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“Damn it!” Not a chance. The animal is as wet as it is slippery and Helena sees it streak out from under Fred’s jacket like a bullit from a gun just before she herself lands heavily and painfully on her shoulder as she tries not to squash the little kittens, and rolls onto her side. Fred is looking down at her from the edge on the other side of the gully.
“Well that didn’t work.”
Such insights, that man.
Helena scrambles back on her feet. “Alright, get me out of here.”
The kittens meew in her arms as they drive back to the barn. They are obviously looking for their mother and do not stop calling out for her.
“They will need feeding up by hand,” Helena says.
“Can’t survive on their own. They still need their mama.”
“Do you know someone who can take care of them?” Helena persists.
“Let nature take its course.” Fred steers the van around a large puddle in the middle of the muddy track. “That is what rangers do.”
“Maybe in the woods and fields,” Helena says calmly, “but this not part of that nature. Which is why we are taking them out of the park.” She caresses the little balls of fur gently. “Maybe Marina can take them. Or at least one of them.”
“Can’t separate them yet,” Fred grunts, “not at this age yet. Too young.”
Helena’s smile can barely be seen by the darkening evening light. They have had to leave the scene without the mama cat as light is pouring quickly out of the sky and they could no longer move around safely in the field. Since the cat will probably not leave the area for a while, still looking for her little ones, they have decided to come back in the morning. For a brief moment Helena thinks of the mother cat, alone without her little ones.
“Fred? We know it wasn’t a wolf, and we found the cat and kittens and all but… That was not it, was it?” She seeks out his eyes in the rearview mirror but he looks quickly away. “I mean, that kind of quiet would not be caused by a litter of kittens or a prowling cat. Crows will not be intimidated that easily by a cat. Hell, they might even try to get to the kittens! But I didn’t see any crows, not even at the mill.” Fred still doesn’t reply. “And what is more,” Helena continues, “I dug into the ground with my fingers and tried to drum up some worms. Checked the grass. Nothing. I didn’t even spot one beetle or snail. You would expect snails to come out after all this rain, wouldn’t you?”
She waits. The kittens continue their pleas.
Fred clears his throat. “Dug into the earth, did you?” He nods. “Good thinking.”
“In normal circumstances I would say we will make a decent ranger of you yet. But these are not normal circumstances.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have been a ranger for twenty-five years. This is not ranger territory, let me tell you that.”
“What on earth do you mean? What is it then?”
“Not ranger territory, I told you. And with that I mean that it has nothing to do with you!” His voice is suddenly harsh and edged with anger.
“What’s going on, Fred?”
But he says nothing more. The kittens continue to meew all the way to the visitor centre where I feed them heated up milk from Marina’s stock with a teaspoon. Then I take them home.
Everything looks different in the early morning light. The weather is clear and bright and the brittle edges of yesterday have softened. The gully looks positively jolly now as Helena walks towards it. Moreover, she notices that the sounds are back! Not only the soft breeze over the trees behind her can be heard but also the faint chatter of birds in the distance. She stops and checks the grass. A tiny worm wriggles away from her prodding finger. Huh. Everything back to normal? As she walks on another sound is added to the chorus: the sound of cat food rattling in its box. A bowl is in her other hand. If this girl is a house cat, it might work. “Kitty kitty! Where are you? I have your wee ones, girl! They’re at my friend’s teashop! Let me take you to them!”
Yet there is another reason why Helena has gone to look for the cat by herself before her shift in the shop. Before Fred has arrived at work. Helena feels that he would not let her go out here alone, not after yesterday. He had been particularly grumpy and quiet when they had arrived at the barn, and although he had agreed to let her feed the kittens and take them home, he had made it very clear that he would not be expecting her to join her for her internship the next day. Which is very strange because it is on her schedule, and Fred sticks to that schedule like a clockmaker. So something’s surely up. And she wants to find out what.
Plus she wants to find out what made that glint in yesterday’s light. As she was feeding the kittens again at three in the morning she had realised that it had possibly been the mother cat’s collar. Yet she did not remember anything like a collar on her later. But that would have been quite natural, considering the cat was trying to take her eyes out. Still, worth a look.
The burrow is deserted. Helena fills the bowl with a few bits of cat kibble and puts it out on the edge of the gully. She includes a few of the yeast treats that her mother’s cats used to like so much. No cat can be seen or heard. She decides to check out the old mill. There must be plenty of hiding places in there, after all.
The crows have not returned to the mill yet. That is sad, Helena thinks. It made the mill look like that old German children’s book. What was it now? From what she could remember, the protagonist was unable to leave the mill, was he not? And there was something about crows. Or ravens, maybe? All that moves as she gets closer, is something that is scurrying from the wooden structure as she approaches. It sounds like a little field mouse. One that has not fallen prey to our little homemaker just yet, probably.
The big wheel hangs uselessly into the gully. It was never profitable, this mill. She read all about it in one of the books she sells in the giftshop, about the history of the estates that make up the park these days. There was a big house up in the direction of the woods, and the mill was installed not long after the house was completed. It was never meant to be functional, really. It was just one of those weird follies that people were littering all over their estates at the time. Having a watermill on your land was just so romantic it was irresistible, and it went nicely with the orangerie and the faux roman temple on the other side of the woods. It was the contemporary version of Instagram, to be able to picture yourself in all these make-believe settings.
As it is, the mill is kept in the appropriate state now by the local heritage foundation, and by ‘appropriate state’ it means just as decorative but useless as it had always been. Maybe it has become useful as someone’s home these days?
But then, why didn’t cat mama move her kitties in there instead of an abandoned hollowed out bit of exposed gully wall? Helena frowns. Now that she thinks of it like that, it is very strange indeed.
The door is locked, naturally. Courtesy of the heritage foundation, no doubt. Helena walks around the structure and tries to see inside through the mechanics but she cannot see anything inside at all. This is useless. Then something catches her eye along the gully. The cat! It is there at the bowl, gobbling up the cat kibble like she has not had anything to eat for ages. So it must be a pet then, not a feral animal like Fred had guessed. And with a litter of kittens to take care of, and weird quiet spells around where nothing moves, it must have been very difficult to find enough food. The cat is starving. Helena shows herself to the cat, which jumps and sprints off into the field before it stops to gaze at her from a safe distance. Slowly, Helena walks to the bowl and puts a few more bits of cat kibble in. Then she calmly goes back a little way towards the mill, squats down and waits. It takes a while for the cat to overcome her trepidations but her primal urge to eat overrules her fears and she approaches the bowl again.
It is on the third way back from refilling the bowl, coming to rest a little closer every time, that Helena spies what she had been looking for. Something is gleaming in the gully wall! It was not the cat’s collar – she is not wearing one! – but there is something else in there! Damn it, that means she needs to get back in there.
She is halfway at lowering herself down when Fred’s van can be heard coming down the track. Ah, just what she needed. She has already abandoned Project Cat Capture now for the sake of checking out a weird little glint in the dirt. Now she is about to receive a telling-off from her internship supervisor, and she has not even caught the damn cat yet. Ah well, might as well check it out now. She drops lightly onto the bottom of the gully, as she had intended to do the day before, and makes her way toward the spot where she was sure to have seen… What, exactly? She looks around wildly, expecting Fred’s voice to come down on her any second now, and finally sees it. Something is sticking out of the mud! She reaches for it as she hears footsteps approaching her position. There! She’s got it! Quickly and without knowing why, she puts the item in her pocket to hide it from Fred.
tl;dr Ranger intern Helena has gone to find a cat that is hiding in the natural park, but also because she has discovered something shiny sticking out of the mud. What did she find?
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