Friday, September 7, 2007

Feline Testemonial for Humanity

He was standing over the saw finishing a cut and didn’t immediately notice me walking toward him. His hermitage, built twenty years or so ago, is in the midst of a remodeling, getting a second story. I stood still for a few moments admiring his handiwork while watching him in motion. It’s a labor of love and it shows in his movement, in his work—focused, intense, flowing.

The sweat beads up on his brow but he doesn’t look uncomfortable. The sun, speckling the forest floor, lights a glistening strand of moist graying hair that falls in tight ringlets framing his face. He senses someone’s presence and turns to face the direction of the intrusion. His face explodes into a smile as he notices me standing there. And the bluest eyes I have ever seen sparkle in recognition. “How are you?” I ask, “How’s the project going?”

“Hey neighbor,” he grins, “I’m great and even better now that you’re here.” One gets the feeling every visitor is greeted in this way. It’s part of his nature. “What brings you here on this glorious day; are you staying at the center?”

Glorious describes this September day, the weather is mild, the sun bright and warm as it trickles through the tall canopy that stretches over top of the forest, the land we both call home. The land borders a spiritual retreat center where we both came to find the Divine two decades ago. Our land adjoins but he lives up here year round now and I visit occasionally. “Is this the year you put something up?” he asks.

“Maybe,” I answer. “Still trying to decide what, where and who I want to be when I grow up.” Discovered something new—Cobb Housing; heard of it?” For years I’ve explored building styles—adobe, straw bale, yurts, foam buildings, log cabins and more. We have this conversation whenever I show up to visit the land I bought when my children were small, intending to move there some day when they were grown. They are grown and someday is here but nothing stands on the land as yet.

David looks healthy and happy, fit and tanned. This was not always so. He moved here from the city where he worked as an architect. The years of stress and fast-paced living almost squeezed the life out of his heart and he became gravely ill. Linked for two decades with the spiritual retreat center that borders our properties, David discovered on an extended visit that he could not go back, could no longer live in the city and allow it to suck the life from his body, the Life from his life.

He lived and worked at the retreat center for awhile in exchange for housing and meals while healing from his illness. He eventually purchased the little plot of land beside mine and began constructing a new life. Soon after he became the architect of his dream drawing up plans for expanding and modernizing the very rustic hermitage, building a model from the plans, ordering pre-fab parts and beginning construction. It’s a spiritual journey for him—the path of spirit, manifestation and creating beauty from raw wood. The dream gives him something to do that brings him satisfaction; the immersion, the work, gives him joy.

His clothing is tattered, his boot soles flapping as he walks, his face unshaven, hair wild in tight but not necessarily obedient curls. He looks every bit the hermit with very little left of the pin-stripe professional architect of his previous life. Nature has done him proud, healing his body and his spirit as he let go of the city and its frantic lifestyle. The solar panels that connect to his hermitage allow him only 2 hours of electricity for reading at night. He retires early and gets up at dawn. Here in the forest with no TV, no amenities and in raw communion with nature, he becomes a lone student of life-- learning from the natural world how things are elegant when simple, how precious is life and how truly tangible is Spirit. This quest has gentled him, given him a balance rare for a male socialized in a concrete world—perfect yin/yang, anima/animus—humanimal. It’s quite the transformation.

From behind us a low howl emanates from the tall grass and a caramel and white feline emerges from the forest. “Meet Fosdick,” says David, “he’s come for supper. This guy showed up one day and I made the mistake of petting him. He’s been hanging around ever since. I’ve tried discouraging him but he doesn’t give up easily.”

“Marshmallow,” I tease, “He has obviously adopted you. Cats do that, you know; you don’t adopt them, it’s the other way around. Besides, this one’s a consummate strategist, David—winter’s coming.” I smile because the urban David would have had no interest in any animal, and certainly not in making one a pet. His face brightens briefly then flickers a hint of pain. “I didn’t want to encourage him; I wasn’t eager to have another friend. Not after Bob.”

“Who’s Bob?” I query, searching David’s face, I detect another wave of pain, barely discernable, cross his face. “Another cat? Where is he?”

“Bob was my friend for more than a year,” David says, “he hung out with me, he took care of the mice in the hermitage, and I was learning his ways, his language. He was teaching me. One day he crawled home from quite a distance by the look of him when he got here. His back legs were dragging out behind him useless, his fur was bloody and his skin almost rubbed off. The vet said he’d been hit by some spray from a shotgun. After he was wounded he crawled all the way home. We thought maybe he’d live given some rest, water and food but after awhile he refused to eat. He died in my lap a few days later.” The look on this gentle man’s face cannot be described; the raw pain in the air was palpable.

The anger that coursed my body was immediate and vitriolic. My dinner lurched back up into my throat. “Are you saying somebody deliberately targeted him? Someone around here? In the neighborhood of a sanctuary, a retreat center? Who would do such a thing?”

“I don’t know,” David replies, his voice hardly a whisper, “I know most of the people for miles around and I don’t think I personally know anybody who’d do that. I don’t know what happened but the vet said for sure that he was wounded when somebody shot at him. He crawled all the way home—it looked like a long time. He was a mess. The vet cleaned him up, treated him and said we’d have to wait to see if the swelling would go down or if he’d ever walk again but he didn’t think so. At first he took a little water, a little food, but then he refused everything. During those last days whenever I’d move, he'd crawl over next to me. I think he considered this home and he wanted to make it home to die; he was a good friend. He taught me a lot.”

“People!” I spit, “there is no excuse for that kind of cruelty! It’s unconscionable! So somebody was out hunting or practicing and shot at a stray cat not even thinking that perhaps it was somebody’s pet?”

“Somebody’s friend!” David corrects me. “Not my pet, my friend. He was nobody’s pet. He was definitely his own cat with his own personality. He was like a person with fur. He was teaching me his world, his language. We had a mutually respectful relationship. He caught the mice, I gave him shelter. I fed him dinner, he kept me company. He wandered off on his adventures and I welcomed him back when he returned. He was my friend. I never understood how much he considered me a friend until the end.

A shotgun meant that a grownup, someone who knew better and not a boy recklessly and randomly shooting BBs, was demonstrating violence in sanctuary. “Terrorism in the forest,” I thought. I found it more than a little unsettling that someone in the neighborhood of a spiritual sanctuary found it so easy to use violence against innocence. A shiver began somewhere deep inside me and found its way to the surface. “David, I said, “I am so very, very sorry for more reasons than I can put into words. I hear lots of stories about animals having more humanity than their human counterparts. But there’s more to this story and I’m not sure yet what that is. I think it’s a lesson for us all. What a gift Bob gave you; and you him.”

The steely indifferent personality of the big city couldn’t break this man. Grave illness didn’t break him. If something could break the spirit of this gentle soul of a man, it would be this—his mortally wounded animal friend, Bob, crawled home to his human friend, on his belly. Mortally wounded animals, especially feral ones, crawl off into quiet cover to die alone. Bob’s testimony says a lot about both characters in this story. And after reaching the arms of his human friend, Bob chooses to die rather than be handicapped or burden his human benefactor. You find that kind of loyalty or bond from a dog, perhaps; but a feral cat? What kind of human engenders that?

It seems especially cruel that mean spiritedness would find its way here to the middle of nowhere in the middle of the forest on consecrated land. “I will write the story,” I promise David. “The world needs to hear it. To know what is possible within human-animal relations. To understand how a thoughtless act of cruelty toward an animal wounds the soul of each human—the one who saw only nuisance while another called him friend. To recognize soul in the sanctity of the human-animal bond and what it can transcend. “I am so sorry, David, for the loss of your friend,” I say meekly to David knowing that he has lost much more than a friend here.

I glance at Fosdick who is sunning himself in the lacy sunlight. I say a prayer for the little fur-ball and ask the guardian angel of cats to come and please protect him for the rest of his natural life. There is another prayer for David, for this man who became a hermit to escape the mean streets of the city only to suffer another assault to his heart in his home in the wilderness. “May his heart be healed from a new kind of wound that this time isn’t physical but bleeds and leaves a hole just the same. May he be healed of something I cannot name. And may the person who took away his friend and something nameless someday read this story.”

1 comment:

LunaJo said...

Beautiful and also heartbreaking.... as a cat-mother myself I can relate to his pain. It even reaches to the pain I still feel for the loss of my two male furry friends. But at least they died with some kind of dignity.

A few Thoughts...

When I think about it, my own life is no less rich and the living no less inspiring than my pioneering ancestors and I come from a long line of Indians and outlaws so don't ever turn your back on me!

Life is, after all, a slice of human consciousness lived from its place in human evolution. "From here to eternity" as it were-- from earth to the stars, from personal space to cyberspace, from a small local footprint to the world reduced to the size of a notebook and sitting on your lap!

As a child I lived with the perpetual and immenent threat of annihilation. That's child abuse! It wasn't a kid-friendly world and I couldn't understand why the grown-ups who were in charge weren't doing something?

So at age seven with my face in the window eyes turned up into the night sky and staring at the stars I made a vow: "When I am a grown-up, I will do something."

My writing is that something and I write to "simply change the world." If that sounds like a lack of humility it isn't because I know that one person absolutely can change the world and I've met some who have.

Kay Kennedy put together an anthology that puts the reader in the midst of history to view it from the inside out.

When I was in high school and even college, history classes were stale and boring featuring memorization and regurgitation of dates that coincided with events that had no human face, certainly no magic, and no life!

Anthologies are great fun and stores are rich remembrances. History books chronicle; stories are little narrative slices of living. History comes alive through story. I often think of my grandmother and her story, her life-- the history she lived. In her lifetime she saw humankind evolve from horse and buggy to man on the moon.

I was a sixties kid and for the youth of the sixties, turmoil, disillusionment, and revolution were everyday 'business as usual'. Like a radio perpetually on low volume, fear and death dronned on in the background. The superpowers threatened to extinguish all life on the planet, the Vietnam War was escalating and peers were being escorted home under American Flag blankets. The civil rights and equal rights movements were testing human civility, and faster than one could recover from one shock another real life hero would fall to yet another assassin. Despair was commonplace. Contrast that with a man on the moon... we could conquer space travel but couldn't make nukes or war obsolete! It was a time when youth needed hope because hope was scarce. When it was finally resurrected, it came in the form of idealism and a philosophy of brotherly and universal love. Perfect principles; imperfect execution.

For others who contributed to "Looking Back," the history is different for each because the "times" were different as well as the perspective of the individuals. The stories of human societal evolution are enlightening, heartwarming, poignant and spellbinding. They put a human face on the past.

And there are people now who are putting a face on the future...