Unusually Talented Cats

When I lived and worked on a goat farm in western Massachusetts, we had two cats:  the house cat, “Pzzat”, whose role, like most cats, was to lounge around the house and exude softness and warmth.  The second cat, “Barnyardette,” or “Barny,” for short, lived in the barn and had a more useful role — to keep vermin away from the grain that  feeds the goats.  Pzzat had a bowl of food in the house.  Barney did not have a bowl of food anywhere, being entirely self sufficient.

Barny looked much like other cats, but beneath her soft fur, she was an amazingly hard mass of pure muscle.  Petting her was an experience like petting a rock on which somebody had glued a fur coat — a rock whose rumbling purr might be mistaken for a diesel engine idling nearby.

When goats were milked, the first draw from each teat is done by hand into a “strip cup,” a kind of metal mug with a screen on top.  The screen would be checked for clots or lumps (a sign of mastitis) before the milking machines were attached.  At the end of the milking cycle, Barny would be given the strip cup.

In gratitude for this treat, Barny would first offer her catches on the stoop of the milking house to see if I wanted them before she would devour the entire thing.  This usually meant an assortment of unfortunate mice, but Barny did not shy away from bigger game, either.  An occasional rat, bird, wild turkey, a skunk (which she managed to kill without any malodorous discharge on its part) and a weasel that was easily larger than she, all appeared on the stoop.  When it was clear to her that her offering had been properly displayed, a smear of blood on the stoop and the sound of crunching bones would be the only evidence remaining.

The only thing that Barny didn’t drag off and eat was a turtle she presented on the stoop with a mixture of pride and confusion — since there was no apparent way to kill and eat the turtle.  The uncooperative turtle would hide in its shell until it thought there was no longer a threat, then it would poke out its head and legs and head for the creek.  Barny, attracted by its movement from wherever she’d wandered off to, would run over and smack it on the head, whereupon the turtle would retreat to the safety of its shell, and wait for Barny to go away again.  This cycle evidently continued all through breakfast (which was after the morning milking) when I noticed that the turtle had progressed a couple of hard won feet toward the creek, and I decided to end the cruel game by carrying the turtle to the creek myself.

It was not lost on Barny that of all her food offerings, not only was it the turtle that I finally decided that I wanted, but also that instead of eating it, I wanted the turtle to stay in the creek.  Barny concluded that part of her duties should include keeping the turtles in the creek, and I saw her later patroling the creek, smacking the heads of turtles who thought to exit the creek on the barn side.

For all her care of the goats’ food, Barny was not particularly fond of goats.  They were too big to eat, and the goat personality requires that they challenge everything and everybody — no goat would be above head-butting a cat just to be certain of their social order.  When the goats came into the barn where Barny was patrolling, Barny would leap directly into the rafters ten or twelve feet above and patrol above our heads for a while.  It was such an impressive vertical leap, and Barny handled it with such grace, power, and nonchalance, that I wasn’t above waiting until Barny was patrolling the stables before letting the goats into the barn to watch this feat again.

For her part, Barny was not above insisting upon my affection and attention at the exact moment I lifted a 100 lb. bag of grain, by reaching up and digging her claws into my jeans.  She was strong enough to hang on, riding my leg as I carried the heavy bag with both hands.  Over time, she turned it into a kind of game:  while I looked carefully around for the cat, only moving bags of grain from storage to the bins when I thought she wasn’t around, her goal, of course was to come out of nowhere and ride my leg as far as possible, usually all the way to the bins.  Judging from the holes in my jeans and the claw marks on my legs, Barny won this game a lot.

I did not have a cat when I moved into a small apartment in Lansing, Michigan, and I had no plans to get one.  Therefore nobody was more surprised than I to find a cat in the middle of my kitchen, waiting expectantly, when I got home from work.

The cat seemed so smug, so comfortable, that I was nearly persuaded that I had a cat all along and had somehow forgotten all about it.  My door was locked and my windows were closed, and I had been in the apartment for nearly a month, which ruled out the possibility that it had come with the apartment somehow.  The cat left amiably enough when I opened the front door, and that seemed to be the end of that.

When I got home from work the next day, there was the cat again, as if waiting for me to return.  Again he acted as if this was his apartment and he was my cat, this time indicating that I should open the refrigerator and cupboards.  I did, just in case (nothing was there that I did not expect, nor was there any cat food, which appeared to disappoint the cat, but only mildly.)

Again, I opened the front door, and out the cat went.

When my alarm went off in the morning, I noticed that the same cat was sleeping on my feet.  I am a notoriously heavy sleeper, the cat looked so comfortable and it felt so familiar, that it’s possible that he had been sleeping in my bed for weeks.  I dubbed him Phantom, let him out the front door and went to work.

I mentioned to a coworker, Steve, that I suddenly appear to have a pet cat, one that I don’t remember ever feeding or acquiring, who simply appears in the apartment.

Steve reacted with, “oh!  I’ve heard about the ghost cat of Lansing, but I always thought it was just a legend.  He a fiercely loyal cat who was owned by a lonely old woman who loved him.  The only time they were apart was when she went to her job at the GM plant, and on the day of her retirement, when they could finally be together all day, every day, the woman was hit by a car and died.  The cat refused to eat or leave her kitchen, died of a broken heart.  Now he appears to people who are going to die soon in car crashes.”

“What?   Really?”

“No, you idiot.  The cat’s obviously getting in somehow, there must be a hole or a cat door or something.”

I had already looked, but Steve’s theory made sense, and together we searched the apartment for holes that a cat could get through.  All the windows were locked, there were no holes in the screens, no holes anywhere that we could find.

“Huh,”  said Steve, after we found nothing.  “If that cat comes back, maybe that story I made up is true!”

The next morning, and every morning for months, I’d wake up with Phantom sleeping peacefully at the foot of my bed.  Sometimes I’d let him out, sometimes I wouldn’t bother.  I bought a little box of cat food and occasionally gave him a treat, but not enough to sustain him.  He seemed healthy and clean, so I clearly wasn’t providing his primary sustenance or care, but he seemed to spend every night with me, and the occasional weekend afternoon or evening meal.

Months and months later, I discovered his secret quite by accident.  Late at night, I woke up, got a drink and sat in the dark with my glass — the closet door just off the kitchen happened to be open, and I could see the full moon through its tiny little window.

I saw Phantom in silhouette as he gently peeled back the screen from the frame, and pushed the little window forward in its frame, then wriggled through the gap between the upper and lower sash.  When he was through, the screen and window snapped back into position.  By all appearances, the window was intact, and even casually pushing on the window and screen did not reveal the fact that it could be tilted forward just far enough to admit a small, motivated mammal.

About a week before I moved out, Phantom stopped appearing on my kitchen or my bed.  I don’t know if he sensed my imminent departure or something else happened to him, but I like to think he’s haunting somebody who could use a part time cat.

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