This story was written for Jenna, an indigenous child, my friend’s niece, who killed herself at age 14.
We’ve already met Runt Rabbit in previous stories from Bangan Forest- one is here. Jag becomes separated from her father in another story- Lynx in Pinks- that is yet to be published.
You might think that Runt Rabbit had no skills at all. After all, he was uneducated and undersized. His faded tan coat was oversized, his feet were oddly large, and he had a twitchy brain. He’d left the den at an early age, and it was his poor fortune to settle in Town where there was no work for the likes of him.
You might think that Runt had no skills at all, but he had street smarts. He’d been homeless for a while before he found a way to squeeze under Bunny’s fence. Now he had a hut to sleep in and a soft female to snuggle and cuddle. She was an addict though, and she tolerated Runt only because he provided her with sugar.
Bunny thought it must be difficult to find sugar because it took Runt all day, every day. In fact, he didn’t work very hard. He’d go downtown and hang with his friends, at some point grabbing a coffee and swiping some sugar packets for Bunny. He usually didn’t return to the hut until suppertime- Bunny was on the bossy side.
Runt Rabbit was an easy-going guy. He hung out behind the grocery store where two dumpsters served the entire strip mall. The food sucked: pizza crusts, hard slices of white bread, scraps of meat that no one but Crow wanted. Runt remembered clover and nettle galore in Main Meadow where he was from. He’d never developed a taste for human factory food.
This morning, the earliest morning of the year, he was sitting on a curb in the parking lot with his friend, Jag, eating some leftover Thai noodles from a box. Jag had scored an actual leftover breakfast- some homefries and egg yolk in Styrofoam with a lick of that bacon grease she liked. As usual, they were talking a blue streak.
Probably I should tell you right off the bat that Jag was not a jaguar. She was a beige cougar in a stretchy black skirt with jeggings and purple nail polish on her claws. Being a cougar, she had no business living in Town. Humans were terrified of cougars and now that she was getting too large to pass for an alley cat, Jag had to spend more and more of her time in hiding. She was constantly in danger.
Like Runt, she had come to Town as a youngster. Unlike Runt, it wasn’t her choice. She’d become separated from her father in Bangan Forest, and she had gotten lost.
“They don’t celebrate Solstice here,” said Runt, watching Dawn and Sky toss oranges back and forth.
“Solstice is special in Bangan Forest. Floral bells are ringing today. Nature Spirits are gathering at Oaky Dokey’s place; fairies are wearing new summer dresses.”
“I remember,” said Jag.
“Gnomes are probably in the sauce already.”
She smiled. “Flutterbys are losing their minds.”
“Sun and Stream are making love all day long.”
“My sisters and I used to swim with River when it was hot like this,” said Jag.
Runt nodded. “No pavement there. Just clover and moss.”
“I would like to be home by Winter Solstice.” Jag’s voice was wistful, as if she didn’t believe her own self.
“If leaving Bunny was an option, I’d already be home,” said Runt.
“I’m not 100% sure where my home is.”
“Oh, I think you’ll be able to find it,” said Runt. “You’re bigger now. I mean, you don’t fear Fox and Hawk like I do. You could just run Forest’s paths- you’re a cougar, probably only take you a few days. Ask a squirrel- they know everything.”
“No, I mean that my father might not be in Bangan Forest now. His first home was on Bangan Mountain where cougars have been for a few generations. Before that, all cougars had to go to West Grasslands. But my family’s true home, the home that cougar blood knows, is South Grasslands, many days journey from here. My ancestors lived there since beginning times.” Jag bounced one leg as she talked. “My father spoke of returning to South Grasslands. He called it home.”
“Oh. Why did your family keep moving? Are they nomads?”
“No, they didn’t want to leave their territory. Humans came and took our land.”
Runt nodded. “Deer told me a story like that. They all had to move. She said a clan called Dragon was wiped out!”
Jag rubbed her forehead with her front paws.
“What about your mother?”
“Ummm, well… us girls lived with my mother sometimes. It’s complicated.” Jag turned her face away from Runt. When she spoke again, her voice broke, “I miss my dad.”
“Don’t cry, Jaggy.” He jumped up and hugged her neck.
“I don’t belong here.”
“None of us belong here.” He climbed around to the back of her neck. “Let’s go for a walk.”
It was still early morning, most humans were still in their houses, so they left the parking lot and headed right down the sidewalk, scattering rats as they went.
Jag stopped at a small square and they watched some pigeons fight over scraps of human food. Seagull zoomed in and chased the pigeons around. She grabbed a shiny hamburger wrapper right out of another bird’s foot.
“What a bully,” said Runt into Jag’s ear.
“Everyone’s gotta eat,” said Jag.
At the Voyageur Bus Station, they watched an early arrival unload its passengers: sleepy students, a pair of beaver builders, a few businessmen, some mice, a couple of snakes, then – lo and behold – a kangaroo.
Town had a few immigrants, most of them kangaroos, a few swans and of course, the monkeys, try as humans might to get rid of them. No one minded kangaroos though, and Jag and Runt welcomed her. She said her name was Karen and she used a hard hoof to give them high-fives.
Karen had contraband with her, but what Boundary Bear was going to check her deep baby pocket? It was too intimate, too smelly. She’d never been caught smuggling her macaroon treats, and she made a reasonable living at it.
One set of ears stuck out of her baby pocket. When Jag tried to meet Karen’s baby, she found it was fake- just a hairband with kangaroo ears and a tape playing: Mama, where’s my other sock? Mama, can I go surfing?
Karen gave them each a macaroon.
It was magic in Jag’s mouth. Runt saved his for Bunny.
After leaving Karen at Kangaroo Kuts, Jag and Runt took alleys and parking lots until they got to the employee’s entrance at the Lord Elgin Hotel. It was a spiffy joint, but they’d been here before, just to take advantage of the air conditioning and use a clean bathroom.
Jag hung around the dumpster, due to being a cougar and all; she stayed just out of sight while Runt waited for opportunities by the employee entrance. Runt wasn’t much bigger than a mouse, barely a rabbit at all, really, and he was invisible to Bellboy when he stepped out for a smoke. Runt darted past Bellboy’s feet and once inside, he placed a chunk of newspaper in the crook of the door.
Runt hid under a corner of the carpet until Bellboy finished his smoke, picked his nose a bit and then went back to work. As he walked away, the door closing behind him did not shut completely and so Jag nosed her way right in.
After that, they did their usual stuff: picked a room, watched a movie, ordered room service- piles of chicken nuggets for Jag, garden salad for Runt and 2 chocolate eclairs to take home for Bunny. It was super-easy to get anything they wanted- they just provided the room number over the phone and said, “Put it on my bill, please.” When the food arrived, they hid in the bathroom and yelled, “Thanks! Just leave it on the table.”
It was nice to cool down after the heat of the street. Jag loved to get a shower in, shaking and spraying water all over the room. Runt always got into the free coffee and went home smelling like a roastery.
Summer Solstice in Town was sweltering and so, Runt and Jag spent most of the day in their air-conditioned room. When they finally left, they carried the coolness with them for a few blocks. It was suppertime by then. They heard Cubby Bear before they rounded the corner. Runt twitched like crazy, and hopped big excited hops.
He grinned at them with one side of his mouth. He was playing his saxophone. He’d drawn a fair-sized crowd and some coins bounced into his green felt hat on the ground in front of him.
It was fabulous music, the blues that Runt loved, the blues that swelled Jag’s aching heart. They danced on the edge of the crowd, their limbs moving in the bluesy heat, their hearts beating the bluesy beat and for some time, as they danced in the thick soupy heat of the longest day of the year, all was well: Jag was a beautiful female cougar with a bright future, Runt Rabbit was a cool and capable dude.
It was Winter Solstice when Runt got the news. He’d been slow getting up… feeling lazy, sleeping in dark mornings for weeks. It was 7 o’clock before he reached for his splotchy tan overcoat, shouted “Baa maa pii” to Bunny and headed out the door to find food, coffee and sugar.
He stopped in the doorway of the hut to catch Winter Dawn in her pale pink jammies. That’s where he was- he’ll never forget- when Crow cruised by.
“The cougar is dead. The cougar has died,” Crow screamed overhead.
“What cougar? Jag?”
“She took her life. It was her will.”
“No! Not Jag!”
Runt hopped so fast that he somersaulted and then rolled downhill all the way to the grocery store. The parking lot was full of crying raccoons and mice and kangaroos. Squirrels scolded at the top of their voices. Moles and rabbits sobbed. Blue jays shrieked and cardinals sang. Morning doves mourned. It was intense.
Runt hid behind bags of firewood for sale. He pulled his long ears over his eyes. He rocked on his haunches. “Jaggy.”
Crows flew all over Town. “Cancelled! Solstice is cancelled!”
Humans had already canceled Christmas, but that was because of their pandemic. Humans didn’t know Jag. They didn’t know the cougar who had walked in their backyards, swum in their pools and licked food off their babies’ faces. But Jag had friends who knew her well. Her friends knew a sweet young cougar who danced behind dumpsters, headphones on her ears, purple nail polish on her claws. They knew a girl who had lost her home, a child who missed her dad.
“Her name was Jag!” screamed Crow.
“Her name was Jag!”
“Her name was Jag!”
And so it came to pass that there was no light and nothing to celebrate in December, 2020.
(C) Laurie Fraser
Very special, Laurie, thank you for this one.
Did you know her? Why did she do that- I mean the person, Jenna, not Jag.
I didn’t know her personally. She was distraught over a similar situation to Jag’s. Beautiful young woman, terrible loss for her family and community.