The boy’s father was initially terrified. At first, he thought the cheetah was looking in at his son and that horrified him. Even if it was not full-grown, it was still a killer of men. What should he do? This was not the same as chasing off a rodent. If it were, he would merely have turned on the outside light and popped the door open and shook his fist at the filthy beast.
He wasn’t going to throw the door open on a cheetah, unless he was ready to fight to the death. Maybe he should grab his shotgun, the one he kept in the attic along with a box of shells, exactly for an occasion like this. Except he hadn’t shot that thing in almost twenty years, when he wasn’t much older than his son and he and his father decided to go hunting. All they’d done then was sit in a stand among the treetops eating dried meat and drinking cold hot chocolate until they decided they didn’t want to shoot any animals anyway. Instead, they’d just fired a few shots into a paper target on the side of a tree and then gone home.
Recalling these fond memories gave the present scene a faintly fond sheen. The father looked above the cheetah’s head and through the window to the side profile of his son who sat fascinated and then back to the cheetah who wasn’t looking at his son at all, but the same show. A realization washed across his mind, but seemed too incredible to fully accept. Was this young cheetah watching Chima? How old was this cheetah anyway? Was it possible that he was the same age as his son but in cheetah years? What were cheetah years anyway?
Whatever. The father decided to stand there and watch and sure enough when the show was over the cheetah returned to all fours and jogged away. “I’ll be damned,” the man said to himself. The next night the same, and the same the night after that. The cheetah loved Chima.
On the fourth night, the cheetah took in the show but when he turned to leave detected the figure behind the glass door. The cheetah reflexively cringed and shrunk back into itself. The father sucked in his breath. Neither could move, until the boy called out. “Dad? Dad?” With his eyes on the cheetah the father answered and when he turned his head toward his son, the cheetah shot off into the night. “What are you doing, dad?” The father could not truthfully answer. “Oh, watching a cheetah watch Chima with you.” That would be a hard one to explain, so he merely said, “Nothing. You ready for bed?” as he followed his son back to his bedroom.
The next two nights the father slowly shuffled to the door to disappointment. The cheetah was nowhere, and by the third time he checked the father gave up. That’s when the cheetah tentatively made his way out of the thicket and up to the window where he dared to take in Chima once again. There was the boy as usual, but the father had joined him. The cheetah considered his options. He could obey his instinct for preservation or give in to this pure pleasure. Chima was like a piece of candy, and he surrendered to his sweet tooth. As he settled in for another episode, the father suddenly turned his head and looked straight at him, giving him a wink.
The cheetah flinched. Should he flee? The father had already turned back around to the TV and the jungle cat drifted to the screen, too. The lion, his favorite, was talking with the gorilla as they rode on some land cruisers. The two cartoon animals laughed, and so did the boy. The cheetah just smiled.
The boy sat on the far edge of the couch and stared into the TV. A yellow bowl of pretzels was in his lap and he would occasionally dig his hand in and retrieve one but his gaze never left the screen. His favorite show was playing, Chima, and he would watch it every night on Netflix after dinner, delighted by the adventures of Laval, Cragger, Eris, and the like. Laval the lion was his favorite and when he was on-screen the boy’s attention could not be diverted, even if his father stood to the side chanting his name like a mantra. His father would eventually sigh and move back into the living room, unable to share in his son’s obsession.
Behind the leather couch was a large picture window that gave way to the African pasture. Out in the dark, there in two foot tall grass, crouched a young cheetah, entranced by the light that drifted from the house. He could hear the faint sound of the TV and, intrigued, crept over to the edge of the house where he stood on his hind legs and peered in through the window.
The cheetah’s mouth fell open. On the screen, animals talked and walked like humans. As the characters on the TV interacted, the cheetah and the boy gawked nearly side by side, separated only by glass. When the show ended the boy moved to stand, and the cheetah–noticing his surroundings–came back to his senses. Terrified, he turned and ran, too young to reach the ideal speed of 70mph, but fast enough that he was back home with his mother and brothers within a few minutes.
That night, he dreamed of the lion, croc, and eagle he’d seen the night before, and when he woke, resolved to seek out the boy and his amazing box of light. Once it was dark, he slid to the window and watched with his new friend. He was almost as absorbed as the little boy until he noticed the boy’s father out of the corner of his eye as the man drifted into the room. The cheetah frantically dipped down below the window. He knew better than to attract any attention from the humans. His father was killed by one of them.
Still, the danger was not enough to deter him from Chima and even as he stealthily made his way back home he resolved to return. The boy’s father had not seen the cheetah–it was pitch black outside the window–but the next morning he detected paw prints on the white siding of the house. His immediate thoughts were of his boy’s safety. He could never have known that a young jungle cat was creeping up to watch his son’s favorite show with him, he assumed a more sinister reality, and he decided to catch the interloper that evening.
The cheetah knew better when he stepped out of the camouflage of the grass that night, but the lure of the glow was too much. He snaked up to the side of the house and, rising up, looked through the window. The boy was in his usual spot, transfixed, as the cheetah soon was, so much so, that he failed to notice the shape standing behind the glassed-in screen door at the side of the house. To be continued…
For much of the summer, I’ve been taking my kids out to Quarry Park and parking behind the main baseball field. Only a hundred feet away, a branch of the Rivanna River flows and there is a recently installed bridge that goes over it and that is so fortified with its rusty beams and thick wooden planks that an Abrams Tank could ride across it. Instead, I stand up there while 6yo B and 3yo G toss rocks through the slatted railing and watch them fall thirty feet and splash into water so shallow you can clearly see the brown bottom.
Quarry Park is named after an actual rock quarry that existed about a quarter-mile upriver but supposedly due to some drunken swimming accidents it was filled in 20 or 30 years ago. To do so, a concrete bridge was hastily poured that allowed the heavy vehicles to go across the water up to the quarry and when they finished filling it in they never tore the cement pass down. While that stretch of the river is normally only a foot or two deep the bridge acted as a sort of dam and the water that shoots through its two metal culverts dug a pool so that the water on the other side is around six feet deep right in the center. In the years since, it became a bathing spot for the homeless and an out-of-the-way swimming hole, and I even took a dip there once which is how I know about it.
One morning a few weeks ago, I decided to forgo the usual throwing session off the new bridge and take B to the old concrete bridge, leaving little G behind this time because he always wants me to carry him if we’re going to walk anywhere. I parked our old station wagon in the usual grassy spot but when I got out pointed B in the opposite direction. “We’re going this way,” I said. He turned and looked quizzically. An old gravel and dirt road led to a paint-flecked metal fence, the kind you see at farms to keep out cattle or vehicles. A narrow path went around the side where we found some wild berries and stopped and picked. “Alright, c’mon, let’s get going,” I barked. “That’s enough. We’re not out here to eat berries.”
He jumped up and we set off down the road. Crushed bits of brick lined the path and he kicked at them until we rounded a bend of trees and the path had turned into paved concrete. “Here’s the quarry,” I said as we walked on to the bridge and stopped in the middle. The sun was out but not overhead yet. The water was blueish green and right below us. B picked up a few rocks and threw them up and in. They made a small splash and we watched them sink until they were lost to the deep.
“C’mon, let’s go up here,” I said, and pointed up a hill on the other side of the bridge and another gravel path that was overgrown with trees and low-lying thicket. “I don’t wanna,” he said. He just wanted to stay at the bridge and throw rocks. I wanted to explore, though, and started to walk up the path. “I’m not going,” he said, so frustrated with me, and squatted down. “Alright, whatever, man,” I said, smiling, and kept walking up until I was obscured by the branches. He started to panic. “I’m coming. Wait,” B said, and ran after me. “Wait.”
15 or 20 minutes later we returned after humping along a bum path that looped back. The sun was beating down on us and we were both sweating. B decided to take his shoes off and dip his feet in the water. At one side of the bridge the concrete sloped down into shallow water and he walked down until his ankles were submerged. “Don’t go over there,” I said, pointing to his right. “That’s where snakes live.” B looked over to the side of the river and to a little cove where water stagnated. “You’re alright over here, though.”
We were cautious of snakes. Just a few weeks before, he’d been standing in a couple of feet of water in a different branch of the same river when a water snake swam right up to him. He’d screamed and jumped out and we’d left. Last fall, on a hike, he’d nearly stepped on a humongous corn snake and started shrieking while it coiled around a nearby rock. I ran over and grabbed him and we hustled out of there. We were both wary of another serpentine encounter when he slipped his shoes back on and joined me up on the concrete bridge again.
“Holy shit!” I said, the obscenity escaping my lips. “Look at that.” I put my hand on the back of his head and turned it in the direction of the left bank of the water. There in the shallow side a snake was writhing, twisting and turning over itself. “Whoa,” I said, excited. We both stared. The snake stopped to float for a second. In its mouth was a fish, probably a Bluegill or a Sunfish, white and lifeless.
The snake itself was brown with some kind of pattern on its back. Like a lot of boys his age, B is a reptile expert and said it wasn’t poisonous because its head was not diamond-shaped. I knew of his expertise but left room for the possibility anyway. Regardless, watching it struggle with the fish was horrific. The snake was having trouble carrying it and twisted spastically, almost as if it would wrap itself in knots, and at different points sunk down into the water, only to re-emerge, fish in mouth. It seemed determined to take its catch to the other side. “That’s incredible,” I kept saying. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
There are a couple of large metal culvert pipes that run through the bridge so the water flows through and not over. When the snake neared their current it overpowered it and sent it rolling but still it held on to the fish. Hell bent, it kept swaying, cutting a wobbly “S” through the water as it finally began to get the hang of swimming with the fish.
B paced back and forth, disturbed and entranced. I would come over and grip him by the shoulders if he got to close to the edge. We kept watching until the snake reached some rocks on the other side of the river, crawled atop one and collapsed. I think it was exhausted. So were we and after another minute or so of watch, we left for home.
The amazing sight of the snake holding the fish clenched in its mouth stuck with us and for the next couple days I told everyone I came across. “It was like something out of an Old Testament prophecy,” I said to one friend. “Have you ever thought,” he responded, pausing for dramatic effect, “that the prophecy was not intended for you but B?” “Hmmm,” I replied, not sure what else to say. I don’t really care why snakes keep appearing before us, I thought. I just wish they’d stop.
I laid down in the mud. It was cool and gritty and I could already feel it seeping through my pants and shirt, each growing soggy. Then I let my head fall back. A quiet sploosh followed as the wet and grime slid through the neck of my sweatshirt. The cold was a shock but then came relief as it cooled the back of my head and entered my ear holes. No more noise, just muffled shouts and finally silence as everyone around me stopped.
Or at least I assumed they’d stopped because I’d lost track of the outside world, all the yelling and arguing, the traffic, the endless search for a parking space, all of it gone, as I let the brown muck sooth the tightness in my neck. Letting my arms down into the wet on either side, I grabbed handfuls and ran it through my hair and applied it to my cheeks and forehead, the grit scraping across my skin.
I closed my eyes, and could hear nothing but the sound of my breathing and meditated on the vibration inside my skull. Exhaling out of my nostrils, I sunk deeper into the mire. I was slipping down into the earth until a voice, as if it was slithering through a cardboard tube broke through my frail cocoon.
Opening my eyes, I saw my wife leaning over me, she was saying something I couldn’t quite get so I pushed myself up with my elbows as water trickled out of my ears. “… you doing?” she asked, looking at me with incredulous frustration. I sat all the way up. Cars were still scrambling for that elusive slot, regardless of our spot in the corner median.
My children stared at me–more amused than alarmed–until my youngest smiled and said, “What are you doing, daddy?” Before I could answer–what would I have said?–his older brother punched him in the arm. Continuing to search my face for some sort of explanation, my wife finally sighed and went to separate the howling kids. “Stop it,” she tried not to yell.
I ran my fingers through my hair. The mud had caked up. I think it was time to leave.