He knows that life is precious. He knows this like he knows that water is wet and that stars are distant—he’s not sure how he knows, but he knows as he knows that life is not a given.
But is also wonderful. Especially on nights like this. Is also hungry. Is also cold. Is also lonely. But magnificent. Is sometimes short, like his mother’s. Is sometimes long, like his father’s. Is sometimes always, like his own, tonight.
Is sometimes vast and spectacular.
Is sometimes wondering.
The winter cat does not think of himself as Lynx—he carries a whole different set of silent labels.
Nor does he think of himself as near extinct, what he senses is a distant lack of resonance. The sigh of fewer likenesses. The long sigh of the forest, tree whispering to tree to tree to tree about something he should hear but still—no matter how hard he listens or how silently he sits—remains beyond his hearing. The whispering trees are concerned. About him. Or his kind. This he knows. Or believes.
Especially on a night like this. Perched in snow, gazing at sky.
Above to his right the lights now shift a little and now they ripple in and out of colors he tries to name but cannot keep up with. Then there is a snap like a branch frozen and breaking from the weight of snow: a crack and then crackle and then new wind up there, rippling the vast sails of galaxy to galaxy travel.
Winter came early. Seems to him it comes earlier and earlier each year. Not that he minds. He prefers the stiller, harder ground of frozen earth. Especially just before the longer snows. Then he moves about with ease on pine-covered paths over mosses brittle with anticipation of the dark season ahead. The air carries scents well and true and over long, windless distances. And hunting is good. Before the long snows.
Then the long snows arrive—earlier this year than last, he believes. Stars are hidden most nights and hunting is no longer a joy but a need. Fewer scents and no tracks. Spoors quickly buried in white, then gray, then—as night settles again—in black flakes falling falling falling. Hunting is an urgent need now and for many days it is all he thinks of, all he does, to the constant chorus of hungers past and present.
Then the long snows quiet and clouds chase clouds away and across the edge of distance to reveal again the stars and the wide span of galaxy.
Hunting becomes again a joy for tracks remain tracks now, and he is not the only one hungry. But smaller hungers are made to feed larger hungers, this he knows, and he feels no unease about killing them and then, warming his tongue with their blood, eating them.
These smaller hungers—rabbits, deer, squirrels, mice, birds of many kinds, foxes even—run at first, not such willing food. But he is quicker and surer of his purpose and he corners and looms and that is when they turn and face his bared fangs with a strange relief, offering throats for the greater good. That is what his father told him, and that is what he has seen for himself, and that is what he would tell his children would there ever be any. He is not so sure about children, the longer sighs from tree to tree fill him with doubt. Even on a night light this.
Again the sky-colors ripple and another crackle turns starry wind and calls on his ears to heed.
He shifts in the snow as if to adjust his view for the better.
There was a wind, the loneliness among trees, but it has died now. The only wind there is races above. And the ripple grows, and grows. Covering most of the sky now, at least the northern half. He tilts his head back to view the top of the spireing lights, now green, now white and yellow, now faintly red shifting back into green and almost blue and waving again like that huge sail his father told him about, the sail that powers the ship that brings them across the darkness to the hunting grounds beyond birth and death. His father made that journey four winters ago.
His mother, far too young, made that journey two winters before that: killed by hunters who desecrated her where she lay, stripping her of her pelt and leaving her carcass for the carrion crows and ravens come spring. Would we just leave her here? he had asked his father. She is no longer your mother, is what he had answered, turning away and not waiting for him to catch up.
That was six winters ago. He was young then. A cub. He is no longer young.
His father bled to death, his foot caught in a hunter’s trap, crushed by the fanged metal jaws concealed under the mosses. He had managed to work himself free, but with only three good legs and the fourth crushed and bleeding, he did not last long. He got word—this wind he could hear—and raced to his father’s side, only to see that there was nothing to be done but stay by him and keep the carrion eaters at bay, lurking already at the perimeter. To keep them at bay at least until his father had left for that giant ship under giant sails.
He whimpered in his sleep, his father did. He had never heard his father whimper from any pain or from anything, and awake no such sounds would ever have left his throat. But asleep, weighed with oncoming death and an uncertain journey, his throat betrayed him and he whimpered with the pain and perhaps terror of it. Then his father would raise his lids to air cloudy eyes and the whimper would stop. He gave no signs that he had heard.
Then his father fell asleep again, into a softer whimper, into silence, and up and into the stars and those giant sails.
That was four winters ago, and looking up now he knows that he has never before seen these sails as towering, as shifting, as sighing, as singing, as beckoning.
As telling him to come.
No, he thinks, not now, not yet, my time has not come. I have yet to find a mate, I have yet to spawn my children. I must not believe the whisper of trees that sometimes seem to say that there are no mates left to carry young. That I am destined to loneliness. I must not believe that, is what he thinks.
While the sails shift and beckon.
And then shift to his right in a long cascading wave of almost thunder to his ears: blues and reds and greens and whites and yellows into yet more blues and with the crack, crack, crackle of breaking twigs in the sky as it once again settles into wind that beckons.
He almost found a mate two summers past, but she was spoken for by someone he had never met and who seemed almost twice his size and ready and only too happy to kill for the privilege of mating. He had calculated the odds and quickly turned back into the forest. Since then he has not even seen a mate, much less acquired one.
It is his duty to, he knows this.
He knows this, still absorbed by the shifting skies above. That call and call with the promise of safe passage.
And then he knows that his eyes betray him for he sees the face of his father, eyes unclouded and piercing as before the metal jaws, and his father sings with the whisper of shifting sails, sings with the same beckoning promise of safe passage.
No, he thinks, that cannot be you, father, that cannot be you calling.
And with his refusal to believe the face fades back into shifting colors that nonetheless keep calling him.
Then he rises. His neck and chest all air now, cold and expanding and his head wider now than all of the forest, and all forests, and as he rises into the shifting fabric he wonders why the sky is so insistent he meets it.
But meets it he does in the most wondrous light he has ever experienced. And there: a glimpse of the hunting grounds beyond and his father waiting, looking right up at him, but now telling him to return, there is more to do, which he knows, of course, but doesn’t say.
The light fills him again and now he hears the story told by the giant sails, as if leaving his furry ears behind down there in the snow gained him access to many new languages.
He listens as the lights sing his purpose.
The first father of his kind was this size. Towering into the skies, the stars. Every cub knows that. But now he knows again—whether whispered to by the light or whether knowing from within, he cannot tell, not that it matters.
Then flies the question, up into the night, from within or without: is he now the first father of his kind?
He tries to remember but can only reach the suckling cub competing with his siblings for succulent teats. The warmth of his mother. The warmth of her milk. The tiny but willing river of food drowning the little hungers within. Surely not the first father of his kind.
As two trees, sentries, move aside to let him through. To beyond the cub he once was, to beyond his young and happy mother, to beyond his stern but caring father, to beyond the forest and into the meadow revealed by the sentry trees moving aside to let him through.
Colors here, too. Not of shifting sails but of grasses and the many flowers they float among them bending softly with winds that seem to know him. Looking back the sentry trees have moved together again, making the forest surrounding whole again.
As he enters beyond cub, he becomes wind—no wonder they know him. Sibling winds. Mother winds. Father winds. Am I breath, then?
And they laugh at this. Not at him, or at his question. They rejoice in his curiosity. In his recognition of purpose. And then they dance away and say not yet, not yet, and now he finds himself sitting in the snow, looking up at the vaster and ever vaster sails as they no longer beckon but rather point the way.
He rises and shakes the snow off of his stump of a tail and back legs. He glances up again at the sails, now fading a little, though still magnificent.
The stars pretend not to have seen. Oblivious audience. But he knows they did, see. And then they stop pretending. Happy to light his way across the snowy meadow around which trees stand like silent sentries, keeping the forest whole.
He is hungry, and cold. And alone.
He is also filled, renewed. Purpose.