Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Saving Sasha

In which we read of fearful giants, the courage of a cat, and kindness richly rewarded.

Sasha in bed
He was starved. I have never seen a cat so thin, nor so afraid. Today as I write, he sleeps in a basket, on a cushion, long gray fur fluffed out, and a contented smile gracing his elegant face. His beautiful tail, a truly glorious tail, long and fluffy and fat, drapes across dark gray paw pads. He is a vision of catly contentment, and I smile, seeing him so. The sight is like healing oil on a parched and cracked heart.

Two years ago things were very different. It was late October, perhaps early November, when I first noticed him. It was feeding time for the feral colony, and there he was, in the biting autumn wind, hanging around at the edge of the group, crying. He was clearly terrified. Only his hunger drove him to us.

That tail, which now is so magnificent in its fat, furry glory, was like no tail I had ever seen. The fur was almost gone; it looked more like a possum's tail than the tail of a cat. Worst of all, it was ridged and lumpy. What I mean is there was so little flesh over the bones of the tail that you could see and count the vertebrae. He was starving. In his desperation, somehow he found us.

The Colony Cats, I'm sad to say, were not welcoming. They tried to drive him away; they wouldn't let him eat in their midst. He would sit at the edge of the yard and cry, a small, almost indiscernable sound. His eyes met mine, and I saw despair. Something had to be done. I didn't think he had much time.

First, I tried setting a bowl for him separately, at a short distance from the trays where the Colony feeds. I put the food there, on the back deck, and retreated to the back door, to give him space. He crept forward, belly to the ground, cringing, and made it to the bowl. The Colony Cats were eating happily away.

But Raven raised his head, saw the newcomer at the new bowl. Sleek, black Raven left his feeding, stalked over to where the little fuzzy gray tabby with the knobby tail took one tiny bite, then two. With hissing and spitting and claws drawn, Raven attacked; Knobby Tail retreated. I chided; Raven returned to his colony mates.

What to do? I fretted. Knobby Tail sat some distance away, crying. I sat in the back doorway, huddled into my sweater, because it was cold. Eventually the colony finished feeding; they wandered away. I called to Knobby Tail, rattled the food at him. I prayed a little. Our eyes met; I blinked at him, putting the encouragement of my soul into that blink.

Come on. I thought at him. Come on.


He blinked back. Again he crept forward, the very picture of timidity. The other cats had gone, wandered away on their various concerns. He crouched there on my deck; he began to eat. My heart burst open and I sighed an inward sigh of relief. Progress. We had made progress.

The days grew colder; the temperatures dropping to freezing, and then into the twenties. The Spousal Unit made a weekend trek to a big chain pet store. This was in the days before the kitty palace of hay. He bought and brought home a large plastic dog house, big enough to host the entire colony, to shelter them from the elements, from the winter snow that would soon be coming.

I was worried about Knobby Tail. The Colony Cats, I knew, piled together for warmth in the winter. I had seen them, in their various nests among the ivy, the mulberry bushes, or in the abandoned house next door. But no one in the colony would be snuggling with Knobby Tail. The Colony remained adamant in their refusal to allow him into their company. They wouldn't be sharing body heat with him.

By some good fortune, he took to the dog house immediately, and for reasons known only to the Colony, they allowed him to have it. Our feeding routine now was that, once I had put out the colony food, I would sit just inside the back door, and put out a bowl just for Knobby Tail, about arms length away from me, just inside the door. Once the Colony Cats were all engaged with their food, he would come creeping, belly to the ground, towards me. I would waggle my fingers at him, encouraging.

"Come," I would say to him, making eye contact, blinking. "Come on." I would hold the bowl up. "This is for you."

When his stealth approach had brought him to within half the deck's length of food, he would make a dash for it, racing to the safety of the back door, where Raven and Skitter, two of the Colony males, would not approach. Day by day I worked at making friends. I set the food closer and closer to me; sat stone still while he ate, spoke to him quietly, gently, made no quick moves.

After some time, he would let me stroke his back as he ate, his back and that poor, knobby tail, skin over bones. One day I went too far; I picked him up and he fled, screaming; away through the yard and over the fence. I was distraught. I thought we had lost him. But the next day he was back, waiting for me in the dog house. When I sat down inside the back door, and held out his food bowl, he came. But that day we didn't pet.

The temperatures continued their decline. We were in the low twenties, then the high teens. During the daily noon time feeding, I sat in the laundry room, the back door open to the biting air, bundled into my heavy winter coat, shivering. My friendship with Knobby Tail progressed to the point to where he would sit in my lap and eat. If I made any attempt, though, to confine him, to pick him up, to hold him, he was gone like a flash.

The Colony Cats remained hostile to him. Every day, he ran the gauntlet of their ire to get to me. I began to be seriously concerned about the temperature. There came the day in December when the weather forecast predicted night time temperatures in the single digits. I was concerned for the Colony Cats. I was terrified for Knobby Tail.

Intuition is a mysterious thing. I knew, I knew, he wouldn't make it. He had gained some weight, but not enough. He would die that night, alone in the cold. I could feel it in my gut.

One of the most horrific stories I have ever heard involves a neighbor of the Spousal Unit's parents, and a thing that happened in their neighborhood. We were together, the Spousal Unit and I, in our Cozy House in the City, when the thing happened. It was a Christmas Eve night. The neighbor was an elderly man, a retiree, a widower. He lived alone with his dog, though children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews came often to visit and to check on him. The Spousal Unit's parents, retirees themselves, also checked on him regularly, as did other neighbors. This elderly man, whom we will call Mr. Jones (a slight fiction) seemed to have a caring and effective support network in place.

Late on Christmas Eve, perhaps even early Christmas morning, Mr. Jones let his dog out into the back yard, to tend to the business that dogs must tend to. For some reason, no one knows why, Mr. Jones went into the back yard after the dog, onto the back deck, instead of standing in the door as was his wont. He slipped on the ice, and he fell. The night was bitter, temperatures were in the single digits. No one heard him cry out; no one even knows if he did. I know my in-laws, across the street, would have called for help had they heard. But no one heard. And there in the dark, alone but for his dog, Mr. Jones froze to death, in a thin bathrobe and slippers. His family found him early Christmas morning, when they came to pick him up, to carry him to family festivities.

Several years later, I stood on my own ice covered deck, as the year wound down to Christmas and temperatures dropped and dropped again in the long and bitter midwinter nights. I looked at a small, almost starved gray cat, and knew he would die alone that night. Then, without knowing why or planning it, without conscious thought, my arms reached out and scooped him up, one hand taking firm hold of the loose fur at the back of his neck, his scruff, and the other wrapping around firmly and holding him tight against my chest. I stalked through the back door into the laundry room, calling to the Spousal Unit, who had been in the back yard with me, to close the back door. He did.

Whatever magic had stunned Knobby Tail into relaxed compliance wore off, and he cried out, in a pathetic small voice; he wriggled and hissed. I being no fool, let go immediately, and Knobby Tail dove behind the dryer. The Spousal Unit poked a cautious head inside the laundry room from the door leading to the kitchen. He had gone around to the front and flanked us.

Defiance puffed me up. "I've brought Knobby Tail inside," I declared, head back, hands on my hips. Now that the deed was done, adrenaline flooded my system and I was ready to fight.

The Spousal Unit was not laughing. I could see he was exerting a lot of work to be not laughing. He said with an admirably straight face, "So I see. You want some food for him?"

"Yes." I made my demands. "And a potty box. And some water."

The Spousal Unit retreated to see to my terms. I hazarded a cautious peek over the edge of the dryer. Knobby Tail gazed up at me with enormously wide eyes. He gave a little surprised "bleek", and didn't budge.

I glared out the window at the winter, mentally shaking my fists at those old enemies, the Frost Giants. You cant have him, I thought at them. Not tonight. And they didn't get him. And they haven't gotten him yet.

We had much work to do over. I had trust to earn again. But Knobby Tail is a loving and gentle Main Coon, a breed known as "the Gentle Giants," and he forgave me soon enough. We decided the bitter winter of his arrival warranted a Russian name; I was in a "War and Peace" sort of mood. We named him "Sasha". Up until the day when he would let me handle him, we had thought he was a girl; close inspection at the veterinarian's office revealed him to be a neutered male. He had no microchip; inquiries around the neighborhood revealed no grieving owner. So we adopted him with gladness and he has been a member of our family ever since.

Sasha sleeping
Sasha is a very affectionate boy. I wonder sometime about the paths that brought him to our doorstep that late Autumn. Where had he been? What adventures had befallen? How had he come to be in such a desperate situation? These are questions to which I can never know the answers. But that's OK. When Sasha snuggles into my arms at night, spooning, head next to mine on the pillow, I bury my face in his long fur. His bitter winter is over. He is home.

Notes and Nonsense:  Apologies, Gentle Readers, for our week long absence. Spousal Unit has had pneumonia, there was a tornado (we are all fine), torrential rains (our roof is almost fine), and a computer virus (which has been crushed and eliminated. Hurray for "system restore"). But we are now back on track, and glad to be here. Thanks for reading!

 stlcatlady is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of short stories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjects: felines , philosophy, and folklore. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com. Thanks for reading!


  1. Oh dat is such a bootiful story. It must have been fate dat sent him to your door. I'm so happy dis story has a happy ending.

  2. Mario, you know you are a tremendous inspiration to me. *hugs*! Thank you so much for reading,and for the encouragement.

  3. I have been reading through your blog for a while, now that the whirlwind that has become my life has died down a bit, and I have time to read again.

    Many of your posts have moved me to tears - grateful, healing tears. My heart, which has been experiencing mostly pain lately, has been greatly healed by your stories.

    Bless you and your all your family, furry and non-furry, for being the compassionate and gracious folks that you are. And for giving me hope that the world is not such a harsh place after all.