“Hello there,” I called. “Where are you? The owl’s gone, at least for now. I scared him away.”
“Meaa?” The sound was weak and faint. Another voice, maybe responding to the alarm in the mother’s voice, added, “Me me me . . .” Okay, a queen with a kitten. But where?
I crawled out far enough to look around. “Do that again,” I prompted.
This time there was another growl. And without the owl in the way, I smelled the blood, and my lips curled up. The sound and the smell both came from a rickety wooden step joining the bottom of the house to the ground. I looked around, didn’t see the owl, and in a flash faster than Renfrew could empty a kibble dish, made a four-point landing in front of the step. Hunkering down in the gathering snow, I slunk on my belly to the shallow opening. I stuck my nose in and jerked it back out again, narrowly avoiding the slashing claws of the cat inside.
“Whoa!” I said. “I’m on your side. What’s going on? Did the owl try to take your mouse?”
“Mouse?” she asked.
“Meep!” a small voice squeaked. It wasn’t claiming to be a mouse. It smelled new and catty and bloody, and its cry was puny and shrill. “This is my kitten,” the queen said proudly. “There was another one, but it died. I just had this one, and I will tear you to shreds if you try to hurt her you—you tomcat, you.”
“Why would I do something like that?” I asked. “Some of my best friends used to be kittens, back when I was one. Please, may I come under there too? I don’t know how long that owl will stay gone.” She didn’t say anything, so I scooted a claw length forward with each paw and asked, “Why are you and your kitten out here? It’s snowing.”
“Is that so?” she asked. “Do you think we wouldn’t be inside if we could be? This used to be my house. I’m no stray. A family with a little girl came to my mother when I was a baby and brought me here to live with them and be a friend for the little girl. She dressed me up in doll clothes. I really hated that, but I wouldn’t mind one of those doll blankets now, I can tell you. My poor baby is so c-cold.”
I heard rat-like scrabblings next to her and an occasional meep as the blind kitten stumbled. Its cries were quavery. “If you’ll let me come in, I’ll lie beside you and warm your baby. You can tell me all about it. And I’m not exactly a tomcat. Darcy took me to the vet as soon as I was old enough so I can’t make kittens.”
“Are you sure?” she asked. “The last cat who told me that fathered this one!” Her eyes widened as I blocked some of the light, pulling myself inside, and lay down with my head facing the opposite direction from hers so my tail wrapped around her front and her kitten. The hole went all the way through beneath the step so I could see out the other side.
“You look a little like him, as a matter of fact,” she said, shifting her kitten to a position more comfortable for her. She was a gray-brown tabby whose fur was still matted with rapidly freezing blood and other fluids from giving birth. I snuggled in so that the nursing kitten was sandwiched between us, causing it to “meep” again. “His fur wasn’t as nice though. You do have a lovely coat.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I think I know the cat you’re talking about. He’s my father too. Your kitten is my half-sister.” It may be hard for humans to tell the sex of kittens, but I could smell it. “He makes a lot of kittens, and most of us look like him. I’ve met him though. Kind of nasty.”
“Not if you’re a female in heat,” she said. “Not at first. He got a little rough later, but I sent him off with a nose full of claws. Then my people decided to move. I think Maddy, my little girl, had convinced them to take me with them when they moved; but then when I got pregnant, they just went off and left me. Maybe if they come back and see I only had the one kitten, they’ll take me with them.” Her voice broke, and she disguised her distress by licking her kitten. “They’ve been gone a really long time, and don’t seem to have told anyone else to look after me.”
I was so busy listening to her, feeling sorry for her, wondering if I should tell her what Rocky told me: that her people were probably gone for good and wouldn’t be back, that I didn’t hear the wings until what to my wondering eyes did appear? Long claws of an owl, entirely too near!
The new mom shivered, but I puffed up as big as I could within the confines of the hole and growled. “I thought I told you to hit the clouds, bird! Pfssst!”
The owl didn’t answer this time, but his claws vanished for a split second—then I heard them overhead, on the step, ripping at the rotting wood. One splintering moment later his large eye peered down at us through the hole in the stair. “More than one way to skin a cat,” he said.
“I can’t believe you said that in front of the children!” I scolded.
“I only see the one tender little kitten,” he said. I was glad owls couldn’t lick their beaks and drool, or he’d have been doing that, and it was disgusting.
“She’s not even a beak-full to you,” I said, letting my mouth do the sparring while I figured out what to do with the rest of me—and him. “She’s just newborn and hasn’t even opened her eyes yet, so she can’t be properly terrified of you. Her mom has had a hard time.” It had worked with an eagle I met earlier to tell her about how bad I’d be for her and her babies since while I’m organic I am not exactly additive free, but the owl wasn’t raising babies, and he didn’t give a hoot.
He inserted his talons into the hole and ripped a strip from the stair. I was at a loss for the first time in my young life, really. I am a very clever cat, but he was a very large bird, and I was more impressed than ever with his claws, seeing them at such close range. I could slip outside and attack him, but I hardly had the advantage of surprise. Plus there was nothing to stop him, once I moved, from snatching both the kitten and her mother out of the hole and flying off with them before I could wriggle all the way out from under the stair.
“I want you to think about this carefully,” I told the owl. “You have the reputation for being a wise old bird.” Inspiration struck. “You do realize this is Christmas, don’t you?”
“Why, yes. And as soon as I smelled your friends there, I thought to myself, “Merry Christmas to who? Me!”
“Well, you’re not doing it right,” I told him.
“Christmas. Wise creatures aren’t supposed to eat babies for Christmas.”
“Is that so? I would settle for adult housecat if you keep getting in my way.”
“You, you, you. You’re messing up the story. Think about your place in history.”
“How’s that?” At least he didn’t ask “who?” He looked genuinely curious. As I suspected, owls didn’t get wise by declining to acquire new data.
“Wise—uh—things, are supposed to bring presents to babies at Christmas. Check those scenes in some of the yards around here if you don’t believe me. You go on and check it out. We’re not moving.”
He wasn’t that full of scientific curiosity though.
“Yes, I’m afraid you are. Keep talking though. The hot air you’re spouting will give my wings extra lift when it’s time to carry you to my nest.”
He ripped another strip off and looked at my beautiful gold striped body with what struck me as an unwholesome appetite. “You’re a plump one. If I take you, I can come back for the other two later. Nothing personal, you understand. We’re all hunters here, yes?” He jerked back suddenly, flapping and whirling in a feathered storm. “Who? Who’s there?”
“Hey there, big bird, but have you seen a cat around here? Maybe carrying a doll or dragging a box?”
The owl flapped and sat back on the step he’d been destroying so that some of his tail feathers tickled my nose, and I sneezed.
“This is my lucky day,” the owl said. “Cats of all sizes, and now a big fat raccoon.”
“Hey!” Renfrew said. “Be nice! I am worth way more than a meal. I have treasures. Shiny treasures. Like this!” The owl moved away, and I could see out a hole that had opened in the side of the step when the top of the step was ripped open. The snow had stopped, and bright moonlight now reflected alluringly from the surface of the freshly washed metal box thingy in the coon’s paw.
The owl was on him—or on where he had been—in one hop. Renfrew, however, was out on the sidewalk and halfway up the street squealing his head off.
I hollered too, and the mom cat hissed, “If you’re going to carry on like that, get away from us.”
“I’m calling for help,” I told her.
“I’ve cried and cried for help, and all that I get is things that want to eat me,” she mewed.
That didn’t discourage me, but I didn’t argue with her. I’d come to help her after all, hadn’t I? “Can you carry your kitten?”
“Of course I can! I’m her mother!”
“We need to find a better hiding place for you,” I said with a meaningful look at the stars shining down through the hole the owl had ripped in the step. “Maybe under the house?”
“I can’t go there,” she said. “I thought of that when my people first left. There are big rats in there—bigger than I am. They would kill my kitten.”
“Mrrr,” I said, thinking. “Pick her up and walk with me. Well, trot if you can. We need to cross a couple of yards.”
Renfrew had either been eaten by the owl, or had eaten the owl, or both of them were really busy picking through his new treasure. They weren’t in sight as we crossed the darkened yards. The queen tottered with the kitten and had to stop twice to rest, but refused my offer to carry her baby for her.
Finally we made it to the carport, which was where I thought maybe they would be safer, under the roof, amid all of the stone people, who might scare the owl, and up off the ground in the horse trough thing.
I was surprised now to see Buck’s antlers alongside the lit-up deer in the yard, and Nelda and Gelda grazing beside him.
It made me feel better that friends were there. Not that they could be depended upon to defend the new mother. They’re pretty shy. Still, I said, “Hi, deer—uh—Merry Christmas. Good to see you here. This is, uh—”
“La Toya,” the mother cat said through a mouthful of kitten.
“La Toya and her new kitten. An owl has been after her, and so I thought if she got up in that thing—”
“That’s a manger, Spam,” Nelda said. “It’s where the hay was in the original story. The hay the reindeer seek every Christmas as they fly through the sky following the star.”
“Yes, the manger.” La Toya needed a little boost to help her jump up into the hay—there was real hay—but she managed it and laid down, exhausted.
I wanted to do the same thing, but felt like I needed to stand guard at least until morning.