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Contest Winner

     It was early. That I noticed and seemed to care so much about its arrival puzzled me. At the same time, this was not a mystery to be solved. I never cared about frost. Until now, frost did not affect my life. In all my thirty years, I had no garden to tend, no yard to enjoy. I had no animals, no crop, no farm. And yet I found myself perplexed, utterly jarred by its appearance in the backyard. Maybe it’s not the frost, I thought.

     Maybe it’s the arrival of the frost. The arrival. I had been in a state of wait for so long. When things began to arrive that I did not anticipate, they shook me. I was a chess piece in a game against nature. Knocked over. Yes, that’s it. Being in a state of wait lead me into a tunnel of yearning. I was in a tunnel, I thought. I nodded. That was it. I was in a tunnel and it was difficult to see beyond and that’s why the arrival of the frost shook me. It shook me, yes, that’s it. I nodded.

     Then I saw it.

     I stopped. I became a tableau. All the moving parts of me froze. Its fur was long, a darkish collar matted into its caliginous mane and my body relaxed as I realized it had a home, that it came from a house down the street, or a few blocks away. It was the collar. The collar activated my parasympathetic nervous system. A symbol of domestication. A signifier that the animal was familiar, at least to some extent, with humans. That it was not about to lunge at me, feral and hungry, worst-case scenario.

     That it was not a bear.

     My instinct to defend myself heightened when we locked eyes, animalistic, and my reaction startled me. I was not afraid of cats, of black ones neither. I loved cats. They liked me. That an obscured part of me considered this curious creature a bear turned my cheeks pink. I blushed for it. It was much smaller than a bear but, I reasoned, it was a similar colour, and its presence equally as unexpected. As a bear’s would be. That it saw me first was not unlike a bear. I had to squint to make out the different parts of its body— eyes, hips, paws. To confirm it was indeed a cat. It sat eloquently in the garden, still as a house, and studied me.

     Not unlike a bear, I thought (though I’d never seen one, so this was my best guess).

      From its perspective, I must have looked like a giant, heaving phenomenon that was there to put on a show for only them. Moments earlier I had swung the back door shut behind me, stomped onto the damp deck in my bare feet despite the frost, and begun to pace, sure I was alone. My hands alternated between pressing against my face and wagging around on the ends of my arms. Tears wet my cheeks, stung in the cool morning air. It was that damn state of waiting. I struggled to catch my breath, and then I saw it and softened.

     Nature, in its brilliant, congenital form, can shush even the loudest of voices. That is, after all, what brought me outside. That was why I always went outside. Overthinking dinner? Go outside. Too many video calls? Go outside. Mom triggered you again? Go outside. In this particular moment, it was a phone call that brought me out. Hurled me onto the deck. Knocked me to my knees. A phone call that threatened to break me into tiny pieces but because I had gone outside, nature caught me. Startled me. Grabbed a hold of my shoulders as if to say, Look where you are. Look at this beautiful place.       

      That I could live somewhere not wholly mine, somewhere that never would be wholly mine, I understood. In this moment, with the cat, I understood. Before I moved, I told myself: You will find a place with a backyard that will be yours. How wrong I was. 

      I nodded, to prove to the cat I understood. Going outside reminded me how acutely aware I was that I had moved to a rural town, away from everyone I knew. Everything. To a place where a bear might arrive in my backyard. Or a cat.

      I sat on the steps of the deck and continued to take it in. I clucked my tongue behind my teeth in an attempt to lure it out of the shadows. I extended my arm and ran my thumb against my fingers. I slow-blinked like an idiot. It continued to stare. I continued with the show.

      What do you want? it asked.

       I looked around.

       What do I want? I said.

       I imagined the cat trotting over to me, rubbing its scented forehead against my leg, marking me its ally. I imagined telling the cat I wanted it to run into my arms. Come here, I thought of saying. Validate me. Reassure me. Tell me everything is going to be okay.

       That’s why I came outside. But being outside with this cat reminded me that I could not take what I wanted from nature to make what I thought I needed.

       When a goodly crow landed in the tall pine on the far side of the yard, we both looked at it, guided by the hoarse caws that echoed from the tree.

       Look at us, I thought. Bonding.

       When I turned back to the garden, the cat was gone. I scanned the landscape and stepped onto the lawn. The ice crystals that clung to each green blade melted under my feet.

       In this new place, in this unfamiliar house, I had trouble articulating my thoughts. I pulled a crinkled sheet of paper from my pocket and looked at the drawing I made of the backyard. Words on the sheet matched the plants that lived along the fence. I pointed to the “Eastern Hemlock” under which the cat had been, between the “Aster” and the “Iris” (marked with a ?). I scanned past the shed, peered through the vines of the “Elderberry Bush” (starred as edible), and inspected the corner of the yard where the “Black Eyed Susans” grew, most of their tall stalks only a black dot under the sun, having strewn their yellow leaves across the lawn as a flower-bearer does at a wedding.

       I hovered in the corner of the yard, squatted, a hand in the grass for balance. The sun took a step out from behind the “Red Pine” as an ash-coloured squirrel bounced along the top rail of the back fence. A second crow landed in the tree, and a smaller brown squirrel chirped by after the first. The cat, I figured, had gone home to its own yard, its own house, its owner, everything in twos or so I told myself and I stood, tiptoed back to the deck, and made note of all the Nature I could not name. It was then the thought returned to me: I will never be a mother.

       For days I stood on the back deck and looked for the cat. I wondered if it would cross through the backyard now that I had pawed at everything. My smell was all over. A few nights in, I woke drenched in sweat, worried the cat had returned in search of whoever used to live here, and left dismayed when they came upon me. My spouse started to ask if I was alright. When I searched for the word “fine” in my thesaurus and said, I’m hunkydory, I’m acceptable, life is tolerable, they grinned at me and stopped asking.

       I saw a notice on a bulletin board outside the grocery store. “Bear sighting,” it read, followed by the location, which was up the road from my house. When I got home I triple-checked the lid on the garbage bin. I was not afraid of bears, but I did not want one to flag my house as “the one with the food.” I thought about the cat, then, and hoped it did not get eaten.

       The frost hung around for days and I continued to look for the cat. I walked the neighbourhood in an attempt to discern which houses might have a pet inside. I did not see it. As I drove home from the grocery store, three middle schoolers stopped as my car coasted by. They stared at the road ahead of where I was and so I followed their gaze and I saw it. The little squirrel from my backyard, flattened. Breathless. The kids screamed as I swerved around it. When I pulled into the driveway, their shouts echoed in my head, and wondered if I should go back. When I did, a crow was there. I did not stay to watch.

       Snow fell a month later. It was early. That I noticed and cared so much pleased me. As I stepped outside onto the deck, pulled my toque down over my ears, and wrapped myself in the blanket from the couch, I felt like the yard had pulled a duvet over itself and said wake me when the frost arrives.

       I stopped. I froze. The arrival. I had been in a state of wait for so long that a part of me felt like I imagined it. Dark. Unexpected. It saw me first. I had to squint to make out the different parts of its body. It sat eloquently in the garden, still as a house, and studied me.

       Look at us, I thought. Bonding

Andrea Wrauley is a fiction and screenplay writer. She has Associate Produced two AppleTV+ series and co-wrote on the latter. She penned her first novel in 2020 which led her to pursue an MA in Creative & Critical Writing, completed with Merit, from Gloucestershire University in 2022. Her critical work centered on speculative fiction and time travel, while her narrative project is a developing speculative short story anthology.

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