A Mother’s Last Sight
Cat was standing outside her tent, faffing around with her phone, when Alder arrived. She smiled at him and tucked the device away in her hip pocket. An oil hurricane lamp burned in her tent—the electric lights were cut every night, an hour after curfew, to reduce the load on the generators and conserve fuel. It cast a quivering, yellow-orange glow through the door. Even in the wan light, Alder could see that the rabbit cleaned up fairly well.
She wore loose-fitting, comfortable clothes. The pants had the style of a nurse’s scrubs, the sort of muted blue that looks to have faded from navy. Her grey t-shirt once bore an image, probably from a band or some such, but only a handful of flakes remained. The outfit had the telltale wrinkles of ersatz pajamas. Not the sort of thing he was accustomed to seeing a woman wear when having him over for a drink. Yeah, the puma grinned inwardly, no way in hell she’d be in that get-up if she was angling for a one-night stand. The thought relaxed him; it took away any pressure about keeping up appearances.
“A wash-up seems to have done ye well, tree,” she said with a chuckle. “At least, you dinnae look like you’ve been dragged through the aftermath of a music festival.”
He grinned and retorted, “Thanks! Knockin’ the dirt off seems to have done you some good, too.” That earned him a quick, bark of laughter.
The rabbit headed for the interior of the tent and motioned for him to follow. It was true though: she did clean up well. Even with the knock-about clothes, she managed to look good. She had a generally slender body, strongly muscled, with appealing curves. The shirt, for all its disrepair showcased those curves well, as did the thin cotton of the pants. She didn’t seem to harbor much in the way of fat; the little that she had really just served to soften her lines a bit. He had to make a conscious effort to keep his eyes from wandering too much, especially to the fluffy nub of her tail.
Her fur was not as dark as it had seemed out in the debris field. It cut an odd balance between black and brown, depending on the angle of the light, but it made for a field of spotless velvet on her arms, neck and head that practically beckoned to be touched; not in a sexual way, so much as the way that one can’t help reaching out to brush their pads across the plush, fleece blankets in a shop. When her head moved just right, the ruff of fur and skin around her throat made it appear as though she wore one of the lush fur coats that the humans adore so much, with the collar sticking out from beneath her t-shirt. It gave an incongruous impression of elegance. The air in her wake carried the scent of her body wash—one of those nonsense herbal ones: lemon and sage, cucumber and thyme, agave and unicorn farts. Maybe they did more for herbivores.
“Make yersel at home,” Cat said with a grunt as she flopped to a seat on what must have been her own cot. The scent that billowed out of the wool blanket with her impact confirmed as much.
The puma glanced around the tent, noting the absence of chairs or boxes on which to plant himself. He glanced at the rabbit with a shrug and pointed questioningly at the empty cot where her tentmate should have been, or at least the detritus that would suggest someone occupied the space.
“Aye, ye can sit there. Silly cow bailed four days ago. Said something about ‘running out of vacation time’ or some bollocks,” snorted Cat in an affected Aussie accent. “Probably remembered that she had a flat with running water and wi-fi.”
Alder settled in on the empty cot with a groan, momentarily surrounded by the faded scent of its previous occupant—deer, maybe. “I can’t blame her. I got a place back in New Mexico with running water and a view of mountains that aren’t made of broken concrete, steel, and glass. It beats hell out of this place.”
Cat was busying herself with a small crate that she pulled from under her cot. As she popped open a couple of collapsible silicone cups, she asked, “So, why haven’t you fucked off home, then?”
Alder adopted a theatrically hurt expression and pressed his right paw to his chest. “Why! Miss Caird, you wound me. Here, you’ve invited me into your castle, only to tell me to leave!”
She smiled. “Oi! piss off, pal. Y’know what I meant. You’re half a world away from home, cutting your knees on an earthquake’s leftovers. You’ve obviously seen some tragic shite since you got here, because you look like a junkie that’s been told they’ve stopped making heroin.”
“Brutal; but, it’s a fair point.”
“Right. So, why are you still here?”
He crossed his legs and leaned back, propped up on his outstretched arms. “You want the honest answer or some horse shit about social duty and heroism?”
“My last boyfriend was a horse. I’ve dealt with enough of their shite, thanks.”
“I can be very determined. Stop changing the subject.”
Alder threw his head back and laughed, resulting in a shout for quiet from two tents down. He wiped his eyes and finally answered, “ I came in for a woodland conservation conference in Sydney and scheduled to do some sightseeing up the coast. Never been to Australia before; figured three weeks would be enough to tourist around and fill my fur with beach sand. Got bored with it by the end of the first week. Saw on the news in my hotel room that a chunk of Newcastle had been coerced to lay down; they were asking for volunteers, so I volunteered.” He shook his head and looked at the floor. “And, yeah, I have seen some shit. All of us must have.”
Cat set the cups aside and pulled a tall, simple bottle of whiskey out of the crate. It was about two-thirds full and glowed a muted amber in the light of the oil lamp. Pulling the cork stopper, she poured a few ounces in each cup and set the bottle on the squat folding table next to her cot. She handed him a cup and quipped, “Okay, so we’ve established why you’re here; and aye, I think most of us have seen something here that shaved something off of our souls. But, ye still haven’t answered why ye huvnae fucked off back tae yer hot-and-cold taps and American vistas.”
Alder accepted the cup and took in the aroma. Ohhh, fuck, he thought, that’s good! He plucked up the bottle to look at the label. Cosáincaillte occupied the top in swirly script over an ink sketch of some idyllic highland trail; below were details about content and age. “A bottle of whiskey from home” translated to a twenty-year-old, single-malt scotch from “Caird Estate”. He set the bottle down with an appreciative grunt. Home, indeed! “Well, Miss Caird, it’s like this: I’ve got a flight arranged to leave in one week and I’m too damn cheap to pay the airline to reschedule it.”
The rabbit twisted the cup in her paws and frowned at him. “Ye could’ve just gone back tae a hotel when this place got tae be too much.”
“Too much trouble tryin’ to get there and make the arrangements. I’m more than a little lazy and kinda prefer to just go with the flow.” He scratched his neck and grimaced. “Even if I don’t always enjoy where the flow takes me. By journey’s end I’ll have gotten something out of the experience and it’ll probably be more useful than sunburnt ears and sand fleas.”
“Fuck, man. Ye really are doing this shite oot of the goodness of your heart and you’re modest to the point of making excuses for staying. You’re a piece of work. No, dinnae fucking argue. If you were really as lazy as you suggest, you wouldn’t have come oot here in the first place.” She shook her head and regarded him with an odd expression. Some sort of decision was reached behind her gaze that he couldn’t make out and she cleared her throat. “Well,” she said raising her cup to him, “guests first?”
The puma cocked an eyebrow and raised his cup hesitantly. After a moment, he grinned and chanted, “Salud y dinero a mis compañeros pero solo de tiempo cataría.” and tapped the rim of his cup against hers. They both took a drink. Its taste was even better than its aroma. A pleasant warmth spread immediately into his head and limbs. The whiskey was smoother than any he’d had before. It still had the characteristic burn, but it was muted and almost sweet. The day’s soreness ebbed out of him as the knots in his muscles slowly relaxed.
“First time a bloke’s managed to work my name into a toast that didn’t start with ‘Take off your knickers…’,” the rabbit lilted. “Cannae tell if you’re kissing ass or that meant something.”
“It means something like: ‘Health and wealth for my peers, but time is enough for me.’,” he explained. “Some old vaquero thing about eschewing material wealth in favor of fully enjoying the existential richness of life. The journey is more important than the destination, kind of bullshit. Your name is probably what brought it to mind. Though, it also brings catnip to mind.” Nepeta Cataria and him had a volatile relationship. He tried to keep away from it as much as possible.
“What the bloody hell is a vaquero?” One ear was pulled back over a bemused smirk.
“A cowboy,” he chuckled.
“Fuck me sideways! Like, ‘yippie-kie-ay, get along little dogie’ fuckin’ cooboys.”
His head shaking, he laughed. “No, no. Not the dude ranch jack-offs that do that John-Wayne-with-a-stick-up-his-ass walk or the cattle baron cunts who’d run over their grannies for water rights. The working stiffs. Vaqueros is what the Mestizo cowboys were called.”
“Didnae realize cowboys were so Buddhist.” Her tone remained unconvinced.
“Nah,” he gruffed, “a bunch of ‘em were money-grubbing toadies for big cattle concerns. They were in it for their cut. There were some cowboy poets, though, that romanticized the life of freedom and wide-open spaces. I’ve always been a fan of solitude and untouched lands, so it resonates with me. Your turn.”
“Ooh!” squeaked the bunny. “Och, I’ve got nothing that profound. Fuck it. Cosáin caillte!” She trust the cup into the air and knocked down the remainder in a gulp.
Wide eyed, he drank with a bit more discretion. He asked, “The hell was that?”
She nodded to the bottle. “It’s one of the family brands. This one means ‘paths lost’. It seemed to fit the circumstances. Better than ‘at least we’re not dead’.”
“You’ve got a point,” Alder mused.
The rabbit leaned over and resupplied his cup, then hers. Over the next hour, they talked about their impressions of the land down under and their respective homes. The puma preferred to let her do most of the talking. He learned that she had recently graduated from university in Scotland with a wildlife biology degree. She had come to Australia on one leg of a long vacation between school and career searching. Her main interest was New World fauna, particularly that of the continental divide regions of North America: all the big predators and wee, chirping things that scampered over the rocks. She wondered if there was something to learn about their own kind from observing the wild, quadrupedal ones.
It wasn’t strange to ponder the paradoxical, simultaneous existence of voxipeds and common animals. Humans didn’t even understand why some animals had come to speak human languages and walk upright, and those pretentious cunts thought they understood everything. (Their best answer to why humans themselves had come to do all of those humanish things was: “God did it!” As if that were anything approaching an answer.) All they had managed was to provide the creatures with a name, when they already had a few hundred of their own.
At some point during their drinking and talking, Alder had subconsciously removed the stuffed animal from his pocket, unnoticed by either of them for a long time. During a lull in the conversation, however, Cat glanced down at the sight of movement. The plush toy sat in the puma’s left hand, so small that it was nearly hidden. The repetitive motion of his thumb over the weird plume of fibers on the top of its head was what drew her attention.
“Hmm? Oh,” he muttered, looking down and opened his paw, surprised to find the thing there. “When’d that get there?”
She snorted, “Buggered if I know. What is it?”
“Something from out there,” Alder replied with a shrug. “Second day on site.”
He raised his paw and opened it, revealing the stuffed creature. Even after a wash in the sink, the color had remained a mute grey. It was about as long as his paw was wide. There seemed to be a tail but no arms or legs. Down the tail was the name “Julia” in green permanent marker. The face was smooth and nearly featureless, beyond the eyes—bulging, shiny, black plastic eyes. Cat concentrated on it with one eye closed and the frown of someone trying to read a subway map without their glasses.
“Ah!” The rabbit moved over beside him with a series of movements that looked less like walking and more like falling horizontally from one side of the tent to the other. She poked the toy with the claw of one finger and looked up into his eyes with a look of joy at having recognized it, asking, “Ye know what this is?”
Alder leaned away from her slightly, eyes blinking against the sudden need for close-range focus. He snickered, “I think we already established that I don’t. Though, it sounds like you might.”
She elbowed him, probably harder than she thought, and nodded. “Aye! That’s Mister Budgie.” Her matter-of-fact tone suggested that no further elaboration should be required.
The puma glanced at the toy and back to his very near, very female drinking mate. This close, her own scent managed to sneak through the veil of soap and herbal bullshit. It was like a grass field after a warm rain—earthy and sweet. He wondered why anyone would want to cover something like that with something that smelled like a hibiscus fucked a pomegranate. He caught himself leaning slightly closer, trying to get more of her scent. Whoa, bud. Chill. He took an awkward swig from his cup and leaned back a little. “Okay. That sounds like a thing, sure. What is a Mister Budgie? Budgie like, what, the bird? They ain’t got crests.” He flicked the tuft on its head.
“It’s a character from a television cartoon for weans. My little brothers and sisters watch it all the time back at home.”
“I guess that sounds about right,” Alder said quietly. “It came out of the office block that we finished clearing a few days ago. The one with the, uh,” he noticed a familiar, unwelcome tightness in his throat and the corners of his mouth involuntarily pulling down. The corners of his eyes burned and he shook his head to clear the feeling. Turned out he hadn’t run out of tears after all. One rolled down his muzzle and left a dark spot on his pants leg. “The one with the daycare center on the…on the ground floor. Shit!” The puma couldn’t keep his voice from breaking. He set his cup on the side table, took a shuddering breath, and brushed at his eyes and cheeks with the backs of his paws.
Cat reached up and drew his head down to her shoulder, wrapping one arm around his back and running her other paw in slow stokes down the back of his head and neck. The big cat wasn’t wracked with sobs, but she could feel where his tears were soaking through the cloth and fur on her shoulder. She winced slightly as his arms clutched around her as if desperate to avoid falling and the hard points of his claws pressed against her back. Ragged, uneven breaths warmed the front of her shirt. She had gone through plenty of moments like this; she understood.
Alder’s voice was hardly a whisper when he could finally trust himself to speak. “We pulled dozens of people out of that grid. Dozens, maybe a hundred, all injured but alive. This one human, some poor secretary or something from one of the middle floors, came out on a stretcher. She was—” he shuddered, watching the memory unfold behind lidded eyes. “She was seriously fucked up. They had to cut her out of the shit that fell on her. Got her loose and found that something, some bit or reinforcing bar or fuck-knows-what, had ripped her open. One of the guys had to follow next to the stretcher to try and hold her closed on the way up out of the hole we got her out of. As we’re taking her to a helicopter to lift her out, she grabs my arm and stuffs this toy into my hand. Looks me dead in the eyes and says that her little girl is in the daycare on the ground floor. First we’d heard there even was one. Her eyes drop down and look past me, she lets go of me to point, then she just faded out right there. The medics postponed the lift until they could stabilize her but that never happened; she was already gone. Dehydration, blood loss, and internal trauma, one of the medics said.
“Took us until evening to get to the daycare. Whole goddamned building sat on top of the kids and the workers down there. Thirty-odd children and four employees. We got them all out of there, what was left of them. I..I checked their IDs, all of them, until I found a little girl with a surname that matched the secretary lady.” He pushed back from the rabbit and wiped at his eyes. “I don’t know what breed Julia was, but she was a cat. Not like me. She had, like, spotty rosette kinda things. The photo on her ID badge was cute. Adorable, little grey and white kitten, with these fuckin’ huge blue eyes. All fluff and eyes and long, shiny whiskers. The lady didn’t say ‘kitty’, or ‘foster’, or any of the usual shit that means a human is keeping a vox because hey-talking-pet-awesome. She said ‘my little girl’.
“I know all those other people had families. I know all those other kids had moms and dads. But, the thought of her little fluff ball was probably the only thing that kept that woman holding on when everything was trying to fall out of her. All she wanted was to get the girl home and tape her newest crayon drawing of a blue-spotted fuck-knows-what to the fridge and laugh and watch fucking cartoons together. I don’t think it was the blood loss or the dehydration that finally was too much for her. I think she held on to this goddamned toy like a lifeline, like it represented everything that she needed to stay alive for; but when she looked back at that pile of fucking concrete, she knew that no one was at the other end of that lifeline.”
In the minutes of silence that followed, Cat reached across the narrow gap between them on the cot and squeezed Alder’s paw. She then stood and set about rinsing the cups with a canteen at the tent door, wiping them down with a cloth from the crate, and securing them in their places along with the bottle. She nudged the crate back under her cot and sat back down. Her eyes flicked from one corner of the floor to another as she mulled something over. Every couple of breaths, she would glance at him, then look away.
“Stay.” The word was soft but heavy as it fell through the quiet of the tent.
“Pardon?” replied Alder, looking up.
“It’s just that it’s late and all. You probably shouldn’t be out wandering the camp, especially in the shape you’re in. Stay. You can use that cot; there’s extra blankets underneath it. That’s, if…” Her eyes caught and held his. Something in them spoke to a loneliness in her that matched his own. “…if you want.”
He regarded her from his side of the tent. There weren’t any rules against men and women sharing accommodations in the camp, but there were some pretty strong guidelines against predators and prey doing the same. Understandable, as it wasn’t unheard of for the occasional predator to “sleepwalk” in such situations.
“I dunno,” he grunted. “Might be some emergency management coordinator, or military fuck with some harsh words about you shacking up with a…” he wrinkled his upper lip and pointed at his teeth.
“Fuck ‘em,” she huffed, looking away. “I’m a big girl. If I wake up to find you gnawing on me, I’ll beat the fuck out of you. After they get you to a hospital, the cunts can tell me ‘I told you so’.”
Alder snorted. “Please! I’m not interested in eating you, Cat. Don’t worry.”
She smiled at him and quipped, “Not worried, tree. Gotta say, though, I’m a bit disappointed with your wording. I mean, I’d kinda hoped…”
There was a surprise! He stared at her and said, “Bun, please, tell me I’m not misinterpreting that.”
She giggled,“I didnae ask you here just for a drink at first, Alder. Despite all this,” she waved to encompass the camp and ruins as a whole, “weighing on you, you’re a gorgeous fucking cat and I was hoping for a one-night, tangled sheets sortae thing. But, I don’t know if I still want that.” She paused and gave him an earnest look. “One night, that is. Y’know?”
The tip of his tail twitched on the cot. He held up a paw. “Miss Caird, you are one hell of a doe; but, I am three drinks, seven rough days, and one awkward crying fit beyond the sort of frame of mind that I need to be in to adequately respond to that.” He made an attempt to stand; but his fatigued legs wobbled, his tail thrashed to maintain balance, and he promptly pitched backward onto the bare canvas.
Laying face-up, he patted the cot beneath him and said, “I’ll take you up on the bed, though. Between my next-to-dead muscles and the liquor, It doesn’t look like I’ll be walking, much less sneaking across a postage stamp, much less the camp. Plus, my tentmate is a damn prick and I don’t want to have to deal with him in this state.”
They both giggled and settled down on their respective cots, agreeing that they both needed rest. After exchanging “good nights”, Cat extinguished the lamp and they both collapsed quickly into the sort of deep sleep that only comes from chasing a hard day of manual labor and emotional strain with a third of a bottle of scotch.