Short But Fun

22 Aug

An adapted short story from my memoir

"Hey Dad, you're a grandpa."

New Zealand 2003: Baetis and kittens

We learn all kinds of things from our cats, especially the ones that grow cranky and creaky with us.  But what about a month-old kitten that looks like it has a deformity? What can you possibly learn from a one-pound bundle of fur with a head so big it causes her to lose her balance?

Baetis, my tabby cat with ginger accents, has her own private entrance to my house, a long plank covered with tattered burlap sacks leaning against the bathroom window.  She comes and goes as she pleases: the bouncing plank, the chatter of the toilet’s lid and the thump of her paws when she hits the ground can wake me from even the deepest sleep. She comes and goes a lot more frequently these days because she’s eating for more than one.  I’ve yet to see her whanau, but her sagging belly and swollen nipples tells me that all is well.  “Whanau” is the Maori word for family; Baetis, you see, is born and bred in New Zealand.

Our union was no coincidence.  I landed in New Zealand with a mission: Teach and live in the countryside.  Acquiring a cat or any pet for that matter wasn’t part of the plan for this adventure was launched by the death of my dog, Toughy. For years I yearned to take my teaching profession overseas but would never leave him behind.  I believe his passing freed me to pursue my dreams.  When I arrived in New Zealand, I made a conscious decision to mourn, never seeking to replace my golden-haired friend. The force of fate, however, alters resolve.

Baetis, part of a litter born in a bedroom I rented on New Zealand’s North Island, was literally thrown into my life.  As I pulled out of a friend’s driveway he said, “Here, you need a cat.”

With her feet spread wide, she glided through the open window and landed on the worn passenger seat.  She straightened her hind legs and cleaned herself as though she were home. For weeks, I wove down winding roads and through the red tape of nailing down a teaching job with a cat on the dash–a feline co-pilot.  When I found us a real home, she rejoiced more than I, darting into the crawlspace under the house and putting the rodents on notice that the Queen had arrived.

So my friend was right.  I did need a cat.  On cold winter nights, the crackling of wood from the cast iron stove and her purring presence wrapped me in warmth.  One evening, I awoke to deep guttural meows drifting up through the floorboards from the crawlspace. There was another cat—a male. As Baetis paced back and forth circling the area, I realized that my little girl wasn’t so little anymore.  I opened the front door feeling like the gray-haired father handing his daughter off at a wedding. Now, a few months later, I’m a grandpa longing to see the new additions.

At first, she keeps her kittens out of sight, and I respect her decision.  A mother, regardless of species, needs a little privacy.  I can see the matriarchal pride and trust in her eyes. She will bring them home soon. I pile clothes in a surfboard bag and carry her to the nest I’ve constructed for her.  Stroking the ginger spot on her head, I whisper, “Bring them here girl.  Bring them here.”

The next morning I hear the plank bouncing under her weight. I look for her in the kitchen, expecting her to stroll in like usual, demanding food and a head rub, but she never appears.  Instead, her steps fade away to the back room where I made the nest.  Soon, a high pitch meow shoots down the hall and I scramble to meet my grand-kitties.

There are two of them: A ginger kitten, and a tabby resembling Baetis lie curled up in my surfboard bag. I wonder if some of the litter were lost to predators, or if these two were the only ones to survive the birth.  Baetis uncurls for a second as if she wants me to get a better look.  The kittens lose their hold on her nipples and begin to whimper.  I collapse to the floor and embrace them all. We lie like that for a while, one big happy family.

Once the feeding is finished, I stroke the kittens more vigorously. They push into my hand, unalarmed. The tabby is especially spunky and swats at my finger. The ginger kitten, however, wobbles away precariously. I notice her large forehead and widely spaced eyes, a sure sign of something terribly wrong. My first thought is that she’ll have to be put asleep but then I remember the rule I made when Toughy was dying from liver disease: When he can no longer have fun then it’s time.  As though she knows what I’m thinking, the ginger kitten rears up on her hind legs, boxing at Baetis’ tail.  She swings a right hook then a left hook, then topples over into the clothing pile, her momentum rolls her right back into suckling position, like she meant to lose her balance all along. As I laugh, my skin erupts in goosebumps; I gaze down at her for long seconds before I turn away.

“As long as you’re having fun,” I sigh.

The kittens grow quickly over the next few weeks. The tabby remains “the tabby” but the ginger kitten becomes “Ms. Ginger.” Her balance worsens by the day but she persists at living, at doing everything normal kittens do albeit a little clumsier. They spend a lot of time romping in the garden.  I weed and prune while Ms. Ginger ambles through crimson stalks of chard, unaware of the hunter stalking her.  Crouching low behind the deep green spinach, the tabby shuffles his paws, his tail whipsawing back and forth.  Then, he lunges, taking down his weaker sister. Together, they roll into the thyme and basil.  Unable to restrain myself, I give them a misting from the hose. They dart in the open door continuing their escapades inside and I capture the family on videotape. Ms. Ginger sways back and forth contemplating a leap from a rock.  Tiptoeing across the fireplace step, she wallops a twig, and ambles over to Mom for her favorite activity, tail hunting.  Baetis saunters away with Ms. Ginger in pursuit, falling, rolling, and stumbling, doing whatever she needs to do to move forward.

Tears stream, but inspiration overwhelms me more than anything.  Ms. Ginger’s existence will be brief but she has plenty of time for fun.  She doesn’t know how long or how short her life will be.  Come to think of it, none of us really do.

Ms. Ginger in Garden

Ms. Ginger evading her bro'.

Video 12B from Memoir — A Eulogy to Ms. Ginger

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One Response to “Short But Fun”

  1. Parisa September 30, 2009 at 4:02 pm #

    I never knew Baetis had kittens!

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