Around five o'clock every evening, the back porch storm door would slam. The sharp noise rang out like a dinner bell. It was evening chore time on the farm. The horses needed to be fed. Pens needed to be cleaned. Water was to be filled. Work needed to be done. You were never alone walking the beaten down grass path to the barn yard, as a gang of twenty-one vocal and demanding felines would deftly weave between your ankles and lead the way in a tangle of high held tails and delicate paws. All the animals needed to be fed, yet the tenacious cats were always the first ones to receive their meal. A menagerie of meows, their insistence could not be ignored. The cat population on our farm was uncontrolled, so they were plentiful. They were also useful hunters, earning their keep by keeping the barns and tack rooms rodent free. In turn, they were compensated for their efforts with dry cat food from the feed store and plastic, recycled LeMenu plates full of kitchen scraps. On the farm, the animals were abundant. Their need to eat was never ending. The work was constant and plentiful. Sensitivity, however, was scarce.
My parents were dog people. Cats were barnyard animals and the dogs slept in the house. But they did not allow dogs to kill cats. In fact, they did not allow the dogs to even LOOK at the cats. That was an enforced farm rule. It's not that my parents didn't like cats; my mom certainly had some favorite feline friends, and when he thought no one was looking, my Dad would bend down and kindly pet an affectionate ankle rubber. I, on the other hand, loved them ferociously with barely controlled cuddling through gritted teeth. I would spend hours in the haystack, playing with litters of fluff-ball kittens, secretly giving them names and little saucers of milk.
Naming a cat out loud was strictly forbidden, because as soon as a cat was claimed and named, complete with feelings of love and attachment, it was surely marked for the death. So we were careful not to name the cats, instead we chose to 'call' them something for helpful identification purposes. Instead of "Dolly", "Maxwell" or "Mr. Higglesbottom", we would notice that the one grey tabby female loved our dog, Bobbie Sue, so we 'called' her "Bobbie's lesbian friend"; which quickly became "Lezzi" because the other was too long. But it was understood that "Lezzi" wasn't a name, it was simply a word to describe her. Of course we only troubled ourselves with finding odd, not-name descriptors for the friendly cats; if the cat was feral, it was simple called by it's sex and color, as in "The Black Tom". Some of out favorite cats were referred to as "Skunk" (a black cat that once walked under the white fence we were painting), "Fluffy" (who was remarkably fluffy) and "Callie" (a special calico that used to be a town cat, until my friend donated her to our farm).
I broke all the rules with Callie. She was my cat and I was her person. Where ever I went in the barn yard, Callie was there. In fact, she would often drape herself across my shoulders like a feather boa when I did barn chores, lounging comfortably around the back of my neck while I squeezed between 1,000 pound horses in their stalls. Even though it was strictly forbidden, I loved that cat. She was not just a barnyard animal, she was my pet. I should have known better.
My parents left for a horse sale one weekend while I was in high school. They left during school hours and I returned home to an empty house and this note, which was written casually on the back of a used envelope and left on the round table in our farmhouse kitchen:
Please do the horse chores morning and night. Dan is up to two scoops of grain now. Don't forget to doctor the cut on Baldy. We'll be back Sunday night. Here is some money for pizza.
Love you, Mom and Dad
P.S. Sorry about Callie.
I recoiled. What was she talking about? I yelled to the empty house, demanding an immediate answer, "WHAT HAPPENED TO CALLIE?" I asked the dogs, "What HAPPENED to Callie?" They looked at me, yet said nothing. Then I busted through the back porch door into the yard and I ran through the tromped down grass towards the barn yard calling, "CALLIE CALLIE CALLIE!!!!" Upon the slamming of that storm door, twenty barn cats appeared and ran to me, meowing, bolting between my legs and demanding the kitchen leftovers. But Callie was not there.
This was before cell phones so I had no way of contacting my parents. In desperation, I called my sister at college. Thankfully she picked up.
I was frantic and breathless, "Hey, it's me."
She asked, "What's up?"
I asked her, "What happened to Callie?"
She replied, "Who's Callie?"
There was no hope.
So I did the chores, ordered pizza, doctored Baldy, and waited two long days until Sunday night when the truth holders returned.
When my parents pulled into the driveway, I ran barefoot over the gravel to their red truck and demanded to know the story behind the casual post script message. After two days of no sign of my wonderful cat, I was afraid I already knew her fate. I was right. I listened as my mom told me how Callie had apparently entered the garage. She was unknowingly locked in the garage with the dogs while I was in school. The dogs' food was in their bowls, on the garage floor. The same food bowls that our crazy blue eyed dog, Sarah Jane, guarded with every ounce of her snaggle toothed old body. One chomp was all it took for my precious Callie to be no more.
I was distraught, emotionally wrecked and deeply affected by the loss of this friend. My mothers' apology was weak. My father walked away to "check on something." I allowed myself to cry. Over a barn cat. Meanwhile my mom and dad exchanged sideways glances and made mental notes that their daughter was emotionally unstable. In that moment of truth, they realized that a scribbled, cryptic "Sorry" at the end of a chore list was maybe not the best way to break the news to me. They agreed that, in hindsight, maybe they shouldn't have even addressed the dead cat at all.
I looked up through my tears and noticed the time. It was five o'clock. I put the leftover pizza on a white plastic plate and walked through the storm door, which slammed behind me. Twenty cats stampeded through the grass. Once again, it was chore time on the farm.