I found myself looking earnestly for a cat. My ex and I had just broken our lease on the house we shared for four years and moved into apartments on opposite sides of the city. The divide between us was no longer bridgeable. I was distraught but relieved to be dismissed from the hard work of getting along, the long hours of heart-baring between lovers in the dead of night. My body grew soft from sourdough and self care. I kept a journal on the nightstand to track when I cried. I was averaging three times a week. Sometimes, I rolled up a faux fur coat and spooned it through the night.
The local shelters were low on options. Pets were in high demand. The cats were getting adopted instantly, the shelters said, you need to be at the door when they arrive. Once, I waited in my car outside the shelter hoping to intercept the next cat to become available. And indeed, a longhaired white cat named Duchess was brought in. She loafed in the corner of her roomy kennel, large like a turkey, avoiding eye contact with me. Her late owner, I was told, always carried her on a lacy pillow from place to place. I tried to comb Duchess's matted white fur, the part where her tongue couldn't reach, but she wouldn't have it. She clawed and bit at my wrists. When I attempted to pick her up, she secreted a foul-smelling film from her butt, leaving a yellowish streak across the sleeve of my white sweater. I took the night to think about it. The next day, Duchess was gone.
The pandemic was doing unpredictable things to supply and demand. People were being terrible. Society was falling apart. I started to plan a trip somewhere in the desert to get away from civilized life. As I was clicking through online hiking guides, I stumbled upon the website of an old bearded rockhounding expert. He'd posted photographs of his finds from different areas in the desert. My eyes lingered on the shimmering gems in his palm winking in the light. They looked beautiful. Something struck me about the fact that not everything had been plundered and taken and made unaffordable, that you could find something valuable within a big desolate landscape for yourself if you looked hard enough. I immediately purchased the same tools that the old man used in the video—a sun hat, a book on minerals and gems, a rock hammer, and a loupe.
The first thing I prospected for was trilobites. In certain places in the desert, where Cambrian rock was now exposed, you could find them. I smashed my hammer down on slabs of gray rock looking for the mark of the trilobite: an alien creature with a segmented exoskeleton the size of a pair of lips. Long ago, they dwelled at the muddy bottom of the inland sea. They used to be everywhere, as mundane as beetles. It's easy to forget that all of this land used to be underwater, but the fossils and the pearlescent shells among the sand and rocks serve as small reminders. One day, all of us will be gone.
I traveled to where certain gems were reported to be found. Bleary-eyed from the drive, I often arrived at these big sprawling landscapes not knowing where to start. My back ached from being perpetually hunched over, surveying the desert washes for something colorful loose in the sand or embedded in the rocks. My eyes scanned the seams, looking for color or shine. It was tedious work. But let me tell you, once you find that single glint emanating from a rock, you've found everything. The whole environment begins to twinkle before you like an alien landscape. The gems make themselves known. Your tedium transforms into awe. I found a great deal of things: topaz, quartz, obsidian, and labradorite.
Once I learned the gist of how to rockhound, I went on a mission to find something really special. It was about to be the year of the tiger, my zodiac year. My grandparents once told me that every twelve years, the moment your zodiac comes back around, you are very susceptible to misfortune. You have to get a red talisman of some kind to protect yourself. They shoved red inserts into their shoes, or tied a simple red string around their ankles, or wore red underwear for a whole year.
As the lunar new year approached, I made all the preparations. I decorated my apartment with red paper lanterns, put up all the window stickers, and stitched a tiger onto my pillow with red thread. My entire residence glowed red as if lit by fire. I just needed a red talisman, an object to keep close to me at all times. The more effort I put into obtaining my talisman, I reasoned, the more luck it would bring me during my zodiac year, like a multiplier effect. The object itself needed to be heavy duty and excessive. I wasn't exactly a superstitious person, but it had been a bad several years, and I needed something to help me navigate these terribly uncertain times.
I pictured a rare red gem of considerable size: a garnet as big as my fist. There was a place called Garnet Hill just a few hours drive from my apartment, past the radiant white salt flats and over the state border. Ancient volcanic activity in the area had produced the right kinds of conditions for garnets. I woke up early and set out for the hunt. The route to Garnet Hill was on a highway known as the loneliest road in America. I was the only person on the road for miles, passing nothing but snow-brushed sagebrush and an occasional road sign for a ghost town.
I was relieved to finally arrive at Garnet Hill, a mild juniper-covered rise in the landscape, where I had a task to focus on: Break open rocks, as many as it takes. Among the loose rocks, I found some garnets immediately, little red specks embedded in the rhyolite no bigger than a pen point. Hoping for something more formidable, I split open rock after rock, my hands blistering as the day went on.
In search of a satisfyingly large garnet, I made several trips to Garnet Hill. Each time, I grew sunburned from a long day's work. My back ached as I drove home in the growing dark, under a night sky shockingly bright with stars.
On my fourth try going back to the same site, I got incredibly lucky. Early in the day, when I first started searching for garnet, I kicked at a small pile of rocks in a wash and noticed that one buried rock had a dark gleaming corner. With much effort, I pried it out of the sand. It was a solid nugget of garnet, heart-shaped and hefty in my palm. I couldn't believe my eyes. Here was my lucky talisman, my magnifier of fortunes, as if I'd dreamed it into being.
On my way home, I was in a celebratory mood, so I took an exit off the highway that led to a pretty desert oasis where I stopped to have lunch. The sun was shining, and it was a balmy winter day. There was a trio of ponds, each with blue-green water and tall trees. In the largest pond, a pair of ducks glided across the smooth surface creating a slow ripple. The tall yellow grasses surrounding the water were noisy with the croaking of frogs. Birds dotted the sky. No one else was around except for a diver. I saw a red and white diving flag floating on the water, and I could hear the whirr of the breathing apparatus.
I set my stuff down by a tree and ate my sandwich quickly. As I wandered around the edge of the pond, I heard a rustling sound coming from nearby. A small cat tumbled out of the tall grass as it wrestled a snake. It was a calico. I expected it to dart off, but when this cat saw me, it lost interest in the snake and ran up to me, rubbing up against my leg, meowing like I was its owner returning from a long journey. I bent down to pet the cat and noticed that it was very thin, its fur dustless and clean.
"You're a long way from home, aren't you?" I said. I looked around for its owner, but no one was here except for the diver.
The cat lay down at my feet and showed me its belly, white and fluffy. Her teats were full of milk. She was a mother. Having once volunteered at an animal shelter, I knew that a thin cat with puffy teats must have only recently given birth. A new mother, if she trusted you, would eventually show you her kittens. The pattern on her fur looked just like a tiger's coat—orange and black, bold and out-of-place against the muted colors of the oasis. I thought of a Chinese bestiary I loved as a child, the illustrated Shan Hai Jing, full of mythological creatures that one might meet at a crossroads between the physical world and the unseen one—a snake with a human head, a fox with nine tails, a village of feathered people—each hybrid figure connected to an omen. If you stumbled upon one of those strange creatures on your travels, you were supposed to give it an offering, either to ward off suffering or to receive their gifts.
I emptied out my backpack of all my rockhounding tools searching for my stash of snacks. I found a small tuna salad packet and offered it to the cat. She lapped up the food hungrily, until every last morsel was gone. After that, she sat and groomed herself in the sunlight. Then, she fell asleep resting against my leg. I stroked the fur alongside her belly as she purred. The magnifying power of my red gem was already at work, I thought. I was determined to bring her and all the kittens home. All around the pond, there were small tunnels that went into the earth, hollows and burrows and dens dug by wary creatures that inhabited the place. I wondered where the kittens could be. I listened for a soft mewing sound, but it was impossible to hear anything over the croak of the frogs.
Suddenly, the pond started to grow murky, and waves began to lap against the bank. Something was slowly surfacing. The diver emerged wearing a black hood and an ovular face mask that looked like a cyclops eye. Skinny tentacle-like tubes ran across the diver's bulky black drysuit. Water sluiced down his body. He took off his mask. Slowly he lugged himself out of the pond. He came toward me, tall and imposing. I tightened my grasp of the cat in case she'd dart.
"Oh, what a surprise, I usually have this place to myself," the diver said. "Nobody ever comes around."
"How deep does it go?" I asked, pointing at the water.
"Bottomless, as far as I know," he said.
"I wouldn't have thought," I said.
"Oh, yeah," he said, grinning. "Like swiss cheese down below. Old sinkholes filled in with underwater springs, that sort of thing. Makes for some great exploration if you know what you're doing. It's a total death trap, otherwise. Once you get stuck in a tight crevice, it's…" He drew his finger across his neck to finish the thought.
He described his dive to me in vivid detail, the small underwater crevices he contorted his body through to explore the depths that very few people ever bothered to see. He'd even spotted a rare tiny blue fish that made his day.
"I just love it down there," he added. "It's a different hierarchy of being. The things in your nature that don't serve you well above ground are suddenly absolutely necessary. It's important to feel alive, you know. Most people aren't even alive. Cute cat, by the way."
The cat opened her eyes and blinked at the diver, unperturbed.
"Oh, she's not mine," I said. "I think she's got kittens stashed somewhere."
"I hope you find them," he said. "This is no place for cats."
The diver disappeared behind some trees to change. He came out in regular clothes a few minutes later. No longer in his diving suit, he seemed ordinary, less imposing. I watched him make his way to the parking lot.
The sun was setting, and I started putting items back into my backpack. Something caught the cat's attention and caused her to leap to attention. It was the glint of my garnet, the setting sun shining on it just so. Before I could snatch it back up, the cat slipped it into her mouth. The gem seemed to activate something in her. There was now a little red sparkle in her eyes. She began to move away from me. I followed about ten steps behind her, careful not to make any loud sounds that might startle her. I watched her shoulder blades undulate as she moved the way I imagined a tiger's would. She kept going through the grass until we arrived at what looked to be the entrance of a burrow, just big enough to fit a person. Then she disappeared inside of it. "Wait," I yelled. She'd stolen my lucky garnet.
I crouched down and peered into the burrow. I couldn't see very far into it, but I heard the faint mewing of kittens. I crawled inside on my hands and knees. Though it was dark, I could tell that it sloped gradually downward. As I slid down deeper, I reached around for something to grab onto. Whatever I touched felt surprisingly soft. Maybe moss, I thought. It was getting impossible to see, so I turned on the flashlight feature of my phone. The reflective glow of hundreds of cat eyes appeared all around me. I gasped and almost dropped my phone. The hole I was now sliding down, endless and dark, was filled with a squirming mass of kittens, a gyrating superorganism of soft fur.
Soon, I was no longer sliding but falling into the hole. It was not a straight descent. My fall was gentle and incremental, like I was in an entirely different gravity. It was the cats. They filled the hole and made room for me, parting slowly like a furry sea.
I looked up toward the light of the upper world that was diminishing into a star. My heart thudded loudly against my chest, and blood sloshed in my ears. I yelled for help, but I knew that the diver was long gone. I worried that I'd never make it back out of the hole. I took deep breaths, imagining with each that I was blowing into a great balloon. In this way, I stayed in my body and assessed my situation. There was no way out, at least not by going up. At some point, I stopped falling. The cats pressed gently against me but did not overpower me. They purred and licked themselves clean and breathed. Their collective fur smelled sweet and dusty, brushing against my cheek. I'd never been in a situation so soft before.
I turned off my flashlight and let my eyes adjust. The light emitted by the eyeglow of cats was enough to see by. They kneaded my body with their paws, the sharp tips of their claws breaking my skin like tiny acupuncture needles. I felt a flash of power in my eyes. Suddenly, I could hear a voice from among the cats entering my mind through my third eye. It was the mother cat speaking to me with powers granted by my gem. "I have heard your wish. Mother will come shortly with milk," she said. "No sudden movements, or the claws come out."
For my zodiac year (hello fellow tigers), I decided that every story I wrote would have a hint of red. This piece is a collage of my many visits to remote parts of Utah over the pandemic. Best not to reveal the exact location of the cathole.