A Litter of Kittens

A Litter of Kittens
Hauntings from the past, joy in the present

May 21st, 2011

We were a bit slow in getting to the vet, and as a result, our youngest cat got pregnant. We believe the father was an orange and white tom, a pleasant cat who lives about 50 yards from here. The mother, Snickers, is a sweet, affectionate little tortoiseshell, and so we expect some nice kittens.

We should know in a day or so. I set up an old dog crate with blankets, food and water, and put a cardboard box with flaps in so she would have a little kitty cave in a warm, secure, dark place.

So naturally she had her litter late last night under my reclining chair. In a way, it was a compliment to our rat terrier, Rygel, since he sleeps on that chair at night. Obviously Snickers saw him as an ally and protector. (We’re still going to watch him with the kittens for the first couple of months, since, while not vicious, he is exuberant, and tends to pounce when playing).

In the meantime, she has had them—three, we think—under the recliner, and during a snow storm. Snow this late in the spring is mildly unusual, but not unheard of. So at least one of the kittens will probably get named Lazy Boy (always a safe name for an adult neutered tom), and if any of the others are predominately white, they will get named “Snow [something or other].”

From the time that we concluded that it wasn’t just gas or an undigested mouse, and that Snickers was, in fact, pregnant, I’ve had a slight sense of dread at the back of my mind. Nothing to do with Snickers or her litter—it comes from an incident that happened over 50 years ago and a third of the way around the globe.

My Dad got stationed in London, and the Navy found us a right jewel of a place to live. At the time, gouging the shit out of visiting Americans was a huge fad in London, especially military personnel, but we were Canadians, and apparently exempt from that. So we wound up in a three story Tudor mansion in the West End, with the Navy footing the bill on the rent, which was fifty quid a month. The back yard was about a half acre with an immense willow tree overhanging what now would be called a koi pond but back then was a goldfish pool. Beyond that was a large vegetable garden that pretty much assured we wouldn’t need to buy vegetables at the local markets for the year. Rentals might not normally come with vegetable gardens, but even though most of the scars from the Blitz had been repaired, and rationing an unhappy memory, London still thought of itself as “post-war”. Besides, Winnie kept warning us the war wasn’t really over, and that the main event, war with the Soviets, still lay ahead.

No central heating, but for Canadians used to a room temperature of 58, that wasn’t a particular hardship. The bedrooms came with what were called “Shilling Heaters”; little gas heaters that would run for about 15 minutes if you stuck in a shilling (1/20th of a pound, or roughly eight cents in North American money). The room would get a degree or two warmer, and it was something to stand in front of before going to bed. The front doors were massive oak things, a vain attempt to keep out the London chill, and even the interior doors were solid, and very heavy.

We lived in a toff neighborhood, which is the exact opposite of a tough neighborhood. Our neighbors had a Rolls-Royce, a pre-war dream of a car that, if still running would probably be worth a half-million at auction today. These neighbors, the Taylors, had a boy, John, who was my age and we attended the same school.

The school was a preparatory school, which meant we all wore blazers and shorts that were dead-liver grey with yellow piping, and crests on our jackets and caps. The school sent a London taxi around to pick us up on days that were particularly inclement, and I would often get rides in the Rolls if it was just raining. John ran interference for me with the other kids, who heard my accent and decided I was a Yank, no matter where I was actually from. I taught him how to ride a bike—he lived with just his sister, 16, and his mother in their palace. Not surprisingly, we became fast friends.

Even at the age of seven, I knew better than to tell my parents too much about the Taylor lifestyle, which would have scandalized Americans in the 1950s. They were idle rich, and atheists which meant that not only did they have no visible means of support, but they had no invisible means, either. And they were casual nudists, a custom I eagerly adopted because I was seven and John’s sister was 16, and I was intensely curious about certain matters.

They also had a large and constantly shifting population of cats. That wasn’t unusual, especially in pet-crazy England, and as for me, cats had been a part of my life since I was about six months old, and then was one of the rare times we didn’t have at least one cat about. So I was happy to make friends with various of the Taylors’ cats.

The English doted on their pets as much then as now, but vet services for small pets (ie, not horses or cows or sheep) were lacking, so most of the cats weren’t neutered. Most were outdoor cats, and wandered the spacious grounds. One well-favored line were indoor pets, and the Taylors were excited when their molly, Maggie, kindled.

It was early summer, when even London gets warm, and people gusted huge sighs of relief and opened doors and windows to air out. The ‘black fogs’ (aka London Peculiars) were mostly a winter phenomenon, so it was safe enough.

By the end of June, Maggie resembled a furry rugby ball—an oblate spheroid with a nose and tail, and four rather ineffectual legs. The Taylors started keeping her in, first at night, to keep her safe from predators, and then as her time neared, full-time so as to avoid her having the kittens outside somewhere.

Anyone who owns cats or dogs quickly masters the techniques for preventing a willful pet from bolting outside. Anything from a stern tone of voice (effective with dogs, utterly useless with cats) to shaking a foot at them (more effective with cats). I’m amused at how everyone, no matter what their personalities are, adopt the same tone and gestures. Only the profanity used is optional, it seems.

The Taylors, despite the large cat population, didn’t really have much experience at keeping cats in. As mentioned, most of the cats were outdoor cats, and the others were normally allowed out at will.

A warm afternoon, and the front door, facing out into busy London traffic (despite huge back yards, homes in that district had little in the way of front yards) was open. John’s sister saw Maggie striding purposefully toward the front door and raced to intercept.

She got to the door first, and pushed a shoulder against it to get the heavy oaken door to swing ponderously closed. Maggie saw her chance to escape vanishing, and turned on the after burners.

If she had been not pregnant, she probably would have made it. But slowed by her kitten-filled belly, she was an instant too slow, and the door caught her squarely amidships.

The door slowly swung back, the only thing in the room that seemed to be moving. We all stared in horror. A pool of blood spread from between Maggie’s legs, and scattered on the floor in front of her burst belly lay six perfectly formed kittens, along with intestines. One twitched a forepaw and was still. Maggie looked up at me and tried to meow, and then her eyes went dull.

I remember John’s mother hustling us out of there, but nothing after that. Did I sit up that night, shivering and crying? Or did I sleep like a baby? Childhood memories are disjointed, even the ones that remain vividly with us for all our lives. Children, including ourselves as children, are as alien in their thinking as our cats and dogs are. No matter how much we anthropomorphisize, they are different, although most children do change into adult humans in time. All I know is that one searing image has stayed with me, a part of my emotional background, ever since. I don’t remember if I told my parents, or if I discussed it with the Taylors afterward. I sometimes wondered in later years how the poor sister coped with her responsibility for the matter. It had to be much worse for her.

I was very careful to look before closing any door in recent weeks. Many years of cat and dog ownership have made me acutely pet-aware when it comes to doors in any event. Even then in the final days of the pregnancy, at one point, when I had the back door, my wife yelled that Snickers was making a break for it, and I hurriedly closed the door—on Weasel, our big old Maine Coon mix. I knew better to slam the door, and between tons of fur and lots of, um mass, Weasel absorbed the blow easily, giving me a mildly reproachful look before jumping up to where the food was. Whew.

A few days have passed since I began this, and we’ve moved mother and her three kits from under the chair to the crate I set up for her. She approved of that arrangement, and spends about 22 hours a day in there with her kittens. We were probably wrong about the father, and now suspicion is focusing on the black tom up the road a ways. All three kittens have unusual markings: one has a jet black body and tortoiseshell head. Another is pure black with a white “soul patch” under the chin. And the last one, Snowblaze, is jet black except for a white blaze from nose tip to just above where the eyebrow would be, that then veers sharply to the right over the eye. Rygel has appointed himself dogfather and guards the kittens when Snickers goes to eat or just catch a few rays, or, as she’s doing right now, just hang out in the chair next to me as I type.

May the doors to their future always remain wide open.

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