“I’m going to assign you each a cat,” I said to the dogs, damp and musky after coming in from the rain. “You will each be responsible for your cat and make sure they return safely to the house every day.”
Two sets of brown eyes stared fixedly at me from serious, dark faces each enthralled, it seemed, at what I was asking them to do.
“Murdoch,” I said sharply, pointing to where he lay at attention on Molly’s bed. “You can have Cleo because Chestnut is just plain scared of you and will run away.” Then, thinking of how just that morning Murdoch stood over Cleo stiff and alert, tail held high, shoulders braced and ready to pounce while Cleo flitted by on tiptoe, arching her back up to rub against his face with a happy little trill in her throat, leaving Murdoch at a loss for what to do, I added, “And Cleo doesn’t have the good sense to be scared of you at all.”
I then turned to Molly who sat in front of me tall and still, like a statue unblinking, I aimed my finger at her and said, “Chestnut is yours.” And then I laughed because Molly looked so serious with that long nose and those giant ears of hers standing at perpetual attention I almost expected her to salute and click her heels and march off directly on her mission.
“I’m just kidding,” I said, reaching out to try and ruffle Molly’s unruffleable hair and then turned to look out the window as the rain sprinkled down in bursts and the sky darkened another shade of grey and the green leaves of spring glowed a little brighter.
The cats were out there somewhere. I was sure they would have come running when the rain started and I called to them as the dogs and I returned from our walk. I expected to see the cats sitting at the door waiting impatiently, standing at our arrival and marching in circles; white paws flashing, meows piercing. But the house was quiet, the deck empty.
I put the dogs inside and did a loop around the house calling, “Chestnut! Cleo!” wondering if they sat hunkered beneath the thick, green clamour of balsam saplings just steps away from where I stood, watching soundlessly, sheltered from the rain, smiling slyly at each other.
It had been only a week since I began letting the cats go outside on purpose. We haven’t done so in years, after the songbird body count started to rise each time the cats slunk about beneath the trees. And then there was the mildly questionable diagnosis of feline immunodeficiency virus that I imagined left them open to all sorts of fatal ailments, not to mention the very real possibility that they would be eaten by something, and not just the foxes we had occasionally seen skipping past our windows, but there are eagles out there too and ravens, and there are horned owls nesting somewhere in our woods whose low, soft voices pulse through the trees at the same time every morning and every evening.
But after Cleo’s recent brush with becoming an invalid as her diabetes slowly stole her ability to walk, I had to rethink some things. The cats are nine and a half now and they have spent a good portion of their lives indoors. It seemed unfair to me that these creatures with their partial wild streak should never be allowed to wander free amongst the trees, to be allowed to do what they naturally do.
So, after a few months of convalescence and Cleo regaining almost full function of her legs and her energy levels spiking so that she no longer dragged herself, flailing from point A to point B, but trotted around the house chasing shadows, her green eyes flashing wildly upon entering a room, charging headlong into whatever adventure presented itself, I decided one day to let them go outside.
I am still getting used to the idea, jumping up every so often, peering out of windows to try and catch glimpses of them flashing through the trees, taking random walks around the house, strolling into the bush, down the driveway, listening for rustling leaves or the occasional distant meow. And every day when they return to the house I am relieved that the last time I saw them, skulking down the path midday, would not be the last time I saw them.
Inside again, I walked from window to window peering out into the greenness beneath the grey, thinking about how practical an idea it would be if I could assign a cat to each of the dogs and then train Murdoch and Molly to keep track of the cats, send them outside at times like these, with storm threatening, to bring them home.
I thought about that as the sky darkened ominously, stealing all the light from the day, flattening everything so the woods looked like a scene set on a stage in some grand auditorium. When Chestnut appeared, suddenly and dramatically, he was like a character on that stage, his beige body, square and oddly large in the natural environment beside the tree outside our window. His neck long, stretched towards the house, his amber eyes wide and alert, black pupils round, full of panic, willing someone to look out the window.
“Of course,” I said to nobody in particular, and smiled. Chestnut the scaredy cat who runs for cover if the wind blows the wrong way, who startles at the slightest change in his environment, at the sound of a dog clomping up the stairs or dishes rattled loudly in the sink. Trust him to show up in the calm just seconds before the storm.
Outside the window he meowed, and then stood with his mouth partially open, ready to meow again, like someone calling for help. His voice was loud and low and insistent. I could still hear it clearly when I turned from the window to head for the door and when I opened it, he heard the squeak of the springs of the wooden screen door and came trotting around the side of the house. I stepped out on to the deck, closed the door on the dogs, frothing and excited, ready to set upon this tiny adventurer who had returned from the unknown with such interesting smells and such a skittish way about him.
I scooped Chestnut up into my arms and carried him inside, past the dogs whose noses were in the air, their bodies stretched on tiptoe. I dumped the cat on to the stairs so he could run up to the kitchen and safety, then turned back to the door as fat rain drops began to fall.
The rain battered the roof, came down in sheets, and I busied myself in the house, wondered about Cleo. I assumed she would appear after the storm, picking her way carefully over sodden ground, the white of her fur crisp and clean against the rain-soaked earth and the trees and the fresh green of spring growth. Then, between the clatter and ovation of the rain against the house I heard a sharp meow so loud for a minute I thought it was Chestnut in the house making a fuss about something. But the voice was insistent, sharp, urgent.
I returned to the door, the dogs leaping up with excitement, jostling for position as I pushed in front of them and peered outside. Cleo was flattened against the side of the house, barely protected from the slight overhang of the roof above, wet but not soaked through. Her fur clumped in spots making the grey darker and the beige more vibrant.
She charged forward when I popped open the screen door, holding the dogs back with my knees, bumping first Murdoch on the cheek and then bracing my calf against Molly’s chest. Cleo hesitated for just a fraction of a moment, meowing her displeasure as the dogs threatened to block her path, and then she charged in the way she does, head down, full speed ahead, see you on the other side. She zigzagged her way past the dogs and up the stairs to the kitchen where she finally stopped to assess the fallout from being caught in the storm and then promptly sat down to clean the raindrops from her fur.