our village (68)
chapter 3, story #10
Did I ever tell you the story of Maxwell following the footprints? The footprints in the snow told the whole story, better than I can tell it. He was following them across the bridge, cat prints, hadn’t noticed where they’d started, just realized he was daydreaming in the snow and following cat prints across the bridge. They sauntered along the bridge planks, caressing the pickets on the more stable side of the bridge, stopping here to sniff and crouch—Maxwell could see four prints nestled together, ready for the pounce—and shuffling forward, but no pounce, just a hop to the other side of the bridge before loping back to the favored, more stable side, and continuing to the end of the bridge. And here’s where Maxwell made a deliberate choice to follow the prints. It was something like a firm commitment in his mind, something I draw attention to because it was unusual for Maxwell. Normally he would go with the flow, but he felt a strong pull tonight to follow these tracks. So he did. That was the flow, I guess, and he wasn’t deviating from it.
At the end of the bridge the tracks turned down the embankment toward the water. It wasn’t the most common turn for cats, but it was perfectly reasonable, whether the cat was going for a drink, for hunting, or for the mere pleasure of being on the lake shore in winter, a serene and relaxing place, and cats have a reputation for knowing how to relax, right? So, for whatever reason, the cat had turned, and for whatever reason, Maxwell also turned, to follow the cat prints through the snow.
The prints trotted down to the shore, and there, at what Maxwell assumed was the edge of the lake—although everything had a wonderfully consistent blanket of snow over it, and a stranger wouldn’t know lake edge from lake middle except there weren’t any trees where the lake was—there, Maxwell could see the imprint of a seated cat—Maxwell was really good at tracking, y’see?—but, to his astonishment, that was the last track that Maxwell could see anywhere in the vicinity.
He knew he wasn’t mis-reading a track (he knew he was a good tracker, Maxwell), but he supposed maybe he might be missing a track. But where? He might have just stood there and been dumbfounded, amazed at the mysteries of the world, and eventually turned around and gone back home. But he had made this commitment to follow the tracks, y’see, so that’s what he had to do.
But how? Where did the tracks go? There was no sign of any other creature having been out there—no predator on the wing that would have left wingprints, a scuffle, blood and fur and feathers; no mammalian predator, two-legged or four-legged, had left any print. There was the one set of tracks in—now two, if you included Maxwell’s—and the no sets of tracks out. And they were fresh tracks. And the snow was fresh and had stopped falling and was now showing all tracks perfectly, species and size, direction and mass and speed and behavior, a story in every set of prints. And the stories usually went on to some end he could understand: an animal home; a live encounter; a bored tracker; or a change to untrackability—well, that usually happened for a reason that Maxwell could identify: you can’t track something that walks down an asphalt road, or something that flies off, or dives into the water. But there was no sign here. And no possibility that he could imagine at this frozen lake edge.
So he imagined more.
He imagined that he heard a bird calling, a Pileated woodpecker with its loud raucous call addressing him, Maxwell, calling him away from the lake and into the woods. He imagined it was twilight, moonlight, and the Pileated is going to roost for the night, but it makes one last call to Maxwell: “Follow me. Look at the prints over here.”
So Maxwell steps into the woods where the Pileated calls, and he sees by the light of the moon a beautiful imprint of an owl in the snow—must be a Barred owl at that size in these woods—the wingprints clean in the snow, right in front of him, one set of wingprints and then nothing, again.
Maxwell tries to imagine what could have happened here with such a perfectly clean set of wingprints in the snow, one clean set and nothing else visible nearby.
Maxwell imagined more.
He heard the Barred owl call from deeper in the woods, and he followed the call, which was, in a way, the prints he’d been following along, now transformed into an audible imprint. Through the winter forest and into his ear and brain, or in his brain as a winter forest imagined, with a Barred owl calling to him, it didn’t matter.
He followed the prints from animal to animal, the creatures of the lake village speaking to him, telling him stories.
Like this one: The Tale of the Missing Cat. It goes like this:
Samuel the Cat—
it was the name he gave himself, because he’d always liked that human name “Samuel,” with its combination of soft sounds and inuendo of strong character, and “the Cat” because, frankly, he was proud of his feline qualities, and he didn’t want to be confused with, for example, some human; he was Samuel the Cat, and he—
was enjoying the freedom that contemporary human culture granted his species: the freedom to be wild and tame; inside and outside; loved while occasionally unloveable. So he was out for a stroll in the snow; he wanted to be back by the people’s fireside as the sun set. It was perfect out here. That’s what Samuel the Cat thought, anyway, as he was sitting by the edge of the lake in the snow, the winter sun on its low slant to the horizon.
Samuel the Cat was essentially riffing on how beautiful the world is, when he was silently lifted off his haunches by a pterodactyl.