Mumford’s Meow

As we were leaving Greg’s mom’s house one afternoon, Greg said, “Listen to that weird bird call. Almost sounds like a cat, doesn’t it?” It was an intermittent call, raucous and raw, and we didn’t know what kind of bird made it. It wasn’t like anything we’d ever heard before, except a cat, sort of, but not really.

Next morning Greg went to his mom’s again to do some yard work for her, and when he came home he had a tiny black-and-white kitten in his mom’s cat carrier along with a can of cat food and a towel. He’d heard the noise again, decided it had to be a cat because it was coming from ground level, and searched until he found it huddled close to the fence. Greg’s mom said it had made that weird sound all night long.

mumford

It was a young kitten—old enough to survive away from its mother, but not without some help. There was no sign of a mother cat or other kittens in the area. How did it get to Greg’s mom’s? It was too young to walk far on its own and there was no place close enough for it to toddle from. Did someone really drive it to the country, find a likely-looking house, and just drop it off? I know such things happen but the idea is just too much. I’ve never really been able to wrap my mind around it.

The kitten was still meowing its bizarre meow in the cat carrier. Now that we knew it was a cat, the sound seemed urgent and scared rather than just weird, but still, we figured something must be wrong with its meower for it to sound like that. I held the kitten, and it quieted down. What sort of night had it passed, a baby, hungry and alone in a strange place?

The kitten was male. I called him Mumford after someone else I knew of with a raw, anguished cry.

mumford and mumford

Mumford came at an opportune time. A few weeks earlier Emilie had brought home an orange kitten whom I’d named Bucky (that’s Winter Soldier Bucky, not Get Fuzzy Bucky), and a few days later she brought home Winky, a solid black female, so Mumford had a foster brother and sister right away. Bucky is the biggest and likes to wrestle the other two, giving Mumford fresh cause for yowling.

bucky

Winky is a bit older than Mumford, a bit more graceful and poised on her feet, and a bit more reserved. When Bucky wrestles Winky, she doesn’t yowl; she gibbers and fights back. At night, when Bucky and Mumford curl up close, Winky beds down about a hand’s breadth away—near, but not so near.

winky

It turns out that Mumford has a normal meow after all. There’s nothing wrong with his meower; he was just so frantic that first couple of days, so frightened out of his senses, that he couldn’t sound like a regular cat. Emilie said he was using his mama-meow, and I think she’s right. It’s an urgent, piercing, strident cry, with the sole purpose of catching the mother cat’s attention and bringing her running. The cry of a human newborn in distress has a similar quality; any mother knows instinctively the difference between a fussy or tired cry and the cry of a baby that’s frightened or in pain. Mumford’s mother, if she’d been around, would have responded right away. We are humans and it took us a little longer to figure it out.

We heard the mama-meow off and on again for a few days, whenever Mumford couldn’t find us or was suddenly startled awake. This little animal’s first waking thought was that he was alone again. Now that he’s settled in and seems to feel safe, he doesn’t do it anymore. He does follow me around a lot, put his little front paws on my ankle, and urgently meow up at me, wanting to be held—he’s needier than the other kittens—but now he just uses a regular meow.

The thing about the mama-meow is that it is absolutely useless for any purpose other than summoning the mother cat (or a sympathetic human, or the occasional dog with cross-species maternal instincts). It is the ultimate admission of vulnerability. It sure wouldn’t frighten predators; in fact it would draw them. In the short run it would seem safer to keep quiet. But what good is that really? Hiding from danger is no use for a kitten that young. It’ll die on its own, if not from predation then from hunger or exposure. The mama-meow is its only chance.

There are times when your best and only hope is to cry out for mercy. Don’t try to be clever or cautious or defensive; don’t hide; don’t rely on your own resource. Put all your heart and hunger and loneliness and poverty and need into your cry, and pray it falls on sympathetic ears.

Sometimes mercy is all that can save you.

mumford bucky

When Hope is Weak

When you’ve had as many cats as we have, you’ve seen cats get sick. A sick cat is a sorry sight. It creeps about with sunken body and head hung low. It stops making the Contented Cat Face. It hunches there, listless and still, waiting.

Sick Cat1

Sometimes the cat gets better. Its eyes clear; it starts eating and drinking and taking an interest again. When you pet the cat, it presses against your hand to get in a really good rub. It narrows its eyes to slits and rounds its back in comfort. A convalescent cat is as happy and grateful as any human recovering from a bad illness and just as wonderful to see.

sick_cat4

And sometimes the cat dies. Its fur and skin grow cold. The color recedes from its gums, leaving them pale and grey. Its eyes dull. It sinks into a stupor. Occasionally it rallies and fights for a while, meowing desperately, arching its back, scrabbling at the floor with its paws. Its breathing is shallow but strained; existence is hard labor. But it holds on.

For hours on Christmas Eve I watched a young cat slowly die. Several times I truly thought he was getting better, but he wasn’t. When my husband got home he took the cat outside with his .22 and ended it.

A recent remark from a friend got me thinking about hope, about how hard it is to let go even when you’re all but certain it’s in vain. It dwindles to a hard little kernel that lodges in your mind and will not move. Hope is part expectation and part desire, and it’s not particular as to proportions. Expectation may shrivel to a dry husk while desire remains robust and green, and together they still add up to hope.

You can tell yourself every hour of every day how unlikely you are to get what you want, but you cannot by an act of will stop the wanting. The most meager grain of expectation is enough to keep hope alive, and desire can actually nurture expectation, doing violence to intellect.

sick-cat-2

The trouble is that we can’t predict the future. If we could, then hope would be neither needful nor possible. We’re caught in the uncertainty between fulfillment and disappointment, and there’s no way out but through.

I think that faint hope is like a little cat that’s sick. It might make it and it might not. And the tension of watching and wondering is a terrible, terrible thing. Even when it seems that the most merciful thing to do would be to kill it, you can’t, because you can’t willfully end hope without ending yourself. The most you might manage is to stifle it, and if you make a habit of that you’ll end up like what C.S. Lewis called the Disillusioned “Sensible Man.” Though priggish and repressed, such a man “rubs along fairly comfortably” without being a nuisance to society. According to Lewis, such a state “would be the best line we could take if man did not live forever.”

Lewis continues,

The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same. (Mere Christianity)

Is this any help for the one who is suffering not from the failure of earthly things to satisfy ineffable desires but rather from a simple inability to get those earthly things which he so badly wants? I think so–I hope so. If nothing else, it affirms hope itself as a virtue. Continuing to hope past the point of pragmatism can make us feel foolish and embarrassed. It shouldn’t. Hope and folly are not the same thing. We may or may not get the thing we want, but while we wait we can take comfort in knowing there are other, better things awaiting us whose fulfillment is sure.

I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the LORD more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.

Psalm 130:5,6

sick-cat-IV

The Opossum in the Cabinet

We had an odd arrangement with our contractor, who was also our former pastor and good friend: we hired him to build the house, and he hired Greg as his framing crew. He knew we needed to do all we could to cut costs, and he graciously accommodated us. I worked on the house too, as much as I was able, mostly on painting and clean-up. The kids were then six, three, and two years of age. They spent long days with us at the house-in-progress, helping with the work and running around the three-acre property.

No doubt the new house would be a big improvement over the old. Since before Daniel’s first birthday, we’d lived in 1100 square feet of bad plumbing and particle-wood sub-floors. We’d been grateful to get that place, and certainly it had its good points. But we were reveling in the expectation of 1600 square feet of brand spanking new living space that could be counted on not to fall apart around us anytime in the near future.

We’d gotten home late that night from working on the house; we’d thrown something together for dinner, fed the kids, and put them to bed. Greg and I were sitting at the kitchen table, talking, when I heard a scratching sound coming from inside the cabinet under the sink.

This was not an unheard-of thing. Our baby-proof latches had long since worn out, and our cat Pud had a knack for opening certain cabinet doors with his paw. Probably he just liked the privacy.

Untroubled, without shifting in my seat or pausing in what I was saying, I opened the door.

Perched on top of a box of dishwashing detergent was an animal. Smaller than our grown cats, whitish, with round black eyes, a long snout, and a bald, pink, prehensile tail.

I shut the door. Then I turned to my husband.

“Greg,” I said, “there—there’s a—there’s an opossum—”

He was already nodding, his eyes intently fixed on my face, willing me to stay calm. “I know. I saw it too. It must have come in through that hole in the cabinet floor. We’ll just leave it shut in the cabinet for the night, and tomorrow after it goes away I’ll seal up the hole.”

The plan wasn’t ideal, but under the circumstances it was the best we could do. Neither of us wanted to grapple with the animal, and if we were to flush it out of the cabinet and try to hustle it through the front door, there was no guarantee that it would go where we wanted it to without a fight. I’d heard of opossums doing a lot of damage in houses to which they’d somehow gained entrance.

We blocked the door with a chair and a box, trapping the critter and preventing Pud from strolling in for a little down time and making the awful discovery. Then we went to bed.

Next morning, we opened the cabinet. No opossum! It must have slunk out in the night, just as Greg had predicted. Greg sealed the hole with some of that expanding foam stuff that comes in a can. When he was done, there was no opening left through which any opossum could possibly pass.

He went to work, and the kids and I stayed home. Sometime that afternoon, I opened the undersink cabinet to throw something away.

The opossum stared up at me from inside the trash can.

Let me say here that I do not fear opossums on principle, or bees or wasps or spiders or snakes. Faced with wildlife that isn’t actively attacking me in a life-threatening manner, I can keep my head as well as anyone. But I do hate to be startled. I don’t fear Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke either, but if I found him inside my trash can, I would probably scream.

It all depends on context.

And I screamed now. To my credit, I also had the presence of mind to quickly throw away my handful of trash and slam the cabinet door shut.

The kids knew that Mom did not make a habit of randomly screaming. They wanted to know what was wrong. Rattled, but determined to recover my calm, I said, “Oh, nothing, almost nothing at all. There’s just an opossum in the trash can.”

(This is as good a place as any to address the largely obsolete spelling “opossum.” Throughout most of the incident of the marsupial in our cabinet, I referred to the animal by this, its rightful name. “Why do you call it that?” Greg asked. “Nobody says opossum anymore, just possum.” The thing seemed to matter deeply to him, so I started saying the word his way. I even pronounced it without the apostrophe traditionally used to indicate missing letters.)

I called Greg at work. We agreed that the possum had most definitely not been hiding out in the trash can while he was sealing the hole in the floor. Nor had it been skulking in a corner of the cabinet behind my mopping bucket. Where, then, had it disappeared to, and reappeared from?

We reasoned that the possum had slipped into the space behind the dishwasher and hung out there while Greg was working on the cabinet floor. Perhaps it was napping, or cowering in abject terror. One way or another, it was back.

Then the full import of the situation dawned on us. Greg had, in fact, sealed the possum inside the house, contrary to his intent.

And Greg was about to leave town for the weekend.

“You can keep him shut in the cabinet while I’m gone,” he said in a half-apologetic, half-coaxing tone. “When I get back I’ll set the live trap inside the cabinet and catch him. I’ll do whatever I have to do to get him out after I get back, but I just don’t have time to deal with this right now.”

There are times in my married life when my husband needs me to rise to the occasion, to be more than what I am, to laugh in the face of minor irritations and major adversity and so on. I’ve often failed, but not that day.

We blocked the cabinet door again, and Greg left for a visit to his dad.

Obviously I couldn’t have the beast perishing of hunger inside my kitchen cabinet, so a couple of times a day I tossed in some of the kids’ sandwich crusts. I figured it would get a subsistence level of water from the faulty plumbing under the sink.

It was kind of an unsettled time. It’s hard to really relax when you know that there is a hissing animal with needle-sharp teeth hiding in your kitchen. The whole concept probably has the makings of a horror movie. The underbed has been amply explored as a region of primal terror, but there is untapped potential in the undersink, home to dangerous chemicals, leaky pipes, garbage, nameless slime, and itinerant marsupials.

Greg came home again, set the live trap, baited it with a cheese sandwich, and put it in the cabinet. I had my doubts. Could the animal really be naïve enough to be lured by such blatant means into a metal contraption so obviously meant to confine him?

Yes, it could. In the morning Greg opened the cabinet, and there was the possum, snugly ensconced in the trap. This was my first opportunity to get a good look at the animal. It was a young possum and sort of cute.

Something like this.

Pud was sleeping nearby. Throughout the whole possum occupation he’d been an ineffectual watchcat, never even sniffing suspiciously at the cabinet. Greg held the cage close to him. The possum tensed; Pud slept on.

Finally Pud woke, looked at the strange animal, and fluffed up his fur. His pupils dilated and he began to yowl.

But the time for a rumble had passed. The delighted children accompanied their father and me down the street and across Mayhill Road to the lovely woods beyond. There we released our evicted tenant. It scuttled off into the herbage, never to be seen again, at least by us.

After church that day I got out a roll of paper towels and a bottle of cleaner and happily went to work, removing all signs and odors of the possum’s stay. I crawled inside the cabinet to reach the space behind the dishwasher. In a surprisingly short time, all impurities were purged away.

Within a few months we’d moved into our new home, which was never once invaded by a possum during the nine years we lived there, though it did have quite a few brown recluse spiders. But we have great memories of the old place. It was a good home to us, marsupial squatters notwithstanding.

Whether an animal, or even a person, qualifies as a pest, an invader, a guest, a pet, or a resident depends on the homeowner’s point of view. Scorpions are never welcome inside the house, and cattle belong outside the fenced yard and away from the compost bin. The status of the outside cats fluctuates depending on whether they are lounging on the porch, slipping inside to steal food off the counter, or controlling the local population of Rodents Of Unusual Size. Just this morning three of the dogs were demoted to varmint status when they chewed some of Emilie’s stuffed animals and ate her bag of horse treats.

But all four of the big dogs earned praise two nights ago when they alerted us to an alien presence in the yard. Greg went outside and found a possum curled up in a hideous playing-dead pose: eyes wide and staring, limbs stiff, lips pulled back from rows of jagged teeth in a horrible grimace. Greg picked it up by its tail and chucked it over the fence.

If only it were always that easy.