Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Cat Who Lived Up To His Name

This summer and early fall we got to know a marvelous stray cat named Serena. She was a true survivor, catching mice for dinner until we gave in and provided food. I was finally able to give her back to her owner, Rolf, who teaches yoga at GLOW. We were sorry to have her leave. He was glad to get her back. Our cat episode reminded me of my daughter's cat, also a stray in the woods of Wellfleet at one point. A reader asked me to tell his story, so here goes:

Our black cat has always lived up to the name my daughter Stephanie gave him years ago: Indiana Jones. "Indy" thrives on adventure. Abandoned as a small kitten, he had to learn to take care of himself. Indy is the only cat I know to have crossed the Atlantic Ocean three times. That he should disappear seemed totally out of character. Had he gone on another adventure or did something happen to him deep in the woods of Cape Cod?

Stephanie lived in France when we adopted Indy at three weeks old. She named him "Indiana Jones" because he seemed to like risks. A neighbor had found him backing out of an overturned garbage can. "Her daughter dressed him in doll clothes and brought him to school," Stephanie whispered with disgust, cradling the tiny creature in her open palms. Instead of meowing, it squeaked.

"That kitten was absolutely famished," said my friend Alice, returning from the kitchen with a pot of tea. "I can't keep it. Know any witches? Who would be willing to have a black cat?" The neighbor was asking because she knew that we had two cats already.

The kitten was now kneading Stephanie's sweatshirt with its tiny paws. From the way she smiled up at me I knew there was no turning back. Like it or not, we had just acquired a new member of the family.

Indiana Jones turned out to be quite a handful. He was beautiful - pitch black with a white star on his chest - but no one could approach him except Stephanie. He horsed down his food, then tried to eat out of the plates of our other cats. Worst of all, he refused to use the litter box.

Over the years I have raised many kittens. Never have I run into a cat that was impossible to potty train. Indy would use the litter box and then not use the litter box. There was no predicting what he would do next. We decided he would have to let him use our garden instead.

Stephanie insisted that we bring the new kitten along on vacation when we went to Cape Cod for the summer to visit her grandparents. Indy took refuge in my sleeve as the jumbo jet barreled down the runway. He refused to stay inside and roamed far and wide, exploring the woods around our summer home. Sometimes we found presents of field mice on the doorstep.

By August, Indy had grown into a handsome young cat. Getting him back to France was quite a challenge as he no longer would fit into a cat box. Stephanie spoke to him in a low voice as we sat in the Kennedy Airport waiting room. In the plane, she had to hold him on her lap. Fellow passengers paused to admire his sleek coat and amber eyes. That day I vowed never to take a cat across the ocean again, even if his name was "Indiana Jones"!

I had to eat those words: last year I moved back to New England. Stephanie's French father stayed in France. We lived in an apartment in the city and our landlord said, "No pets!"

Stephanie's grandparents volunteered to keep him. We hoped that Indy would remember the woods of Cape Cod and not run away. For a third time, Indiana Jones crossed the ocean on a jetliner.

Indy seemed to be enjoying his leafy domain. Often we caught glimpses of our black panther stalking prey in the underbrush, muscles rippling. Gifts of field mice, snakes, and even a weasel appeared outside the porch where Stephanie was sleeping. Then she went back to the city with me. The second day of her absence, Indiana Jones disappeared.

Stephanie was heartbroken. What had happened to her beloved pet? She insisted we look for him. Together we called animal shelters, posted messages: "I am a lost cat. I am black, with a white star on my chest. I squeak when I meow. If you see me, please contact ...."

Days went by, then weeks. Perhaps Indy had been attacked by a raccoon? Perhaps he had fallen into a pond? Perhaps he had been hit by a car while crossing the state highway, nearby?

"Indiana Jones is a survivor," I told Stephanie. "I'm sure he will turn up, somewhere."

A week went by, and another.

One month after Indy’s disappearance the animal shelter phoned. They had received a call about a cat that answered our description: black and muscular, jittery, and very hungry. The caller lived on the other side of Route 6. Indy must have crossed the highway during the night. Immediately, we drove back out to Cape Cod.

Indy couldn't have chosen a better place to hide or a nicer woman to care for him. "I can't adopt 'Spirit' because we already have eight cats," she said. "I knew this one belonged to someone because his coat is in such great condition." "Spirit" refused to go in her house. He would appear every morning and every night, only to hide again in the brambles.

Together we called his name(s) without luck. I suggested Stephanie try by herself. The rest of us went inside. A half hour later, "Spirit" emerged from a thicket. Stephanie spoke to him for another twenty minutes before being able to pick him up and carry him to the car.

Indy smelled of pine needles. That night he told Stephanie all about his wanderings. He said he liked it at the cat lady's. He had never wanted to be a house cat and was happy to be out in the woods, having adventures. She should go back to the city and stop worrying. Indiana Jones said he would be all right. And he was.