I live in the coastal mountains in northern California. My house is in a redwood forest, nestled in a mountain, along a meandering creek that joins a river rushing out to the ocean. This forest is part of the thin strip of redwoods along the Pacific coast, beginning at Monterrey on the central coast of California, and ending in Oregon. Redwoods survive by keeping close proximity to each other and this tight knit community of trees form a damp, dark place that is cold here even in summer.
I feel close to this community of trees and I sense that I am safe in their shadows. The community of humans that I know are few but trusted souls in this very small town. This town where I have my post office box and therefor my residential identity, is one of a cluster of towns.
I tend to not get involved in the daily dramas of the other people who call this place home. There is a level of trust that we agree upon and keep our distance. Yet gossip is rampant and every one knows everyone else in one way or another. Boredom must be assuaged somehow and dissecting the travails of others is a ready solution to this problem. I hope not to be the recent topic and keep to myself. I am a river woman to the tourists who arrive every summer and have lived in this area long enough to be recognized in the Safeway, or at the post office, but not long enough to be considered as a local. It takes at least 3 generations of ancestors to reach this status, even the hippies who came after the summer of love thirty years ago are still looked at with suspicion. And don’t even begin to consider the gay men who decided to settle here after discovering it was more than just a place to party.
I moved to this house recently and I am now closer to the ocean, which means that it is even colder and foggier and rainier. I am now 5 miles from the coast along a winding two lane highway that follows a river wending its way to the ocean. As you drive west toward the coast you can see the fog ahead waiting for you, a looming wall that envelopes you as you turn a bend in the road where you leave the sunshine behind. Here the sun is a hazy specter, the temperature drops and its as if you’ve transported to another realm. This is a place that seems to be worlds away from any sort of city life that I once knew, a world that was a place of beaches, surfers, skaters and tans long ago in southern California. There are no city noises here, no sirens, cars, loud neighbors, only a deep, penetrating stillness. I find this sense of isolation comforting. I am alone here but I am not afraid here.
While those of us who live out here may be separated from the comforts of civilization, we are not completely without modern creature comforts. We have things like running water, electricity, telephones, but they are not always reliable. We learn not to depend on them. A sudden rain, strong wind or other whim of nature, can make these conveniences disappear with no guarantee that they will return any time soon. Even on good days electricity is never a sure thing. I have a large bag of candles in the cupboard and one of those wind up clocks that ticks loudly and an insistent ring when the alarm goes off. The ticking of this clock, along with the sounds of the creatures scurrying in my walls, are the only sounds that can be heard when night descends.
When the sun goes down the darkness settles in. The darkness turns the familiar comforts of your home and takes you to an unfamiliar place. The darkness alerts the mice who have been patiently biding their time and they begin to scrabble about on their nightly rounds. They have a determined, business-like approach and are never at a loss for something to do during the long night. I have a fair tolerance for all the wild creatures but hope that they do not feel the need to share my space in any more intimate way. I am willing to let them stay as long as they keep to their side of the wall.
This is an oddly designed house that was built on less-than level terrain. It is burrowed into the side of the mountain and from the first floor you can reach out the windows and touch the retaining wall holding the mountain in place. ‘Swiss chalet’ is what you would call it if you were being precise. It is a house of gabled windows, with steep pitched roofs that narrows to half the space I can walk upright in. It is all angles, with rooms flowing into each other, but with out a straight line of sight from one to the other. This house seemed to have been plucked from the Alps and placed on this mountainside a world away. I sometimes imagine that Heidi and her grandfather will stop by with the goats to greet me.
The house is a duplex that sits back from the street, with a converted carriage house that sits closer to the road. I am able to turn of the road and park my truck on a dirt lane in the spaces carved between the redwoods. I need to climb the concrete stairs to the large cement landing, then go up the rickety wooden stairs at the back of the house. At the end of the walkway that extends half the length of the house I am at my door on the second floor. But, no, on second thought, this description is not quite right. It is only seen as the second floor when you stand at the front of the building. From my door at the back of the house I am ground level with the mountain. There is a deck attached to the house that rests on mountain, and from the back of the deck there is a trail that descends the mountain and ends at an outhouse.
A young couple lives below me and Mike and his yappy dog live in the carriage house. Mike and I exchange pleasantries, the couple and I have differing schedules and interests and we rarely meet. Mike, who I think is gay but talks about his girlfriends, is charming and interested in everything. I don’t need to share too much about myself and he is more that happy to fill me in on all the juicy details of his life. We gossip like girlfriends about life in this small town.
Other neighbors along this winding road are the kind who keep to themselves as people do who choose to live where neighbors are few and far between. Sometimes I feel that I am out here with no one else and only the deer that come down the mountain on mysterious animal trails to my deck. The does carefully make their way down bringing their delicate fawns, standing on the mountain side, peering expectantly through my sunless windows as they search for the vegetable scraps they know I will toss to them.
After I settled in the home acquired an outdoor cat, who became known as Harry Whiskers. Harry is a not-very-imposing male cat with long black fur and white feet. I don’t think he notices or cares what his name is and remains oblivious to any adorable affectation that I place upon him. He is here because he finds the hunting profitable and has sensibly abandoned his previous territory for this better deal. He is a terror to the birds, but I am grateful for his enthusiasm with the small creatures that scurry in my walls. He sleeps under a storage shed in a cardboard box lined with old towels, stopping by my house for dinner most nights.
His need for human affection is limited to what he will endure. His habit is to come by for dinner, stay an hour, and then leave after eating his fill. Once I tried to encourage him to extend his visit and stay inside for the night. It was immediately clear that that would not ever happen again. Sometimes for variety he likes to help himself to the dog kibble at Mike’s house. When Harry has been to visit there he leaves enveloped in a cloud of flowery-scented flea powder. This is Mike’s wordless incantation against any fleas that may still be clinging to Harry after his last visit. It is one of the few indignations Harry will endure while maintaining his wild independence. I can only surmise that the dog kibble must be really good.
He is not affectionate in that possessive way of cats, but coolly civil in his behavior toward me. I find this admirable and am not offended by his standoffish behavior. We have a relationship of symbiosis and respect and do not to cross those lines. I supplement his diet with Friskies and table scraps and he keeps the rodents at bay. He is tidy in his craft and does not feel the need to present them to me for admiration. I am happy with this arrangement.
But Harry has not always lived here. Like me, he is a newcomer to this house. I had lived here for a few months and one day noticed a bedraggled cat at my door. A long haired fellow, with black and white tuxedo coloring, and large tangled messes of matted fur that looked as if he had gum stuck all over. I checked him over and he seemed uninjured, but had no claws. He looked up at me with a hungry expression that said he had not eaten for a long time. He was desperate, with a look that at once pleaded for help, while trying to hide the shame at needing to ask. He seemed a proud and independent sort. I began feeding him anything greasy and fatty to help add calories and a gloss to his fur, and when he would allow I cut the mats out.
In the weeks after his arrival I began to notice the creatures in my walls were no longer around and I could tell when he was down at the creek when birds quickly rose to the sky sounding a warning alarm. He regained a sleek and shiny coat and our pattern of evening visits became a predictable part of my daily routine.
I work at a winery in the Maintenance department. I am the only woman in that department with anywhere from 15–30 men. I like it out here in the warehouses, with the ear-shattering din of production lines, revving forklifts, and the sounds of the shop out my office door. I am safely away from the politics and gossip of the main building and these folks are my neighbors, the ones I run into at the Safeway, or wave to as we pass each other along the winding roads. Up in the main building they commute from nearby cities, returning each night to well apportioned homes with the necessities of a comfortable life that are easily accessible.
I like these people and I often eat my lunch with some of the guys in my department. They tell me stories of hunting and fishing and other adventures favored by men living in a small town. They are careful to keep the trash talk down to a minimum for my benefit, but I feel like they accept me as one of them when they slip and tell some of the stories they might not tell their wives. I can’t always share in this as I don’t have experience in these manly adventures, but one day I find an opportunity to tell the story of my new cat.
It is summer and we are outside at the picnic tables under a gazebo of vines. The man sitting across from me has been intently listening as I tell the story of the cat that showed up one day at my door. This is Frank, one of the line mechanics. I like Frank. Frank is quieter and more reserved than many of his co-workers. He lives with his family down the street from me, farther up the winding road deeper into the redwoods. He stops me near the end of the tale to ask, “What does this cat look like?” I describe Harry’s long fur, tuxedo coloring and Frank’s face goes white, his pale ginger coloring getting paler. He said, “I think that may be my daughter’s cat,” and tells how his daughter’s cat, Harry, likes to sleep in the engine bay of his truck. One day while driving to work a few weeks ago he was passing near my home and felt a thump, thump, and saw a bundle of black fur bouncing down the road in his rearview mirror. He was certain that was Harry and that Harry was dead. He had not stopped to check and lacked the courage to tell his daughter what he suspected. He let her believe that Harry was just missing. “Oh dear god, Frank. You’ve got to tell her.” I asked if Harry was declawed. A puzzled look came over him. “No,” Frank said. This cat had no claws when he arrived, and I now realized that he may have lost them in the fall try to get purchase on the asphalt. Poor Harry. No wonder he was starving when he finally came to me.
A few days later Frank’s daughter and her mother came to my house and sure enough, that was her cat. His claws were growing back and his fur was now a gleaming, healthy mass of black and white. She called him Harry and her mother, though, called him Whiskers. They took him back to his original home, and it seemed that was the end of that.
Harry, however, had other ideas, and it was not long before he was back at my house terrorizing birds at the creek and catching rodents. It was a sad moment for Frank’s daughter, but it was agreed that Harry, now formally Harry Whiskers, would be happier here. He is the lone male cat in this territory and has all the hunting his little cat heart can endure. Life is good and he is now here to stay.