The Stray

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I step into a tunnel of parched woods, dry and still from the absence of rain or dew, and find what I was looking for, an old fence line. In the early light of morning the horizontal line of rusted barbed wire meanders with the weight of fallen trees across its top strand, and the once sturdy wood posts now lean every which way like crooked teeth. Maneuvering through sticky spider webs and tripping over old metal contraptions that once were swing sets, I slowly machete my way through greenbrier and trumpet vine. It hasn’t rained in more than three weeks, and temperatures have ranged near a hundred degrees with stifling humidity. Crisp leaves and twigs rustle and snap beneath my boots as I watch cautiously for signs of life other than my own, like copperheads. The 660 feet along the north line of this property terminates at a tangled mess of tossed paint cans, old box springs curled and giving shelter to creatures I can hear but not see, and a collapsed wooden shed of some sort. A railroad stringer holds up mesh wire that leads south and east from a vacant space of about three feet where a half-inch rebar has popped out of the ground. Pleased with myself for locating a possible called-for monument, I light a cigarette and gulp a couple swallows of water from the beat up plastic bottle tethered to my belt.

This reconnaissance for a boundary survey continues as I make my way south through pine thicket and heat. The warranty deed states the west side is 231 feet, but the distance seems greater as I push prickly pine limbs away from my face and stagger over the litter that has collected along the fence of the adjoining mobile home sales lot and rolling terrain. Beneath a red mop head I discover a five-eighths-inch rebar and a hand-scrawled metal tag that reads "Land Marker" along the south bound fence. A stroke of luck! With this possible land tie, I will include the monument along with my section and quarter section corner evidence in my boundary work. I was hoping to find a property pin at a fence intersection, but had passed it by to avoid impaling myself on rusty pipes or glass shards from the broken windows of repossessed mobile homes. Making my way back along the fence line, I find two fence intersections about twenty feet apart. I cuss under my breath, for this means I have to walk back to my first found corner at the box springs with the audible creatures and measure the 231 feet to one of these intersections. Pulling my tape straight within the pine thicket and over debris proves to be a task I’d rather not do more than once. Four tries later the tape end finally holds and I successfully locate a possible property corner. I pick up my pin finder and tone the ground with hope, listening for the irritating high-pitched whine of found metal. Nothing. I change the settings on the metal detector to hone in on a possible location of metal. Nothing. I make a mental note of the old and mangled T-shaped fence corner and tie hot pink flagging on the decaying wood post.

But the physical challenges of the boundary work required for these three and a half acres couldn’t hold a candle to what I am about to discover next. Walking cautiously across an overgrown and badly neglected yard, I think about the client who had ordered this project. It was our job to submit to the client a topographic map of this forested parcel with its multiple structures. I’m unsure just how the client chose this property, but now certain that his perspective of the property­whether from the window of an air-conditioned car, aerial view, street view or land record­was a whole lot different from my perspective on the ground.

Time and neglect had taken a heavy toll on what was obviously once a pristine and beautifully landscaped residence. It is now an overgrown, grassy unclipped lot with old growth trees, sidewalks, empty koi ponds, planters everywhere and wheelchair ramps leading up to dark doors with "Oxygen in Use" stickers.

To introduce myself, I step meekly onto the yard and climb the steps to a collapsing front porch that lingers on the house. I pull open the filthy glass storm door and knock on the badly painted wood door, a little fearful as to who might open it. No answer. I knock again in case the person inside is slow moving. Still no answer. I quietly step down the concrete porch steps, my boots crunching in the yellow grass of the unmowed yard. There’s a side porch housing items that must not have fit or were not wanted in the house. I see that a door is ajar. Imagination is now running full tilt. I do not want to frighten the home owner, or myself for that matter, by stepping up to the opened door and discovering who knows what….

About this time a pungent, unpleasant odor fills my nose. My sweat-soaked clothes feel as if they are absorbing each micro-bead of this invisible goo. At this point I notice a leaning, faded wood outbuilding in the middle of the lot. An old spinning box fan holds open the door. There is movement just inside the door. My heart races. Should I venture in more closely or hold my ground and await death? Truly, if a sane person resides within these fence lines, I will be shocked. I almost tiptoe toward the building. The disgusting odor grows stronger. As I inch closer I see her, a small woman dressed in drab clothing the color of her skin. I am looking at her right profile. Her hands hold white dinner plates, raised on bent elbows as if unsure to serve now or later. I don’t want to frighten her by speaking so I wait until she sees me. Finally she turns and sees me—­sweaty, scratched and filthy, and standing in her yard. I walk slowly toward her, telling her my name and that I don’t want to frighten her. She is wet-eyed and bland. Colorless. Flat-faced with a small nose and thin lips with no hue. Her wrists strain as she holds the paper plates that are half full of runny, warm cat food. Now the odor makes sense. Behind her are cages and cages of cats. A lighted bare bulb hangs from an unseen ceiling. The cages have lost their original shine of silvery metal. The little houses for the animals are clotted with cat hair blown in and stuck forever by heat and the foul condition of their surroundings. There are no meows or purrs, just dead silence behind the little woman. "Are you Miss Brown?" I ask, which is the name I had read on the deed. She says "Yes." She inches her way past the shed door toward me, with plates in hand. I tell her I am there to map her yard and that I’ll be around for the next few days. I don’t believe she hears me, yet still, she speaks as if we have known each other for years. She tells me that she is still feeding a "few strays" and gives a home to all cats that come into her yard. Then she turns and eases back into the shed.

As I continue through the job, I wonder what will happen to Miss Brown and the other strays when the mapping of this distraught acreage is complete. Will they be transplanted to safe havens? I can only hope that when they land, they will land on their feet.

Author Note:
For reasons of privacy, Miss Brown is a pseudonym. The photos in this article do not show the actual subject, but are similar.

Luann Glenn has been surveying since 1993. She has worked in twelve states, performing boundary, topographic, retracement and engineering surveys. In 2004 she received her LSIT certificate. She is currently employed as Party Chief for McClelland Consulting Engineers, Little Rock, Arkansas.

A 1.161Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE