I was watching a couple dozen goldfish – a rainbow of shimmering colors – seemingly quite content within their large aquarium, and at the same time enjoying a plate-full of sushi, when the following memory came bubbling to the surface …
It was about ten years ago, and I was living in a guest-house nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Christo (“Blood of Christ”) Mountains (so-named because at dusk the mountains were often bathed in stunningly-beautiful crimson light) on the outskirts of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The main house on the property was occupied by the close friend of a classmate (with whom I was studying Chinese Medicine). His name was Colin, and he was a man whose life revolved around two passions: painting and pigeons. His work-studio was in his house, and his paintings exhibited in galleries world-wide. The pigeons lived in a large coop adjacent to both the main and the attached guest-house.
These were not just run-of-the-mill pigeons. They were a special breed of homing pigeons – of the same kind used in various wars, to relay messages across enemy lines. Many were the afternoons when I watched them fly above, in ever-widening circles – always making their way back home. They were beautiful, the way their wings caught and refracted sunlight; how they flew in perfect, fluid formation, banking together on the currents of the wind: separate bodies and yet, seemingly, a single mind.
Since this variety of pigeons are not native to New Mexico, Colin had them transported from somewhere on the east coast. Their accommodations were, so far as I could tell, five-star: a terraced hotel, quite spacious, with various feed-bins, and ample room for wandering. The coop as a whole was enclosed in multiple layers of chicken-wire – necessary to secure these rather delicate birds from the foxes, raccoons, bobcats, birds-of-prey and occasional mountain lion – all of whom considered the exotic pigeons to be among the very finest of gustatory delights.
In spite of Colin’s attention, and best efforts to provide a safe haven for the birds, massacres/feasts – large and small – were not infrequent occurrences. The birds would be lost (or found, depending upon ones perspective) one or two, or six or ten at a time. After which the chicken-wire scheme would be re-worked, and replacements sent for. Days, weeks, or even months would pass in relative quiet – and then for a while it would seem like a perpetually losing battle.
One evening, mid-winter, I heard – from the direction of the coop -- that familiar fluttering of wings, panicked chortling, and the sound of some beast scampering up the chicken-wire, searching and clawing for a way in. This went on for a couple of minutes. I believed that Colin was home, which meant that soon I would hear his back door opening, then a flurry of shouts and muted pejoratives, as he made his best attempt to save the pigeons from the clawed advances of their uninvited visitor.
All this unfolded, as expected, and then once again there was relative silence. I wondered what had been the outcome: who was feeling happily content, who mortally violated? Whose belly was full, and whose still empty? Whose veins were now pulsing with terror, whose with confidence and quiet power? I expected it all to remain a mystery, until the first light of dawn.
Instead, there was the sound of footsteps - a crunch of gravel on the path leading from Colin’s place to mine - and then a worried knock on my front door. Colin’s face was ashen, his voice shaking as he said, “I think I’ve done something really bad.” There was a canopy of stars above his head, and in his left hand he held a fully-strung bow, sans arrow.
He had come face-to-face with a mountain lion. They looked into each other's eyes. He had then let loose an arrow which had found its mark in the lion’s flank – a wound that, while not immediately mortal, was most probably serious. The lion had fled, the arrow still firmly planted in its hind-quarters.
This was a side of Colin I had never seen before: besieged with guilt, sheepishly crestfallen, sincerely confessional. I felt a bit dazed – which may be why his next suggestion seemed, in that moment, to be a reasonable one: “I think we should go looking for it.” Perhaps, he thought, we could find it and, if need be, transport it to a place where it could receive some kind of medical attention. Or at the very least remove the arrow.
Our impromptu plan included no more than a couple of new arrows (just in case), a large wool blanket (in which to wrap the injured beast) and a canvas bag (for transportation purposes, and to at least temporarily bind its claws). So, with a large flashlight, off we went together, into the mid-winter moon-soaked foothills, winding our way through low-lying pinons and junipers, in search of a mountain lion with an arrow in its hind-quarters.
Colin did have some bona fide tracking abilities, and for a while at least we felt confident that we were heading in the right direction. Yet deep in my belly, becoming more noticeable with each step, was this sinking feeling ... Perhaps it was the chill midnight air, or perhaps just a passage of time, that facilitated the slow and then all-at-once return of my sanity. What was I doing?!
The absurdity of the situation was becoming ever more clear. In spite of our noble aspirations, I could see no wisdom or ultimate virtue in overtaking an animal just recently wounded (by one of us!) in its thwarted efforts to feed itself. Internally, I began to vacillate between bone-deep fear and a giddy hilarity. I prayed with sincerity that we would not find the lion. I dared not speak this to Colin, who was still very much “on a mission” to make amends for his blundered act of violence/protection. After an hour or so, with no success and having long ago lost touch with any visual cues as to the lion’s whereabouts – even Colin agreed that we should call off the search, and return home together. And so we did.