Repeated retching and the burn of bile caused her to reach her small, trembling fingers toward the faucet knob. She hoped simply to soothe her thirst and relieve the rawness at the back of her ragged throat.
Cara remembered one of her mother’s favorite sayings, ‘slower than molasses in January’. In this suspended moment it seemed an apt description. It was as though the space-time continuum that she had recently studied in school might be running low on batteries. The dust particles hanging within the shafts of sunlight striking the counter beside the sink appeared also to be partners in the slow dance. The sheer beauty of air transfixed her. Even the simple, drawn out ticks of the old clock moved toward her, muffled, like sound traveling through water.
At the same time, lightness permeated the room. It seemed that at any moment she might become weightless and find herself floating up off the worn linoleum floor, hovering like a spirit in mid-air.
Cold water rising up from the deep well and gushing out into the empty container filled it with clear crystalline water. Continuing to overflow the rim, it streamed down the sides, as runaway drops spattered onto the stained, chipped porcelain sink.
The jaunty curtains had the best view, though technically you could, I suppose, split hairs and argue a case for the window itself. Perhaps one could imagine them as stand-ins for sentinels. Taking up position on either side of the window frame they served as guards, patrolling the border between one world and another.
They would have seen her standing there, a drinking glass in her left hand, her right on the faucet handle. She was a sweet sight, her thin flowered pajamas hanging from her slim brown body. The bottoms, where the waist elastic had stretched now drooped low on her narrow hips and parts of her chest were damp where her pajama top clung to her. Cara herself felt the silkiness of the smooth, faded cotton as it moved with her, sliding easily along her fevered skin. The hem feathered the back of her left leg where a thread dangled down, lightly brushing her calf.
The white starched curtain fabric, though faded and dusty, remained steady in a world that felt to her like it was tilting and might begin spinning at any moment. The warm thrust of weighted air seeking shelter inside the cool kitchen failed to disturb their crisp gauzy visage. They would tell you that her eyes stilled and came to rest, looking as though they had spotted something of great interest. But, unlike a small animal whose stare widens to take in the outside, hers turned inward, as though seeking to absorb herself from the inside out.
On the surface these were mundane actions her muscles had accomplished countless times. She observed her left palm curled around the cool glass, wet and shiny. With a twist of her wrist her right hand turned off the faucet. She could not tell what was different, or why. Yet the stunned awakening of self-consciousness had, for the first time, separated her from the act. The tight membrane, whose job it falls to, acts to hold two worlds separate. One small, shaking hand reaching for a faucet knob to slake her thirst had pierced though. Like the sun cresting over the horizon at dawn, spreading light in one sharp arc, she became aware of herself for the first time.
I suppose that the curtains, had they been attentive educated parents might have marked the moment as a developmental milestone. Or a tidy therapist would have acknowledged that everyone, more or less, passes through some type of self-awareness portal and likely she was right on schedule. It may be that somewhere angels were drinking a toast, some grand elixir along the lines of our champagne. Though you might wonder how exactly without bodies one drinks anything at all. Likely the only way that information will be acquired is if you have the good fortune to meet one, though I daresay it’s unlikely to be the first question you find yourself asking.
Movement didn’t offer itself up to her as an option initially. Perhaps the stillness was a studied attempt on the part of her mind to grapple with the recalibrations firing off inside of her. An internal seismograph registering some subterranean change, the needle broke free of its sedentary groove and swung rapidly from side to side. Cara’s eyes, hungry, sought assurance of continuity. It was then that she spied the familiar curtains hanging gaily from the rod above the sink.
She considered telling someone. It seemed important as well as a bit scary. She wanted to share the weight of its significance with a person who might understand--or help her to. But what exactly was she going to say? She had no concepts, no words, only a change both sudden and subtle. Furthermore, like the time when later she would come face to face with a mountain lion, she could not immediately trust her perception.
Yes, perception would have been a welcome addition to her vocabulary. Knowing it might have allowed her to conceptualize and verbalize, to both capture and define what had so swiftly yet unequivocally changed her world. She found her mind attempting to frame the experience within a current paradigm (another word that would have proven useful), much as it would try to convince her that it was not really a large cat with eyes riveted on her staring through the tall grass when, years later, alone, she would experience a similar jolt that could not immediately be assimilated.
So she put it off to the fever. Maybe this is what happens when one has a really high temperature, she thought. Later, much later, Cara would look back and describe the entire experience as hallucinatory. By then she would know more about those magical movements between the worlds, having explored some of the further reaches of her own consciousness. Now it was a single moment, undigested, to be filed for future reference as the familiar but uncomfortable symptoms of the flu found and flooded over her.
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It lay, it’s warm tawny body the color of the yellow dirt and drying grasses, belly flattened into a narrow gully recently created by the El Nino storms, only its face presenting itself for her reflection. And then a flash of tail, like a tabby cat, swished through the grass. This one was long and thick, like a soft rope that had weathered and aged. The movement gave her what the face alone could not—confirmation.
Perhaps the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat was something akin to this experience. It is difficult to believe that one is 20 feet from a mountain lion, in a remote area, alone, unprotected. The body flips a switch internally and immediately calls up the human database reaching back through time. Joy, gratitude, shock, terror, sorrow and deep longing all tumble over themselves trying to find safe footing.
Cara froze in wonder and awe. This staring face, riveted upon her form, achingly alive, revealed the easy dedication to presence that she so hungrily sought. She felt naked, stripped of her personality, her importance and any meaning that she had up until now. Only just arrived, she felt born from the earth, from the ethers and from the fire of the sun itself. She might die into the next breath and she was more alive than she had ever been.
She had been praying to encounter a mountain lion. Now that one confronted her she realized that she could never have prepared for this. She felt her heart cry out as she thought of all animals--that large family of blessed beasts of air, earth and water. “How can we have blinded ourselves that we could imagine a world where you are not,” she sighed, the words barely audible beneath her breath. She heard herself attempting to commune with this particular cat as though it was a special envoy sent to represent all of the animals.
Cara desperately wished to stay longer. She wanted to sit down and have a good, long cry and speak, primitive soul to primitive soul. If she could have stated it clearly at the time she would have said that she wanted powers bestowed on her that were her birthright—the keen ability to know and be known across species.
Not clear whether to make eye contact she kept oscillating between long hungry stares and slightly bowing her head in reverence. Continuing to speak in soft tones for a time she reluctantly pulled her gaze away choosing, out of respect and with perhaps an intuitive sense that her leave-taking would protect her, to back up slowly in order to walk away. After a few paces backward and once she felt that she was out of range visually Cara turned around and began to sing loudly. It was a spontaneous act, she realized later, born out of some buried information regarding what to do if you encountered bears.
The time had been too short. She continued on, struggling between feeling both grateful and sorely cheated. She couldn’t contain her love or her longing to somehow touch, wrestle with and be befriended by this animal. She wanted to be like the tiger trainer that she had seen recently who protected himself in no apparent way. Surrounded, he would turn his back, be playfully mauled. He was one of them. She wanted to be one of them. Being human was, in that moment, a terrible disappointment to her.
It occurred to her, as she hiked further down the trail, that she had been fortunate to walk away unscathed. She was soberly aware from news stories that attacks, though uncommon, certainly happened on occasion. Cara felt relieved that she neither had to encompass such a potentially traumatizing encounter nor imagine the news being conveyed to her daughter that her mother had been found either severely mauled or dead. It was one thing to fantasize about being a shaman or cat whisperer and another altogether to deal with the reality of lightening quick reflexes, ripping claws and powerful jaws. It wasn’t the first time that she wondered if hiking alone was the best idea.
One thing was evident to her. Energy coursed through her body and her senses were on high alert. Her breath, coming in short bursts cleared any cobwebs from her mind as it swept away the extraneous leaving stark attention in its wake. The sun hugging her exposed bronze skin felt glorious. The intermittent buzzing of nearby insects and the delightful calls of birds as they swooped over the meadows, flitting to and fro in pursuit of airborne food, filled the warm, pungent air. To Cara in her expanded state, every sound seemed distinct, like a musical instrument taking its part in a large, well orchestrated symphony. She found herself humming along, adding her own contribution.
She was in love--with life, with the cat, with everything around her. She couldn’t stop smiling and every now and then something would bubble up inside of her, unable to be contained, and it would spill out into melodious laughter. How long had it been since she had laughed with such ease and abandon, she wondered? It was like a drug, meeting up with a wild animal, she realized. No wonder we go around deadened.
That thought stopped her in her tracks and she stood on the dusty trail, rooted to the spot as nature’s joyous orchestra played on. What others had said in words more eloquent than hers, she thought, struck at the core of her. She found herself stating out loud, “Truly the heart will go out of us when you are gone.”
Sobered by this latest revelation she began to walk, this time more slowly and deliberately than she had been. She wished to drink in every inch of the surrounding landscape. The small orange flowers, nudging their way up through the waving grass next to her appeared to speak directly to her as they bobbed their heads to the wind’s rhythm. A bold jay careening in front of her to land abruptly on a nearby fence post communicated its private gratitude for her discovery as it peered at her, first with one eye and then the other before calling out in its characteristic voice. Even the summer breeze caressed as it slid over her, deftly brushing against her skin and lightly lifting the hair off her shoulders and back.
Cara stooped to remove her shoes and socks so that she could make direct contact with the dirt. Wriggling her toes into the soil amid the small rocks and bits of dried leaves she longed to feel the pulsing of the earth beneath her feet. Getting up she walked on, reveling in the textures now available to her feet bare. She considered taking off all of her clothes but didn’t feel assured that someone might not happen upon her around a bend in the trail. Civilization was clearly overrated, she thought.
Aching to be in league with even the stars wheeling overhead, their presence obscured by the brightness of the day, she cast her gaze up into the wide expanse of blue sky. If she could have peeled away the membrane separating her from life she would have been willing in that moment to stand bloody and raw, kin to all. Any separation felt like an abomination.
Cara raised her arms upward and heard a long, wild cry escape from her throat. The sound rode the back of the wind sailing up and over the grasslands, carried like a salve to whoever and whatever lay in its path. The movements and sounds of the surrounding life, she felt assured, gladly met her wildness. She felt embraced, received, welcomed. So this is true love, she thought. This is joy.
Feeling free and deliriously alive she ran down the path, weaving back and forth with her arms outspread like a child playing airplane, picking up speed as she flew. She remembered doing this as a child and had a fleeting question about when she stopped playing with nature. Well, she was playing now. If she met someone on the path they would simply have to climb into their own plane and join her. Cara wasn’t going to stop for anyone.