Good God, what have I done?
I stared down at the tabby cat lying stretched out on the pink fleece pillow. On one side was my six-year-old daughter, Kim, her blonde curls sharing the pearly fluff. On the other side was Megan, barely four. They were at that age where so much is at stake.
They needed to learn to share. They needed to learn to say "please" and "thank you." They needed to learn to brush their teeth and flush the toilet and put away their toys. And they needed to understand that, if you had a cute little kitten, it would grow into an independent cat that still needed to be given food and water every day. And that the kitty litter had to be changed. And that you needed to make sure your pet was safe from harm.
That is why, when I saw the striped cat wounded at the side of the road barely a quarter of a mile from our house, I slammed on the brakes, hopped out of the car and frantically scooped up the mewling bundle. This cat was our responsibility and it was looking like we had failed in our ultimate task to keep her safe.
We had gone to Second Chance Animal Shelter just six months before and picked her out from among all the rest. She had such a dainty way of grooming her face with her so-soft paws that we would name her "Miss Priss." The girls adored her and took great joy in picking out toys for her: a feather on a string, a neon plastic ball with a bell and a toy mouse that looked so real at first I'd thought it was a freeze-dried version of the real deal.
Seeing that wounded little wad of striped fur tore at my heart. I momentarily wanted to ignore what I was seeing but I was not capable of that any more than I was capable of writing an opera or running for president. It would set a horrible example. Besides, Kim and Megan were not blind, they too had seen their precious pet in distress.
We sat in the kitchen coddling and cuddling Miss Priss, wiping the dirt from her fur since she was too weak to do her own grooming. Drops of water were administered with an eye dropper and a flake of tuna was placed on her tongue. By very dint of their affection, it seemed, the girls were willing that cat back to drowsy health again.
But, as I went to the kitchen sink to rinse out my coffee cup, I was greeted with a "thunk" and a "meow" that made me realize what I had just done: Perched on the ledge outside my kitchen window window sat a hale and hearty Miss Priss her round, amber eyes seeming to mock me.
My head whip-lashed from the scene on the window sill to the scene on the floor inside. Still the skeptic, I ran to the jumbled mess of kids and kitten and lifted the eyelid of my feline patient. A deep sea-green orb stared back -- something I had not noticed in my haste to be a shade-tree veterinarian. Worse yet, the faux patient (no, make that faux pet) had snug between his (yes, his) hind legs a pair of fur-covered balls the size of shelled peas.
BALLS? Now what the hell was I supposed to do?
My impostor pet must have been one of the dozens of barn cats from the farm just down the road. Now, mind you, we had chosen to rescue a cat from the animal shelter thereby opting for a less in-bred member of the feline species. But our Miss Priss very well could have come from that very same farm so similar were they. Nonetheless, I would return the male version of Miss Priss to the farmer's wife, an elderly, taciturn, old-school Vermonter. I could begin to guess what her reaction would be but I could not keep this interloper -- even though I had rescued him -- as you can plainly see one cat was already threatening to be nearly one to many.
When wakefulness stirred the bundle of curls, fur and fleece, I knelt down and stroked with equal affection each member of the pack. I murmured softly to each: "This ... is ... not ... Miss ... Priss." With sleep still hanging thready about the girls, I went on to explain that we would take the cat to its rightful owner Maggie down at the farm.
If I live to be 100 I'll never forget the look on that wiry old woman's face when we arrived at her door with a still-lethargic half-grown tabby cat cradled in a pink fleece pillow. I suspect she'd seen hundreds of cats come and go -- and more than she could count squashed on the road that runs past the farmhouse. While she valued her cats for their ability to keep the grain bins and root cellar rodent-free, she was not given to sentimentality about them. She believed that the fittest would survive without her intervention. I suspect she thought I was nuts.
As I babbled my story, she was silent. She either didn't know what to say or knew exactly what she wanted to say but couldn't bring herself to say it in front of the children. Finally, her lip curled in an indefinable way -- neither smile nor smirk -- and she took the cat-laden pillow from my hands with no more than a nod and a barely audible "Ayup."
As I hastened to get back in the van and away from this awkward encounter, Megan began pulling at my pant leg.
"Mommy, Mommy," she whined.
"What, Megan? WHAT?"
"Mommy, she wasn't very polite. She didn't even say: 'Thank you'."
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