Feeding Cats

IMG_6757House cats are docile, nervous pets who are pampered and talked to in hushed baby talk voices.  They are good for warming laps and napping in the sun.  Barn cats, on the other hand, are murderous working animals who are stealthy and wise but pets just the same.  In college, I had a house cat who quietly sneaked into an open closet and was shut up for a school day in there.  I came home to a shrieking howl and opened the door to find she had ripped open a new bag of cat food with her claws and survived the wilderness of the closet for an entire three-hour class period.

I grew up with barn cats on a pig farm.  These cats were true survivalists.  They lived in the rafters of the barn through blizzards and thunderstorms and tornadoes.  They gave birth to kittens alongside pigs and chickens.  They ate scraps and killed mice and birds and bugs.  Still, they found time to snuggle with my brother and sister and me under the shade of the Elm tree in the grass of our front yard when summer rolled around.

When I was growing up, we brought table scraps out to feed the cats, hollering here kitty, kitty into the wind.  The cats responded in a hoard and it was best to just step back and let them fight it out amongst themselves.  The sound of deep-throated growling under nom, nom, nom was often heard.

Today, my cats don’t actually live in a barn but in the potting shed.  There is a heat lamp and straw and a couple large self-feeders for the dry food.  Every third day or so in the winter, when the cats need to maintain some extra body fat, I open pop tab cans of wet food to supplement their diet.  We drive long metal spikes into the 12 foot posts where the Bluebirds nest to keep the murderous cats at bay.

At feeding time, I walk out the laundry room door onto the back porch and at least four cats show up to escort me to the shed.  The calicos run ahead looking back as if to say, “Hurry up.  Come on, it’s this way.”  Nurse Meow-mers our old-timer weaves expertly in figure eights between my ankles while keeping pace with my steps to avoid tripping me.  Bear, our loveable but odd, neutered tom, trundles toward me and at the last moment veers off to the right leaning in with his spine and tail in a way that almost causes him to fall over.

I flip the latch on the shed door as the calicoes rush through the worn hole at the bottom of the wood plank door just big enough for an adult cat to get inside.  Two feral kittens, one yellow and one black scramble up the wall and into the rafters as I step down onto the dust-covered concrete floor.  I reach to my left to switch on the heat lamp for the night.  The calicoes glide over one another investigating the empty cans left on the floor from the last feeding.  I hear a rattle behind the dusty chicken feed can and see two beady, close-set eyes reflect the light from overhead.  A sharp black nose with twitching whiskers points back at me.  An opossum has joined my clowder of cats for feeding.

The cats, my resident predators, have let the enemy in.  They completely ignore the intruder as I open cans one by one to the tune of “Grrrr, nom, nom, nom.”  The offending opossum looks young and terrified, frozen behind the chicken feed can.  I take pity on him.  I leave it up to the cats to share their food or not as I latch the potting shed door for the night.

Unexpected Pig

Not so cute.
Not so cute.

I heard the crunch of tires on gravel as mom and dad pulled out of the driveway in our copper-colored Pinto wagon.  I had a list of chores to complete in exchange for permission to stay home alone.  Letting me stay home by myself was a probationary test and babysitting my brother and sister would be the reward if I avoided burning the house down while they were gone.  Being in charge of my brother and sister wasn’t enticing but the idea of being treated more like an adult was so I agreed to the tradeoff.

To avoid starting the dishes, I wandered outside to pet my marmalade cat Fred.  Fred was fat and looked like Morris in the cat food commercials.  I spotted him in a lawn chair just out the front door so l thoughtlessly walked through the door in shoeless, sock covered feet.  Fred purred from deep down in his belly as I picked him up from the chair like a limp dishtowel.  He didn’t resist at all as I flipped him over on his back to cradle him like a baby and stroke the soft peach colored fur on his belly.

Fred was nearly asleep in my arms when I felt his whole body harden in a posture of alertness.  His purr transformed into a low quiet howl and then he scrambled out of my grasp leaving me bleeding with scratches from his claws on the un-freckled flesh of my wrists.  He ran across the lawn with a yowl and bounded up the ancient Elm tree near the road.

Distracted by arms that felt on fire, I didn’t give a second thought to what had caused Fred to turn on me.  Cats in general are untrustworthy and given to mood swings so I shrugged off Fred’s betrayal until I heard a sound behind me.  Around the corner of the house came a strong expulsion of breath followed by a deep grunt and then I saw her snout.  Arabella, my dad’s farrowing sow was out of the fence.  I could just see her glistening nostrils and the ring piercing her septum to keep her from rooting too deep in the ground as she continued to sniff and grunt.  I knew she could tell I was there around the corner.  I had been in the barn when Arabella gave birth to a litter and saw her challenge my dad when he reached in to check on a tiny piglet.  I’ve heard people talk about mother bears protecting their cubs but for me a mother pig is just as terrifying.

I froze for a second until the pounding of my heart made my ears ring like an alarm clock and then I ran.  With tender soles, I ran across the gravel drive and through the grass to our blue metal swing set.  I imagined feeling her rough bristled forehead pressing into my back as she tossed me off my feet.  I saw in my mind her mud covered hooves slicing through my skin as her 350 pound body plowed over me.  I imagined her squeal as she tore into my flesh with her crushing teeth and I started to cry.  I ran with tears streaming and I was gasping and hiccupping for breath.

I hit the hot metal of the slide and gripped the sides.  I was too big but I started to climb.  My filthy socks, wet from the evening dew slipped on the smooth surface of the slide with each panicked step.  I could hear her snorting as she lumbered toward me and the swing set.  Around the tractor tire sandbox she came.  Her shoulders as high as the fourth rung of the slide’s ladder.  She stopped and turned her snout up to me, sniffed twice and then she turned to root in the dirt around the sandbox.

I don’t remember how long I sat at the top of the slide.  The sky had turned dusky when mom and dad arrived home to find me trapped at the top of the slide and Arabella calmly grazing in the yard.  Dad turned off the engine and got out of the car grabbing a downed branch under the Elm tree.  He approached Arabella with his arms out from his sides and the branch in his right hand like a weapon.  “Heyaw!” he yelled, and Arabella started in surprise.  “Heyaw!” he yelled again and Arabella turned away from him and lumbered unimpressed away from the play yard.  Slowly, Dad guided her back to the barn and Mom came to me on the slide.  She asked what happened and after I told my tale she asked why I had been outside without my shoes and then she chided me for my ruined socks.

I still had chores to do but I had a good story to tell.  The first time I was allowed to babysit, Dad laid down the law that I was in charge and as an afterthought called back on his way out the door,  “You all better just stay in the house.”

The River

Ohio River near Golconda, Illinois 2008
Ohio River near Golconda, Illinois 2008

Tom Sawyer’s River full of history, commerce, and danger is my river too.  From a different time and place, the clay river mud pushes up through my naked toes and refuses to wash away without a good scrub.  Bright sun bakes water polished stones along the sandy bank while the lapping wake washes in the stink of rotting grass and fish and motor oil.  Impossibly enormous turkey buzzards circle the island sky in kettles of three and four and it crosses my mind that one might be able to carry away the tiny Chihuahua yapping up and down the shore. Summers floating along in a flat-bottomed boat blur together like a single memory, everything the same, but the nights stand out, singular.

The screen door drags along the lower track making a scratching sound as I step from the warm light of the kitchen into the shadows of the upper deck.  The river reflects only moonlight in a rippling puddle from the West.  I can hear the water gently strike the stony shore rhythmically again and again as cicadas whir in the hickory tree growing behind the cabin along the bluff.  I take a seat among them, the story telling has already begun.  He hands me a dripping can of beer from the ice chest beside his lawn chair without a pause in the tale.

The Mason jar of moonshine sits on the table beside the smoking citronella candle, blood-red pickled cherries float in the clear pink tinged fluid.  He reaches out with a hand that reveals a slight tremble and with swollen knobby knuckles opens the lid of the jar to pluck out a single “cherry bomb” with his fingers.  The slur of his words tells me this sample is one of many tonight.  He chews and swallows with a, “Mmmm,” and looks up through his unruly eyebrows with a smile.  Light from the candle glints in his eyes and reflects off the strands of silver in his beard.

“Boys, let me tell you this,” he calls out in a gravelly voice to the grandchildren sitting enthralled at his side, “there is nothing to fear in these here woods.” His face is serious and in the silence the boys stare back in rapt attention.  He chuckles deep in the back of his throat until it bubbles into a roar of laughter ending with a hacking cough from years of unfiltered cigarettes and inhaling smoke from a welder.

“Well, there was this one time though,” he starts when the coughing subsides.  “I’d been sittin’ in a deer stand all mornin’ and hadn’t seen a damn thing move all day…and on the way back to my truck I found a trail of blood and followed it to a big ol Burr Oak tree.  Up in that tree was the corpse of a pony, draped over a big thick limb and gutted from top to bottom just dripping blood all over the ground.  Boys, the idea of a mountain lion big enough to drag a damned pony up a tree about made me piss my pants right there.  But, you don’t have to worry about that none.  Now get yourselves to bed if you’re gonna check the trot-line with me in the mornin’.”

With that command, he lowers his beard to his chest and after a minute of silence begins to snore.