Fiction: Lying Low

Let’s start with mountain lions. Maybe that will make the next part easier.

Here’s the thing: there are more mountain lions around than most folks know about. People see them, from time to time. But usually not a good look. Just a flash of grey-brown fur and a long tail flying across the road and vanishing into the brush. By the time it’s even registered in your brain, it’s gone—you’re slamming on the brakes, but for no good reason. It’s over. I remember seeing their tracks down at the creek when I was a kid. Big cat-prints the size of my hand. My cousins didn’t believe me, said the tracks belonged to the neighbors’ Great Dane. But they were wrong. I knew the difference. And I knew they were too big to be bobcat, although we have those around here, too.

So about once a year someone in the area—”the area” here meaning the roughly 10-mile diameter circle around Bison Creek, population 441—someone sees a mountain lion. Usually a farmer, because that’s who lives around here, and farmers are outdoors a lot. Usually at dusk, at a distance, and not for long. Just a streak of movement, a breath on the wind, and then it’s gone.

The mountain lions have learned, see? A century of human-driven extermination has had a powerful selective effect. The dumb ones, the incautious ones, the ones that turned from venison and pheasant to beef, they all got shot. The only ones left are the definition of stealth and cunning. We made them what they are now, as surely as we made Holsteins and St. Bernards.

I think the county fish and game guys know. If you ask them, they deny that there are any mountain lions at all in Jackson County, or the rest of the state for that matter. But that’s clearly bull, too many people have seen them. So I think it’s a cover. As long as the official policy is that there aren’t any mountain lions, the county guys don’t have to do anything about them. “No, sir, must’ve been coyotes killed your calf. No mountain lions around here for a hundred miles.” I don’t know if that’s an off-the-books policy to protect the mountain lions, or for the county guys to protect themselves. The mountain lions pop up for about one sighting a year at best—how the hell are you going to track and kill that?

* * *

I started thinking hard about mountain lions after I found what I found in that coyote den.

Have you ever been all alone out in a big pasture in the middle of the afternoon? Not a soul around for miles. It’s better on windy days, then there’s some noise. On the still days, it’s really still. I mean, nearly silent. The only sounds at all are your feet pushing through the grass and the almost subliminal drone of cicadas in the trees. And the sun is out, but somehow that just makes it worse. It’s the horizon, it’s too low, and the sky is too big, and there you are in the middle of a sea of grass, with the sun pinning you down like a bug.

Part of me hated it. But part of me loved it, getting away from everything. Chores. Responsibilities. People. It was better when I went out in the morning, when there was still a trace of dew and you might catch a turtle out sunning itself. Or in the evening. Then I would go climb this bluff where the creek bends west, and watch the sun set. From up there you were high enough to see a few of the neighboring farms and the grain elevators in town. You could watch the sun go down and people’s lights come on and it seemed like the world closed down to a little bowl holding the town and the farms and the happy people inside of both.

Afternoons were worse, when I was down in the grass and couldn’t see any farms, couldn’t see any sign of humans at all besides the distant fences and the wheat. That’s when all that emptiness would weigh on me. But I went out anyway. Like I said, sometimes I just needed to get away. And I had a perverse streak, too, when I was a teenager: if something was difficult or uncomfortable I’d do it, just to personally extend a middle finger at the universe.

So there was this coyote den. Abandoned several years—I remembered when the coyote hunters had come through when I was kid. They didn’t get all the coyotes, not nearly, for coyotes have gotten to be almost as careful as mountain lions. But they cleaned out that den, and for some reason no other coyotes had come back to take it over. And I got to wondering if there were any bones down in there. Back then I was always picking up bones wherever I went, still had ambitions of being a paleontologist someday.

I’d better explain about this pasture. It was only a little over half a mile across, east to west, with wheat fields on either side. But north-south it went all the way from one section road to the next, the full mile, with the creek winding through it. Belonged to the Tanners, good friends of my folks, and they never minded if we boys went down there to play around, as long we didn’t bother the cattle. Not that there were cattle all the time, sometimes they had the cattle out on the wheat fields and sometimes in other pastures.

There was an old barb wire fence about halfway down that cut the pasture in two across its narrow point. That fence was not in great shape but some brush had grown up around it and the cattle wouldn’t usually go through. So it was two pastures, really, one on the north and one on the south, but the Tanners pretty nearly always ran the cattle on the south side, because that’s where the old loading chute was, and the gate for getting trucks in and out.

The north side was better for stomping around. Cattle play merry hell with a creek, coming down as a herd and churning the creekbed to mud and crapping everywhere. A few years of that and a nice sandy creek with fish and turtles and birds turns into a muddy little piss-stream with just a few bullfrogs holding out. So the north side, upstream, was nicer, and I preferred to go to there on my rambles. And that’s where the coyote den was.

The funny thing is, the den is just not that remote. You can see it from the high point on the county line road, if you look south from the bridge over the creek. It’s a good way off, nearly half a mile south of the road, but clearly visible. It’s in one of the little hillocks—I hesitate to call anything so modest a bluff or a butte—at the edge of the creek’s miniature floodplain. Just a hump of sandy earth about eight feet tall, twelve or fifteen feet across, with four or five good-sized holes scattered around on the sides. But the north side of the pasture wasn’t used hardly at all and the coyote den was on the side of the creek opposite the truck gate, so nobody with a vehicle had been over there in probably 50 years or more. I know the coyote hunters just parked and walked in, because I had seen their trucks by the side of the road from my upstairs window. Mom was pretty unhappy that day—she didn’t like alcoholics with guns wandering around shooting things within rifle range of the house, so she kept us all inside until they were gone. We were little, then, and the idea of hunters coming from somewhere else to ‘our’ pasture was rather exciting. As if they were famous big-game hunters instead of poor folks from two towns over.

So anyway, despite being in the middle of long-settled farming country, and despite being in a pasture where it was at least theoretically visible from the road, this coyote den didn’t get much traffic. I might well have been the first person to visit since the coyote hunters, and that had been almost a decade back.

It was one of those hot, still afternoons that I halfway hated but put up with anyway. Usually in the north pasture I could find something worth the hike. A scissortail flycatcher flitting across my path, or maybe a box turtle or fence lizard. But not that day. Too damn hot, everything with a lick of sense was holed up somewhere waiting out the heat. Everything except me, I guess. And I remembered about that coyote den and wondered if there were any bones left inside.

The previous month my brother had found some owl pellets on the ground under the big nest in the tree by the road, and we’d picked them apart and found teeth and bones from field mice and voles, and one tiny jaw I thought came from a shrew. And I figured the coyotes had probably brought prey back to the den, and maybe there were some bones in there I could identify and add to my collection. So I walked around the den to see if one of the holes was big enough for me to fit through.

The first thing that struck me as off was the smell. First, that there was a smell at all. There hadn’t been any coyotes in that den in years. I knew that much because at dusk you could hear the next pack over howling, but they were northeast of the house. This den was southwest, and we hadn’t heard any coyotes from this direction since the hunters came through.

Then there was the smell itself. There’s a different smell when an animal rots in a confined space, than when it goes off in the open. Something to do with airflow and what insects get it at it and when. Once this opossum got up into the attic and died, and even after Dad had cleared out the carcass, the stench was so thick that I had to sleep downstairs for a couple of nights. The upstairs had been permeated by this sickly sweet funk that seemed to crowd out all other sensations, like the high point of an invisible tide going over your head, leaving you underneath it. That same smell was coming out of the den.

At first I wondered if maybe a badger had set up shop. But that didn’t ring true. I’d seen badger holes and they’re small. I couldn’t see a badger living anywhere with so many big open doors. And, more importantly, badger holes don’t stink. I don’t know if they eat their prey outside or bury the indigestible bits or what, but their holes don’t have a noticeable smell. And this coyote den did.

But, hell, I was young and I thought I knew all of the local fauna and the sun was out, so I was more curious than anything. I figured something had crawled into the old coyote den and died – a raccoon, maybe even an armadillo. I was hoping for an armadillo. It’s almost impossible to get one with the shell intact, since all the dead armadillos I’d found had either been splattered on the road or killed at close range with a shotgun. So I got down on my hands and knees and wiggled up to the biggest hole.

Well, right away I could see it was going to be uncomfortable to get far enough in there to see anything, because the hole was so small. I’d have to stick my arms in first, to make my shoulders smaller, and push in on my chest. But discomfort is relative, and I was already hot and sweaty and dirty, and by now I was getting excited. I had been afraid that I might not be able to get into that coyote den at all, and now it looked like I could, and as bad as the smell was, it suggested that there was something worth crawling in there to see.

The particular hole I was crawling into stayed pretty narrow for a little over two feet, just far enough that I had to do some serious chest-sliding and got a good handful of dust and dirt down my t-shirt. But after that it widened out some, and I could get my hands out on either side and sort of pull myself in. I might not have, if I could have seen what was ahead, but that damned hole was so tight I had my face smashed down between my arms, eyes closed against the dust, and for those few minutes all I could smell was earth and sweat.

Eventually I did get far enough in there to raise my head a little. It was pretty dark inside. I mean, there was some light coming in through the other holes, but they were all smaller and more twisting than the one I’d crawled through, and they didn’t let in much light. But my eyes had been shut against the dirt while I was pushing in, so they were already partly dark-adapted.

At first I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing. I mean, there were bones, clearly, lots of bones, in a pile in the center of the open space, a sort of communal room in the center of the den. But there wasn’t anything I could identify at first. No armadillo shell, that was for sure. Just lots of little bones. And that dead-animal-in-the-attic stench, so strong it made my eyes water.

You ever have one of those moments when it takes your brain a second to catch up with your eyes? And you’re thinking, “What the hell!?” until you get a second glance and realize that the giant spider in the corner is a just crumpled-up dress sock? This was something like that. After a few seconds my brain reoriented and I realized that I wasn’t looking at a pile of little bones, I was looking at a pile of big bones that had been smashed. Some of them were clearly deer. I saw the end of one of the cannon bones—the long skinny bones just above the feet—sticking out on the edge of the pile, and some fragments of vertebrae, and something that might have been a scapula.

Understand, I was just at the basic level of trying to work out what I was looking at. I was just taking it in. I hadn’t even started to think about how those bones got in there, or how they’d gotten into the condition they were in. If I had, I would have backed out of that hole a lot sooner, and you wouldn’t be reading this.

So there I was, wedged halfway through this little hole in the wall of an abandoned coyote den, looking at this big pile of smashed bones. Deer, I thought, and I was mostly right about that. But not entirely.

Damn science magazines. All the time back then they were running stories on fossil hominids from Africa. I’d read enough of those articles that the profile of an australopithecine skull was fixed in my memory. Especially the brow ridge, the way it flared around the eye sockets and then dipped back down behind, with a big trough before the avocado-like swelling of the braincase.

Well, that’s what I saw. Or, that’s what I thought I saw, sticking out of the edge of that pile of bones. “No way,” I thought after a moment, “I wonder what it really is.” So—God forgive me—I scooted in there just a little further, until I could reach that piece of bone between my first and second fingers and fetch it back.

I almost dropped it, it was so greasy. I wish like hell I had. Because it was what I thought it was, after all: a good chunk of brow ridge, going from maybe mid-forehead around to the side, with a potato-chip-sized piece of the braincase still attached behind. I wasn’t really sure until I turned it over and saw the blood vessel tracks on the inside. I’d seen those before, on the human skull in the science lab at school, with the top of the head on a hinge so you could open it up and look inside. Inside our skulls the blood vessels run in channels in the bone, like rivers, with deltas and tributaries and everything. And that’s what I had in my hand, a little arterial meander inscribed into a bone that should not – could not – be there.

I don’t know if I yelled or not. But I started backing out of that hole as fast as I could. Or trying to, anyway. You ever have to back out of a narrow hole when your hands don’t have much of anything to push on and your legs are flat in the dirt? I must have gotten a good start nevertheless, because I forgot about the face-in-the-dirt thing and banged the back of my head on the inside of the hole. So for a few frantic seconds I was seeing stars, breathing dirt, and using most of my muscles in ways that they weren’t meant to be used.

Well, I got out of that hole. And I still had that chunk of brow ridge in my hand. I didn’t mean to, really, just sort of made a fist around it when I started trying to back out.

My first thought was to get the hell away from there. And my second thought was to tell someone. Anyone. I mean, maybe I was wrong. Maybe it wasn’t a piece of skull from…something that had no right to be there. I had the distinct gut-punched feeling that I was not wrong, though. And whoever I did tell, I wanted them to believe me. So I held onto that piece of bone, for all the good it did me.

That was a long walk home, through the pasture, all alone under that horrible empty sky. For the first time in my life I got acquainted with the reality of putting something out of my mind. That expression had never made sense to me before—how do you just decide not to think about something? But I didn’t think about a lot of things on the way home. Didn’t think about all the times I’d been out on a ramble and I’d felt like something was watching me. Especially didn’t think about how many times I’d caught a fleeting glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye and had written it off as a bobcat or raccoon disappearing behind some bushes.

What I thought about instead was how best to proceed. I wasn’t going to show the bone to my folks. They didn’t believe in evolution, thought all the fossils from Olduvai were forgeries or over-interpreted chimp bones. My science teacher, though, he might be sympathetic. Mr. Gibson was something of an amateur paleontologist himself—had gotten his picture in the paper a couple of times for finding mammoth tusks on the edges of wheat fields. I decided I’d take the bone to him, and start there. Maybe if it was what I thought it was, he could get it to someone at a college or museum, like he had with the mammoth tusks.

But it was Saturday and school wasn’t for two days, and I certainly wasn’t going to call Mr. Gibson and say anything about it. Not a word until he could hold the bone in his hands and tell me for sure whether it was just a weird bit of deer pelvis or turtle shell. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to bring the bone into the house. For one thing, it stunk. For another, it might have raised questions.

I started feeling safer once I crossed the road and got onto our property. The propane tank, the clawfoot tub Mom had turned into a flower planter, the old tractor rusting by the fence—these were blessed touchstones of normalcy. Instead of going to the house, I went on down the long driveway to the barn. We used it as a garage, had ever since Dad got a job in town and we got rid of the last of our livestock. The hayloft hadn’t been used in years. There was a shelf up there with some old coffee cans and such, full of spare bolts and used oil filters and all of the mechanical odds and ends one finds on a farm. I wrapped the bone in a red shop rag and stuffed it into one of the coffee cans—and not one on the top row, either.

By that time it was getting on toward dinner so I went into the house, washed up, and got on with my evening. I couldn’t stop thinking about the bone, and I was probably pretty poor company. But I was a teenager, and I reckon I was distracted often enough that my folks thought nothing of it. And my brothers thought I was a moody jerk anyway.

The next day we had church and then a fellowship lunch at the community center, and after that I went over to Chad’s place to play video games and sneak a couple of beers out of his dad’s fridge. By the time I got home, the sun had just set, but it was still plenty light out. The gloaming, they call it, but I think that’s an awfully ugly word for such a beautiful time of day. I went out to the barn to check on the bone, so I could grab it the next morning before I went to school.

Everything looked fine at first. The cans were all stacked just as I’d left them. I took a couple off the top until I could get down to the one where I’d stashed the bone. I pulled out the shop rag and it felt wrong even before I’d opened it. The chunk of bone I’d taken from the coyote den had been broad and sort of Y-shaped, with the side of the brow ridge curving away from the braincase fragment. But whatever was in the rag now was longer and narrower.

I’m reconstructing a bit here, you understand. I didn’t stop and think about all of that at the time, I was going too fast. But sure enough, when I finished unrolling the rag there was something different inside. At first I thought it was a stick, but when I got it uncovered I could see that it was a cannon bone from a deer. A fragment of one, anyway. Cannon bones are strong, you could beat someone to death with one if you had to. But this one was shattered just a few inches from the end. And not just shattered—the end had clearly been gnawed on by something strong.

At first I thought one of my brothers had done it, playing a prank. But the bite marks did not match those of a dog or coyote or mountain lion. I had studied those. And although the dust was pretty thick up in the hayloft, the only prints on the floorboards matched my tennis shoes. That’s when I looked up, and saw how the rafters came down to the wall right over that shelf.

I found the print on the top shelf. It was a hand print, and it was facing the wrong way: fingers pointed out away from the wall, opposite the direction a person’s hand would fall if they were standing in front of the shelf. Like something had crawled down the rafters from above, so as not to leave any prints on the floor. So careful. And the print was the wrong shape—too small, palm too long, too heavily creased. I knew it had been left by no person, as sure as I knew the mountain lion tracks down at the creek weren’t made by any dog.

There was only the one print, and when my heart had settled down enough I grabbed a rag and wiped it away. It was getting late for a Sunday evening and I don’t remember what excuse I told my folks, but I borrowed the truck. I drove down to where the bridge goes over the creek as it flows into the north pasture, and I flung that chunk of cannon bone as far as I could. It fell into the water and I never saw it again.

* * *

I never went to that pasture again, either. Stopped going on rambles. Spent more time indoors, watching games with Dad or helping Mom with her little projects. The next year I went off to college. Didn’t care for bones anymore, so I went into computers. Moved halfway across the country. Like seemingly everyone from my generation, now I’m a sysadmin living in Baltimore. I like amusement parks and movie theaters. I drive places. I don’t even own a pair of hiking boots.

But I can’t stop thinking about mountain lions. How they’re there, but we never see them. I grew up in mountain lion country, 18 years there, and never heard of anyone finding any mountain lion remains. They’re careful, you see. They have to be, to live alongside us. Most people don’t even know that they’re around. They’re denied by the authorities. In Jackson County, mountain lions are essentially cryptozoological phenomena.

I think about what a mountain lion might do if it was even smarter. Like live in abandoned coyote dens where no-one ever went. Eat deer and pheasants that no-one would ever miss. Go down to the creek right where the cattle do, so they’ll trample out its footprints the next morning. Use rocks to smash the bones of its kind after they died, so no one would ever be able to identify them. And most of all, watch. Watch us. Learn what it needed to do to survive the temporary plague of Homo sapiens.

And if someone did find something, a bone from one of its kind, and took it away, maybe go and retrieve it, and leave a warning behind. No footprints, nothing too overt. Maybe just one handprint, where it might not be found but could not be misinterpreted if noticed. A very specific kind of warning, from something older and stronger and more agile than…well, than we are. I think that strategy might work. I think it might work very well indeed.

So I’m like one of the county guys now. No mountain lions around here, no sirree. Must have been coyotes. Sorry about that calf.

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