Night consumes me—starless and black. There are no lights in the ocean, no lights in the sky, nothing to distinguish earth from water, water from air. All visual barriers have become obsolete. The horizon has vanished, leaving behind a boundless black sea, an infinite black sky. I hear the waves wrestle, feel their pulse in the ground as they crash and recede, know the ocean will greet me if I take one step more… And yet, I feel as though I could walk for miles, up into the void, higher and higher, without my feet ever leaving the sand.
My dreaming has seized my logic; my legs react as if teetering on the edge of existence. A fear of falling—of being abandoned by my surroundings, of flailing hopelessly in a world of nothing—forces me to stumble forward. Wrenching me from my anxieties and thrusting me into the reality of pain, the sensation of sharpness shoots through my leg as I recoil from a perfectly angled slice of shell. My hand finds the sole of my foot, follows the ache, feels for traces of something warm and wet. Finding nothing, I shuffle tentatively back towards civilization.
The glaring light pierces my vision as I round a corner. Shielding my eyes, it takes me a moment to make out the road I know to be sprawled out before me. After a few blinks, I make it out: a beacon of grating light and cracked asphalt. The walk home will be less perilous from here.
Past the signs that warn of swift currents, past the lumps of beach that have invaded the road, past the cattails, past the pond, I come to the complex called “Topsail Reef.” The parking lot is littered with more cats than cars. Tabbies and calicos laze in the open, comforted by the safety of dim light and late hours. They sniff at the dumpsters, weave between wheels, lick at their hides, then freeze. I see every ear raise, every eye widen; they scatter like a fist full of rocks flung at the pavement the moment they see me coming. And in less than a second, it’s as though they’d never existed.
Feral cats were not an original element of the island’s ecosystem. They were brought by people hoping to be rid of snakes and of mice, or perhaps just people who thought it’d be nice to have an outdoor cat to terrorize the gulls. Whatever the reason, they’re here now—and, they’ve multiplied. In 1995 the colonies became notable enough to warrant the foundation of Operation Topcat, a non-profit made up of Topsail residents who “trap, neuter, and return” feral cats across the beach, in hopes of severing their means of reproduction.
My twang of guilt ebbs. Had I not scared off the cats myself, they’d be fleeing now; a dog trots down the road and heads directly for me. Its demeanor is so friendly and it approaches with such pep that it takes me a moment to realize the dog is, in fact, a coyote. A surge of excitement fills my chest as I watch the native predator diminish our distance. I expect at any moment for it to dash into the bushes, or freeze while several feet back, but it keeps coming. My heart races and, before I can decide whether I’m incredibly lucky or incredibly unlucky, the coyote is at my heals, sniffing at my shoes. In that moment, magic was real. I wait for it to look up at me with glowing gold eyes, to speak in a rumbling song, to walk towards the brush with a single glance back, showing in its face that I ought to follow suit. And I would. I would follow that coyote to the ends of the earth.
Instead, what I get is, “hey! You okay?” I jump as my body swivels to meet the sound—simultaneously shrill and deep. I see a man beneath a porch light, and quickly redirect my attention to the destiny-fulfilling creature before me. But it’s already scurrying off into tightly packed bushes I could not hope to penetrate.
“Boy, sure is the biggest fox I’ve ever seen!” the man blurts.
“Oh? I thought it was a coyote.” It was a coyote.
“Nah, I should know—hunted plenty of foxes in my time.” Oh, great, Mr. White-Man, the expert, here to teach me what a great learning tool violence can be. “You need a ride somewhere?”
“Uh, no. I live just down there.” I gesture towards my house.
“Alright then, just be careful.” My eyes roll internally as I thank him and say goodnight. Luckily, despite the man’s best efforts, an essence of extraordinary still tingles in my fingertips. I turn my head skywards and see that the clouds have begun to part. Moonlight follows me all the way home.