'Wildlife' is the first story in Kirsten McDougall's book of interconnected short stories, The Invisible Rider. This story introduces the character Philip Fetch, a hapless, suburban lawyer, trying to do his best and failing.
It was spring and the valley would shine if the winds weren’t battering the place. From his armchair in the attic study, Philip Fetch could look out the window and get a sense of the world. His three apple trees had small budding fruit, but the leaves were rusted and wilting on one side. What he’d imagined as a small orchard with trees that his children could climb and pick apples from was instead a small row of stunted, wind-stung branches. It seemed to Philip that his intentions were often thwarted by external forces. He tried to think practically about a windbreak for his trees, but he was not a person to feel out dimensions for building in his head, and he was distracted by a blackbird tugging at his new lawn. The fat spring bird was pulling tufts of grass out with its beak and leaving the bare earth exposed.
‘Hey,’ he called out his window.
The bird stopped tugging and looked around briefly but, seeing no immediate threat, went back to work. Hanging his head out the window,
Philip clapped his hands and tried to shoo the bird. A gust of wind blew his calls away and the bird whistled out to its friends. Philip watched another three blackbirds settle to work on the same patch of lawn.
The birds worked in a group. They distributed sections of ground seemingly without dispute. Very soon, they had turned the ground over and had started to bob their heads up and down, eating and singing at the same time. The camaraderie they shared! It was a springtime feast, and the workers were celebrating an anticipated return to plenty.
They had also captured the attention of the next-door neighbour’s cat, which had come out from its hiding place. The cat was crouched behind a tree. If Philip had liked cats he might have found something to admire in the creature. It had dark grey fur, with white beneath its thick pelt, and a keenly striped tail. Though still a talented hunter, it was actually a bit old and blind, and it took its time to get a feel for the slowest bird in the group.
Philip felt itchy just watching the cat. He also felt a rising tension in his stomach. The house was clear of children. His wife, Marilyn, had taken them to her mother’s for the afternoon. Philip had set out a strict timetable of activities for himself. Before him on the desk was the book his good friend James had lent him, An Introduction to Eastern Moral Philosophy. Philip intended to work his way through the first chapter at least. Yet here he was getting caught up in a drama he would rather be oblivious to. Surely, though, the cat was doing him a service. The birds were ruining the lawn even before the children had got to it.
This was nature, red in tooth and claw. He had no place interfering. But then, the cat and the birds were being forced to play out their true natures in the suburbs. Both, to a certain extent, had a human imprint on them and so it fell to him to provide the necessary care. It’s a topsy-turvy world we live in, he thought. He would do what he could to put things right.
Philip picked up the book and put a thick rubber band around it. He hung his head out the window, and estimated a space between the birds and the cat below him. Squinting his right eye, he dropped the book from the second floor of his house. It fell like a brick. The book caught the cat’s shoulder and knocked it to the ground. The birds scattered and the cat lay panting on its side.
Philip wanted to slink back into his study chair. The children and Marilyn would arrive home and say, There’s a dead cat on our lawn.
It was only a cat. He had been trying to help the stupid birds.
He looked back out the window. ‘Stay there!’ he said to the cat, and rushed downstairs.
Outside, a small red-faced child was looking over his fence.
‘Is this your cat?’ said Philip. ‘It’s been hurt.’ He bent over the creature, hoping the child might go away.
The cat was breathing heavily and, though it tried to move, it could not.
‘A book fell on Muffin,’ said the child. She seemed more curious than concerned.
‘A book? How strange,’ said Philip. He gave a surprised look. ‘Ah yes, this book. I’ve been holding a window open with it. It must have fallen.’
Sometimes, Philip told himself, true intentions are misunderstood.
‘I’m going to take this cat to the vet right now,’ he said.
‘Can I come?’ said the child.
‘No. Tell your parents I will have Muffin back in a jiffy,’ said Philip.
He gathered the cat very carefully in his arms, placed it on his coat on the back seat of the car, and drove to the vet.
After a long afternoon in which he twice explained to the vet how, during the course of dusting, a book which sat on the window ledge had been nudged out the window, it was established that Muffin would live. Her shoulder had been dislocated, and the vet told Philip that it would take some time to heal and he’d have to bring her in regularly for check-ups.
Philip explained the story quietly to his neighbours. He said that he’d wished he’d listened to his wife when she’d told him not to leave things lying around. He said he would pay for any further medical attention the cat needed. Muffin licked his hand and gave a soft purr when he knelt down to pat her. The neighbours seemed soothed by their cat’s actions, and although Philip felt his skin grow itchy he didn’t let it show.
From The Invisible Rider by Kirsten McDougall