"Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in."

-- Robert Frost

Monday, January 11, 2010

In Memorandum

We're cat people, really. Not crazy cat people, we are just preferential. We tried the dog thing for a brief stint which we laughingly refer to as our "adventures with Lucky the Devil Dog". Definitely a story worth telling but best left for another day. However, moving into a house out in the wild brought with it the challenges of keeping nosy rodents at bay. And so we acquired two barn cats. Some animal lovers insist that there is no such thing as a barn cat but we picture them realistically as a working animal. They have a job to do like any farm animal and you tell yourself that in a countryside riddled with predators, it's really best not to get attached. And so we took on two male kittens, brothers from the same litter. The children held them constantly from the day we brought them home so that they wouldn't be skittish around people. We were also strict about enforcing the fact that they were not house cats and therefore they served their outdoor purpose very well. They have been everything we had hoped. Wiley and smart, good with the children and yet cautious with the dangers of woodland life. Not to mention, nary a mouse in sight. Most nights they came home at dusk and fell into a pile on top of the rabbit hutch in the garage. Occasionally they didn't, but still sauntered in at sun-up looking strangely satisfied.

On one such occasion, the gray one came home and literally keeled over onto an old sleeping bag. It was a Saturday, and our dad came in from working in the garage to inform us that he thought the cat was dying. We all shuffled outside to see what we could do to help and sure enough there lay the cat, chest heaving, eyes rolled back and tongue hanging. We dipped his limp head into some water in the hopes of revival to no avail and then spent the rest of the afternoon ringing our hands and standing around watching for that last and final breath which we knew would surely come. After several hours of such anxious waiting, that cat sat up, shook his head as if to clear it, stretched from the very end of his nose to the tip of his tail with a yawn that consumed the whole of his face. He took one look at all of us with our furrowed brows and moist eyes, sipped the water, licked the cat food and b-lined for something he saw in the far off bushes. I guess that is what the sleep of the dead is really like.

The school offers a class called Project Wild in which the children learn about animals and their behaviors. My children came home one day a little bit upset that the teacher of this class had insisted that animals don't know how to love, that domesticated animals do what they do because of instinct. Animals need to eat and sleep and they only appear to care simply because you provide them a service which they need and thus a partnership forms and we interpret that as love. Now, I don't know about an animal's ability to love a human being but my observances have taught me a little bit about an animal's capacity to love another animal. See, though we have tried to hold these cats at arms length, we've watched them grow together as brothers. One brings home the head of a rabbit while the other brings home the tail. One waits for the other to eat first. And even as kittens, the brown one slept while the other stood guard, hissing and throwing an angry nail-filled paw the size of your thumb if anyone so much as tried to touch his sleeping brother.

And then two weeks ago, the brown one never returned from a days worth of prowling. It's was bound to happen. We knew it would someday. As afternoon turns to evening and the waining light makes shadows mysterious, the instinct to night-hunt seems to override the sensitivity to fear owls, coyotes and other evils. It had happened many times before but always with a happy ending in the morning. But morning-after turned to morning-after with no return of the brown brother. Still we called and called to the hollow sound of our own voices bouncing off of the hills that surround our little piece of heaven. We had told ourselves not to get attached. We had tried to steel ourselves against the day that the barn cats should disappear. They always do, people of these parts claim. "What will we do when they are gone? We'll go get another one", we'd say. But what we hadn't prepared for was one to leave the other behind.

Now tell me about love, teacher at school. There he sits, day after day vigilantly awaiting for the return of his brother. He goes nowhere else but to sit and keep watch to the edge of the woods for a chocolate brown blur. There are human beings in this world with less thought for another than this cat has for his long lost sibling. I find myself longing today for my children to feel that way about one another. I hope in our family they are learning what eternal love is. It's funny to see a cat know by instinct the very thing that we all try to teach. Our hardened souls are changed forever by the the brotherly love of two barn cats. Thanks for the memories Snickers. We will miss you.


  1. Oh, Marlowe, I'm so heartbroken for poor Mitt! Our cats are siblings, and after one was crippled the other would bring her half-dead mice to chase around and eat. "Animals can't love"? I beg to differ.

  2. Oh, that's so sweet and so sad! We have a very fat, very lazy cat who would perhaps benefit from a barn cat's life and might be good company for poor Mitt...