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The Underneathby Kathi Appelt
THERE IS NOTHING lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for a while, and then abandoned on the side of the road. A small calico cat. Her family, the one she lived with, has left her in this old a nd forgotten forest, this forest where the rain is soaking into her soft fur.
How long has she been walking? Hours? Days? She wasn't even sure how she got here, so far from the town where she grew up. Something about a car, something about a long drive. And now here she is. Here in this old forest where the rain slipped between the branches and settled into her fur. The pine needles were soft beneath her feet; she heard the water splash onto the puddles all around, noticed the evening roll in, the sky grow darker.
She walked and walked, farther and farther from the red dirt road. She should have been afraid. She should have been concerned about the lightning, slicing the drops of rain in two and electrifying the air. She should have been worried in the falling dark. But mostly she was lonely.
She walked some more on the soft pine needles until at last she found an old nest, maybe a squirrel's, maybe a skunk's, maybe a porcupine's; it's hard to tell when a nest has gone unused for a long time, and this one surely had. She was grateful to find it, an old nest, empty, a little dry, not very, but somewhat out of the rain, away from the slashes of lightning, here at the base of a gnarled tupelo tree, somewhere in the heart of the piney woods. Here, she curled up in a tight ball and waited, purred to her unborn babies. And the trees, the tall and kindly trees, watched over her while she slept, slept the whole night through. Copyright © 2008 by Kathi Appelt
AHH,THE TREES. On the other side of the forest, there is an old loblolly pine. Once, it was the tallest tree in the forest, a hundred feet up it reached, right up to the clouds, right beneath the stars. Such a tree. Now broken in half, it stands beside the creek called the Little Sorrowful.
Trees are the keepers of stories. If you could understand the languages of oak and elm and tallow, they might tell you about another storm, an earlier one, twenty-five years ago to be exact, a storm that barreled across the sky, filling up the streams and bayous, how it dipped and charged, rushed through the boughs. Its black clouds were enormous, thick and heavy with the water it had scooped up from the Gulf of Mexico due south of here, swirling its way north, where it sucked up more moisture from the Sabine River to the east, the river that divides Texas and Louisiana.
This tree, a thousand years old, huge and wide, straight and true,would say how it lifted its branches and welcomed the heavy rain, how it shivered as the cool water ran down its trunk and washed the dust from its long needles. How it sighed in that coolness.
But then, in that dwindling of rain, that calming of wind, that solid darkness, a rogue bolt of lightning zipped from the clouds and struck. Bark flew in splinters, the trunk sizzled from the top of the crown to the deepest roots; the bolt pierced the very center of the tree.
A tree as old as this has a large and sturdy heart, but it is no match for a billion volts of electricity.The giant tree trembled for a full minute, a shower of sparks and wood fell to the wet forest floor. Then it stood completely still. A smaller tree might have jumped, might have spun and spun and spun until it crashed onto the earth. Not this pine, this loblolly pine, rooted so deep into the clay beside the creek; it simply stood beneath the blue-black sky while steam boiled from the gash sixty feet up, an open wound.This pine did not fall to the earth or slide into the creek. Not then.
And not now. It still stands. Most of its branches have cracked and fallen.The upper stories have long ago tumbled to the forest floor. Some of them have slipped into the creek and drifted downstream, down to the silver Sabine, down to the Gulf of Mexico. Down.
But the trunk remains, tall and hollow, straight and true. Right here on the Little Sorrowful, just a mile or so from a calico cat, curled inside her dry nest, while the rain falls all around. Copyright © 2008 by Kathi Appelt
MEANWHILE, DEEP BENEATH the hard red dirt, held tightly in the grip of the old tree's roots, something has come loose. A large jar buried centuries ago. A jar made from the same clay that lines the bed of the creek, a vessel with clean lines and a smooth surface, whose decoration was etched by an artist of merit. A jar meant for storing berries and crawdads and clean water, not for being buried like this far beneath the ground, held tight in the web of the tree's tangled roots. This jar. With its contents: A creature even older than the forest itself, older than the creek, the last of her kind. This beautiful jar, shaken loose in the random strike of lightning that pierced the tree's heart and seared downward into the tangled roots. Ever since, they have been loosening their grip.
Trapped, the creature has waited. For a thousand years she has slipped in and out of her deep, deep sleep, stirred in her pitch-black prison beneath the dying pine. Sssssooooonnnn, she whispered into the deep and solemn dark, my time will come. Then she closed her eyes and returned to sleep. Copyright © 2008 by Kathi Appelt
IT WASN'T THE chirring of the mourning doves that woke the calico cat, or the uncertain sun peeking through the clouds, or even the rustling of a nearby squirrel. No, it was the baying of a nearby hound. She had never heard a song like it, all blue in its shape, blue and tender, slipping through the branches, gliding on the morning air. She felt the ache of it. Here was a song that sounded exactly the way she felt.
Oh, I woke up on this bayou,
She cocked her ears to see which direction it came from. Then she stood up and followed its bluesy notes, deeper and deeper into the piney woods. Away from the road, from the old, abandoned nest, away from the people who had left her here with her belly full of kittens. She followed that song. Copyright © 2008 by Kathi Appelt
FOR CATS, A hound is a natural enemy. This is the order of things. Yet how could the calico cat be afraid of a hound who sang, whose notes filled the air with so much longing? But when she got to the place where the hound sang, she knew that something was wrong.
In front of her sat a shabby frame house with peeling paint, a house that slumped on one side as if it were sinking into the red dirt. The windows were cracked and grimy. There was a rusted pickup truck parked next to it, a dark puddle of thick oil pooled beneath its undercarriage. She sniffed the air. It was wrong, this place. The air was heavy with the scent of old bones, of fish and dried skins, skins that hung from the porch like a ragged curtain.
Wrong was everywhere.
She should turn around, she should go away, she should not look back. She swallowed. Perhaps she had taken the wrong path? What path should she take? All the paths were the same. She felt her kittens stir. It surely wouldn't be safe to stay here in this shabby place.
She was about to turn around, when there it was again — the song, those silver notes, the ones that settled just beneath her skin. Her kittens stirred again, as if they, too, could hear the beckoning song. She stepped closer to the unkempt house, stepped into the overgrown yard. She cocked her ears and let the notes lead her, pull her around the corner. There they were, those bluesy notes.
Oh, I woke up, it was rainin',
Then she realized, this song wasn't calling for a bone, it was calling for something else, someone else. Another step, another corner. And there he was, chained to the corner of the back porch. His eyes were closed, his head held back, baying.
She should be afraid, she should turn around and run, she should climb the nearest tree. She did not. Instead, she simply walked right up to this baying hound and rubbed against his front legs. She knew the answer to his song, for if she could bay, her song would be the same.
Ranger. Copyright © 2008 by Kathi Appelt
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