What would we do without our cats? All of the ranchers and farmers that I know have cats, both inside and out in the barn. They're necessary for keeping the population of mice, rats, moles, gophers and rabbits in check. It's a natural and easy solution. In return for an easier life than living in the wild, affection and appreciation for their prowess as hunters and a fairly safe place to have their kittens, both humans and cats enjoy the relationship. For me, it's an endless source of stories, laughter and love . My cats are all neutered and spayed. I never turn a stray away from my door. And I am fascinated with the relationship that my horses have with them. They are apex predators on a tiny scale and horses are the ultimate prey on a huge scale. Somehow they always get along.
My first cat was an indoor/outdoor intact Tom that belonged to my Grandparents. His name was Smoky. He was a huge, blue grey cat that caught mice and rats like the champion he was, loved all of the 'ladies' in the area and frequently came in with wounds from honorable battles, smelling of piss and blood. He was King of the neighborhood but there was always some new punk who would come along every Spring to challenge him for his territory. But I didn't know that. For me, he was the cat that would show up outside my window at night, climbing up to the window next to my cot on the second floor, from the branches of an old Mimosa in the side yard, who asked me to open the latch on the screen window.
I knew I wasn't supposed to let him in but I wasn't very good at following instructions. The screens were on tall, thin, farmhouse windows. There were latches on the top and bottom to hold them in place. I'd found out that if I opened the bottom latches, I could swing that screen out far enough to let Smokey inside. I'd rehook the latches, in my six year old wisdom thinking that Grandma would never know how he had gotten in. And Smokey would curl up on the pillow next to me, purring and letting me untangle his long, silky fur.
It was Summer in Kansas and there was no AC back then. Windows were open and the night sounds were like an orchestra to me. I'd lay there and go to sleep listening to crickets, owls, cats and dogs, coyote and frogs. The night winds would make that old Mimosa, Grandpa's favorite carefully tended to tree, creak and groan. I think that was where the stories began for me. I was sure I could hear the night creatures talking, telling tall tales, trying to outdo each other in their claims of valor and battles won. And there was Smokey, laying next to me purring which, to my way of thinking, was the best form of applause.
Grandma would wake up early to cook a farm breakfast. She made biscuits or muffins, pie, oatmeal, bacon and sausage, eggs and whatever fruit or vegetables were growing in the garden. It was a feast. But first she would stop to pick up Smokey from my pillow while I pretended to be asleep, grumbling about a stinky cat being on her grand daughter's pillow and how she would have to change the case again and do more laundry. She'd lean over and say, " No use pretending to sleep. I know you're awake. You might as well get up and come help me. Did you let this beast inside the house last night?" And I would put on my best limpid eyed look and not exactly lie, just shake my head in little circles that I thought could be a yes or no. And she never got angry at either of us, just smiled and pull the covers off so I could get up and tip toe downstairs with her. We didn't want to wake the men folk. They were going to have a long day outside, working.
One of the things we did every morning was to cut up and cook liver for Smokey. He would sit in his place in the kitchen, up where Penny, Grandma's dog, couldn't bother Smokey, and purr in anticipation of his big plate of bloody liver. Grandma would cut it in to tiny pieces for him so he could eat it neatly, without dragging liver all over her clean kitchen. Afterwards Smokey would sit in the window, on the ledge, and groom himself. It was his nap place too. He was an indulged fellow who understood his worth in his kingdom. It was his due.
I would sometimes lay there awake at night, waiting for Smokey. I knew he would show up, wanting to come in and sleep with me. He was my best friend at Grandma and Grandpa's house. We'd spend all day together when Grandma would kick me outside, after chores. " You two go outside and find something to do. "
One night Smokey showed up at the window, wanting in. I leaned over and opened the screen, helping him in. He seemed slow that night. Didn't seem able to make that jump. It never occurred to me that it was dangerous to lean out of a window to pick up a heavy cat. I did what all children did then. I got the job done.
I closed the screen, latching it, and turned to pet my Smokey. But he was sticky and smelled of copper. He groaned too. I had a flashlight my Grandpa had given me. That was normal. We all had them next to our beds in case of storms and a power outage. When I shown it on Smokey, I could see what had happened. he was terribly injured. Something big had gotten to him. He had lost patches of his glorious fur, was cut and torn up, bleeding and in troubles. I left him on my bed, bleeding, and ran to Grandma's side of the bed. " Grandma. Grandma! Wake up! Smokey is hurt. He's bleeding all over. "
She was up out of the bed and so was Grandpa. There was no hesitation. They were farm people and the animals always came first. It was a covenant I learned from them. She picked up Smokey, who was panting by then. He was in shock. They went downstairs to the kitchen table and checked him over. I learned, years later, that the old kitchen table was where people and animals were always laid out to be cleaned and stitched up.
My job was to stay with Smokey and comfort him. Grandpa got a basin of clean, boiled water and a bottle of moonshine, some rags and soap. Grandma came back with her sewing kit. I learned a lot about animal husbandry from them, over the years. But this was my first experience with wounds. I was crying but did what she told me to do. It might mean Smokey's life if I didn't.
I held Smokey, crooning to him, trying to keep him still. Grandpa took out the warm water first along with the soap. This was going to hurt and Smokey might scratch me or try to bite me. I was brave though. I loved that fierce battle cat. I would do my part. They'd turned on all the lights in the kitchen and lit a couple of the old kerosene lanterns, to make it bright enough to see what had to be done. I could hear the lanterns hissing, my grandparents discussing what they needed to do and whether it was something they should do or did Grandpa need to get his gun. I was horrified!
"Grandpa, let me ask Smokey what to do. Please Grandpa. Don't take him outside and shoot him!" They waited while I leaned over Smokey and asked him if it was time for him to die. I was crying, hiccuping with tears and snot all over the place. But this was part of life on a farm. Decisions like this were made every day. Smokey 'told' me he would fight if I would help him. I told them and the decision was made. We would clean him up and sew him back together.
Grandpa shaved some of Smokey's beautiful hair away from the edges of the wounds and gently cleaned them with lye soap and warm water. I know it hurt Smokey. I could feel him flinch and tighten up. But he never scratched or protested. He did hold on tightly, to my arms. I had small wounds later that they cleaned up but I never said anything. I wanted to be strong and brave, like Smokey.
Then Grandpa took the moonshine and put it on rags, using it to sterilize as much as possible. They needed to get as much of the dirt out as they could, before closing up the wounds. Smokey was going to be scarred from this, if he survived. It was bad. It was the first time I had seen the muscles and membranes under the skin. Poor Smokey. It turned out I had more tears in me than I knew was possible. Grandma reached over and had me blow my nose so I wouldn't get him dirty again after they cleaned him up. No one ever said anything about my crying. That happened too, on a farm. It was part of being alive.
I don't know how long we stood there, me on a chair so I could reach Smokey, all of us hunched over so we could do our parts. Smokey did hiss a few times, it hurt so much, but he never pulled away. He was keeping his word to me. He was going to fight to stay alive the same way he fought to keep his territory. We were there for so long the sun was coming up along the ridge of the sky. But all of his wounds were clean and neatly stitched, with Grandma's tatting and quilting skills. She even knew to leave a small corner open so the wounds could seep while healing. Each stitch was small and perfect. And we all, cat and humans, were exhausted by the time it was over.
Smokey went to sleep. I carefully carried him to the sofa so we could curl up together. Grandma didn't say anything about ruining a pillow. She loved that old cat as much as Grandpa and I did. She pulled a blanket over me and told me I didn't have to help with chores that day. My job was to help Smokey.
It was a hard couple of weeks for Smokey. His wounds were serious. They needed to be cleaned a couple of times a day and he was carried to his place on the counter so he could eat and drink and then it was my job to carry him outside to do his business. I never faltered. I stayed longer that Summer. Grandma had called and talked to my Mom, telling her what happened. Mom came to see me every weekend while I helped Smokey through his laying up, as Grandma called it. And that old cat loved it too. He purred, ate, slept and purred all day and night long. The sofa was our bed and the shade of the Mimosa was where we spent the days, outside in the grass.
I read him books, told him stories, massaged his muscles because Grandpa told me too. I changed bandages and cleaned wounds, hand fed him tidbits and laid outside under that tree with the fuzzy, pink flowers and watched hummingbirds and clouds. It wasn't ideal. He was hurt and I was afraid. But there was a bond forged that Summer that is still there, between me and cats.
Years later Smokey died of old age. No one told me. I went to spend some weeks with my grandparents, looking forward to helping in the gardens, with the animals and to having Smokey sleeping by me on his pillow. He had always been there to greet me. And that Summer he wasn't. When I asked Grandma where he was, she took me to her prized rose garden. There was a new yellow rose growing there with beautiful, tight rose buds and huge, fragrant flowers. She showed me a stone with his name on it. He had a rose growing from his heart.
She left me to sit on the ground, crying for my fierce bad cat. It was part of life, grieving for the ones who have passed ahead of us. I lied there with my head on her loomy garden soil, trying to imagine that Smokey was there with me, purring. And I took him dandylions and daisies all that Summer, making sure there were no weeds. Penny and I were bereft. I spent time under the mimosa, laying in the grass and reading to Penny. And I told stories about Smokey, the cat who turned in to a night lion and kept bad guys away.
I still miss that stinky, old cat. And I can still hear his purr on my pillow at night too. I will always have cats. And, someday, I will leave this place and he will be waiting at the head of the line, ready to take me on to our next adventures together.
I love you Smokey.
I am, ever yours, Nancy, smiling and remembering