Last month, about a week before my trip, we saw a cat in our backyard. He had a white, grizzled face that we fawned over from our kitchen window. Since our window is directly adjacent to the backyard, we’ve seen a variety of creatures – cardinals, hawks, finches, sparrows, woodpeckers, squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks. The chipmunks steal the seed I put out for the birds every morning, stuffing their cheeks with the loot as they surreptitiously dart across our yard. Everyone tells us that chipmunks are pests, but they are cherished critters in our backyard.
Our joy at seeing the cat quickly turned to stunned sorrow as we watched it trot away with a limp chipmunk in its mouth. The next day, Husband saw the cat again. “Don’t look,” he said. The cat had claimed another chipmunk victim. Husband tapped on the glass furiously and went outside to shoo the cat away while I mourned our tiny rodent neighbor. We kept a vigilant eye on the backyard, tapping furiously on the window whenever we saw the grizzled cat in our backyard. He was easily spooked with taps on the glass, running away quickly at the sound of our nails striking the window.
A day before I left on my trip, I saw another cat in our backyard. She was different – a little smaller, with marbled brown fur like a Bengal and possessing a grumpy look. I muted my mic since I was on a Teams call and started pounding my office window. She wasn’t as easily spooked as the other cat, staring impassively at me as I continued tapping and yelling. Finally, she bolted.
That evening as I emptied the dishwasher, I told Husband about the cat I’d scared away. Suddenly he gasped and pointed to the backyard deck. “I think there’s a kitten,” he said. I looked outside the window at the small gray tabby on our deck and immediately squealed. Suddenly it all made sense – the adult cats hunting for rodents in our yard were trying to feed their baby. I recalled the awful smell near our deck that I’d observed while gardening during the weekend. I thought something had gotten trapped under the deck and died, but now I knew I’d been smelling kitty dessert.
I immediately felt remorse for scaring Mama Kitty away. “We have to go get cat food,” I said. Packing be damned – I needed to feed the kitten. We walked Apollo to the neighborhood market several blocks away and carried a bag of Meow Mix home. We poured the kibble into a old Tupperware container and set it outside near the deck with a bowl of water. Then we went inside the kitchen and waited excitedly.
The tabby kitten emerged from under the deck and walked towards the food bowl, hungrily consuming the kibble. Stunned, we watched as three more kittens crawled out from under the deck and scurried towards the food bowl. We spent the next hour watching their shenanigans. They chased each other around the yard, pounced randomly on insects invisible to us, and curled up in my flower pots. As daylight dimmed and fireflies emerged, the kittens lazily swatted their paws as the bright insects flew around them. There are terrible things happening in the world, and then there are kittens playing with fireflies. If you have never witnessed kittens playing with fireflies, it is a goddamn delight.
As I was leaving for the airport the next morning, I watched Mama Kitty strutting confidently down the sidewalk towards our backyard with an unidentified rodent in her mouth. While I was on my trip, Husband informed me that Mama Kitty continued with her “Fuck your Meow Mix” energy by killing a bunny. You hear your entire life about how cats are ruthless hunters, but it doesn’t really stick until you hear that they hunt bunnies, something I didn’t even think cats DID. Birds? Of course. Chipmunks? Apparently. BUNNIES? You learn something new every day. Life really is a rich tapestry, I guess.
The kittens were gone when I returned a week later, but made a brief cameo several weeks later. As I sat in my office, I saw a gaggle of kittens crossing the street together and crawling under the deck. But since I wasn’t as consistent with the Meow Mix feedings, I didn’t see them again for weeks. I’d put out a bowl of food and while the food would be gone the next day, there wasn’t a trace of the kittens.
Then last week, I saw one lone kitten crossing the street by itself. This time I was prepared. I hurriedly filled bowls with Meow Mix and water, hoping to lure the kittens back under the deck. Sure enough, all four kittens returned with their mother (we later learned that the cat with the grizzled face is their father, a neighborhood stray known as Kit). I was overjoyed to see the kittens again. I refilled their food bowl several times a day, hoping to keep them fed, happy, and safe under our deck.
The four kittens are playful, providing endless entertainment while we are forced to complete adult activities like cooking or working. There are two gray tabby kittens, one kitten with Bengal markings like its mother, and an all black cat. The black cat is the bravest and most curious of the four. She is also the hungriest, apparently, since she always feeds first. Sometimes as I fill their bowl, I can only see her wide little eyes peering cautiously at me from under the deck. She is my favorite. We call her Jiji, after the black cat from Kiki’s Delivery Service. One of the gray tabby kittens with white cheeks follows her closely, though she’s a little more skittish. We call her Kiki.
The other two kittens are more elusive and don’t have names yet. Maybe that is for the best.
As the kittens grow older, we consider their futures. We’ve purchased cat toys to lure them from under the deck. I feed them several times a day, singing to them as I fill their bowl. I tell them the house rules (you can stay as long as you want, please don’t eat the chipmunks) that they apparently ignore, since I haven’t seen the chipmunks in over a week. “What’s new, kitty cats?” I sing the Tom Jones tune as I fill their bowls, sanitized to be SFK (Safe for Kittens). We are trying not to get attached to them since we don’t know whether our geriatric dog will let us adopt any, but I just told you that we named two of them and that I sing to them so…yeah. Clearly we are failing miserably at this.
We’ve learned from our neighbors that the kittens split their time between three homes, including ours. At first I was almost offended that the kittens would dare find another home to squat at (do they not like the Meow Mix?) but they are growing and curious about the world. I get it. I am curious about the world too. Today they climbed trees and scurried away on the fence. I felt sad as I watched them run away, Jiji leading the pack, knowing I cannot stop them from leaving. We know that eventually we’ll need to find them homes. We don’t know if one of those homes will be ours yet. But I can’t bear to split them up yet, and apparently the other kitten enablers in our neighborhood can’t either. But I want them to be warm once the autumn nights return. They can’t be living under our deck when it snows.
Sometimes I get overwhelmed when I consider the future, so instead of thinking too far ahead, I’m looking at it one ant-filled bowl of Meow Mix at a time. “Stay safe out there,” I warned Jiji as she watched me, perched on top of the fence. I tried not to think of the world she might encounter when she leaves my backyard to explore- drivers who may not see her. People who may not be kind to her.
As I walked back into my kitchen, I turned and instinctively looked out the window. Jiji was back in the yard, lazily swatting at the grass. Then she scurried under the deck.