The pink flush of sunrise back-lights a cat half-hidden in a tangle of branches.
The cold morning is not still dark, but not full daylight. I balance clumsily on the snowy bank which plunges down to the frozen pond, fumbling with the buttons on the camera, trying to hold it steady. It is dark enough to activate the auto-flash, turning the cat's eyes into glaring flat disks.
Daughter G.'s bumptious Tarbaby has come down from the tree, but is giving the intruder a piece of his mind.
When I was growing up, a country child in a small New England farming community, the term "feral cat" hadn't been thought of. Every farm had "barn cats"--darkly striped tabbies, gingers, calicos, the dominant pie-bald cats of black and white. Barn cats knew their place and their job. They clustered in the barn twice a day at milking time, waited for the farmer to drag a battered dirty tin from a cubby hole, slap it down on the dirt or concrete floor and slosh it full of warm milk. Cat food as such was unheard of and table scraps went to the dogs. Cats were meant to catch and consume the ever-present mice who got into the grainery and tunneled into the hayloft. The cats were not spayed or neutered nor were they inoculated against distemper or other ills.
The feline population waxed and waned. Kittens were born in the loft or in the woodshed "chamber" and lugged to the back porch of the house where they tumbled about in the summer sunshine, plump, enchanting balls of fluff. I held them, loved them, named them, but each year most sickened of distemper and died, with perhaps only one of a litter surviving to adulthood.
Some of the most personable familiars might become "house cats", but hardly in the sense of today's indulged darlings. A house cat, usually a female, might come in during the daytime to drowse on a sunny windowsill, or curl near the kitchen range, might even be given a tidbit, but there was no litter box, and come nightfall out she went, to hole up in the woodshed or pick her way back to the barn. The years of these cats' lives were measured by the round of coming into heat, bearing kittens, nursing them, weaning them if they lived, then, still lean flanked, coming again into season and entertaining the toms.
The tomcats were another matter. They might call a particular farmstead "home", but from adolescence onward they ranged about the neighborhood, taking their favors where they could, invading another tom's territory, returning home at last with battered ears and bloody noses, maybe even a scabby wound or an injured paw. Many a summer night in childhood we woke to the sound of feline voices keening, high-pitched, up and down the scale, breaking at last into the snarls and screams of engaged battle. My father would shuffle into his slippers, take his flashlight and stomp down the stairs to wrench open the side door and curse the nocturnal visitors. If they were within range he might brandish a broom, or chunk stones at them. Like as not, about the time we were falling asleep again the warriers' duet resumed.
Over the years there were a few memorable strays. The wary tiger who was missing part of a hind leg, who showed up at our home for three winters running during the late 1980's. I first became aware of his presence when he rootled into a garbage bin and got his head stuck in a savory smelling tin. We didn't want him there, he didn't much like us, but it was cold so we put out food. He usually disappeared as spring arrived, but the last year that we knew him, he visited during the summer. He hung about on the edges of the garden or hovered at the end of the porch, clearly wishing that we would go away and leave him in solitary peace. We didn't go away, and sometimes he crept near to where I sat shelling peas or snipping string beans, darting nervously into the rectangle of shade beneath my lawn chair. A few times he unbent sufficiently to allow a tentative stroke across his unkempt head and down his bony back. On such occasions a rusty purr burbled for a moment before he recalled that he didn't care for humans and backed away, ears flattened and tail twitching. The next winter he vanished. I learned early not to question the end of such cats.
When we moved to Wyoming twelve years ago this May we brought with us our resident cats. [Of course!] Within weeks we had adopted Siamese kittens born to a stray Mom-cat who found our niece's tack barn just in time to give birth. With our feline household running over, we were dismayed only days later to find a black cat and two kittens lurking by the garage. Both kittens were females, one a rusty black like her mother, the other a sturdier little body with a white bib, a white smirch on her nose and white-patterned leggings. The frail black kitten sickened and died, her sister lived. Seeing that mother and daughter were there to stay we caught them and took them to the vet. When the matted-furred Mom was spayed we learned that she was already pregnant again.
We caught glimpses of the mom-cat only intermittantly. She resisted attempts to befriend her, finally disappeared. Her daughter, Cindy, lurked about the back porch, sometimes came inside only to be taunted and hissed into a corner by the arrogant Siamese royalty. Cindy, the same age as the Siamese hussies, went with them to be spayed and innoculated. J. contrived an insulated coop for her on the back porch, a domicile sometimes invaded in cold weather by a succession of hungry strays. Cindy didn't like to be picked up, but she rubbed about my ankles as I pegged laundry on the line, came to lean companionably against me if I sat on the back steps with a mug of tea.
We caught Cindy and brought her with us when we moved to the first of our properties in this area. It was January and I installed her for several weeks in a small camper we had, visiting her each day to change litter and feed her. Later when she had been liberated I often found her in the old horse trailer, viewing the world from the top of stacked boxes, cozy on a tattered horse blanket.
We sold ourselves out of house and home in the spring of 2006 and bought the acreage we will be leaving in a fortnight. J. began the laborious process of moving tools and equipment, including the old horse trailer still crammed with oddments. While I packed and cleaned [we've done this too often] he called me one morning on his cell phone, distraught, demanding that I drive immediately to the barn on the new property. He had pulled the horse trailer over and when he came to a halt at the barn, a terrified Cindy had leaped from the back and dashed up the slope behind the pond. We both called, coaxed, slogged through mud and melting snow for more than an hour, but Cindy was gone. We alerted neighbors, the couple moving into our former house. As days and then weeks passed, I resigned myself to the realization that Cindy was likely dead. I hoped it had been swift.
This morning as I shivered by the window, watching the sky turn from grey to pink, it was Tarbaby's hulking form which I spotted perched in the straggling cottonwood by the pond. He was very intent on something and as the light grew I saw that another smaller cat hunched immobile behind a lattice of branches.
I hauled on my Carhartts and boots, wound a scarf around my head, stuffed the camera in my pocket. Crunching and slithering on the frozen snowy ground beneath the tree, I gazed upward and had my first clear look at the second cat. "Cindy?" I said, disbelieving. Could it possibly be Cindy after four years---four long harsh winters? The short cobby body seemed familiar, the smudge of white on the chin and the white bib. I remembered the wound on her back leg that I had treated, finding her one day during that first year with the leg slashed and festered, drawn up stiffly under her belly. Half wild creature that she was, she had allowed me daily to hold her down, clean the wound, press the foul matter from the abcess and dose her with penicillin.
"Cindy, " I repeated, "Cindy, is it you?" The little cat stared from the branch, shifted slightly, clinging to the frosty bough. Tarbaby thumped to the ground, marched possesively around the tree trunk rumbling and hissing.
I hurried to the house, filled a pan with kibble and went back to the tree, shooing Tarbaby, coaxing the small cat, who remained inscrutable. I booted Tarbaby away, went around the buildings to feed Pebbles the Horse.
When I returned, the tree was empty and no small black and white form was to be seen climbing the bank beyond the pond or melting into the sallow rushes around the eastern edge.
If the cat is indeed our lost Cindy, she would be coming up on twelve years old--the same age as Eggnog and Raisin.
In the time we have left here, measured now in days, will I see this cat again?
My mind sifts the possibilities--of a cat living wild for four years---of Cindy, if it is indeed she, lurking in the neighborhood, but never spotted until now?
I accept that I likely won't know, could never get close enough to be sure even of the cat's gender, let alone to run my fingers lightly along that white-splotched back leg to feel for the old scar tissue.
Somewhere in the photos I packed away this week there are likely one or two of Cindy as a kitten. Weeks from now, in a place new to us, I may unearth them and compare them to the early morning shot of a small black and white cat, staring me down from her defensive position in the cottonwood.
I think it was Cindy, destined to finish her life as a stray cat. But I'll never know.