March 3

World Wildlife Day

 

“What part of ‘wild’ isn’t clear to you?”

Tamara’s outstretched hand, her petting hand, paused in midair, hovering over the sleeping animal.  Her friend Ethan always had to be so cautious, and maybe he was right.  But the animal was cute.  Curled up in a ball, claws retracted, a paw covering its eyes.

Patches of dried mud obscured the animal’s striped fur, and a few dark burrs stuck to it.  Given time, Ethan would remind her the fur was a breeding ground for fleas and other insects, and that the animal itself likely carried some disease.  But the stripes reminded her of a calico she’d fallen in love with at the pet store earlier that week.  Her father wouldn’t let her bring that one home, or any other live pet, and she’d had to be content with a small menagerie of stuffed animals.

The stomach of a plush toy didn’t rise and fall as it breathed.  Tamara kneeled and brought her hand closer to the animal.  “Hey little girl,” she said in her best soothing tones.  “Did you wear yourself out?”

“Little girl?” Ethan scoffed.  “That thing’s forty pounds if it’s an ounce.  Don’t touch it.”

“Shhh.  You’ll startle her.”  Tamara wasn’t sure why she decided the wildcat was female.  Intuition, she guessed.  The same intuition that brought her to the edge of the woods, helped her locate the resting animal.

The cat’s stomach rose and fell with increasingly rapid breaths. “Aw, she’s having a nightmare.”  Or, perhaps, she was wounded.  Either way, Tamara wanted to comfort the animal.  A gentle voice, a gentle touch.

“Maybe it’s playing possum,” Ethan suggested.  “You ever see a possum wake from its false nap?  It’s terrifying.  All hisses and teeth and claws.”

“Stop it.”  Her hand drew closer, and Tamara imagined she could feel warmth rising from the animal’s belly.

The paw moved slightly, uncovering the closed eyes.  The motion also revealed more of the cat’s neck, and a black plastic collar around it that resembled the wristband of a hospital visitor.  A patch of dried mud obscured most of the writing on the collar.

“Guess it’s not so wild after all,” Ethan said.

“Maybe the owner’s name is here.”  As she spoke, Tamara realized she didn’t want the cat to have an owner.  She’d already considered herself in that role, spun out a fantasy: the cat was sick, and she saved it, rescued it.  Her father would have to let her keep the animal now.  In her mind, she began selecting the cat’s name.  Angel.  Ginger.  Crystal.

Instead of the owner’s contact information, the cat’s name might be on the collar.  She still had ideas of her own — Molly, Boots, Tink — but it would be interesting to compare them with the name around her neck.

Around Astra, Amy, or Mermaid’s neck.

She licked her thumb, hoping the spit could rub off a bit of the mud.  Again she spoke in soothing tones, bringing her hand close to the animal’s neck.  “S…T…  Stella, maybe?  Is your name Stella?”  Her thumb brushed against the plastic collar, and she pushed at the mud, slicking it off gently, scraping with her thumbnail.

The breathing grew more rapid, but the cat’s eyes didn’t open, its head didn’t lift.

Behind her, Ethan suggested the name Stinky.  That wasn’t nice, was it?  Little Stormy girl couldn’t help it if she’d rolled through some mud and grime.  A bath and some loving care was all her Stardust would need.

Tamara’s thumb uncovered an “R.”  She couldn’t think of a name to fit that combination of letters.  Stray, maybe?  That wasn’t a very good name for a cat.

“Leave it alone,” Ethan said.  “For the last time — ”

Her friend annoyed her, and Tamara turned her head slightly to give him a scolding look.

An expression of panic formed on Ethan’s face, and she turned back to the cat.  Its paw had moved on top of her hand.  The animal’s eyes clicked open, and they were bloodshot.  A thick dark liquid sluiced over the lower lids.

Its mouth sprang open, and a frothy gray foam poured over sharp, yellow teeth.  A low hiss expelled foul air from the animal’s mouth.

Tamara tried to pull her hand back, but the paw was stronger than she expected.  She felt claws extend, scraping the underside of her wrist.

The paw drew her hand toward the cat’s wide mouth, and it clamped down.

Ethan ran forward, tried to help Tamara get away.  In the struggle with the wildcat, more of the dried mud fell away from the plastic neckband.  The first word wasn’t a name, but a designation, followed by a code.  “STRAIN 72XRB.”

The manufactured disease spread quickly through the cuts in her wrist, the bite marks on the top of her hand.

She spread it to Ethan next.