The first one I noticed was a cat.
Actually, I’m not sure what the first one was; but the first one I knew for what it was was a cat.
See, any animal in the wild will startle and then stare at you. They suss out the danger, watch you for movement, decide whether to run or fight. But not these things. Not this cat. They stare through you, like you wandered into a place you’re not meant to be, seen things not meant to be seen. They stare at you like they’re waiting on the word from some master you can’t see for permission to tear you apart.
You might think that suburbia is a totally tame place to go running for exercise, but any place can seem alien at four AM, especially a place where civilization and vast stretches of untamed land butt up against each other. (I run at four AM because I have to — it’s the only time of day that really belongs to me. The kids and wife are asleep, work is still a long way away. It’s quiet, peaceful, calm. Perfect for running. And despite living in the suburbs, the regular route snakes right out of the neighborhood and onto a road that carves through a forest, dipping and winding through trees and growth that feel old, the way only an old forest can feel old. Like if you stepped off the road and wandered fifty yards into the trees, you might find yourself lost for days.
It’s not quite like that, but at four AM it definitely feels like that.
Wildlife is common at this hour. There’s the neighbors’ cats that stare, golden eyed and still from front porches and from under bushes. Sleepy dogs out in their pens that come to and give chase along the edge of their fences. The occasional stray that pursues for a while, but gives up rather than follow too far. Then, across that imaginary border between civilization and the woods, things get a little more exotic. Squirrels and rabbits everywhere, poking their heads up for an instant then bolting for cover. Coyotes aren’t unheard of; I never see them up close but have glimpsed them at a distance. Unlike dogs, who will head right for a person, a coyote will see you from afar and melt into the trees before you can even tell what it is.
Then there are the deer. There’s something magical about deer at four in the morning, gliding like shadows across fields or through the trees, sometimes alone, more often in herds whose size is only grasped when they all suddenly explode into movement together. But these, too, just startle and run.
But like I said, the first one I saw — the first one I knew — was a cat. It came into view at the top of a hill as a flurry of movement, hard to identify but clearly animal. Then it froze. But not the freeze of the spooked animal; this was that other freeze. It halted mid-stride and didn’t move again, didn’t take eyes off me, until I rounded the next bend and it disappeared behind me. I kept my eye on it the way you keep an eye on the potentially dangerous person talking out loud to nobody in particular on the city street — you don’t think it’s out to harm you, but you can’t be too careful.
Then, there were the rabbits. A whole crew of them, about six or seven, in a clearing in the trees, just staring. A lone rabbit will freeze, hoping to avoid notice, but a group of them will always break and run: when one goes, they all go. Not this group. Being watched by them felt like being watched by people: people who didn’t want you in their area, people who wanted you to leave.
Then I started noticing the deer. Normally you glimpse them at a distance and they ghost away, but they started appearing in more and more obtrusive places. Closer than usual, too. They started showing up in the middle of the road sometimes, or right at the edge of the trees, just off the road. And they didn’t spook, either, not until I’d get almost close enough to reach out and touch them. Their heads just swiveled as I’d plod past. Watching.
Until finally, this morning, the latest. This was in that really dark stretch, trees creeping close at both sides of the road, thin hazy fog blocking out the starlight. Troublingly dark. One of those real man-goes-missing-on-his-early-morning-run-in-the-woods kind of moments. And there it was — a shadow coming out of the fog. Not aggressively or curiously, but steadily and inevitably. At first, it seemed to be a dog, but as it grew closer, it was obviously too big. A deer? Maybe, but it was too heavy set, too plodding.
A few more steps, and it was undeniable. A human. Or at least a human shape. In the dark, it was more like a human-sized hole in the night.
I froze, my heart pounding. There was no discernible face, no discernible features. I couldn’t tell you how tall it was, but I could tell it was staring at me as it came nearer, as it passed just on the other side of the road. I tried to call out, weakly, some sort of greeting, but the voice died in my throat. You don’t really feel fear like that as an adult in this world, but I felt it then, and I found myself the frozen animal, spooked and startled, ready to bolt. It glided past, and it was gone; not gone like it retreated into the mist and out of sight, but gone like the mist had swallowed it up or spirited it away. Either way, it was gone, and I ran home in uneasy silence.
I don’t know who that person was, but I hope I don’t see them out there again.
It’s actually funny; as I’m writing all this out, there are deer gathering in the yard, just staring at the house.
I wonder what that’s about.