8 minutes and 30 seconds to read
I was born a city boy; more particularly, I was born a slum boy – a slum where I belonged, a slum in which I wallowed, a slum in which I thrived. I was happy there, surrounded as I was by friends and allies so that the stench, the filth, and the discomfort were barely registered in my consciousness. I also had my best friend, my ally, my “Big Brother” Ryan.
He would always watch my back. He was always a step ahead in planning what to do next; he had a “jungle sense”, and a creative ingenuity which meant that none of us ghetto-kids, us ‘white-trash’, died, got injured or ended up in prison. Ryan was the only true genius I’ve ever met: he was my guardian angel and my best friend.
“Can you ride a bike?” he asked, one day, looking up from a crumpled old map.
“Of course,” I lied, never wishing to lose face with him, “it’s easy.”
Ryan continued to pore over the map.
“Okay. Tomorrow, Tobin’s yard, about this time, just you and me.”
And that is how it all started.
He gave me the girl’s bike, which should have been easier to ride and was quite amused by my eager ineptness and my several falls en route to mastering the art. Even so, in just a few hours, we were out in the suburbs and I was totally, totally lost.
“Nearly halfway there,” smiled Ryan. My legs were aching from the unaccustomed exercise but there was no point in complaining to Ryan; he never acknowledged pain himself and he expected the same from us.
By now we were ravenously hungry but I never worried when I was with Ryan; he would always think of something. We parked the bikes discreetly in some bushes and I followed Ryan into the supermarket.
“Would you get me the boss please?” he smiled at the girl on the counter. She looked puzzled:
“Is he expecting you?” she asked looking a little suspicious.
Ryan had one of those smiles that could open a can of beans and he used it now:
“He will be very happy to see me as we haven’t seen each other for months.”
Soon a young man appeared looking rather flustered and obviously had things on his mind. Ryan flashed a smile again and briefly explained to the boss that the two of us were on our way to Calabogie to visit a sick uncle and we had no food. He had noticed that the car park was full of litter and that we would be happy to clean up the whole area in exchange for any food which had passed its sell-by date. If I had not seen Ryan in action before, I would have been surprised how quickly he gained the result.
We worked with enthusiasm and the job took less than an hour. Soon we were eating some fruit and sandwiches and we would have plenty spare for the rest of the journey. The boss seemed to warm to us and after some pleasantries, Ryan gave me a subtle kick under the table, which meant that he was up to something and I should play along. “Sir, I was talking to my friend earlier about the magic of palmistry and you could help settle an argument here… if I may?” Ryan stepped forward and gazed into the palms of the boss. He began speaking, slowly and thoughtfully at first, then with some concerns and suggestions. After about ten minutes, the man was clearly deeply moved by the “revelations”. Ryan gazed into space for a few very long seconds:
“… so you have to balance the hurt you’ll cause, against following that sacred love in your life. It’s a tough call, but you can do it… I know that deep down you have the strength to do the right thing,” he paused and closed his eyes, “… and delay, delay brother is the very worst, the very worst… delay gives nothing but pain, brother.”
The man stared at his hands with tears pouring down his face; we waited in silence.
“Boys, please call again on your way back…” He took out a $10 bill and put it into Ryan’s hand. Ryan signalled we should go.
And that was the magic of Ryan; I have never known anyone who could read people so well: he could tell the man was troubled and made a guess that there were personal dilemmas in his life. He always seemed able to tap into what people needed to know. Ryan was a genius and I owed my survival to him.
“Where are we going, by the way?” I finally asked.
“Calabogie,” he replied. I was none the wiser.
We carried on for some more hours. I was tired and thirsty, but you never mentioned such things to Ryan; it was our code of honour.
When the footpaths began to peter out, we hid the bikes in some bushes: “They are safe there,” said Ryan after checking their hiding place from several directions.
We walked for perhaps a half hour further, with Ryan occasionally looking at his compass. Finally we came upon a ramshackle “dwelling-place” and Ryan removed a key from his pocket. He didn’t need it; the door was open. Ryan looked delighted even though the furnishings were rudimentary: “this will be a good base,” he announced.
We had some more food and drink and I quickly collapsed into an exhausted sleep.
When I finally awakened, the place was transformed and certainly habitable; Ryan had even managed to rig up a small gas lamp. However, the insects were biting and a real nuisance.
“Let’s get away from these insects,” he said, turning off the lamp.
Outside, the sun was quickly setting and the full moon was on the rise. Ryan stopped and made himself comfortable looking down on a quiet stream; I did the same. Soon Ryan was asleep but I was wide awake. What was this place with no rumble of traffic, with no noises of the city? This was a mystical silence, punctuated only by the clicks and whirrs of insects, the occasional sounds of night birds, whooping and calling, and other sounds that I could not even classify… friends or foes I knew not. I was unafraid, just totally alert to every sound and every sight, to every hush and every shadow; I felt a blissful harmony with myself and the world for the first time in my life. Thus I remained for perhaps an hour or two, who knows. By now the sun had set and the moon threw cloaks of blackness over the bushes; then it happened.
First there was a soft mewing sound; it was very quiet but sounded so near. Then, I saw the eyes, the most beautiful lonely eyes I have ever seen. It looked up at the moon and sniffed the air, alert and so majestically alone. Silently it moved to the stream and began to drink. I could scarcely breathe and my heart was pounding so loud in my chest I was certain it would hear me. I was afraid even to blink in case I broke the magic spell of the moment; time stood still. Finally, I remembered Ryan and realised that I must share this with him; I reached over and softly shook his shoulder. He stirred and the cat was gone. And that was it; the minute that changed my life was over.
Back in the shack, I could scarcely contain my feelings and the words just came tumbling out. Ryan smiled:
“Perhaps you just imagined it,” he shrugged. I was furious and protested indignantly that I had seen something very, very real indeed. He calmed me down and had me describe in great detail the creature I had seen:
“Okay, you didn’t imagine it,” he said looking up at me, “you did see a creature and from your description it was a mountain lion – a cougar… but I cannot understand all your excitement, after all it is only a dumb animal!” A red mist came down before my eyes and I grabbed his collar in indignation:
“A dumb animal, a dumb animal, she is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen,” I said tightening my hold. Ryan laughed and easily broke my grip:
“Okay, okay little brother, tonight we will go together and see your mysterious creature!”
The whole of the next night we waited patiently for her to appear, but nothing happened. I was devastated; such a wonderful experience needs to be shared and the “failure” left me feeling hollow inside. I begged Ryan to come with me one further night and reluctantly he agreed. Then, at the same time as the night before, shortly after the sun had set, we were rewarded. She shone like silver in the moonlight and I swear that she looked at me as before, deep into my eyes, and I know that Ryan had the same experience; we walked back in silence trembling from what had happened.
From then on, each weekend we would go to the woods together and the cougar became a bond between us; we saw her several times and each time the experience seemed even greater than the one before. We tried to tell the other members of the gang but soon realised it was useless; you had to see the cougar yourself or you would never, you could never understand.
Then came the fateful weekend when Ryan could not come with me to the woods. He was a little uneasy about my going alone, but there was nothing to be done; I had no choice.
This time she did not appear, but I heard a cry from deep in the woods; could this be her? Slowly, silently I followed the mysterious cry. I have seen many horrific sights in my life, but nothing chilled me to my very core as seeing my beloved cougar with her leg caught in a trap. I froze in horror, and then as I inched forward, she snarled at me and surely would have attacked. I sat and waited for a long time and then very slowly moved towards her and, with some difficulty, removed the trap from her leg; she could have killed me at any moment, but she surely knew that I would rather die than hurt her. She looked at me for perhaps 20 seconds, moved off and quickly disappeared into the shadows. That look she had given me – of her lonely magnificence – burned into my soul and will stay there forever.
At first the other kids seemed rather bored with my talk as I gave them the facts about mountain lions, but when I began to relate my own experiences, they fell totally silent and I could feel their eyes glued to my face. The buzzer sounded to end my presentation, but Mr Curran, our teacher bade me carry on. I finally finished, my heart so full of re-living my experiences with the cougar that I scarcely noticed the reaction of the class.
“That was outstanding,” said Mr Curran. He looked down and paused for a while before dismissing the rest of the kids. He was silent for a while and then said:
“Remember, Fratellino, that to help the things you care about, you need to achieve, you need to do well at school. If and I mean if…” he said looking very serious, “…if you really love that creature, you will be able to help it more by having the power of a successful education. These cats are in danger and a person like you with a good education behind him could make a difference.” He held my gaze for another long minute:
“You are a good kid and the power of your love can make things happen. Do you understand me?”
But I had understood very well indeed; I knew what had to be done and indeed my education took a sharp turn for the better.
My passion for the cougar continued and I saw her several times after “the incident”; I even began to believe that she really did know me. Even when I was abroad in the Army, my thoughts were always in those magical woods. I volunteered for specialist training and became a sniper and a woodsman, these skills bringing me closer to her; I learned about survival in the woods, about animal traps (and how to break them), and about every aspect of hunting (and what could go wrong in the woods). I shared the cougar with no one, for only Ryan would have understood.
He looked down at my injuries as I lay on the hospital bed:
“Ryan! Are you a colonel, now?” Not that I was surprised by the sudden appearance of my ‘big brother’; he was the sort of person who could appear anywhere, anytime.
“Not really,” he smiled enigmatically, “I am very useful to a lot of people,” he added almost apologetically.
“Have you seen her?” he asked. I nodded and explained the various encounters we had made. He smiled happily and I felt sure that she was almost as important in his life as in mine. We sat in silence for a while. He looked again at my injuries:
“You will be fine, though you will always have a limp…. the same limp as her’s,” he added shaking his head in some amusement.
“Nurse,” he called, “bring me this man’s chart, he is still in some pain.” He wrote on the chart, the nurse gave me an injection; when I awoke he was gone. That was the last time I saw Ryan until many years later when he came to stay with me in the woods.
But now I am old, old and at peace with my past and my memories. My wife has long-since died and my son lives abroad. I live alone in the woods like my beloved cougar, in my simple, remote shack, with everything I could possibly want. By day I wander silently looking for her tell-tale paw-prints in the wet clay by the streams; by night I listen for the mews and cries that tell me she lives on. The hunters no longer come to her woods; a succession of very unhappy hunting accidents had her woods re-Christened “The Haunted Woods”. They tried to trap her, but they were amateurs and I, her defender, a professional, so they finally gave up. Sometimes I see her, just for a few seconds as her eyes flash in the moonlight or maybe just a silver blur in the shadows and my heart skips a beat, a beat like the very first time I beheld her face. I know that I will spend the rest of my days in the kingdom of my beloved; it is where I belong.