remembering

Our cat

Late in the afternoon a strange noise came from the vegetable garden beside the house, it was the sound of a bird in distress. The bird was squeaking, flapping its injured wing and hopping frantically around to escape from two large black birds attacking it. The boy grabbed a straw broom and waved it at the black birds until they flew away.

The little bird continued to squeak and hop around as the boy tried to catch it. Afraid he would hurt the bird if he grabbed it the boy took a piece of cloth from the shed and threw it over the bird as a net. The bird continued to struggle but couldn’t hop away as it was picked up with soft hands, carried into the house and placed under a plastic draining bowl. When the bird became calm the boy slid a saucer of water under the bowl. It was a yellow canary, sex unknown. The boy’s mother said: “You can’t keep that thing, it is probably someone’s pet and anyway you don’t have a cage.” Father agreed and said the bird would go in the morning.

The boy found a large cardboard carton, lined it with newspaper, cut small holes in the sides and top and set up a saucer of drinking water. From the garden he picked some strawberries and placed them in the bird’s new home. Tomorrow he could find out what canaries ate and ask if anyone had lost a pet. Tonight the canary would be safe beside his bed. It was his first pet.

Early in the morning the boy hid the canary behind a pile of wood in the shed and rode his bicycle to his grandparents’ house. It was only five miles away. Grandma was sitting out back in an old green rocking chair watching Papa dig the garden. She was surprised to see the boy and asked what he was doing there so early in the morning. In a trembling voice the boy said he had found an injured canary and wanted to keep it but Mother and Father said no, and he didn’t have a cage or know what to feed the bird. Grandma reached out took his hand and sat him down next to her chair. She said canaries were like finches, they would eat seed, corn, fresh greens, apples, cooked veggies like broccoli and spinach and an occasional hard-boiled egg. The boy was happy to give it his broccoli and spinach.

“So you don’t have a cage?” Grandma asked. “Well I am sure we can fix that.” she said. “The cage needs to have a perch and a nest, a swing, mirror and some bells to amuse the canary and water for drinking and for bathing. Also, you should put some shell grit in the bottom of the cage, keep the cage clean of poop and make sure the bird has space to fly.”

Overwhelmed by all that the boy said maybe Mother and Father were correct and the bird should be let loose to fend for itself. Grandma replied quickly: “If you let it go and it can’t fly then the cats will kill it. Maybe you should wait until the canary can fly again.” He said he didn’t know what to do, how to build a bird cage and get food for the canary, and was afraid to ask Mother if he could keep the bird or to knock on doors to ask if someone had lost a pet. Seeing he was close to tears Grandma stroked the boy’s head and quietly said: “I am sure Papa and I can help with the cage and the food but you will have to talk to the neighbors.” The boy said: “Then can I keep the canary? Will you tell Mother?”

Grandma smiled and called for Papa to come out of the garden. She said: “The boy has found a canary with an injured wing and wants to keep it but he doesn’t have a cage.” Papa said: “Well I think we can fix up something.” Papa was good at making things. He made horse shoes and a leather collar for his old draught horse Toby and hanging baskets for Grandma’s flowers which she kept under cover in her “flower shed”. Papa had built the flower shed too. “Come with me” he said, and walked towards the shed. It was next to the path that went to the outdoor toilet about 50 yards from the house. The boy had memories of trying to navigate that path on dark nights without a light when he was three and lived there during the war.

Inside the flower shed Papa took down a large square basket and carefully removed the flower pot. He said: “This was an old bird cage we had on the farm and Grandma has been using it as a hanging basket for her flowers. If we clean it up and put some wire mesh on the sides it will do until you can get something better.” Tears of joy came into the boy’s eyes.

The boy said to his Papa he didn’t know how he could get it home or what to say to Mother and Father about keeping the canary. Papa replied: “Boy, stop thinking about what you can’t do and think about what you can. We will hitch up old Toby to the cart, put your bicycle and the cage in the back and I will take you home.”

Late in the afternoon Papa took the boy back to his house, seated next to him on the cart while Toby slowly navigated the streets. Mother was out in the yard when they arrived and angrily asked Papa: “Where did you find him? I have been looking all afternoon.” Papa replied: “He and I have been making a cage for an injured bird and gathering some seed for the thing. Where can we put the cage so the cats can’t get it?” Mother sullenly said: “Well I suppose you had better bring it inside where it is warm.” Then she asked: “Have you talked to the neighbors to find out if anyone has lost a pet?” The boy said: “I asked everyone I could see and there were no lost pet signs on the street light poles.” Mother did not pursue the question.

They retrieved the carton from behind the wood pile and carefully put the frightened canary in the cage. Papa carried the cage into the kitchen and after they added food and water he placed it on top of the cabinet where Mother kept the glasses, plates and other things. Here it was safe and they could watch it eat, drink and take a bath; and listen to it sing.

Weeks passed by and the little canary became more vocal, chirping and singing, and trying to fly in the cage that was now too small. Mother actually liked the little bird but Father was firm that he would let it go when it was able to fly. The cage had been moved from the kitchen and hung in the wood shed. The boy cleaned the cage, fed the canary and talked to it. It still didn’t have a name except “Birdie”. Birdie had become more active, crashing into the wire mesh on each side of the cage as it tried to fly. It needed more space and Father agreed to build a larger cage where it could learn to fly again before he let it loose. They found some pieces of timber, two sheets of metal for the roof and bottom of the cage and a roll of wire mesh for the sides.

When the cage, now an aviary, was finished it was too big to keep in the shed so was moved outside to the yard partially protected by the overhanging roof of the laundry. Inside the aviary was a large nest, a perch, swing, an old piece of mirror, some little bells, a bowl for drinking water and a bird bath on the floor. There was lots of room for the canary to learn to fly again.

The little canary loved its new home but it was a lonely existence. By now the family knew the canary was a boy because of its loud singing. The boy asked Mother if he could get another canary to keep him company, then they could let them both go when Birdie was able to fly. Mother agreed as long as it was a boy. They went to the pet shop and came home with a six month old yellow canary that was to remain nameless.

At first the two birds did not get along, they squawked, flapped their wings, flew at each other and sat at different ends of the perch. Birdie was not happy with the intruder and his singing stopped. Nameless didn’t sing either.

They thought Nameless was a male because that is what they asked for at the pet shop. But after several weeks the fighting stopped. Birdie was flying and singing again and Nameless was sitting on four eggs in her nest. Soon there were six happy canaries in the aviary. Father was annoyed because release day was postponed again and there was more noise coming from the aviary as the canaries sang, flew from one side to the other landing on the wire mesh walls.

It was late at night when the boy heard the noise. The canaries were squawking and flying frantically around, crashing into the walls of the aviary. The boy rolled out of bed, grabbed a flashlight and ran outside without shoes. A large gray tabby cat was clinging to the wire mesh, trying to catch a canary as they flew into the wall in a frenzy to get away. Another cat was on the roof of the aviary clawing at the wire. The boy hollered at the cats and waved the flashlight but the cats ignored him. The boy stepped on a stone, picked it up and hurled it at the cat, missing by several feet but finding the laundry window. Throwing a stone, while holding a flashlight in the other hand to light up the target was never going to work. The cats continued to hiss, snarl and claw at the canaries.

Father, woken by the noise of the broken window, grabbed a broom and chased the cats away. He wasn’t happy and angrily said: “If you can’t look after your damn birds, then out they go.” The boy didn’t go back to sleep and at daylight went out to the aviary. The birds were huddled together in their nests, still shivering, and there was a dead canary at the bottom of the cage. It had been traumatized or clawed by the cats.

After school the boy gathered some large stones, about the weight of a baseball, from a vacant lot in the street, carried them home and set up a target the size of a cat on the fence. He practiced throwing the stones at the target from across the yard until it was dark and his arm ached. Mother asked what he was doing and he replied he was practicing his pitching. Still there was the light problem and the risk of throwing a stone through the wire mesh and letting the cats into the aviary. When father came home from work he moved the aviary closer to the house so when they switched on the light in the outside bathroom it would shine on the aviary. The boy marked out a place about 40 feet from the aviary, near the bathroom door and light switch, and piled the stones beside it.

At night when the cats returned the boy took up his position beside the pile of stones and switched on the bathroom light. The cats ignored the light and continued to harass the canaries. The first pitch was high and inside, hitting the side of the laundry. The second was high outside and thudded into the fence. The cats didn’t move. The third pitch was low and outside, bouncing off the dirt into the wood pile.

The canaries were frantic so the boy hurled more stones at the cats. They were wide of everything and Father appeared again with the broom to chase the cats over the fence.

After school next day the boy gathered more stones and continued to work on his pitching. It seemed so easy in the daylight with a target fixed to the fence. At night when the cats returned he took up his position by the pile of stones and turned on the light. The first pitch was outside, the second inside but low and hit the aviary; the third pitch was perfect and thudded into the cat’s butt. The cat let out a howl but continued to cling to the wire mesh. It wasn’t about to walk so the boy reached back and threw the stone as hard as he could. It missed everything except the house next door. Father appeared again with the broom, chased the cats away and turned off the light. Lights came on in the house next door but everyone had gone to bed. More work needed to be done on the pitching. The butt shot hadn’t worked.

On the fourth night the cats were more confident and showed up early, just after dark. The canaries went wild when they saw the predators again clawing at the wire with their huge gray bodies spread over the side of the aviary. The boy’s first pitch was high and outside, thudding into the fence. The second pitch was over the plate and thudded into the ear of one cat. It fell howling to the ground and stood there defiantly. The second pitch bounced in the dirt and into the cat’s private parts. The cat howled louder, ran to the fence and went home. Another stone hit the second cat just below the ear sending it hurrying home. The noise woke everyone in the house next door where the cats lived. The owner called out: “What’s up over there and what happened to the cat?” The boy replied: “I just went to the bathroom in the dark and stepped on it.” He knew he was in trouble when Father told him to get to bed and stay there.

The cats didn’t return again to harass the canaries. Not because of the boy’s pitching arm. When Papa heard the story he laughed and said: “I should have told you to cover the aviary at night with a heavy piece of canvas to keep out the light, rain and stray cats.” I was only nine years old.

 

###

Author’s note: No animals in this story were hurt or treated inhumanely.

 

###
Image: the cat photograph was taken by the author, © Ken Peacock.
Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock, a former senior Australian executive of a mining company, first visited China in 1972 at the end of the Cultural Revolution and before diplomatic recognition by the Australian and US Governments. This was the first of many visits to China during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1978, he traveled throughout China with a trade delegation and revisited Shanghai where he stayed at the Shanghai Mansions Hotel and discovered the “Last Bottle of Gin in China”.