I was nine years old when we moved to the new cedar and glass house Mom and Jim designed to perch over an intermittent stream in Oklahoma. Floor to ceiling windows looked onto a covered wraparound deck into dense woods, a shady ten acres surrounded by cattle and pasture. Almost immediately, a fat orange tabby cat sauntered into our lives. She walked the deck as if she owned the place, welcoming us to her neighborhood.
“Get her out of here.” Mom told my older brother, repeatedly. “We can’t have a wild cat bringing God-knows-what into the house.”
But the cat befriended our Irish Setter, Rusty, who stood watch as she sampled his dog food. When Peter tossed her off the deck, Rusty raced after her and escorted her back to his bowl. Beth and I kept watch too, shielded the cat from Mom’s reproach. She rubbed against our legs and let us pet her.
One morning I traced a faint mewing to a jumble of moving boxes under the deck. Rusty followed me to a deep box lying on its side, a cardboard flap like a curtain. I flipped it back to find four kittens nestled at the bottom. Four pairs of closed eyes, tiny ears, perfect noses and whiskers. Rusty sat at my side, nose wiggling at each kitten as I picked up a black calico, two orange tigers, and a tiny patchwork orange and white.
The mother cat pushed past me into the box to curl around her babies. They nuzzled in wobbly blindness to a nipple and tucked in side by side as the cat’s motor replaced mewing sounds. Rusty and I watched in wonder.
After their meal, I transferred the sleeping kittens into a smaller box and brought them up to the deck. Mom softened as soon as she saw them. Maybe she identified with the mother cat. “Four sweet kittens, just like you kids.”
“Can they stay? Can they stay?” I pulled on her arm. “I’ll take care of them.”
She hesitated. “They can stay, but they stay outside.” We negotiated names: Missy, the mother; Pepper, the black calico. Patch was obvious, and the two miniature versions of their mother became Copper and Kettle.
All summer, as their champion and caregiver, I watched them change. I spent hours with them as they opened innocent blue eyes, explored the world on unsteady legs. They grew stronger, steadier, curious and brave. One afternoon Missy brought them a tiny bunny. It hopped away in terror, but she herded her babies and the bunny together. The kittens sniffed and crouched; they coiled their bodies, tails swishing; they pounced and missed. They jumped too high; they landed short. When the bunny toppled off the deck, Missy raced after it and brought it back over and over. I couldn’t look away as they finally tore it apart and feasted. When it was gone, they licked their paws with sandpaper tongues and wiped their faces clean.
When they were weaned, we found homes for the three males. Throughout the school year, I started each morning by bringing a saucer of milk out to Pepper and Missy, who purred in noisy gratitude.
The next spring two litters were born just days apart under the deck. I brought them up to a more elaborate cardboard cat house on the deck, padded their boxes with old towels, sheltered them from rain and wind. Missy’s litter was another mix of orange tigers and black calicos, six pairs of unopened eyes, twenty four perfect paws. Pepper’s litter included five almost identical gray tigers, ten paper-thin ears threaded with red and blue blood vessels. Eleven newborns and their two mothers absorbed my attention. Pepper and Missy stepped expertly around their blind babies. Kittens wobbled to an open nipple, noses wriggled while they breathed and sucked.
The kittens were a study in contrasts: delicate eyelids, soft ears, miniature whiskers, and lips hiding razor-sharp teeth. Each soft toe pad enveloped a curved claw, sharp as a needle. I massaged their miniature feet as they nursed, pressed each dagger from its sheath, amazed at the pointed danger. I remembered Missy’s hunting lesson, how the first litter learned to use their claws and teeth.
Then, on an early summer morning, I pushed open the screen door and registered the absence of kitten sounds. Blood and body parts were strewn across the deck in a messy pattern of puddles and streaks. Rusty sniffed at the beheaded body of the tiniest kitten, and I pushed him back into the house. Missy and Pepper were not around. I counted the bodies. Eleven babies. Every one of them dead. Some laid almost undisturbed in their box, but most had been carried in various stages of dismemberment across the red-streaked deck. So much blood between bits of fur and kitten parts. Their eyes would never open; their keen weapons never used to climb or hunt.
I picked them up and arranged them into the smaller of the two boxes. Some had no skin, some had been chewed or partially eaten. My vision blurred as I hid the most damaged parts. At a glance, they were a single, silent litter of kittens, peacefully asleep.
I washed the deck clean with a scrub brush and a bucket of soapy water. Missy and Pepper showed up and sniffed at the box. Their noses and whiskers twitched, but they showed no signs of distress. I sat beside the box of dead kittens and wondered how they still purred.
I was numb and as quiet as the kittens when Mom woke up.
“The tomcat did this,” she said, her voice flat. We’d caught glimpses of a wild black cat in the woods. We’d heard snarls at night, but we’d never seen it on the deck.
“A father would kill his babies?”
“Too many mouths to feed.” She said it as a matter of fact.
“Why didn’t Missy and Pepper protect their babies?” I asked.
“They couldn’t fight a tomcat.”
Mom looked over her shoulder as she turned to go inside. “You better bury them deep.”
About the Author
Linda Castronovo lives and writes in western Massachusetts, land of the Nipmuc and Pocumtuck People. She makes her home with her husband, a yellow lab, a black cat, and a dozen chickens on a tiny hobby farm with fruit trees, berry bushes, and too many weeds. Nature is still a daily wonder.