04 February 2012

A bestiary (3)

Rising a hundred metres or so from pure arid desert, the mesa was a geological and ecological freak of nature and a perfect research base camp. Its tip was the end of a natural water pipe: an aquifer seam from the mountains to the south, water driven along it and then upwards by the weight of their much greater height. Further north, occasional oases marked the onward route of the subterranean flow. The spring which oozed out onto the mesa's slightly concave plateau was too meagre to support a human community but it managed to maintain a miniature subsistence ecology and associated microclimate. At the apex of the mesa's food chain came a tribe of cats. Not an exotic breed of wild cats, but recognisably the feral descendants of felis catus: the common house cat.

The calls on my time by the work I had come to do were regular but short; the gaps between them long. Inside my shelter, amongst and made from the threadbare scrub, or outside it when the sun was low, I had a lot of time in which to watch the cats. They were a matriarchal tribe, ruled subtly by a medium sized, inscrutably dignified female, black with a white flash between her eyes, whom I dubbed "QueenMum". The males did a lot of posturing and wailing but the females, except for the brief periods when they came into season, ran the world.

Highly socialised, the adults shared food and childcare; each individual tended to have a 'best friend', so a litter of kittens generally had four adults looking out for it. QueenMum's best friend was Missy, an elderly grey; the two of them spent much of their time sitting together on a mound, surveying QueenMum's domain. They vocalised extensively amongst themselves, and even more so to the kittens, with a complex repertoire of modulation – either they were using language, or the weeks of solitude affected me more than I realised.

The one exception to this civilised state of affairs was Thug, a small white female. She spent half of her time sulking and glowering at the edge of the community, and the other half picking on its other members. I never saw Thug catch any food of her own. On a good day she would saunter up and share someone else's kill; on a bad one she would launch in and simply take it for herself. Her assaults were of such psychotic intensity that she was never resisted.

Gary was the biggest member of the tribe, an enormous tigerstripe male. On a bright night, under a nearly full moon, I watched Gary haul the carcass of a lizard, larger than himself, up the side of the mesa. It took him several hours; a cat is designed for eating at the kill, not for carrying, but he had a litter to feed. The first hint of dawn was showing on the horizon beyond the distant highway when he finally wrestled his prize over the rim onto the plateau. As he dropped it, Thug appeared from the darkness in a storm of hissing, spitting and screeching. Gary, intimidated though perhaps ten times her body weight, backed off and she started to feed. Overcome by the unfairness of it, I stood up and went to shoo her away; she stood her ground, spitting fire at me, but gave way eventually when I pushed at her with a booted foot. "There you go," I said to Gary, shoving the lizard towards him; but he made no move, just sat and watched me. One by one, the rest of the tribe appeared; they sat in a circle, unblinking eyes glittering, staring at me. It was the first time I had ever interfered in their lives, and it was a mistake. I went back to my shelter, embarrassed. The lizard lay there, uneaten, ignored, gradually eroded over the days and weeks not by Gary or his offspring but by ants and bacteria.

When I first arrived on the mesa, lying low by day and building my bivouac, the cats and other wildlife were intensely curious about me. They came and watched me, sniffed the things that I had brought with me. After a while, though, having decided that I was nothing to do with them, they ignored me. They lived, loved, fought, bred, ate, died, without acknowledging my existence. Young kittens who sought to investigate me were called back with a throaty bubbling growl when they got closer than about two metres, but there was no other acknowledgment of my existence. Even when I went and sat amongst them, the kittens between my feet, they acted as if I were nonexistent. The affair of Gary, Thug and the lizard was a unique exception; so was Bastet.

Bastet was a young piebald female, of the same generation as Thug. She was a restless spirit, often hunting or prowling the perimeter while the others sat or slept or sunned themselves. Though she joined in with the life of the community, unlike the others she seemed to have no 'best friend'. Where they killed, shared the kill, then slept, Bastet would often trot into the group with a rodent in her jaws, drop it beside a litter of kittens, then disappear immediately to hunt again.

And, unlike the others, Bastet often visited me in the shelter. I would wake from sleeping through the heat of the day to find her also asleep, inches from my face; or awake, watching me. She investigated every item I had brought with me, vomiting copiously after sampling the can of lubricating oil. She looked in at me the wrong way through the telescope as I photographed, rushing round to cuff the camera each time it clicked. She prodded and sniffed with particular interest at the seismographs. She sampled my food; I had nothing to obviously interest an obligate carnivore, but she developed a surprising fondness for peanuts and for spiced fried lentils. She delivered her first litter of kittens in my sleeping bag while I was out, then moved them to my spare underwear leaving the bloody afterbirth behind for me to find later. Within a few days, she moved both kittens and underwear outside where she could tap into the community childcare network.

The other regular visitor to my shelter was Jerry, a small mouse of some species unknown to me. Like Bastet, he took whatever food was on offer and showed no fear; my supply of dried fruit and mixed grain muesli bought me hours of amusement at negligible cost. After a while, his fondness for currants dyed his nose and whiskers purple. Occasionally, Jerry and Bastet would be in the shelter at the same time; this made me nervous at first, but some kind of truce seemed to exist within my space. Outside, though he was too small to merit a deliberate hunt, Bastet would have eaten Jerry if he had crossed her path. Inside, they ignored each other.

In preparation for my departure from the mesa, my work completed, I methodically obliterated all signs of my stay: equipment and waste packed up, shelter dismantled and scattered, latrine pit not just filled in but planted over with scrub cuttings. Bastet sat and watched me, unblinking, as I went out all of this. On the final night, as I descended the western slope through the rushing wind to the waiting truck, Bastet trotted surefooted beside me. As we loaded my gear under the tarpaulin, she watched intently.

Before departure I signed a sheet confirming that the summit was clean of my presence, returned to the state in which I had found it, but in fact I had broken the rule in two small ways. Beneath the patch of scrub where my shelter no longer nestled, I had left one last meal of spiced fried lentils; and into Jerry's burrow I had poured a quantity of muesli and dried currants.


Julie Heyward said...

Bastet moved her kittens to your "spare underwear"? As opposed to ... ? You had, perhaps, a Chippendale dresser with twelve drawers in which your undies were sorted by color and fabric?

When I went to summer camp (ages 10 to 13), I had a giant, coagulated tangle of damp (we spent an awful lot of time doing things in creeks) clothes exploding out of a suitcase. I would -- at least once a day -- hose down said fungulous mass with a massive can of Lysol.

Feeding cats: at about that same time, at home, we had a huge collection of barn cats. Of course there was the obligatory orange, tiger-striped male called "Tigger" with the fat, scarred head of a typical alpha cat. I, however, was partial to a svelte gray male, "Nibbons" whom I fed on the roof outside my bedroom window -- fed that fish-stinky, gluey canned cat food, that dries to a black, scrabrous crust; that, when a cat eats it from a freshly turned can, with prissy little licks, makes a particular wet-sticky sound that, to me, is the perfect sound of gratitude.

Geoff said...

Thanks Felix

Made a somewhat dreary day - I have "man flu" - worth awaking for.

Anonymous said...


Felix said...

JH> ...your "spare underwear"? ...
JH> You had, perhaps, a Chippendale
JH> dresser ...

Chippendale? Nothing so common, my dear; it was a design by Edward William Godwin, executed by William Watt and hand decorated by James Abbott McNiell

JH> in which your undies were
JH> sorted by color and fabric?

How to sort it, when it was all pale pink silk?

Back to reality ... I'm afraid that when spending hot months in a furze hut, clean underwear is (not to get into too much detail) a literal matter of life and death. It has to be clean and frequently changed, or nasty fungal things happen. As to colour and fabric ... everything was the same grey/khaki cotton, which saved no end of time making wardrobe decisions in the morning...

JH> When I went to summer camp ages 10
JH> to 13), I had a giant, coagulated tangle
JH> of damp (we spent an awful lot of time
JH> doing things in creeks) clothes...

That, in a place where water is only just present in sufficient seeping quantity to sustain life and the daily shade temperature regularly peaked at 50°C, was one problem with which I luckily didn't have to contend...

JH> ...exploding out of a suitcase. I would
JH> -- at least once a day -- hose down said
JH> fungulous mass with a massive can of Lysol.

RoFL!!!! That's an image which will linger in the mind for a long, long time