• Country Cat

    January 21, 2016





    There it was again, a thin reedy cry. I twisted round as if the sound was behind me. Got up and looked out the kitchen window. The yard was empty, the horses in the distance grazing, the dogs chasing a mob down the far slope. I was alone, the kettle puffing  on the wood stove.

    Like a buzzing fly I had been aware of the plaintive cry all afternoon but when I stopped and held my breath to listen, there had been silence. I had almost convinced myself I was hearing things. I left my writing and pushed through the screen door out onto the veranda. It was a hot day, the cicadas singing, the river a tenor to their song.

    Outside, the cry was louder. I pulled on a pair of boots and crossed the yard. The cicadas went quiet. I stopped to listen. There it was again, off to my right, past the chopping block, in the bushes. I couldn’t puzzle out what the sound was. It was both familiar and unknown. I thought it might have been a wounded rabbit. The neighbors’ youngest fancied himself a bit of a hunter. He’d pepper the letterboxes and Stop sign at the end of the road.

    I got down on my hands and knees and pushed under the prickly creeper. Dried horse dung, a few bleached dog bones, and huddled in the middle was a frightened little cat. It stared straight at me and then took off. The bush crackled and shook as it dashed through the undergrowth. I leapt up and kept pace until it stopped. On my hands and knees again I tried to see how old it was, what colour and if it was injured.

    No wild cat would allow me so close. The skinny, battered creatures that occasionally managed to find their way into the hay barn had mutilated ears, scared noses and haunted eyes. The cat backed away, crouched into the ground and meowed. ‘Pentacles. Pentacles, is that you?’

    I held my breath. Stunned. Pentacles had been missing for two years. She’d been sighted a couple of times by neighbors down the valley but no one had been able to get near her. The theory was she’d travelled back down to where we lived before buying Old Man Eric’s farm. We’d gone to town and stayed overnight. I’d shut the house up tight, closed the windows sure Pentacles would find a warm dry spot in the barn. I’d left out a meal but choose to ignore her love for the comfortable chair in front of the wood stove.

    When we returned I called her, walked the paddocks, scoured the boundaries, hoping each day I would find her. I’d driven up and down the valley to chat with neighbors, seeing images of her dead body as a skinned trophy for a bunch of gun-happy testosterone-fueled farm boys.

    I raced back to the house, nearly ripping the screen door off, cut a couple of good sized chunks out of the cold lamb roast and raced back outside. I tossed the lamb across the distance between us. She grabbed it and ate; never taking her eyes off me, ready to run. I tossed more, whispering her name, willing her to remember me.

    Pentacles, small for her age, golden tabby stripes, a white mark on her face, a white bib on her chest, one white paw and a skinny tail much too long for her body. The tears and the guilt took over. I had shut her out and lost her. My selfishness had cost me a loving companion, a beautiful cat. Pentacles, the cat that sat on my knee in front of the wood stove when I read in the evening, the cat that slept like a smooth round stone at the bottom of the bed, the cat that greeted me every morning, tripping me, long stripped tail wound around my ankles.

    It took weeks. Every day she hid in the bushes and meowed. Every day I fed her, the tastiest titbits, the best cuts of meat, hoping this would be the day that I put out my hand and she would sniff it. This would be the day she’d forgive me and let me pick her up and take her back into the warm kitchen and cuddle her.

    It took weeks. She crept to the edge of the bush, sat alert, ears twitching, eyes bright. Then wandered across the yard, wary of the horses, sliding around the feed buckets. One day she hopped up on the veranda, found her place on the battered red chair and slept. Once I surprised her and she leapt up and sprinted back to the bushes.

    It was heart breaking all over again. I relived the pain of coming back to an empty house. The self-hatred I’d felt at not being the concern for her safety. The realization I had taken her for granted and pets can’t be treated like an unwanted gift just because today it doesn’t suit your plans.

    I knew I had to win back her trust. I knew I had to be patient. I sat in the evening, my book open on my empty lap, and tried to imagine where she had been for two years. What had she done to survive? The journey she had taken, the storms of winter, the brief but heavy weeks of snow. The feral cats, the razor-toothed wild pigs, the illegal traps, the winding river that crossed back and forth through the valley, the ploughed and unploughed paddocks.

    Pentacles did return indoors. She once again lived in the house, sat on my lap in the evening, slept on the end of the bed, and enjoyed sunny afternoons on the battered red chair. She again accompanied me to the shed when I clean the tack, played with the pegs when I hung out the washing, sat high on the fence post to glare at the horses trying to lick her ears. She came down to the river to sit on the warmed rocks when I dangled my feet in the freezing water. She did bring the odd mouse or baby rabbit into the kitchen and lay it at my feet. And I treasured her offering, making no fuss as the hunted animal bleed on the rug. She was my cat and I would never take her love and affection for granted ever again.

    I still have that last photo of her sitting on the chopping block, beside the axe and a pile of freshly cut kindling. She is as still as a statue, soaking up the sun on her back, a compact golden tabby, surveying her yard. She didn’t live a long life my country cat. Her memory still bright in my mind.