On a hilltop before dawn, in mist and drizzle, a man was due to meet a mountain lion. The lion was slinking around the border of its range. The dirt smelled of cow dung, but the lion had little hope on that score, because it stank of people, too.

From the sky, veils of cloud slanted like leaves in a book. When the last leaf turned, sunlight would show the hills in green winter, the red-tiled roofs of campus, and the flat sheen of the bay. Meanwhile, Hoover Tower shed a fogged orange glow, and in rifts of mist, a submerged twinkling went on where researchers were still on the cusp of something. The man had been one of them. He’d been accused of working ridiculous hours, breaking with the rich casualness of the valley. But to a stranger’s eye, the book of mists would seem to be in its first chapter, without division between world and beast, or beast and human.

The man wore a soggy hoodie and jeans, and moccasins in which his flattish feet had pounded the three miles from the security gate. No one was up here – he’d counted on it, as far as he’d been able to count, untrained in desperation as he was in running. Hair dangled in his eyes. He was in a state that makes thoughts of suicide irrelevant.

The lion spotted him from the hilltop, which was fenced. It was the lion’s habit to circle the fence, smear its cheek along the posts, and hunt for rabbits and squirrels that popped out, or tried to jump inside. Inside the fence stood a gigantic object stranger than anything else in the lion’s world. Though the big cat could easily have leapt the fence, it avoided the hilltop because of the object, as well as a building that smelled of humans and attracted them.

Now the lion froze, looking down at a tree under which the man stood, puffing.

The man had run the hard trail to control the arrhythmia of his mind. In extremity he sought measure. From under a small oak, without hope, he looked up at the gigantic Dish. As he ceased panting, he heard birds. Like steam from wet wood on a fire, a few whistles rose from gauzed-over vales and erased hillsides. The sun was expected to rise soon.

The lion felt curious about the tall man under the tree; it also felt tense and playful, in the manner of cats. Its ears flattened and flicked up. It whistled: a clear, loud chirrup.

The whistle startled the man’s imagination, which produced, on the spot, without his awareness, the silver, golden, fiery bird whose myth inhabits our bones, and he was seized with desire to see the calling bird. He rarely dealt with whole animals; when he needed mice, he sent an order to the lab manager for mouse tissue that came in a box. The only animals he’d needed to know were those whose genes he repaired. Yet that loud, flashing call, so near, raised in him the winged and brilliant specter of redemption. He began walking toward the lion.

At the pace of his squelching footsteps, the wires between fence posts made deeper scratches in the mist. The man looked up to the dimension of winged creatures. Gradually he made out the Dish’s openwork, and the twin ramps, like a sphinx’s forelegs, laid on the rails of its circular track. His head fell back, the hood’s knot tightening, as he took in the massive radiotelescope, one hundred and fifty feet across, symmetrically constructed as a snowflake, tipped toward the rest of the universe. It was etched in cloud and scarcely visible; most of it was in his mind. He scanned for a bird, but there was none.

Lowering his gaze, he saw, instead, something like a white butterfly, hovering not thirty feet away near a fence post. On either side of the butterfly appeared two black spots. Then the weaving saunter of the white face, with its dark eyes – the sole gleaming things in the vaporous scene — and the separation of a creature, a large creature, from the mists; all these cues whirled into the knowledge that he faced a mountain lion, and the normally shy beast was not afraid of him.

Alone and weaponless, he saw the lion’s paws, broader than its legs, lifting and falling, but crushed his impulse to flee: two leaps would put it on his back. He raised both arms over his head and tried to shout, but fear wrung his throat.

The young man facing the lion, hands in the air, had run this far because his mind was split: one part clung to his past, the other writhed in a raw present. Now a third mind bloomed. It encompassed the undulating lion, the birds shaking off sleep, the short grim oak at his back. Then the third mind telescoped into action. He reached into his front pocket, unclipped the weight inside, and let it fly with a shocking yell. The missile crunched somewhere near the beast. The face winked out, and the creature’s tail-tip flared darkly, as the half-seen, half-suspected bulk of its body glided back along the fence and dissolved. It was no more to be seen.

He stared till his eyes fairly cracked, scared to leave, scared to move. Time passed; the young man in the desperate situation was not counting. Nothing counted. The hilltop seemed to pale. The Dish, steel lace in the clouds, turned less tricky to see. A long halloo rose from down below, Caltrain on its way to San Francisco. The man felt cold.

At last, he sidled back to the oak tree and went around it, where he couldn’t see the Dish. It felt good to piss there, by his tree, on whose bark he laid a hand as his trickle went down and joined the roots. Nothing he felt was in words yet. He walked to the dirt path beside the fence, where he remembered the lion crouching. Squatting there, he moved crabwise on his haunches a few feet in either direction. Once he looked up and saw the world pearled to the most beautiful blankness he’d ever seen. While he’d been looking in the dirt, dawn had come. The mist was milk. He could see the path bent around the hill; and at his feet, now, he found the lion’s print. It seemed filled with transparency.

Inside the paw-print, his floating fingers measured the slope dug by the heel pad. Deep in his mind the pleasant thrill awoke that he’d had as a boy, in the fossil quarry where he’d first searched like this, tallying centimeters with his fingertips. Lovingly (for a true sign evoked his love, regardless) he traced the pad’s outline, three lobes like linked u’s. That was a mountain lion. And the toes: no claw-dots, only four shapely tears. Estimating weight and size, he surveyed the path again, the chain of scuffs, and noted the distance between them. A male, formidable. He sighed. Then in the grass (at this hour, not blades of green but hemlock-colored fur) he caught the sheen of his iPhone. He cleaned it on his sweatshirt, but couldn’t read it; in the luminous softness, the screen didn’t meet its right refractive index.

Shading the phone with a hand, he knelt on one knee, and photographed the paw-print. He checked the image: perfect, proof of a mountain lion for all to see. But to whom should he send it?

At this thought, the man’s new, third mind – which had strengthened his throwing arm, fueled his furious yell, and filled him afterwards with calm – abandoned him. He was seized in the torture-cleft of his split mind again.

Anyone on the hilltop might have seen the tall figure’s fists bundle into the hoodie’s pocket. Blindly, he cast back for that third mind – painless, even blissful – that he’d had a moment ago. Oak, path, paw-print. The anguish stood off slightly. He did it again: tree, path, print. But the third mind lasted only as long as its memories; afterward, pain loomed. Sanity had no staying power. He went rigid, fists in his belly, agonizing over the path that had led from past to present, from that reality to this. It wasn’t as if he had purposely committed a crime for which he could atone. He could have lived with that. But it was dumb luck that had steered him wrong. Luck was the path between realities. As he knew, he knew — he’d always said evolution was about luck, which was fine until this hilltop encased in mist, where absolute loneliness was breathing on him. He belonged to nothing he recognized anymore. He had left the human circle, and his pain, moment by moment, felt inhuman.

In his lab was a refrigerator that he would now be opening if his real life were restored. Inside its glass door, slightly misted, on crowded shelves stood his racked test tubes, color-coded with stripes and dots of tape. In each cloudy tube grew a strain of bacteria whose genes he had synthesized. Creatures without parents, their roots in his nitrile-gloved hands. He’d always felt a calm, generous sense of power, opening the door. Every day, he set about repairing a point mutation in the human genome, using synthetic DNA. Ultraviolet light had smashed up some wildly distant human ancestor’s gene. Wham out of the void of space had come a lineage of human suffering. He had discovered the damaged gene, and a way to heal the effects of that smash-up for future generations. He had replaced dumb luck with skill, cosmic randomness with reason. He belonged in the lab. He did not deserve to be cold through and through because of what, like thunder vibrating in the ground, made his thoughts stumble.

He crouched by the path and gazed at the paw-print, in which thin shadows were swimming, and ached to send his picture. On a sunny day, he could see the lab building from here. If his life were restored, right now, he could touch Send, and he’d be hearing back from Ittai, Weimin, Pradeep, Eero at the med school, all those guys. Into his daydream rose a white-coated woman at a coffee urn. He’d never been a careless person, but the hand of luck had spilled him in her path like a mutagen. Sins could be forgiven, crimes could be punished, but what was the cure for monstrosity? Never had he imagined. He’d grown up knowing that the story of his birth was sealed in darkness. As a boy, he’d suffered the strange loneliness of it; he’d imagined finding and rescuing a lost woman from whatever had kept them apart. By now, the rift between his adult self and his animal beginnings in some unknown, long-ago belly was no more to him, and no less, than the Hadean darkness at the root of all life. Never had he imagined and he had to stop there, stop the memory of, the thought of, touching a woman.

He stopped. But the moment did not stop — the moment when he’d realized what had happened was the same moment as now. His heart kept beating into the same moment. Any action he took, even his sleep, was locked in the same moment. The moment when his beginning snaked around and latched its jaws onto his end. The wrong he’d done rolled on and on. He had no way forward that was not back. And he had no way back. He was forever in the moment when he’d accidentally committed the wrong that only a human could commit, because only a human could find himself changed into a beast.

He dug for his car keys; the damp pocket was disgraceful, as were the moccasins in which his feet coldly stewed. He imagined jogging downhill, miles in the mist, to the parking lot, to go away forever. Words twitched on his lips, and just then a bird called — a clear, loud chirrup.

This time he knew, as if he’d magically summoned it, the lion snarling on the bend of the path. Gashed throat, blood springing in the dirt, legs and arms higgedly-piggedly dragged off and gnawed: he foresaw his future. It unrolled before him as, fallen on his knees, he heard the mountain lion whistle and could not move.

Another whistle replied, less distinctly.

He heard them all around him now. With the wind from below, from the gray valley, blowing on the direction of his thoughts, he followed their calls. Common yellowthroats were calling their territories. Towhees exchanged metallic chirps between mates. Scrub jays spoiled for a fight. Robins caroled at points near and far among the hills, where in some hidden fold the lion denned down in sleep. Their singing ran in his blood. The danger past, his limbs trembled, his tears were loosened. Here, here, they called, here among them, lucky animal, he belonged to life!

He regained his feet, whispering swears at his exhaustion. He wiped his streaming eyes, wiped back his hair, and for the last time, looked up at the Dish. Now the mists, drawn toward the sky’s shining and somber cloud-wrack, wreathed around and wafted up through the radiotelescope. The sight was as stern and gorgeous as a Bible picture, a ladder for angels. It was also dear and ordinary. At this moment, he thought, the Dish might be communicating with a space probe on the edge of the solar system. He was a scientist and birds were calling. Something entered him that was not pain or the absence of pain, but a quiet, lasting wonder.

Copyright © 2019 Sharona Muir