandfather. “I sure hope that feral realizes you saved her life. Not that she cares.”

“I remember the accident,” the boy said.

Silence surrounded them. A look of relief passed between his grandparents.

When the rain stopped, the feral cautiously made her way through the tangle of fallen branches to the trunk of the willow. Looking up at the notch she guessed that her home was still habitable. She sprayed so everyone would know, lightning or no lightning, this tree was still hers. Leaping up to the notch she was startled by the strong smell of burnt wood. Gingerly she stepped past the gash left by the ripped branch and into the damp hollow. She circled a few times, kneaded the remains of her wet bedding and curled herself into a tight ball. Sleep is what she wanted. Come morning the sun would dry everything. Life would return to normal. 

And somehow she knew that the boy would not bother her again.

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

April 5, 2020 at 1:38 PM

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