Alain had time enough to work out how she arrived. Her likeliest route. He thought maybe from the Black Hills or beyond. Through northern Minnesota and the U.P. Down along the Wolf River, staying east of La Crosse, Ripon, Beaver Dam and Whitewater. Crossing near Hebron and then heading down the Chain of Lakes; jogging east to follow the Des Plaines into Chicago. Most of the suburbs designated preserves along the river.
But how did she get from, say, Northbrook to Chicago without being detected?
Moving at night, sure; but still. Are humans that oblivious?
How he came to be here was much easier to determine: his teacher led the 7th grade on a field trip to the Checagou Nature Preserve. One hundred and fifty acres of restored prairie, wetlands and woods…including a working nineteenth century farm.
As his class followed the guide along a trail, Alain noticed a seldom-beaten path leading to the woods; a slack chain at knee-height, barred passage. Back at the Center, the class summoned their collective patience to endure a presentation on the effects of urban-creep upon wild populations. Lunch to follow.
During the presentation Alain drifted to the back of the room and then away, assimilating into another tour group. He drifted again as the group neared the trails. He found the forbidden path, stepped over the chain and here he was.
Why he chose to break the rules was a harder question. He was not a renegade by nature. He was neither lured by a seductress, nor compelled by self-preservation. He concluded that since the chain warned humans away, walking the path promised a more authentic embrace of the Preserve’s mission.
A quarter-mile on, the path opened to a dell – a slight depression, no more.
Alain was moved to a silence even deeper than the one he was deploying. Instead of concentrating on the woods’ native pings and clicks, he concentrated on the silence, willing his brain to shut-up, for once. A ghosted image of an Oak, hundreds of years old, a hundred inches in diameter, boasting a seventy-foot canopy, materialized out of the silence, replacing the dell. Alain watched the Oak die, then break apart, then tumble, and then decay – its stump finally eroding, it’s trunk-thick roots imploding into the depression, becoming loam.
Another boy might’ve said: And, now, nothing remained of the once mighty Oak. But Alain saw that the dell was the daughter of the Oak. The empty space was as alive as the Oak had been when it was in its prime and Chicago was prairie, woods and wetlands.
Alain snapped to the present when his eyes sent a txt to his brain: that is a curious dabbling of light, there.
A fawn stood at the edge of the clearing, white spots on a tan coat, as iconic as any Disney might render. Alain took a step and stilled. Waited a long minute before taking a second step. The fawn did not move. Scanning the floor, Alain found a scattering of beechnuts and acorns. As deliberate as a sun, Alain lowered himself into a squat and scraped the nuts together – rising with as much restraint as his quadriceps would allow. He extended his arm as far as it would go and took another step.
Here is where Alain excelled. He worked at a pet store. His job was to acclimate new arrivals to their stalls and cages, and to human hands. His secret was patience. If it took an hour – or an afternoon – to get to square one, then he took it. His other secret was understanding there was always a place before Square One. It was as important to honor this place as it was to progress from Square One to Square Two.
The place before Square One was the dell: the silent power of the vanished tree. Alain set the ghost of the Oak behind his eyes as he edged nearer the fawn, only advancing when the dell gave him leave.
His outstretched hand holding the nuts reached the fawn’s muscle. Her nostrils flared; she bowed her head and accepted the gift. Alain took two baby steps, closing the space between them. With as light a touch as he ever deployed smoothing ruffled feathers, he stroked the fawn’s flank.
She ate the last beechnut. Alain continued to pet her, checking his periphery for more nuts. He spotted a clutch of pine nuts, but he would have to reach across her. Too risky. Perhaps she would stay without being fed.
His cell was in his backpack; if he was careful…
He drew out the phone and held it away to take the picture.
What is the best angle to get both the fawn and…
As he lifted his eyes and turned his head, seeking to align his face in the foreground of the imagined portrait, he saw her. The Her. And there he was, frozen, his arm pointing to the sunless woods, his head tipped back, as still as any marbled Caesar exhorting his countrymen.
A cougar waited on the opposite rim of the tiny dell, its rump in shadow, her smallish, intent face staring at him. Alain figured the cougar had been eyeing the fawn before he had drawn her attention. Now he understood why the fawn had indulged his vanity.
His first concern – how long can I stand like this – gave way to a second…one that caused him to soak his clothes, socks to collar, in perspiration. He recalled a line from a joke: just faster than you. The joke even contained a lion.
I don’t have to be faster than the lion…just faster than you.
Who would a hungry lion prefer to chase through the trees: a boy or a deer?
What would happen if Alain bolted, first?
Such was the debate Alain interrupted in order to visualize the cougar’s progress from Wisconsin to the Preserve. He fought the urge to look at the fawn. What if it had walked into the woods while Alain faced the cougar?
That would be awkward.
Especially since he planned to do the same to the fawn: back-step to the treeline, fading into the shadows until…well, until the inevitable.
The dell exploded. It’s silent center, the heart that had once been the indomitable Oak, erupted in generated syncopation. The song “Roar” filled the space and Alain’s body. He yelped, tossing the blaring cell phone, his body jerking. A blur crossed his peripheral vision.
Instead of running straight into the woods, the fawn sprang at an oblique angle across the dell. The cougar charged, rode her spine and forced her to the ground. Alain’s shock held him long enough to see the pounce, to see the muscles in the cougar’s head and neck bulge as she sank her teeth into the fawn’s neck.
Alain sprinted through the woods, cutting between trees, his subconscious assuming navigation duties, arcing him onto the forbidden woodchip path and back to the Center.
His teacher had called his cell when the lunchtime headcount came up one Alain short. Alain offered no accounting for his whereabouts, except for: around.
It was his mother who told him about the cougar. She’d seen the story in the news.
“Did they catch it?”
“No. But it killed a deer at Checagou, yesterday. They said, probably around dusk.”
“I know. You were there, yesterday!”
The following day his mother drove him back to the Preserve. They had discovered his cell phone. When Alain retrieved it the woman asked why he had been in the off-limits area. He shrugged.
“Do you know that the cougar killed the deer in that location?”
“Wow is right. Now you see why we have those signs?”
“Uh, huh. Did they catch the cougar?”
“No. But she was just sighted near Bannockburn.”
“She’s headed back to Wisconsin.”
“How do you know she came from Wisconsin?”
Alain shrugged and replied, “She wasn’t a Chicago cougar.”
On his way back to the car Alain checked his pics. The last one was a blur of empty space.
© Brian Wapole