Prey at the waterhole


I came around a corner and there was a mountain lion. It was a big male, tail longer than my arm. I stopped in dappled ponderosa shade. I was close enough that I could have tossed a pebble and hit the lion’s tawny block of a head. He was facing the other way, lapping water out of a muddy hole in the Blue Range near the Arizona-New Mexico line.

I lowered to one knee — not what you should do around a large predator, especially a cat — but it was what immediately came to mind. The first thing I wanted was to have the upper hand, which for me meant being invisible.

I had wanted to see a mountain lion this way for a long time. So often I am the one who is watched without knowing it, perking ears I never know are there. Now, I was crouched on the ground staring at a lion that had no idea I was here, carefully studying the way its head grazed the water, how its shoulder blades lifted like shields as it drank. I was traveling alone in the wilderness, seven days of gear on my back. I let my pack off my shoulders and rolled it gently to the ground. Any thoughts I had been thinking floated away unfinished. I became a shadow, a ghost, something not here.

When it was done drinking, the lion turned its lithe, muscular body and looked around. I took the faintest breath, my body light as a leaf. The lion’s bright, glassy eyes passed over mine, and I let its gaze wash through me. I was nothing but a shape among stumps and rocks. The lion did not see me. It walked away from the water hole with fluid authority. It slipped into the forest and was gone.

After a while I stood. I grinned; I’d gotten my wish. Now, for the tracks. I left my pack behind and headed for the water hole. In case the cat was still around, I clattered rocks as I went, knowing that it would turn suddenly, surprised to hear me, affronted perhaps to have been watched, and then would sprint away, leaving me far behind.

At the water hole I found fresh tracks in mud, round lobes of paw pads and toes. I was just leaning down to dip a finger into one of the prints when I thought — this is where animals are caught: bending down at a water hole, spine exposed to all the world. Just in case, I glanced around. There I saw the lion. It had doubled back behind me and was reclined in juniper shade, watching me as if I were its morning show, tail looped across the ground.

I did not move. I thought this was as close as I would ever get and I burned the image of this lion into my memory. How long would it stay? How long could I just stand here and stare?

Not long. It rose from the shadows. It stepped out and began walking straight toward me. Fear gulped through my blood. I was prey at the waterhole.

Wait a second. This isn’t supposed to happen. I’m a watcher, an observer. I am human.

And it, I realized, is a cat. This is what cats do. Evolution has designed a hunting family of animals able to digest meat and little else, the strapping blueprint of its body so perfect that the cat has hardly been added to or subtracted from in 30 million years.

The lion’s pace came slowly and deliberately, yet very quickly it was 20 feet away. I pulled a knife from my hip, unfolded and locked a blade five inches long — one claw against eight claws; the advantage was not mine. I swallowed all of my fear. There was nothing else I could do with it. The lion was already 10 feet away, and my world was nothing but its grey-green eyes. It looked straight into me. I was being gutted.

The mountain lion began circling me. Its body was so uniformly sculpted that I could see where muscle gave way to bone in its face, whiskers hanging under their own weight. Its tail waved back and forth like a fencer’s sword.

There are so many rules about animal encounters, about barking or bluffing, standing tall, putting hands in coat pockets and spreading out so you look bigger. But there was no time for these tricks. Everything happened too fast. I now had only the trick of confounding the lion’s attack pattern. I followed it with my eyes, with all of my body, not giving it any glance behind me.

This went on for minutes, hours, days. My entire life.

Then it let go of me. The lion turned and moved away. I don’t know why. I wasn’t the right shape. I didn’t run, giving it my back, as it expects of prey overtaken by fear.

As quickly as the lion had approached, it was gone. I stood there, feeling as if I was made of porcelain, as if everything — my body and the world around me — would break the second I moved. Every loose end, every frayed thought I ever had was gone. For that moment I had been no more than a shadow standing in the presence of the absolute.

 Craig Childs writes from Crawford, Colorado.

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