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The summer I was twelve, our family lived on a farm in central New York. Our borrowed farmhouse days were sandwiched between two stints in town: we’d spent the school year in one side of a turn-of-the-century house with antique furniture, and the coming short winter days would find us–parents and four kids–in a small, spare apartment.
But for now, down a narrow rural road named after the owners of the farm, wildflowers and grass and airy summer blouses rippled in a warm breeze. We sat on the porch steps, chatting with the grandmotherly proprietor as gentle sunlight slowly baked the land until the wind brought mellow scents of corn and hay. There was a barn filled with bales to climb on, a cornfield across the street, and quiet woods beyond it. A sway-backed horse named Susie cropped grass in a field–several decades old now, she was retired. And there was a certain tortoise-shell cat that ended up determining my feelings about the farm.
I could immediately tell that Casey the cat was special because she would follow me. I’d pet her, and then get up to leave, and she’d be strolling right at my heels. I commented on this kitty shadowing to the lady that owned the farm, and she agreed that it was a thing with Casey. We soon discovered another trait that set Casey apart–she was pregnant. In a few weeks, there would be kittens, and the trick was to know where this small mother cat would decide to have them so we could at least look at them. We wouldn’t want to miss the kittenhood of Casey’s children.
Meanwhile, we were spending summer in the way it was meant to be spent–we played in the hay bales, hung around in the sun-soaked yard, read our library books. My older brother went out on mysterious excursions in the fields and woods. He had this way of making convincing crow calls, which added to the intrigue of his activities, but he wasn’t eager to include his younger siblings. One day, he brought home a raccoon he’d hunted, and then was busy with a long project, stretching out its hide and telling us he was going through a process of preserving it. None of this would have gone over well at the vintage house neighborhood we’d just moved from.
Late afternoons, we came inside to watch LeVar Burton host “Reading Rainbow” on the small TV that offered PBS and just a few other channels. Our side of the farmhouse was furnished because, although it sat empty most of the time, the widow’s son and daughter-in-law and grandkids actually still lived there when they were not out of the country. The family–mom, dad, and two blonde girls who looked like both parents–smiled benignly from the portrait displayed on the wall.
At night, I’d climb a narrow staircase to a small bedroom with a window overlooking the front yard. There my sister and I read Beverly Cleary books we’d dug up at the library, obscure stories featuring twins and teenagers and weddings, since we’d already read all her Ramona series.
Casey was far from forgotten in this vacation milieu. I still petted her and talked to her and marveled at her following skills. She was growing rounder, and I knew that any day now, we would be blessed with tiny furry creatures and then tottery kittens that would bat at anything that moved. Then, something unexpected happened–the kind of event that compels you to reset your expectations of life.
I figured out one day that Casey was no longer pregnant. Where were the babies? I don’t think I put much effort into searching for her stash, knowing that the squirming, mewling progeny wouldn’t yet be ready for human handling. Soon after Casey had returned to her former sleekness, I spotted her dashing under a bush. She was behaving in an unusually furtive manner. I followed her–and made a grisly find. Let’s just say I made a second unpleasant discovery later on, that the kittens did not survive, and I suspected Casey–the personable little tortoiseshell–of being a feline of interest in the case.
Now came the burning questions. How could a cat pregnancy go so wrong? What would possess a cat to behave in this manner? If Google had been invented, I would certainly had been typing in some strange keywords. But it wasn’t available, and I needed experts. So I looked up a local vet in the Yellow Pages, dialed the number, and pushed out my questions to the professional at the other end of the line–perhaps a receptionist? Their office couldn’t tell me anything, they said, unless we brought the cat in for examination. And we weren’t about to do that. There was not a drop of comfort from that quarter.
Suddenly, I was ready to move away from that farm. Its sweet smells, wide spaces, and sunshine now had a menacing aspect. The old staircase and attic room no longer charmed me. I was contemplating unpleasant possibilities–rabies, maybe. My older brother had talked to us about rabies, in his fascination with raccoons. Whatever it was, the balmy country summer that was supposed to end with new kittens to play with turned on me with a confusing, even disturbing, plot twist in that ill-fated litter. Now I looked forward to uprooting again, getting back into school, and leaving this quiet patch of earth to the changing seasons.Published in