Mystery of the White Cat
Even though the nights still turned cold enough so the ground was covered with frost in the morning, the days were becoming much warmer, and this evening, for the first time since last fall, Dad had left the barn door open during milking. In the winter, Dad kept the door closed both day and night, but when he left the door open during the evening, that meant spring had finally arrived.
“Would you get the milk stool for me?” Dad asked.
My father used the milk stool to sit by cows who were touchy about the milker.
I turned to fetch the milk stool.
Not more than a minute ago, the doorway had been empty.
But now, a pure white cat sat silhouetted against the gathering dusk beyond.
“Dad,” I said. “Look.”
My father stepped into the center aisle. As the days grew longer, the cows were shedding more of their winter coats, and the front of Dad’s denim chore jacket was covered with black and white hairs.
“Where’d she come from?” he wondered.
I was wondering the same thing myself.
Most of our cats were brown tabbies. “Tiger cats” we called them. The others were either black or gray. We didn’t have any white cats. Our elderly neighbors, Hannah and Bill Paulson, had inherited some cats when they bought the farm below our hill several years ago, but none of theirs were white. And Hannah and Bill’s cats never came to our place for a visit. Why would they? Hannah fed them canned cat food that smelled like tuna fish, and when she tapped a can with a fork, cats would come running from all directions.
“Forget about the milk stool,” Dad said. “If you walk down there now, you’ll probably scare the cat away.”
Needles had noticed the white cat too. His head was down, his ears were perked, and the tip of his plumed tail was motionless. Every now and then, a stray cat would show up in the barn. If it was a tom, Needles would chase it away. He knew stray toms would fight with our cats, and the dog hated cat fights. As soon as the growling and hissing started, he would wade right in to break it up.
The white cat sat quietly by the door, watching our barn cats as they jostled for position around their dish. The cat dish was an old stainless steel frying pan that my big brother had scrubbed when he washed the milkers until it was as shiny as a new fifty-cent piece. Dad had put more fresh milk in the dish a few minutes ago.
One by the one, the barn cats drank their fill and left the dish to sit and wash their faces or to curl up for a nap in the empty cow stall nearby.
Finally, when the dish was unoccupied, the white stray crept forward, keeping a wary eye on the other cats.
“Looks like she’s gonna have kittens,” Dad said.
Now that he mentioned it, I could see the white cat was rather plump around the middle.
“More kittens!” I said happily, turning toward my father.
Dad scowled back at me.
“Yeah,” he replied, “that’s just what we need around here.”
In spite of his expression and the gruff-sounding words, Dad was trying not to smile. My father sometimes grumbled about how many barn cats we had, but his attempts to hide a smile often gave him away.
At the other end of the barn, the white cat crouched over the dish, lapping daintily and raising her head every few seconds to look around. After she realized nobody was going to bother her, she drank steadily, as if she hadn’t seen anything to eat in a long time.
“Poor kitty,” Dad said. “Looks like she’s really hungry.”
“Do you think she would let me pet her?” I asked.
My father reached for the washcloth so he could prepare the next cow for the milker. As Dad sloshed around in the galvanized bucket, the same kind of bucket we used to feed calves, the scent of iodine rose in a cloud of steam. The disinfectant he used wasn’t pure iodine, but it smelled like iodine.
“I don’t know if she would let you pet her,” he said. “She might. There’s only one way to find out, I guess.”
I started toward the newcomer. The cat noticed my approach and ran outside, glancing over her shoulder as she disappeared into the dusk of early evening.
I peeked around the door and saw that she hadn’t gone far so I retreated into the barn. Halfway down the barn aisle on my way back toward Dad, I turned around to look. The white cat was by the dish again.
“Any luck?” my father asked, setting down a full bucket of milk. The stainless steel milker inflations clinked and clanked as he placed the cover on an empty bucket.
“She ran away,” I said.
Dad turned toward the door where the cat was crouched by the dish. “Didn’t go far, I see.”
“Daddy? Do you think she will stay here?”
“Who knows? Maybe. Maybe not. She might just be passing through.”
The next night, the white cat once again appeared in the barn during milking.
And she showed up the night after that.
And the next night.
During the first couple of days, the cat stayed near the door while we milked, although as long as we didn’t try to pet her, she didn’t mind that we were in the barn. Even if we came quite close to her, she wouldn’t run off. And yet, as soon as Dad or I leaned toward her with an outstretched hand, she would either zip out the door or would climb up on the calf pen to put herself out of reach.
After the first night, Needles ignored the white cat. He knew she wasn’t going to pick any fights so he had stopped worrying about her.
When the white cat had been at our place for a full week, Dad figured we had acquired a new cat. “She’s been staying in the barn during the day too,” he said. “Curls up in one of the stalls toward the far end.”
One evening a few weeks later, the stray arrived at the cat dish looking strangely thin. And I knew what that meant. When a cat was plump with kittens one day but skinny the next, it meant she’d had her babies.
Several days after that, while Dad was in the mow throwing down hay for the cows before supper, he saw the white cat slip into a hole between the bales. When we came back to the barn after supper, she was sitting on the calf pen.
“Let’s see if we can find those kittens before we start to milk,” Dad said. “If we go up to the mow while she’s down here, maybe she won’t realize what we’re doing.”
The haymow was only a third full. By the time Dad started baling in June, the mow would be nearly empty. The white cat’s nest was in a stack of hay along the north wall, and we found three babies all together, two gray ones, and oddly enough, a solid black. They were so tiny that from nose to tail, they fit in the palm of my father’s hand.
Dad put the last kitten back in the nest, and at the same moment, the white mother cat appeared. She arrived the way we did: by climbing the haymow ladder. The ladder came up through a hole in the mow floor where Dad and Ingman threw hay down into the barn. During the winter, a sliding door was pulled shut over the hole to help the barn below stay warmer.
“Shoot,” Dad said. “I was hoping she wouldn’t come up here.”
The cat leaped from the ladder to the floor and then jumped on a bale not far away and sat down. She watched us closely with her amber-green eyes. When we headed toward the ladder, she left the bale and went to her nest.
“That’s it,” Dad said, sounding gloomy. “I bet she’s gonna move ’em now.”
Most of our cats were tame, but sometimes we wouldn’t find a litter of kittens. When their mothers brought them down from the mow, the kittens would scamper away and hide – often behind the big wooden feed box where Dad and I couldn’t reach them. As adults, they would remain skittish, and after they had litters of their own, if we found the nest, then they would promptly move their babies to a new place.
Since cats that had been born on our farm who were afraid to be petted would move their babies if we found the nest, then the white cat most definitely would.
The next evening Dad and I went up to the haymow to see if the kittens were still in the same spot.
And much to our surprise, they were.
When three or four days had gone by and the white momma still hadn’t moved her babies, Dad concluded she would leave them there.
Not long after that, I decided the stray needed a name. If she had babies upstairs, she belonged here. And if she was our cat, then she had to have a name.
“Daddy? What do you think we should name the white cat?” I asked one evening while we were doing chores.
“What about ‘Milky,'” he said. “Or better yet, ‘Milkshake.'”
Milky was out of the question, although Milkshake would have been a good name for a white cat who did funny things, such as playing with a string dangling out of the twine barrel. One of our other cats could amuse himself for a long time by batting at a twine string then going around to the back of the barrel, crouching, his haunches working up and down as he prepared to spring, and then dashing around to the front so he could pounce at the twine again. But I had never seen the white cat do anything like that.
“Daa-aad,” I said. “What kind of a name is Milky?”
He shrugged. “Well, she’s white, and so is milk.”
I shook my head.
“Milkshake?” he asked.
I explained that Milkshake would be a good name for a cat who did funny things, like when Tommy played with the twine.
Dad nodded. “I think you’re right.”
We both remained quiet for a few minutes as my father checked the milker and then pulled it off the cow.
“I know,” he said. “Let’s call her Kitty.”
“Daddy! That’s what she is – a cat!”
He picked up the milker and carried it to the next cow.
I thought for a few seconds more, and then the perfect name came to me.
“Katherine!” I exclaimed, snapping my fingers.
My father looked up at me from his crouched position. “Katherine? What kind of name is that?”
“It’s an elegant name.”
“WHAT kind of a name?”
“An elegant name. Elegant is one of our spelling words this week, and it means that something is especially nice. She’s not an ordinary cat, you know. We don’t have any other white ones.”
“Well,” Dad said, repositioning his blue-and-white pin-striped chore cap, “I suppose Katherine isn’t all that bad.”
And so we began calling the stray white cat Katherine.
Toward the middle of June, when the kittens had gotten their eyes open and had grown big enough to venture out of the nest on their own, Dad said he wouldn’t be surprised if Katherine moved her babies after I began playing with them. Sometimes even our tame cats would move their kittens once I started playing with them, he pointed out.
Dad had told me a long time ago that it was important not to play with kittens until they were big enough to leave the nest. “I know you wouldn’t hurt them on the purpose,” he’d said. “But while they’re small, they can’t take much handling. And we want our kittens to grow up to be big strong cats. Because if they don’t grow up, then who’s going to hunt mice for us?”
For the most part, I wasn’t afraid of mice, but one day when I was in the granary with Ingman, a mouse had run over my foot. It was an experience I didn’t care to repeat.
After I started playing with Katherine’s kittens, however, she still did not move them. Often the snow-white cat would sit on a hay bale, watching, while the four of us played my favorite games: follow-the-leader, chase-the-twine-string, and peek-a-boo. The kittens especially liked follow-the-leader and soon learned to come when I called “kitty, kitty.”
A few weeks later, Katherine brought her babies down to the barn so they could eat from the dish with the other cats. Katherine also started bringing mice into the barn for her kittens. The mice were very much alive, and when she set them down in front of her kittens, they would chase the mice around the barn. More often than not, the mice would get away.
“Daddy? Why do cats do that? Bring mice in and then let them go?” I asked one day when Katherine’s kittens were chasing a mouse, and it scurried out the hole in the wall where the barn cleaner went up a ramp so it could empty into the manure spreader.
“She’s teaching her kittens to hunt. That’s how they learn,” Dad explained.
Even though Katherine devoted many hours to hunting, she was always in the barn during milking. If Dad and I petted or held her kittens, she stayed nearby to keep an eye on them, but if we tried to pet her, she would jump on the calf pen to get away. As soon as our attention was turned elsewhere, she would come creeping back to hover near the cat dish or to sit and watch the activity going on in the barn.
By the time September arrived, I had become so accustomed to seeing Katherine around the barn during chores that one Saturday morning when I didn’t see her, I noticed right away she was missing.
I looked in all the usual spots where she liked to nap or to sit and wait for more milk. I couldn’t find her anywhere.
“Daddy, have you seen Katherine?” I asked.
He glanced at me and then looked toward the cat dish. “No, I guess I haven’t seen her.”
“But Katherine’s always here at milking time,” I said.
Dad shut off the vacuum valve and then grabbed for the milker before it could slide off the cow’s udder and onto the floor.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “She’s probably out hunting rats.”
Not only did Katherine catch mice, but once she had also caught a rat in the pole shed. I had never seen a rat before, and I was surprised by how much bigger and uglier they were than mice. Dad said he didn’t even know we had any rats.
“Do you really think that’s what’s she’s doing? Hunting?” I asked.
Dad stepped into the aisle and set the milker on the floor. “She’ll be back by tonight. Just you wait and see. In fact, I bet she’ll be here when I put the cows in this evening,” he said.
But that evening, the white cat did not appear.
And not the next day.
Or the next.
After she had been gone for one whole week, I had begun to lose hope.
“Daddy, do you think Katherine will ever come back? Or do you think something happened to her?”
I asked as he rinsed out the milker buckets after we had finished the evening chores. Dad stopped to look at me. “She left, I think. Raised her kittens and then went back to wherever she came from.”
I stared at my father in disbelief. “Why would she leave? She belongs here.”
“Some cats are like that,” he said. “They don’t want to stay at any one place for very long. Katherine’s got her own ideas about where she wants to live. We can’t make her stay here, you know.”
“But why would she leave some other place, come here and have her kittens and then go back again?”
“Maybe she knew her kittens wouldn’t be safe at home,” Dad said.
My father picked up the milker bucket and went outside to dump the rinse water next to the barn on a long, narrow space close to the barn wall. Dad said the milky rinse water kept the ground damp so we would know where to find worms if we wanted to go fishing in the evening after the chores were done.
I followed him outside.
“What do you mean, her kittens might not be safe at home?” I said.
Dad sloshed the water around, emptied the bucket, and then turned back toward the barn. “Well, some people don’t want kittens around.” He hesitated, and I wondered why his blue eyes looked so troubled. “When a cat has kittens, they … ah … they’ll do something like … drown them.”
I was so shocked that for a few seconds, I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Daddy! There aren’t people who do that. Are there?”
He paused before answering. “Yes, kiddo, I’m afraid so.”
“But what about the momma cat?”
Several years ago one of our barn cats had a litter of kittens early in the spring. It had turned cold that same night and the kittens all died. Dad wrapped them in old burlap bag and buried them by the corncrib. For a couple of days, the momma cat wandered around the barn, calling for her kittens. The longer she looked for them, the more croaky her voice became, until at the end, when she had finally given up, she could hardly meow anymore.
“What about the momma cat?” Dad replied.
“If somebody killed her kittens, wouldn’t she be looking for them?”
Dad hesitated again and now his eyes were sad. “Yes – the momma would be looking for them.” “And … and … you think that’s why Katherine came here?” I asked. “Because she knew we wouldn’t hurt her babies?”
“Could be. Animals are awful smart that way, knowing where they’re welcome and where they’re not. And we know her kittens will be all right here, don’t we.”
He winked, and I found myself smiling back at him.
We walked into the barn, and one of Katherine’s kittens was sitting near the cat dish. I picked up the young cat I had named Pearl, and she began to purr, a rumbling sound I had no trouble hearing now that the milker pump had been shut off.
Dad chuckled and stroked Pearl’s head. “See? I think this is exactly why Katherine came here to have her babies.”
Maybe so, although I still didn’t understand why she would want to leave.
Not long after that, my father asked around the neighborhood to find out if anybody owned a white cat.
No one did.
He eventually concluded that the question of where Katherine came from was a mystery we would never be able to solve.
By the end of October, I knew Pearl and Silver and Midnight’s mother was never coming back. But that didn’t stop me from thinking about her, and after a while, I wondered if Dad had made up the story about Katherine coming here to have her babies and then going ‘home’ after her kittens were grown up because he knew something had happened to her and didn’t want to tell me. But what could have happened to her?
Maybe Katherine got a hit by a car. Although getting hit by a car seemed unlikely since cars hardly ever drove past our place.
Maybe she got run over by the milk truck.
And yet, that didn’t seem likely, either, seeing as the milk truck driver always checked under the truck before he drove off.
Or maybe Katherine had gotten into a fight with a wild animal. Perhaps a fox or an owl or a hawk had killed her …
When spring arrived the following year, I had stopped wondering what had happened to Katherine. Pearl and Silver and Midnight were full-grown cats with thick, soft coats, and whenever I picked them up, they would close their eyes and purr and bump their heads against my chin.
One evening after Dad had filled a pail with milk for me so I could carry it to the milkhouse to dump it, I turned toward the door – and stopped dead in my tracks.
“Daddy!” I yelled.
“What’s wrong?” Dad replied, as he stepped into the center aisle.
I pointed toward the other end of the barn.
“Well … I’ll be … ” Dad said.
It was Katherine. The white cat was sitting by the cat dish.
Seconds later, my father and I both arrived at the dish.
“Where have you been?” Dad asked.
“Katherine!” I said. “You’re alive!”
“Meowrrr,” replied the cat.
At first, I thought the white cat was going to let Dad pet her. But then she scooted out of reach. “Still afraid of being petted, I see,” Dad said, straightening up. “You know we won’t hurt you, though. Don’t you?”
“Where do you think she was all this time, Daddy?”
“Like I told you before. I think she went back to where she came from after she’d raised her kittens and knew they would be safe.”
My father turned and went to check on the milkers.
I trailed along behind him, thinking about what he had said. For as long as I could remember, we’d had barn cats. Each year at least one, but usually two or three, would have a litter of kittens.
“If some people drown kittens, what about mice? Don’t they have a lot of mice, then?”
After all, Dad did say we wanted our kittens to grow up to be big, strong cats so they could catch mice. And Katherine did teach her kittens how to hunt.
“Yes, they’ve probably got quite a few mice,” Dad replied. He winked. “They might even have a few rats.”
The white cat was still sitting by the dish, waiting for some milk.
“Daddy? Is Katherine going to have kittens again?”
My father looked at Katherine. “Yup. I think she’s gonna have kittens.”
He looked back at me and I wondered why he was smiling in the way my mother called his ‘cat that swallowed the canary smile.’ When Dad was particularly pleased about something, he wore the same little grin.
“Yup, I think she’s gonna have kittens,” he repeated. “And then instead of catching mice for those other people – “
In an instant I saw what he was getting at.
“She’ll catch mice here! And maybe even a rat!”
“Well,” Dad said, “I really hope there aren’t any more rats for her to catch.”
A few weeks later, Katherine did, indeed, have another litter of kittens. This time she had two white ones and two brown tabbies. And just like the year before, she caught mice for them. And just like the year before, in the fall, she disappeared.
We never saw her again.
But even though we still had no idea where the white cat had come from or why she came to our farm in the first place, we knew one thing for certain.
All of Katherine’s kittens turned out to be the best mousers we ever had.