Artwork – “Cathedral Woods IV”, by Terry Hilt, watercolor & acrylic on paper, 11 x 10 inches, 2009. Courtesy Aucocisco Galleries, Portland, Maine, www.aucocisco.com
The small, dark thing on the road was a snowshoe hare, a kit, no more than six or seven inches long. All by itself, it was hopping across the hardtop like a piece of scrunched paper pushed by a breeze. I stopped the car to watch. Heedless of my presence, it hopped a few yards in front of my tires.
It had come out of the alders that run in a wide swath at a right angle to the road on the east side of a blueberry field. The alder patch is about five acres, punctuated by feral apple trees, a few tamaracks, a few white pines. It is a rich refugium, where birds nest and does give birth to fawns. In this case, a snowshoe hare, only a few weeks ago, produced young somewhere in its protection, in what is called a “form,” a shallow, hidden depression. Not a rabbit hole. New World rabbits and hares do not dig holes or live in community warrens.
Snowshoe kits are born with eyes open and in a few days they are hopping. This one was probably already nibbling plants, sampling the various tastes and textures, although it should have been under its dam’s protection still, and the rudderless skitter across the road seemed odd. Charming, but odd. I turned off the car motor, waiting to see if its mother would follow. Or perhaps a second kit.
A bobcat jumped onto the road’s shoulder, its face keyed to the hare. It never looked in my direction, never seemed to notice the car. Like a hugely oversized house cat, it trotted after the little hare in that tense, clenched manner, set to spring.
“Stop right there!” I shouted, throwing the car door open. What was I doing? I had no idea. I wagged my finger at the bobcat. It looked startled but held its ground.
“Don’t even think about it!”
Of course, I knew if the bobcat did not eat this little hare it would find something else. But I was here now, and the hare was making an especially poor job of escape.
The bobcat sat down in the middle of the road as I rushed past it after the tiny ball of gray-brown fluff skittering under a thatch of grass at the other side. Reaching my hand into the grass, I touched its fur. It screamed — that horrible cry that hares make at the point of grave injury and impending death that cancels out all the muteness of their former lives. Instinctively, I drew back. The cat jumped forward. For perhaps less than a second we both rummaged in the grass as the hare filled the air with its grating terror.
My hand closed over it. I lifted it and stuck it under my sweater. The screaming stopped abruptly. The cat leaped over the gully by the shoulder and sat down on an anthill under a pine and turned to stare at me. It was a tall, vertical cat with slight black tufts on the tips of its ears, a puggish face, huge golden eyes set close together. For another second that went on a long time, we stared at each other. The cat seemed to have no real fear, but rather a sort of bemused caution, a hesitation, as if it had met with something rather puzzling that had stolen its lunch, as if it thought things might right themselves, and the hare — mysteriously gone — might reappear.
I turned around, with the tiny life quiet against my belly, and got back into the car and drove home.
In the kitchen I stood holding this almost weightless creature up to the window light. Through its loose skin, I could feel its bones. Its black eyes seemed far away, unfocused. What was I doing with this animal in my hands? Years ago people had brought me young mammals they had found, no matter that my license was only for birds. The little hares had always died. I never saved one.
Folding the hare under my sweater again, I telephoned a friend, a wild animal rehabilitator. I told her the story.
“Uh-huh,” she said. I had hoped for a bit more.
“I have no idea why I did this,“ I explained, suddenly embarrassed. “But now I’m stuck.”
“You’re not really,” she said.“ Just put it back.”
“Of course. That’s what I’ll do,” I agreed. How many times had I told people to reach up and set nestlings back in their home nests? That birds have hardly any sense of smell? That parents will take their babies back? But this is a more risky order with mammals, whose sense of smell is primary.
Hanging up the phone, I held the creature to the light again. I could see the red veins through the pink flesh of its ears. The soft nose drew air in and out. The black lashes of its shiny blank eyes, the shock white blaze of fur between the ears, the weightless weight of it — everything was beautiful, this particular life, in this particular moment.
Put it back. The only thing.
I walked down the road carrying the hare under my sweater. We entered the alder patch. We followed a deer trail for a few yards, then turned off into a mat of ferns and Canada mayflowers. Kneeling, I broke off some of the fern fronds and rubbed their fresh green scent against its body, erasing, I hoped, any scent of me. And then I opened my hands. Its silken body slipped from between my fingers. It ran whole-heartedly away.
I sat still, listening for any sound, ready to protect the sprinter who, I assumed, was seeking its mother. Somewhere close by, a white-throated sparrow tried half a song and gave up. The leafy cross hatch of alder branches stretched around me to the sky, and at my feet the ferns overlapped. I was deep in a wild green nest. No one walking by or driving on the road would guess I was here.
The earth smelled damp and sweet in the alders. I could hear, at a distance, terns crying above the incoming tide, and across the road, down at the salt marsh, crow-shriek. Maybe the crows had discovered a barred owl perched for the day and were trying to rout it. Maybe they had come upon the nesting goshawks. Maybe the bobcat was crossing the salt grass, nosing into the tunnels the voles make through it.
The day was warm. I closed my eyes and settled into the alder patch, listening to a yellowthroat sing nearby. It occurred to me, rather drowsily, that I had never seen a bobcat here before. This is my neighborhood of thousands of lives, a small, green place.
Really, it is a tiny place where we enact the magic of our lives.