Pandora by Dave Gregory

Growing up on a farm put me in touch with nature. When I was six, we had a gray and white cat named Pandora and I understood her every sound and gesture. I could read her eyes and expressions.

One sunny day, while I chased grasshoppers, she climbed a wooden fence and begged for my attention. I turned and walked toward her until I could see her pale green eyes, pupils narrowed to thin, vertical slits. I thought she wanted her chin scratched but she jumped down and ran toward the barn. Every few seconds, she stopped and looked back to ensure I followed.

A feed silo sat next to the chicken barn. When I caught up to Pandora, she sat in its shade, in the grass near the cornfield, licking her paws the same way anyone who’d done something they were proud of might curl their fingers and blow on their fingernails.

Wind rustled silk tassels atop corn stalks. I looked up at the silo, then peered into the dark barn. Nothing seemed unusual. “What is it, Pandora?”

She answered by looking past her right shoulder, then to a spot in front of her, then left, then all the way behind, covering the four cardinal directions.

Something gray with a red stripe wiggled in the grass behind her. It was the wrong color for a leaf and too small to be a kitten.

I stepped closer. The cat turned and stared at my feet. Between my shoes was a severed mouse’s head with silvery ears, white whiskers, and vacant black staring eyes. The finger-length body rested beside it, facing the opposite way, with a dark red circle where the head used to be, all four tiny feet curled above it in classic dead-mouse pose.

I jumped clear of the decapitated rodent and realized the gray and red-striped thing was another mouse, still in one piece but wounded and bleeding.

Pandora meowed, reminding me she’d pointed out four bodies. Sure enough, two more mutilated corpses formed a ring around her. The third had all its legs chewed off, while the last mouse was still moving – not writhing but on its side, twitching, as though every few seconds it remembered another horrific dream.

The carnage sickened me and made me want to stamp my feet and chase the cat away but I understood Pandora acted according to her nature. Her purpose was mouse control; she was proud of her achievement. Punishing her would have subverted the natural order.

So, I knelt to pet her and said, “Good girl, Pandora. Nice kitty.”

She soaked it up. With every pat on her head, she grew taller and slashed her tail joyfully from side to side. She purred and pointed her nose slightly left, then right, nodding to an audience of corn stalks who stood in awe of her mouse-catching skills.

#

Shift to the present day and I’m a police constable in a midsized Canadian city. Bicycle unit. Shorts, cycling helmet, club, vest, gun, and two sets of handcuffs. The second pair is for locking the bicycle.

It’s cloudy and humid, damp clothing sticks to my skin. Our assignment is escorting a permit-carrying protest group from city hall to Shepherd’s Park, where they’ll lay a wreath at the Firefighter Memorial, whose central monument contains a steel shard recovered from the wreckage of the twin towers after 9/11. On any other day it would be a ten-minute walk.

Five hundred right wing, anti-immigration marchers are expected but I count forty-three. Cluttered near the fountain, they carry vague, non-confrontational signs advocating free speech, protecting children, and making the country safer. On the surface, it’s hard to believe anyone would object.

Then I spot Peter Baumann, a bully I avoided in high school. He’s in the center of the crowd, heavier now, bald head, furry arms, and long gray beard, looking more intimidating than ever with his “You Will Not Replace Us” placard.

Thirty years ago, there was one black girl at our school. Peter called her ugly and puckered his lower lip every time they crossed paths. He tormented the Vietnamese twins who refused to stand up for themselves even though they were two years older than Peter. He couldn’t walk down the hall without headbutting the Sri Lankan who later gave the valedictory address at our graduation. 

Across the street, without a permit, is a fervent counter-protest. From a security standpoint, the immigration supporters are a nuisance, outnumbering protesters almost ten to one. Except for the participation rate and slogans on their banners, the two groups look identical: both chant, are dressed mostly in black, and hide their faces to prevent shaming on social media.

At the scheduled start time, air horns compete with caterwauling voices on megaphones. Two dozen cops are on duty with me. Using our bikes, we form a barricade in the middle of King Street, separating the two factions – one wants to march, the other wants the rally stopped.

As the smaller group shuffles along the sidewalk, my co-workers and I form a v-shaped perimeter. The protesters move into our protective enclosure. We become a wedge, dividing a sea of screeching, jostling left-wing activists.

I push forward, firm and resolute. It’s my job to counter anger and defiance with composure. I also uphold the law by protecting the rights of the organization holding a valid permit.

Insults fly. Threats of violence are heard. My colleagues bark warnings, even though the people we push against advocate tolerance, denounce hate, and wave signs of welcome and equality. They walk backward and stumble over each other while focusing on their hand-held devices as they record everything. Scuffles ensue as some dash around our security cordon. Signs get knocked down and stomped on, perpetrators are chased. Whenever anybody trips they scream at us to arrest someone.

A fight starts far behind me, at the fringe of our tense parade. Two men in jeans and black coats clutch and claw each other with one hand and punch with the other. The crowd shouts encouragement. Before violence escalates, both combatants are handcuffed and taken to a waiting police van. Stripped of signs and logos, I don’t know which side they’re on. I doubt the arresting officers are aware either. Peace and order are all that matter.

After two and a half blocks, we make the left turn from King onto Queen, which is narrower, and the throng tightens, slowing our progress. The demonstrators lag as the squeeze intensifies hostility. Our v-formation folds into two rows, stretching clear across the street, from building to building. I’m in the front row and feel the counter-protesters’ determination to stand firm. I taste their sour breath and smell rancid armpits.

One hour into the march, we’re still not halfway. Everyone is sweating. Raindrops fall but not enough to cool us or send people searching for shelter.

Peter Baumann and company linger behind, so my colleagues and I take the brunt of the vitriol, as though we’re the problem. “How can you defend fascism,” rally opponents scream, “and why do you let neo-Nazis spread hate?” I’m not allowed to speak my mind ­– I have no opinions anyway – my job is to keep order.

Our only way forward is to push, using bikes as awkward shields. My club and gun weigh heavily on my belt, though I’ve no intention of reaching for either.

One curly-haired kid with a red bandana over his mouth and nose, puts both paws on the handlebars of my bike. He braces himself. I could easily bowl him over but several of his buddies join in, shouting that they are the resistance. Other police bikes are grabbed until the entire front row of constables is blocked by a solid wall of defiant flesh and bone.

Ahead, roars of “We Shall Overcome” compete against air horn blasts; at my back, lights flash and sirens wail as reinforcements approach. Police cruisers will become tanks and our bicycle unit will shift to a supporting role.

Unaware of what’s coming, the pro-immigration community gains confidence and pushes our barricade. I shift one leg back to better leverage my weight against the crowd. The bandana rises slightly against the kid’s cheeks, creases deepen around his eyes, likely caused by a maniacal smile beneath the red fabric. He tastes victory in my tiny retreat.

To avoid the hatred in his eyes, I look above him. A few rows back, a blonde kid with a rainbow scarf waves a placard in a wide arc. It reads “Stop Hate” and borrows a bold black and white image from an old graphic novel that depicts Hitler’s “final solution” as a struggle between cats and mice. On the poster, the face of a long-whiskered feline, with the pasted hair and toothbrush mustache of the führer, is superimposed on a swastika.

The sign brings Pandora to mind, sitting on a grassy lawn, licking her paw, surrounded by a ring of butchered field mice. The farm cat’s primal instinct stands in sharp contrast to the complicated motives of everyone at the rally – those in front promote social justice by impeding my every step; those cowering far behind me advocate hate and intolerance. I’ve no idea whom to congratulate for acting in accordance with nature and whom to incarcerate for subverting the world order.

I pray for heavier rain.

 Dave Gregory is a Canadian writer, a retired sailor, and an associate editor with the Los Angeles-based Exposition Review. His work has most recently appeared in MORIA, Reckon Review, & FreeFall. Please follow him on Twitter @CourtlandAvenue.

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