Tuesday, April 5, 2022

April 1st: A Strange Evening

The final week of March spun out with blustering unsettled weather. A sharp wind blew from the southwest, tossing the bare trees, moving sullen clouds across the sky. 
The temperature began to climb on Wednesday afternoon reaching an uneasy 75 F. by 9:30 p.m. The wind was a continual roaring, rising in intensity through the earliest hours of March 31st. 
Knowing sleep would be impossible I kept my bedroom light on, reading the last chapters of the newest book in the Maisie Dobbs saga. 

The cats were agitated by the noisy clamor of the elements and plopped from the foot of the bed to skitter about in the darkened living area before galloping back to leap onto the edge of my dresser, pushing small items to the floor with a clatter.  The more adventurous ones took turns utilizing the sill of the west window to peer intently out through the swirling darkness as though the roistering gale might have a visible presence. 

A little before 1 a.m. the wind dropped and in the sudden silence I switched off the bedside lamp and the cats and I slept until around 5 a.m. when a clatter of hail pummeled the house and the wind again raised a vengeful voice. 
Daybreak was murky grey with the temperature a mere 4 notches above freezing. 

The lane that runs to the western edge of our property was littered with branches, some mere slender twigs, others more substantial. 
I'm waiting for a warm and dry afternoon to collect and break them up to use as kindling in the wood stove.

Friday morning, April 1st, was cold, the sun came out only intermittently during the day. As evening drew in a chilly sunset and predictions of frost roused my concern for the previously frost-nipped clematis vines.
I had spent hours preparing food for a church dinner; thus it was dusk before I tided the kitchen and pulled on a warm zipped 'hoodie' ready to cover the clematis. 

I found old sheets, pillow cases and a shabby blanket on the laundry room shelves and began carrying them to the back porch--tripping over interested cats. On one of my trips through the door, slender Shelby-cat slipped between my feet and dashed toward the south ravine, her favorite area to prowl in the underbrush and pretend that she is a mighty feline of the jungle.

Willis-cat predictably, appeared to supervise my task, trudging from one plant to the next, tangling himself in the sheets as I attempted to drape and fasten them to best cover the varying heights of the vines. The newest plants, still struggling to climb the trellis at the west of the house were the last to be covered. Willis fussed about, butting at my chilled hands when I tried to peg the sheets to the trellis, using clothes pins hastily gathered from the back porch drying lines. 
 While Willis waited outside, I went into the house to fetch my small flashlight firmly 'shooing' the inside feline residents whose curiosity might have propelled them through the door.

The 'ghostly' looking fence and trellis swaddled against pre-dawn frost.

I began calling Shelby, singing her name in the classic cadence from high note to a lower 'third.'
"Shel-by, Shel-by. Here, kitty, kitty. "
I moved to stand on the gentle knoll beyond the end of the house, sweeping my light up and down the lane, across the edges of the ravine. 
A soundless movement pulled my gaze upward to witness the settling of an unmistakable owl shape in the night-black branches of a tree a few yards away. Not a great-horned owl, more likely one of the barred owls we often hear at night. An owl, never-the-less, and quite capable of a swift swooping dive to carry away as tiny a cat as our Shelby.
Keeping a wary eye on the owl--and on Willis, I swung the beam of my light down toward the west end of the property where a sweep of meadow edges toward the most open section of the ravine.

Eyes! A pair of animal eyes glowing in the flashlight's beam! 
I moved several yards down the grassy slope, calling Shelby. When I looked back, the owl had flown off as silently as it had arrived. 
Shelby did not come rushing up the lane to fling herself, rolling at my feet, her usual performance when she decides to come in.

The eyes moved in the darkness and I tracked the animal's progress up the edge of the ravine, always staying behind the brush, disappearing behind a tree, bobbing out, slowly coming closer to where I waited with Willis. The wide spacing of the eyes suggested a larger creature than my bitty cat. 
The feral tomcat who visits in hopes I've left the kibble dish on the front porch? 
Raccoon? Skunk? That legendary cat of Kentucky's hills and hollers--a 'painter?'

Moving my light to keep pace with the creature's Cheshire-cat progress--the reflection of eyes--disappearing--reappearing--I became aware of a red dot moving lower on the hillside, the creature now tracked between the small sharp beam of my flashlight along the ground level of the tree line and a red circle of light keeping pace from the farther slope. 
A rectangle of yellow light suddenly poured down from the upper porch and Jim leaned over the railing. "Don't you think its time to come in? That cat has had more than half an hour to come to you. If she doesn't want to, she can stay out for the night!'
'But,' I protested, 'the owl! Shelby is a perfect midnight snack for the owl!' 
Jim, muttering about cats [and maybe women] who don't know enough to come in out of the dark, vanished into the house and the spill of lamplight was extinguished.

I trailed slowly toward the back door, looking over my shoulder to see if the red circle of light still hovered. It was there. 
My hands were cold and the chill of damp grass was making itself felt through my shoes.

Something about the quality of the night felt off, unsettling. The presence of the owl, perhaps lurking just beyond my range of night vision? The animal eyes [not my small cat] bobbing ever closer through the scrim of trees? The red dot of light across the slope?

During the next half hour I ventured onto the front steps several times, calling Shelby in my most winning tones. She didn't appear.

In the morning it was 2 degrees above freezing when I scuffed sleepily into the kitchen. Jim appeared behind me and without preamble demanded, 'Did you see a red light following you last night?'
I cudgeled my slow morning brain into remembering.
'Yes, there was a moving red dot, keeping pace with me just across on the opposite slope. Why?'

'I woke up at 3 a.m. thinking about it, wondering if I had imagined it. That was a laser.' 
His tone was portentous.
'So? A laser? What are you telling me?' I was muddled.

[Jim loves to start a discussion with an oblique question, and I wasn't having it first thing in the morning!]

'LASER! You know--the thing an instructor uses to trace a route on a map or point out a detail in a photo.' He snatched his flashlight from his desk, turned on a red light which set the kittens to pouncing, ricocheting  about the room in pursuit.
'That's a laser. And someone using a gun at night can use a laser light to help them home in on a target. Don't you see? Someone was on the north ridge following you with a laser light!'
Jim thumped about, fuming. 
' I should have caught on quicker! I should have gone out with my big light, shone it through the trees onto the ridge, hollered! No one, whatever their reason for being out, should have been tracking you with a laser!'

Early morning sunshine was touching the front steps. I stepped outside with a pan of kibble for Willis and Sally. Shelby bounded up through the rose hedge, tail held upright, fur bristling along her bony spine. Obviously she hadn't been a midnight snack for the lurking owl. 
She bustled through the door, made a circuit of the kitchen, batting at the kittens who gathered to sniff at the wild outdoor scent of her coat.

I haven't quite forgotten the sense of unease, walking at night in my own familiar dooryard, the eyes of the unknown animal [probably harmless] who moved toward me but wouldn't venture onto the path to meet me. 
That red laser, somehow invasive and unwelcome.
It is one of those small mysteries unlikely to be explained. 
I intend to keep my often overly sensitive imagination within bounds.
I doubt there is a 'painter' lurking to carry me off.
I can't consider that someone was deliberately keeping track of my evening meander. 
It was probably a 'one off,' something that won't happen again.
Still--it was a strange evening, perhaps more so in retrospect. 



  1. Oh, I am SO GLAD that Shelby was home safe and sound the next morning. I bet you didn't sleep well for worrying about her though. No Owls here big enough to take cats and the Kites, which we have plenty of round here, roost at night and mainly feed on carrion - apparently their feet are too weak to carry much more than a mouse.

    You wrote with great atmosphere -I was waiting with baited breath to hear what happened.

    The red dot was scary though - not a nice thought that a hunter was out on your land, and following your progress.

    I trust that the "rugging up" of your Clematis did the trick. What a huge drop in temperature though, from 75deg. to freezing.

    1. Jennie; I don't think anyone was actually on 'our land'--much of our long chunk of 20 acres is bounded on either side by a ravine--the north one being deep and narrow. The person manipulating the laser was likely on the high ridge beyond our boundary and focusing downward. The clematis are surviving, although two are needing to be pruned back from the earlier snow damage.

  2. Bad, bad Shelby-cat, for leading you into such a strange situation! But very glad that she is safely home. I think you should have Mr. Jim along if this happens again! Do be very careful out there.

    1. MTVA; It was definitely unsettling. Cats are such independent creatures, aren't they--underfoot when not needed and skittering off when they need to be safe indoors. Come to think of it--there's usually an uncooperative cat to be rounded up as my reason for being out after dark.

  3. Gosh what an adventure, you have the fine art of storytelling, us holding our breath till the end. Troublesome cats, minds of their own and independent of course. But of course always that worry when an animal is not where they should be in the evening.

    1. Thelma; I sometimes think that collecting cats for the night is similar to the years of hoping teenagers arrive home safely on time!