Sunday, March 30, 2014

Figby & Pishkin


Someone dumped a calico cat and her three young ginger kittens in the field below our house—at the end of a country road. Someone else's idea of letting the cat go back to the wild to fend for herself. Someone from town stupid enough to justify that rationalization.

The young cat was was literally starving, she didn't know how to hunt, and was unable to care for her babies. Barely more than a kitten herself, we'd watch her flop down on the dry winter grass, as she tried to nurse them, but no milk came.

She was shadow thin. I tried to reel her in with food but no luck. Her trust in humans was nil. We tried to leave leave food out for her, but the bluejays would beat her off the kibble, and she was too skittish to eat if we came near. Raccoons kept a tight night patrol.

Something had to be done, nature was running its inexorable course, but I could no longer bear to watch them starve. As they were sunning themselves in the lower field, I snuck up on them from behind a stump and managed to grab one kitten as the rest scattered to the four winds. I had one chance, and one chance was all I got. I snagged one bedraggled orange kitten and brought him into the house, but not the other. They ran off, forever spooked. I never got another chance.

Figby tamed up easily and he grew into a huge cat in an amazingly short period of time. He lost his pale baby fluff and his sleek adult coat grew in a bright orange with fierce tiger stripes. I realized that the kittens were much older than they looked—which was about 6 weeks. They were more like three or four months old. Because the wild brother didn't get much food, he stayed stunted, and never lost his baby fur.

It was odd to see the twin brothers together, one the size of an adult cat, the other, a dwarfed kitten. Mutt & Jeff. One pale blond, the other a real redhead. They were a perfect example of how nutrition played a large role in the development of young animals.

When my grannie came to America and saw all the sickly children, she said,  They're not feeding the children, in this richest country in the world—she said, horrified. Her ancestors had survived the Potato Famine. So, starvation was always a back-burner story in our family.

I tried everything to lure the wild kitten in. I was winging it. Nothing worked. Then Mamacat and the third kitten died and the little guy was by himself. About as big as a minute. All alone. He'd mew piteously and Figby would amble down the hill to visit him in the lower field, but even his brother couldn't convince him to approach humans. Figby had crossed over to the realm of humans. We were his tribe now. But his brother would have nothing to do with us. 

I tried to lure the remaining wild kitten toward the house on a food ticket. Then he was so lonely, he approached Figby and me, so I sat cross-legged in the dirt, and he tentatively drank from a saucer of milk. Unused to drinking, he did a few faceplants into the saucer, blowing milk bubbles out his nose. He shivered and drank cold milk until his tiny belly was a tight balloon. His pale fur was matted and skimpy and crawling with fleas. Poor fellow didn't even have a decent fur coat.

I tried to tame him. I'd sit for hours behind that saucer of milk, until he got used to my presence. I lured him into the house. It was now or never. He took off and hid under the couch. I bribed him with milk. He'd have none of it.

Ham finally did the trick. So I began trying to pet him...he latched onto my hand and nearly bit through it. I left my hand there in his jaws, and he finally let go, he looked at me uncertainly, then he licked my hand. Went back to his food and shivered. I knew I'd won the battle. (Yes, it got infected.) I scratched his chin and he purred—perhaps for the first time ever.

Runty Pishkin never grew up to be as big as Figby—who, pardon the pun, really was a ham—and he remained skittish to the end. However, with regular meals, his adult coat came in glossy and orange. He too was a handsome cat, but he never grew up to be as big as his brother. Too little nurturing, too late. My grannie said he was a little piscín, a little kitten. That's how he got his name. From the Irish.

Pishkin never grew up. He never tamed up. It really was too late, he was a wild animal. Nature vs. nurture. We fed them inside the house but the kitchen door had to be left open. Pishkin never learned table manners. He'd growl and yodel as he ate, afraid the food would be taken from him—no matter how much we fed him. He'd hiss and lash out if you approached his dish. Figby was a perfect gentleman, he's sit tall and gaze benignly at his bother, he'd wait until Pishkin had his fill, then he'd eat.

            *               *               *

During my early childhood, I was never allowed to have cats in the house, only outside cats. There was Mamakitty, the founder cat, also a calico stray. But her line eventually died out (with a little help from the pound). We started out with one cat. At one point we had 13, cats; a week later it was a clouder of 26 cats. Dinnertime, they'd come running in thundering herds for table scraps. I'd sing: Here kitty-kitties, here kit-kits, here, kittywits, kittywits, kittywits....

My grannie said That was it, enough was enough. The cats have to go. (During the 1950s, there were no spaying options. Not like now. Ranchers shot or drowned excess cats. Billy Joe Bianchi's father, Big Joe, drown a litter in a gunnysack. I was distracted by the ducklings circling the pool. But I knew what had happened. The pound seemed more humane an option.)

I was allowed to keep two toms: Blackie and Winky, brothers from Mamakitty's first and second litters, were my constant companions. I dressed them in doll clothes, and dragged them everywhere.

The cats put up with my childish ministrations for years, never clawing or biting—though they were, by right, feral cats. Except the time I put a collar and leash on Blackie and dragged him down the road. The Rautio's dog came bounding up, gentle Blackie having no place else  to go, ran up to the crown of my head—raking my face and eyelids and spitting for all he was worth. I had scars for years.

I tossed the cats in the creek at the beginning of summer for their yearly bath. It was a tough love—they were stinky cats. They hated water, but they loved being clean afterwards—and they managed to keep up their personal hygiene for several months. Then, being boys, they'd get slovenly.

Blackie was a gorgeous black-tipped longhair, with a smoky undercoat. He worked hard at keeping all that long fur clean. Winky was a tabby striped shorthair, also with a cloudy undercoat. (They must've had the same father.) Blackie was also a bit of a lavender poofter, he had a thing going with the other male cats. Must've been his green eyes that drove them wild. He'd also steal kittens and tried to nurse them.

Not like the Stone's ugly rogue cat Grayboy, from down the road, who ate all of Mamakitty's kittens one night, and left the heads in the crib for me to find. I reached into the nest expecting to find a cuddle of warm kittens. I screamed and screamed when I pulled out a little orange head the size of a tennisball. Mamakitty grieved and grieved.

But sans litter, meant Grayboy's progeny would soon be on its way. I hated Grayboy, I never wanted one cat more dead than him. One time I managed to catch him by the tail, and dropkick him, but like Bill the Cat, he always came back.

Blackie was fearless and stood his turf. A raccoon got Blackie by the scruff of the neck and tore his throat open one time too many, he eventually ran off and died of an abscess. Another cat—probably that psycho-cat Grayboy as he seemed to relish killing our cats—snagged Winky's eye, pulling it from its socket during a brawl. Winky came back to visit, an apparition from a horror story, as if to say goodbye, and then ran off to die. I had nightmares for months.

Then we had no cats for a long while. Until someone dumped that second mamacat and her kittens in our lower field. Another calico. It was divine providence.

            *               *               *

In one fell swoop, Figby broke all the house rules. He moved in and slept on my grandmothers couch—she had a shaggy orange car throw that he thought was his. She was partial to redheads and ginger cats. FIgby was a lovefest. He knew we'd saved him. And that was that. He never had accidents—he waited patiently at the door to be let out. We were his humans who needed bathing and bathroom supervision.

Figby & Ziggy

When Figby moved into the house, then my Siamese-alleycat cat Ziggy (Stardust) moved in too. They were like bookends. I don't remember how Figby got his name, perhaps from sampling my grandmother's figs. He was a strange cat—he'd try anything we ate—but the name fit him. Figby was also a copycat. Anything my grannie ate—he sampled it too. He loved sharing her tea. OK, so there was milk in it.

But when he sampled her old fashioneds and Irish whiskey, she'd half-heartedly swat him with a newspaper and he'd just sit there staring at her, purring and critching his toes, gazing at her with big yellow eyes. I can understand a cat eating avocados—and bananas are an odd choice—but booze?

Figby was more dog than cat and every morning he'd stroll in the garden behind my grannie, his tail like a mast, cricked over at the tip, never leaving her side. Pishkin slinked along behind, like a scared shadow, muttering all the while. Hanging laundry and composting also needed Figby's close supervision and approval.

Ziggy & Pishkin

Pishkin was the feral cat, and Figby ruled the house. Each morning the brothers would snuggle like bookends and sunbathe on the kitchen window ledge. Sometimes Pishkin would let me scratch under his chin, he wanted petting too, he'd purr, but he was always too skittish for a full petjob, or, come into the house. He and Ziggy never bonded, other than by species.


I was devastated when Figby died of distemper a couple of years later. (Pre shots days.) Pishkin was inconsolable in his grief, Figby was all he had to anchor him to our world, and so he became wilder and wilder, and each visit more infrequent than the last. The law of nature, wild in tooth and claw, had won out in the end.

Pishkin lived to be a venerable age, always circling our house, always keeping tabs on us, always looking for Figby. He'd look at us as if to say: What have you done with my brother? Then he'd slink off into the pale grass muttering to himself.


Second Draft:

Someone dumped a calico mother and three ginger kittens at our house at the end of Barranca Road. Someone else's idea of letting the cat go back to the wild. She was literally starving, unable to care for them. Figby grew huge while the wild brother stayed stunted. It was a classic case of nurture vs. nature. Mama cat and the third kitten died, and the little guy was by himself. He was about as big as a minute. I tried everything to lure him in. Lure him into the house on a starvation ticket. Then I tried to tame him. I'd sit for hours behind a saucers of milk, until he got used to my presence. Ham did the trick. So I began trying to pet him...he latched onto my hand and nearly bit through it. I left my hand there, and he let go, then licked my hand. I knew I'd won the battle. (Yes, it got infected.) Runty Pishkin never grew as big as Figby—who, pardon the pun, really was a ham—and remained skittish to the end. FIgby loved sharing tea, old fashioneds and whiskey neat with my grannie. Anything she ate—so did he. He loved her that much. Bananas and avocados I can see, but booze? He was more dog than cat and strolled with her in the garden, never leaving her side. He was a lovefest. He knew we'd saved him. I was devastated when he died of distemper. (Pre shots days.) Pishkin was inconsolable, Figby was all he had to anchor him to our world, and so he became wilder and wilder with each visit.

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