My father came after my bedtime, but I could hear my mother talking to him. She said she would not let him in, and while he stood at the foot of the porch she called him weak and worthless and cursed him with words she told me never to say. She cursed at him until she was out of breath.
You should not talk to me like that, he said, if only because there was a time when I loved you, loved you honestly and without reservation. For that alone, he said, his voice soft and low, you should be more civil.
She had caught her breath while he spoke, and when he was done she swore at him again, this time with even more vitriol and even louder than before. I heard his footsteps on the gravel, then the door close on his truck. He went away quietly. That was the last time I ever heard him speak. I did not fall asleep until the pale blue light of predawn showed in the east, lighting the stars a little before the real dawn came to wash them out. All through the dark of night I could hear the low murmur of the television in the living room. My mother did not sleep either.
A few years later, after everything that was going to happen to the Rooster at that house had happened, my father committed suicide. He’d left a note, and in due course it came to my mother. She kept it sealed in the envelope it had come in and brought it to me. I could not think of why she would give this to me.
I can’t read it now, is what I said.
It’s yours, she said, read it when you are ready.
Are you sure it is for me?
It can’t be for me, she said.
I never read it. When I was twenty-three years old I met a dark-haired, dark-eyed girl who’d grown up on a lake. She told me the lake reflected fire like a wild animal’s eyes. I told her everything about my father, and the Rooster, and she said that she thought I could read the note, and I believed her when she said it. I could not find the note. I finally asked my mother where it was. She said that she’d shredded it a few years before, prior to one of our moves. She thought that if I hadn’t read by then, I would never read it.
When my mother separated us from my father she moved us to an old farmhouse only a mile out of town, with a hundred foot-long of gravel driveway to the paved road that lead into town. The house was old and perpetually dusty, the motes golden in the sun, and it had a great covered porch at the front. We had an orange-and-white tomcat we called The Rooster, yellow-eyed and indifferent, that we fed on the porch. He’d lie there, in sun or shade as was his wont, and when he walked he walked with a bit of swagger. Mom named him “The Rooster” because of this walk. She thought he was arrogant and full of himself. I thought he was arrogant and full of himself and that this was wonderful. The Rooster was a misplaced and misunderstood tiger, or maybe a lion, the apex predator of some grassy plain or humid forest set by fate to roam our porch and dare the road into the field of rye across from it, coming and going to some animal schedule governed by the moon and the season that he understood implicitly but didn’t care to explain. My mother referred to him only as lazy. I am sure he thought of us only as being “there,” objects like the house or the porch, and not of any real importance. Still, I loved him for how he moved. He never hurried, and each footfall seemed both calculated to make the floor crack under his importance and to remain silent at the same time.
I was standing in the kitchen eating cereal out of a cold bowl I’d left in the fridge overnight just so it would keep the milk cold and looking out the screen door into the morning when I saw the coyote come onto the porch, low and slow, moving with serious intentions. I heard the Rooster stutter with anger and surprise, and then the coyote was off of the porch with the Rooster in her jaws, trotting with her ears back down the driveway and toward the field of rye. She had the Rooster by the hips, and his tail hung out one side of the coyote’s jaws and his front paws and head the other. He looked back at me, mouth open, with a strange look of consternation, as if so frustrated by his current condition that he could not understand how it might have ever happened. The coyote loped across the paved road and into the field of rye which opened up for her and then closed behind her and then she and the Rooster were gone.
I dropped my cereal bowl and called out. Unfair, unfair, I shouted, at the top of my lungs. Unfair, and my mother came running. I told her what I had seen. She asked me if I was sure that it had been a coyote. I told her that I was positive, and that I thought we should take a shovel or a rake (we didn’t own any guns) and go into the rye to save the Rooster. She shook her head. She said that The Rooster lived a cat’s life, and that he had gone on some adventure of his own, and that he would come back or not as he saw fit. Cats are like that, she said, and The Rooster that way more than most. What I had seen must have been a trick of the climbing sun, she said, or the passing of a bird—maybe the flicker of a magpie’s tail or a crow jumping into flight. They came for the Rooster’s food when he wasn’t around. Whatever it was, she said, it couldn’t be a coyote, and at any rate the Rooster was more likely to be hit by a car than to be carried off by a coyote. A coyote wouldn’t dare come on to the porch of a house so close to town, a house full of people. I looked back at her and then past her, into the kitchen, and in the sunlight dust motes shone like little stars, and I thought of them as witnesses, but obstinate, mute and useless.
It was a coyote, I said, and unfair.
That night my father came and stood at the foot of our Rooster-less porch while my mother ranted at him until he drove away.
Two days later the Rooster was back. I found him on the porch. His fur was matted and dirty, his tail stuck out at an odd angle like a dead branch about to fall from a tree, and he limped. Worst of all he appeared not to look, not to see. His eyes, his golden, contemptuous eyes, focused on nothing anymore. He looked down but never around. He did not purr. Imagine a man who has just woken up from a deep and dreamless sleep, and for a second does not know where he is. That was the Rooster now.
I called my mother, and she came to look. See, she said, off on an adventure and now back to sleep and eat.
I thought he needed a trip to a veterinarian, but she said we didn’t have any money for that and that the Rooster, in the way of cats since the very first cat was created, would either live or not. She told me about cats having nine lives. She was sure he’d live. I still thought he needed a veterinarian, but I understood that we had no money.
I looked at the Rooster lying there, his paws tucked under his chest, his dead yellow eyes looking down at the floorboards, the tip of his tongue out and a small droplet of drool beginning to form, and I thought there had to have been a unique struggle in that rye, in the coyote’s jaws. How the Rooster must have clawed and scratched and bit to overcome the much larger and nameless predator. Fury, I thought, fury too big for words to describe it—for to describe something is to contain it—and what the Rooster bore in his heart was bigger than that, bigger than anything. I imagined the rye moving in waves from the terrible kinetic energy of the fight like it did when the wind blew, only even more so, and I wondered how I could not have seen it from the porch. I thought that the damp earth beneath them must have become a mire of their blood and spit. I thought that magpies and crows would have stood on branches and marveled at the contest below their feet and feared it, feared it even though they knew they were safe in the high branches of their trees or riding the lazy rivers of air. The Rooster, a lion, had triumphed. He was more than a cat, or more than an animal; he was a singular act of desperate fury made incarnate. The Rooster was always going to be the Rooster while the coyote had been beaten and had slunk away with no name.
My mother eventually bathed him, which he endured. Although he recovered a bit he was never the same. Always the stiff and awkward tail, always the limp, always the just-woken expression. In the house he’d become confused and defecated on the kitchen floor. My mother pronounced him an “outside cat” and he lived on the porch after that, rarely venturing very far. She bought him a small cathouse for the winter and filled it with old blankets.
I’d look at him and imagine the war in the rye, and I told my friends at school that I had the toughest cat that ever lived. They were impressed.
The rye had come and gone, and after a year of lying fallow the field was planted with silage corn, dense and impenetrable and grown only to be food for cows fed in vast feedlots laid out like the trenches from an old war. In August the crowning tassels of the stalks were like the golden dust motes in the farmhouse kitchen, they danced and sparkled and disappeared in the light of the setting sun. The silage was so tall that the ground beneath it was permanently wet and black, and even across the road you could smell it. Out of this darkness, out of the dark doorway between the silage stalks came the coyote. One-eyed, mangy, and with a limp of her own she came, slowly and deliberately. With her halting gait she came up the steps of the porch with her nails going click-click, click-click, click-click, and there once again she claimed the Rooster in her mouth.
I saw this from the kitchen again, and again I summoned my mother. She feared the coyote, thinking her too weak and injured to be trusted, her pain and deprivation having driven her to dangerous forage on our porch. She locked the screen door. I was certain, absolutely certain, that she could be none other than the same coyote against which the Rooster had warred for his life two summers previously, and that the missing eye, the limp, and even the hanging fur and the mottled skin beneath it were the injuries that the Rooster had laid upon her. We stood behind the screen door and watched the coyote carry the Rooster off.
The Rooster did not fight. Indeed he seemed not to notice his predicament specifically. He hung there, cradled by the coyote and warmed by her breath, and I could see that his eyes had started to close. A string of spittle like a filament of long gray hair had begun to trail from his tongue down his chin and threaten the floorboards. The coyote walked back down the porch and at the pace of still water evaporating, stopping often, made its way across the road and back into the darkness and wet earth between the silage stalks. The Rooster hung in her jaws and if not complicit, was at least indifferent. In one last halting step into the darkness at the foot of the corn they were gone forever.
My mother unlocked the screen door then, and stepped out to the porch. She lit a cigarette and smoked it very slowly, staying out a long time, looking into the corn. I stayed behind the screen door. I could not see her face in the darkness, only the red and gold of the lit end of her cigarette when she drew on it.
© Steve Passey
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty. Read Steve’s interview]