He wished he’d thought more about that black cat when he first saw it earlier that morning. Black cats are bad omens, right? Maybe the omen was the cat itself, a ‘here kitty kitty’ gone very wrong. Now, though, as that morning led into the afternoon, he saw that cat again in front of him, staring and swishing its tail not five yards ahead.
He knelt and held out his fingers, feigning the act of teasing a treat like he would do for a dog; he was not a cat person. The thing screeched at the gesture, then hissed as its back arched, the hair standing on end, its mouth opening to reveal sharp teeth. It positively leaped up several feet, flinging itself backward by an equal amount, sat down again, calm, and swishing its tail just glared.
Yeah, in retrospect he should have paid more attention to it, the nasty thing. Early on when he started the hike, he saw it staring at him from back in the woods. It looked healthy, not lost or wild, and had a collar, a wide one, so it must have had a home. The collar warranted attention. It was a fiery thing, blaze orange with black markings on it. He paid more attention to the collar than the cat.
Orange, he thought at the time. Orange. Maybe its owners put it on to signal hunters, now that it was deer season. And then he’d thought that no one could confuse a housecat for a deer, even a large cat, like this one, with or without an orange collar. And the eyes. Those eyes blazed as much as any orange collar.
What were those markings on the collar? From a distance, they had looked like etchings of evil things. Monsters maybe. Some remnant from Halloween. With the cat right in front of him, close, he saw those were witches on the collar. Hideous witches and vicious cats. The cats had arched backs and frightening sets of teeth in gaping maws. It was a Halloween image—it must’ve been—but certainly over the top. It wasn’t something a normal person would put on a housecat to greet trick or treaters. Had he seen that earlier he might have turned around. Should have turned around.
When the cat screeched, he stumbled back over a root and was left sitting on the trail, his rear end screaming from the fall. He felt that familiar twinge in his lower back; a spasm wouldn’t be far behind. This far out on the trail, this far into the day, it was the last thing he needed.
The thing ran off when he yelled.
Standing he had to shuffle his feet in the four directions of a compass to look around the trail because twisting irritated his already tightening back. The indignity and imposition of chronology, he thought. He wasn’t too old, not yet, but his all too frequent back spasms reminded him that “old” was a state of body as much as a state of mind.
Shadows were starting to lengthen. It was getting colder, too. Purple-grey clouds were gathering in the north. A bit colder and it could snow. It was pretty, actually, majestic even. It was also, he realized, time to turn back or press on. There was a road somewhere ahead. The map had shown it. He could hit that and walk back to where he’d left his car. Better to take the road than the trail. Things got dark early this time of the year. He knew he should have taken a flashlight. His phone might have sufficed if it had enough juice left.
And Aleve. The spasm that had started in his lower back had spread to his middle back. It was okay with small steps on flat parts of the trail, of which there were very few. On the rough remains, the lower spasm would fire one way and the middle another causing him to twist for the one exacerbating the opposing forces. There were frequent stops with gritted teeth and piercing breaths as he tried to find the equilibrium to go on.
At least the cat was gone or, anyway, of sight. He didn’t like the thing’s screeching. He didn’t like the thing at all. It being out here alone was weird, even if these woods weren’t far from civilization. A reservation, they called it, conservation land. Thirty-five miles of trails that promised solitude. It was a promise kept; he hadn’t seen a soul in the last three, no, five hours. That wasn’t so odd. It was on the chilly side, even when the sun was out earlier. But with those purplish clouds getting thick, the sun wasn’t providing much warmth and it was supposed to get colder per the weather report he’d read on his phone that morning. He just hadn’t expected to be out so damn long. “Where did the time go?” he asked himself.
Then he asked the damned cat, now sitting on a glacial erratic ten yards from where he stood. “Where did you come from?” He grimaced as he leaned over, saying, “Here kitty kitty,” and grabbing a sharp white stone, quartz, wincing as he rose to throw it as hard as he could.
He didn’t mean to hit it, didn’t expect to. The cat soared up five feet as if launched, and screamed as it did a double axle landing on its feet. “An 8.3 from the Soviet judge,” he said to himself. It gave another loud hiss, bared its awful teeth, and tore off down the path that curved over dead leaves and around a rocky hill. He followed. He had no choice. By now he had to be near the end of the trail and the road that he’d follow back to the car. If only the trail was better marked; hell, marked at all. Or if he had a map, like the ones in the wooden box nailed to the little welcoming station in the parking lot that displayed warning signs about Lyme disease, poison ivy, bears, coyotes, and hunters. There was no sign about black cats. He had to laugh about that.
There was a request that hikers sign a guest book with their start time and sign out when they got back. He’d laughed about that, too. It was just a set of trails in the suburbs, or rather the exurbs per the hiking guide he’d left home. Now he was asking himself what was the difference between suburbs and exurbs. Exurbs would be the worse, he thought, and got a chill with the idea of it being worse.
“Dumb idea,” he said aloud. “Dumb, dumb, you big dummy.”
He looked back down the way he’d come, seeing only an empty path that didn’t look like it has been walked on by anyone, let alone him just moments before. Robert Frost came to his mind, “And both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black.” He imagined a blur at the corner of his eye, a black image flying over the surrounding rocky ledge.
He looked to where he imagined was the road and trudged on.
It was there again. It looked bigger now, arrogant as it circled. When he leaned over to get another stone, it jumped back giving it distance. He didn’t throw the rock this time, just squeezed until it hurt his hand, until he’d get a better shot. He wanted that shot and put a few more stones into his pocket for reserve.
The cat moved parallel to his path. He was looking sideways to the cat that moved from stump to stone to fallen logs, and it angered him that the cat had protection. He was pissed off that the cat didn’t look at him, wasn’t concerned with him, but just sashayed at an easy pace while he struggled, trying to hold one eye on the cat, one eye on the trail, while tripping on the rocks or slipping on the slick leaves, each small move sending spasms of pain through his torso.
It meowed a loud meow, almost like a call, and then floated ahead not making a sound as it did so. “Damned cat,” he said to no one. “Good riddance.”
He picked up his pace and started to sweat despite the formerly cool air turning cold. He wanted off that trail, wanted some sign of civilization, and considered turning around. No, that was stupid; he was hours from where he started. Maybe he’d lost the right trail. Anyway, would be dark before long. Heck, it was kind of dark already.
To his right was that granite ridge rising some 75 feet. It would be lighter up there, fewer trees hiding the setting sun. From there, he might see the road, or something, maybe even other hikers. Or, maybe, he shouldn’t leave the trail, always a bad idea in the wild, but then he wasn’t in the wild at all. That’s what he told himself. Hell, there was probably a Starbucks within ten miles. The wild, he thought, what a crazy idea, a stupid idea. He smiled at the very notion and walked towards the base of the cliff.
It wasn’t an easy scramble. The rocks were loose, and every other step dislodged bowling-ball-sized rocks that bounced down the steep slope dislodging even more rocks. He learned quickly to test what he grabbed, lest they’d pry loose, and he’d end up dropping like a stone But he got his rhythm and clamored up the last 20 feet, the steepest part by far. It was open at the top and he caught an early glimpse of the moon and very close now, an easy walk, a road. He couldn’t hear the car, its headlights already on, but was gratified at the sight. No, he was more than gratified. He gave a yell of relief and took in a few deep breaths knowing that this day would come to an end. He promised to bring the map next time. And a flashlight! A whole survival kit come to think of it. A big dog, too. A big dog that doesn’t like cats.
Going down was harder. It would have been hard to make out the handholds and footholds on the dark granite at any hour of the day, but with the sun already low on the other side of the ridge, he had to descend by feel. He was doubly cautious with his back spasms, which made any movement painful, especially agile moves. Grasping for a hold had become impossible.|
That was why he was gripping a crack with the tips of his fingers on a near-vertical slab. His feet managed to find small ledges, allowing him to traverse the slab, but those ledges were mere nubs. Looking down he guessed the drop couldn’t have been more than 15 feet. Maybe he could just fall and be okay. If only there weren’t so many boulders waiting at the bottom.
The right side of the slab had more of those little ledges and then gave way to boulders that sloped more gradually. The crack that his fingers were in went all the way over to the boulders. Those would give him more edges to grab and, not without spasms, he could ease down and relish the reward of a short, flat, hike to the road. There was a vial of Aleve in his car. He’d take four. He could do it.
What made him look up wasn’t so much a sound as a sense. Overhead was a metronome, its hand silently moving forth and back with an easy tempo. Then its eyes opened, two yellow eyes with which he was now familiar, unblinking and just staring. He called out “scat” but the metronome just beat, those eyes simply stared. He screamed it then, or tried to scream it, but his heart was beating too fast and his back spasmed as he breathed in air. He wanted to move his right hand to his pocket, to retrieve a stone, but his grip wasn’t that strong, his balance not that good, and he needed both hands to hold on.
That’s when the metronome leaped into his face, using it like a gymnast’s mount to spring to safety on the very boulders he’d been trying to reach, giving his right eye a sharp swipe with its claws. There was no thought when his hand went to that eye.
He had been wrong. It was a 25-foot fall. And, anyway, he wouldn’t have seen the cat turn when it landed and certainly didn’t hear it purring as it gazed at the broken skull, smashed on the boulders at the base of the ridge. The cat looked up when it jumped onto the body, towards the sound of a horn on the nearby road.