When my parents were alive, there was the option of visiting them for awhile in the small town where I had grown up. The visits gave me a "time-out" from the hectic atmosphere, noise, and bad air of what was for me essentially an alien environment. So after reaching a settlement in the law suit, I used my recovered royalties to make a down payment on a cottage close to that same small town. (Like a cat, I liked familiar places.)
The cottage was on a river, therefore cheaper; most people wanted to be beside a lake. After staying at the place for awhile, I realized why.
A lake is calm stability, the water contained, giving the impression of a controllable, unchangeable life. But a river, always moving, reminds one of life rushing past, changing as you watch it, passing you before you've grasped it.
The river, like the nagging question of life, would not stop, could not be pinned down. What I had chosen as my place of repose was sticking the question in my face. I could not escape it. For the first few years, I found that I could rarely look at that river.
It was a fast river. The cottage was built on a billion year old rock, the Precambrian Shield at its southernmost edge, and the water had worn its way through this rock. In the winter, the river was a torrent, never freezing over at our shoreline, but driven to a frenzy by bottlenecks of ice to the north and south of us. Deep, black, and cold, replenished by heavy snowfalls, it raced past the Big Rock like herds of wildebeest, a thunder of high, rushing water.
Alice loved that rock. It had a crevice at the top into which she would disappear and emerge down below on a ledge of granite that jutted out over the water. There, on summer mornings, she lay in the cool western exposure and surprised passing canoeists with the sight of a cat on an apparently inaccessible platform. She looked like a lynx in its lair. This was Alice's favourite spot.
The first winter that we stayed there, the river was at its most violent. The air was so cold that a thin layer of ice had formed at the edge of our shoreline, making a deceptive walkway about two feet wide. We had just arrived and were busy unpacking when Mary noticed that Alice wasn't around.
She went outside to call her, and saw that there were paw prints leading down the steep snowbank to the place at the river's edge where we swam in the summer. These prints went out onto that sliver of ice alongside the swirling river and disappeared from Mary's view.
Scrambling down the slope, over the edge where the concrete steps ended and where the wooden steps, dismantled for the season, usually began, Mary reached the swimming area. There, out on the ice sidewalk, was Alice. Snow had blocked the entrance to the crevice at the top of the Big Rock, and now the only way to get to her ledge, her beloved spot, was a leap across several feet of roiling water, from a launching pad of wafer-thin ice.
Mary called frantically to her. The swollen river was moving so fast that she had to shout to be heard over the noise of it. Alice glanced back with a calm, bemused look and then moved a little further away along the ice. She was heading for the ledge.
Wary of stepping through, Mary got down on her stomach on that fringe of ice and started to push herself towards Alice. Her head was inches above the black freezing river. Cold spray covered her face and froze in her hair.
Alice was staring at the ledge now and she began to get that look that cats have when they're measuring a jump. It's an attitude of concentrated head, the calculations firing off, memories of other leaps recalled, small crouchings and extendings of the body, switchings of the tail, and widening and narrowing eyes.
And just as Alice had completed her geometry, just as her beloved ledge had formed an X at the end of the arc of a dotted line in the jumping program of her brain, Mary grabbed her leg.
Kicking, squirming, hissing -- no different a cat than when she had been saved from the alley that first day, Alice was dragged off the ice and carried up to the cottage.
Not that this stopped her. From then on we had to keep an eye on her in the winter, sometimes forming a defensive line in front of the Big Rock, like a flag football game, as Alice dodged and feinted her way towards the edge.
She was always going for the edge. Cat School was no day in the country.