I'm putting in my four miles; my feet are going up and down, back and forth; expiration in three steps, inspiration in two. Arms pumping, water bottle sloshing. Sweat beading on my forehead, making my grip slippery in my hands.
I turn around at 98th street and head back towards 57th street. Coming down one of the hills on the east side of the Central Park loop, I notice it again: the cat. The big big cat, sitting there, crouching, observing the tasty humans bopping by. The first time I encountered this cat, it startled me with its sudden appearance. I remember buzzing into a fight-or-flight response - mostly flight - I remember nearly wetting my pants.
Why is this cat here, I wonder? Just here, not elsewhere? Why doesn't he watch over Strawberry Fields or one of the numerous playgrounds, where he can have his choice of tasty little immature-human morsels? Why must he crouch there, on that rock, and study his prey right here?
Coming down this hill, noting the hungry cat once again, I suddenly realize how very steep this hill actually is. It is not as bad as the heartbreaker at the north end of the park, but it is substantial. I don't remember climbing it on my way to 98th - but then I don't remember a lot. Now, though, the steepness of this hill - downhill currently - strikes me, particularly as I pass runners on their way up it; huff puff huff puff. One of them looks like he might be slowing to a walk, then does; I spy an older lady at the bottom of the hill who seems to reconsider the climb and turns to retrace her jammin'-to-her-headphones steps toward the south end of the park.
As I pass the big cat, I swear I see its head turn a little, twitch the very tip of its tail. Impossible.
But now I know why the cat sits here, and not there. I know why he's so watchful and so patient, instead of stretching out for a catnap. Clearly, he is waiting, watching, wanting.
Like his cousin, the cheetah, he tenses his muscles about to spring and drag down the ones in the back: the old, the infirm, the ones who - startled into a fight-or-flight response, but whose hearts can't take it - automatically lay their limbs on the ground and bare their throats for the cat's mercifully quick ending.
Obviously, he is there to cull out one or two runners a year and thereby spur the rest of us to better, non-lethal, performance. He feeds so quickly no one ever sees it and so completely no one ever discovers the bodies...but feed he must, for he has remarkable stamina, sitting there all day, all night, season through season, year after year.
Someday I will climb up to that cat and stare into his cold, bronze eyes.
If he doesn't have me for lunch first.