In the lot next to where we used to live stood a skeleton house, whose restoration could only be described as lackadaisical.
Roofless through a winter of many rains and several snows, the plywood sub-floor degenerated into a checkerboard of sneering panels. The previous winter a two-inch crack had split the brickwork into two exact halves. Workmen had undermined the foundation by excavating for a basement, and then abandoning the task. Through twelve seasons, the duration of our stay in the neighborhood, empty window frames, like eyeless sockets, opened into a soulless interior of dust and decay.
Though uninhabitable on one scale, the skeleton house, with its profusion of perches and curious spaces, offered a haven to cats. Not Boots, mind you, or Tiger, or Puff, but wild things, catamounts, only smaller and with a greater variety of fur.
Between the wooden slat fence which bound our yard and that adjacent shell was a gap, no wider than four inches, through which a procession of cat faces appeared and disappeared at odd intervals, a virtual cat highway of such traffic that the grass of our yard was worn bare the width of a paw at the mouth of the gap.
On warm afternoons after work I would sit in the porch rocker (a vestige of my West Virginia roots) to nurse a beer and read the recent weekly. On Saturday mornings too, the back porch beckoned as a place for reflection, an oasis of tranquility not a mile from downtown. It was during these times that my wife, Suzanne, and I made acquaintance with the cats traveling the cat highway: slinking tiger toms with their pungent musk; the “Halloween Cat” with orange on black face; “Simon,” the obsequious Siamese, the only tame one, ostracized by the others; and the long-haired black one, whose eyes were the most sinister I have yet seen in the face of a cat.
Most of these interlopers were occasional, the local turf but one stop on far-flung prowls. There was, however, one shy female–small, black, and benign–who frequented the skeleton house and seemed at home among the two by fours. In a constant state of impregnation, she plopped out litters at an alarming rate. We seldom saw kittens though. I often wondered what happened to the little ones, but I feared knowing. At times, I on my porch and she in her house would stare at one another as visitors from distant worlds might chance a rendezvous on the moon, exchanging puzzled looks and expressions of wonder. Any further move toward communication on my part met only black cat stealth as she vanished who knew where.
In the late spring they appeared: two little ones–black, and black and white. For the next few weeks we could often be found at the windows, watching in relative obscurity the progress of mom and kittens among the bricks and boards. Although mother cat faithfully tended some invisible perimeter of safety, beyond which we were not permitted, well-honed instincts must also have informed her that the large creatures next door were disposed kindly toward kittens. For in about their sixth week, pushed from the nest so to speak, two kittens stood, scraggly and begging, on our front stoop.
Mama’s instincts, of course, were true. It started innocently, with infrequent milk and crackers, and soon degenerated to Purina Kitten Chow, morning and evening, seven days a week. Rituals developed. Summoned by the thud of our car door, whiskered greeters emerged as if by magic. As shutters opened each sunrise, we came to count on the pair of bookends of the back porch rail, and we worried on the few mornings when ritual was broken. Personalities crystallized, and with them names that fit. Negrita, “little black one” in Spanish, whose miaow rang with an insistent “Now!” Fraidy Cat: the least unfamiliar sound sent her off in a blur.
Before long these were “our” cats, whom we defended with religious fervor against all others, yet it was weeks before we could touch the black and white one, and then only in the presence of food. Although the winters are mild in Virginia, there were mornings in the teens when I awoke with fear in the pit of my stomach that two lifeless forms would greet us that day. Instead, sitting patiently on the porch rail, two balls of fur, none the worse for wear, only hungrier.
Fraidy’s hair was short and coarse, her body muscular and lithe. Negrita, although jet-black, was not nearly so panther-like. For the longest while, we thought them brother and sister. It’s hard to tell with immature cats. With the encroaching toms in the spring, however, we learned otherwise. Not wishing to tip the ecological balance any further toward destitute cats, we consented to two spay operations, a decision much easier than the deed. I can still recall Suzanne, frustrated to tears, an hour lost stalking a wary Negrita with nothing to show but hands sliced and bleeding. It took a humane trap to pull it off.
In time these feline castaways frolicked in our presence, groomed one another nearby as we sat reading or talking, or slept curled like yin and yang in the basket we had placed at the sheltered corner of the porch. In time, brief forays were made into the alien world of our apartment’s interior. And, in time, ceremonial petting was demanded even before food. Our triumph: the day Suzanne picked up Fraidy to cradle her like a baby, if only for a fleeting moment.
But what do tenure committees care of indigent cats or the fabric of lives? Devastated, we packed up the antebellum home we had come to love and departed Richmond, tails between our legs, to make a fresh start.
Twenty-three years have now intervened. We’ve moved twice since those Richmond days. Life has mostly blessed. We know the joys and concerns of parenthood, savoring it even more after a belated start. Suzanne manages the day-to-day operations of an organization involved in post-conflict recovery, helping rid countries of mines and remnants of war, while rehabilitating those maimed by war’s aftermath. I’ve just retired from a research and teaching career some would consider distinguished and possibly exemplary, despite the initial prognostications. We live in a community of caring and forward-thinking people, surrounded by natural beauty. And we have a cat, Keri, a tabby from the pound, who amuses with her peculiar ways.
Still, in moments wistful of simpler times, I recall our final day in Richmond as though it were yesterday. Having packed, Suzanne and I cleaned and polished for eight hours, far beyond necessity, neither of us wanting to leave the first home we had made together. And then I wept. I wept for a dream shattered, not realizing it was but deferred. I wept for the two fireplaces and the pine floors, for the high ceilings and louvred shutters, for the city sounds in front and the back porch oasis. I wept to leave the vibrant hope of an interracial neighborhood at the heart of the capitol of the Confederacy. But mostly I wept for cat faces. For Negrita’s demand that I thump her back. For Fraidy Cat, poised on porch rail, paw on doorknob.
EPILOGUE: Fraidy, half wild, was adopted by a colleague of the author. Negrita, after thirteen weeks at the Richmond Animal League, also found a loving home.
© 2012 Dave Pruett