It’s taken me days to even understand what happened that night. I like to ascribe meaning to experiences, believe there is reason behind each event. But this one left me baffled.
There was no time to stop. Maybe if it was still light out, I would’ve seen his back parting the tall grass. But the sun had set hours ago, the black night shrouded in thick fog.
I was going 50 mph when he cut across the two-lane highway. I swore, bare foot pumping the brake. The front of the car dipped, the rear bucked, tossing my backpack from the trunk, through the tense empty air of the cabin, into the waiting arms of the windshield. Wheels locked. Hot rubber smearing asphalt. It was too late.
The hollow thud on the front bumper instantly sucked my stomach up behind my ribs as images of the bloody mutilation under my feet washed over me. The car continued to skid for another 20 meters before coming to a halt.
No! No! No!
I pushed away from the steering wheel and threw myself back into the seat. Fuck!
Waves pounded the shore somewhere in the darkness. The thick ocean fog seeped through the tall grass, floated past the headlights, and continued off to the right, flooding the forest. Tired and defeated, I stared through the windshield, focusing on nothing in particular.
A sick sadness crept up my esophagus and infected my chest. I didn’t want to see what I’d done. Hopefully he died quickly.
Backing up, my headlights caught his body. He was resting in the center of the road, two yellow lines running under him. I crept forward, following the road reflectors burning sacrificial orange.
I pulled up next to him, his body suddenly cast in shadow.
Before I knew what was happening, I’d taken a knee next to his body, my fingers instinctively stroking his neck. He was perfectly intact. No blood. Nothing broken. It was almost unbelievable. Is he stunned? Unconscious? He rested like the Great Sphinx of Giza, head erect above his paws. Beginning at the crown of his massive head, I combed down his wide, muscular neck. The pads of my fingers moving through his hair, coarse and thick like a tan boot brush.
His body rivaled mine, easily weighing at least 180 pounds. One front paw almost covered the yellow line that split the road. As though he had snatched the unruly yellow ribbon out of the night and was pinning it to the ground. Each vertebra hummed as I gently ran my palm down his large spine and his sides. Feeling the warmth of his back, the way his coat pulled taut over his ribs as he inhaled the cool fog, exhaling humid breath.
I caressed his back for a minute or so, but each second was slowed. We were one with the moment. He shifted his weight slightly, bowing his head each time to receive my hand, pushing back into it as I scratched his cheek.
Up the Oregon road, the glow of an approaching car. I stood and turned to the light, shielding him, his body at my bare heels. The car slowed, then passed, leaving us in silence. In that brief second of the passing car, thought surged back online. I need to get him into my car. I need to get him to an animal hospital. How will I lift him? Where will I fit him?
As if reading my thoughts and disliking them all, the cougar suddenly stood and turned his large green-yellow eyes to mine. They were lined in heavy black. A male cleopatra. We examined each other. He twitched his freckled pink nose, and looked behind me into the darkness. Eyes narrowing, he sprung past. I spun and watched as he darted up the road, his powerful shoulders rocking and swaying. Like a warrior in a fur coat. My mouth hung open in dumbfounded awe.
Reaching the top of the hill, he sat back on his hind legs, and looked at me for a long moment. I hear something. The soft hush of an approaching car whispered through the fog. We turned our heads toward the sound. And with that, he stood and disappeared into the forest.