Here’s an example of writing going on too far past the real end of a novel. This short, previously final, chapter was cut from the end of The River’s Memory as it should have been—thank goodness for good editors—but still, my affection for this fierce and tragic cat lives on. I’m including the chapter here for you and for me.
The Last Cat
Lakes of fresh water collect into underground caverns and float in the rocky layers above the underlying well of ocean. Above, on the surface, the dry soil is sand mixed with the fossils of ancient shells from yet another ocean that once covered the land. The drinkable water waits the long wait for the whole earth to change again. Rocks shift. Pressure builds.
She leaves a paw pressed into the human’s belly and waits for it to become still. The saber-toothed cat is the last of her kind. She doesn’t know this, or even that she would have once been the member of a pride, would have brought down a mammoth with a ripping wound to its belly, would have roared her success across the prairie. She knows none of this, but all her life she has searched. The cat lowers herself to the body with a slow carefulness. The impact of a thousand leaps that slammed her into running prey has fused her spine and neck. Her remaining tusk rips at the bindings over the body. Her mouth fills with the sun-spoiled skin of deer, pieces of wolf fur, and sharp stones. She spits them away. She paws at a thigh and a gourd tilts and water spills out. She laps at the streams running down the body, following them until they sink into the ground and sand coats her tongue. The still warm skin is laid bare with a final slash of her teeth. She starts at the belly.
The prairies have diminished. The forests fill in at their edges. The mammoths, mastodons, and camels have disappeared. The world changes. The cat, in her youth, hunted only fox, sheep, bison, and sometimes jaguars, but her body holds the memory of the past. Each shearing bite through a throat has always been strong enough to have killed animals whose movements used to shake the earth. The cat has searched through the prairies for her own kind. She only ever had a sister and a mother, and one afternoon the mother didn’t wake from their rest in a soft matting of grasses. The cat and her sister lingered, lying fur to fur with each other and the mother. When she stiffened and cooled and ants crawled over her eyes, they left her to the carrion birds who always followed to pick through the leavings of their hunt.
Together, she and her sister grew into and around the mass of their bones. Smaller than a lion, they weighed twice as much. Together, they waited in the tall grass for stragglers and learned how to hide the remains for the next day. They searched for water in the rare lakes and spring rivers that more and more often stank of humans and their fires. Often they had only the blood of small animals to drink. Her sister was the smaller of them and the bolder. One day she braved the human fires to reach water. The wind had carried the smell of her blood.
Once the cat came across the scent of her kind’s urine, but different, sour. She followed the old male’s path across every prairie and through long runs of trees and their unaccustomed shadows. (He had already died. The hunters that had set a fire to flush bison watched the old male take shape and form through the smoke. He felled and gutted one of them before they knew it was more than a vision.) She searched all the way to the dunes and put her face into salt water that attacked her in furls and leaps, covered her face with grit, and stung her eyes. She drank her belly full and almost died. When she recovered, she retreated to her prairies and has never smelled her kind again.
Days ago, days after her last meal, the cat had followed the smell of carrion birds. Cataracts damage the cat’s vision, but she knows their scent will lead her to food. They no longer find it worthwhile to follow her. Their wings open wider than she is long, but even with a gait stiff from arthritis, she can scatter them with her presence. This time they left behind a long dead opossum. She’d eaten it. Since then, she’d lain in the shade of bushes, moving only to urinate and to drink from an ephemeral pond left by the last rain. That rain had woken the spadefoot toads hidden in the dried mud. In a breeding frenzy, the thousands of them jumped over the cat’s snout and tusk as she spread her legs to reach down to the water. The cat snorted and shook and stabbed at them with her claws and knew better, knew their skins would burn her mouth, but the few she caught she ate. Each day the water sunk back into the earth. The day came when she could no longer hear the toads and knew this meant the water was gone. She didn’t bother to stand. She shifted her head enough to keep the palmetto fronds away from her eyes and fell back into a deep quiet.
Then the wind woke her out of a long sleep of increasing hunger and thirst. It made trails through her fur and twitched her ears. The cat stood to face it. It told her to come. Her weight, bobbed tail, and short legs had never made running easy, but today, the best she could, she ran. She ran towards the far away smell of fire and broken stones. Her legs stumbling as she passed through trees with their downed branches and undergrowth of thorned bushes. She found water at the surface and drank and drank. With her inflated stomach pushed out to the side, she napped. She woke and ran more, and, at this last prairie, she smelled the human, one human. The wind told the cat that it belonged to her.
She hadn’t raced to a kill in a long time, since before her mother had taught her ambush and stealth, but today she was like a young animal eager to feel spent by its own efforts. The cat crossed the last prairie in one long stretch of strength and muscle. Her prey waited in the smear of trees on the horizon. Under the first branches, the cat stopped. Her legs quivered, and she lowered her head to gulp air into lungs that labored to soothe a worn heart. When it was possible again, the cat raised her head. The smell of live flesh hovered above her. The cat knew she couldn’t jump that high anymore, but still her back legs took their places and shifted from side to side. She opened her jaws. She leapt.
Now she eats through the thin, hairless skin, the bitter liver and blood soft spleen. The cat eats down to the earth before she pauses. She becomes full. She can’t remember being full.
Sated, the cat stands over the food. She is unaccustomed to extra, but she remembers what to do. She moves to a foot, grabs it into her mouth, and pulls. The two pieces, still connected by the backbone, drag through the dirt and leaves. Close to the unreachable water she finds a crisscross of dead trees. The cat scrapes at the dirt and pushes the food under the branches. She tries to kick leaves over it, but her back legs crumple to one side and her body falls to the ground. She wants to slip into the quiet place, the place she’d reached before the wind woke her, but her thirst hurts like a wound. She hunches forward on her belly and puts her head over the edge of the water hole. The liquid scent comforts her. In the thick grey of last light, in the wetness of the air, the mosquitoes rise. Attracted by the rich carbon dioxide of the cat’s breath, they search for moving, living blood until they find the bare places at the base of the cat’s ears, around her nose, under her eyes. The cat shakes and paws over her face, and this is all the effort she has left. Her head falls to the earth.
The dragonflies arrive like bright warriors. Wings twist and dart through the mosquitoes, jaws snap. The survivors scatter, and the cat can open her eyes again. The dragonflies ride the exhalation of her breath and weave a barrier. They fly at all angles, back and forth, across the cat’s face. She sees only streaks of darker black that disappear in and out of view as if they owned not just three dimensions, but the fourth as well. The cat’s lungs stop and start, gust and wheeze. The mosquito swarm re-gathers, unable to resist the cat’s blood and breath. Many die in the careening frenzy of dragonflies.
The cat feels all the strength of her life leaving and once again scents the tang of her sister, the musk of her mother. One long last waft of air flows from her lungs and out into the dark. The mosquitoes follow. The living veil of dragonflies swirls after them. A rising moon fills the iridescent blurs of the cat’s eyes.