This morning, faced with having to brave the arctic morning air to get to my mailbox on the road below, there were tracks in the still lingering patina of snow on the back porch. Tiny four-pawed feet with a pad in the center that meandered here and there, under the iron railing, in the gray shade of the hedge, along the edge of the porch and then down the steps, one mincing footstep after another. My first thought was that it was the paw print of a chipmunk. We have a lot of them around here, rattling the dry leaves in fall, munching on berries and seeds in the early spring, and generally finding a way into our attic during winter. I hear them playing games on some loose boards in the otherwise inaccessible attic crawl space just over the bed where we sleep. Then they have little races up and down the length of the house, and someone always wins and regains dominance. After that, total silence and we fall back to sleep again.
But when I looked up various likely paw prints in my Peterson's Field Guide to Animal Tracks, a thorough study of both prints and animal droppings collected by Olaus J. Murie, “one of America’s leading mammalogists,” according to the inside cover bio, I plunged into a sort of mystery. The more I squinted at the fine detail of chipmunk prints, I began to doubt myself. Something bonier and more human-like emerged under my scrutiny, a sort of spectral image of a ghost human who had shrunk like T.S. Eliot’s Sybil of Cumae into a homunculum begging to die after being given the strange gift of immortality but not of youth. I remained intrigued with the possibility of a creature looking for some exit from my flag-stoned porch, and finding nothing but steep drops into the snow beneath, and only a mundane flight of cement steps into the patio to retreat to. All this while I turned over and fell into a deeper, more intricate dream, no doubt.
After consulting the signatures of myriad other small creatures, my wife suggested that the prints belonged to a house cat, some nocturnal hunter out for his nightly relief before retiring to a warm bed in a neighbor’s house. Trouble is, I never see any such cats in my yard. The last one was a hugely overweight and wheezing tomcat who used to hide in the hedge while I went around with a weed whacker. I would see the flash of his red tail and the jerk of his reddish, owl-eyed face, before he would summon his full potential and leap to freedom. He seemed to think I was his possible executioner. I am partial to cats and would have petted his silky head, if he had given me the chance. Alas, he expired one spring evening, sprawled out in his wicker cat bed. He had eaten his way through the world and was now at the mercy of a gouty old age.
Maybe it was a cat, but I’m wondering if it could have been a small fox as well. They are around here, and are as delicate as sylphs, and tip toe through the snow like some spindly ballerina. But I think Murie’s print of the red fox shows the claws protruding slightly from the pads. The print of my enigmatic animal is just marked by round pads raying out from a central pad. Cat. But perhaps a feral cat, one of those hearty creatures someone throws out before moving away, and who knows better than to go up to a back door to beg for food. Everyone has a large dog around here, and most of the people I have met so far don’t seem to like cats. They’re spooky, one neighbor said. They won’t catch mice if you put out a plate of kibble for them. Another said they were secretive and self-centered and adopted a house, not a human master or mistress. Some truth to that. But one man who has a barn about to fall down on its rotten timbers says he has always allowed cats to inhabit his hay loft; the mice know to keep away from that part of the barn. Hence, he stores his sacks of grain there, and some dry corn. He didn’t like cats but he knew their worth, however limited.
Cats were my father’s weakness. He could toy with our tabby by the hour seated in his easy chair with his old white shirt seriously frayed at collar and cuffs and tease the cat with his thick fingers. He would get a scratch tickling the cat’s belly, and the cat would grow deranged in time and let out a menacing sort of growl somewhere between a warning and a cry for mercy. Why the cat didn’t just roll over and leap to safety, I don’t know. They had a curious relationship. So I grew up with cats and learned their ways and found them to be more lyrical than dogs. They would have taken opium, given the chance. Catnip was their escape drug, and I would watch as one of our cats, a sleepy short hair named Toby, cavort and leap into the air and collapse into a writhing ball of hunger and self-pleasure, and bury its dry gray nose into the sachet to get another hit. This could go on for hours, until my mother, feeling a jolt of guilt about this self-indulgence, would take the catnip away and give Toby an unceremonious escort to the screen door. Cats had no conscience, I assumed. Their pleasures were limitless, like their naps on the bed.
Whether or not the prints on my porch were of a cat, or some rodent or other, remains an open question. I’m too lazy to puzzle out the details of the prints against my Murie book. I’ll just assume that a cat came up out of the woods and poked about, looking for a dish of milk or some crumbs from a cake. Something told it to look here, as if it had once belonged to this house. I don’t have pets so there’s no chance a cat would find anything edible around here. But I found more prints in the front yard, in the ragged snow under the dining room windows. And more by the garage. All this inspection occurring within the last snowfall, three days before.
If Bishop Berkeley were here to discuss the matter with me, he would find it difficult to argue that existence is predicated on human attention. I was fast asleep, tumbling in the free fall of my dreams, while this night visitor was checking out all the doorways and seams of the house, smelling carefully where heat leaked out of the interiors bearing odors of our supper. Samuel Johnson would have cheered my premise that things happen without our knowing about them. To think that reality doesn’t stop with the closing of one’s eyes, is to believe that we are, as Susanne Langer, the American philosopher, once said, entities stranded on a sandbar in the middle of a dark ocean, clinging to the little that we know and dreading the unknowable universe around us.