Ojo cracked me up the other morning. I could tell the day before that he wasn’t feeling well. When he’s constipated, (and also preceding the loss of his first four lives), he contracts in on himself, curls into a tight ball, his cheek fur flares out because he pulls his head in like a tortoise, and he moves sluggishly if at all. He sat on the patio chair for an hour, refusing to come in even when I shook the treat can. Although it’s possible he was just pouting, because he’s an emotional little fellow. Either way, dusk was coming so I picked him up, tight little black ball, and carried him in, whence he disappeared and I didn’t see him for hours.
I mixed powdered psyllium husks into his dinner with extra water, and in the morning gave both cats a squirt of catnip-flavored laxatone instead of their first breakfast before letting them out. An hour later, I fed him his usual quarter can. Shortly, I took the dogs out, and called the cats for a walk. Ojo and Topaz both wanted to come in for second breakfast, but I said, No, you have to walk first, I want to see you poop.
So they came running along behind me and the dogs, sprinting past me in their usual tag-relay game, one or the other shooting up into a juniper occasionally. Ojo plopped down in the dusty trail and rolled, meowing, not unusual for him, but I missed that in this case it was the first sign that he didn’t want to walk. I rubbed his tummy fuzz and walked on.
Around the next curve he attacked my ankle, ran up meowing and grabbed my pants leg and gave a quick bite. I laughed and walked on, as he continued to meow, stomping along angrily behind me. A couple more times he lunged but I kept going; then he grabbed my ankle again, and this time he was very persuasive. He did not want to walk! Still laughing, I turned around and up the hill. He shut right up and walked a yard in front of me the whole way home, where he got another quarter can and so did Topaz, and then they sprawled on the living room rug at total ease.
I draw some firm lines with them. I won’t feed them before first light, or let them out before sunrise; both must be in before sunset. Both those lines ensure my peace of mind in different ways. Experience with numerous cats has taught me that if you give a cat an inch in the morning, you’ll be getting up earlier and earlier to feed it until you’ve lost two hours of your usual sleep. On the sunset line, if these cats aren’t in by dark I won’t sleep until they are. They seem to take turns, one every few months, trying to get away with it.
But in a moment like that morning, when one of them had such strong feelings, I was happy to change my plan to accommodate his need. They ask for so little, and give so much. I still see in them the kittens they were, and also imagine the old cats I hope they will survive to become. But I know cats only have nine lives, and around here those can go pretty fast. So I treasure every day with them, and accept their their little quirks and demands, and do my best to keep them happy.
Ojo and his siblings are four and a half years old next month. They all remain happily alive in four neighborhood homes, although Ojo has been whisked from death’s door four times (that I know of). Topaz has not. She is self-sufficient, often aloof, and sweet as pie. He is a perpetual surprise, a spoiled mama’s boy who wants what he wants when he wants it, and won’t take no for an answer. They still make me laugh every day.
One of the year’s first bees midst the yellow and white crocuses which have already faded away.
Or specifically, Bee Obsession. While I’ve only seen a few bees so far this spring, mostly honeybees on the crocuses and miniature irises, I’ve been obsessed with bees since mid-Winter. On Earth Day I’ll be opening a show at The Hive in Paonia, called A Thousand Bees. This idea has been in my head for a couple of years, and the time hasn’t been right for one reason or another to manifest it, until this winter. And it’s perfect that I’m still working on bees inside, it keeps me occupied during this windy confusing season of early spring, when I tend to get too excited about the garden and start seeds way way too early.
Beautiful blooms have already come and gone in the spring bed, with miniature and regular tulip greens triangulating their way out of the ground, mini irises already faded, their strap leaves growing tall and green; the white grape hyacinth are up, never very many, and the snow-in-summer is spreading far and wide. This morning I sorted and arranged hoses, aiming for the least drag factor with the most coverage for hand-watering and sprinkler attachment. Over the years I’ve accrued quite a collection of hoses, ultimately ending up with half a dozen Gilmour Flexogens. These are great, flexible hoses with a lifetime warranty. Last winter I snipped both ends off of three repaired Flexogens and sent them back to Gilmour, and three brand new hoses arrived in the lengths I specified. These are grey and blend much better with the landscape than the original mint green hoses, so I’m using them in front. With half a dozen in a mix of 25-, 50-, and 75-foot lengths, I think I’ve finally got the yard covered, like spider legs out from the house. Is it the most efficient ever? We’ll see.
Where do hoses come from, anyway? I don’t even want to know the nature and extent of the resources involved in getting the best garden hose to my yard.
Why I have disappointed myself in my resolution to post Morning Rounds at least once a week is this:
This poster holds 156 (of the thousand) images, and will be printed poster-size. I’ve also made a poster of 54 native bees, and one of 54 bumblebees. So there’s sure to be some bee for everyone to love.
Since January I’ve culled around 1200 images of native bees and honeybees from the startling eight thousand or so I’ve taken over the past four summers. I continue to cull, and to perfect each image. Some of them will be mounted in round willow frames made by a young man who is sharing the Hive space with his own exhibit featuring woven sculptures. Some of them will be huge in regular frames, some will be in small frames, some on mugs, tote bags, and greeting cards. Altogether I intend to show in one space a thousand unique images of bees. A thousand different bees? No. A thousand images. Some are the same bee on the same flower, at different moments. Still, a thousand images I think will give quite an experience of bees!
But why? That part is not clear to me yet, but has something to do with celebrating the fleeting beauty of our fragile planet. I’m happily driven to spend hour after hour, day after day playing with my images of bees, wallowing in the certainty of this one beautiful thing in this one moment, in this enervating erratic weather. I want people to learn to love bees, people who don’t already love them; and those who do I want to give this joyful experience of color, light, and life in a form they can take home with them.
So this is the world in which I have dwelt more or less full time since late December. And my little world continues to spin around me. The kittens now dwell from early morning til mid-afternoon outside; when they come in they eat their fill and go right to sleep. I rarely see them again until they jump up at bed time.
Little black panther in the juniper woods, alternately leaping up trees and chasing his sister as they leapfrog along on our daily walks.
Bedtime finds me trapped like a pencil between cats on one side and dogs on the other.
Meanwhile, seismic changes seem to be shifting inside me. We’ll know more later.
On a recent window patrol, Topaz goes nose to nose with an even larger animal. What is wrong with those antlers?
In a way, I’m glad the kittens have noticed the birds. They’ve spent their days the past week lurking in various windows, tensed, tails twitching in time with whatever music is on, watching juncos peck around the ground near the house for crumbs leftover from fall: dried rosehips, tiny purple-black foresteria berries, catkins scattered by the nuthatches and finches feeding in the birch tree, lavender; who knows what they’re finding in this deep and steady snow. I took down the bird feeders last summer, when I realized that I would eventually let these cats outside.
I vowed years ago not to have an outdoor cat again. Then Little Doctor Vincent showed up bleeding under a juniper three days after I buried Dia the psycho calico, and a couple of years later Little White Mikey arrived the night after we gave Little Bear his aerial burial. Both were happy to come inside but they knew their birthright, so I compromised by putting bells on them. Mikey vanished after only nine months, and was more like a ghost than a real cat anyway. Vincent lost a five-dollar collar about once a month, so after a year I gave up on that. He didn’t really hunt birds much so I was lucky. After Vinnie died I renewed my vow, tending only to my sweet old orange cat Brat Farrar, who had always been content to live inside, and refusing several offers of lovely indoor-outdoor cats.
Then the little hoes showed up. They both really want to get outside, and though I intended to let them loose after they were neutered in October, for various reasons that hasn’t happened yet. We experimented last summer and fall with a few short forays. Ojo would stick around and even come when I called, but Topaz made steady oblivious progress each time toward the perimeter fence, and the prospect of losing her into the woods unnerved me. So then we tried some leash walks, which went better than you might expect. Though Ojo objected strenuously at first, Topaz got the hang of it pretty quickly and could be led.
Keeping them in whenever anyone else went in or out the door became challenging. The mud room served as an airlock chamber for the front door, but the back door required agility and speed to prevent escape. Then I went away for a month, and when I returned they were out of the habit of trying (imagine here a whole paragraph of speculation as to why). A week later the snow came, and since then they’ve shown no inclination to leave the house. I try to brush each of them at least once a day, and vacuum a few times a week; still, the hair spills out from under furniture, piles into drifts on the stairs, tickles my lips when there’s no kitten near. They’re very skillful at rampaging through the house, from one end to the other and back, around the couch over the piano up the stairs off the wall and back, without knocking much down; occasionally the brass bowl crashes off the piano or an orchid tips over on the stone wall, but for the frequency and velocity of their chases incidents are acceptably rare. Still, they need more space to run.
They’ve begun climbing to places they shouldn’t be, like the top of the refrigerator which has no top; all its guts are up there, open to the air ~ and cat hair, and mischief.
So as the snow melts this spring, and before the garden foliage gets so thick I can’t see them, I will let them out. Therefore, I’m not feeding the birds this winter, and though I miss the sound and sight of their flocks at the feeder tree, I’m glad I have one fewer path to shovel in this big snow winter. With no bird feeders-cum-bait station, they seem to be finding plenty of natural food that perhaps they’ve ignored during previous years when they were provided with a bottomless supply of sunflower and thistle seeds.
A foot of fresh snow and counting on top of the foot that barely melted. My dimly visible path to the back gate and compost that I shoveled twice yesterday is ready for another effort. We’d all rather just stay inside.
The snow continues to fall, the cats run from one window to another focused on birds and occasional bunnies. I don’t wish them to catch the birds when they finally taste their freedom, but noticing them is the first step in learning to hunt, and I do want them to hunt mice and chipmunks, and frighten squirrels and bunnies out of the yard come summer. I’m hoping now they know there’s prey around the house they’ll stick close when I release them, and not go running off into the forest. We’ll all compromise: I’ll try bells again and the kittens will take only what their hampered abilities allow them, hopefully not birds; I will break my resolution and have outdoor cats again, but not lure the birds to an easy death with feeders.
Meanwhile, we’ve discovered the true purpose of the copper sink.
As for Raven, the first sign of true improvement came four days after the poisoning when she lay at my feet waiting for Last Bite.
The next morning I began to have confidence that she’d be fine when she rolled on her back for the first time since almost dying. Within a week she was back to her old tricks, eating anything her mouth came across. She remains under strict supervision.
And what IS wrong with this buck’s antlers? We’ve observed him in the neighborhood this winter and wondered. He finally came close enough for me to get a good look. A piece of twine tangled into the base of his one remaining antler, which never shed its velvet, hangs over his right eye. His other antler has been sliced off clean. Masses of fur and flesh looking rotten and raw cluster around his pedicels. As he looked through our window at the cat, then at me, I felt his story: he got caught in someone’s garden netting or hammock or something, and in extricating himself sliced off one growing antler and tangled the bases of both so hopelessly it stunted the growth of the other and resulted in these fungus-like wounds. Or maybe there is fungus growing around the traumatized tissue. I hope that when it’s time to shed he drops the whole mess and can start fresh next season.
Sunrise this lengthening-day morning brought a beautiful view full of new snow. Last night as it still fell, Tom our UPS man called to say he’d left a package at the top of the driveway. I tried to push the Honda through but only made it about fifteen feet before backing up to my dry parking spot and waiting til morning. Once the sun was up and the air had warmed a bit, I bundled my snot-nosed coughing self up warmly and strapped on snowshoes to go get the package. I knew what it was, and it was essential.
Topaz, whose new nickname is Toto, ate so much cat food at one time yesterday that she threw up and had to take a nap.
Why doesn’t the grocery store sell kitten chow in the big bags? I can get it so much cheaper in a 14-pound bag from Amazon, and usually it’s delivered right to the door. If Tom had only come a few hours sooner he could have made it down the driveway! As it happened, I didn’t want him to even try. Christmas week and he was already hours late. Driving must have been harrowing for him all day. The cat food Deborah had donated to tide us over must be far more tasty than the kitten chow; the kittens ate two cups in one day between them, twice as much as usual, and were mewling for more. I had to get them back on track, and I didn’t want any more puking.
So I headed up the driveway. The snow was just deep enough to make it slow with boots alone and tedious with snowshoes, so I kicked those off just beyond the first gate. Just past the skunk culvert where the fence begins I considered turning back, just waiting awhile, in case Cynthia decided to make tracks with her Subaru or Fred came to plow. But I continued: it was so beautiful out, the kittens needed their proper food, and I knew this would be the dogs’ only chance today for a walk; also, I don’t like to presume when or if my kindest of neighbors will come with his tractor and plow.
Ojo protecting his first ever snowball.
Fred and Mary’s cat, Benito, the runt of the litter now bigger than any of them, and still with the bluest eyes, perched atop their fridge the other day.
I love being snowed in. There’s a peace that doesn’t come any other time. Silent snow, secret snow. True solitude. I am cocooned in the warmth of my house with all the potential of the day ahead. My creative juices can flow, wander from one project to another, without external distraction. No one will come. Keeping essential paths shoveled takes time and energy, but gets me outside occasionally to appreciate the beauty of the place I have chosen to live. Shovel slowly, stop often, breathe deeply and look around. I become more grounded in this place when I can’t get out.
Away from here for a month I was a mess. I didn’t recognize myself, in constant fight, flight, or freeze. I realized sometime before I headed home that this journey was a crucial bardo: I had either to recommit whole-heartedly to the challenging rural life I have chosen, or I had to come up with a big change of plan. I haven’t decided which yet, but in the two weeks I’ve been home, the fear and anxiety have receded, leaving a calm gratitude in their place.
In that moment this morning when I considered turning back, I realized there was no hurry. Enjoy. This is the life I chose, these the burdens and the pleasures. The physical exertions that make living here hard seem nothing now compared to the mental anguish I suffer in or near a city. The hike up the driveway and back took almost an hour, pausing now and then to enjoy the view, sunlight slanting through white clouds southeast, a dark shelf of weather in the western sky, Grand Mesa sparkling to the north, unbroken white fields; juniper boughs heavy with puffs of snow, slipping off in shimmering showers, sometimes saddling Stellar with white as he runs beneath the trees. Nine-year-old Raven bouncing through the snow like a puppy, racing, scooting, kicking up powder. I carried the 14-pound bag of kitten chow in a tote over my shoulder, switching shoulders and pole hand often. Just as I reached the door and dropped the snowshoes, the tote bag, the pole, I heard the tell-tale putt-putt of Fred’s tractor in the distance.
I’ll pretend I’m still snowed in. I’ll sit by the woodstove and tend the small fire and read, write, sip hot tea. I’ll wallow in the gratitude I feel for the comfort and security of a community that supports me, through neighborly aide (of so many sorts) and convivial ritual, with friendship and love, in this spectacular place we have all chosen.
Solstice bonfire Sunday night at the Bad Dog Ranch. A beautifully constructed pyre that didn’t catch right away. Some called for gasoline; I’d have had to get in their way if they tried. All it needed was patience, a little TLC, and it took off magnificently.
Many of our winter rituals could happen anywhere, I suppose. Only here under wide-open skies could the season’s turning be marked with a fire like this one. We all stood looking up and marveled during those magical moments when sparks were shooting up through down-coming snowflakes. Up, down, hot, cold, light, dark. Altogether, life.
Tenderly tended, the fire slowly died in the bottom of the snow-filled stock pond. Our boots were covered in slick grey mud by the end of the evening, our bellies full of nog and ham biscuits, our hearts bathed in light.
Spectacularly weird weather continues to give us extraordinary skies, sunrise through sunset and beyond.
The kittens continue to make themselves at home, gradually extending their territory one windowsill at a time.
This morning they claimed the Cradle of Civilization, and because they were too cute in it, and because this is a game of give and take, I ceded the basket and the garden table to them. I made it clear, though, that the tables on either side of that one, and my desk in the corner, are off limits. As they explore the house further each day there is a constant negotiation of territory.
Meanwhile the garden roller coaster opened the throttle a long time ago.
The raised beds, looking north from inside the horseshoe. Dahlias from seed, gladioli, tomatoes.
The raised beds from the entrance, looking south towards the bush beans and melons.
Tomatillos have set a new burst of flowers after I fed them last week.
I may have made a mistake. I gave bloom food to all the flowers and vegetables last week, and it seems to have done some of them good, the flowers, the squashes, beans, eggplants, but I fear I’ve undone my tomatoes and tomatillos. They’re sending off prolific new shoots with blossoms, and some of that new growth on the tomatillos is turning yellow. What do I add to help them, and should I cut off all those flower shoots? And what should’ve I given them instead of bloom food (1-4-5)? Bloom foods I’ve used before have said “for flowers and fruits.” This one I bought in bulk, and don’t really know much about it. I used the same company’s grow formula (3-2-4) earlier this summer, maybe more than once. I think I also did a bloom feed earlier. I thought that doing it last week would help the fruits that were already on there, but instead I think I may have sabotaged them. Live and learn.
Then I called my next door neighbor, who has a true subsistence garden for his family, and asked him what I’d done wrong. He said his tomatoes are doing the same thing, lots of new shoots with flowers, and he didn’t give them anything. So that made me feel better. He agreed maybe I should cut off the new shoots. I started doing that and suddenly it seemed like I was cutting too much growth. It’s been a hard year for a lot of vegetables, late to go in because of the cold, way too much rain leaching nutrients from the soil early and compacting the beds with some clay in them, then hot and dry baking those beds, then cool and wet, then super windy, then rainy, then hot and dry… Fluctuations.
What’s making the tomatillos turn yellow? Is it too much water? Grasshoppers eating stems? Competition from the snake gourd next door?
Plus the grasshoppers! Everyone is complaining about their plague-like populations. Fortunately in my yard there is so much growth of all the ornamentals, from the wet spring, that they have plenty to eat without doing too much damage to the food crops. Still, I’ve been cutting back spent beds where they’re congregating, and setting out Nolo bait stations every few days. Maybe I’m making a little headway, I can’t tell, but the little piles of Nolo get eaten before the afternoon thunderstorms arrive.
A beautiful combination, Callirhoe involucrata, or poppy mallow, with creeping germander, and full of native bees for the past few weeks. But also, if you look closely, crawling with grasshoppers.
Despite the grasshoppers, there are some nice tomatoes forming, and the marigolds are happily blooming.
Our very first little gherkins!
And finally, back inside to kittens. I’m still not sure about their names. I’ve been trying on several different names for each of them in the past couple of weeks. For Ojo, the little black boy, I’ve considered Pepper and Alcide. For the tortoiseshell girl whose working name was Ajo, I’ve considered Garlic, Cinnamon, and Sookie. But in the back of my mind I can’t get past the soft, sweet custart-colored patch on her tummy, and I think I’m going to call her Flan. A as in father, not as in Ann. It sounds as soft and sweet as she can sometimes be, and if the name does make the kitten, I prefer that to a spicier moniker.
Kittens, they are each other’s toys, and I have become their furniture. Flies in the windows teach them to jump. The big dog lies on the futon while the girl kitten stalks a fly by his nose. She creeps, she inches forward tensed, then pounces, lightly, on the cushion by his face; he remains still, watching this curious puppy that has several times hissed at him.
Ojo with the beautiful green eyes.
He’s claimed the forgotten dusty shelf in the laundry closet.
The little black cat rolls and purrs on my chest as I write. His sister sits on a forbidden table. I disrupt him to go scoop her up and bring her back to my lap in the recliner, disrupting his nap preparations. He almost seems to be jealous of her, curled on my chest, settling for one of the first times on the bed he claimed last week. Eventually all three fall asleep, Stellar where he lay, Ojo in the window bed, and Flan, finally, on the footrest between my feet. I find myself feeling more relaxed and happier than I have in a long time, and I know that living with these little kittens is good for my heart. And if it’s good for my heart, it’s good for my art.
Sugar, née Stella, gone with Spice to live with Pauline way out in the country. Way out.
The kittens have all gone to their new homes. It was a whirlwind adventure helping to raise them to three months. Fred and Mary were the best grandparents anyone could have been. It was a privilege and a delight to participate in their unexpected kitten bonanza. Over the course of their short lives they moved up one box, one room, one home at a time from their humble birth in an inverted wine box, to a bigger box, to a refrigerator box, to a storage room in the shop, to free run of the whole garage. Then a couple of weeks ago, Idaho and Spider went to live in first the tack room and now the whole barn at the Bad Dog Ranch; Stella and Blaze were whisked away to live even farther out past Crystal Creek with Pauline, who recently lost her old cat, and renamed these kittens Sugar and Spice; Sammy, née Oreo, now called Benito, stayed at Fred and Mary’s with his mama, once and again called Shelley now that her Heidi Ho days are over. But not before she went into heat not once but twice after the kittens reached six weeks old.
Fred called one morning while Mary was out of town. “Can cats go into heat while they’re still nursing?” he asked. “I think so,” I said, and turned to ask a friend who happened to know. Indeed they can! Patricia said she once fostered a cat who’d gone into heat when her kittens were ten days old! Fred recited the behaviors he was seeing: snappish to him for a couple of days, then frenzied (for what turned out to be a week) whenever she saw him, weaving around his feet yowling, rubbing her neck on his ankles or hands with her butt in the air, desperate to get outside; a big black tomcat was hanging around the yard except for a few times when a big orange tom with a white face like two of the kittens’ was hanging around the yard. With due diligence we kept her inside with her babies the whole time. She is now recovering well from the surgery. We have put an end to a long line of feral cats on Fruitland Mesa. And four families in the neighborhood have new adorable companion animals. The little all-black boy kitten Ojo, and Ajo, the sweetest girl of all, came to live with me. Things unfold in the most remarkable ways sometimes.
After deciding that morning they were born, after burying the little cold dead one, the eighth kitten, a black and white that surely would have been another boy, that I would not succumb to the temptation to take any kittens, I gradually began to reconsider. Gradually, as in, the next day. I weighed pros and cons for weeks, considering all imaginable angles. On my yes days and on my no days, I always maintained that I would not choose my kittens (if I got them) based on their looks, how cute or how stunning they were. I held off deciding until the whole community was impatient with me. After we celebrated their six-week birthday with champagne cupcakes and adult beverages, I concluded that I couldn’t take any. The next day I was very sad. So I reconsidered again. And again. And we finally settled on this plan: If I could successfully introduce them to Brat Farrar, my dear old diabetic cat, that little orange kitten that saved my soul once upon a time, and assimilate them into the household, I would take two kittens; If Brat would not accept them within one week, I’d return them next door and my good neighbors would find them another home.
And then things became acutely more clear: Doc said it was finally time for Brat Farrar to have some troublesome teeth removed. His blood sugar was good, he seemed strong and stable. I got cold feet, but then agreed to the procedure when I was informed that most kidney and heart failure in pet cats derives from bad teeth. On a Friday I dropped him off; the next Thursday he died. Maybe it was inevitable, maybe some better decisions could have been made. He came home from the surgery in shock and never recovered. With a scabbed mouth he ate a little, but by Sunday morning his vital force was leaving him. Monday afternoon a blood panel revealed multiple organ failure. “So, we’re saying goodbye?” I asked Doc. “Yes,” he said, leaning on his forearms on the exam table. “I’m sorry.” “I know you are,” I said, my voice catching, and I touched his solid shoulder. Some more words, and I took my sweet cat home. I kept him comfortable and witnessed his death with dignity. It was both grueling and peaceful. I came to terms with death in a new way.
All through that painful week I kept in mind that there were two little bundles of joy around the corner that would be mine at the end of this sadness, two new little lives to love and nurture. No one ever takes the place of a companion animal who dies; but in this world of ferals and strays, I’ve realized, there will always be another cat, another dog, a kitten or puppy coming my way, as long as I’m alive. The timing this time could not have been more perfect. As sad as I was I’m now happy.
Benito, who stayed at home with Mama (once and again called Shelley now that her Heidi Ho days are over).
Ajo, one of the two that came home with me.
Ojo, the other one who came to live with me.
Mama at the end of a takedown, after Ojo pounced on her, vigorously washing his face.
Mama washing Stella.
Benito (of the perpetual exclamation point!) and Spider romping.
While I am already enjoying and look forward to years ahead of me inhabiting life with the two new kittens, I’m still unpacking the shocking death of Brat Farrar. Reflections on all that the many facets of the little orange kitten, iCat, Ferrari, Brat Favre, Culvert Kitty, Puma, the complicated cat, brought to the past eleven years of life will continue to churn and settle for some time to come.
The good little traveler: Brat Farrar on his way home from Virginia with me in the Mothership, spring 2005, on the River Road from Moab.
A decade later, last April in the house that matched him. Rest in peace, little one, under the apricot tree.
Yes, things have been happening in the garden, and in the woods. Full on spring has sprung at last after a weird winter, way too warm and dry followed by a frustrating cold and wet spell. Growing things started too soon, stopped, held back, weren’t sure what to do next. But now things seem on track for summer.
The most beautiful thing I saw this week was the first purple asparagus spear poking up from the bed where I planted the crowns a couple of weeks ago.
European pasqueflowers continue to delight myself and visitors with their lush purple blossoms and airy seedheads. I observed in another bed that the seedheads fall outward after they grow so tall, and thereby make a ring of babies around the mother plant.
Gabrielle is a born naturalist, and every time she comes to help in the garden she finds a special creature, like this baby garter snake. Or maybe it’s a baby bull snake, I can’t remember, they look similar when they’re so small.
In the woods the wildflowers, which started so early like this Indian paintbrush are now more timely.
The skies have been crazy gorgeous with all this moisture hovering around.
And also crazy in an unsettling way like the other morning.
But the real story of the past few weeks is still the kittens. For the first week I visited twice a day with wet food for Heidi, and just to watch. They grow so fast! Since their proud grandparents returned home I’ve been going every other day to sit with Mary and coo and cuddle with the kittens. Before long, mama felt more comfortable with us handling them, and seemed to enjoy taking a short break from their pawing and suckling. Still, if one of them starts squeaking too loudly she comes running back from her food or her bath to take charge again.
Sitting with that little cat family, just watching them and hearing her purr purr purr, feels like I’m in an Oxytocin Factory. The love fills the air and washes over me. Once I decide it’s time to go home, I just can’t tear myself away. Eventually I leave, but I carry them with me, the feel of their velvet fur and their warm little wiggly bodies, and her consuming devotion to them, and her non-stop purr.
In the two and a half weeks since they were born they have changed so much. At first just a swimming swarm like they were in her womb, they have begun to differentiate into individuals with personalities. Starting at about nine days old their eyes began to open, and it took about four days til the last one peeked out. Then they started to wobble around on unsteady legs. Now some of them can almost stand up straight, and they’re swatting and smooching and playing with each other. Just yesterday the first of them started to react and turn their heads to look around, as if they’re really starting to see the rest of us for the first time. In a few fast weeks more, they’ll all be going off to new homes. I continue to insist that none of them, two in particular, will be coming to mine.
My friend Deb is allergic to cats, but has ended up with a few over the years because we live in the country with lots of feral cats and she has a soft heart. Currently she has only one, Shadowcat, who has wormed her way into the house. But last winter a couple of black cats started showing up on the porch, a short-haired bow-legged boy who’d run to greet you, and his long-haired more skeptical sister. We discovered that Deb’s neighbors had moved away and left the young cats behind. Within a few months, the boy was predictably run over, and the girl was adopted.
The friends who adopted the girl left on a long trip a few weeks after they took her home, with our promise that we’d take care of her in their absence. Since we were sort of the reason they adopted her. And because that is the kind of place we live, where we all pick up the pieces. They set up a nice bunch of beds and roosts in their garage, with all the things we’d need to care for her with the utmost convenience, including a free-feed station where she could eat all the kibble she wanted. She was a prickly little thing, hissing at Deb when she tried to pet her, and just ignoring me.
After a week, I thought she was getting too fat on the free feed, so started rationing her to one cup a day. A week later, she was even fatter! I was pretty sure what this meant. So Deb and I hauled her off to the good doctor, who confirmed that she was pregnant.
“In thirty years I’ve only done five or six C-sections on cats,” he said. “I do that many every year on dogs. Don’t worry about it, she’ll do just fine. Cut a door or window in a box, give her some privacy.”
“Not just one or two pregnant,” he said, “more like four or five. And you can expect them in two or three weeks, closer to two I think.”
The neighbors were still a month away. They had no idea! Clearly there had been a miscommunication when they’d had her checked out. They hadn’t settled on a name before they left, and gave us license to name her if it came clear to us. We laughed all the way to the vet playing with names, and on the way home the name did come to us: Heidi. Heidi Ho.
I went into midwife mode, committed to building her trust before her time came. If there were any complications with the birth or afterwards I wanted at least a chance of being able to handle her and the kittens. And I wanted to start handling the babies shortly after they were born, so the proud grandparents didn’t come home to a shop full of feral kittens with a hissing mother that wouldn’t let them close.
For a couple of weeks she looked like she had a football stuck inside her sideways. Last week she started that legs-wide pregnant-lady waddle. Then one day the football had shifted.
I brought a quarter can of wet food every day, and sat across the room while she ate. I set up three nest boxes, two carrying crates with blankets, and a cardboard box arrangement lined with towels. I talked and sang to her (“oh she’s da heidi heidi ho!”) and stayed with her for ten or twenty minutes after she ate, watching her waddle around the garage and check out the nest boxes, or sit and clean herself. Eventually she’d take a treat from my fingers and let me rub her head a little, but I never heard her purr and she never wanted a lap or a real petting.
I set up nest boxes.
Last week I eased into touching her belly while she ate, checking her nipples and letting my hands rest on her swollen sides. On Sunday I felt one of the kittens move, and more action on Monday. Tuesday I opened the garage door and she didn’t come running. Across the room I heard little peeps and mews. Two weeks four days.
As I cleaned the litter box she came trotting across the room. She gobbled her wet food as I snuck a peek into the cardboard box she had chosen for a nest. She ran and checked on me a couple of times but let me take pictures. After she ate she curled back around her babies and let me watch them nurse. I couldn’t get an accurate count the way they were squirming all over each other, but thought I counted eight. I was surprised at how huge they seemed, to have been out of her less than 24 hours. I congratulated her on the wonderful job she had done.
How huge they looked for being out less than a day. How had they all fit inside her?
She rolled over and let me watch her nurse, purring loudly all the while.
Naturally I was smitten the moment I looked in on the little wad of wiggling kittens. But right now my hands are full and my pockets empty. The Colonel always advised me never to take responsibility for more lives than I could manage to care for adequately. I went into this thing knowing that I would not take a kitten out of this litter. I was sorely tempted to think about it, though, after watching them for just a few minutes.
When I checked the pictures at home, I could see there was a little foot that never moved in all the images and videos. Uh oh. A little dead one. So I ran back over, tricked Heidi with another blob of food, and reached in quickly to the back of the box to remove the kitten carcass. Poor little cold dead one. I brought it home and buried it under the peach tree.
There was a little cold dead one.
I buried it under the blooming peach tree.
That was my kitten, the little dead one. Holding its cold little body for just a few minutes, stroking the soft dead fur on its little head, looking at its little open paws… I felt a little surge of love and grief. I said a few words about what a good kitten it would have been, such a good cat, how much it would have meant to me, and then covered it with dirt and straw, inside the tree fence so the dogs can’t dig it up. I placed a tiny bouquet of apple blossoms over the grave. A silly tiny thing, but still: one small thing I could do in a world of endless death. Lately I’ve been remembering that child I was at nine, and thinking maybe that was my prime. Before everything else. At nine, I would have buried that kitten with somber pomp and circumstance, deep and heartfelt ritual. And so I did something like that yesterday.
It was so much easier! So much easier to bury a stillborn kitten that could have been mine, than to love and live with it for five years, or ten, or fifteen as I have with other cats, and then lose it to the inevitable death that comes for all our pets before we’re ready. We’re rarely ready for death, even when we’ve had weeks or months to prepare. That first final emptiness when we look at the dead body of a beloved pet, or person, is always a shock, at least for me. So I got that loss over with preemptively, bringing home my share of the litter, living that little moment of might-have-been, and laying it to rest. Whew.
Seven little warm unnecessary (adorable) kittens.
I went again today to tend the little mama, un petit d’un petit herself, and her litter. While Heidi was eating I took the top off the nest and folded up the damp, birth-stained towel, set in a clean one, and started to move the babies. MWEEE! MWAAA! they shrieked, and she came running. She stepped in and watched anxiously as I hastily, gently, moved them all onto the new bedding and removed the old. Then she curled around them, and I settled the box back over them. She purred and purred on her nice dry towel. Seven of them! Seven little warm unnecessary kittens. Deb and I have already lined up homes for most of them. Maybe, just maybe… Day Two, and already the wheels of rationalization are turning. No! I will not!