The Last Two Survivors

Typical Wednesday. Typical workday in general. Handling cases, assembly-line style, routine and uninteresting. Another average day.

As a bonus, my eyes have been bothering me a lot recently. My vision in my right eye hasn't been the same since I suffered a scratched cornea two summers ago, and it causes me trouble sometimes. I'm also light-sensitive. I've known this forever. As far back as elementary school, I've had trouble with camera flashes. Most students had their picture taken twice, with the extra just in case there was a problem with the first. This was before digital photography—maybe they use that now and can instantly tell if the picture was good or not. One memorable year the photographer had to take my picture five times because I reflexively blink at the flash and he honestly didn't know if he'd gotten me with my eyes open or not, even after four attempts.

"Don't blink!" he kept scolding me.

"I'm trying!" I told him.

So this light sensitivity is nothing new, but combined with the recurring eyestrain from the one bad eye, it's been causing a lot of trouble recently. I keep the brightness on my computer monitor all the way down, but I have bright florescent lights almost directly over my desk. When I look directly at them, I actually see spots before my eyes. Too much light, too much glare, but there's not much I can do about it.

Needless to say, getting away from the desk at break is always appreciated. Because I more or less sit at a desk all day, I often take a walk around the parking lot on break. It gets me out of the building's lighting and it gets a little much-needed physical activity in my day. There are too many people where I work who spend all day sitting at their desk eating, and are overweight. Many of them have leg problems. Even with other factors involved, I can't help but suspect they're missing an obvious connection.

As a small piece of irony, it was on one of these walks in the parking lot that I suffered the scratched cornea. It was a windy day, and I turned at a corner of the lot and started into the wind, and BAM! there was a sharp pain in my eye, and the damage was done.

It's not windy today, though. The sky is grey, heavy clouds stretching from horizon to horizon, the air still and sullen. It's warm enough not to need a coat, but just barely. The smells of autumn are in the air, and the trees around the lot have mostly turned red and yellow. Laws requiring preservation of natural lands are the likely reason there's more or less a small marsh behind the parking lot. It sits lower than the parking lot but is mostly obscured by trees. You can hear some sounds of nature, animals living in the water, and after it rains you can hear the sound of rushing water pouring into it. It's even home to a family of ducks, and the last few years we've been able to watch them, mother and small kids, growing larger as the weeks pass, and wandering around in the early morning before the sun gets too high, and—I must point this out—defecating absolutely everywhere. For a few weeks in the summer I cut my parking lot circuit short so I don't have to navigate the minefield that the far end of the lot is transformed into. But they disappeared in late summer again, long before now, which may be why the movement caught my eye.

I stopped walking and watched the tall grass and weeds along the very corner of the parking lot, maybe thirty feet away, as a cat appeared. She was moving slowly but steadily, head low, her gaze sweeping back and forth across the open pavement she'd emerged into. I thought I saw some other legs, and sure enough a kitten dropped back a little bit, cut across, then ran forward again, this time on the mother's other side, where I could plainly see him (or her). While the mother was dark with light stripes, the kitten was almost solid dark with just a few spots of light around the face. Not a black cat, but in the neighborhood. He noticed me, froze momentarily, then pushed closer to his mother.

I looked back to the left, where I had first seen them, and sure enough, there was another kitten. This one was a furry orange-white ball of energy. She (or he) moved quickly across the lot, using that bouncing lope kittens have, where the front legs stay next to each other and the back legs stay next to each other, and with each bound forward she higher into the air than she needed to, the careless gait of a playful kitten, certainly not what you would imagine from a stray. All she needed was a ball of yarn. She bounced across the lot, hop hop hop hop, past her mother and sibling, then slammed to a halt and looked around wide-eyed, taking in everything.

Just for a moment I considered calling the cats, but almost immediately thought better of it. I was enjoying watching them and didn't want to make them freeze then bolt. Plus, animals in the wild really shouldn't become too trusting of humans. For every person who wants to help, there's another person who thinks hurting animals is fun. Odds are they'd be safer in the long run keeping a healthy distrust of people.

Worse yet, what if any of them actually came? I was on my first break in a ten hour shift at work, and we already have four cats at home, which I have no problem with, but it definitely pushes the limit of how many cats you can reasonably keep in one household. What would I do if a kitten decided to adopt me? The last thing I needed was some mewing little orange ball of fluff following me around the parking lot applying for a home. I certainly couldn't bring a cat into work and I can't just show up at home with a new cat, and I would really feel like a rat turning and entering the building and leaving the kitten behind. Yes, standing still and watching from a distance definitely seemed the thing to do. I watched for a moment longer, smiling, then checked to see if any other kittens appeared from the grass.

There weren't any. There was just the three of them.

I'm hardly the world's foremost expert in cats, but I know that kittens tend to be born as part of a litter, not as twins. These kittens were a few months old but clearly not old enough to be on their own. The fact that they were still with their mother confirmed that. Despite myself, my thoughts drifted into the morbid, and I found myself wondering what had happened to the rest of the litter.

Life in the wild can't be easy, and I'm sure I would be amazed at the staggering myriad of ways a newborn in the wild can fail to reach adulthood. I've seen kittens as young as two or three days old, not even able to open their eyes yet, and I remember the people who owned the cat working to get the runt of the litter closer to the mother so it would at least have a chance of getting enough milk to survive. In the wild, the runt simply dies. I'm sure there are predators, other animals the mother has to watch out for and avoid. Exposure could easily do them in—we've had frost twice in the last week.

Many autumns ago, around the same age I was being told not to blink for my school picture, there was one particular day I recall. I was outside, in late afternoon, wearing a hooded jacket in the cool air. I saw a small piece of fiberboard in the grass and lifted it, revealing bare dirt, and one lone earthworm, a long pink worm like everyone has seen. Then I looked closer, and I saw a couple of very thin white strands, barely visible, moving around. I remember realizing they were baby earthworms. I had never seen that before. I watched for a minute or two as they squirmed around doing whatever it is that earthworms do.

Then, being a kid—I have no other excuse for this—I reached down and dragged my index finger along the dirt, across the baby earthworms, completely obliterating them. One swipe and there wasn't a trace they had ever existed.

The moment I did this, I mean the instant the barely visible strands of white disappeared under my finger, the full-grown earthworm started writhing. You ever see a worm like that cut in half? That's what this worm was doing, twisting and writhing and arching one end off the ground, then the other. Only I never touched the big earthworm. I started to get creeped out. To this day, the only thing I can figure is that it was reacting to the death of its young. That's the only thing that makes any sense at all. How an earthworm, little more than a long digestive system, a creature famous for reacting to rain by drowning en masse on sidewalks, could be aware of what had happened and make what for all the world looked like an emotional response is still beyond me, but I know what I saw. I can't explain it any other way.

And that's just an earthworm. How would a cat react? I know it's all largely instinctive, nursing and protecting and raising their young, and I know that cats certainly don't make the sorts of emotional bonds that humans do, but when a cat is nursing her young, say eight of them, and she drifts to sleep for a while, and when she wakes up she finds only six are still alive, do you think she feels that loss on some level, mourns in some quiet way? Any creature that is fiercely protective of its young has to care what happens to them, and would have to care on some level when they die, even if the driving need is to protect the ones who are still alive.

Or am I just anthropomorphizing? It is just a cat, after all.

This particular cat was still moving slowly but steadily along the edge of the lot, head low, though whether that's because she was weary from the kittens she had lost, or presenting a smaller target in case she was attacked, or just tired in general, I could only guess (and perhaps anthropomorphize again). At her side was one kitten, afraid to leave his mother, only briefly out of direct physical contact with her at any time, looking around at the world as though scared of it, as though thinking of all the ways it can be dangerous, in dark fur that will help him avoid notice if he hides in the shadows, as it appears he's likely to do whenever something unknown or potentially dangerous appears. Nearby was the other kitten, running around, full of energy, bright orange and white, not independent of her mother but perfectly willing to explore ahead a bit, putting some distance between them, looking around at the world as though it was all one big adventure just waiting to be experienced, something new and exciting around every corner, a kitten who didn't seem capable of hiding even if she was ever inclined to. Two kittens who had thus far lived essentially identical lives. Two kittens who could not possibly be more different.

The last two survivors.

As she looked across the parking lot, the mother seemed to decide that she didn't want to be out in the open. With the slightest change of direction, she edged toward the grass and slipped through a thin spot in the weeds lining the edge of the asphalt, disappearing from sight, with the dark kitten right on her heels. I think the mother was the only one of the three not to notice me.

Only the orange kitten was in sight now, standing in front of a bunch of tall weeds past the point where her mother had cut through and disappeared. Behind the weeds was a dropoff of a foot or two, followed by an overgrown slope maybe five feet high, with grass and plants and trees growing thorugh the dirt and rocks. The kitten looked in my general direction as the mother appeared behind her, carefully picking her way up the slope. A few steps behind, the other kitten scrambled up behind her, a bit less steady but no less determined. The mother reached the crest of the slope and continued foward without so much as a backward glance, and the other kitten followed.

Just for a moment, I was concerned that the orange kitten was going to be left behind. I should have known better. As the other kitten was disappearing after his mother, the orange kitten sprung into motion, that same leaping gait, hop hop hop, to the far side of the stretch of weeds his mother had cut through. The kitten disappeared from my sight behind a car, but a moment later I saw her ascending the hill too. She scrambled up a little faster than the others and with another little bounce at the top—or maybe I just imagined that—she followed the rest of her family over the hill and disappeared forever. The whole encounter took less than a minute.

That was two days ago. Today a cold front passed through, being spotty but heavy rain. The low tonight is forecast to be in the mid 30s, and it doesn't look like it's going to warm up anytime soon. I don't know where the cats are or what's happened to them. I never will. But I like to think that things will work out okay for them.

They are survivors, after all.

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