Wednesday, July 05, 2006

One Grey Cat More or Less

One grey cat more or less makes little difference in the grand scheme of things, but I tend to operate more on the micro level where little grey cats are important. Wee Grey Stripes was the daughter of Old Black Coat and Lady Greymantle. She survived a plague of feline influenza in the village over the long winter and took over the dairy maid's cottage where she was born after her mother and her brother had disappeared. I saw Black Coat last week, but he has only ever been an occasional visitor.

I took on the Malthusian balance of plague, famine and population. For a while the cat population boomed. In a land where everyone knows more about cattle and sheep and dogs and badgers and birds and foxes than I do, I listened respectfully to their conversations and tried to learn. When they said with the same certainty that cats would not hunt if they were fed, I spoke up. I do not know cattle or sheep or dogs or pigs or horses or badgers or birds, but I know cats. At first I just told stories about cats who had hunted despite being well fed and having such tell tale names as "Fluffy Boy"--not the name you give to a predator. They listened politely to the stories, but were not in the least persuaded. Perhaps they thought an urbanized American could not know about animals of any kind.

Cats hunt because they are wired that way. You cannot keep even the most overfed, pampered housecat from hunting birds, squirrels, prairie dogs, mice, moles, spiders or even spots of light on a carpet or piano wire with feathers on the end of it. Knowing this, I fed the cats and trusted that if the population bloomed excessively, I would figure something out. But Malthus seems to have worked me into the equation and now plague or pestilence or predation have worked overtime to reduce the temporary imbalance of cats.

Wee Grey Stripes hissed when she was so small that her eyes were only beginning to change color. Her brother was bolder. Her hissing may have served her better than her brother's curiosity. I fed all three of them--Lady Greymantle, Little Black Coat and Wee Grey Stripes. Lady Greymantle never made any sounds at all. I saw her as a shadowy figure or in the walled garden at a safe distance in a rare moment of leisure in the sun. I saw her often working in the tall grass along the side of the farm road. I saw her once dragging a baby rabbit nearly as big as she was back to the dairy maid's cottage. The skin remained there after all the rest was gone. The whiskers of the dried skin, still upright, would catch the breeze and quiver as if the spirit of the rabbit had not been released. And then one day all three were gone.

Lady Greymantle, as a good mother does, moved her kittens often in the first weeks of life. Over the months I caught occasional glimpses of them here and there as I walked on the farm, and then Wee Grey Stripes returned to the cottage alone. Whenever I saw her, I went out to the dairy maid's cottage with something especially tasty--if you happen to be a hard working barn cat. In very little time she had me trained, and I saw her more often. Apparently I got lax or short sighted and she began sitting at the back door of the house to make sure that I saw her. Occasionally she would eat warily just outside the back door. Startled, however, she picked up the half fat chicken liver pate carton in her jaws and ran with it to the safety of the dairy maid's cottage: a scaled down tiger with her prey returning to the safety of her lair. And she continued to hiss.

After a few days, she took to lurking beneath the car in the driveway--a half step between our house and hers. About this time she began to meow as well as to hiss. When she saw me, she came out from under the car, did her little dance of joy at the thought of food coming and hissed and meowed as she danced up the walk to the dairy maid's cottage and her food bowl. Her daily fare now was packets of meat in a fatty kind of jellly sauce and special milk for cats in case she needed extra nutrition. I could get closer now, too. She would eat when only three feet away from me, and after eating she would sit on the doorstep of her house, wash her face and paws, and watch me in the garden despite the threats from numerous worried birds overhead.

Another neighbor also feeds the cats I discovered in conversation. We compared notes. I don't think Wee Grey Stripes ventures there, but Lady Greymantle or Black Coat are regulars there. Cats have territories and perhaps in a feline discussion of boundaries and territories Wee Grey Stripes had won her home territory. Perhaps sentiment or nostalgia drove her back to the cottage. More likely it was the careful training of her hard working mother who taught her to appreciate a good spot when she could get it. One of the charms of cats is that you never quite know what makes them do what they do.

If you like cats, then you like the fact that you cannot tell them to do anything. You can ask the world of them, but the cat always has the last word. I like that about them, but it certainly does make life with them a bit more difficult. Wee Grey Stripes has not been at the door of the dairy maid's cottage for five days now. Perhaps I asked too much of her or perhaps she decided that my neighbor has better food on offer. I like to think that she will be back in the next day or so or that wherever she is she is fine, but I have learned a little bit about foxes.

I pick up lore in bits and pieces and stitch them together as best I can. Foxes are around here. Foxes are more common now in urbanized areas than out in the country. Yes, what I saw in the mud in the road was probably a fox print. Foxes are indiscriminate killers. Foxes always leave dung as markers. All these fragments came together this morning when I saw the fox dung in the kitchen garden. My heart sank. What chance would a small grey cat have against a fox? All the narratives that sprang to mind had Wee Grey Stripes as remnants of herself, her whiskers pointed into the wind still dreaming perhaps of the dairy maid's cottage.

I shook my head to clear the image and began the sad task of packing up her food. I moved it from the stairs by the door where I could quickly grab it as soon as I saw her, or was allowed to see her, I should say. This task of packign up and waiting for the next cat, is not new to me. My knowledge of cats has come cat by cat. As each cat left me, there was a wrapping up and putting away, a grieving until the next cat found me. The task is only made bearable by the knowledge that another cat will come.

When I left the United States, I took a trunkful of cat paraphernalia to a woman who had more cats than the old woman in the shoe had children. "At least I'm not as crazy as she is," I said to myself as I unloaded the toys, the pillows, the geriatric vitamins, the special food, the combs and brushes. My soon to be husband sitting in the car might not have seen the distinction.

This morning just as the kettle began to whistle, I spotted two balls of fluff in the doorway of the barn across from the kitchen window. Faster than thought, I was into the cupboard where I had stashed Wee Grey Stripes' food and I was away with a bottle of cat milk. If Wee Grey Stripes is still looking after them, a little extra milk won't hurt. If not, then my new grey cats have found me just in time.


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