There is a rural-burb outside of Montevallo, Alabama, with the gentle name of Pea Ridge. A few rolling hills with scattered farm houses, a few churches, and a closed general store are all that make up the settlement. The Creek Nation lived in this area long before the white man came. Years ago there was a Mayberry Elementary School and exists now as a Senior Center. If you go down highway 10 to the east you end up at the small state University; go the other way and you end up at the coal mines, now closed, where everyone worked when first settled by South Carolinians. Of all the places I have lived, it was my very favorite even though the house was old, rickety, and a bit moldy. I have a rural-farm heart, and I still dream of living in one-room shacks, living off the land with lots of dogs hanging around.
In Pea Ridge, however, we were the landing place for cats. Lots of cats. All kinds of cats wandered into our world when we lived in Pea Ridge, and the whole memory of that time led me to think about our first cat, Charcoal, who adopted us while we were living in a Birmingham neighborhood.
Charcoal was such an elegant and graceful maternal cat. Now that I think about her, I am sure I did not appreciate all of her subtle qualities. She patiently endured the clumsy love of two boys ages three and five and never, ever bared her claws to them. She would sit on the back porch, hunkered down like cats do, and tolerate the taunts from squirrels in a nearby tree. She never looked at them, but every now and then she would wince. You wondered what insults she might be bearing. When a tornado blew by, sending a tree to the ground, miraculously settling between our house and our neighbor's, only the bedroom window screen was damaged, leaving an open flap. Soon Charcoal used that flap to come in and out of the house.
When she wanted in at night, her soft meow at the window would awaken me, and I would let her in via that window. When she wanted out early in the morning, she would gently place her paw on my cheek to wake me. I would lean over and open the window, and out she'd go.
We gave her to my mom when we moved to Orlando. When the adventure in Orlando ended only months later, we moved to Birmingham and lived in a two-level townhouse. I was thrilled to get Charcoal back into the family. I was never sure how she managed, but she would end up on the second-floor window ledge and softly meow. I would just look at her, exasperated and unable to help. Then she couldn't figure out how to get down again. We let her go back to mom's house.
She lived many long years after, and one day in the twilight of her years, she never came home, dying gracefully, I am sure, and without making a scene.
When things in the townhouse didn't work out with Charcoal, we got a kitten we named Scout after the character in To Kill A Mockingbird. Soon after we moved to Pea Ridge, taking the reluctant Scout with us. Shortly after this move my then 8-year-old son began his lofty project of digging a hole to China. Each day he worked on his project, ever deepening the hole. I imagine it finally reached nearly three feet. He was saved from fulfilling his self-appointed mission when Scout died under the wheels of an inattentive driver, and my son volunteered his unfinished project for Scout’s funeral. A year or so later, a boy's curiosity unearthed her remains. I remembered doing the same when I was his age.
Soon after I was driving down Hwy 52 when I saw a hand-made sign that read "free kittens and puppies". I stopped. The lady of the house took me to her back yard. Surrounded by black Lab-looking puppies with their oversized heads and paws, right in the middle of them all was a lone black kitten. The puppies looked up at me with confidence, but the kitten looked at me as though he knew he was invisible. That's how Spike came to be a part of our family. From day one he lounged on the couch, stretching his entire body to take up as much space as cat-ly possible, always with one back leg dangling off the edge of the couch. When other cats joined our hoard, he was distant, the older, wiser brother. He was always the first to initiate the cleaned litter box, always right after I cleaned it. Annoyed the heck out of me. And lovable beyond belief. In spite of it all.
When I took Spike for shots, our vet offered me four adorable kittens, a white tabby, a Siamese-mix, an orange tabby, and a light gray cat with just a smidgen of calico on her right side. I came home with a litter. My husband was a patient man back then.
All of this commotion brought the unwelcome attention of a huge black cat, wild by even the most animal-loving standards. He would sit under a tree at the edge of our driveway and watch the house. Stalking. Ready to terrorize. One night he came on the front porch and took the Siamese mix. He was my son’s favorite. I vowed to kill that cat and set out rat poison mixed with cat food. He ate it and came back each night. Like the Dread Pirate Robert in The Princess Bride, he'd built immunity to the poison. I realized I was not his first human enemy. Eventually, he took the white tabby, and I was crushed.
More determined than ever I crushed a light bulb and mixed it with cat food. He ate and left. I hoped.
The next day my neighbor across the street came by and let me know that he shot the cat that morning. "You could tell he was sick. He's never let me get that close before." He’d obviously missed his target on other occasions. Rural folks are so practical, and I love that to this day.
But I still felt bad. Ashamed.
And the cats still came.
In the dead of winter a kitten showed up with a laceration around her neck that looked deep enough to show muscle. The vet was not only amazed that she was still alive but that there was a kitten her age this time of the year. He had to trim the skin around the wound before sewing her up. After she fully recovered, we found her a home with a grieving young girl who had just lost her beloved cat to old age.
Then there was Windy. Windy was the biggest, most beautiful cat I had ever seen. She had long wild hair and ears like a bobcat. I called her Windy, because you got the feeling she lived in accordance with where the wind blew her fate. To me she was magnificent. I would leave food for her on the front porch. She would eat. Soon she would eat with the other cats. Then she would eat in my presence. Then she would let me touch her while she ate. Then she would eat from my hand. Then I got to hold her. The whole process took about six months. You could tell she wanted to be fed--maybe even be loved--but was suspicious of it.
We, and only we, became friends. When she let me take her to the vet, I found out Windy was a male. She became Wendell and was neutered. Wendell owned me. He always had this feral smell that I loved. He even began to purr, a bit raggedy in its sound, but I loved that. It made me feel like I taught him to love again. Then one day a logging truck speeding down our road killed him. I felt responsible thinking that if I hadn't domesticated him, he might still have his wild survival wits. And still be alive.
I never got that close to any of the other cats that came and went. Most were neutered or spayed if they stayed more than a week. One black and white cat that wandered up had the biggest testicles I'd ever seen on a cat. He looked justifiably uncomfortable, walking with an awkward lilt. When he didn't leave, the vet neutered him. When he recovered, he left and I never saw him again. I wondered if he belonged to one of my neighbors. I smiled when I imagined what they must have thought upon seeing the physical changes in their companion.
We moved from Pea Ridge and it’s magnificent wildness to a subdivision of Huntsville. It wasn’t an easy move for me, but I found the wildness in the wooded hill beyond our new house. I drove my kids to school and into town using the back roads instead of the four-lane highway. I later discovered Monte Sano State Park. And soon enough, I too, was domesticated, leaving behind my identity as a basket maker from the country. Spike and Tiger, the orange tabby, moved with us to Huntsville and still lived in wild style, annoying, I am fairly sure, our long-suffering neighbors.