Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby have nothing on me. This past weekend proved it when Wendy, our Cornish rex cat, decided to take a hike, and I tried rescuing her, Indian Jones-style, from a briar-patch that dwarfed that in Uncle Remus' tale.
At one o'clock on Sunday, the clouds began misting, so when I went to gather our family of cats playing outside, I couldn’t find Wendy. As usual, I got the Pet Locator and headed out on the golf cart to the end of the woods. I pulled out the arms of the receiver and pointed the device toward Wendy's favorite haunts: a circle of rocks and brush co-habitated by ground hogs and the occasional skunk, and the base of a PPL electrical tower brimming with poison ivy and thorny bushes. But the tracker revealed nothing: no beep, not even a faint tone indicating she was nearby.
I climbed back into the cart and headed onto the horse path Edgar had mowed through the three-foot-high alfalfa. When I breached the highest point in the hundred-something acre field, I stopped the cart, got out, pointed the tracker, switched it to "on," and swept it slowly in front of me. A teeny, tiny, almost imperceptible beep sounded. Wendy was another quarter mile away--probably in the distant treeline.
So, I pressed the pedal to the floor and raced off down the path, bumping and gyrating through the yard-high alfalfa until I reached the mowed wheat field. Then I sped across another tree line and soared along the edge of the sheared wheat stalks where I stopped and took another sighting. The beeping was getting louder: I was on Wendy’s trail. At the next treeline the locator went crazy, "Beep! Beep! Beep!" Wendy was close by.
Annoyed that she had wandered a half mile through thick, rain-soaked alfalfa, I spun the golf cart around, hitting a rock the size of a Frisbee. Then, taking my foot off the pedal, I jumped from the machine and headed toward the treeline. I had to hurry—the rain was coming faster.
"Wendy!" I yelled.
"Reow!" a cat voice shouted back.
"Come here right--now!"
"Re-yow!" she said, which I interpreted as "No way, Jose!"
I looked at the thicket from where her voice came. Many years ago Edgar and I had discovered this gulch during a hike. A dirt road dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth century ran through it joining the village of Kreidersville to the road leading to Dead-Man's Curve. Back then the gravel path had only been visited by Conestoga wagons and men on horseback surrounded by the lush beauty of nature. But in our more modern, dismissive times a farmer had carelessly bull-dozed the old oaks lining either side of it to make the fields more accessible. In this expansive gully lay probably fifty full-grown, rotting trees, toppled one atop another, through which brambles, briars, and poison ivy thrived. And Wendy was in the thick of it. I turned on the locator again. The beeping was becoming fainter, which meant that Wendy was probably on the move deep within the gulch. Perhaps, if I was lucky, she was heading toward home.
I jumped back into the cart, slammed the pedal to the floor, and hunched over the wheel expecting the cart to lurch forward. The motor squealed, but the cart stood still. Oh, shit! I thought. Why wasn’t it moving? Was it the rock I hit? Edgar would kill me if I wrecked the golf cart again. It had only been a month since I blew up the engine—to the tune of $600. He’d flip if I had broken it again. Much as I rocked the cart back and forth and pressed the pedal so hard I thought my foot would go through the floor, the cart wouldn’t budge.
Cursing a purple streak, I patted my pants for my cell phone, but I knew full well I had let it back home. And there was no question that I needed Edgar’s help—both to catch Wendy and to drag the cart back home. There was no other option: I'd have to walk all the way back home—an up-hill walk the entire way. With no time to lose, the shortest distance home would take me through the saturated alfalfa fields. Though the thought of getting soaked to the skin didn’t appeal, I headed, determined, into the sea of grass and towards our patch of woods.
Finally, after what seemed like an hour, I got back—out of breath, but home. My good leather riding shoes squished, their edges bubbling and hissing with each step, as I walked into the living room. I was soaked—from my shoes to my riding tights to my short-sleeved polo shirt. And the rain had flattened my hair to a slick around my head. I was exhausted, but mostly pissed.
“Ya gotta help me,” I said as Edgar stared at me google-eyed, his feet propped up on the hassock, the TV blaring, "Ya gotta help me. You’re not gonna believe it, but I trashed the golf cart again.”
A frown erupted on his face. I ignored it: I had bigger problems.
“It's sitting a half mile away in the straw field below the alfalfa. I swear I didn’t do anything to it but hit a rock or something.”
The frown deepened.
“Anyway, Wendy's in the gulch and won't come to me. And I'm going to get her today if it's the last thing I do."
He rolled his eyes, turned off the set, and got up, shaking his head. "You and your cats! Why don't you just let her come back when she's ready?"
I said, "I’m afraid she might get lost in the alfalfa; you know she’s not real bright, and she hates rain and walking through wet stuff. So, she may not even come back today. And I certainly don't want her out there in that horrible gully overnight. A coy dog or something could get her."
Edgar reluctantly put on his shoes, grabbed a pair of gloves, and we headed toward the tractor. He hoisted the chains into the back of our Kabota, a farm-size tractor, and though it only seats one person inside the enclosed cab, I climbed in beside him. While Edgar scooted to the farthest edge of the seat, I managed to settle one buttock on the rest, supporting most of my weight with my left foot.
Out of the barn we went and into the rain, which had turned into a torrent. We ground down the side of the woods (going much slower than I would have liked), out the path through the alfalfa, and into the cut wheat field. Fifteen minutes seemed like an eternity when one is bouncing on one butt cheek around the inside of a tractor. We finally arrived at the defunct golf cart, which Edgar began to work on while I located Wendy once again.
“Wendy!” I called. “Come here, girl,” I called in my most sickening sweet voice. “Psst, psst, psst,” I said. “Kitty, kitty, kitty.”
“Re-Yow!” she sang. She was still in the thicket of downed trees, briars, and poison ivy.
"I'm going in!" I shouted to Edgar. And into the briar patch I dove with no more protection than my soaked riding tights and T-shirt. Angry that my cat was deliberately ignoring me, I grabbed the first thorn branch. The pricks dug into my fingers, and I yelled—a prelude of the nightmare to come.
Leaving the tracker behind, I stooped under the first bramble, the thorns erect at sight of tender human flesh. With the delicateness of a ballerina, I picked a branch between my thumb and index finger and lifted it up and away while I scooted underneath, mindful of my foot placement. The weeds and bushes beneath my feet were so twisted and tangled and thick that I couldn’t see the ground—mat-traps.
I called to Wendy, and again she answered in her uncannily loud voice. "Come on,Wendy," I said in a cloying tone. "Come to Mommy. Mommy doesn’t want to crawl after you through this briar patch. If you don’t come out of there, you’ll be sorry."
"Reow!" she yelled, her equivalent of "F--- you!"
Like a rebellious adolescent child finding herself on an unsupervised teenage adventure, Wendy was expressing her independence and her disregard for her human companion. Why had she fled to this God-forsaken place? She had no reason to leave home; we had had no disagreement that morning. I could only conclude that she came here—because it was there. Adventure had lured her to this place.
It began to pour. I was scared. If I didn’t catch her, she could get lost in the alfalfa fields. Worse yet--caught here overnight would be scary for her because vile things crawled from their holes at dusk—all to devour small, skinny, unstreet-wise felines. The very thought made me cringe.
I hunched down, pushed a viney, heavy-breathing thorny bush from my face, and stepped farther into the brambles.
"Wen-n-n-ndy!" I sang.
She meowed but sounded farther away—deeper into the gulch.
"Please don't make me come after you,” I begged. Despite the sweetness in my voice, I was getting angrier and more worried by the minute. She wasn't coming to me; in fact, she was walking away, instead of toward me.
Avoiding the briars was no big deal for a lithe, skinny cat, but a full-size human found the gulch virtually impenetrable. A cat could maneuver easily underneath the thorny thicket, but I was a Brobdingnagian in this world. I needed a machete, and even that wouldn't help all that much. I scrunched down, pushed aside another load of spiked branches and ropey, gnarly vines: I felt like a worker in the Panama Canal. I sighed heavily, stepped onto the first rotted tree and assumed a hunchback's stance.
"Damn it!" I reasoned erroneously, "If she can navigate in this mess of brambles, so can I. I can be just as stubborn as she." I plunged into the vines and thorns that had grown up around, through, and over the rotted trees that lay atop one another like Pic-Up-Stix. As I whisked away thorny branches, they seemed to become evil-animated like the plants in Alice in Wonderland. I imagined them licking their lurid green lips as this human bait passed by.
The only way I could get close to Wendy was to travel up atop the mats and vines. Thick with poison ivy and other noxious weeds, the Pennsylvania woodland quickly encased me as I stepped from one rotting tree to another. The footing was precarious as everything was rain-slippery, and I had to not only keep an eye on Wendy but I had to guard my face and arms from the maze of thorns and stickers as well as watch my footing. In another ten minutes of crawling through this cavern of brambles and brush, I found myself on a shelf of green: the ground beckoned from fifteen feet below. All along I could feel pricks tugging at my pants. Some pierced the material, and I yelped and pulled away only to become snagged by something on the other side of me. I was becoming angrier with each stab, with each plant-injection. Curses flew, but these brambles were entities without ears.
Suddenly a thorn snagged the pants around my ankle; it wasn’t letting go. There was no choice but to reach down and unhook myself. When I half-stood, my hair snagged on prickly vines overhead. I flailed at the brambles that locked onto my shirt, and my efforts to break free entangled my arms in another maze of thorns. Hopelessly caught, like a spider in a web, I balanced precariously, like a high-wire artist, suspended on a pile of rotted trees, surrounded to within an inch of my head and torso by stickers and briars—all many feet above the ground. If I slipped on the slimy logs, I would fall into a patch of briars and literally be skinned alive in the process. And only a lumber crew would be able to extricate the skeleton for proper burial. Between calling for Wendy, I listened for and returned calls from Edgar, who must have already chained the golf cart to the tractor. The gully was cave-like: dark and with an acrid odor of weeds. I couldn’t see Edgar through the brush, but every now and then I could glimpse Wendy’s white neck as she scampered ahead of me.
“I’m going to head her off,” Edgar yelled. I saw a piece of his yellow shirt and tried to direct him ahead of the cat.
“She’s heading north!” I shouted.
The brambles not only snuffed out sunlight, they muffled noise as well. Though I appreciated Edgar’s help, I knew that he would never enter the bramble-head as I had, and that bespoke his degree of sense and intelligence that far out-stripped my stubbornness. For me, this experience had morphed from protective maternal concern and duty to a competition and game of control. I would overcome; I would rise to the challenge.
Just then another flash of white skittered past. Wendy had reached the bottom of the gully. Again I pleaded with her to come to me, but she looked up then disappeared in the opposite direction, letting me alone, teetering on the log-mat above.
I was furious, In vain I tried to follow, but after 45 minutes caught in this maze of sword-vegetation, brambles poking and pulling my hair and shirt, grazing, snagging the sensitive skin on my forearms, I became so angry that I lost all sense of caring about my cat. I looked down at the arms: blood ran in two places on my left arm, and my right hand ran red, too. My good riding shirt had pulls in the material and pieces of thorn sticking from it. I had no other choice but to abandon my cause and my cat. Suspended above the gully atop the weed-encased logs, and with swirling spike-vines reaching at me from all levels, I looked around for an escape route. I had become absolutely caught in the jungle-maze of spikes and things. Droplets of rain dribbled down my eyes, and poison ivy vines swirled around my face.
What in the world was I going to do? Edgar was too far away on the other side and the outside of the gully.
I was on my own. Nearly bent double, I turned slowly around, looking for a way out. Then I saw a hole, of sorts. The brambles through its center were thinner, less dense; it was my only route out. Carefully, and prying thorns that teased my hair, snatched at my skin, my shirt, my pants, I stepped down on a mat of vine-logs. I hoped the trees beneath wouldn’t snap under my weight. I was in survival mode. So angry at my cat and so afraid of falling, I crawled over the briar patch, pushing the vines away from my face with my forearms, despite the pricks to my skin.
Finally, I made it to the bottom, but, then, I had to crawl up the thirty-foot steep sides that were mud-slick and hung over with more vines and poison ivy. But I had no choice: I had to go. So, up I went, clinging to small trees and branches and pulling my aching, bloody body up the mud-wall. At last I reached the edge of the treeline and the open alfalfa field. And then I started to cry. My arms ran with rain-blood; my hands bled, too. Though I had been caught in the worst natural setting Pennsylvania could muster, I felt as though I had just survived a week’s-long fight through a Central American rainforest.
Ironically, my emotional state had been hurt more: my cat, who I loved and cared for, expressed her complete disregard for me. I was both incensed and hurt. I stood at the edge of the gulch and sobbed.
In minutes Edgar was at my side. “Come on, let’s go. If she won’t come to you, she can just stay here.”
“DAMN HER!” I yelled between tears. “I don’t care if she rots out here with the trees. If she doesn’t appreciate me and our home, she can stay out here forever. I’m done with her!”
I limped back to the golf cart chained to the tractor. Edgar started the tractor, and I got into the cart to steer. As the rain drove hard through the sides and open windscreen, I sat hunched over, skin searing from thorn-stabs, heart aching from rejection.
We were home by three o’clock. I showered, noting the pieces of thorn and leaves swirling down the drain. I washed the blood off my arms and hands. Then, I put on something dry and turned on the TV while the rain continued to fall.
At 4:30 I couldn’t stand it anymore.
“I’m going back down,” I announced.
“What? You’re nuts! I thought you were going to let her rot out there?”
“I’m not going for her sake. I’m going for mine: I want to be able to sleep tonight. If I don’t have her back home, I’ll lie awake worrying all night. I’m doing this for myself.”
This time, however, I went better equipped. I grabbed a long-sleeved jacket, the tracker, a can of Fancy Feast cat food, a hat, and heavy gloves. Out the door I went to the barn where I started up the tractor.
In fifteen minutes I was back at the gully of hell. I called for Wendy.
“Re-ow-ow-ow!” she cried. Her pleas sounded a bit more frantic, more desperate—and well she should have been. Her voice was also coming from a slightly different direction.
I put on the jacket, gloves, hat, and had the cat food in my pocket. Into the thicket I plunged, though the brambles in the treeline were not near so thick as in the gulch of toppled trees. Still, poison ivy whisked past my face as I followed Wendy’s calls.
At the angle where the treeline met the gully, someone’s property abutted. Whoever owned this area stored a trailer for hauling stuff at the very back—up against the treeline. It sounded as though Wendy was underneath the trailer.
I came out on the other side of the treeline and knelt next to the trailer. There she was, circling, stepping high with attitude. She was talking to me—obviously glad to have my company, I thought smugly.
“Hey, girl. Wanna come home now?” I said.
“Re-ow!” she said, combing the grass with her feet. She circled, looked at me, meowed some more, but she wasn’t getting close enough to be caught. Still playing games.
I summoned my sweetest voice. “Come to Mommy, Wendy. You must be hungry by now.”
Then I flicked open the tin lid of the Fancy Feast. Her head swiveled at the sound, but still maintained her ground.
“Here you go, Wendy. Some goody to eat.” And I placed a lump of the meat in the grass in front of me.
Immediately she came over and began to eat. With that, I plunked my hand over her neck, scuffing her. She screamed, and I laughed the hearty laugh of a pirate. “So, you thought you’d get the better of me, huh? Well, you didn’t because you don’t have much of a brain. HAR-HAR!”
Then I lifted her up and under my armpit, grabbed the can, and raced back to the tractor. I stepped inside with her still pinned beneath my arm, and then let her go on the floor. The tractor started with a roar, and we began the journey home. The rain pattered the windshield as I drove us up the alfalfa-filled hill.
The whole way home Wendy yelled over the sounds of the tractor. So, I just turned up the radio. Though I offered her the rest of the can of cat food, she would have none of it. I talked to her to try to calm her, but she wasn’t listening. She was probably scared of the lurching tractor, but she was probably more peeved that I had won the struggle between Woman vs. Cat. I don’t know which one was causing her to curse and complain in cat language, but I didn’t care--I had her, and she was going home where she was safe.
Most important: for Brer Balliet sleep tonight would never feel so good.