From idyllic island to metropolitan cities to rural farm. From squishing sand with toes, to squeezing into pumps, to skirting squelchy mud in boots. Oceans blue tipped with foamy white. Streets buzzing with lights and life. Expanses of serene space.
And barn cats. I realize I have had 43 of them over the years, their numbers shrinking even as our bonding grows. Tears falling over the meal for a fattened fox. For the babies that die.
“They’re only barn cats.” The neighbour was patient. “Good for catching mice but multiplying too fast.”
She meant well. The “good for catching mice but multiplying too fast” is but a pendulum that swings too quickly, blurring the useful with the burdensome. They catch the mice that eat the grain, gnaw the boxes and nibble rubber hoses in the equipment. They’re supposed to keep away snakes too, but I’m not persuaded that they do.
The garter snakes, though harmless, never fail to evoke blood-curdling screams and high-pitched shrieks. Through it all, the cats remain unperturbed, carrying along with the more important duties of the moment—cleaning, sleeping, eating. Store-bought food for barn cats adds up quickly, too. Mice and birds are almost non-existent over winter, and gophers stir only in their sleep, dreaming of hide and seek when they pop out of their holes, upright as a soldier paying homage to a superior.
Cat poop accumulating over the wintry months awaiting the spring cleanup is aversion enough to abandon farming. Although they’re good to dig and cover in the summer, eight months of snow on the ground does not encourage the animals to find faraway spots for toilet regimes. The putrid smell intensifies with warmer temperatures. But the chore of cleaning is relegated to another, as is the decision to abandon or not. Yes, many find the threshold of tolerance for cats small, and the smaller the number in the barn, the happier a situation it is.
Far from the perfumeries of department stores, from exclusive scents in duty-free shops, I find myself in the smelly barn the felines haunt. Daring. Hoping. Inexperienced.
“There’s a new white kitten at the farm.” My husband had kept this information for the lights out moment. I had bolted upright in the darkness, a gopher at attention.
“A white kitten?!”
Three words formed a question, an exclamation, and a statement that would one day be wrapped in print, though not known yet. My husband had not anticipated my level of interest or he might have reserved the subject for the morning when he would be more alert. But time of day, or the fact that he is not a night person and wakes up early for his day job, was inconsequential. In halting tones, the good man manoeuvred my torrent, patiently explaining and describing the kitten. Over and over. That he had known me for years and still chose to bring up the kitten topic at a time he was hoping to sleep undisturbed was his only error in judgment at that moment, or perhaps it was my flaw that I was impatient.
Insight: Allocate time for certain subjects and keep within the timelines. Ask to get back to the person if the time runs out. Gauge the appropriateness of a topic before tackling it.
The next day was Sunday, and after church I dropped my daughter at a friend’s house, assuring the mom I’d be back within an hour. My husband was harvesting canola and I usually took him his lunch. Knowing that I’d want a kitten-moment, he did not drive to the house immediately as he usually did when he saw my car. There was time.
Meanwhile, I had to execute my plan. I drove slowly up the lane. The animals must not be startled. Parking my CRV close to the house, I crept out, leaving the driver’s door ajar. I unlocked the trunk. The cardboard box was still there with its lonely sausage tenant. It would not be lonely for long.
I tiptoed across the dry yard, my runners soundless. I stopped breathing as I approached the barn. Almost. The cutest, most adorable little creature sat under the riding mower, the large machine shrinking its size even more in comparison. It looked dirty white, as if it had passed through smoke. Its tail was dark, eyes heaven-blue. Tranquil. My husband had estimated it to be about five weeks old.
Insight: Don’t fall into complacency based on appearance.
I froze. I knew I had to build trust since the wild little thing was watching me warily, prepared to bolt at any sudden movement. My husband had cautioned about its energy.
Insight: Especially with the new, take time to build trust. This holds true for jobs, people, animals…
Ten minutes later, I was glued to the same spot. Furry heads rubbed against my jeans and I patted them, bending slowly, taking advantage of the moment to inch along with their bodies, closer to the feeding dish where the welcome party drifted—the sure sign that petting time was over.
The little kitten was no match for the eight heads that converged on the oval tray. She could not get close to the food. Eventually she hopped inside the tray and took a cautious bite, chewing at a tortoise’s pace. Cats left as tummies swelled. Only four remained. I must hurry.
With the sun smiling gold on my silver car behind me, I stretched my hand inside the dark shed toward old, brownish-grey Strawberry. Even though it was only a slight movement, the little kitten cowered a few steps behind, as if she had a built-in alert. I held on to Strawberry and the kitten came back to the food. I watched from the corner of my eye. The hazy head dipped in the bowl. And I pounced.
Smokey on CTV television, June 2016
Insight: Make discernment an ongoing study.
Yeoooowww.” Instantly the remaining food-crazed cats fled from the bowl, their eyes round and brown. Eighteen claws aimed at me as the five-week-old kitten struggled, hissing and spitting, meowing and yowling. My treasure secure, I fled. How I ran. Who had moved the car so far away? Blood oozed from the back of my hand, a scratch or a bite I couldn’t tell.
Insight: Create a workstation that flows sequentially. In this case, the escape vehicle must be close to the loot. Avoid bottleneck situations.
My husband was incredulous when he heard the story later. “Didn’t you wear gloves?”
Gloves? I was inexperienced.
Insight: Safety gear is never an option. Seek it out, wear it, don’t compromise. Have the necessary tools at hand.
But gloves were a lesser concern on that day. Mama Cat was the feared enemy. Which one of the clowder was the mother? I had encountered a female cat with babies before, snarling and springing at me two minutes after I’d fed the ingrate. I had no desire to repeat the incident. My fevered brain registered the foible in my plans.
Insight: Seek advice on how to reach a goal. Research. Create a sustainable plan.
Cats streamed into the sunshine. Curiosity or mutiny? Deep throated sounds reached my ears. I screamed my husband’s name but he was in a combine kilometers away. Out of sight. Sweating, terrified and whimpering, I tried to intimidate the four-legged crew while struggling with their scratching, biting offspring.
“Shoo. Bad cats!”
The bottleneck seemed longer than a line of rush hour traffic on a Friday afternoon but eventually I crossed the distance to the waiting car. Dropping the yowling kitten in the box, I slammed the door shut before collapsing onto the driver’s seat. The little animal was petrified, jumping out of the box and moving at whirlwind speed from the back to the front to underneath the seats. Would she settle near the brakes? Or worse, use the soft fabric seat for a toilet or scratching post?
It had taken all of 15 minutes but my time in cat hell had felt like an eternity.
My husband recounted later that night that he “saw silver shooting at a speed that’s not allowed on the highway.”
“I had no lunch.”
More silence. It was impossible to dismiss the twinge at the reminder that he had been hungry all afternoon.
Remorseful, I urged, “Hurry up and shower. We have a guest.”
In the bathroom, he introduced himself to the guest in the makeshift litter box my friend had provided. She had also offered a “sheep”—long piece of plush faux fur that imitated the warmth and feel of Mama Cat’s fur. I had accepted both the box and the fur gratefully as I had been totally unprepared for a kitten. Fortunately, too, the supermarket was open and I was able to procure kitten food.
And so it came about that we had our first house kitten. Born in a barn, as wild a cat as there ever was, likely to have been devoured like so many others.
But no. The vet pronounced her a ‘him.’ The hint of smog that enveloped his fur inspired his name. Smokey. He once locked himself in our car and the CAA was called, leading to the publication of Smokey’s Lock-Out in the August 2014 issue of Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Cat Did What?
As he grew older, the hint of dark became lines, showing his Lynx Siamese blood.
“I could teach children to count using your stripes, Smokey,” I cooed to the lovable pet. One tail, two eyes, four paws, 10 stripes…”
And therein was born the idea for a second children’s book. (My first one was Little Copper Pennies for Kids).
But I thought counting to ten was too limited a market for a book, so with a little more thought, Alphabet on The Farm was created. I’m writing this story on May 21, 2014. Today my publisher accepted Alphabet on The Farm, and it will be printed in both English and French. This book will also be the first of my books to be translated into another language. My most recent success.
Insight: Even the mundane, despised or insignificant hold seeds of promise. A cat or a castle offers opportunities and with a bit of creativity one can find success in the ordinary.
I know for sure that whatever life offers I can make good of it. In a classroom or a barn room. If lemons, I’ll make hot sauce. If cat-napping, please wear gloves. More and more I am persuaded that anyone can find success right where they are.
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. His promises remain with me to the farthest part of the earth. He’ll be with me. I was born on the sparkling island of Trinidad and I was successful there. He equipped me and blessed my ministry and career. Upon immigrating to Canada, I remained confident that I can be successful anywhere I locate, at anything my hands find to do.
Published 2016 by Borealis Press
From idyllic island to metropolitan cities to rural farm, I walk in His will and I delight in Him. He leads and I listen, and follow. The Lord promises exceedingly abundantly above what I can ask or think if I please Him. I’ve learned to be content though it was a long road pitted with discontented twists and gloomy points. But God never left, He never forsook. I do my part and He does His. And that makes me realize that I’m successful not because of who I am but because of who He is.
The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein. Psalm 24:1
A chapter from 10 1/2 SKETCHES: INSIGHTS ON BEING SUCCESSFEL RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE
Copyright 2015 by Susan Harris