The Distorted Mirror
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Whatever—it does seem pretty clear by now, on the basis of a good bit of sound science, that at least some of our sense of understanding of Augusta was not just wishful projection. Still, there was so much we did not understand. How could she settle gently in the crook of an arm, or lie curled in the curve of a neck on the pillow, but resolutely refuse to sit on a lap? Many a morning we would throw the fuzzy Spider Ball down our long skinny bedroom and Augusta would give chase, as any cat would do, then wait for one of us to go get it, go back to bed, call for Augusta to follow, wait for Augusta to figure out that she was being summoned, wait for Augusta to.

But finally, one miraculous day, she brought it back, sort of, at least to the foot of the bed, to cheers, huzzahs, good kitties! From then on we brought her gradually up to about 60 percent success as a retriever cat, at which point her boredom, or ours, or both, intersected her rising retrieval curve and flattened it flat. Probably that was just a pause and, if we had kept up the good work, she would have gotten better, but all three of us were, frankly, sick of the Spider Ball. Gone all day. Had an eagle gotten her so soon? A bear? We were a long way from the road, and there was hardly any traffic anyhow.

It was a good, safe place to be a cat.

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The deer mice in their hundreds were setting up housekeeping, the dominant males marking territory with urine and all their followers racing about, checking, checking to be sure they were getting the system straight. Augusta followed the re-establishment of mouse society with close attention, in no need of schooling. Her sense of smell was uniquely attuned to this kind of signal. Behind her upper front teeth are two tiny tubes, each of which leads to what is called the vomeronasal organ, a sac containing an array of at least thirty exquisitely sensitive chemical receptors.

Augusta could read the deer mouse community map like Leonard Bernstein scanning a Beethoven score. Her perception of spring was not like ours. We see the world around us and we glory in its multiplicity of wonders. The cat tunes in to an invisible web of scent, of creatures she is designed to kill. Montana summer is all allegro.

At A.

Fog filled the valley, and a thin, steady rain was pittering on the roof. Augusta sat on the windowsill disconsolate. She hated rain. Outside, it looked as though every animal visible also hated rain. Magpies hunched in the spruces, soaked and cold. Two golden eagles brooded on fence posts, disheveled and not on the lookout. The famous big sky hung heavy and silent. The horses stood nose to tail, heads down, glistening eyelashes closed.

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The cows found a lee slope and turned their butts to the wind and did what they always, reliably, in all weather, did: eat. Buds were splitting, petals slick with light, mayflies new-hatched clinging to the underside of streamside leaves. When the midday wind blew the clouds apart, the whole orchestra swung into its principal theme, at a storm-driven pace. In fact already.

Augusta sprang through the tall wet grass like a stotting mule deer and disappeared among the granite boulders behind the house, some of them tall as the house, on her own, free. She returned when called, drenched and shivering, and loved the rough toweling we gave her. She closed her eyes, slowly opened them, and between her black lips gave a quick downward flick of her pale pink tongue—gestures of affection. She smelled so good I wanted to bury my face in her, which she recognized as a genial howdy and reciprocated by sniffing around the hem of my pants and the soles of my shoes.

Satisfied then, she took up her finely detailed grooming, one back foot held high. A few tongue-strokes up the back of the thigh, then a chew on the belly, then a licked-paw half-face wash—was there the slightest order to it?

The afternoon closed with a grand finale, the sun engulfed in blackness and then the earth-cracking, gut-pumping fortissimo of the full storm, sheets of rain, hammering hail, wind in waves across the pastures, then sudden stillness and the thunder suddenly far, echoing out across the prairie north.

Meadowlarks resumed their liquid arias, and yes, there was a rainbow, double in fact, in the east. The cat had slept through it all.

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As the bright days hurried by, Augusta grew rapidly more independent. Her forays out among the rocks and sagebrush lasted longer. We reassured ourselves that she was too big and claw-capable now for a red-tailed hawk our commonest daytime raptor to try to take.

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An eagle was possible but somehow seemed unlikely so near the houses and barns. The dangerous predators were all, at least so we believed, twilight dwellers—the fox, the bobcat, the great horned owl. If one of them happened to break that rule, as a coyote might, surely Augusta would shoot to the top of a willow or aspen or big rock out of reach, as we had seen her so easily do. She had still not mastered coming down from high in a tree, but word was that any cat would figure it out if left up there long enough.

We did hope so: Our local fire department, all volunteer and twenty miles away, would not have mobilized eagerly for a cat-up-a-tree call. And proud she grew, too, the little huntress. Like all her kind she brought gifts home. Sometimes they were fully alive and so much fun to chase under the refrigerator where her staff could be counted on to shoo them out somehow, with wooden spoons, broom handles, straightened coat hangers or to bat from chair top to lampshade, bleeding only a little; and sometimes plumb dead.

She would drop a deer mouse at our feet, give a mrop! Now sometimes she did not come to the call of her name. Now sometimes she would stay out even into the long shadows and chill that tell the always shockingly early onset of autumn in August in Montana. But we knew that as dusk came on, danger was real. Then came the time she did not come. It was an acutely inauspicious time for her not to come: At the base of many of the giant boulders, where runoff rain collected, chokecherry bushes grew and the chokecherries were ripe and black bears had come down from the mountains to feed on them.

They lost all their customary sense of where they ought not to go. You damn well stayed inside. But Augusta was out there amidst them. We called and called. We ventured as far as the fence with flashlights and called. I, having written a book about grizzly bears, supposedly knew that black bears could be scared away if you took a strong enough tone with them. But: I had met a black bear mother and cubs once on a trail in Idaho and they had not gotten my message.

The mother had sent the cubs up a tree and then turned to me, snapping her jaws, a bad sign, and stamping her. Bear, I have only the most peaceful of feelings toward you. Family assembled, they ran like hell away. Plus, chokecherry bears are not in their right minds. I was scared. Hence, stupidity having taken over, I ventured forth, flashlight in hand.

Calling, quietly now, Augusta, Augusssta. Between those big rocks by now it was really quite dark. Then I saw, in my flashlight beam—this all happened very fast—the eyeshine at just the right height and just the right narrow distance apart to be the eyes of a bear, walking placidly not at me nor away, just along, and then, behind, that, the eyeshine of, oh, God, no, a cub, and then another cub, and then, smaller, a little behind but not far, a cat.

Augusta was out walking with a black bear and her cubs. I did not know what to do, so I did nothing. For a long time I just stood there in the dark. Then I went home. Augusta arrived shortly thereafter. A lot of cats have mental problems. Augusta certainly did. Sudden loud noises sent her diving for cover.

The only strangers she would even approach were those few quiet women long familiar with cats who had the patience to sit on the floor, speak softly, and wait. Even then, one twitch and she might be gone like a bullet.