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Essays


Ten-Foot Tall Kitty

Ten-Foot Tall Kitty

"Animals only show up on your doorstep like that when they're desperate," Lisa said. "This one is so little. You could fit it in your coat pocket. I see it walking around my yard with its ribs sticking out, looking for something to hunt in between snow storms. It breaks your heart."

That was the first time my wife, Robin, and I ever heard of Kitty. It was December 2006. I can't remember if it was a particularly harsh New England winter or not, because if you live on the Mountain, they're all brutal. The slightest elevation results in exponentially more snowfall and misery for humans and animals alike. Ice storms and wind chills below zero are common. For a feral cat struggling to survive until spring, it's a death sentence.

Lisa bought cat food and crafted a shelter on her front stoop out of a large plastic storage container. She lined the interior with blankets and fortified the sides of the entry with cardboard to buffet the wind. Occasionally she'd spy it eating or watching her vacuum through the window beside the front door. Her two golden retrievers were particularly happy the cat was a voyeur, and begged her with bared teeth to let them properly introduce themselves. She declined.

One morning Lisa woke up and found a ball of fur curled up inside the box. She was ecstatic when she reached inside to pet it, less so after the possum bit her.

We live two houses down the road on a dead-end street on the ridge of the Mountain, where there are nineteen homes in total. We were still spending weekdays in New York City back then, returning to the Mountain on Thursday night for the weekend. We never saw the cat during that first winter. It was no surprise. The cat was terrified of humans. Lisa said that whenever she opened the door and said, "Here, kitty," the cat would bolt.

By April of 2007, temperatures warmed and the snow melted. Apple trees blossomed. Wildflowers bloomed. When Lisa did her spring-cleaning, she discovered wads of cat hair and a rodent's skeleton tucked between chair cushions under a tarp on her deck.

One Saturday, after a day of raking and sweeping, Robin and I sat luxuriating in our den with some wine. It was about five o'clock and the sun was beginning to set. We were deliciously tired, the aches in our bones a perversely pleasant reminder of how productive we'd been. The view through our picture window consists of a red maple tree and the sprawling flower garden that surrounds it. After loading a movie into the DVD player, I circled around to the window to take another look at the fruits of the day's labor.

That's when I saw it. It was ten feet away, crouched low in the mulch, ears pulled back, eyes fixed on me. It was sinew and bone, wired tight, poised to pounce on anything that moved.

"Hun, look. It's the cat, it's the cat," I said.

Robin ran to the window.

It was a living, breathing, feline tuxedo. Eighty percent of its coat was black, the rest white. A pair of olive-colored eyes stared back at us from a perfectly round head the size of a tennis ball. While the head was black, the mouth was white, as was the bowtie splashed across its chest. The paws sticking out of the mulch were white, too.

"She's a beautiful kitty," Robin said. "Look at that face."

"She? How do you know it's a she?"

"Because it's so small and symmetrical. Male cats don't look like that."

I deferred. In truth, neither of us knew anything about cats. We were dog people. Once we moved out of New York permanently, we were getting a golden retriever ourselves.

A series of ooh and ahs followed. Robin waved, blew kisses and channeled sweet nothings through the window. The cat didn't budge. Didn't shake a whisker. We returned to our wine, dimmed the lights, and started the movie. When I turned from the screen to the window, however, I realized that the cat had somehow positioned itself so that our eyes met even while I was sitting. It was as though it had stalked me for a few weeks, knew my favorite spot in the room, and had taken its position accordingly.

Half an hour passed. The cat didn't move. An hour passed. The cat didn't take its eyes off me. I was already smitten with this little survivor. How was it still alive? A cougar roams the Mountain. A pack of coyotes routinely howl at night. Bobcats prowl the perimeter of our house. Possums, fisher cats and hawks scour the Mountain for food. How did this cat survive an entire winter with all these predators, two-foot snowfalls and sub-zero temperatures, let alone one week? And now here it was, staring me down, channeling energy, desperately trying to communicate.

"I'll make you a deal," the cat was saying.

"Oh, yeah? What kind of deal?"

"You take care of me, I'll take care of you."

"How are you going to take care of me?"

"Field mice. They get in your basement. I can make them go away. I can take care of them. I can take care of them . . . for you."

Why else would the cat strike a mouser's pose in the middle of the mulch bed and stare me down for over an hour? This had to be what it had in mind, right?

I turned to Robin in the middle of the movie. "We're getting cat food tomorrow. We're going to supplement its diet on the weekends. In return, it's going to take care of the mice."

"It is?"

"Yes, it is. Good?"

"Good."

On Sunday afternoon we put some dry food out by the side entrance. The cat appeared within two hours and ate the entire bowl. When it finished and caught us watching through the window, it took off.

We left for New York a few hours later, leaving a full bowl behind us, realizing we might be feeding some other animal instead, not giving a damn if we did. During the drive, we contemplated the mystery surrounding the cat. Where did it come from? Whom did it belong to? An Internet site told us that a feral cat had a life expectancy of two years. If it had more than one caretaker, that time frame could be extended. Lisa was doing her best but her two dogs kept the cat at bay, and she routinely travelled to her cabin in Colorado. We could help.

During the rest of 2007, our Thursday night drives home gradually took on more urgency. When we got within fifty miles, I'd consciously press the throttle a little harder. Ten miles away, we'd start guessing how long it would take the cat to show up after we refilled its bowl. By June, the cat would appear on our stoop before we finished carrying our bags from the garage to the foyer. By September, there were no more mice in our basement. In fact, there were no chipmunks, moles, or rodents of any kind on our property.

We began to see the cat in our yard occasionally, sometimes stalking birds or chasing rabbits, other times just sniffing around. It's tail always hung low and it never relaxed. Head on a swivel, eyes darting about, ears flexing, it was on constant alert for predators. Once it was sniffing its way along the edge of the foundation while Robin was watering urns above. It got to within ten feet of her before realizing she was there. It froze for a split second, as though in disbelief it was actually that close to a human, turned and scampered into the woods without a sound. The cat never made a sound.

During the winter of 2008, we took special care to shovel our walkways to give the cat access to its food. Lisa saw it occasionally but there were no signs it was still sleeping on her deck. The people next door had moved out and their house was empty, so we assumed the cat was living there. We put a padded cube near the cat's food but it never went inside. We did see it wandering through the snow one day, desperately trying to find a clear spot of ground so it could take care of its personal business, finally settling on a bare patch near the corner of the foundation, where the gutters kept the snow to a minimum. It dug furiously with its paws to make a little hole in the frozen ground, and struggled to put the dirt and snow back in place to hide its mess.

At some point, we stopped referring to the cat as the kitty and she became simply Kitty. We'd exchange e-mails with Lisa: "Have you seen Kitty?" Another neighbor would encounter Robin on the street. "How's Kitty?" And I began shouting "Dinner for Kitty," loud enough for half the street to hear, when I put her food out. Sometimes Robin would do the same from our deck, directing her message towards the vacant house next door. More often than not, Kitty would appear within ten minutes. Sometimes we'd see her trotting down the driveway like a child who'd been called back from play. When she didn't respond, we'd worry. Two or three days would go by and we'd fear the worst. But she'd always reappear, usually to eat, sometimes to sun herself in our front doorway.

In May of 2009, we moved out of New York and onto the Mountain full time. Given Kitty's active lifestyle, we began to feed her twice a day. "Dinner for Kitty" was preceded by "Breakfast for Kitty" at 7:00 a.m. before I left for work, though I tended to murmur that one under my breath for fear of waking anyone. As I drove away, sometimes I'd catch her sneaking out for breakfast from under the magnolia tree or the spirea shrubs.

I also began tossing a treats on the granite ledge along the wall of the side entrance where we kept her bowl. After dinner, she'd elevate four feet and follow the trail of treats to the pillar at the end, consuming them as she went along, jumping off and disappearing for the night when she was done. When this became second nature, I tossed a few more treats on a parallel pillar on the opposite side of the walkway. Kitty sniffed them out immediately and a new ritual was born. After inhaling the treats on one side, she would bring her paws to one edge, glance at the window to make sure we were watching, and vault five feet to the other pillar to consume the rewards that awaited her. If one of us saw Kitty on the ledge while the other was in another room, he or she would shout: "Come quick. She's doing the Lambeau Leap."

After construction began on the house next door, Kitty began to spend more time on our property. One morning, my "Breakfast for Kitty" was met with a siren of meows from the spirea. At first I thought I was hearing things, but she burst out of the bushes and stalked hesitantly in my direction, wailing: "I'm here. I'm here." She stopped short of me that first time, and I ran inside to tell Robin that Kitty had spoken.

By then we'd done more research on feral cats than on our house before we bought it. I spent hours on the Internet. Robin spoke with a vet and assorted cat experts who'd been recommended to us. They all told us the same thing: don't touch the cat and don't let it in the house. We weren't supposed to touch it because it could be infected with any number of diseases that could make a scratch or a bite problematic, and we weren't supposed to let it in the house because feral cats don't like to be confined. They could destroy a room and hurt themselves in an attempt to escape. Horrifying accounts of feral cats smashing their heads against walls to get out sealed our decision: the cat was not coming in the house.

Before leaving for work, I'd open the garage and walk up the driveway to get the paper. Once she started talking, Kitty began walking up and down the driveway with me. If she didn't hear the door open and I managed to get halfway to the top without her knowing, she'd race up the steps from wherever she was perched to meet me. In the evening when I came home, if Robin hadn't gotten the mail, Kitty would gallop to the mailbox so she could walk me back to the house.

Shortly thereafter, Robin became the first to pet Kitty. It was obvious she wanted to be touched because she kept rubbing against our legs, blocking our path when we walked down the driveway, even rolling over onto her back and sliding down the asphalt beside us. One day Robin put her gloves on and squatted down low. Kitty rewarded her with a terrifying leap into her lap. From that point on, Kitty wanted to be petted at every possible opportunity. We'd pet her with gloves on. She never bit or scratched us. Instead, she always ended up in a trance-like state of contentment, and occasionally left a trail of drool.

In the evening, when we'd say goodnight to her, she'd press her face against the glass and rise on her hind legs to become "Ten-foot Tall Kitty" and get closer to us. We also bought her an outdoor heating pad to keep her warm. The day after she slept on it for the first time, we found a dead mouse on our doormat.

One night in September I couldn't sleep at night because of a stomach ache. I took some medicine, went downstairs to watch television and returned to bed around 2:30 a.m. Rather than turn the lights on and risk waking Robin, I grabbed a flashlight to illuminate the stairs. When I accidentally flashed the light at the window beside the front door, there was Kitty, nose against the glass.

In October, I had to get up early for a trip to New York City. I'd sprained my knee and was moving so slowly that I left at 4:30 a.m. to give myself extra time. I remember the wind whipping me in the face when I opened the garage door with a winter coat on, and Kitty sitting by the adjacent door shaking from the cold when I pulled out.

Once, Kitty was lying in a small bed we'd put by the door. She jumped up for no visible reason, stalked to the intersection of the doorway and the walkway, arched her back and puffed herself up to look bigger. A second later a possum four times her size emerged from behind the pillar. She hissed. The possum took one look at Kitty—though it may have seen me in the doorway as well—and kept on moving. "Huh," I thought. "Kitty scared the possum."

A few days later I caught the possum devouring the food in the bowl with Kitty watching from her perch on the ledge, four feet away. She was too quick for the possum to catch, but the possum was too big for her to fight. What about the bobcats and the fisher cats and the other feral cats? How many times did she skirt death by hiding or running or out-smarting the other predators during her three years on the Mountain?

Even as the possum ate her food, though, Kitty didn't complain, just as she didn't whine when the wind-chill dropped to zero and we'd catch her shivering on the doorstep, or when the snow was so deep she couldn't find a place to relieve herself. She just went about the business of survival with courage and bravery that most humans can only dream of. As D.H. Lawrence wrote, "I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself."

And here's the rub. When we finally lured her into a carrier and got her to the vet, he told us that she was already spayed. Kitty wasn't feral. She was a three to four year-old, nine-pound house cat that probably had been abandoned. Kitty wasn't a wild thing. She was just pretending to be one to survive.

Having a cat was once unthinkable. The thought of calling it Kitty: unimaginable. Ascribing it human characteristics: preposterous.

Today, Kitty lives in our home. She sleeps downstairs in the gym voluntarily and spends the day running freely through the house. She uses her litter box religiously, and has not destroyed a single piece of furniture. She scratched me once, when I picked her up wrong, and nipped Robin twice when she got scared at night. In all three instances, she come back quickly to rub up against us and tell us she was sorry. When we return home from running errands, she sprints down the hallway to greet us, like the dog we always dreamed of. Her favorite activity is to sit in our laps and be petted: there is no quenching her thirst for affection.

She is skittish around guests except for Lisa, without whom she would not be alive today. A week after the vet proclaimed her healthy, Kitty allowed Lisa to pet her for the first time.

Most days, I start writing around 9:00 a.m. By 9:30, Kitty has usually jumped on my desk, extorted a few pets and leaped onto the bed on the couch in my office, where she sleeps until it's time for lunch.

Some people may conclude that Kitty cajoled her way into our home so that we would take care of her. Such an assessment would be true but inaccurate. Kitty also cajoled her way into our home to take care of Robin and me.

For we belong to her as much as she belongs to us.


© Orest Stelmach


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