For now the gun rests across my thighs, warm as my body, looking harmless enough. I was never in the Army, never did any hunting. I’ll be sixty-seven years old my next birthday and I’d never fired a gun until a week ago, when I took a couple of lessons at the firing range. If Em were still alive and saw me like this, she’d say, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Bill, put that thing away before you hurt yourself.” As it is, though, there’s no one here but me. Waiting.
I realize this is a pretty drastic solution, but I’ve tried everything else. All summer I’ve been working to outsmart the bastard, and I’ve failed. It’s got to stop now.
It’s still a little early, but I want to be in position long before he gets here. I hate to admit it, but he’s smart. Any movement inside the house and he’ll take off. I don’t want to wait anymore. In a minute or two I’ll bring the shotgun up and rest it on the windowsill. I’ll aim it at his favorite spot. When he arrives I won’t even need to check through the scope. The only movement will be my touch on the trigger. He may see that, but by then it’ll be too late.
He’ll slink in, as always, from the Johnstones’ yard behind my house. He’ll jump the chain-link fence that divides the properties, then pause on my side and urinate. The whole yard smells of cat piss.
As if he owns the yard he’ll saunter across in the open and approach the big blue spruce from behind. I’ll lose sight of him then, and I’ll wonder if he’s somehow guessed, wonder if he’s taken a left turn to disappear around the back of the shed, never to return. That, of course, would be one way for this to end, but it wouldn’t be the best way. I need to know for sure that he’ll never be back.
But he won’t just melt away into the oncoming night. After a long few minutes the bottom branches of the tree will sway just a bit as he makes his way to his favorite spot. Belly against the ground to avoid the bells I’ve strung on the low branches, he’ll ooze forward until his face becomes visible in the shadows. Hunkered down, comfortable in his bed of pine needles, he’ll settle in for the night and expect it to pass as every other night has passed this summer, expect to awaken at first light to the cheery, unsuspecting chirps of the breakfast he expects to pick off from the birdfeeder.
Not this time. Not ever again.
I admire his persistence, I really do. He’s fought all kinds of enemies to claim that dark space under the spruce, and he’s got the scars to prove it. He lost an ear to the cat next door, and an eye and an inch of tail to someone’s dog, all in my yard, under my kitchen window. On a dozen nights this summer I’ve been shocked awake by the screaming sounds of catfight.
My war with him began in April, a few weeks after Em died. The feeder had belonged to her, a Christmas gift from our grandkids. In the middle of winter, ground as hard as could be, she talked me into digging a posthole. First we had to march around the yard, snowflakes landing on our hair and our clothes, half freezing to death, while Em considered where it should go. Eventually she decided it should be near the spruce, said the birds would feel safe with cover nearby. Turns out, the only thing that tree ever provided cover for was the bastard I’m waiting for now.
Em was the one who kept the feeder filled. She studied the birds that came to it or scrabbled around underneath, looked them up in a little book she kept here by the sink. “Come and look, Bill. It’s a goldfinch, harbinger of spring,” she’d say, or “Still plenty of juncos. Guess winter’s not over yet.” All the while, under and around her voice would be birdsongs, even if the window was closed.
Truth be told, I never cared much about the birds, but watching her there at the window, a soft smile on her face, well…it made me happy. That feeder brought her a lot of joy, and it was a beautiful thing for me to see.
When she died in February, I didn’t do much with myself, just kind of roamed around the house, wandered through the rooms for no reason. My brother visited me from time to time, and sometimes, even when he was here, I’d get up and pace around for a few minutes. One day he said, “Bill, she’s not here. You need to stop looking for her.” I thought about that and finally realized what I was doing was listening. It was sound that I missed. Not hearing life in the house made me restless. I’d become accustomed to Em’s soft humming – she’d been doing it since before we were married – and once she was gone, the house sounded empty. I tried turning the TV on first thing in the morning and leaving it on until I went to bed, but it didn’t help.
Then, one day in April my brother said, “Why don’t you start feeding the birds again?” I didn’t have anything against the idea, so I filled the feeder and threw some seeds up on the roof of the shed – that was a trick Em always used when we came back from vacations, said she was calling the birds in. And sure enough, in a couple of days the birds were singing at the feeder again.
I don’t know how long it took the cat to move in. I wasn’t even aware of him until the day I carried the birdseed sack outside and found the remains of a dove at the foot of the feeder. Not much was left of it, just a few feathers and some clumps of down. Even then I didn’t really understand. I thought it was the work of the cat next door. The Baxters were very nice about it when I told them what I thought was happening, and they belled their cat right away. A mockingbird was building a nest in their yard, and I think that helped them realize how upsetting it was.
I refilled the feeder but the birds were slow to return. Two days went by, and the yard was quiet. On the third day the birds came back, and the day after that I lost another bird. I started to keep watch.
For a week or so nothing happened, and then, one morning I saw the whole performance. The feeder’s always busiest in the morning. I brought a cup of coffee with me and stood at the window. The finches and sparrows clung all over the feeder, pecking, cracking the seeds open and only eating the meat inside. It’s really an amazing skill. And since it was early in the spring, the male finches were feeding their females, a pretty piece of mating behavior that reminded me of the way Em used to open pistachios for me every time she was having some for herself.
With all that activity on the feeder, plenty of seeds got kicked to the ground. Doves and blue jays scratched and pecked around on the grass. The air was full of birdsong one minute, and the next minute, an explosion of birds scattered in every direction. One even grazed the kitchen window. And then, silence. The yard was empty of birds, except for one jay. It lay on its side, a black paw pinning it down.
I never saw the cat coming. He was simply, suddenly there, taking up space where, a second before, there had been only sunlight, grass, and the ground-feeding birds. He twisted his head to the side and peered with his good eye at his prey. Then, miraculously, he lifted his paw and sat back on his haunches. The jay, stunned and injured, remained motionless at first, but then lifted its free wing tentatively. The cat shivered. The bird gained its feet, and the cat delicately slapped it.
The jay played dead for a time before it tried a different tactic. Instead of trying to stand, it rolled over and jumped into the air. The cat pounced, and the bird fell back down. Around the feeder they went, the bird fluttering hopelessly an inch from the ground, only to get swatted down. Eventually the cat grabbed the jay in his mouth and shook his head sharply. It was over. He pranced out of the yard, shedding blue feathers behind him. That evening I noticed him asleep under the spruce and I got the whole picture.
I tried lots of other things first. The day I saw him with the jay, I ran around the house like a crazy man, looking for something to hit him with. I settled on a dusty, dented wiffle ball bat that’d been in the back of the garage since our sons were kids, propped it up against the back door. The next time I saw him I grabbed the bat and took off out the door. He heard me coming and had no trouble getting away. He was back the next evening.
A salesman at the garden center recommended a special spray. I bought two cans and emptied them both, soaking the needles under the tree and the ground below the feeder. The cat was suspicious at first – he approached the spruce warily that evening, sniffed around with his hair on end. Then he rolled around in the spray-soaked duff.
Then our sons brought their families for the long Independence Day weekend. They’d all been here in February for the funeral, of course, but this visit was different, happier, more relaxed. And noisier. One night we sat around the kitchen table and laughed until our stomachs hurt, trading stories about Billy and Walt when they were young. Oh, how those two could fight! We laughed the hardest about the time they’d gotten in such a mean fistfight that Em and I had to physically separate them. Em dragged Walt across the yard, and I grabbed Billy – he was older and bigger. I could feel the anger bunching up his muscles, see it on his sweaty, dirty face. The words those boys shouted at each other were so awful, so hate-filled, that Em and I started to cry, and the boys ended up holding us and apologizing. They’re great friends now, and the grandkids – six of them, imagine that! – all packed into this little house for three days, something always going on, the wives asking for some of Em’s old recipes, our boys sharing car troubles, children singing and reciting nursery rhymes. In fact, the two youngest kids even talked in their sleep. On the Fourth we all went to the parade, and I bought flags and pinwheels for our grandkids to wave in the air.
After they were gone I went around the house, straightening things up from the whirlwind visit. In all the confusion of packing, the pinwheels had been left behind. I pushed them in the ground around the spruce.
The pinwheels worked real well – the cat stayed out of the yard, but so did the birds. I yanked the pinwheels out. Sam Baxter, my neighbor who had the mockingbird nest, saw me and hollered over, “Hey, Bill, whatcha got growing there?” I invited him in for a drink and told him my problem.
One beer and he became a philosopher. “You know, Bill,” he said, “it’s nature’s way. There’s the hunters, and there’s the hunted. That’s the way it’s meant to be, and not much you can do about it. If it wasn’t this cat it’d be a hawk or some disease to get the birds. Besides, what’s one little bird once in a while?”
What Sam didn’t account for, though, was the silence, so I went right on. My brother suggested a rat trap. He said, “He’ll only need to get his nose caught once. He won’t ever come back.” I set the trap out one night, used the wiffle ball bat to push it far under the tree. In the morning I found a dead robin in it, so I threw the trap away.
I guess it was the hose trick that made me think of the shotgun. I hooked the garden hose up to the kitchen faucet, squirted potshots at him whenever I saw him under the tree. I couldn’t watch for him every minute, though. I kept finding little piles of feathers, and the silence went on.
So here I sit. The shotgun balances perfectly on the windowsill. In another minute, or five minutes, he’ll slink in under the spruce boughs, the thought of tomorrow’s breakfast making him lick his lips. He’ll lie down, but he’ll glance up once to be sure he’s in a good position. As long as the sun’s not right in my face, the feeder’s the last thing that bastard will ever see. Then the birds will sing every day, and the silence will be gone for good.
Author’s Comment: This story began as a dream fragment, just a black cat under my pine tree, watching the activity around my bird feeder. Dreams are such rich sources of story ideas! I wrote the fragment and followed it, not sure where it would lead. The themes of grief, longing and denial emerged, and the title seemed to have the right amount of ambiguity.