Willow Lake Press
by Cat van Besoyen © 1997
Cougar Valley Goodbye I woke up slowly, remembering, unavoidably, that they were coming to pick up the cougar today. I rolled over, covering my eyes lightly with one sleep-stiffened arm, as I blocked out the morning light, vainly trying to postpone the brutal reality of the day. Invasively, the light streamed in the uncurtained window, illuminating the empty house. I rolled out of bed and glanced through the door into the living room.

The moving boxes were stacked haphazardly by the front door, my old piano sitting silently against the far wall. I stretched slowly as I looked at its weathered wood, wondering passively what its future held in store. Would it be played lovingly by some other hands? Would it ever receive the tuning it had been in such perpetual need of? Not worth the expense of moving, the new owners would most probably junk it.

I sighed heavily, and leaned back against the door frame. Lighting a cigarette, I pulled deeply on the filter, determined to stay my threatening melancholia. As I felt the nicotine hit my system, I moved gradually, my eyes adjusting to the stark early light. I crossed languidly over to the dusty window and looked out. It was going to be, I thought ironically, an absolutely bonny spring day.

I took a long drag on my cigarette and stepped out the front door onto the small, rickety porch. The sweet morning breeze assaulted my senses with a blanket of bittersweet emotions.

I walked tentatively around the side of the house and looked out over the rolling Ozark hills, richly green, the trees bursting gloriously into bloom. My eyes lingered, nostalgically drinking in the spectacular view, one last poignant time. The huge new metal barn stood silently, cruelly mocking in its emptiness, a transparent tribute to unfinished dreams. I knelt down to stub out my cigarette in the overgrown grass and placed the empty filter neatly in my pocket.

Standing up, I walked purposefully over to the animal compound and fumbled with the rusty lock on the enormous gate. The massive chain link and cattle panel doors leading to the inside of the compound's perimeter fence sprung open suddenly. Sharply, it crashed back against an old oak tree whose lower trunk bore the scars of its exhaustive relationship with this animated entry. In my daily struggle with the freakish thing. I had never, to my increasing frustration, gotten the upper hand in maneuvering through its temperamental pathway without receiving some unexpected trauma, as if it required some burdensome rite of passage.

Well, I thought sharply, not this time - not this LAST time. Today I would conquer the vile thing. I moved cautiously to the left, watching intensely as I concentrated on the direction of the gate's arc as it ricocheted off the sturdy oak. I bandied about erratically, looking undoubtedly like some amateur tennis player on hot sand, watching aghast as the gate waged its assault, swinging swiftly to the left, only to veer inexplicably right.

Gaining ground by some quirk of physics, it rushed up toward my quaking legs. I leapt up awkwardly and too late as it collided solidly with my lower torso. My arms flailed about pitifully as I pushed uselessly at its pinning weight. With growing panic I struggled valiantly against the unyielding metal. The gate convulsed, as if it were alive, as a jagged piece of aluminum ripped inevitably through the back of my jeans, providing one final indignity in proclaiming its total triumph.

Now I had called this gate a lot of nasty names over the last four years, but I do believe that I then reached new heights in adjective abuse. I reached frantically around, trying to free my bruised backside of this monstrosity only to see the wiry chain link hooked sturdily through the denim material at a rather dangerous angle.

Concerned for my future fertility, I carefully wriggled out of my jeans, an extremely difficult feat, strangely reminiscent of Houdini. I pulled my left leg free finally, as I heard Chac, the cougar, chirping excitedly. I rolled free of my rather required apparel, which were still inconveniently attached, in all their designer glory, to the infamous attack-gate.

I must have made quite a spectacle, my bruised limbs splayed grossly in the dirt. I struggled to my feet, catching my foot in the twisted tendril of a tenacious tuber. Teetering precariously on one leg, my arms beat stiffly against the air, as if I was having some sort of exotic fit. Regaining my delicate balance, I heaved a relieved sigh, and slipped my foot warily out from under the gnarled root. I kicked it roughly, just for good measure, and looked up at Chac.

His muscles rippling with pent-up power, he plopped down on the ground and tilted his head coyly to the left. He peered at me through alert eyes, an unmistakable smile on his little whiskered face. Cougars definitely have a sense of humor.

I smiled broadly in spite of my rigorous exertions, and proceeded over to Chac's enclosure, leaving my Calvin Klein's to bond with my ignoble nemesis. I entered his enclosure and sat down upon an old tree trunk, letting the eager cat climb into my lap to suck my thumb contentedly. At four years old, he still had the personality of a playful cub. I stroked his soft fur gently while he purred a contented rumble. With his sharp claws carefully sheathed he proceeded to knead my legs with single-minded abandon.

My mind wandered indulgently over the rich memories of our relationship. Losing him would be difficult, and I could take little comfort in the fact that his future facilities were exemplary. I stroked Chac's tawny fur, my sense of touch trying to commit the feel of him to memory.

Lifting my eyes, I let them roam painfully over the rest of the deserted compound. The dusty chain link fencing was stark and desolate in its emptiness. All of the other animals had been placed in appropriate facilities. Only Chac was left, and he would be leaving within the hour. It was the end of a dream. "Cougar Valley Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary" would soon be silent, -- and no more.

I scratched Chac under his chin and watched his eyes close with pleasure. Kicking his bowling ball out from under the porch of his den box, I got up to begin one last game of bat-a-ball, when I heard the expected drone of a large truck, pulling up the lengthy drive.

"Sorry, Chac, " I said, my face pressed closely to his, "there's just no more time."

I stood up. My slow deliberate movements betrayed the ache of my muscles, and my mind. I left his enclosure reluctantly. An almost physical pull, like a tightened rubber band, tugged at my legs, mirroring the tug at my heart. I turned and closed Chac's double gate carefully behind me. The aluminum chain link, normally lightweight and easily maneuverable, had become a heavy, ponderous thing, and my vision blurred with the effort it took me to close and latch that door. I walked stoically over to the edge of the compound, and prepared to greet the Sanctuary's last guests.

The animal handlers were already out of the truck and wrenching the heavy transfer cage down the ramp, when I realized with growing alarm that my jeans were still snagged upon the compounds entrance gate. My eyes shot wide open, snapping me out of my drowsy nostalgia. My head turned wildly from side to side, as I quickly gauged the seconds involved. I felt my eyelashes brush against my eyebrows. I tried to blink in order to clear my peripheral vision, but I was apparently frozen in this pop-eyed state.

With my modesty quivering, my ears told me that there was no way I would reach to gate from inside the compound, before my visitors arrived to this same position from the other side. I listened, their grunts of effort mingled with small bits of laughter, the noise jostling with an almost musical symmetry against the clang and ping of the metal guillotine like cage being pushed efficiently forward. My eyes bulged slightly out of their sockets, as I realized my present precarious position. With just a few micro moments separating me from my guests, they loomed big and beefy in my mind.

I imagined them easily. They were large. Not overly muscled, but enormous in bulk, they would be wearing well fitting jeans, with room enough to shove a well worn copy of Playboy, or Hustler, or Bodacious Boobs, or some such, firmly in their back pocket. They would be chewing tobacco of course, and would forget to spit, as they leered appreciatively, (or worse, in amusement!), at my lack of decorum.

I jerked my head upwards, glimpsing a narrow view of the entrance. The rest of the compound had already been closed off. Each gate had been tightly bound with a chain and padlocked. The only way out, was the way these animal wranglers were about to come in.

The demon gate stood slightly ajar. A small breeze lapped against its tattered metal with a humming chuckling sound. My battered Calvin's flapped mockingly. Then a sudden gust whipped them upwards and both legs pointed towards the heavens. Plump with the spring wind, their tattered bits fluttered like a war wounded flag.

The breeze tickled my bare legs teasingly just before a loud crash sounded outside the compound. With the instant realization that the transfer cage had slipped off the ramp, I dashed stiffly up to my waving jeans, and pulled. I stumbled backwards, my hand clutched resolutely to a bit of denim. One last taunting tear to a patch of posterior material, and they were mine! I bounced into those jeans, with one jump. Both legs at once. Then I rebounded and fell over the top of the gate, ass over, as they say, nearly giving one poor lad a cracked nose.

Bouncing on my backside, like a stone skipping across a lake, I slid conveniently through the open door of the transfer cage. I must have been a vision to behold. My protruding bottom, had acted like a door-stopper, leaving only my mud spackled face pressed up against the inside of the wire paneled wall of the cage. I tried to grin, in an attempt to laugh off my clumsy entrance, but it must have come out like some lopsided leer. I realized some sort of verbal communication was necessary. I tried to blink, but my eyes only bugged out a bit.

The animal handlers were obviously healthy robust men, and it pained me to watch them take on such a pasty color. I cleared my throat, spewed a bit of muddy goo on the legs of the nearest fellow, and burped a gurgled hello. I followed this with some phrases about how I seemed to be stuck, and could they please be so kind as to give me a hand out. They remained utterly silent, frozen, to a man. They had obviously never expected the dirty poopy profession of cougar wrangling to include such an entertaining spectacle, and had no intention of cutting short this unexpected perk.

Seeing that they were in need of some extra encouragement, and in hopes of sparking some latent humanitarian gene, I began to thrash about as a means of communicating my distress. They watched. Silently, their eyes widened slowly, crinkling in admiration. All four men stayed still as rocks -- they were clearly determined not to miss a second.

Dashing through the front door, I sprinted for the bedroom. Twisting about uncomfortably, I checked warily in the mirror, confirming the unfortunate extent of my embarrassment.

"Well blast and bloody damn!" I cursed freely to myself, and hastily ripped off my formerly favorite pair of jeans.

Bouncing clumsily about the bedroom, I agitated my foot frantically. Spitting muddy epithets with newfound zeal, I finally managed to free my trapped appendage in a rather ingenious maneuver, deftly perfumed with my lower bedpost. I threw my poor Calvin's vigorously across the bedroom and stomped out to rummage through a packed box of clothes for another pair of pants.

I found an old bleached pair, donned them swiftly and sat down at my old oversized steel desk to prepare the paperwork for Chacs' move. Rivaled only by that one winter spent trying to clean cages through an incessant six-week ice storm, the ceaseless aggravation of government paperwork virtually guaranteed an aerobic-like workout. A mere glance at a pile of triplicate forms, and my heart rate seemed to increase in tandem with my easily provoked frustration. I sorted through the mass of bureaucratic baggage, my exasperation mounting, and finished dotting the last "i" with something almost akin to affection. I let out a sigh I hadn't realized I was holding, and placed the paperwork in a large manila envelope.

I crossed over the living room to peep discreetly out the window, curious to see if these seasoned wranglers had begun to move, and saw them diligently attending to their task. I stood at the window and watched them haul the overturned, heavy frame onto the ramp. They worked in silence. This was a job they had repeated many times, their only communication seemed to be a suspicious twitching spasm that effected their shoulders from time to time. It would start with the largest man, and rippled quickly through all four, ending each and every time with a loud snorting noise from the lead man.

I was determined to cover for the odd greeting I had given them, and steeled myself with my best authoritative busy administrator look. Freshly attired, I stepped out onto the porch and strode steadily over towards the waiting crew. Shoving the nub of a pencil behind my left ear, where it stayed for precisely two and a half seconds before dropping conspicuously out of my hair, I held out the envelope containing all the legal forms for the transfer of ownership, and interstate transportation of an exotic cat. My clipped tone gave no clue of my underlying emotions as I related some last minute suggestions, ensuring Chac a safe, and stress free trip.

Now cool, calm and appropriately attired, I was presenting what I fancied to be a rather zippy professional image, as I directed the men through the compound. Walking backwards in front of them, like a tour guide, I faltered only slightly, slipping upon a lumpy patch of dark mud. Righting myself with a flawless though somewhat confusing hand gesture as a distraction, I was sure my clumsiness had gone unnoticed. We were now at the entrance to Chac's cage.

With nothing more to say, I saw the men eyes look downward towards my feet. How kind of them not to intrude upon my last moments I thought, their averted eyes allowing me one last private look goodbye. I caught their shoulders moving quickly up and down, recognizing the same hiccuped spasms that had rippled through this seasoned lot before. This time it took three loud snorting blasts from the biggest fellow to stop the rest of them. Their lips held a tight line while they seemed to be doing a few preparatory breathing exercises, as they readied themselves to spring into action.

Strangely they didn't grunt at all as they jockeyed the narrow cage into position. They made the next few moves, always tricky when moving a new animal, flawlessly. Guillotine door up, inner door swung open, half plucked chicken tossed into the squeeze cage, guillotine door down. Four men, four moves. No problem at all. I was watching Chac kill the poor battered bird for a second time when I glimpsed down unsuspectingly to find a distinctly fresh blob of cougar poops smeared over the top of my right tennis shoe.

I felt a creeping growing disgust settling in for the entire day. Peering down for a more thorough inspection, I examined my footwear for an extended period of time. I had almost seen a profile of Jimmy Carter in one of the smears, when the most diminutive member of the men coughed gently in my left ear. I'm sure I must have looked bewildered, my blank face turned upwards, my mind was engaged in a pressing need to remember precisely what the hell Jimmy Carter looked like anyway. All I could see in my minds eye was the gaping smiled president swimming with chicklet sized teeth. The poor man had absolutely no face from his top lip up.

I tried to gesture, directing the men to proceed back through the gate, but my slightly hunched posture didn't give my arms the room required for a broad unmistakable backhand sweep. What these patient men saw, and much to their credit interpreted correctly, was my elbow dashing erratically out from an odd angle to jab my own right rib. With a speed previously undisplayed they gave the massive cage a shove, sending it careening up the ramp. Chac chirped happily having finally killed his formidable foe, and crunched a leg off the mangled bird. He stood over the nearly liquid remains, spitting feathers proudly.

Grumbling softly through clenched teeth, I limped along behind them, resembling a sort of drunken Quasi Modo, as I dragged the top of my right shoe through the long grass. I stopped and closed the monster gate, taking a moment to take a quick peek down at my soiled shoe. Its fragrant perfume met me halfway down. Now a solid blanket like smear of solid muck, I dragged long bits of weedy grass behind me. A few dainty yellow dandelion bits bubbled through, adding bits of dusty color.

I smiled and gave up all pretense. A soft giggle welled up from the bottoms of my stinky feet. I waved a last, "be well," to my special cougar friend. I was leaving his world, more than he was leaving mine. The truck was loaded, locked and latched, and then was gone. I stood very still, and savored those last precious seconds. I was more alive in those five or six seconds than I had ever been, or would be hence.

The ancient Ozark Mountains then gave me one last gift, and I heard Chac's chirp, or was it just May's wind? No, for as sure as this morning was the fittest end, Chac was busy killing that poor bird again.
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