An unseasonably warm New Year’s Day, 1972. I regret wearing my flannel plaid shirt with my plastic imitation-leather jacket over top. Michael, too, is excessively dressed for a walk through the woods. Chester County, Pennsylvania, has several forested areas bordered by farms. One can go for miles on the dirt paths worn through the thickets by the sharp hooves of deer. Shenando-ah, my greyhound-sized whippet, trots happily ahead, his dazzling white and brindle-spotted body camouflaged in the dappled light filtering through the vine-covered tree limbs. With my long hair and Michael’s shaggy head and mustache, but for our bell-bottom jeans with their unraveled hems, we might be early settlers to the area. A worn American flag patch over my right knee is my sole ornament.
Shenandoah leaps soundlessly in and out of the woods, graceful as a gazelle. He is the only one dressed for the weather, as he is not wearing the sweater which, no doubt, he will need
“A record 60-degree day, folks,” the weatherman said this morning on the radio; “Enjoy it while you can because the temperature is dropping into the low 30’s tonight!” Mike ties the arms of his jacket around his waist.
“What is going on with this crazy weather?” he asks the universe, squinting towards the hazy sky. He has the fair freckled skin and sky-blue eyes of a redhead. Although his hair is a rusty brown, his mustache is a dark auburn color. I can see the faint squint lines which, when he is old-er, will make him look craggy like a sailor.
“I don’t know, but it just seems like the last few years it’s been hotter than I ever remember. Maybe it’s got something to do with the hole in the ozone.” I pull my hair free of the leafless vines which cover the trees, reaching their thorny branches out to obstruct passers-by, even in January. “This path,” I say, “will be nearly impassible in the summer.”
“Shenny!” I call, having lost sight of the dog. A crackling of branches and leaves…the dog bounds out of the brush, and comes to rest before me.
“All in green went my love
Riding on a great horse of gold
Into the silver dawn.
Four lean hounds
Crouched low and smiling,
The merry deer ran before.”
I quote the first verse of my favorite e.e. Cummings poem to the dog, who listens attentively, ears raised.
Our narrow path becomes wider and brighter as we come to an opening. A small country road interrupts the forest. We cross over the asphalt. The path resumes but divides up ahead; the scrub in-between the two paths resembling an island. Other trails and bridal paths intersect the ours. All is still, save the crunching of our feet on the carpet of brown leaves. Not a single bird speaks.
Suddenly Shenandoah stops, his elegant neck erect. His body begins to tremble with excitement. We stop too, reflexively. Then, the silence is shattered by the sound of great bodies racing through the woods; the very ground trembles as though a train were about to burst from the trees. Tree limbs cracking, the dull, earth-drumming of hoofbeats, snorting warm bodies, chestnut brown, black with riders perched atop in red hunting garb, a glimpse of silver stirrups and bridles, tails trailing behind…all pass us on the path. We three, Mike, Shenandoah and I stand in awe hugging a huge sheltering oak. We can smell their warm bodies, see the whites of their mount’s eyes as they canter by. There must be at least twenty-some riders in the hunt, counting the three young riders on sleek ponies. The hounds are baying somewhere in the distance. As if we had dreamed them, the hunters vanish, leaving a vacuum behind. The woods grow still once more.
“Wow! Far out!” I say, breaking the silence. The dog looks at me with his golden almond-shaped eyes. Michael reaches over and pats him. Shenny’s tail swishes back and forth like a white whip. We continue walking, hoping to see the hunters again. The woods are beginning to thin along one side of the trail. There are fewer tall trees and more bushy tangles. Once again, Shenandoah stands still. something is moving in the brush.
“What next? A bear?” says Mike. From the sound, whatever is in the brush is small.
“Hush! What if it’s a skunk?” I warn, squatting and grabbing Shenandoah’s collar; “If we stay still, we may see what it is.” Shenandoah sits on his haunches, turning his head at the noises. I can see the fur of a small animal now. The noise stops. “Could it be a rabbit?” I wonder. We sit, transfixed. Then, a tiny gray kitten emerges and walks right over to me, oblivious of the dog at my side. It looks up and mews pitifully.
“Oh baby, what in the world are you doing way out here in the woods all by yourself? You can’t be out here; you’ll freeze tonight.” Shenny gives the kitten a sniff. Then the bushes begin to move again.
“On my God, there’s more!” Michael says. Three, then four larger kittens follow the little gray out of the brush. Unlike their more plain, short-haired brother they have long, soft hair of pink, gray and white. Two more follow, glancing around suspiciously; “Someone must have dumped them in the woods. They’ll never make it. Poor things, they’re half-starved.” I extend my palm to the little grey. Obviously, the runt, he is the boldest of the litter, for he climbs onto my palm and tries to curl up.
“We can’t just leave them,” I say, watching as a fifth kitten emerges, fearfully. I unzip the top of my jacket, tucking the bottom hem into my jeans, and begin scooping up kittens, stuffing them inside. Mike picks up three of them and puts them in his jacket pockets. Just then, I see a pair of fearful eyes watching from the thicket. A sixth kitten! “Come on baby,” I croon, but in a flash, the kitten races off where we can’t follow. The afternoon light is changing. We can’t stay here. I pray she’ll follow us.
With Shenandoah prancing ahead we retrace the path at a smart pace. The kittens within my jacket are sound asleep. Who knows how long they have been wandering without food or water? The light overhead is beginning to change from hazy white to the brittle blue of late afternoon in winter. Like ballerinas, row after row of fluffy white clouds are forming an arc above us before disappearing below the tree level. A chilly wind is beginning to stir the branches overhead.
We are approaching the road we passed before. “Wait Shenny!” I say and the dog pauses, looking back at me. I snap on his leash and hand the end to Mike. I can hear a car approaching. Stepping out into the road where I will be clearly seen I smile and flag the car to a stop, “Someone abandoned these little kitties and they will die if we can’t find them homes. Can you help us?” I ask reaching into my jacket. The young man and woman in the car are about to object, but when I hold out the two beautiful long-haired kittens, both of the people gasp.
“OOOH! Would you look at that beautiful fur?” says the girl. The kittens’ eyes are blue. Just then one of them begins to mew pitifully. I hand the kitten to her and extend my arm holding the oth-er kitten to the guy. Not knowing what else to do, he takes the tiny animal in his hands.
“They are cold and hungry and thirsty,” I add; “There are seven of them and we already have a dog. We can’t keep them. Please?” I ask sincerely. They exchange smiles.
Michael, Shenandoah, and I cross the road watching the car’s dust as it retreats into the ever- darkening day. We still have five cats stuffed in our jackets. We are walking faster now; the evening air is beginning to chill my fingertips. After another mile or so we begin to hear the thudding of hoofbeats. Incredibly, the hunt has circled back and is about to cross our paths once more. A large white horse, violet in the shadows, appears like an apparition from the tangle of trees. Its rider, a man in shiny black boots and a scarlet habit looks down at my waving hands.
I reach into my jacket and pull out the first kitten I feel, “Please, sir, can you take a kitten? We found seven out here in the woods just now and we already have a dog.” The man leans over in his saddle to get a better look. His horse’s nostrils are dilated as Shenandoah and the horse sniff each other. The horse gives a great snort and pulls his head back. Shenny sits on his tail, tongue lolling, smiling at him.
“We can always feed one more at our barn, I suppose,” he says and takes up the kitten before him on his saddle. The last we see of him is his horse’s braided tail disappearing down the trail. Two more riders emerge and I manage to convince one of them to take a fourth kitten, leaving us with the little gray and two sisters.
The light is all but gone when we reach my apartment, the ground floor of a country house. I have no cat food, of course, but I warm a little milk and pour it into a bowl. Instantly, the tiny kittens begin hissing and spitting at each other in their eagerness to drink. I open a can of tuna and can barely place it on a plate without the kittens climbing up my leg, going wild in their hun-ger. While I am feeding Shenandoah, the kittens polish off the tuna, then join Shenny at his bowl to pick off any leftovers.
“Would you look at that,” says Michael; “Poor little buggers were starved alright!” I take some towels out of my closet to make a bed for the kittens, but once Mike and I have cooked and eat-en our dinner, we look in on them and see that the kittens and Shenandoah are happily curled up together on the couch. Mike and I sit on the floor and pour some Boone’s Farm Apple wine into two jelly jars which pass for wine glasses. Outside, it is January again. The weather man is pre-dicting a winter storm this week. We wrap a blanket around the two of us and listen to the tap, tap, tapping of a tree branch against our newly-frosted window.
Bobbie Wayne has a BA (music) and an MFA (Art.) She was a painter (Abstract, Portrait, and sign), music therapist, singer/songwriter, Nashville songwriter and plays Celtic harp. She studied writing at Grub Street in Boston. She is published in The Ravens Perch, Intrinsick, SLAB,
Blueline Literary Journal, and Colere Literary magazine.