The Proper Filter, by Daniel Claar, 2010 First Place Adult Division
By Daniel Claar
A sudden movement in the willows and Jack’s hazel eyes snap instantly into focus. Fingers tighten on the bundle of black carbon fiber and silver metal lying across his lap. Another aspen leaf. He watches the solitary golden soldier fall with graceful dignity to join its spent comrades on the forest floor. It lands on the muddy bank of a narrow stream, ten feet from where his attention has been transfixed.
“If you can see it, so can they.” Jack hears his father’s smoke ravaged voice echoing through his memory. He aims his frosty breath down into his chest rather than let it escape the small opening in his pine bough cocoon.
Poorly prepared to be sitting in a makeshift blind at 7,500 feet in late October, Jack takes little comfort in a sun cresting the eastern ridge and casting its feeble rays across the mountainous landscape. To no avail, he wills his fingers and toes to cross the final threshold of aching pain and pass into welcoming numbness. Despite the freezer box conditions, Jack feels the anticipation burning. Some opportunities present themselves once in a lifetime, and this isn’t just an opportunity; this is Jack’s white whale.
He found the tracks Friday evening, at the beginning of a weekend intended to get his head and heart together. Jack had just broken up with his girlfriend of six months and, as always, when confronted with emotional upheaval, he retreated to a remote part of the White Cloud Mountains. Growing up, his family had camped in the area every autumn to hunt elk. It was the last place Jack remembered his parents and two brothers together and happy.
After unrolling a thick down sleeping bag in the back of his dented and oxidized F-250, Jack had gathered a pile of dry wood, and then blazed a half mile trail to the nearest stream. Night was rapidly approaching and he needed water for a dinner of dehydrated lasagna. This late in the year, the stream was barely a trickle, but the water remained cold and clear.
As he knelt on the bank fumbling with a filtrating water bottle, Jack caught the pungent whiff of animal urine and sensed a lurking presence. At the same moment, he noticed huge paw prints imbedded in mud on the opposite bank. The impressions were slowly filling with water from beneath. Something had been standing there just seconds ago. The tracks were as wide as his hand and nearly as long. Jack noted the lack of visible claw marks, eliminating the possibility of bear or wolf. Only one other predator in the Idaho wilderness was capable of leaving prints that size. The hair on Jack’s spine snapped to attention. Mountain lion. Jack rose slowly to his feet, eyes searching the closest trees and undergrowth. The sound of his breathing fell silent as he listened intently. Nothing. In fact, the entire forest seemed strangely silent.
Sitting in his blind two days later, Jack laughs inwardly at his initial reaction. He is relieved nobody had been there to witness him speed walking back to camp. The longest half mile of his life had been spent imagining something heavy smashing into his back and throwing him face first onto the rocky ground. He could almost feel the three inch razors digging into his back and shoulders, the rancid breath filling his nostrils. Jack’s instincts had been screaming at him to sprint through the lengthening twilight. It wasn’t until he climbed inside the cab of his truck, and fastened a holstered .357 around his waist that Jack realized he left his water bottle sitting by the stream.
It was a reaction more befitting a New York tourist. Jack smiled ruefully; not since his teenage years had his imagination run so wild. He considered the likelihood of actually being attacked and couldn’t recall the last time a mountain lion had made the news. In fact, the majority of his adult life had been spent in the wilderness and although he had encountered numerous black bears and gray wolves, he had never even seen a cougar. Still, despite a rationale understanding of the odds and statistics, Jack decided the water bottle could wait for morning.
Jack pulled a banana from his camp box, a Corona from his cooler, and sat on the old Ford’s tailgate musing about lions. Because his numerous attempts to track them over the years had proven fruitless, he had long considered the great cat his white whale. Unlike others, Jack wouldn’t hear of letting hounds do the work. He considered the practice of treeing mountain lions to be dishonorable. A man without the skill and patience to track his quarry had no business hunting.
As a younger man, Jack had been convinced he was always just a bend in the trail away from coming face to face with the great cat. Instead, he had been teased with a lifetime of fresh tracks, scat, and a hope that always dissipated with the setting sun. A loner most his life, Jack felt a kinship with the solitary creature, but over the years his insatiable need to find the lion had been replaced by a sense of weary resignation. God, or Mother Nature, or whatever it was, just didn’t care how hard he tried.
Lost in thought, Jack relives the night’s earlier encounter at the stream. The most encouraging detail was the volume of tracks. It hadn’t been the cougar’s first trip to that muddy bank, which meant it might be coming back. He could feel the rekindled flame burn even hotter, stoking his confidence.
“We’ll see what’s what in the morning.” Jack said rubbing his hands together.
He slept poorly that night. Every sound amplified in the dark, Jack imagined shadowed and sinewy beasts circling his camp, sniffing him out. His sleepless night was cut short by the alarm on his wristwatch; the green glow revealing a 5:00 a.m. wake up call.
Less than thirty minutes later, Jack was putting the finishing touches on his hiding place. Using the infrared light on his headlamp, Jack located and then lopped off a pine bough with his hunting knife. Moving silently, he draped the severed branch over the base of a dead and fallen spruce lodged between two of its living brothers about four feet off the ground. Jack had identified the natural lean-to as an ideal vantage point for observing the stream, but the shelter needed walls.
Jack cut and arranged a couple more boughs and then stood back to admire his handy work. The lion would be hard-pressed to notice him buried inside the foliage. Assuming, of course, the big cat hadn’t already been watching him the entire time.
Anxious to begin the wait, Jack again nearly forgot to retrieve the water bottle still sitting by the stream. He filled the plastic container, aware that doing so left him exposed. If the lion sensed his presence, it would find another place to drink. After filtering an adequate water supply for several hours, Jack eased inside his blind. Utilizing another trick learned from his father, he opened two granola bars and set them on a nearby rock for later consumption. Opening them early prevented unnecessary sound and movement later that could give away his location at a critical moment. Jack settled into position and focused his attention through a narrow gap of pine needles, the cold dark instrument on his lap almost an afterthought.
Five hours later, Jack quietly unfolded himself from the blind. With the exception of a handful of squirrels and little brown birds, Jack had seen no signs of life. He was out of water, hungry, and his muscles felt as though they had permanently atrophied. As Jack stretched his shoulders, a familiar sensation of defeat and foolishness welled within him. He fought off a sudden urge to slink back to camp, drive home… maybe even patch things up with Pam. After all, it had been his idea to end the relationship. Surely, she would give a fool another chance.
Jack gathered his equipment and walked back to camp, barely aware he was retracing his path from the night before. Yesterday’s anxiety had been replaced by something else entirely. Jack found himself wishing the lion would attack just so he could see the damn thing for once in his life. Back at camp and lost in thought, he methodically ate a bologna sandwich, another banana, and then lay back down in the bed of his truck. This time, Jack was able to fall asleep almost as soon as his eyelids touched.
Several dreamless hours passed before Jack awoke to find the sun had marched its deliberate arc across the sky and was already threatening the western horizon. Again, the feeling of missed opportunities washed over him. The big cat had surely come and gone while he wasted time sleeping. Wondering why he even bothered, Jack gathered his gear and returned to the blind. This time, he only lasted two hours before his patience was gone and cramping muscles drove him back to camp. Knowing his window of opportunity had most likely closed, he decided to risk a fire. There wasn’t anything out there to scare off, Jack figured. He might as well finally enjoy that lasagna.
An hour later, seated next to a roaring fire, Jack washed down the last bite of salty mush with a swig of cold Corona. The empty bottles were piling around his feet and his toes felt warm for the first time all day. As he stared into the flickering orange flames, Jack felt his resolve heat up. Or, maybe it was the alcohol kicking in. In any case, he still had tomorrow. Tomorrow was another chance and not everybody had another tomorrow. The thought brought with it the memory of a photograph. A picture of him standing next to a breathing skeleton lying in a hospital bed taken just hours before the cancer claimed his father. As far as Jack knew, his dad had never backed down from anything in his entire life. Jack finished the last Corona in one powerful gulp.
“That’s right,” he shouted into the dancing shadows. Jack flinched slightly at the sudden intrusion of sound splintering the silence. His voice dropped to a steel whisper, “It’s time to show yourself, kitty.”
Back in the blind, Jack’s proclamation from the night before plays a constant repeat in his head. He feels different today, less pressure, less anxiety. The usual nagging sensations replaced with a surging sense of certainty. Jack feels as if his will alone can unfold before him any outcome he might imagine. There is no discomfort he can’t push off to some faraway place. He can do this all day if necessary. He can do this for the rest of his life. He is ready.
And yet, Jack senses his determination bouncing back at him, reflecting off some unseen surface with an opaque message hammering his mind’s shore like the relentless tide. Jack feels a tremor reverberate through his consciousness; a rusted bolt pulled aside and a creaking door kicked open. A crystalline realization spears his brain. Finding lions had never been up to Jack or how hard he tried. It had nothing to do with him at all.
And with that simple revelation, Jack realizes he is already observing his white whale. Still as a stone, the mountain lion is crouched on the muddy bank, precisely where Jack has been staring for the last two days. The magnificent cat silently laps water from the stream while two piercing golden orbs slowly shift from side to side, scrutinizing their surroundings. The color of the cougar’s thick fur is matched only by its eyes and the visible shoulder muscles bunched beneath, speak of a strength Jack can only imagine. This animal is no less a king than one of its maned cousins stalking the African plains.
Jack’s mind reels, caught between accepting the gift before him and rejecting it as a symptom of a desperate mind. Jack saw nothing of the animal’s approach, no motion, no sound, nothing. How could an animal bigger than him just appear out of nowhere?
Jack already knows the answer. For the first time in his life, he is simply looking upon their world through the proper filter. The lions have always been there, surrounding him, watching him, waiting for him to notice. All Jack ever needed to do was let go and realize the decision was out of his hands.
Operating on instinct and moving nothing but his forearms, Jack lifts the frosted piece of metal to his eye and places the crosshairs dead center over the lion’s face. The cougar’s eyes continue their back and forth crawl; the black tip of its tail twitches lightly.
“Call me Ahab,” Jack breathes as his index finger contracts.
The click is barely audible but it is enough. In the time it takes for Jack to pull the camera away from his face, the mountain lion has disappeared. Just as it had materialized moments before, the huge cat vanishes into thin air.
He looks down at the digital display fully expecting to see the lackluster image of a small stream surrounded by willow stands and the white trunks of taller aspen. But there it is in perfect focus, the one thing he had searched for his entire life. Jack is dumbstruck by the picture. The lion’s bright eyes are looking straight at him, straight through him. Somehow, in the micro-second before he took the picture, the cat had spotted him.
Jack enlarges the image and is taken back by something in the lion’s face, an expression that couldn’t be more clear on a human visage. It is the same look on his Father’s face, when as a boy, Jack had been caught stealing candy from a convenience store owned by a family friend. It is the same look on Pam’s face, just days ago, as he drove away leaving her standing alone in his garage. It is the look of incredulity, sadness, anger, defiance, and betrayal, but mostly, it is the unmistakable look of disappointment.
A devastating sense of shame grips Jack’s heart. He feels as though he has committed some premeditated sacrilege in the planet’s most sacred temple. Jack studies the small and two-dimensional countenance, the bottomless eyes trapped on display in a metal and plastic box full of wires and computer chips. This isn’t the majesty he had just been allowed to witness. This is something cold, compromised, counterfeit, and beyond all shadow of a doubt, not the treasure he had been seeking. Jack presses another button and the image is replaced by a simple question in blocky font.
“I’ve never been more sure of anything in my goddamn life,” Jack says with an erupting grin. With another click, he erases the picture from history. “Besides,” he adds, “I know how to see you now.”