By John Mattingly
In a year when we’ve been learning how virtual reality actually is, an interesting pair of tomcats came to visit the farm. Though not a cat person, I do enjoy cats. A great number have come along over the years, sometimes as a gift, sometimes as a feral visitor, occasionally as an opportunist, and more than once: as a traveler behind the seat of an old truck. Early on, I decided that on a farm, a cat has to be either inside or out. It has to be fed to fatness, or fed just enough to survive another day living the precarious life of a cat, while policing rodents.
This either/or of in-or-out is probably guilty of many worthy exceptions, but without doubt, every cat that seduced me to invite it inside the house, later fell victim to predators when venturing out at night, into darkness filled with eagles, hawks, owls, coyotes, dogs and raccoons. Those cats who remained outside, living in a den of their choice while hunting – these cats lasted into old age. To live through Valley winters, a feral cat learns early that life is dangerous and some recognize the value of a little help from humans, which they reciprocate by keeping the rodents terrorized.
When a cat wanders onto the farm, the first thing I do is offer food and watch how they eat. An outside cat will take no more than a small nip of food before checking in all directions for potential attackers. An inside cat will keep its nose to the food and never look up, except if petted, and then only briefly.
Over the years, most experiences typical of farm cats have come my way. A calico named Tulip slept with the chickens and occasionally caught a ride on the back of a goat. Then there was Orpheus – a solid black cat with luminous eyes who appeared and disappeared around the yard like a ghost – until, on Halloween night, he rolled over on his back at our front door, expecting a belly rub. Mamasita, a brown female, had a nice home for herself and six kittens in the tool box of a truck I bought from someone almost a hundred miles away. Three months later they all disappeared and showed up at the seller’s farm. Kit and Kat, a pair of females, hunted together sharing the fun of cat-and-mouse for hours.
Last winter, a scrawny, long-haired yellow tom started showing himself a safe distance from the house. He reminded me of a tom I named Boots, owing to his deep black paws contrasting pale brown fur in a way that resembled heel kickers. Years ago, Boots came around about twice a week for a small bowl of half and half or cream – regular milk: no thanks. Offerings had to be rich in butterfat to be worth the trouble of getting my attention.
Thinking of Boots, I put out a small bowl of half and half in the evening, hoping to tempt this scrawny yellow tom to hang around. I had a trap line at the time that yielded as many as twelve and seldom fewer than four mice every night. Oat hay stacks produce mice like a Sorcerer’s Apprentice of rodentia. The new tom, whom I named Kennycat, finally became friendly when I added whipped cream on top of the half and half. From that point on, he became so friendly, and so determined to show us affection, that he became somewhat of a nuisance under foot.
We did not let him in the house for obvious reasons, and the trap line yielded fewer and fewer mice as Kennycat settled in, living in the scrapyard, our purgatory for machines and parts waiting to donate one of their mechanical organs. Sometimes, on nights rife with coyotes, Kennycat slept on the back doormat of our house, but never tried to get in, always slipping aside deferentially.
In April, another scrawny tom showed up whom we named Comet because his tail was pure black, the rest of him pure white. For almost a month, the two toms played together and hunted together, and there were no mice on place. None.
But suddenly and surprisingly, the two toms became baronial, defending their perceived estates with military action. The fights were alarming, and appeared fatal, but within a week or so, the two toms agreed on boundaries, though we suspected they would soon be off chasing females and probably return intermittently, or not at all. Instead, the two toms were afraid to leave, for fear of giving up ground to the other.
The two tom cats each – and equally – were thus more dedicated to maintaining their daily whipped cream and half-and-half than in answering the call of distant females. Comet protects the house and most territory to the south. Kennycat lives on a small island among the ducks, and takes care of the northern theater. To this writing, now nearly a year along, the two toms have never left the farm. The oat hay is keeping them in mice while we supply the cream. The two toms are getting big and muscular, looking good but not spoiled, and their fur is sleek. To them we say: Thank you for your service
John Mattingly cultivates prose, among other things, and was most recently seen near Moffat.