Nocturnal Camaraderie

 

Editor’s note: I wrote the following a few weeks ago, pre-polar vortex. Lately, evening walks are perfunctory if performed at all. Secondly, it’s tough to locate a graphic that depicts nighttime, so please excuse this random photo. I wish our evenings were this star-laden.

NIGHT

It’s 8:30 on any given night. Insert winter date here.

Clad in my dirty barn jacket and muck boots, I plunge into the dark for evening animal duty: walking the dog, then feeding the horses and cats. It’s cold but not too windy, and considering the alternative — bathing grubby kids and putting them to bed — I’ve got the easy task tonight.

On this particular night there’s no moon and my route is bathed in black. But Martin and I can navigate the path blindfolded. We know the pitch of the drive, the ruts at the bend, where the mud puddles lurk. In the inky dark I sense them and skirt their edges.

Maisie is doing her dance: goading me like a sullen sheep, nipping my heels and piercing the quiet with staccato barks. Scuffing my toes, I shower her in gravel, but she’s undeterred. Only a coyote clips her short. The coyotes were once an infrequent, distant presence, a lonely howl from some far-flung ridge. But now they’re near, yipping or baying from the next field.

Mel, our elder-orange cat, jogs ahead. It is winter which means he’s the postman: neither snow, nor sleet nor rain deters him. Martin was the first to recognize the seasonal change in him: in summertime Mel looks sickly, molted and dull-coated, but in winter he’s spry and energetic. The night blots him out, but I follow the purr.

And now we’re trailed by his fat friend: Felix, the quasi-domestic/feral feline, built like Garfield with tuxedo markings. Felix darts ahead, rolling on his back to expose his impossibly fat, white belly in the scant light.

And then there are the cattle. The new herd. In the past the cattle were skittish and easily spooked. But this group, a dozen youngsters of black-and-white dairy persuasion, are conditioned to humans. They follow me, hugging the fence and mooing, as though we need a constant reminder of their existence.

It’s an impromptu, multi-species parade. I u-turn at the pine trees and the cows copy my loop, shadowing me along the divide. The cats loiter behind and I call them, worrying about the coyotes. I imagine furry, gray, sleek shapes, silently jogging in soldier fashion across the field. I’m relieved when Mel and Felix materialize, tripping me as they collapse before me.

Bathed in the barn light, I call the horses and rattle a grain bucket. Soon they appear, apparitions in the field. They amble to their stalls while the cats squat on the loft stairs, bowed over their dishes. Finally, I turn off the lights and bring back the dark. The coyotes are silent and only Maisie huffs as she run circles until we reach the house and bask in the warm glow of porch lights.