Reflections of a Cautious Cat. A Journey from Innocence to Wisdom.
by Alice Woodrome
You might say that I’m the suspicious type. I have my reasons. I started out as naive as any other kitten: snuggled close to my mother with my squirming brothers and sisters all around. Life was easy. When I was hungry I had only to find Mother’s swollen teats. She kept me safe and warm and I wanted nothing that she did not supply.
Even when we got old enough to venture away from our tattered blue blanket, we were always within our mother’s protective circle. I took the comforts of home and our mother for granted. Life was grand as we played together, rolling green beetles across the dusty floor of the toolshed, stalking wooly worms and garden spiders in the patch of cool grass that was our larger world. So many intriguing scents to investigate. If the bark of a dog or a sudden movement frightened one of us, there was always a home to scurry to, and the comforting attentions of our mother.
I liked the people who lived in the house nearby. They held me gently and murmured soft noises as they stroked my fur, rubbing me under my chin and along my cheeks. It was no wonder I believed all people were kind.
One late afternoon, sun streamed into the shed through cracks in the wall boards and found its way into our cardboard box. My belly was full, and I lay relaxing alongside my six brothers and sisters. I’d had a busy day of exploring and playing with Buddy, my closest sibling. We were ready for our grooming session before we napped.
Mother had begun to clean Scout's face. He closed his eyes and blissfully submitted, while I squeezed past Buddy and Millie in hopes of being next.
The door creaked open. I stretched up to see out of our box. On the threshold stood a man, silhouetted against the open doorway. I’d seen him from a distance most mornings when he got into a white truck that carried him away for the day.
The man took three heavy steps and loomed over us. He smelled like smoke, not like the people who came every day. We cowered as he grabbed Mother out of our box with a large bony hand and dropped her onto the floor. Creamy white Angel scrambled out to follow her. Mother meowed with her whiskers pulled back as the man snatched our sister and dropped her back in with the rest of us. He picked up our cardboard box and carried us outside into the glaring light. Looking through a hole in the box, I watched Mother follow with her tail lashing. She yowled as the man took us across the grass and shoved our box into the back of the truck, where a biting odor made my nose crinkle. I heard her howl as the man climbed into the front and slammed the door shut.
We rumbled along on a scary ride with the air rushing over the top of our box. Scout and I tried to look out a few times, but all I saw was a confusing blur. The fleeting smells were baffling. Angel and Goldie meowed for Mother nearly the whole way. They weren’t the only ones worried.
When the noisy ride jerked to an end, I stumbled to my feet, dizzy, with my heart pounding. I heard a door open and close, then the man picked up our box and carried us down a rocky slope. I pulled myself up to see where we were and almost fell out when the man lost his footing. He shouted as he and our box dropped together, hitting the ground with a thud. Goldie started wailing so loud I couldn’t think. The man pushed our box with his foot to a level place in the prairie grass. He reached down with his hand and touched Buddy, who shrank and flattened his ears. Scout hissed. The man hurried back up the hill toward the truck. A roar came from the road—and grew fainter until it disappeared. We were alone.
My brothers and I huddled next to our sisters and waited for our mother to find us. The familiar scents of leafy growth were intensified and mixed with strange earthy odors, raw and woodsy. Goldie ceased her loud protests and nestled next to her twin, Golda, mewing softly. Millie didn't settle down until Angel started to lick her. I stayed close to Buddy and stiffened at every noise, hopeful that Mother was near. Scout stretched up now and then to get a better view, but I was glad he stayed with us. Mother would want us together when she came.
When the sky darkened, and she still hadn’t arrived, we pressed closer to each other. Sleep came in snatches. We startled at every noise in the black countryside. Goldie and Millie cried when a strange chorus of coyotes howling and yipping reverberated in the distance. A sharp screech that pierced the night air frightened me the most, and I burrowed under the blanket, shuddering with Buddy trembling beside me. Scout was restless, moving around all night. I tried to be brave, but I was cold and hungry—no soft stomach to knead, no sweet milk to suckle. Our only comfort was the warmth of each other's bodies and our mother’s scent that lingered on the blue blanket.
Scout was the first to jump out of the box the next morning. Hunger and thirst forced the rest of us out too. We had been left at the edge of a large meadow with patches of sunflowers and a few trees. A breeze, charged with a mix of curious scents, swept over us. A fence row bordered the far end of the meadow. Beyond the fence, a green field extended in lines to a row of trees in the distance—so far away they looked tiny. The blue sky stretched in a vast canopy over it all. A bird sang now and again, and soft lowing drifted from a far off pasture, but mostly there was stillness, so unlike the busy noises of home. Our world had been turned upside-down, and nothing was as it should be.
My insides growled. Mother was nowhere. We searched the prairie grass surrounding the box for something to eat, but found little. I chased a green lizard that ran too fast and a mouse that disappeared down a hole. I caught a couple of crickets and a caterpillar. They didn’t taste anything like our mother’s milk, and there wasn’t enough to make the hunger go away. Instead of the fresh water of home, we drank from puddles. The first time I crouched to lap the water, the reflection of a hawk soaring overhead appeared. Its raspy scream sent a rush of fear all the way to the end of my tail, and I ran to hide under a leafy vine. When the sun sank behind the trees and the sky darkened, we returned to the box, to the warmth and solace we found together.
But how we missed our beautiful mother. Clear green eyes and a silky coat the color of goldenrod. Mother's warm stomach was the most blissful spot imaginable—that deep rumbling purr when I lay next to her, the homey aroma of her breath as she cleaned me. She made me feel loved.
By the time the second long night passed, I knew—as surely as her scent on the blue blanket was fading—I would never see my mother again.
Some of my sisters were slow to accept that we would not be reunited with Mother. By our fourth day in the prairie, they still looked up the rocky hill as if expecting the white truck to return and take us back to her. When we heard thunder on the road above, Goldie always scrambled up the slope first, followed closely by Golda, her constant companion. Millie usually trailed behind.
A car rumbled on the road while I stalked a spotted lizard. My sisters rushed up the slope. I inched closer to the lizard, my whiskers tense. In the distance, another car roared by. Then I heard it: Millie's scream. I rushed back and up the rocky bank. Buddy, Scout and Angel had already gotten there. Our golden sisters lay in the road, their blood mixing as it pooled between them. Golda moved her legs one last time like she was dream-running, then lay motionless beside her beloved sister.
Stunned into silence, we stood looking at them, shocked, bewildered. They lay silent and still, eyes open and mouths, agape. Were they sleeping? Their eyes looked so different, like they saw nothing. I pawed at my sisters, nuzzled them, trying to wake them. Something about them reminded me of the mice our mother caught, so quiet, so limp. Was this the same? Were they asleep forever? Could this be death? I had never considered such a thing—that we might come to the same end as the birds and mice Mother brought home. I tried to awaken them again, meowing. I couldn’t believe their life had left them. Buddy and Scout turned sadly and crept back down the slope. Hesitant to leave, I tarried—confused, not believing it, not wanting to. But when I could not rouse our golden sisters, I had to accept it. The twins, lying together in death, the way they had in life, would never awaken. A sickening odor permeated the area.
Little Millie, with dark eyes and drooping ears, crouched low beside their bodies with Angel, meowing softly, next to her. When Millie finally found her voice, an anguished cry resounded across the prairie.
I finally turned to leave the cruel road, slinking low to the ground. I looked back at Millie and Angel, meowing for them to come. They reluctantly followed down the hill, but Millie stopped at the bottom and looked back for a long time. I didn’t go up to the road again. Neither did the others. The road smelled of death, and became a hateful place.
Later that day, two enormous vultures swooped down out of the sky and landed where our sisters’ bodies lay. Black with naked heads the color of blood, the birds huddled around with shoulders hunched as if conspiring to do something terrible. They lingered a long time, heads bobbing, flying up briefly every time another car rumbled by. My insides hurt when I thought about what might be going on up there.
The death of our golden sisters cast a dreadful pall over us all. Millie wandered about aimlessly for hours, wailing softly. The only time she appeared aware of what went on around her was when another car approached. She cowered in the tall grass until the thunder faded. Angel stayed close to her, but Millie would not settle down. She ate nothing the rest of the afternoon. Later that evening when she was too weary to walk, I brought her a cricket. She looked at it with dull eyes, then lay her head down again and mewed sadly.
That evening we all retreated to the cardboard box before the sky turned dark. Angel licked Millie until she drifted off to sleep. Scout, Buddy, and I cuddled together next to the girls. Though the air wasn’t cold, I couldn’t stop shivering as I tried to remember what it was like to not be afraid. That night remained mercifully quiet, with just the sound of crickets to lull us to sleep.
I woke at first light. The sky glowed with streaks of pink above the trees. The practical matter of survival required us to leave the comfort of the box, but we did not wander far from each other. Buddy led the way. When Millie lagged, I waited. We spent the morning looking for something to fill our bellies. Butterflies and beetles flew about, too fast to catch. I captured one cricket and a big brown spider; the others did no better. Even Millie knew she needed to eat and tried to catch a grasshopper but finally found a slow caterpillar. When Buddy spotted a little ground mouse, he took chase, and we all tried to keep up. Bigger and faster than we, he was far ahead when he leaped and turned back triumphantly with the mouse in his mouth.
The moment of elation turned to terror when an enormous hawk with talons outstretched dove from the clouds, attacking Buddy. He screamed and released the mouse. Scout arched his back and yowled. As the mouse scurried away, I ran toward my brother who was in the clutches of the monster bird. A violent struggle was over in a moment when the hawk tore at Buddy with its claws. My brother’s body went limp and lifeless. I froze. The monster hawk stared at me, its yellow eyes shooting a tremor through my spine. I hissed, shrank, and tucked my tail as the bird flapped its wings and took flight, clutching my brother. Horrified, I watched it ascend directly over me into the sky, Buddy’s body dangling beneath. My heart raced and I began to shake as the hawk flew across the road. I wanted to chase after it—kill it or die trying, but it disappeared behind the trees.
Millie retreated further into her own thoughts, and curled up in the grass for a long time that afternoon. Scout threw himself into hunting with a vengeance, and caught enough bugs for everyone.
That night, my misery deepened into torment. Buddy's scream echoed in my mind as coyotes laughed at me in the distance. I didn’t sleep. My best friend was gone, and the wild prairie seemed to be making sport of me. Angel licked me repeatedly, but her sweet attentions could not console me.
Rain started falling before sunrise. By morning we were soaked. Our box was reduced to a soggy mound of wet cardboard. Scout and I dragged our blue blanket to a sheltered spot under the branches of a cedar tree. By evening, our bedding had dried—a small matter, but we snuggled into it, grateful for the one thing we still had from home.
We lived on grasshoppers and crickets for days, venturing farther from our tree as hunger compelled us to search for better hunting. When squeaks drifted from the far corner of our meadow, Scout and I cautiously investigated and smelled a strong musky odor as we got closer. We discovered a cluster of sizable holes, the homes of prairie dogs. Too hefty to chase and eat, but at least they didn’t chase us. Plenty of bugs lived along the tall grass in the fence row close to their burrows, and we went there often. With experience, we gradually became better hunters. Lizards became a regular part of our diet.
Angel became the first to provide a mouse. She caught it by mimicking the slow motion crawl and lightning-fast attack we had seen our mother employ. We all practiced. Scout became an expert, and even little Millie eventually succeeded.
Constantly on guard, we watched the skies for hawks, and scanned the horizon for foxes and coyotes. The sounds at night still frightened us, but over the course of a few weeks, as we grew bigger and faster, we learned to survive in that harsh place. We were no longer little kittens.
We found some respite in occasional moments of wonder, like the day orange butterflies dotted the sky. They fluttered everywhere. We made a game of jumping at them, batting the air. Sometimes we paused from our constant search for food to watch long lines of geese flying overhead, calling out as they flapped their wings. Or the spectacle of several strong-smelling deer that came to graze along the fence line. One day a dazzling cloud of blackbirds descended on the meadow not far from us as we looked on with wide eyes. After a moment or two, the flock lifted and swirled, its shape twisting wildly until at last, the birds drifted off into the distance.
We caught plenty of mice for a few days when a man on a tractor came to break up the soil in the field beyond our meadow. He turned up the mice burrows as he roared along, releasing a pleasant loamy scent. We caught five the first day, and more the next—much more than we could eat. Scout met with the most success by crouching close to the tractor’s path until it stormed by and flushed a mouse. He would pounce on the disoriented creature, then strut as he carried it home to toy with under the cedar branches before we feasted. The man on the tractor wore a cap, like the one worn by the man who took us away from our mother. Too suspicious to get close, I didn’t catch nearly as many mice as Scout.
The last afternoon the man plowed, Scout still hadn’t returned long after the soil had all been broken and the tractor had gone. My gut knotted. Why was our brother delayed? Unable to rest, I left Millie and Angel and went to look for him. I hurried to the area of the field where I had last seen the tractor. Meowing loudly for Scout, I searched the rows of turned earth. In one of the furrows, I saw something. I stiffened, almost too afraid to look closer. My brave brother lay on the clumpy soil, blood staining his white face. Flies buzzed around him. I backed off, my insides sick. After a few moments, I crept next to Scout’s lifeless body. Crouching down with closed eyes, I wrapped my tail around me and stayed for a long time. Both my brothers were gone. I wanted it to be over, all the struggle, the fear—the death and sorrow. But my two sisters needed me. Before it got too dark, I started back to the cedar with my tail drooping. When I came alone, Angel and Millie hung their heads. Angel rubbed the full length of her body against mine and licked my face. We curled up together with Millie, sharing a heavy silence—and didn't sleep.
Between the lizards and mice caught on good days and slow brown grasshoppers, we managed to fill our empty bellies. When the days got shorter and colder, and the mice and bugs scarce, we scratched the soil in search of grubs.
I remember my first snowfall because of Millie. That day we woke to a thin layer of white powder that covered everything, including us. We shook the snow off in wonder then left our blanket to chase the falling white flakes. It was good to be carefree for a while.
A hound’s bark broke the spell. A man, walking at the edge of our meadow, followed a reddish dog, bounding through the snow. I looked around for Angel and Millie and spotted them, playing in a drift—too near the dog. Angel, inconspicuous against the whiteness, romped in the snow not far from Millie, whose gray coat stood out. The hound saw her too. I yowled as loudly as I could to divert the dog’s attention and to warn my sisters, but it was no use. Millie raced across the field with the dog gaining on her and the man running behind shouting after his hound. Angel raced back to our cedar tree and scrambled up into one of the lower limbs. I ran toward the man and dog but realized before I got very far that I was not fast enough and no match against them anyway. The barking continued after the man and dog disappeared into the trees. I climbed into our cedar to be with Angel and looked toward the woodland, hoping that Millie had found a safe place before the dog reached her. After a few minutes, the man came back into the open tugging the hound by a leash. The dog clearly wanted to resume the chase.
I watched for Millie, hopeful at first that she had managed to escape, but when she didn’t come back right away, I knew it wasn’t good. Angel was shattered and wandered around meowing the rest of the morning, her tail dragging in the snow. That afternoon I went to look for Millie, expecting to find her body like Scout's. After crossing our meadow, I proceeded through the fence row toward the plowed field where I saw her last. My heart quickened when I heard Millie’s pitiful meow. She limped toward me down one of the furrows. I raced to join her.
One look at her dirty fur and mangled paw, and the strong musky odor, told the story. Millie had escaped by diving into one of the prairie dog holes. Either the hound or the inhabitant of the burrow bit her paw in the fray, leaving a serious injury. Shaken and trembling, she whimpered in pain.
Desperately in need of a break, she closed her eyes and leaned into my tongue as I groomed her. When we continued, it was at Millie’s pace, only resting when her pain became unbearable. It took the remainder of the afternoon to cross the meadow.
When we returned, Angel ran to meet us, bright eyes and tail held high. Milly settled down on our blanket under the cedar branches. Angel took her turn grooming our little sister. I went to find something for us to eat while Millie lay exhausted next to Angel, purring. Later that evening, we shared a mouse. Even the wintry night did not seem harsh. We had our Millie back.
During the next few days, the snow melted under cloudless skies, but Millie’s wound became swollen. Angel hardly left her side. Our sister’s trembling body felt hot as I tried to comfort her by cuddling. She cried in pain for so long; it might have been easier for her if the hound had caught her. Angel seemed to be in nearly as much distress as Millie, crying when her sister did.
One late afternoon, after barely moving for days, Millie stirred and tried to crawl but hesitated when Angel licked her face and lay in front of her, their faces touching. I joined my sisters and pawed Millie’s foot gently. She opened her eyes for a moment and looked at us, then licked Angel’s face just once before struggling to rise again. I knew what she meant. Her time had come, and it was something she had to do alone. When she crawled toward a clump of grass, we did not follow. She huddled down there and returned to her slumber. Our sweet little sister died that afternoon. When we went to check on her, Angel did not want to leave Millie, even when her body grew cold. When it started to snow that evening, she reluctantly joined me back on our blanket. Snow fell all night and buried Millie’s body under a thick white mantle.
Then it was just Angel and I. We curled together that night, and I searched for solace in the memories of life in the toolshed. Our mother’s warm milk and tender affections. The fun of playing in the green grass with my brothers and sisters. And how soothing it felt to have my fur stroked. The memories didn’t help. They only reminded me of how far away that joyful life was from the misery that had befallen us. Even the pathetic blanket Angel and I lay upon testified to the bitterness of our lives now. The fabric, once blue and blissfully soft, had stiffened and faded to gray.
I tried to pretend we’d seen the last of the hard days. But when the snow melted, a biting wind took its place. Every day blew colder than the previous. No lizards anywhere in the dry grass. Even grubs were hard to find.
Angel walked around with her head down and tail dragging. She’d lost interest in looking for food and spent most of the time lying under the cedar tree. Death lingered in the cold air.
Over the next few days our sad situation took a terrible toll. The spark of life faded from Angel’s blue eyes. I licked her the way she had groomed the rest of us so often, but my efforts to console her did not seem to help. She grew thin and rarely left our blanket and eventually became so weak she could barely walk. Angel hardly took a bite when I shared my paltry catches with her. At night I lay close to her to keep her warm, but the only solace she found came wrapped in the shabby blanket. When she slowly kneaded it as she slumbered, I knew where her dreams were: I still missed our mother too.
Angel seemed farther away from me every day. When I meowed, she didn’t appear to hear me. When I snuggled next to her, she didn’t seem to notice. Angel stopped eating altogether. I feared what lay ahead. Would her life fade away one day like Millie’s had? I wasn’t ready when Angel did not awaken one morning.
I nosed her, pawed at her, trying to provoke any response. Her warmth ebbed away, so I pressed close to give her mine. My sister was all I had left. All I lived for. I couldn’t allow myself to believe Angel was dead, too. But her body grew stiff and icy, and I had to accept that she was gone. I lay alongside her and let the bitterness wash over me. How had it come to this? My whole family, everyone I loved—gone forever. I was alone, really alone.
All goodness had perished. Only wickedness remained. Nothing and no one could be trusted now. A part of me wanted to stay beside Angel’s still body and never get up. But my body struggled against my mind. My aching limbs and rumbling gut refused to surrender. Before the morning passed, I left Angel’s cold body on the ashen blanket under the cedar branches and set out on my own.
I walked away from the brown grassland, glancing back only once. I fixed my eyes on the trees in the distance where the sun disappeared every day. Squeezing through the brush that grew along the fence bordering the familiar field, I continued toward the line of timber. Farther than I had ever been. I wanted to get far away from the cruel road that brought us to such a wretched place.
A strong headwind battered me as I trekked along a furrow in the barren field. Wet snow began to fall. It stuck to my fur and paws and made walking difficult. I had to stop regularly to clear the snow packed between my pads. My tongue burned and my nose grew numb. As I pushed toward the trees, memories shuffled through my mind. The man who snatched us from our mother and abandoned us in that bleak prairie. The man who killed Scout when he plowed the field. And the one whose hound chased down Millie. Man was my enemy as surely as the monster bird that took my brother.
As the trees rose before me, my toes and ears became increasingly icy. Surely something on the other side would promise an easier life. Something better than the hunger, the fear, and death I’d left behind.
My belly growled and my body shook when I reached the trees. Relieved to be out of the brutal wind, I lingered for a while in the shelter of the bushy undergrowth.
Two gray coyotes came out of the trees and yelped as they ran toward me. They were almost on me when I turned to run, the sound filling my ears. Any moment I expected to feel their jaws. I spotted a hole and dashed for it, every muscle burning. Splinters scraped my cheek, yanking out a whisker, as I scrambled through the entrance—into a long hollow log. My heart raced as I turned. One of the coyotes looked in at me with bared yellow teeth, pawing at the decaying wood. Then scratching came from the other end of the log. I couldn’t stop panting, my sides heaving, as the coyotes tried to get at me from both ends. The yelping continued sporadically the rest of the day and into the night. I crouched down, trembling as I breathed in the musty smell. Waiting.
The night stretched into an endless ordeal, with strange sounds I never heard in the prairie. The hooting of an owl, the creaking of limbs in the wind, chittering and fluttering in the trees. Peculiar cries sent shivers through me in the darkness. Everything seemed alive and awake around me, and sleep was impossible.
At dawn, the stench of a coyote’s breath filled the log. I turned to see eyes glowing at me in the dim light. But the animal could do no more than thrust his head into the end of the log. I was safe. The waiting was not all bad, for when daylight filtered through the trees, and I considered my circumstances, I relaxed in the realization that they couldn’t hurt me. Though not warm, the log provided protection from the cold wind, and I found food. A sluggish brown lizard buried in a crevice of the rotting wood and several bugs.
For a brief time, I considered making the hollow log my new home, but as I waited in the dank for the coyotes to leave, a longing began to grow—too hazy to identify. I ached for something more than enough food—more than shelter from the elements. The yearning was for something akin to family, and I wasn’t going to find it alone in a hollow log.
A good part of the next day passed before the coyotes gave up. When I hadn’t heard or seen them for some time, I stuck my head out and looked around. After a few anxious steps away from the safety of the hollow log, I pressed on through the woods, ever watchful.
The snow had stopped, but the wind still blew strong when I got to the edge of the woods. My body and spirit drooped at the sight of what lay before me: another snow-covered field like the one I had already crossed. Nothing to do but keep going, through that field and then another.
It grew colder every hour. I couldn’t see the sun through the clouds and lost track of my direction, but I pressed on. I dreamed of the shed where I was born but dared not hope for anything more than a temporary refuge from the cold and better hunting prospects. When I could go no farther, I happened upon the hollow carcass of a rabbit, ripped apart and stripped of meat. A few morsels were left on the bones. Not enough to satisfy, but enough to give me strength to continue.
The sun, diffused by a layer of clouds, sank toward the treetops and would soon disappear. I couldn’t go much farther before finding a place to spend the night. No hope of reaching the woods before the sky darkened. Not a bale of hay or fence post in sight; not even a clump of grass to shield me from the wind. When the light failed, I scratched down in the snow with shaking legs, tucked my nose into my underside, and huddled in a deep furrow. Another cold night, hungry and weak.
A fresh layer of snow covered me when I awoke. Shaking it off, I arched my back, stretched to my full length, and looked across the white field to the trees beyond. The line of timber looked so much like others I crossed. Was I walking in circles?
I trudged toward the trees with half-closed eyes through snow up to my belly. Progress was painfully slow. My energy and spirits slipped away with the frigid wind stinging my face. When I reached the timber, I heard the screech of a hawk soaring overhead, reminding me of Buddy’s death. I shuddered and hurried into the shelter of the underbrush.
Resting in the brambles, I tried to gather my strength. I was so tired of being cold, of being hungry and weak, of fighting to stay alive. I almost fell asleep, but a hope deep in my gut spurred me on. I pulled myself up and kept walking through the woods, down into a gully to a frosty stream, and up the hill on the other side.
When I emerged from the trees, evening had come. Half frozen and weak, I lifted my head to scan the snow-covered meadow. A fence extended into the distance and disappeared behind a gray building that reminded me of the toolshed where I was born. A smaller building lay beyond it. I stood there, staring for a few moments, hardly believing my eyes. I sniffed the air and caught a hint of smoke—like the scent of the man who left us in the prairie. If there was a man around, it could at least be a place to get warm and renew my strength. I was overwhelmed with an odd mix of feelings that I couldn’t sort out. Altering my course, I aimed for the barn. The hope of finding a dry place out of the weather gave me renewed energy. My steps quickened as I traipsed through the snow.
By the time the old barn towered over me, my paws were numb. The sky had darkened, and I was wet and shivering. I crept through a hole in one of the weathered boards into a vast, dimly lit world of machinery and pungent smells. With the last of my energy I burrowed down into the nearest pile of straw and fell into a deep peaceful sleep for the first time in days.
I dreamt I walked through an airy green meadow full of spicy-scented flowers and butterflies with a warm breeze sweeping over me. Mice waited everywhere, in the grass and among the flowers—ready to be chased and caught and eaten.
The crow of a rooster awakened me. I poked my head out of my bed of straw to morning light streaming through cracks in the gray wall. I stretched, yawned and breathed in a dozen strong scents all mixed together. When I inspected my surroundings, I found I was not the only animal in the big barn. A huge cow with a sweet warm odor stood in the far corner, shifting her weight. She shook her massive head, clanking the bell that hung around her neck. When I meowed, she looked at me, bellowed, and then turned her head away. The scent of other cats caught my attention, but I didn’t see them around.
Plenty of mice lived in the barn, too, and it didn’t take long to catch one. As I greedily consumed the first substantial meal I’d eaten in days, I decided to stay awhile.
While I finished the last bite, three white chickens ducked into the barn through the same breach I had entered the night before. They looked comical, strutting around with bobbing heads, clucking and pecking about in the straw. A few more chickens soon followed. Before long the barn floor was alive with the silly birds. I got too close to one. It squawked and pecked me on my head. I hissed at it with arched back and decided to keep my distance.
The noisy chicken chatter obscured the sound of the barn door swinging open. A stream of light spread over the dirt floor. Quickly hiding behind a bale of hay, I waited, tense and ready to run. I peeked around the corner. My heart sank—a man! I’d hoped I wouldn’t run into him so soon. Just when I found a place out of the weather with good hunting.
The man, his middle round under his blue clothes, carried a bucket and plodded to the corner of the barn where the cow waited. She turned to watch him and bellowed. The man patted her neck, poured some grain into a bin, and made mellow sounds. He sat on a stool beside the placid beast and collected milk in the bucket. I peeked from my hiding place. Fascinating! I licked my lips, my whiskers and nose quivering. The man groaned as he rose to his feet again, picked up the bucket and left the barn.
I came out of hiding and peered outside. The man walked between two large trees toward a white house at the far end of a large snow-covered area. A birdbath sat askew under one of the trees. Several ears of dried corn hung from a low branch of the other. A small white shed stood alongside the fence.
The man disappeared into the house. I turned to go back in the barn when the bark of a dog startled me. The dog was burly, black, and running toward me. Racing into the barn, I scrambled up a stack of hay bales. His teeth flashed white as he barked and scratched at the bottom of the pile—too close for me. My heart pounded. The bale beneath me shifted. Would it topple? I took a flying leap onto a diagonal timber and up to the loft. When I was out of sight, the dog retreated.
I smelled the other cats and turned around. There were two of them, both females. One hefty with gray stripes, and the other, gold like our mother with big green eyes. They were much older than I and standoffish. I meowed a greeting; the gray one acknowledged my presence with a meow, and the other pulled her chin in and turned her head. They both wandered off to different parts of the big loft, marking their territory as they went. Most unfriendly.
Though there would be dangers living in the barn, I could stay out of the weather and eat all I wanted. It had to be better than life in the prairie grass or the woods I had crossed. The loft afforded a great view of the barn below. I claimed my sleeping spot, far from the nests of the other cats.
The next few days, I explored the rest of the barn, and the pastures and fields surrounding it. I noted the comings and goings of the man and the other animals. The dog never came in the barn at night and not much during the day. He couldn’t climb the plank ladder to the loft. I was safe there.
The fat chickens wandered in and out of the barn during the day. At night they returned to the white shed close by and did not return until the next morning.
The other cats didn’t seem interested in much but the mice and each other. I never saw them around the man or any of the other animals. I’m not sure the man knew they lived in the barn. I wanted to play and tried to be friendly, but they were not impressed with me and ignored me most of the time.
The man came and went regularly to tend to the cow. Every morning he collected her milk, then she left to spend the day in the pasture. When the man returned from taking the milk to the house every morning, he cleaned out the cow’s stall, whistling as he went about his work. He moved so slowly, I could easily outrun him if he ever discovered me. Even so, I always watched him from the safety of the loft. If I remained careful he might never know I was around.
Every evening, the man came back with the cow, her bell clanking with every heavy step. He did the milking thing again. The smell of milk made my mouth water. I wanted so to taste it. One chilly morning the man left a pan of warm milk on the barn floor just outside the cow’s stall. I couldn’t resist sampling it. I hadn’t had milk since we were taken away from our mother. It tasted wonderful! I couldn’t stop myself from drinking it all. But I was very careful. I don’t think the man knew who stole it.
Then the strangest thing happened. The man began to leave the pan of milk there often on cold mornings and never seemed upset when it was gone. I always waited until he left the barn before coming down from the loft to lap the pan clean. The other cats preferred mice and never came to drink the milk, but I loved it.
The man glanced toward the rafters one morning after putting the pan of milk down, and he saw me looking at him. I shrank back. He didn’t make angry noises. Instead, he spoke in gentle sounds, the corners of his eyes crinkling slightly. Did he know all along it was me who drank the milk? He didn’t seem to mind. I was careful all the same and waited until he was gone. I couldn’t be sure what he might do if I got too close.
During that long winter, I got careless and started to sneak out of the hayloft as soon as he came into the barn to milk the cow. I stayed at a distance as he aimed a stream of milk and splashed it into the pan. I always waited until he turned his back before I approached then cautiously watched him as I drank.
He talked to me every day as he milked, glancing my way only occasionally, and I began to get used to the sound of his voice. Before I knew it, I looked forward to not only the milk, but to his company.
One day as I came to drink from the pan, the man suddenly shouted. I looked up with wide eyes and ran to the safety of the loft. What did I do to make him angry? I looked down, trembling, and saw the bucket had fallen over—the milk soaking into the straw on the floor. The man kicked at the timber just below me. Then he stopped, looked around, and up at me in the loft. I crouched down with tail wrapped around me and ears back. The man made friendly sounds, but I wasn’t about to come down again.
And I didn’t—not for many days—until the man had left the barn. He continued to leave the milk there at the corner of the cow’s stall and always peered up at me and spoke with soft sounds when he saw me looking at him.
Nothing changed for a long time. He talked nice to me every day when he finished milking as I looked down from the loft, hesitant to trust him. The sounds he made were always a mystery to me, but over time I could see he was not like the other men. I began to think that whatever happened when he shouted that day, did not matter now. Before winter was over, I again came down when I saw him coming, and he talked to me while he milked the cow.
Most mornings, after I drank the milk, I meowed a thank you to the man. He always looked at me with soft kind eyes. I could tell he liked me, and it made me feel warm inside.
One early spring day, after I finished his offering, I glanced up at the man while he rubbed the cow’s neck. I meowed, pointing my ears forward. He looked down at me. I studied the man’s face and his hands as they stroked her, remembering how it felt to be touched. It had been so long since I felt the warmth of another body, so long since I felt connected to someone. The man put out his hand to me, but I backed away, afraid to trust him, though I wanted to.
It took several days before I found the courage to sniff his hand, and several more before I let him touch me. Then one day after he had finished the milking, I walked over with my head and tail held high and rubbed my whole body against his pant leg. He murmured to me gently and reached down. I shrank back momentarily, sniffed at his finger, and then pushed my head into his hand to tell him it was okay. I closed my eyes and purred as he stroked me between my ears and down my back. It felt like home.
Warm weather came and brought with it sweet remembrances of the carefree days with my brothers and sisters. Again, I chased bugs and little green lizards—just for fun—and watched the squirrels in the trees between the barn and the house. Nearly grown by then, I could run fast and continued to hunt mice; they rarely got away. In the afternoons, I frolicked in the pasture that lay beyond the barn, catching the scents of spring flowers. I jumped at butterflies and meowed at the cow, of whom I had become very fond.
I began to follow the man around as he did his chores. Every morning we went to the shed where the chickens spent the night. He collected eggs from their nests. When he milked the cow, I was always there, and when he cleaned out her stall, too. I welcomed the times he reached down to stroke my fur and reminded him by rubbing along his leg if he forgot. By summer, the man and I were true friends.
I have become well acquainted with the other animals on the farm, too. The cats are not as unfriendly as they were, but they often confuse me. They either ignore me or follow me around yowling for my attention. The black dog and I have come to an uneasy truce, and he never barks at me anymore. The chickens have accepted me without concern. Sometimes I chase them a little, but they know it is only a game, and often chase me back. I never go hungry now. The man still gives me a little milk every day, but I rarely eat the mice I catch. Instead, I usually bring them to him. In exchange, the man gives me delicious food from a can with the most wonderful smell.
My life is good now; the man and I are best friends. Don’t get me wrong—I’m still suspicious of most people. I never let strangers get close to me. But sometimes on warm days when the man is resting on the porch, I curl up in his lap and take a nap on his soft blue belly. I dream of my mother and my squirming brothers and sisters curled up together on our tattered blanket.