FILMING THE ANDEAN CAT
The campsite was at tree line in the Andean mountains. So far, Jeffrey and Jorge had spent two weeks patiently pointing their infrared cameras into darkness, guessing which crags and caves might be home to the Andean Cat. It was nearly a dream come true for Jeffrey, who had been inching along for years filming weddings and graduations when wildlife filmmaking was what he’d always wanted to do. Now here he was on contract with a major production company, with hundreds of miles of arid peaks to explore and a new stamp in his passport. And, he hated to admit the relief, a few thousand miles between him and his pregnant wife, Anna.
He was to return to the States a week before the baby was due. Jeffrey never said it out loud, but the prospect of having a child terrified him. He recalled his own childhood and every memory seemed to involve some peril: the top of the refrigerator, the middle of the road, the limb of a tree. Kids were naturally doomed, he decided. How was he supposed to rescue one if he was still perched on the edge of a cliff himself?
“Ready for home yet?” Jorge asked.
Jorge was the Peruvian biologist Jeffrey had been paired with. He cooked chorizos for them on a portable grill.
“And be out of the field? Never. Just look at this place,” Jeffrey said, “it’s incredible.”
He swept his hand toward the landscape. Mountaintops brushed with summer snow stretched under a clear blue sky. Squat mesquite trees dotted the mountainsides, and across the canyon, a herd of guanacos clicked their dainty hooves over ancient stones. A vizcacha hopped onto a nearby rock and sniffed at them. These rabbit-eared chinchillas were a favorite meal of the Andean Cat, an endangered kitten-faced predator slightly bigger than a house cat. Jorge threw a bit of bread to the fat rodent and handed Jeffrey a chorizo.
Jeffrey took a bite and said through his food, “Check out what I found.”
He dug in his pocket and handed his souvenir to Jorge.
“Puma claw,” Jorge said. He examined the yellowed bone and gave it back to Jeffrey. “Where you find it?”
Jeffrey held the claw against the sky. Thick at the base, it curved to a dulled point and growth lines stretched across the bone in shallow grooves.
“Near that pond about a mile away. I think our little fuzzball’s whole foot is smaller than this thing.” He admired the claw again before stashing it back in his pocket. “I’m not gonna lie, I’d be more excited about this project if we were tracking pumas. Or lions.”
“You been to Africa?” Jorge asked.
“Not yet, but this is just a stepping stone. Africa: that’s where the real fun is. No more tracking overgrown kittens.”
Jorge laughed. “Some say this kitten is not so harmless.”
“No? It’s the terror of every field mouse, right?”
Jorge leaned against the rocks, tugging the fingers of his glove with his teeth.
“Mi abuelita,” he said, “she lived in a village outside Cuzco, and she tell us the cat is bad luck. She was superstitious woman, my grandmother. She call it gato del Diablo. The only time I ever saw this cat, it was when a man in my grandmother’s village kill it and hang it in the plaza. My grandmother, she spit on it and tell me and my sister there is one less devil in the world.”
Jeffrey stared at him, the last bite of chorizo poised halfway to his mouth.
“No, no joke. Es a problem, for me. I don’t believe in superstition, not for many years. I am a scientist, you know? But I lie to my mother when she ask what I do up here, I tell her I am following guanacos.”
“So you’re telling me, ‘respect the kitten,’ right?”
Jorge took a bite of chorizo and nodded.
“You want me to stay the whole night in that thing?” Jeffrey stared at the hunting blind, a miniature camouflage tent barely large enough for himself and his camera.
The producer had flown in to check on their progress, and brought with him a few innovative ideas.
“That’s right,” the producer said. He was digging a hole in the dry hard dirt of the mountainside. “Jorge tells me you’ve been moving around, changing locations every few hours. Might be your movement that’s scaring the cat away. You need to stay put, be patient.”
Jeffrey flicked the fabric of the blind with his fingers. “So you think kitty’s just going to walk up to this thing?”
“This isn’t the same as filming caribou. And, no, first we’ll need to drop the blind into the hole so the camera’s ground level. Grab that shovel and give me a hand, will you?”
Jeffrey hated him for the caribou comment. That footage from his Canadian backpacking trip had won second place in the “Newcomer” category at Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival and was the only reason the producer even knew Jeffrey’s name. He picked a shovel off the ground and wondered if he should make some crack about digging his own grave.
The producer stuck the shovel into the ground, leaned on it and looked at Jeffrey.
“Look, it’s no big deal. We dig a little hole, you jump in, and then you sit and watch the cat walk right up to you. There’s brilliant footage of gazelles filmed this way.”
“Isn’t this a bit old-fashioned?” Jeffrey said.
“Sometimes old-fashioned is the way to go. Get too dependent on fancy gadgets and you forget where you came from.” The hole was several feet deep now. “Hop down there, measure it for me.”
Jeffrey crouched down, dropped himself into the hole and looked around at the dirt walls.
“I think I’ve spent too much time with the vizcacha,” he said.
At sunset they lowered the blind into the hole and Jeffrey slid in through the panel. The tripod took up nearly the whole floor and Jeffrey kept knocking his head against the fabric wall as he positioned the camera. Jorge and the producer left to camp downwind, leaving Jeffrey strict instructions to stay in the hole until morning, under all circumstances. Jeffrey watched the sunset through the tiny holes in the netting and kept faithful watch through the camera, hopeful the cat would magically appear and make everything worth it. But two hours passed and Jeffrey sat down in a foul mood, maneuvering his legs uncomfortably around the tripod.
He wanted to fall asleep and dream about Anna, but not Anna in the delivery room, like he always seemed to dream these days. He tried to push that image from his mind, and thought instead about their first date, when she agreed to go white-water rafting with him. Most girls he’d dated were squeamish about getting their hair wet or their nails dirty, but Anna loved the outdoors as much as he did, and they spent the first six months of their relationship hiking, camping and making love in the forest. They’d been married three years. She’d announced her pregnancy shortly after he’d signed the contract for this job, and her news had led to a fight instead of a celebration. He wasn’t ready for the confinement of parenthood, but as he sat in this hole, spinning his wedding ring on his finger in boredom and remembering good times, he wished he hadn’t been such an ass about the baby.
Jeffrey spent the night napping in kinked positions, waking at the slightest sounds. His neck ached and his legs fell asleep. His ears were painfully cold, no matter how tightly he pulled his hat. At every hint of movement outside the blind, his heartbeat sped up and he started filming. Usually the camera caught nothing. Once he could see two vizcachas, sitting like furry Buddhas in the pre-dawn. Later, a fat bird with a curved beak pecked at the supposedly hidden camera.
Jeffrey was sitting down when he heard the crunch of human footsteps the next morning. Jorge bent down and peeked through the panel.
Jeffrey blinked at him.
“Did you get anything?” the producer asked.
“Yeah,” Jeffrey said as he pulled himself up, “A whole lot of nothing. And half a minute of a Nothoprocta trying to crack open my lens.”
The producer put his hand to his chin in contemplation. Jorge helped Jeffrey lug himself out of the hole.
“I brought maté for you,” Jorge handed him the caffeine-filled tea in a traditional gourd.
Jeffrey gratefully accepted the gourd and let Jorge drag the camera out of the hole.
“Try it again tonight, soon the cat will think you’re just another rock,” the producer said.
Jeffrey ignored him and drank his yerba maté.
The producer regaled him with more tips, and Jeffrey listened to all the advice that didn’t involve being underground. The man did have a CV the length of a scroll, after all. He had filmed on every continent, and industry legend said he once let himself be bit by ten poisonous spiders rather than compromise his shot of a Bengal Tiger.
A sudden breeze and a thunking noise broke the stillness of the morning.
“That’s my ride.”
A black helicopter appeared around the peak. He pointed his thumb at the helicopter and said with a half-smile, “They’re taking me to catch a flight to Cairo. My son’s turning ten and I had his mum put him on a plane to meet me there. He wants to see the pyramids and all that mess.”
Jeffrey protected his maté from the dirt as the machine touched down close to the vizcacha burrows. The producer shook hands with Jorge on the way to the helicopter and waved as he boarded. The helicopter flew off through the mountains, leaving behind a blissful quiet.
Jeffrey walked to the hole.
“You going to do what he say?” Jorge asked.
The blind stuck up in a dome above the hole. Jeffrey half-heartedly kicked a rock at it.
“No,” he said. “Hell no.”
A week later, they found the dead vizcacha. Its remains were strewn at the bottom of a rock pile, a mess of fur, blood and flies. Jorge knelt beside it and Jeffrey stood, looking down at the corpse. He had an irrational surge of sadness for the disemboweled creature. He’d seen dozens of vizcachas since he’d been here in the mountains. He’d fed them, watched them play. Nature was nature, but as Jeffrey stared at the dead rodent, he felt as pained as if it were his own pet.
“Feline footprints,” Jorge said.
“Here, in the dirt. Feline footprints.”
Jorge pointed to several indentations in the dirt near the rock pile. Jeffrey narrowed his eyes.
“El gato diablo.”
That night the moon rose over the Andes, full and rust-colored. Jeffrey prowled around the desert mountaintop, searching for a cat, feeling like a cat. He moved silently, eyes adjusted to the darkness, suspicious of every sound. The rusty moon crept across the sky, fading to a dull gray, and he came to an abrupt stop at the edge of a cliff, reminded that his night-vision was far from cat-like. His thermal imaging goggles showed nothing but cold, cold, cold, so he put them away and set up the tripods.
He rubbed his hands together, watching his own breath fog the clear night air. The sky was swathed with stars and the Southern Cross hung like a heavenly promise. A shooting star arced through the night and Jeffrey couldn’t decide whether to wish for good footage so he could go to Africa or for Anna to have an easy delivery. The due date was so close; he might already be a father. The shooting star was long gone and Jeffrey still bounced between thoughts of Africa and Anna.
Movement tugged at the corner of his eye. Just in time, he turned to see the silhouette of a small feline head at the top of the hill, the tapetum of its eyes shining in the moonlight. He swiveled his camera but the cat disappeared over the rock. Jeffrey looked at Jorge, who crouched beside the short tripod of the second camera. Jorge shook his head.
Jeffrey unscrewed the camera from the tripod and hefted it onto his shoulder. Jorge did the same. As quietly possible, they followed the cat.
They paused at the other side of the hill. The night was absolutely silent, devoid of nocturnal birds or chirping insects. Jeffrey held his breath to preserve the silence. Jorge crouched behind a rock. Jeffrey followed his example a few yards away.
The cat reappeared from a rock to their far left. Camouflaged by its gray and brown fur, it was almost an apparition. Jeffrey trained the camera on the specter. The cat froze, then darted back into the shadows. The camera caught a slight blur, then a quick shot of a long fuzzy tail with dark bands.
For another hour they stayed with their cameras focused on the cliff, waiting for the cat to return. Finally Jorge shuffled toward Jeffrey and whispered that they should move down the mountain, to a small pond and another vizcacha colony, where the cat might be hunting. They started a tedious hike in the dark.
They were almost in sight of the pond when Jorge grabbed Jeffrey’s jacket. Jeffrey followed his eye-line and in the moonlight saw a feline figure ambling along a path twenty yards below. But this feline was five times the size of the one they’d been sent for. Short reddish brown fur, heavy paws and a long thin tail, the puma strolled along, licking its muzzle. Both cameras clicked to life.
Puma concolor. Cougar. Mountain lion. Jeffrey steadied the camera on his shoulder. A soft breeze blew; they were downwind of the big cat. When the puma started to wander out of range, Jeffrey crept down the slope and followed. Jorge stayed at the top of the hill.
Jeffrey balanced the camera on a chunk of granite, his left foot stretched out in an awkward half split. The puma stopped, perked its ears, then lowered its head to sniff a clump of dry grass. It stretched its tongue out as if it were utterly disgusted with the smell. Jeffrey knew this was the response to a rival male’s marking.
A faint rustle came from the bushes behind the puma, closer to the pond. The puma turned and flattened his ears against his head. A young puma, lanky and smaller, emerged from the bush. It saw the other cat and froze. The larger puma bounded forward. The smaller one struggled free of the attack and rose on hind legs, claws bared. With a heavy swipe, the larger puma split open the muzzle of the smaller one. The smaller puma stumbled backward and took the chance to bolt away.
Jeffrey licked his lips as the puma sat on its haunches to lick its fur. Forget the vizcacha-slaughtering Andean Cat— this was the sort of close, dangerous footage that was going to get him a gig in Africa. He shifted in his awkward position and readjusted the camera to frame the triumphant puma. The puma looked up again, right at him. He felt a rock hit his back and glanced up to see Jorge motioning for him to come back. Jeffrey waved him off. He put his eye back to the viewfinder.
The puma was closer, pressed to the ground. Its wide eyes gleamed demonic red through the infrared lens. It took another quick step forward and paused, one paw hovering in the air. Jeffrey was still thinking what a great shot it was when the reality of the situation dawned on him.
He kept the camera rolling, but struggled to find his feet from his awkward position. The camera weighed him down. His foot slipped on the loose dirt. The puma took another step forward. Jeffrey panicked. If the camera fell right, his death might even be preserved on film.
He struggled to get out from under the camera and was just free of it when the cat sprang. The same instant, Jorge yelled in Spanish and a rock hit the puma on the side, stopping it short. Jeffrey found his footing and raised his arms over his head. The puma bared its teeth and hissed. He yelled back at it, a panicked string of nonsensical grunts and half-words, and the puma spat again and retreated into the bushes. Jorge ran down the slope. Jeffrey lowered his arms and felt his heart pounding.
“Holy shit,” he whispered.
Jorge grabbed Jeffrey’s shoulder, “Vámonos, hombre, he might try again.”
Jeffrey picked up his camera and got up the slope as fast as possible.
As the two headed back to the camp, the cold dusty wind had an extra bite to it, carrying the ugly squawk of a Condor and the distinct smell of rotting flesh. Excitement, relief and fear all swirled in Jeffrey’s blood. Long after they left the puma’s territory, he watched every shadow, sure he saw that hissing face around every corner.
Fatigue caught up with him by the time they reached the camp. His head pounded and his feet were leaden. The adrenaline was gone; he felt weak and nauseated.
Then, unexpectedly, he was confronted with the sunrise. The clouds graduated from deep pink to florescent orange, morphing shades on the canvas of billowing clouds. He whispered their names to himself in Spanish because English sounded too harsh: rosado, durazno, oro. The sky lightened and the clouds turned crisp white against perfect blue, the hostile night fading into a peaceful morning. The sun breached the mountaintops and shot its rays into his eyes, unshielded by a camera lens. Sunbeams seeped into the desert rocks and reflected off glaciers in the high Andes. Jeffrey found his sleeping bag.
“You know how I said I was never ready to leave the field?” Jeffrey said to Jorge as he carefully packed his camera away. “I think I’m ready to go home. For a little while.”
The deadline passed and the Andean Cat remained unfilmed. Before boarding the plane home, Jeffrey called the producer.
“Pumas!” he screeched. He pronounced it ‘peyuma.’ “There’s loads of footage on pumas! There’s nothing new and progressive about pumas.”
Jeffrey described the fight and tried to justify it with a climate change angle. The producer agreed to look at the footage, but still sounded skeptical.
Once the plane landed, Jeffrey turned on his cell phone for the first time in over a month, and discovered three messages from a few hours before. By the time he listened to the last one from his frantic sister-in-law, his heart was racing nearly as fast as it had been with the puma. Anna had gone into labor early that morning.
Jeffrey took a taxi directly to the hospital. Anna was asleep when the nurse let him into her room. The sheet lay flat across her body. Quietly, he sat in the chair near the head of the bed. He took her hand and bent down to kiss it.
She opened her eyes and shifted in the bed.
“I’m here,” he said.
“Are you sure? ’Cause I’m on a lot of drugs.”
Jeffrey smiled. “What happened to all your raving about natural childbirth?”
“I got scared.”
He stood up and kissed her forehead. He searched her face and said, “But you’re okay, right? And the baby’s okay?”
“The baby’s fine. It’s a boy, just like they said. Here, maybe…”
She pushed a button on the side of the bed and told a nurse to bring the baby.
“Did you see the Andean Cat?”
“I caught a glimpse,” he said. “I brought something back for you.”
Jeffrey reached into his carry-on bag and pulled out a small tissue paper package. During his layover in Buenos Aires, he’d had a local artisan set the puma claw in a silver clasp surrounded by speckled pink stone. He felt the tip of it through the paper, remembering the way one of its equals had sliced open the cheek of the younger puma, remembering how close those claws had come to his own flesh. He put it back in the bag.
“But I think I should save it for later,” he added.
The nurse quietly pushed open the door with a bundle in her arm. She placed the sleepy newborn in Anna’s arms.
“Hey there,” Anna whispered to the child, “Daddy’s home.”
Sarena Ulibarri graduated from the University of New Mexico and is currently an MFA student at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where she is also on the staff of Timber Journal. Her fiction has recently appeared in Bartleby Snopes, decomP magazinE, Monkeybicycle and elsewhere. She was a 2012 winner of the Thompson Award for Western American Writing.