Fiction Honorable Mention 4

Feb 9, 2006 at 4:21 pm

 The Barn Cats




            During the bitter blow of cold and snow this January, they appear in the loft, first the long male, sticking his head down between the planks and sighing a plaintive Gregorian meow as he watches my movements. The other one, smaller and perhaps his sister, echoes in a more urgent soprano. I notice them as I break the ice in the cows’ water trough. I call them the barn cats.
            I tell Betty about them later as I rub the numbness from my fingers in the back room of the farmhouse. “The male’s a good-looking cat, gray. Long haired. The smaller one’s a mix of black and orange and brown. Ugly. Like turbid water.”
            “They’ll keep the mice down in the barn,” Betty says.
            “Can we keep them, Daddy?” Pam asks. The excitement in her five-year-old eyes will one day win her the world, I am sure.
            They are the women in my life.
            Our farm is in the Indiana knobs, where the land rises up from the Ohio Valley just northwest of Louisville. The land comes alive in a blend of small farms and wooded ridges, rolling pastures, ponds, caves, and crooked creeks, and the people of these hills are becoming another kind of blend, a heterogeneity of old farm families and former suburbanites, creating hybrid communities which are vivacious and interesting. I find it very beautiful.
            This is our first farm. Several acres are in woods: cedar and oak, maple and beech, some native dogwood. Barbed-wire fences subdivide the rest into three pastures, one of which I’m thinking about putting into corn on shares. A spring of great reputation flows from a rocky little cave back on the hill overlooking the house; it runs into a holding tank and from there down to us on gravity flow, providing all of our water. Twenty-five acres in all, not counting the sky with its crows and hawks which hitch-hike on the wind, easy, unencumbered. Twenty-five acres of deer and rabbit, quail and squirrel and fox which have no need to notice our fences.
            Of the three small outbuildings here, the barn is my favorite. It’s a twenty-by-thirty Mansard-roof affair painted red with creamy white trim, as my imagination supposes all barns should be. Mrs. Brown, a Hereford due to freshen soon, and Patches, a fifteen-month-old heifer, are the full-time tenants. My daughter and I pamper them with grain even when the snow isn’t hiding the pasture fifteen inches below its frozen crust. Betty doesn’t want to slaughter Patches in the spring. “How would you explain that to Pam?” she keeps asking. “Why did we buy that huge freezer?” I respond.
            The barn cats have reappeared regularly after our first meeting, and their talk becomes bolder on each passing day. They look thin and needy, like beggars no longer worried about their pride, and on one cold morning they come sidling up to the feeding boards of fresh grain I’ve just poured out for the cows. Mrs. Brown, not willing to risk a competitor other than Patches, swishes her head at them and waits with menacing eyes. The cats stand their ground briefly, back off a bit, and look at me. Seeing her advantage, Mrs. Brown moves in. The male hisses, his back arched and hair bristled, and smacks the nine-hundred pound Hereford in the nose. I laugh out loud at the startled look on the cow’s face. Then she glances about and begins lapping at her grain as if nothing has happened.
            Back inside, I tell Betty about it.
            “They didn’t hurt her, did they? You didn’t let them hurt her?”
            Her questions seem implicitly critical, and I wonder again if this farm experiment is a mistake. “Mrs. Brown weighs almost a half-ton. How is a cat going to hurt a cow?”
            She glares at me for a few long moments before turning away.
            I carry some table scraps up the small rise to the barn the next morning. The cats approach, a bit hesitant, but the fragrance of sausage slides across the frigid air to them and they devour the leftovers, including some crusts of toast, in gulps.
            In the days that follow, the cats adopt me as their guardian and provider. On those mornings I forget their breakfast, they fuss with me and pretend to be hurt. Using my legs for rubbing posts becomes a game with them. When I pause in the dim steel-blue bitterness of the barn to stroke them, they push their love back to me twofold, purring, butting their heads into the palm of my hand. I have the notion they feel at home.
            The month becomes colder, dazes even the hardiest inhabitants of the knobs. Our home, a patchwork quilt pieced together by many hands over its ninety years, also suffers. On the twenty-fourth day of the frigid siege our water pipes freeze in solid arctic rage. The furnace, which has been issuing visceral moans and wheezes for a week, finally slows and dies against this morning’s twenty below zero. Throughout the house the floors radiate a chill as the wind slings itself between the old foundation stones and swirls along the floor joists before fleeing out the other side. Beyond the house, the wind screams through the branches of the big maple in the back yard. Everything is coated with a white hoarfrost.
            The furnace contractors can get to us in two days, not before. They are sorry. Do we have a secondary source of heat? A wood stove? Very good.
            The barn cats are suffering more than we, I’m sure. Each morning as I trudge through the snow up to the barn, I worry about finding them open-eyed and frozen, but they greet me every dawn, seemingly no worse for the cold.
            Now, toward the end of the month, during a very quiet time of dusk, I feel an impulse to invite them in. I coax them from the barn to the wood-stove warmth of the back room of our home. Our live-in cat, a mild grey and black tiger-tabby, produces a deep-gutted growl that speaks of betrayal. The barn cats — Sugar and Spice by now to Pam — ignore the challenge and concentrate on the food in the dish. They eat as if famished, and when they finish they explore the room in a leisurely, comfortable, almost intimate fashion, as if they’ve lived here for months.
            I find myself piqued by that. My reaction bothers me. After all, I’ve let them into the warmth freely. Now, after only ten minutes, I want them out. I feel capricious and mean spirited, but I want them out. The tips of my toes still hurt from my trip to the barn, the ice crystals in my mustache have melted only a few minutes ago, and I want them out of my house. Sugar goes easily, but Spice ignores my bait of ham fat and wanders over to the wood stove. He lithely avoids my grasp when I reach for him. A thin hint of a scar on the inside of my left wrist reminds me of my last attempt to pick up a stray cat a year before. Inexplicably, I feel wary, almost fearful.
            “Dammit, Spice, get out of here,” I snap. “You’ve stuffed yourself and now it’s time to go. Get your ass out of here.”
            He barely looks my way. I open a closet door and grab an empty burlap sack, which I threw over him. He struggles in my hands beneath the coarse cloth, surprising me with his sinewy strength, but I am at the door and pitching him out into the cold before either of us quite know what is happening. The sack hits the ice of the drive and slides eight or ten feet, and I watch in an ambivalence of amusement and shock as Spice bolts from the burlap and races for the safety of the barn.
            “I don’t know what got into me,” I tell Betty as I enter the kitchen. “He spooked me all of a sudden.”
            “That’s no reason to manhandle a dumb animal.”
            She is right, of course. I slump to the back room and sink into the sofa by the woodstove. Betty is seated at the round oak table in the kitchen, and if I lean a bit to my left, I can see her through the open doorway. She is sewing a cross-stitch for Pam, a scene from the Cinderella story, and seems completely immersed in her needlework. I am amazed and confounded at how she can skewer me with her one-liners and return to her tasks without even a momentary emotional glitch. As she works in obvious calm, I simmer like the water atop the stove. Her indifference shakes me. I don’t exactly envy her that ability — I know I could never pull it off. Talking things out is more my style. Lately, however, I can’t find the will to do even that.
            She’s still a pretty woman, though, and a good mother to Pam. As I watch her fingers weave their magic, I wonder what is important in her world, how we have arrived in this place, but I can’t begin to analyze it. I only know it’s very cold outside, and I’ve not been able to shake that frigid layer from me since this winter has set in.
            Fingers of wind slip into the room through unseen fissures around the window frame while the radio plays oldies from the sixties and seventies. The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” stings me with its bittersweet, bluesy lyrics. I pull a knitted afghan around my shoulders, tune the music to a whisper, stretch out on the sofa, and slide into an unquiet sleep.
            The rattle and chill of morning awaken me. As I feed the orange embers of the stove with seasoned oak from the small stack I keep inside, Betty calls from the kitchen. “School closed again today?”
            “They announced it last night. Said we were expecting six to nine more inches by this morning.” I pull open the drapes covering the window. “Looks like we got it, too.”
            “Are you going to take Pam sledding today? You promised her two weeks ago.”
            “Have you been out in this?” I ask. “It’s positively arctic.” I hesitate. “Anything for breakfast?”
            “Bacon and eggs in the fridge. I’ll have two over easy, three rashers of bacon, crisp, a side of home fried potatoes. Coffee and orange juice.” I hear her walk from the kitchen to the living room and switch on the TV.
            I search for the barn cats later in the morning but can’t find them. Seven or eight new inches of snow lay like cotton over the world of my farm, and the wind blows through my jeans like they’re made of lace, the boot-cut bottoms flapping in the gale. The glare from the sun bouncing off the snow hurts my eyes. I wonder where my sunglasses are and grimace at the irony of the question. In the barn, frost coats the heads of the cows, separating and stiffening each tiny hair into a hoary bristle. Back outside, the cardinals and juncos I’ve been feeding all month peck at the suet hanging from low branches of the maple in the yard. A car eases down the road, its engine muffled by the snow that blankets everything.
            I see the barn cats again that evening just before dark. They’re poking their heads out the open window of the loft. The wind must have sprung the latch and there they are, framed in the day’s last light, squatting on a bale of hay, forlorn, meowing to a sliver of moon, their shallow wails barely reaching down to the house before being lost in the treetops beyond. I call to them from the back door, but I believe they can’t hear me in the distance and the shrill of the wind. Their hunger, though, I can see in the leanness and angularity of their silhouettes, and I think about making the trip to them with pork chop bones from supper. The thermometer points to zero and the snow rises practically to the bottom of my knees, though, and I do not go.
            I have not seen the barn cat since that night. January has ended and the sun somehow knows. The snow has begun to melt. A thaw’s settled on the knobs, and I’ve returned to work in the city, where the schools reopened without any trouble. Everyone, my students included, seem happy to be back.
            The bedroom is again my sleeping room, but the ice of January opened a place inside me, and now, often, I feel something seeping from that rip. On quiet evenings out near the barn, with the balm of spring close in the air, I know that something has been lost, that it’s as irretrievable as Sugar and Spice, the barn cats of this, my coldest winter.