A rare visitor

The tall pines beyond the upper brow of the field connect our house lot, in thought, to the hundreds of acres of woods that begin there and continue on over Tare Cap, to Denmark and beyond. To the front, we sit sedately in the village. To the back, that hayfield fringed with woods belies the nearness of human culture. From our first visit to the house, the rising contour of that field had a drawing power. Now, moved in a year plus a summer, my eye is still drawn up, up the gentle cresting of grass and wildflowers. Always, where the cultivated look gives way to the dark, jagged outline of conifers, a mystery begins.

We soon found that our wild place is completely surrounded by the endeavors of man. The village blocks in the field on three sides, and the woods is only the backyard to Hammond's sprawling lumber mill, which stretches from Hampshire Street to within eyeshot of Bull Ring Road. The romance dimmed when the wilderness receded, but we felt we had been handed instead a marvelous playground where our two city-kids could learn to play outdoors in a tame place.

It is a keen delight to have such a view from the kitchen sink. As the seasons turn, its aspect is always one degree different from yesterday's. The tall grass of June, strewn with purple vetch and white daisy, becomes the shorn, submissive plate from which the hay has been swept clean. Regrowth of strong green supports a froth of yellow goldenrod. Then the whole field regroups in purple, russet, and all the shades of blond and brown. By Thanksgiving , the old year's growth is matted, tawny, not much to look at. But still I looked, absently, as though expecting no sight until snow time.

One crystal-crisp Sunday morning, there suddenly was something to see. Tawny as the grass, moving openly down the far stone wall, was a big cat. Hollering with throttled voice, I ran to alert the family. We dashed on tiptoe from window to window, higher and higher in our big farmhouse, to keep the beast in view. At some stops, the scene waved back at us, refracted by old windowpanes. Then we would say to each other, ''It must be a deer - or a coyote,'' or ''Look now, it could be a big dog.'' But the view from a newer window would always be the round head, sinuous body, and long, undulating tail of a cat; and no matter how hard we tried to reason with our eyes, they still told us the cat was as big as a German shepherd and coming closer and closer. Excitement became dismay, but just before we would be pushed to action, the animal's interest changed and it began to pick its way back up the wall. Finally the visitor sat back on a rock, in the full morning sun, and washed its face with a casual forepaw. No deer or dog.

It was a perverse test of our credibility, as newcomers from the flatlands, to be reporting the presence of such a creature as had not been seen so close to town in decades. The wild visitor came up often in conversation. Various predators were described, but none fitted. In the presence of streets and rows of village homes, the tale did seem preposterous.

For two or three weeks we saw the cat often, always in the early morning. As many times during the day as my work took me by a north-facing window, I would find my eye running along the wall, eager for contact with that slow-moving, unplanned grace. When it did appear, it moved as confidently as our house cats, with no air of being the alien.

Once my husband grabbed a coat and went out to see if he could circle around to get a closer look. Fearful but exhilarated, I followed. Even though we circled far and out of sight, we still had been heard. As our heads rose over the brow of the hill from the east, we found the wall deserted. A path had been padded from the wall to the very peak of the hill, overlooking the sheep barn.

Where were all the hardy hunters who had been crowding each other out of the woods all during the deer season just ended? Thankfully, no one appeared to stalk the big cat. The owners of the sheep contacted a state biologist, who agreed to cage the animal and carry it away to a wilder location. But the beast left on its own, when its business in our town was finished. After the first snowfall, we saw the wildcat no more, though I looked for it daily. One neighbor convinced herself it had been only a large house cat and so made her peace with the apparition. I clung to the very wildness of the creature, grateful that it had broken my complacence, though not my peace.

When winter had passed with no more sightings, the episode retreated, framed in memory by elapsed time. Then in August, while visiting relatives in South Portland, the frame slipped. Flipping through a photo essay on Vermont, I met him again, so unexpectedly that my breath jerked. In every detail, this turn-of-the-century cat in the photograph matched ours, only this one had paid the penalty for haunting a village and was proudly displayed by the gunner who had bagged him. It was called a panther. That name had a ring of Kipling and tales of Far East jungles, but it turns out that it is one of several regional terms for our Western Hemisphere mountain lion: catamount, cougar, panther, puma - the same creature.

Now the seasons have turned again. The leaves are falling, the growing season is in its final, mellow stage, yet there rises a small prick of tension. My gaze is again drawn out the kitchen window, drawn to the vast woods - and to the grace on four paws beyond.

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