A Tribute to an Old Friend
by Vernita Lea Ediger of Bend, OR
The old cat died two days before Christmas. The man reckoned that she was at least 20 years old, which is a lot of days to pad coyly along the hay stack while watching him flake alfalfa into the feed rack in the morning; to rub the rough cuffs of his Levi’s when he returned a few hours later to rake in the leavings that the calves had nudged out of reach. It was a lot of days to stretch out on a hay bale, paws curled under and tail twitching, and watch as the man fed the calves a second time in the growing shadows of late afternoon. A lot of days to stride next to him in the dark, tangling between his feet, as he raked the hay in again, a flashlight strapped to his head, light piercing the night’s obscurity.
The man said he didn’t like cats; he tolerated them. Well, he tolerated some of them.
There were the barn cats that Marry kept and treated like her grandchildren, cooing to them and feeding them twice a day. Rounding them up every evening to protect them against the coyotes, cougar, and an occasionally ambitious owl. And then there were the two housecats she had for some reason granted special status who now daily claimed his cushioned recliner in the living room where he liked to stretch out, eat chocolate covered peanuts, drink Scotch and warm Tang, and watch whatever ball game was on the box. These two eyed him with cool disdain whenever he approached. He had taken to slipping gently in beside them in his seat, nudging them ever so slightly aside in a non-confrontational attempt to reclaim his throne. Sometimes they laid on his lap and he rubbed their ears, but it was only out of boredom and politeness.
Then there were the feral cats, the ones dropped off on dark nights by shadowy figures who thought a farm house would offer refuge to a once beloved pet now turned inconvenience. There were the litters of kittens that no one wanted, eyes still closed mewling for milk and comfort. There were the spry, feral tom cats that wandered through as they pushed to expand their territory, brawling and scrapping their way through life, tearing into the barn cats and house cats when they crossed paths.
Those cats he disposed of. He didn’t enjoy it, but he didn’t put it off either. He stuffed the kittens into a burlap bag and drown them in the slough to save their suffering and the song birds they were destined to eat. The feral cats he live-trapped, baiting the cage with old chicken bones and hiding it near the hay stack. One .22 shot to the head did the trick and he would toss them on the 4-wheeler and run them up the bone yard draw alongside the white-washed carcasses of old deer from the season’s hunt. He didn’t like it. But he knew that you can’t save everyone and you have to protect your own.
But Tilly, the old cat, she was different from all of those cats. She was a friend.
It was after his last dog had died and Marry put her foot down about getting another puppy. “A dog takes time,” she said. “You’re too busy as it is. I’ll be the one taking care of it.” And she was right. She was always right. But he felt the loss of a dog, trotting alongside him through the field as he moved the sprinkler pipe or sitting in the passenger seat, pink tongue all sloppy and smiley, as they drove up the creek to put out salt blocks. A dog to talk to as he mended fence or to scold for chasing deer. A dog to sit with him under the old juniper tree on the hill where he called coyotes in February’s chill, his fingers blading with cold as he worked the reedy pipes in his hands, blasting out the imitation wail of an injured fawn. His children had once done those things with him, but they were grown now and lived far away and when they came to visit, he didn’t know what to say. He didn’t argue with Marry about the dog. He just turned in on himself a little more, shoulders hunching and his torso tipped forward. This made his seem at once pensive, forlorn, and unapproachable. He spent a lot of time alone, and now that emptiness weighed on him.
It must have been around that time, that Miss Tillins – as he came to call her – appeared at the stack down the hill.
“Another kitty’s showed up down by the haystack,” he told Marry over pot roast, mashed potatoes and gravy. “You’ll have to dispose if it,” she said. “We can’t have it running off our barn cats.”
“It’s just a little thing,” he said, looking down at the butter pooling in his mashed potatoes.
“Little things grow,” she said.
And he just nodded, but he was tired of the mewling, wriggling burlap bags that were so heavy and still when he pulled them from the slough. He was tired of the weight of them piling up on his conscious year after year. He was tired of the emptiness that accompanied him like a shadow most days.
And so he left the cat to her own devices. “Live and let live,” he thought, going about his business.
He liked to think she was aware of this favor for he would find her following him as he trudged the quarter mile to the feed rack. He would catch a glimpse of tabby fluff slinking along in the shadows and stop and wait. Then she would stop and wait for him to continue his march down the hill. He would be down raking hay into the feed rack, a lonely job for even the calves only paid half a mind to him since they’d already eaten their fill and were out wandering in the lot, and then Miss Tilly would sashay by, all fluff and whiskers, and plop down on a bale to watch him. But if he looked at her square on, she would jolt up and dash away. She was a skittish thing, timid to a fault, keeping her distance but never able to stay away either. It was as if, like him, her need for companionship outweighed her fear.
And so he set about charming her. Befriending her. He believed that like people, cats liked to be talked about and praised, and so he told her of his admiration for her fur, how pretty she looked. He asked her if she was keeping well, had she found a warm place to sleep? She turned her head to follow his voice as he spoke to her, a quizzical look on her face as if the answers should be clear.
He packed chicken bones to the stack and set them on a bale while he went about his raking, watching out of the corner of his eye as she sniffed them, licked them, and then grabbed them up and ran away. After a time, she would sit and chew on them while he worked. And one day he put them out after he’d finished working and sat next to them, his back turned, and he waited until she slunk close to the bones. His low, murmuring voice must have soothed her for she didn’t run away. When he reached out to pet her, she froze. As his fingers massaged the dimples at the base of her ears, he felt the rumble of her purr.
And that’s how it went: She followed him and watched him work. He reminded her how beautiful she was and told her about his joys and sorrows while she listened, attentive and wise, from her perch on a nearby bale of hay. Then he would sit down next to her, with or without a special treat, and rub her behind the ears and tell her what a good cat she was. How special she was.
When his son with diagnosed with MS, he told Tilly how unfair it was that a man in his twenties, just married, would be stricken so. He talked to Marry too, but with the old cat he didn’t have to hold back his tears, his anger, his fear. When his daughter, the troubled one, finally got into AA, he told Tilly about that too, how he hoped her demons would finally be put at bay. He hoped he might now have his daughter back, the one who wrote poetry, pranked people on April Fool’s, and fought against injustice in the world. When the other daughter, the gentle one, remarried he shared his hopes that this time she had found a man who would honor her and protect her heart rather than wipe his feet on it, like the ex-son-in-law he now thought of as a human trash compactor. When Marry lost the first joint in her finger to rheumatoid arthritis, he told the old cat how much he ached to see his beautiful bride’s hands gnarl and twist, and how she shook now so that threading a sewing needle or stitching on a button was a thing of her past. “None of us are getting any younger,” he told the old cat. “Getting old isn’t for sissies.”
When Tilly had the first stroke, it was Marry who’d found her. Marry had wrapped the cat’s bone thin body in a soft blanket and carried her to the barn, brushed the mud and tangles from the old cat’s matted hair, and tucked her warm and safe in a nook in the feed rack. The second time, Marry moved her to the shop. “It’s warmer there and the other cats won’t bother her.” Together he and Marry took turns using an eye dropper to spill water into the corner of her mouth and brought her increasingly decadent, chewable food. It was his idea to take the cushion from the old rocking chair and settled the old cat on it, just a few feet from the wood stove and to leave a light on all night long so she wouldn’t feel alone. Afraid.
He had checked on her the night before, offering her water and a spoon of soft food. She’d lapped at it a little, then lay still, her eyes slatting shut as if it was too much effort to open them. The soft rumble of her purr comforted him when he stroked her ears, comforting himself as much as her with the soft murmur of his voice: “You’re just a good old cat, Miss Tillins. Yes, you are. A good cat.”
When he found her the next morning, laying on the cold concrete floor, having fallen off the cushion he’d brought for her, he cried. The thought of Miss Tillins alone, in pain, on a cold cement floor, it haunted him and he wished that he’d gathered himself to end her pain the way he had for so many other animals in his life. But it had felt like murdering a friend. Just the day before she had lifted her head when he talked to her and he saw the look of contentment in her eyes and he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
It took him three days to bury her: one to build the box, one to dig the hole and fill it, and one to level it off.
It was a simple pine box with tongue and groove edges that he nailed and glued together. He pressed the cushion into the bottom of it and spooled her body into the kind of tight curl she favored on chilly winter mornings. “She looks so peaceful,” Marry said. She reached over and took his calloused hand in her gnarled one and they stood together for a moment, looking down at the curled body of his long-time friend. He wanted to bury her that night, but Lenard had stopped by and talked for an hour and by then the light was draining from the sky and he still had to feed the cows. So it was the next day that he chipped the hole out. He used the steel crowbar, measured a 2-foot setback from the fence in the apple orchard, and prized the earth free in a 3 by 3 square. When he was done, he took the wheeler back up to the shop where Tilly lay in her box. He reached in and petted her fur one last time. She was so tatty and thin. A waif of a cat. It would be like burying air. So many memories and so much personality curled up in a tiny, still body, never to move again. Finally, he put the lid on and nailed it shut. His hands were numb from the cold and he breathed on them, trying to steam feeling back into their tips before he put the box on the wheeler and drove back down to the orchard. He found his daughter, the troubled one, the one all alone at Christmas, waiting there for him down by the hole with a shovel in her hand. “It’s hard to lose someone you love,” she said as she took the box and set it gently in the bottom of the hole. She looked into his eyes for a long moment, as if searching for something she’d lost there decades ago. Then she picked up the shovel and scooped dirt and rocks back into the hole while he tamped it firm with the crowbar.
And he found himself talking to his daughter as he had once talked to the cat, “She was such a dainty cat, all fluff and panache. She was a good friend. Better than most I have these days.”
“Truth, that,” his daughter said and her eyes looking into the middle distance before she blinked and scooped another shovel full of dirt. He told her about the cushion he’d laid out for Miss Tilly and how he’s found her sprawled on the cold cement floor. How he should have prevented her pain. And his daughter stood beside him, quiet. She set her shovel aside and pressed her head deep into his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around her and they both cried for Miss Tilly and maybe a little for themselves. The next day, Boxing Day, when he returned to the grave with a rake in hand to level off the top, he found himself talking to the old cat again. “I think she’s going to make it, my daughter, but she’s too sensitive. Gets emotional about the darnedest things — and that’s a hard way to walk through life. But I think she’s going to be ok after all.”
And then his old deafening ears caught a ruckus and bellow clattering above him and he swung his head skyward to see a lithe, swaying V of trumpeter swans arching through the valley, their white wings flashing. What a tribute to an old friend, he thought. “Rest in peace, Miss Tilly. Rest in peace.”