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Holding My Breath

At 5 pm when my last massage client left I waited a few minutes before letting my cat Chickpea out for his final patrol of the day. Sometimes I accompany him on this last round to assure his safety. Last month I was watching the sky for predators as our hawk count has tripled with the warm winter and this month it is a fox that has put me on high alert. Chickpea is so slight now that when he purrs it rocks his slim body from side to side and as I run my hand down his back it is nothing but fur and bones. 

Fourteen years ago, when my little farm on Joy Road was a sanctuary for injured wildlife, he showed up one day. I thought he was a neighbor’s cat because he wore a collar. I didn’t want a cat but I liked how he came every day to help me with chores. I had rounds to make, barns to clean, squirrels and ducks and goats to feed. And it was nice to have a big muscular orange cat for company.  

After Chickpea followed me into the barn to feed the three goats and their barn companions Wingsy the chicken and Darlin’ the duck, we would hustle along the stream to several feeding stations and then back to the garage where he watched me feed the injured animals in their kennels. Then he would lead me around back and claw the trunk of the mulberry tree next the house.  That was all he needed and then he’d trot through the paddock into the adjacent playground and I’d lose sight of him once he got to the marsh. 

January of that year, when the temp had plummeted to ten below zero, he appeared outside my second story bedroom window. His face was a mask of ice. I let him in just to warm up. I phoned a neighbor to see if she wanted a cat but she said he had chosen me and I knew it was true. He’d done the work, he’d courted me over the summer and fall, and now the least I could do was warm him and give him some food.  I spent the next two years trying to locate his owner all the while hoping there wasn’t one.

The melding of our lives happened gradually, almost imperceptibly, as it can with those of us who live solitary lives. Communion with a cat takes time to mature, and it is irreversible. And even with all these years he is still a treasure of new discoveries. Lately he has taken to putting one paw on my head in the morning to rouse me. I feign sleep and he brings the other paw in for a good thorough combing of my hair. He still rings the lone bell hanging from a Christmas ribbon on the front door whenever he wants to get in. He’ll even do it when I’m out there with him as if we both have someone who will open the door for us. And now I’ve been holding my breath for two years when out of nowhere my big strong cat was struck down with kidney failure.

It is 5:55 pm. I just came in from watching a slender red fox trot through our paddock into the adjacent playground. Something had inspired me to open the door and when I did, Chickpea, his bony spine rounded, dashed back into the house. I slid out the door to study the fox as it trotted through the tall grass. I stood barefoot on a stump transfixed for twenty minutes watching the fox until like Chickpea, all those many years ago, I lost sight of him once he got to the marsh.