I had promised to post one of my winning pieces from the Ozark Writers Conference, and today seems like a perfect day for this particular story because the setting for it, Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, is celebrating the success of a matching funds campaign to help build more of the large enclosures that are also celebrated in my writing. My daughter and I have gone twice to help build, clean, and prepare these grassy areas that provide open space for the tigers and other creatures at the facility to play and move and have fuller lives. Those still in the holding enclosures, waiting for their turn, have even watched us.
It is one of my favorite places in town to visit. Besides being allowed to stand only a few feet away from an enormous white tiger while he has his dinner, I am just immensely grateful for the staff there who work tirelessly to provide as much care and comfort as they possibly can for these displaced animals — sometimes rescued from horrible and life-threatening situations. Their stories are sometimes just sad, but others are heartbreaking. There may come a happy day when facilities like this are not necessary and all big cats can live in freedom, but that time is nowhere near at hand. So I love to go and share my time and energy helping make their lives better when I can. Turpentine Creek will be one of the settings in my next book, “Miss Fatty Cat’s Revenge” because, according to the Cats in the Mirror series, tigers and lions are aliens too.
The piece of writing I’m sharing today was specifically written in October for a conference I attended here in Eureka Springs. The challenge was to write a story “walking in someone else’s shoes” and to be creative with it. One of the dear tigers that had just been a part of a huge rescue effort at Turpentine Creek came to mind, and I wondered about that moment when, after a lifetime of nothing but a small, concrete cage, those soft paws finally had the chance to touch grass and run and play. “In Sonya’s Steps” was the end result, and it won first place. If after reading this you are inspired to make a donation to Turpentine Creek to help build more enclosure for the dozens of big cats waiting for them, I would be absolutely thrilled. I promise to personally go help build them.
Here is “In Sonya’s Steps.”
In Sonya’s Steps
Soft. The ground beyond the open, black gates is softer than anything I have ever felt, like a vast sea of well-groomed fur. I carefully put one foot through again and press down gently. So soft.
I’m amazed to find the gate open from the new, small enclosure where I woke up. The doors in my world are never open. The concrete floor is chilly and hard, sensations I’m familiar with, but beyond that open gate is something I have never experienced before.
A gentle breeze blows past me, and I inhale deeply. Pine trees and rocks and the first hints of spring are all familiar. Even the smell of that soft stuff outside the gate is one I recognize. I’ve just never touched it before. A fence was always in the way.
Tentatively reaching a second foot through the gate onto the soft surface, I chuff out a gust of air, hoping to calm anyone else who might be lurking in that immeasurable expanse of softness. My eyes have never tried to focus so far away. The distant edges are blurry. Instinct warns be to be wary.
As far back as I can remember, I have never felt anything under my feet but the solid gray concrete of my small home. Gray fencing stood between my eyes and the landscape of freedom beyond it. Gray fencing covered my view of the sky. Every day. Just the same.
There was a small wooden box for shelter, a bowl for water. Before night fell, the old woman would come by and throw me some bits of meat for my daily meal. Some fresh water was poured in the bowl. Then I would be alone again, except for the faint sounds and smells of others like me. Others trapped just like me, all around.
We could count each other’s steps. One, two, three, then turn. One, two, three, then turn. That was all there was. Stretch out on the hardness of the concrete for a nap, inhaling the bitterness of it, then up and pace some more. One, two, three, then turn. One, two, three, then turn. Listening to the others around me, waiting for something to happen that never did.
Some days the woman would stand by the cage and talk to me. Her voice was quiet and kind, but she never opened the gate and let me out to run free. She never opened the gate and came in to join me either. The fence was always between us. Day after day. Year after year.
The morning had started out like any other. I could hear the chuffings and murmurings from the others around me, but there was also the low rumble of a machine approaching up our quiet hill. A huge grumbling monster, rancid smells wafting out behind it, ground to a stop in front of my home. The old woman climbed out of its belly, but there were other people too. They all moved slowly, approaching me just beyond the gray wire mesh of my small home.
A tall, blonde woman moved to a far corner of my enclosure. She squatted down and spoke quietly to me. I was intrigued. Stealthily moving toward her, our eyes locked, I snuffed the air but did not recognize her smell. Then there was a cracking noise and a sharp pain in my side. Turning toward the noise, I saw that one of the men held a long, thick stick. He was watching me intently and speaking softly, just like the woman.
He hurt me! Did he jab me with that stick? It will be the last thing he ever does! I’ll find a way to get past that fence and show him what comes of causing pain to a creature like me!
I turned to face him, but my legs felt weak and wouldn’t cooperate with my directives. I tried to glare, to terrify him with my gaze, but the man and the fence were suddenly blurry and seemed far away. The old woman stood silently behind the man with the stick. She shook her head softly, but she didn’t attack him. She didn’t defend me. She just stood there, watching me.
The blonde woman moved around my home so I could see her again. She made soft chuffing noises. She spoke quietly and leaned in closer to my fence. Yes, just a bit closer, I thought, reach your hand right in here. Then everything was dark as night.
The next thing I knew, I was here in this strange place. New, but very much the same at first glance. Chilly, gray concrete floor. Fence between the world and me, but this fence was heavier and darker. For a long time I just lay on the concrete and stared at the fence.
What happened? I wondered. After that man with the stick poked me, I just fell asleep. I’ll have to get him later, I thought, a low growl rumbling in my throat. Right now, however, I could barely move.
As time passed, I was able to lift my head and look around. The world beyond the fence smelled similar, but the rising ground beyond me was in different shapes and the trees were thicker and taller. Instead of a wooden shelter, there was a large concrete box off to one side of my new home. Peeking inside the small door, I could see that it was dark and empty inside. It would do to get out of the heat and the rain, but not terribly interesting.
But looking in the other direction, I realized that there was nothing between my gaze and the world. The gate stood wide open. Beyond that door was a sea of that softness that I was now strong enough to step out into.
Is it a trick? I thought. Will the man with the stick come poke me again if I venture out? There’s no sign of the man, but I can smell the blonde woman on my fur. Was she touching me while I was asleep? I stop and lick my side carefully, my rough tongue removing the offending odor. Then I stare back out into the openness.
The thought of exploring that wide, limitless space is thrilling and terrifying at the same time. My heart aches to step out onto the softness, but my heart is racing with a fear of the unknown, untried, untested. Maybe I should wait and watch for a while. Sniffing the air again, I can tell that the others who were around me before are around me here.
Are they still sleeping? Are they already out in the softness? We have never been face to face. Will they attack if I step out?
My sensitive ears twist and turn, searching for answers. I hear nothing but the birds and the breeze. Focusing on the open door, I cannot hear anything beyond it. No breathing but my own. Tuning in even more carefully, I cannot detect any heartbeats close by. Nothing but quiet and softness.
All senses on alert, I step out, putting my full weight into the softness. The ground yields gently under my foot. Then the next foot. Again I wait, testing the sounds and the air. No one attacks. With greater confidence, I step fully out of the door, all four feet now buried deep in the freshness and softness of that ground beyond the concrete. It has a warmth and energy and aliveness to it that the concrete is not capable of. The sensations of the ground vibrate up my legs and all along my spine. This is what the earth is supposed to feel like, and now it is mine. If someone is waiting to attack, he will find me ready. I will not easily yield this new territory. Come and try to take it, I growl at the openness.
One stride, then two, then an even longer one, my huge padded paws take me farther than I ever imagined. No pacing back and forth, only a few steps at a time before having to turn back again. I stretch out my long, stiff legs and try three trots at a time. I pause and smell the air. Four trots. Pause. Five trots in a row. Then I reach the fence.
It is there. I’m not free, but as I turn and look back, the immensity of this new space looms around me. I look back toward the concrete room and the concrete house, and I feel something rise up deep inside me. There’s an instinctive urge to attempt something I’ve never done, not once my whole life. I crouch low, I spring forward in a giant leap, and I RUN! No pacing or trotting only a step or two. I leap and leap and leap, my orange and black stripes a blur over muscles so weak they soon give out and need rest, but I did it, if only for a while. I RAN.
Exhausted, I collapse onto the softness, my sides heaving in and out, gasping for air in larger amounts than I have ever needed. Contentedly, I lift my head and stare at the fence. It is still there, but it is so far away I can make out the world beyond it without feeling suffocated. Is that the blonde woman, hiding downwind in the trees? I bare my teeth and snarl a warning. Come close at your own risk. Then I peer up above me. There is nothing but openness. No gray bars. No fence.
I notice the sky, really notice it for the first time in my life. A rich sunlight pours freely over every inch of my fur. There is still fence around my sides, but it is far away from where I lie. Overhead, there is an infinity of space.
I’m not free, but this is close. Stretching my legs out to the front and back, a move that would have left me touching the edges of my home just that morning, I roll onto my back and snort and allow the glorious smell of the softness to cover me.
Sonya is an imagined name for one of the 27 tigers recently rescued by Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge.
Copyright, Meg Welch Dendler, 2013.