henry – a true story
August 20, 2011 § 2 Comments
The Year 2000
Henry came to me in a dream last night. He first appeared stretching his sinuous, strong body. Then he walked towards me with his long, graceful stride, offering his head and ears for a scratch and a soft feather stroke of my hand. He purred loudly the whole time. I thought it amazing Henry followed me to Maine from our mountaintop home in upstate New York. I couldn’t fathom how he did this. Then, I awoke. It was three o’clock in the morning. Though only a dream, I sensed Henry had come to tell me something. I held Charlie, my sweet-faced little dog, close to my chest as if protecting him. There was a prescient, bitter-sweet quality to the dream. It was disturbing. So, I held on to Charlie until I fell back to sleep.
Henry was one of three outdoor cats I adopted four years earlier for my horse barn. They were feral kittens, born somewhere in the heavily wooded lands of the Catskill State Park. Their mother died while weaning them. A woman discovered them on a trail hike, took them home, and nursed them into life and health until they were four months old. However, she already had many cats and was eager to find another home for the three orphans. Since I needed good hunters for my horse barn and house, it was a perfect match of timing and circumstance.
The threesome comprised two sisters, Thelma a calico and Louise a tabby, and their brother Henry, an orange, brown-and-white tiger stripe. At four months of age, Henry was tall, already strapping, and elegantly handsome. Of the three, Henry’s nature was the sweetest and gentlest. And his eyes, even at this early age, reflected an ancient wisdom — a quiet knowing and acceptance. I watched him hunt and observed his muscular frame develop into something akin to a world-class athlete. As he matured his wisdom deepened, and I believed he knew more, cared more, and was finely tuned to the wildness and mystery of his natural world, as well as to us mere humans.
All three cats were well mannered even though they knew no other existence than the outdoors and all that nature offered, good and bad. Henry was often found sleeping in the sun behind the juniper bushes at the backside of my log cabin. While his sisters played most of the day, he would sleep peacefully yet ever alert. The subtlest change in his environment would disrupt his snooze and cause him to immediately focus his senses so that he could discern whether a sound, rustle of a leaf, or flutter of some thing required his full attention. I took only two photos of Henry alone. In one, he was stretched out like a Sphinx observing his world as he took shelter from a hot summer sun under an old pine bench, the resting-place for our family Buddha.
When I moved to Deer Isle off the coast of Maine, I had to leave my cats behind. My friend, Sharon, was kind enough to adopt them. It took a week to convince my brood to go into the kennel so they could be transported to their new home. My strategy was carefully designed around feeding them inside the kennel every day for seven days, each day pushing their food bowl further back into the confines of the kennel. The goal was to ease them into the enclosure until they were relaxed with the idea of being confined. Each day I stayed near the kennel while they ate so they would get used to my presence, something they were unaccustomed to at their mealtime. And in the end, on the seventh day, they walked calmly into the kennel for their food. And I, with a weeping heart, softly closed its latch. They did not stir, or look around, but continued to eat. When they finished their meal, they sat nestled together and looked at me. They made no sounds and showed no signs of fear. Sharon was generously ‘on call’ the whole week, waiting each evening for me to telephone and say, “It is done.” The cats showed amazing equanimity as they waited, enclosed for the first time in their lives, while Sharon drove from Woodstock to retrieve them.
That was the last time I saw Thelma, Louise, and Henry. I particularly remember Henry looking at me from inside the kennel while he snuggled with his sisters as if to say I don’t know what’s happening but I’ll take care of the girls and I trust you. It’s okay.
Sharon called me just a few days ago to say that Henry had disappeared for more than a week. A cat had been killed on a road nearby her home. She was filled with fear and guilt. To soothe her anguish, I told her not to worry and that he was most likely on a long adventure. However, because of her revelatory news, and my prophetic dream, I came to fully accept that Henry was dead. As I began to absorb this sorrowful reality, my most vivid and haunting memory of Henry released itself from a tangle of emotions, like the unraveling of a tapestry woven from time. It was an early period in our history together. Henry was only six months old when he engaged in an experience, or perhaps ‘drama’ is more appropriate, that will remain etched in my mind forever.
The Year 1997 — The Capture and Kill
It was an uncommonly warm, sixty-degree February day — the day of Henry’s memorable hunt. Snow still prevailed though at the top of the mountain where my cabin stood. An indigo blue sky reigned over the land, showcasing the pristine snow with a bright, almost blinding sun, shining through leafless branches of tall oaks and wide hemlocks. This was a premature taste of spring and the ease of walking around outdoors without layers of clothing … jacket, sweater, scarf, gloves, and a wool hat … was unadulterated freedom. A thick wool shirt was enough.
The cats and Charlie were happily investigating, running, and sunning themselves. I took Charlie for a walk in the afternoon. When we returned, it was time to feed the cats. Thelma and Louise were there, on the doormat, waiting for their food. However, they were clearly distracted as they kept looking down towards the barn. Henry was not to be seen. I put the food out anyway, fairly certain he would eventually show up.
And he did. Henry, with great steadfastness climbed the steep, long stone steps to the front porch holding something large in his mouth. Within moments, I realized it was The Owl. Our Owl-in-Residence! The Owl that made its home on our mountain and accompanied me on trail walks, flying slightly ahead of me, only to land on a favorite tree limb to wait until I caught up with him.
But, this catch of Henry’s was against the laws of nature and too impossible even for Henry to accomplish. How could he possibly catch an owl? I had never heard of a cat catching an owl — in fact, quite the opposite. But, no, it was The Owl that he dragged unto the snow-covered grass as he played with its limp body. Then he left it and joined his sisters for their supper on the porch. Soon after their canned meal was finished, I saw them in the snow, dancing their cat ballet over the prey. Surely their dance was ancient in its roots and a form of sacred celebration. They clawed, rolled, played and studied The Owl. They would stop for a while, clean themselves, and then resume their ritual dance. Henry joined me on the porch during one of his breaks and looked at me with such pride. We sat together, never too close, for Henry insisted that a respectful distance be maintained. With my light petting behind his ears, and the symphonic purr of Henry’s response, I said goodnight to him and went inside. I turned off the porch lights and wrestled with the mixed feelings I had regarding this killing.
Henry did what is his nature to do. Nevertheless, an owl, a ‘creatura’ associated with myth and magic. A ‘being’ that, believed by some, offers guidance, even wisdom, if we are open to seeing and hearing. Henry killed this Being. I was not angry with Henry, but I was shaken at the sight of him dancing his dance in preparation of what I believed would be the final mutilation of The Owl. It was sobering.
I tried to read before I went to sleep, but failed. My mind was terribly active with thoughts, stuff, things — nothing and everything. I was concerned about the bloody remains of The Owl and whether Charlie would find it in the morning. Surely he would, for nothing went unnoticed by him and I didn’t want him in that mess. I knew the cats would leave something of this killing, as they almost always did, and their catch was usually left half-eaten. So, I resolved to have my friend Ralph, who was coming the following day for barn repairs, remove whatever was left of The Owl. Until then, I would walk Charlie on lead. With a plan in place, I finally fell asleep.
It rained all night, a heavy, pounding rain, so my sleep was fitful. I finally succumbed to waking up and entered my day. It was 5 a.m. Apart from the persistent, hard rain, this was usually a quiet, still time. But this particular morning was neither quiet, nor still. I heard loud vocalizations from the cats — a rhythmic, chanting sound. As I approached the front door, I had renewed thoughts of Henry’s killing on my mind, which conjured visions of Henry, Thelma, and Louise covered with The Owl’s innards as pieces of flesh hung from their fur, half dried and half still moist. The Owl would be spread open in some ghoulish way, no longer identifiable as it was reduced to something raw and hideous. Its once-greatness would be totally demeaned and lost forever. I switched on the porch lights with some hesitancy, and looked through the beveled oval glass window of my cabin’s large, oak entrance door. Though I had heard the cats, they were not to be seen. In their stead, on the doormat, an offering was left for me: the remains of Henry’s hunt from the previous day. It was not the whole killing half-eaten, but something much more — something emanating from sorcery itself. It was not anything I imagined.
I knew that when cats caught feathered prey, they would pluck their killing first of its feathers and that those feathers would be, or could be, in a rather abstract, frenzied circle. What was presented looked deliberate and eerie. Selected feathers were aligned in a perfect circle. There was a precision to the way the feathers were placed: the large wing feathers formed the inner ring; smaller feathers comprised the second ring and, finally, the soft, fuzzy tail feathers created an ephemeral, delicate outer ring. All of these feathered circles were in perfect order and each feather in its dedicated place of the pattern. At the core of the circle were the intestines of The Owl and a broken part of its beak. To the left and just outside of the circled pattern was one talon. The presentation of the offering looked like a kaleidoscope design without movement, as it remained so very still. Even so, I sensed a living presence, or spirit, remained as I looked more closely at the moist, glistening intestines. I was frozen at the theatre of the sight. Did the cats do this? Was it only Henry? Was there another, perhaps mystical, explanation for the perfection of the design? Was it The Owl’s last statement of wisdom and, if so, what was its message? It was a phenomenon not meant for rationalization.
Today — Farewell
I will never understand how Henry managed this capture and killing. Yet, I will always remember him courageously dragging his magnificent prize up the stone steps for his sisters and me to see. I can still recall the feel of his soft fur as I scratched his ears and head and the look in his amber eyes when he sat with me that evening. His gaze was steady and contemplative, and I could almost hear him say, “I did it. I really did it. I am brave, am I not?” Yes, Henry, you were brave.
It is years later now since Henry was killed. However, he is a part of my heart and lives on deep within the folds of my memory. No matter where Henry had been or how challenging the hunt, when he returned home he greeted his sisters first, then Charlie if he was outside, and finally he would walk up to the doormat, or window ledge, and let me know he was home. His sweetness and gentleness as we sat together on the porch during soft summer rains was a rich experience filled with God’s grace. His indomitable presence and constancy helped form our bond. His noble spirit and gentlemanly ways deepened it. And, the essence of our bond endured enough for Henry to come to me in a dream — one night, eleven years ago — to bid his personal and final farewell.
Today as I write this story, I can still see him running the five hundred feet of dirt road from the horse barn to my cabin. With a feline stride that was long and deliberate, extending further his lean, muscular body, Henry held his head high as his spirit soared with the anticipation of the hunt.
My dear Henry, I grieve for you still, but I also celebrate your life and the touch of grace your presence created in mine. May your dreams be sweet and your noble spirit fly on God’s breath. And may you always, always run wild and free.
Walk tall as the trees; live strong as the mountains; be gentle as the spring winds;
keep the warmth of summer in your heart, and the Great Spirit will always be with you.
~ Old Native American Chant
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