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The late, late show

THIS is what a cat did to me one night: I have always considered the night sky to be a long-running hit play, the same performance night after night with plenty of subtleties and nuances each night.

With apologies to Indian or African myths, the major plot, as I see it, is whether the craggy, old, lazy moon (full, half, or slivered) is going to escape from one horizon to the other before the ever-popular sun comes to work a brightly industrious 6:30 to 6:30 day. The ending is well known, but hey, the play's the thing.

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The Milky Way is the backdrop, all the constellations watch, comment, sing, and occasionally twinkle. For comedy relief there are shooting stars, swiftly darting satellites, and, to the novice eye, the unexplained marvel of celestial blips and clicks that make you say, with head bent back, ``Now what is that?''

With this in mind, I decided to sleep outside one night. Years had passed since I last watched the whole nightly performance until it put me to sleep. So I dragged the picnic table to a small patch of grass with an unimpeded view of the night stage, threw an old mattress from a trundle bed on it, and crawled in a sleeping bag, a pillow under my head.

Why not sleep on the ground? Skunks is why. I live in a rural area and a family of skunks were making themselves at home around our house somewhere, coming out at night and wrestling and rolling around. There's nothing like a bevy of curious skunks to ruin sleeping out. I figured I bought safety with height.

So, I lay down on the table, the full panorama of the night stage dazzling me with the designer's order and sense of composition, a little sliver of a moon hiding behind some trees, waiting to edge its way across the stage. The Milky Way seemed so vast and silent, the splash of stars beautifully clear and formidable and I thought, ``How can there be so much dynamism packed into a black-and-white production?''

The answer is that this is THE major production. Color, like too many adjectives, would get in the way of the plot.

I watched tiny satellites move so swiftly at funny angles, back and forth. I caught the sudden streaks of shooting stars out of the corners of my eyes. I watched the edge of the moon, almost apologetic, come out from behind the trees and slide grayly up and up until it was at center stage, sighing and oblivious. I watched the Big Dipper flirt with the Little Dipper. I watched airplanes, like black, flashing toys, come and go.

Then I saw a bluish light, a curious irregular blue light appearing in the north and moving south. No doubt it was a million trillion miles away, thereby making it the size of South America. Suddenly, somewhere over Canada probably, it stopped. Or maybe it fell. Or maybe it rose. Or maybe it darted off because it sensed that I had seen it. Or maybe ...

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A breeze came from the west and rustled the nearby poplar trees. OK, intermission. Eventually the tranquility eased me into sleep. Maybe for an hour I slept. While I dreamed nonsensically about deciphering petroglyphs, something suddenly landed on my shoulder, a distinct thump. I jumped and immediately thought of leaping skunks, first one leaping up to test the distance and then turning to signal to six others that hey, this is a piece of cake, c'mon up.

Buried as I was in the sleeping bag, I eased my arm over in the bag, pushing whatever it was off the table. I knew it was not a skunk, but a black cat named Germaine, a cat so used to curling up on laps that it was only seeking a lap.

When I turned over to look at the sky, I couldn't believe it. While I had slept, clouds had moved in, streaks of little puffy clouds like side-by-side strings of pearls. Through the gaps of the strings stars shone, the moon hid, and the whole stage was different. I watched a long time, marveling at the variety of shades of gray, white, and black hovering above me, and the huge silence of the known galaxy. I was not moved to figure out my place in all of this. It was enough to look in wonder and think, this is what the sky does to me when I look at it.

It happened again. I fell asleep, the cat jumped, flush on my stomach this time, making me rise up like an unreasoning bear. The cat jumped down with an upset meow and sped away. Raised to be tenacious, she would be back, I knew.

I guessed it was the exact middle of the night. Clouds the shape of gloves and the color of smoke drifted nonchalantly overhead. The moon was several feet to the right now, close to another successful escape under cloud cover. I was too irritated to applaud, too sleepy for anything but a self-serving perspective.

``If it wasn't for tomorrow,'' I explained to all the elements of the production, ``I would put the cat inside and stay outside. But I've got too much to do tomorrow, so I'm going inside and leaving the cat outside.''

I did just that. I stumbled inside, pretty well satisfied that I had seen the heart of the show and confident that the sun understood its role. Before I dropped off to sleep in a bed behind walls and under a ceiling, I heard the skunks wrestling and rolling.

In the morning, as the early sun looked for the old moon, the cat was curled up victoriously in the sleeping bag.

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