The Big Cat
It was the morning after my older brother, Mike, moved out. Mom had just left for her job at the bank, and I was in the kitchen, barefoot, wearing a long t-shirt and boxer briefs, staring out the back door. The condensation on the glass panels slowly faded away, and outside everything looked glossy. The sun was coming up, revealing a dewy shine that coated just about everything – droplets on our warped, wooden deck, slick blades of green grass, the stalks of corn growing in the field behind our house.
“Well, what’re you waiting for?” My dad asked from the frumpy, gray couch in the living room. He was sort of sinking into the cushions, one leg thrown over the other, reading the local paper. “Go on.”
He didn’t look up as I slowly opened the door, inch by inch. Not wanting anything to run or fly off, I entered this space as quietly as I could. I needed to gather food for my toad, Jumper, a gift from Mike for doing so well in fourth grade. He found her in one of our window wells a few weeks before. At first, Dad didn’t want me to have her, but Mom argued a pet would teach me responsibility.
“Fine, but I’m not paying to feed the thing. He’ll have to do that on his own.” We never had a lot of money, and my father had been out of work for a couple months. He was a roofer, and on his last job, he’d fallen from a ladder and hurt his back. He’d just started hobbling around the house on his own.
Taking care of Jumper distracted me from Mike leaving. She had quite an appetite and was getting bigger by the day. I had to start this new morning ritual of hunting crickets for her to eat. From the deck, I looked out over all the green. Being so close to the field, several insects and animals roamed our yard throughout the day. There were bunnies and birds, toads and frogs, the big ones croaking all night. Deer and foxes wandered out of the corn. The occasional mole or possum. Mice. Day after day, large hawks perched atop the dogwood trees, surveying the land, plotting their next move.
The morning belonged to the bugs, though. I wondered if maybe they still thought it was night or wished it were. Perhaps they just liked the still and quiet of the early hours. The crickets were singing the final verses of their song, their little bodies hidden by the thick blades of grass. I loved how they chirped. Often the same sound put me to bed, so I felt both happy and sad plucking these lullaby bugs from their natural habitat and placing them into Jumper’s. She needed to eat though, and I knew my dad wasn’t kidding about paying for food. I wanted to prove to him that I could take care of her, that Mike was right for believing I could. Mom was taking on more hours at the bank and picking up shifts at Bob’s Diner on Main, so I didn’t want to ask her for help. She was upset when Mike left. She’d wanted him to go off to college somewhere, but he took a job at Callahan Plumbing and Heating instead, which is what my dad had urged him to do. I think she saw this as Mike giving up on his dreams.
Not wanting to catch a splinter, I tiptoed across the deck. As my feet found the damp grass, I walked delicately, checking the ground before each step. Moisture clung to spider webs in little drops, so they were easy to avoid. I worked across the lawn the way I’d seen Mike mow it before he left. Back and forth, back and forth, edging ever closer to where the grass met the field. The deeper into the yard I went, the louder the crickets chirped. They began to spring forth with each step, but they moved slow and couldn’t jump that high. I scooped a few up and placed them into the plastic bag I carried.
A few feet away from the stalks, the chirping intensified. I peered into the rows of corn, but the crop was so healthy, I couldn’t see much. Mike used to say the field was magical. That creatures existed at its center that kept Belleriver safe. I was thinking of the stories he would tell me when the backdoor banged open, slamming into the siding. My father hobbled out onto the deck.
“How many you got so far? You’re not giving up already, are you?”
I pretended to count, already knowing I had eight. “Eleven!”
“Is that all?” He took out a pack of Marlboros from his pocket. “Your brother would have double that by now. They’re jumping all over the place!”
Mike was a great athlete at Belleriver High School – quarterback of the football team, point guard on the basketball team, short-stop in baseball. During games, under the lights or on the diamond, he was proudly claimed. Dad would stand and shout his name from the bleachers. He’d bask in the applause whenever Mike completed a pass deep or sunk a three pointer. I think he believed the other parents were jealous of him. Wanted what he had – the star athlete son.
A gust of wind blew through the yard. “Damn!” Dad was leaning up against the house for support, his body sagging. One arm hung at his side and the other attempted to keep his sweat-stained ball cap on his head. “What are you standing around for? Keep going!”
I turned back to the field and listened for the chirps. I thought of Jumper getting hungry in her tank and crouched low to the ground, scanning for movement. The sun continued its rise, illuminating the avenues between the blades of grass while I scooped and grabbed, scooped and grabbed. After another pass along the edge of the yard, I stopped to count… 13, 14, 15, … I had to concentrate. If I miscounted, Dad would call me a liar and a cheat. He’d compare me to Mike again.
My focus was cut by the flick, flick, flick of his cheap, plastic lighter. One of those gas station 50 centers. The thing was probably out of fluid, but he kept trying. I was still watching him when something, some flying thing drilled me in the side of the neck. Another smacked into my thigh.
Grasshoppers. Dozens of them fleeing the field, and these weren’t the normal-sized ones that peppered our yard throughout the day. They were big and juicy. The type that could jump as far as I was tall, popping their waxy wings for extra distance at the peak of their hop. They scared me.
My father wasn’t concerned about the wave of insects invading our yard. He’d managed to light his cigarette and was taking a drag. He cupped his free hand over the tip to shield it from the wind and blew out a cloud of smoke. He gave a little wave, a flick of the wrist. Almost daring me to venture into the field and meet the grasshoppers head on. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of them.”
The wind died down, but maybe five rows in a cluster of stalks began to shake and bend in all different directions. The sound of healthy crop snapping filled the air. Something was coming toward the yard, toward me. There were odd rustlings, more crunching and snapping. I felt the sting from the chilled, dewy grass on the bottom of my feet. It was getting closer.
“Goddamn!” Dad was coughing, his back crashing into the side of the house. Another grasshopper drilled the back of my calf. More sprang from the final row of corn, arcing up in a flutter of fibery legs. They were fleeing whatever was in the field. I clutched the bag of crickets, ready to give up and return to the safety of our home. Then, my father screamed. He was shaking and pointing at me. The cigarette between his fingers trembled. “What the hell is that?!”
I slowly turned. At the edge of the field was a pair of unblinking eyes. I took a step back, and they moved closer. I took another, and a paw crossed the border into our yard. Next came its head, white around the mouth and eyes. A long body of golden fur, a tail as tall as the stalks curled up at the tip. It was a cat. A big cat. The biggest I’d ever seen. Moving soundlessly, gliding across the grass.
Its eyes locked onto mine. While terrified, I admired its coat, how it shimmered in the sunlight. I considered running, but the distance from me to the backdoor was too far. The animal would be able to chase me down. I lost feeling in my legs and stood rooted to the spot. It neared, muscles flexing with each step.
“Run, boy!” Dad yelled, but I didn’t dare move. Mike wouldn’t have told me to run. He would have gotten between me and the cat. The animal took another step, and my father started to feel his way along the siding for the door. His mouth hung open as he reached for the handle.
The cat panted. Saliva gathered in the corners of its mouth. I backpedaled. When my heel found the step, the creature sprung. I screamed and closed my eyes. Waited for its teeth to sink into my leg or arm, a white-hot pain. But it didn’t attack. The big cat bounded past me, clearing the steps in one leap, the white fur of its underside flashing. It crouched down low on the deck, tail swaying back and forth.
Dad’s lip quivered. He was trying to say something but couldn’t. He jerked the door open. The cat pounced, but he was able to slide inside before its front legs landed with a thump on the glass. The cat continued to pant, breath fogging up the pane, clouding the look of horror on my father’s face. Its tail thrashed, and a low rumbling came from someplace deep inside its chest. Dad’s cigarette had gone out. It fell from his mouth to the floor as he retreated further, backing away until he was out of sight.
The animal lowered itself and turned to face me. Its tail stopped whipping, and it stepped down from the deck. The cicadas started to throb, and I squeezed the bag of crickets tighter. A buzzing chorus moved from tree to tree. The cat was feet away. I held my breath but didn’t close my eyes this time. They reached a crescendo, a noise that filled all of me. I can’t explain why, but I wanted to touch it. Wanted to feel the warmth of the sun on its golden coat. I knew it hadn’t come to hurt me.
No, the cat was here for another reason. To protect me. To warn my father that any harm done to me would be met by some force. He could not blame me for Mike leaving. Could not take the anger he felt from the pain in his back out on me. Another growl rumbled over the buzz as the beast strode by. When it reached the edge of the yard, it faced me a final time. Something passed between us then, from animal to human. The cat was telling me to be stronger. Braver. Then it turned to the field, its front paws crossing the border between. The stalks began to snap. Only the tip of the tail was visible, and soon even that was gone.
I refused to speak to my father the rest of the day and waited for Mom to come home. I needed to tell her the whole story, exactly as I remembered it. Wanted her to picture the animal’s golden fur, feel the mixture of fear and awe.
When she returned from work, I thought my story would give her energy, but she was exhausted. I got to the part where the animal leapt onto the deck, placing its paws on the glass, and she stopped me. “John, did all this really happen? Did you see this cat?”
Dad winced on the couch. All the extra movement from earlier had made his back even more sore and twisted. “I don’t know what he’s talking about. Probably the Bradford’s cat or something. They let their pets roam all over.”
Too hurt to stand up to him, I burst into tears. Mom kissed the top of my head. “You miss your brother already, don’t you? I bet that’s what this is about.” She got out a pan to start dinner. “Those types of cats haven’t been seen around these parts for years, honey.”
But it was! It was! Its stomach was white. Its eyes, light. I was describing everything I could. Told her how I thought it was there to protect me. That’s when my father let out this laugh, an evil chuckle that undid everything I had just said.
“John, cut it out. He has an imagination, and that’s a good thing.” She asked me to help set the table. “Will, you’re talking about a puma. An animal like that wouldn’t survive around here.” Puma, cougar, mountain lion, panther, whatever you want to call it – the big cat was in our backyard that morning.
Later that night, alone in the room I’d shared with my brother, I’ll begin to question what I saw. Become less sure. Try to shake the cat from my mind. Picture the neighbor’s pet instead. But no matter what, I’ll still see the golden fur. Hear the thump of its paws on the door.
I’ll face Mike’s empty bed and tell him the story. But when I get to the part about the cat entering the yard, I’ll change what comes next. This time, Dad wasn’t fast enough as he hobbled across the deck. The cat attacked – a swipe to the neck, a clenching of jaws – and it was over.
I’ll shake my head and start over, picturing the moment anew. Now, my father charged down the steps, injured back and all and met the beast head on in the middle of our yard. They gnashed and gnarled, and in the end, he was victorious. He strangled the cat or remembered the rusty buck knife he always carried. Stood over the beast, hands bloody.
What if Dad had opened the door and invited the big cat to live with us. It would lay by the fireplace during winter, licking its paws, the light from the flames dancing across its coat. It would sleep on the ground between us.
I’ve told this story to the empty bed next to mine over and over, each version real, even though what really happened was this: a big cat appeared in our yard after crossing the field from some other place. It could have killed me, but it didn’t. The cat growled and panted and scared my father. It looked at me and went back into the corn. I saw its tail above the stalks, remember? And then it was gone, never to be seen again.
Grant Deam earned his BA in creative writing from Knox College in 2013. He taught high school Spanish on Chicago’s south side before pursuing an MFA from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he served as Assistant Editor for Sou’Wester and received the William Carlin Slattery Award in drama and the Mimi Zanger Award in short fiction. He hosts the weekly podcast Writers in the World.