Hugo and the Lynx
by Jo-Ann Bekker

Hugo visited an Oudtshoorn wildlife ranch and spoke to the owner. He wanted a lynx. Not all men would be suited to keeping a lynx, but Hugo was tall with strong shoulders. He had thick eyebrows and size twelve feet.

Hugo had twenty-twenty vision. Once in the Karoo he saw a leopard. We were having sundowners in a Gamkaberg camp when we heard a snort of alarm. Hugo stared at the cliff. Klipspringer, he said. I got up to fetch the binoculars. By the time I returned it was too late. The buck was gone. Hugo said it had moved so fast it seemed to be flying, or falling. The pursuing animal was almost vertical. Baboon, I guessed. But Hugo shook his head. Its tail had been the length of its body: a leopard.

The leopard was Hugo’s favourite animal but he knew he couldn’t keep one as a pet. That’s where the lynx came in. A lynx would be almost as good. A lynx would be a more manageable size, as big as some dogs. A few weeks later the wildlife ranch rang. A caracal cub was available. A few hundred rand for five kilograms of tawny fur with black tufty ears, eyes outlined with kohl and sharp white teeth.

Like the lynx, Hugo was solitary. He was a loner. He spent hours out fishing on the Knysna lagoon by himself. He waited until the grunters were tailing in a shallow spot, then he grabbed his little yellow boat and rowed off. He returned with supper and an empty beer bottle. It was always a bottle, never a can because it’s wasn’t as easy to piss into a can.

One night he hooked a large stingray. He was drinking a bottle of Calitzdorp Port that time, floating near Land’s End, when the ray took his bait. At first he thought he had hooked a kob, but there was a strange splash, an upwelling of water. A few minutes later he realised the boat was being pulled out towards the open sea in slow steady loops. Hugo looked down and saw the edge of the stingray’s wing-flaps outlined in phosphorescence as it swam underneath him. It was as wide as the boat. The ray worked its way free at the Heads. Hugo returned home wide eyed. The next day he used a jigsaw to cut a piece of hardboard into the shape of a stingray. He painted a miniature fisherman in a rowing boat on the edge of its body.

Hugo was an artist. Soon after we got together he made a mobile with tiny tilapia he’d found on the banks of Hartbeespoort Dam. He dried them and sprayed them with silver paint. He didn’t ask if I liked the mobile. He arrived at the newspaper and put it up above my desk. The vegetarian sub editor wrinkled her nose. After a few summer thunderstorms the fish swelled. When they started to stink I took the mobile down. I wrapped it in a plastic bag and stowed it in my desk drawer.

Hugo didn’t go out fishing the night after the wildlife ranch phoned. We sat on the deck. The moon was bright. The lagoon lapped like bathwater. Hugo was happy. He spoke quietly about how he would take the lynx for walks around Leisure Isle at night when the tide was low. It would follow him everywhere and sleep on the kitchen porch or under the taaibos near the rowing boat. It had been born in captivity so was accustomed to humans. He would give it a bottle and raw meat as it grew older. He made it sound a bit like a dog. But lynx were different, Hugo said. Their droppings were grey and turned white in the sun. They were opportunistic hunters. They ate domestic cats.

I stared at Hugo. We had a cat called Sugar. I got him in Johannesburg. Hugo’s cousin phoned me one day and said she had found a stray tabby kitten with a squirrel tail. Sugar hid under my bed for days but grew into the friendliest cat. When I moved to Knysna I brought him with me. He never liked living on Leisure Isle half as much as Yeoville. The lagoon startled him and the coastal sun burnt cancerous growths into his pink nose and white face.

Hugo and Sugar never really hit it off. Hugo liked kissing cats. He said their fur smelt like musk and wild sage. He would get down on all fours and fight with them. He’d let them catch on to his arm and drag them across the floor or shake them playfully until they sank their claws into his flesh. He was always surprised when he saw the blood. His favourite sparring partner was our friend’s cat Yagar who scratched his face more than once. Sugar didn’t meet these needs. He didn’t like rough games, and Hugo said he was too fluffy to kiss.

After Hugo cancelled his order for the caracal cub, he avoided our cat, as if Sugar was somehow to blame for being lynx food. He spent more time alone on the lagoon. He rowed back long after I had fallen asleep.

A few weeks later Hugo arrived home with a furry ball. He pointed out the stripes, spots and russet tint to the backs of the ears typical of the African wild cat. He called him Blaasop, though he looked nothing like a puffer fish to me. As soon as he’d grown a bit Hugo dipped Blaasop’s feet into shallow pools at low tide to acclimate him to salt water. They’d go for walks at night and Blaasop would return with wet legs and burs matted into his coat.

Sugar took to Blaasop from the start, they groomed each other and sat on twin gateposts as regal as any lions. Sugar never joined in when Blaasop wrestled with Hugo. He would wait on the upturned boat when they disappeared on their nightly strolls.

Sugar was sitting on the boat one afternoon when two Jack Russells attacked him. Hugo and Blaasop arrived too late to intervene. Hugo never forgot the look of terror on the cat’s face. Blaasop was next. Hugo couldn’t speak after he found him under a Milkwood tree, perfectly intact except for a hole bored into his belly. The evidence pointed to a genet.

Hugo vowed no more cats. We moved to the other side of the estuary, further away from the ocean and closer to the river. The vow didn’t last. Our next two tabbies, both from Animal Welfare, died in quick succession: Jessie got fat and died on our bed. Crunchie was hit by a car.

I reminded Hugo, no more cats but he went back to Animal Welfare and returned with Doolie, the offspring of a pedigree Siamese mother and a roving tom, a silky silver tabby, a beauty with an ugly voice. As a kitten Doolie leapt out of an upstairs window to chase a bird and landed easily. He stalked a hadeda five times his size. Being neutered only seemed to increase his hunting lust. He ate everything he could find, bells around the neck were no deterrent. Doolie caught grasshoppers, lizards, striped mice, shrews, dormice and rats. He brought the rats inside. He carried pigeons into the lounge and tormented them until the carpet was strewn with feathers. He killed and ate robins, drongos, doves and sunbirds. Hugo tied a dead sunbird around Doolie’s neck to no effect. He prised open the cat’s jaws and freed an olive thrush, waxbills, weavers and canaries. When Doolie killed a buff-spotted flufftail Hugo threw the cat into the frog pond. But Doolie had no concept of cause and effect. We bought more bells.

Doolie made us do strange things. Hugo went on an animal communication course. He learnt that you couldn’t use words to tell animals what to do. You had to send them images. Everyone had to bring a photograph of a problem pet to the course, look deep into its pixilated eyes and send it pictures. Hugo tried to send Doolie an image of himself in the garden. In the image Hugo was standing very still, his head, shoulders and outstretched arms were covered with sunbirds.

Deep down Hugo believed Doolie was karma. He had been sent to teach Hugo a lesson. To punish him for all the white-eyes, doves and rock pigeons Hugo had shot with pellet guns. All the guinea fowl he had killed with shot guns. Hugo started releasing the fish he caught. He stopped fishing.

Doolie’s appetite for killing, however, only increased. He often disappeared for whole nights on hunting expeditions. We had become accustomed to these absences but when he didn’t return after two days we became concerned. We looked in cupboards. We made “Have you seen our cat” signs. We walked all the cat paths we knew, crawled under bushes, interrogated our neighbours. Hugo sent Doolie images. We phoned vets and Animal Welfare.

I emailed a cat psychic who asked for a photograph of Doolie and a bank deposit. She told me Doolie was fine. He was having fun with a black cat. He had just caught a mouse and was going to have a nap. He wasn’t ready to come home yet. I wrote back and said, tell him we miss him. Tell him I’ll open a tin of tuna when he returns.

Next she wrote that Doolie wanted to come home but he was injured. He was staying in a tiny house with people who gave him love. He was sleeping in the arms of a young girl. Hugo was watching the news one night when, behind the man being interviewed, he saw a little girl holding a silver tabby. Hugo said the cat looked right at him.

We kept going over and over our last night with Doolie. Hugo said it was while he was brushing his teeth that he heard a strangled screech. He went out onto the upstairs deck and looked out over the dark garden. But all he could hear were the frogs.

People came to us with their stories and theories. We lived three streets below a tree-covered hill that stretched to the sea and bordered on a nature reserve. Our neighbours listed the cats that had vanished in our suburb that year. There were seven or more, here one day then not. Some blamed owls, others eagles, but Hugo knew who the predator was. Walking in the fynbos bordering the plantation he had stopped to pick up a discarded beer bottle. That’s when he saw the white segmented droppings matted with grey fur.

Jo-Ann Bekker is a South African writer. After reporting on apartheid human rights abuses for newspapers in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Holland and the USA (St Petersburg Times, Florida) she moved to Knysna, a town on the Western Cape’s Garden Route, with her husband. They have two sons and one cat. She is a student on the MA in Creative Writing programme at Rhodes University.

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