— by Ted R. Blasingame
Human mothers have thousands of years of shared experiences gleaned from other mothers to know what to do in the first few days after birth, but for first-time mother cats, instinct is the only thing they can rely upon. There are no instruction manuals, no videos and no others to impart their wisdom.
Joni was a ten-month old common housecat with orange striped fur and a sweet disposition. She had been a rescued kitty adopted into a family of four until that family recently moved to another state and inadvertently left her behind.
The new tenants of the house had seen her around and occasionally left water and a bit of food out for her, but due to a pair of small indoor dogs, they had not taken her into their home. As a result, the cat had taken to living in the tool shed in the back yard and roaming the neighborhood at will.
Despite the housecat living outdoors, she handled her pregnancy well, and when it came time to give birth, she had already prepared a place in a dark, dry corner of the shed behind stacked sacks of garden topsoil. Curled up on a discarded dishtowel she had dragged in there, Joni gave birth to four tiny kittens of various colors and patterns.
She cared for them as best as she could. Out of instinct, she ate the placenta but refused to leave her babies to find other food for two days. A warm summer rain fell gently on the metal roof of the shed, but she and her kittens remained dry. The only time the new mother left her corner was to go out to lap up water in a puddle just outside the shed door that had been left ajar or to scratch at the sandy floor in another corner in lieu of a litter box.
The rain stopped after a day and the summer sun emerged from behind the departing clouds, growing hot and humid. The humans who lived in the house that used to be Joni’s home began activity in the back yard, building up a brick barbecue area, and by necessity started moving tools in and out of the small metal shed.
The topsoil stacked in the corner was not needed for this project, so the cat and her kittens remained hidden in the dark corner. The tiny mews of her kittens went unnoticed by the humans, but the young mother kept them close and warm, though her hunger grew; in their focus on their tasks, the human family forgot to put out any food or water for the orange kitty. She knew she needed to eat so she could produce milk for her babies, but she was reluctant to leave them.
When the activities in the back yard ceased at the end of the fourth day and the tools returned to the shed, Joni decided it was time to move her kittens to a quieter and less lively location. She had managed to find a few crickets within the shed to put a small amount of food in her belly, but now she needed to find someplace safe for her family, where she might be able to leave them for short periods of time to eat.
She took one kitten by the scruff of its neck and ventured out across the now-quiet yard as the evening sky began to darken. It was an hour before she reentered the shed and the remaining three mewled their happiness that mother’s scent had returned.
Joni went to them and licked their little heads briefly before taking another in her mouth. Within moments, the two left behind were alone again. With ears and eyes closed and their tiny legs as yet unable to hold up their miniscule weight, they could do little more than huddle close together. The shed was still warm from the heat of the day, but each tiny body shivered with the absence of their mother.
In time, Joni returned for another kitten. She glanced in hesitation at the remaining little ball of fur before she left with its sibling. Leaving the one by itself played hard against her instincts, but she could only carry one of her babies at a time.
Of the four kittens, only the fourth had the same coloring as her mama, and although she mewed frantically for the presence of her mother and siblings, their scent was already fading.
The morning summer sun warmed the land below as it began its daily rise into the sky. The metal shed started storing up the heat, but the weekend was over and the family members had either gone to school or to places of employment. Work on the barbecue was nearing completion, but would see no more work today.
In the folds of the dirty hand towel hidden behind a stack of topsoil, the tiny orange kitten stretched, yawned and sniffed the air, but there were no fresh scents of her mother or siblings in the air. She called out, but there were no warm bodies to huddle up with and no comforting licks of mother’s tongue. She was alone. Mother had taken her siblings and had not returned for her.
The day was progressing on its unchanging track and the air within the shed grew hot under a still, cloudless sky. Hunger and thirst was foremost on the kitten’s young mind and the absence of her family distressed her terribly.
Sniffing the air and finding only their cold scents, she mewed and called out even as she tried to force her inexperienced legs to work. She could do nothing more than crawl at a snail’s pace, but somehow she reached the edge of the towel.
Although her nose had smelled the scent of dirt and other aromas in the shed before, this was the first time she had actually stuck her little nose into it. A bit of dirt clung to her nose and covered over one nostril and she found she didn’t like it at all. She sneezed, rocking her whole body with the action, but the nasal pathway cleared even if she could still feel some of the offending dirt on her.
Her stomach growled, and although she couldn’t yet hear with her ears still closed, she felt the unpleasant sensation and called out again for her missing mama. As she moved her head about, she somehow sense greater warmth in one direction. The air was still and oppressing, but the heat from that one direction might be her mama.
Hunger and desperation got her up onto her feet, long before she should have as a four-day old kitten, and although she was shaky and still blind and deaf, she drove herself forward on little step at a time across the dirt floor of the shed.
There were times she bumped into some immovable object and was forced to figure out a way around it, but the she just had to reach her mama. She cried out in tiny mews as she moved in hopes mother would come to her with love and life-giving milk.
The greater part of the day passed before the kitten reached the metal threshold of the shed door. The aluminum frame lying across her path was hotter than anything she had thus experienced in her short life and its daunting reality stopped her from progressing farther. Hungry and exhausted, the tiny kitten collapsed in the dirt just inside the opening of the shed.
Driven by a profound thirst, the kitten got up onto its wobbly legs and crawled across the hot aluminum frame, her tiny lungs heaving in the oppressiveness to cry out for her mother.
So tiny, so small and unable yet even to crawl well, the small orange kitten made progress a fraction of an inch to a fraction of an inch across the hot concrete sidewalk leading from the shed to the house. Her tiny pink tongue panted in the heat in a fruitless effort to find some relief.
The sun beat down through a cloudless sky and it was only by pure chance that none of the local crows had yet spotted the helpless fur-covered body. Hunger and thirst drove her on, but the meager strength within her had almost played out. Three feet from the cool shadows of the shed, the young kitten collapsed, unable to go another shaky step.
She mewed weakly, unable to see or hear, despair filling its tiny heart. Where was momma?
“Momma! Poppa!” a young child called out.
The parents of the eight-year old girl found their daughter crouched down over a small, indistinct patch of orange fur stretched out on the hot concrete sidewalk.
“What is it?” the child asked as the father crouched down beside her.
“It’s a dead kitten,” the man replied. He reached out and gently picked up the small frail body in one hand; he would have to bury it in an out-of-the-way spot in the back yard. The skin of the kitten beneath the fur was hot, but still soft. “It can’t have been dead long,” he muttered.
“No…” said the little girl. She reached out with a compassionate hand to stroke the small furry body. It was then the little girl heard a raspy rattle.
“Daddy?” she whispered suddenly.
The father lifted the small body up to his ear and heard the strained breathing. It was still alive, but only just.
He looked first to his daughter and then up at his wife. “Get a washcloth and wet it down with cool water!” he directed. The woman nodded without comment and rushed into the house.
The father stood up, cradling the kitten gently in the palm of his hand and covered over against the hot sunlight with the other. The daughter followed him mutely as he took it in through the back door to the kitchen. The wife had a small pan on the counter with a damp washcloth in the bottom. The man set the kitten gently onto the cloth and then quietly pulled the sides of the wet material up over it in an attempt to reduce the heat of the sun on the small creature.
“This kitten probably belonged to the cat that was run over out in the street yesterday,” the mother said quietly. “Poor little thing.”
“Can we keep it?” asked the little girl.
“I don’t know, sweetheart. It might not live after such an ordeal.”
“But I want it to live!”
“We’ll see, dear. We’ll see.”
The small kitten felt blessed cool relief. The overbearing heat had almost disappeared, but she was almost too weak, too far gone to care. Her will to live had dried up with the moisture, but yet there was something… some new scent that she found comforting. It was not momma, but somehow she sensed love and compassion. Too late… too late.
The kitten faded into unconsciousness.
Months later, the young orange cat opened her eyes, yawned and stretched languidly. It was still night outside, but there was plenty of light in the darkened room for her to see the sleeping form on the bed beside her.
She got up and crept quietly up to the person’s head and then curled up onto the pillow in the crook of her neck, purring contentedly.
Author’s note — this small story is based upon a true event, all but the ending. The original kitten died in the sun on the sidewalk, forever separated from her mother, siblings or anyone else. A woman I worked with told me a story about finding the body of a tiny kitten that had died in the sun crawling from her shed and she said she always wondered afterward what was going on in the kitten’s mind. That story’s been in the back of my mind nearly twenty years.
Joni's Kitten © 2015 Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.