At first I thought it was another raccoon… then a cat. But as I slowed to pass the crushed body alongside the Capitol of Texas 360 Highway, I realized it was something in between: a ringtail cat. It was the first I’d ever seen. It was dead; blood oozing from crushed eyes, guts splayed on the asphalt.
By now other drivers honked and cursed and glared through their glass domes since I’d slowed to near halt in the busy traffic. I glanced around for pigs, and seeing none, I pulled over into the gravelly shoulder with my flashers on and ratched up my e-brake. For show I propped open my hood then set out back down the median amid knee-high bobbing flowerheads of indian blankets and mexican hats towards the mangled corpse.
My heart sank as my gullet flamed in stifled rage. Sure enough it was a ringtail cat. Sick bastard probably had to swerve to hit it there. Shaky, I knelt, tears welling despite awareness of my spectacle. It needs a proper burial I thought and started back to my car for a plastic grocery bag.
I looked to my right across the street into the thick forest from whence it must’ve crossed, cursing its stupid carelessness while simultaneously regretting the curse. I imagined its mate and brethren looking back from the forest’s edge at that spot. But this vision was real. I halted in vertigo and stared back, finally moving my head and eyes slightly side to side to look at them with my peripheral vision, as if it were night and I couldn’t make out my center view as well. They turned and tucked singlefile under the barbed wire, disappearing into the underbrush.
I nearly ran into traffic then thought of the 17 year old boy from my highschool killed near this same spot a few years back chasing his basketball unthinking into the street, a scene I always associated with a watermelon dropped onto pavement. After that they closed the de facto trailhead to a popular swimming hole here. I waved frantically, instinctively gesticulating my loss of some object from my car on the other side that I was trying to retrieve.
Finally cars slowed enough to let me sprint across towards where the ringtails ducked under. The brush was too thick for me there so I hopped the fence a few yards down and thrashed towards their path. This is crazy, people saw me, even if I did see that they’re long gone now I thought.
Still I kept scrambling low under the snapping dead juniper branches and hit a deer trail. Too dry for tracks. I followed it anyway, already envisioning pigs dismayfully sauntering about my car. Doubtfully I pressed on down the widening path as the junipers made way for live oaks.
Then I came upon an Oak Lord I knew, as always pausing to look upon its magnificence. And there they were. In the canopy, together, as if in conference, looking down upon me.
Two burst off in opposite directions, nimbly scampering through the treetips, then gone. The last warily climbed down and when it hopped to the ground it glanced in my eyes, then continued down the same deer trail at a gallop.
Wait, I breathed. Hands and knees I scampered after it through the low brush, just glimpsing the swish of its fine brush. The forest soon opened up into a small grotto with smooth-trunked sycamores and little black walnut treelets wading on thin sandbars amid limestone flags awash with clear springwater. On the other side was an overhang where under thick moss mats and dripping maidenhair boughs glassy black eyes just barely shone.
I crossed the waters with the ninja stealth of a juvenile delinquent with creaky floors in his parents house. It watched. As I neared, it silently turned into the blackness with that provocative tail swish. I pulled out my lighter and flicked it on. There was only one place it could’ve gone; a small hole at the far end of the overhang, where chalky dust caking the floor teemed with various tracks, including fresh ringtail tracks marching straight into the hole.
Even if I could fit through there its gonna bite me when I do I thought. Or something will. Cautiously I brought the flame closer while inspecting the darkness. It went deep, maybe even opened up back there. Thousands of harvestmen pulsed as one above me. It’s spring; it must have come back here worried about its kits or whatever you call baby ringtail cats.
I found myself seemingly pulled magnetically into the earth, only realizing my depth when almost fully swallowed. Claustrophobia gripped my heart and throat with cold panic. My head bashed against the hard, cold, wet rock and clay roof. My body length was fully enclosed in the narrow cold stone artery. I was afraid and urged to run but a faint chittering beckoned me irresistibly. My hands pulled me forward, arms straight out, feet and toes pushing.
Then the chamber suddenly widened and I pulled into a small domed room. There was no ringtail cat, or kits, or exit. Some dead juniper branches lay against one wall. Ringtail tracks and sign of other animals were everywhere. Surely somewhere is its flush hole or something, these caves don’t end like this I thought. I frantically scoured the walls, black dread gripping me anew.
Someone has graffitied even here I noticed. But the markings were in no script nor stylistic scribbling recognizable to my eye. Nor were they like those red ochre rock pictographs. Someone had faintly scratched symbols or perhaps diagrams into the soft wet limestone. They appeared fresh.
I stepped back and tried to make sense of the scene, flame flickering the roughness shadows as I traced it along the walls in a search pattern. It was a mural of sorts. A large circle about four feet diameter spanning the dome was punctuated with three smaller circles each about one foot diameter, which if connected with lines would form a triangle. Inside each of these smaller circles were a similar crude drawing of a man and woman. In one, the couple were inside a square, and the line forming the side of the square below their feet extended outward to connect with the edge of the circle. The next circle was the same, except the side of the square above their heads was missing. In the final (or first depending how you saw it) circle, the figures were surrounded by myriad fractal designs.
I stayed there until I had absorbed the design, then caterpillared my way out, barely squeezing through the narrow exit. I retraced my steps, returned to my car, got the plastic bag, and picked up the dead ringtail, I’m sure to the horror of passers-by. I took it to the Oak Lord, and buried it (without the plastic bag) at her feet, covering its grave with a choice limestone flag, whereupon I burned some dead leaves, inhaling it with the trees. Then I left, returned to my car, and drove off.