Little Catherine was sad to see the old farmer’s truck rumble out of the driveway, with all its luggage tied to the back, and his wife looking out the window towards the old white farmhouse. They had been there for many years, but something had forced them to leave – Catherine suspected that it was old age – and they were moving somewhere else, though she didn’t know where. And – for whatever reason she didn’t know – they’d been forced to leave her behind.
She knew that they loved her. She knew they did. But they couldn’t bring her wherever they were going.
And so the farmer and his wife rumbled away in the old blue pickup with all their belongings, and Catherine watched sadly as they left.
Catherine wasn’t getting too old, but she was the mother of three litters by now. Her children had grown up and sold quickly, while the other cats were sold to other farming families as mousers, and some folks who wanted an older cat. For some reason, Catherine wouldn’t sell, and now she was on her own.
The blue truck was gone. Finally, after staring for a good long while, Catherine wandered back into the barn. They had left the bin of cat food open for her, and if she didn’t gorge herself on it the supply would last her a while until she could figure out what to do.
After about a week or two, the food was running short, and Catherine had to force her paw.
She dug up her favorite pink summer bonnet out of a corner of the grain room, which she’d hid there so that the farmer and his wife didn’t find it and take it with them (she had snatched it up from a box of doll-clothes once upon a time, and it happened to fit her perfectly). Also, she took a small piece of cloth and went to the feed bin, filled it with the rest of the cat food, and held it in her mouth as she considered which way she should go.
There was nothing left for her here but the mice and the dust and the memories. She decided to move on. And wherever the farmer had gone, there must be a good reason to go there, so Catherine turned her paws to the eastward side of the road and patted along at a leisurely pace.
She walked along for quite some time, not seeing much but the flat Kansas plains and the fields of corn, soybeans, and wheat. She encountered town after town, and farther east started to see cities and metropolises. Finally she had stopped seeing the fields altogether, only finding tall grey buildings made of stone and metal, and tiny parks with pitiful trees. At some point on her journey she encountered huge lakes that went on for miles, and along these were port towns, tourist towns, fishermen and clammers. At a few points she found herself heartily welcomed by the participants of a clambake, who would throw her a few delicious morsels out of their baskets of cheese and salads and their thousands and thousands of baked clams. But the farther east she went, the less hospitality she saw, and the more people that the would just kick at her and tell her to scram.
She, instead, had to scour the streets and trashcans for something to eat, careful to avoid staining her lovely little summer hat, but it seemed like no matter where she went, there were always people trying to shoo her away, and finally when her heart couldn’t take any more she laid down in a back alley and cried mournfully.
Somebody nudged her little summer bonnet, and she looked up with teary eyes to see an impish-looking, orange tabby tomcat with nothing on at all!
“Who are you?” she mewled.
“Clearly somecat who knows his way around better than you,” he replied cheekily. “Need some help?”
“The humans here are quite mean,” she complained sadly.
“Not all of them,” he said. “Hey, my name is Tommy. Care to come with? I’ll help you out.”
Still sniffling, Catherine got to her little paws and followed slowly after him as he walked down the alley.
“Say, what’s your name?”
“Mind if I call you Cathy?”
“Not at all.”
“Alright then, Cathy. What brings you here?”
“My owner left me behind when he moved out. I’m looking for a new home.”
“Not always. I like the adventure – to an extent. Have you ever had a baked clam?”
“It’s something that some humans eat when they live near the water. It’s a clam cooked over a fire. It’s delightful.”
“Well! Sounds delicious. I should try that, sometime.”
Eventually the two cats came to Tommy’s home, which to Catherine appeared as a rather dismal den; it was apparently a crate turned on its side, with some rags stuffed in it. And when Tommy invited Catherine to try it, she did, and ultimately decided that it was quite nice, but she still wished for some warm hay to sleep in instead, because that reminded her of home.
It was in what they called Cat Alley, because in it was a sizeable community of tomcats, shecats, and kittens, all living in boxes, crates, dented trashcans, piles of rags, whatever they could get their little paws on. There were easily fifty of them all crammed into the alley, but they all seemed very happy there, and were all very cordial to Catherine when Tommy introduced her.
Finally there were some evening festivities, where they lit a candle and one cat got out a toy piano while another one sang along; it was a very funny song, and there was much dancing and playing and general mucking about. Catherine had a hard time keeping her bonnet on, though she tried to participate to the best of her ability.
One by one all the kitties got too tired to keep playing, and they put themselves to sleep in all the strangest places: Catherine thought she’d seen at least one cat sleeping draped over a telephone wire, but nobody seemed concerned (apparently he did that a lot). Another kind mother-cat who’s kittens had just moved out had some spare room, and her name was Marmalade; she allowed Catherine to sleep there, and reassured her that if she needed anything, she could just wake her hostess up and ask. She was a light sleeper anyway.
She awoke late the next day, with the sun in her eyes and a full belly. It had been a long time since Catherine had awoken to a full belly, and was still even more pleased when some of the cats went on a group hunt and brought back enough mice and rats and other critters to feed everybody.
Some of the cats lit a fire to roast their meal, and – being more of a refined sort – Catherine joined them. The rest were happy to steal to their dens and eat more messily in private.
Shortly after breakfast Tommy came over to Catherine, after finishing his meal, and asked her if she wouldn’t like a tour around the area.
“You’ll have to know the city streets if you’re gonna live here,” he said.
“Well, I’ll gladly follow you around,” Catherine meowed back. “But I don’t think I’m quite tough enough for the life!”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Tommy replied with a smirk. “Maybe you’ll change your mind! How about you think about it, and I’ll show you around while you do?”
She thought about it. “Surely it couldn’t hurt. I’ll follow you.”
So Tommy lead Catherine out of the alley, and they looked up and down the streets for an opening through the cars. A few people stared at Catherine, because she was wearing a bonnet.
“You know,” Tommy said, “Maybe it’s not such a good idea for you to wear your bonnet in public.”
“It’s fine.” Catherine snorted. “They think I’m cute, so they get me food, and besides they all think I have an owner anyway.”
Tommy still looked skeptical. “Well, if you say so,” he said.
When they realized that traffic was never going to let up long enough for them to get across, they decided to follow the crowd down the sidewalk and cross at the intersection.
Some people started laughing when they saw the two kitties crossing the intersection, and some people started taking pictures and video with their cellphones.
“What are they doing with those strange white boxes?” Catherine asked.
“I think they’re called phones,” Tommy said. “I don’t know what they are, but I’ve never liked them. One day I think they may suck all the minds out of the people who use them! Sometimes I see people just walking down the sidewalk and staring at them without looking where they’re going. They are well on their way!”
Catherine looked a little disturbed at the comment, but said nothing. She knew nothing about these ‘cell phones’, and was not prone to jumping to conclusions.
After crossing the intersection, they began to pass by rows and rows of huge, tall buildings, which Tommy called ‘skyscrapers’.
“That’s what the humans call them, anyway,” he said. “They’re made of solid glass! Built all with mirrors!”
“What do the humans use them for?”
“I think they’re stress tolerance exercise buildings,” Tommy replied. “They go inside in fancy clothes, and then come out looking all frazzled and tired. Sometimes you’ll see them storm out in the middle of the afternoon with red faces, and I guess they failed their tests, but we’re never sure.”
Catherine frowned. “Sounds unpleasant.”
“Looks it, too.”
They continued to walk, and finally came upon a little patch of green, with a few trees, and a ring of stones all around it for a wall. Inside the wall there were little kid’s rides, scattered toys, and patches of wood-chips. Catherine remembered it as a park, and saw that it was empty.
“The kids are at school now, I think,” Tommy mentioned.
Catherine noticed that the monkey bars were a bit rusted.
“It doesn’t look like they use it much, anyway,” Catherine replied.
“No. I think they’re all busy with papers they get for after school.”
They came around the corner, and saw a huge building in red brick and beige concrete.
“And that’s the school.”
“I don’t see anybody in the windows.”
“I think it’s a special type of glass that looks dark on the outside and clear from the inside. I can never figure out how they did it.”
“Why would you need windows like that?”
“I don’t know. Why don’t we move on?”
They wove through the lines and lines of old cars, hopped on and off the curb, batting at the dandelions poking up through the asphalt, sneezing at the pollen that would float away into the air when they did. Once they came out of the absurdly large parking lot they sat down to rest for a moment before looking up, and seeing a little sports court with a wire fence around it.
“I think the children play ball games here,” Tommy said, “and a few running and jumping games. Everyone is all so wound up when they play them, and I can’t fathom why, but their antics can be funny to watch.”
“…I don’t see anyone here now,” Catherine said, squinting past the fenceline.
“Exactly.” Tommy bunched up his haunches, and then launched himself at the fence, catching the wire mesh with his tough little paws. “Come on. Follow me!”
He began to scrabble up the side of the fence. Catherine followed, and decided quickly that it was very uncomfortable climbing this sort of fence. The top was particularly terrible, being that it was a long pipe with inconvienent protrusions of wire at the top, and she leapt down quickly, impatiently, and gracelessly, despite being a cat.
Tommy was already over the fence and walking away. Now, he was trotting merrily over to an inflated, rubber orange ball that had been left on the running track, about as big as he. As Catherine watched, Tommy hopped up onto the ball, and was soon rolling it to and fro underneath his little paws, up and down and across the track, going this way and that. Soon, Catherine began to grow dizzy from watching.
“How do you do that?” Catherine asked, dismayed.
“Many days of practice,” Tommy replied. “I find this quite fun, myself. Care to give it a go?”
“No,” she replied back. “I am very happy on the ground, thank you. You’re making me dizzy!”
“Am I? Should I stop?” He was spinning around and around on his ball, running in circles, having a lovely time for himself.
“Ah, no, no, don’t stop on my behalf,” Catherine mewed back. “I shall find something else to do.”
“Well, I suppose you can bat around the white hide balls, with the red stitches,” Tommy suggested. “It may even be possible that they left out their white stone balls, with all the dimples. You could play with those for a while.”
So Catherine went out and looked for the white hide balls and the white stone balls. She didn’t have very much luck, but she did find some disc-shaped things that looked a lot like sleds, and she went and slid down hills for a while with it, but then discovered that she was much too prone to crashing in it for it to be at all safe. There were also some bright orange cone-shaped things on square bases, and she played around for a while, tipping them over, trying to fit in them, sticking her head in and meowing because it sounded neat inside.
After a while they grew bored of playing, and decided to move on. Catherine deigned to clamber over the fence again, because the thing Tommy had called an exit looked more like a deadly vertical wheel of spikes, so she wanted to avoid it at all costs.
Some ways down the street Tommy suddenly turned, and crashed straight through a neighboring hedge!
“What in a kitten’s name are you doing?” Catherine yowled, startled.
“Having fun!” Tommy called back cheekily. “Come on, try it. You’ll like it!”
“I don’t want to mess up my bonnet,” she meowed back.
“Then take it off for a moment. There’s no wind, and I’m not a thief!”
Begrudgingly, she untied her bonnet and put it on the sidewalk. She stared at the bush, stared into the bush, stared through it, even, but still she did not jump through it. Evidently, she was still hesitant.
Suddenly, there was a little screech behind her, and she spooked, and jumped straight through the bush without meaning to!
She glared back through the hole she had made, sticks and leaves stuck all through her fur. Tommy was on the other side, laughing.
“That wasn’t very nice,” she whined.
“Oh, you’re fine,” Tommy replied. “And besides, wasn’t jumping through so much fun?”
“Would have been more fun if I had not done it in fear,” Catherine grumbled, now scrabbling over and through the hedge to the other side, mussing up all of her nice white fur. She went and put her bonnet back on, looking severe. “Manners!”
Tommy rolled his eyes. “Oh, alright. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have scared you.”
“Apology accepted,” Catherine mewed back.
“…Shall we continue on?” Tommy asked.
“Don’t see why we shouldn’t.”
So they continued to pad down the street.
“Say, how are you liking it so far?” Tommy asked, looking at Catherine inquisitively. She was still mussed up from the hedge adventure, and looking grumpy.
“Can’t say I’m really jumping for joy,” she admitted.
“Oh, well, the best is yet to come, as we say here,” Tommy replied optimistically. “This way!”
He ducked into a nearby alley, and the two of them emerged on the other side to a four-way street filled with cars and flooded with people.
“You don’t mean for us to cross that?” Catherine asked, with some trepidation.
“Not at all,” he replied. “Come on! Right this way.”
She was still staring uncomfortably at all the people as they wove in and out of foot traffic, ducked behind news-stands and trash cans, and went under and over bits of litter and debris.
“How do places like this get so crowded?” Catherine asked. “The cities are so unpleasant and I only ever see people leaving. I can never seem to figure it out!”
“Well, I don’t know either, but…” Tommy paused to jump over an abandoned soda can. “My theory is that humans are actually magnetic, and all of the buildings are made of magnets, so then the builders can get people to visit more. I think they like people visiting.”
“But then why aren’t people stuck to the buildings?” Catherine called back.
“I think they’re more like mental magnets,” Tommy asked. “You can’t see them, but their consciences are stuck to the buildings and travel from building to building as their bodies move. Or at least, that’s my theory.”
“It’s a very wild theory,” Catherine asked. “Do you have anything to back that up with?”
Tommy looked consternated.
“No, nevermind,” Catherine replied. “I can see that you don’t.”
“What? Of course I have evidence.” He frowned. “Uhh…”
Catherine rolled her eyes, and didn’t press the matter.
They continued on, until – after passing rows and rows of business that gradually became nicer, homelier, and more comforting – they came upon a hedge behind a fence, and a sign that said “Thorton Gardens”.
“This is the place,” Tommy affirmed as he climbed through the fence. “Come on. I’ll give you a tour.”
“You’re sure they won’t run us out?” Catherine asked skeptically as she squeezed through the fence after him.
“Oh, I’m sure,” Tommy replied, walking politely around the hedges. “They actually all quite like us cats as long as we don’t leave a mess.”
Catherine had stopped heeding him. They had come out of the hedges, onto the white stone path, and could stare up at the park’s exotic trees, delicately manicured bushes, and little colorful flowers in all their plantlike glory. She stared up in awe while Tommy sat back and grinned at his own success in finding something that she would like.
“It’s beautiful!” She cried, walking up to a little patch of flowers. “Oh! My master used to grow posies just like this. And-” She walked up to a nearby tree and began to climb up. “Is this a maple? We had a sugar maple on the old farm. She made jolly good syrup and was a joy to climb! Oh, how lovely! I think that might be wintergreen! And – catnip?”
“Yes, it is catnip,” Tommy replied, seeing the lavender-colored, fuzz-coated flowers she referred to. “Don’t get too close, though. You’ll lose your faculties.”
“I can just smell them from here!” She took a good whiff from her perch in the tree, tail sweeping the air happily. “They’re divine. Oh, are those some daffodils? I do love daffodils.” She bunched up her haunches, and hopped down from the tree to investigate the daffodils. Once she was there she discovered an adorable patch of Irish moss, in full bloom, and after that managed to crawl her way into a hydrangea bush, with enormous bundles of delicate, sky-blue blooms, each about the size of a large orange. Finally she managed to get herself caught upside-down in a patch of roses, though the thorns didn’t seem to bother her. Tommy was a little bewildered by that, though overall he was pleased with her sudden enthusiasm.
“Isn’t it nice?” Tommy asked. “I think it’s actually at its best this time of year. All the flowers are blooming.”
“Is it ever!” Catherine mewed with delight. “Oh, it makes me think of the herb gardens we’d keep back in Kansas. They would be full of all sorts of mints and thymes and sages. They always smelled lovely.”
“I imagine,” Tommy replied with a smile.
So they continued in this way for quite some time, until Catherine nearly exhausted her internal encyclopedia of plants and filled it up more and more, until she was too tired to keep adding to it for the day. There were lots of plants in all shades of green, yellow, purple, and red, and lots of flowers with all sorts of colors, and many red, black, and blue berries all through the garden. It was lots of fun, because there was lots to do, and they spent a good many hours there until Tommy finally began to implore for Catherine to finish up so that they could go back to Cat Alley before nightfall.
So, she finally decided that she’d had her fill, and the two began to walk back along the garden walls to the entrance.
“So,” Tommy began. “What do you think?”
“Of this place. I mean, are you going to settle down here, or what?”
Catherine began to look unsure.
Tommy continued. “You don’t really look like the wandering type to me.”
She looked at her feet. “Yes, that’s true.”
“You could stay at Cat Alley if you liked. I know you didn’t like the city all that much, but the gardens are very nice. At least, I think so.”
“Yes, yes, of course I loved the gardens,” Catherine replied hastily. “I could have been there all night.”
“But they are not worth you staying here.”
Catherine looked a little guilty as she stared at the pavement, and truly apologetic. “Well… I guess I just… Mm.”
Tommy didn’t push the matter. They returned to Cat Alley by dark, and he allowed her to sleep on it.
There was still music and good food around a candle-fire, and some dancing, too, but Catherine was too tired to participate now. Many of the cats inquired as to the little trip she had taken, and if she was going to stay or not, and all she could do to reply to any of them was to stare at the pavement and mumble awkwardly, because on the one paw all the cats were very nice, and the gardens were lovely, but on the other new places were scary, and Catherine really wanted to be at home with the farmer with the blue pickup truck, but he’d left, and she couldn’t go home again.
She was starting to wonder if she should maybe just wander forever, and become a traveling cat, but she was a homebody, and homebodies needed a place where they could come home and sleep off a rough day.
And besides that, she was getting tired of the wandering.
In the morning, Catherine awoke to the smell of something quite familiar to her – it was, in fact, the smell of bacon.
It had been one of the farmer’s favorite breakfasts. Every morning, wafting out of the kitchen window, there was the sizzle of bacon and its rich, savory smell, next to the eggs with golden yolks, companioned by fresh, yeasty, buttered bread, that made the whole farmhouse smell like a bakery. Then there was always a hot pot of coffee, made in an old metal percolator; it was brewed very strong, and smelled a little like burned chocolate.
But now, all Catherine could smell was the smoke of a tiny fire and the bacon. Peeking down from the little perch that Marmalade had given her to sleep in, she saw the fire, and a iron pan loaded with bacon, and the whole crowd of cats up early in the morning waiting eagerly for a piece; a few other cats had taken to a private spot to gnaw on their delicious, fresh bacon. The cooking cat, Nutmeg, and her daughter Ginger, were attending to the fire and the pan, while a very curious visitor sat nearby, watching happily. He appeared to be a big Pomeranian, with a giant fluffy head and a giant fluffy tail.
Catherine had grown up around big sheep dogs: she’d known German Shepherds and English Shepherds, Border Collies and Bloodhounds, but she had only rarely caught glimpses of the little lapdogs that people would keep in the cities. And how cute he was!
But why had he come to Cat Alley?
Curious, Catherine jumped down from the perch to investigate, and found herself right in front of the Pomeranian! He was a little spooked by her entrance, and had thought that all the cats had already come down.
Smoothing out his fur hastily, he asked, with a curious Scotch accent, “Well, who are you?”
“My name is Catherine – though you can call me Cathy,” she said. “I’m new here. What’s yours?”
“Oh, ah – I’m Bruce,” said the Pom. “I live up the street, next to the butcher.”
“So you brought all this bacon?” Catherine asked.
“Well, I always do,” he replied. “Of course I leave an equal amount of money on the shop counter. Me mum knew numbers, she did. She was very smart!”
“She was a poodle,” the Pom said. “I hear all poodles are very smart! But, don’t let me waste your mornin’. Have a piece!”
Another bit of bacon was coming off the skillet. Tommy came forward out of the crowd, nabbed the piece up in his teeth, and walked over to where Catherine and Bruce were talking. He broke the bacon in half with his paws, and gave Catherine the other piece. “Here you go,” he said.
“Why, thank you,” she replied, quite astonished at the generosity. She crunched a bit of bacon delicately in her teeth. “Mm. Oh, this is good!”
“I think it was made fresh this mornin’,” Bruce commented.
“You know you don’t have to go to all this trouble for us,” Tommy mentioned, just as he was chowing down hungrily on his bacon, little delicious crumbs all over his whiskers.
Bruce grinned crazily, in that way that happy little dogs are prone to grinning when they are about to pounce on their favorite toy. “Nothin’ but the best for my best neighbors!”
“Have you no other neighbors?” Catherine asked curiously.
“No, and with a hundred cats livin’ next door, I don’t need any more,” Bruce said bluntly, still grinning with that huge, adorable grin.
“Do you do this often?” Catherine asked, a little more timidly.
Bruce barked out a big laugh that filled the whole alley. “Every Sunday, friend,” he said.
“Oh, but where are my manners?” Catherine almost seemed to ask herself the question, looking embarrassed. “Thank you very much, Bruce. I truly do appreciate your generosity.”
“I do it gladly!” he replied with cheer.
“And when Christmas comes, he brings a whole ham,” Tommy interjected. “You should try Nutmeg’s roasted ham. Mm! It’s the bomb! You’ve never seen a cat eat like how a cat eats Nutmeg’s ham.”
“It sounds delicious,” Catherine meowed, a little overwhelmed.
“Is it ever!” Tommy said, gnashing down the last of his bacon and licking his whiskers. “Mm. Let me get you a piece, Bruce.”
Tommy got up, and fetched another piece. Bruce took it and chewed on it noisily, tail wagging furiously behind him.
And so they all sat there and enjoyed breakfast, and Bruce got lots of thank yous, attention from the kittens, and Nutmeg got lots of pats on the back – and because the cats of Cat Alley were raised to be thoughtful, the largest portion of bacon was left for Nutmeg and her daughter to enjoy.
Now before Bruce was able to leave, Catherine asked him how he had come to live in the city.
“Me folks moved here a long time ago,” he said. “Mm. I can’t even really remember where we used to live! Ha hah! Ah, I must be getting old.”
“Maybe you were just a puppy then?” Catherine suggested. She hadn’t wanted to make him think that he was old.
“Oh, I think I was,” Bruce replied. “But, um, is there a reason you asked?”
Catherine paused for a moment to think. “Well, I just need a place to live, that’s all.”
“Then there’s no question you should just plop yourself down right here in Cat Alley,” Bruce said confidently. “I mean, I don’t mean to force you, and I would have 101 cat neighbors, but you’ve got lots of friends to back you up in case something goes wrong, plenty of comfortably crowded real-estate, and a jolly-good lot of neighbors to boot.”
Catherine didn’t look convinced. “Mm.”
“The humans are very mean here. Not even my bonnet really helps.”
“Ah, well, they just need to get used to the sight of ya. They’ll warm up to ya in time; especially the children. Ah, the children! Me family’s youngest likes to give me peanut butter. If you ever want a favor done by a human, ask a child first. They’re just great!”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Catherine said.
“Well, I have to git goin’. Me folks will be expectin’ me.”
“See you later, Bruce, and thanks again.”
“Not a problem, miss.”
Catherine was helping Marmalade clean up the house when Tommy asked to be let inside. It had started to rain, and Tommy had somehow managed to lock himself out of his own house; and besides, he had wanted to speak with Catherine.
So as he was toweling himself off (as it was rude to shake oneself dry in another’s den), and as Catherine was dusting the mantelpiece, he asked, “Have you given it any more thought?”
She knew what he was talking about. “Oh, well. Um. Yes.”
“Any closer to a decision?”
“You know, if you stay here for a while and decide you don’t like it, that’s fine too. And I don’t want to pressure you, either. Probably not helping with my pestering.”
“Ah. Not really.”
Tommy laughed nervously. “Sorry. I’ll let it drop.”
So the rest of the evening was spent on silence and piddling conversation.
Catherine stayed with Marmalade for a few more days, sleeping on her decision for the next few nights. During the day she’d often go to the garden (or get hopelessly lost trying), and would play around in the patches of petals and peonies to clear her head. It was true that after seeing her a few times the people who came to the garden warmed up to her quickly, endeared by her rambunctious, kitten-like antics among the bushes and trees. The flowers weren’t as spectacular now as they were the first time, but that was okay, and she did have such a good time rolling in the catnip and rollicking in the trees anyway that she didn’t really mind. The gardener didn’t like her rolling in the catnip, so she did sometimes try to keep her distance (a gardener with a rake was a fearsome creature), but after closing time she would jump right back in, and sometimes take a nap in the patch, surrounded by the happy-smell of the catnip.
Still, she could not figure out whether to go or to stay!
Because on the one paw, she could just as well stay now and leave if things turned bad. The cats of Cat Alley were all very nice and polite, more like the barn cats Catherine had known back at home than like city cats. And she knew that if she stayed in Cat Alley, she would be housed, warm, well-fed, greeted with good neighbors in the morning, and fall asleep after a long dance in the evening. It was a jolly place, and Catherine did really like everyone who lived there; she would be hard-pressed to find anything better.
But then the city smelled foul compared to home, the humans weren’t very kind, and above all that Catherine was still clinging to the hope that she could find her folks one day, if only she kept looking.
The cats of Cat Alley were all very nice, but they couldn’t replace the farmer with the blue truck. He didn’t just fall off the face of the earth; he had to be out there somewhere, he and his wife!
Catherine just didn’t want to live without them.
She had to keep looking.
When she returned to Cat Alley later that day, just about ready to break the news to her kindly hosts, she saw Tommy and a few other cats all heading out.
“We’re going on a hunt,” Tommy said. “Care to come with?”
“Oh… Sure,” Catherine replied, not really feeling up to it, but looking for anything to keep her from her unpleasant errand. “Where are we going?”
“The mice like the suburbs best,” Tommy said, “So that’s where we’re headed.”
Catherine hadn’t been to the surburbs yet. “Sounds like fun.”
They were there after making several harrowing crossings over several busy roads. Finally the traffic thinned, and crossing the road was not such a heart-stopping task; the hour was also helpful, because it was growing dark by now, and most people would be home with their families or TVs now.
As they were prowling stealthily through the backyards, past picket fence after picketed fence, gardens full of hydrangeas, roses, chrysanthemums, and assorted vegetables, flooded with the lights from the windows, Catherine caught sight of something very interesting to her.
The other cats kept marching forward; a few were holding their current catch, but the rest of them were looking for more mice to thin the population a little. But Catherine stood stock-still in the backyard, staring with barely restrained disbelief.
Tommy looked back at her, wondering what she was staring at. “Cathy, is something the matter?”
She was still staring, now looking a little frightened. The light on her face flickered, and there were mumbled voices coming from the interior of the house. Her face lit up like the sun at noon, and she bolted forward without saying a word, with a huge grin on her face.
“Cathy!” Tommy called. He turned around the fence to see that she had run up to the back door, where there were several people inside, staring at her with beaming grins. There were two elderly people on the couch. They all seemed to recognize her and her delicate pink bonnet, and a young woman came up to the door to let her in as she scrabbled and meowed and jumped like a crazed frog, trying to reach the door-handle to open it herself.
Tommy smiled with a tinge of melancholy as the door opened. Catherine bolted inside as if the woman would close the door again if she wasn’t fast enough. The woman picked her up, and she mewed and meowed and fidgeted restlessly, overjoyed. The woman put her on the couch next to the elderly folks, and they smiled brilliantly as she settled herself between them, rubbing her face on their arms and laps, content. The old man began to pet her.
The other cats had come up and seen the scene by now.
“Looks like she found her folks,” one of them said.
“Guess we should tell Marmalade that she should clean up that spare room, now,” said another.
“I’m happy for her,” said a third. “Maybe we should go home soon, too.”
Tommy hadn’t said a word yet. Someone noticed his quiet demeanor.
“Hey, she’ll be fine, champ.” she said. “You did a fine job of making sure of that. Let’s go.”
Slowly, he turned around, still smiling faintly. “Sure.”
Catherine didn’t return to the Alley for some time, and after the first few days Tommy was certain that she had forgotten all about them. But after about two weeks, she showed up during breakfast, and had brought a mouse she had caught along the way. She was still wearing her little pink bonnet, though now it had been cleaned, and was set very neatly on her head.
“I brought breakfast,” she meowed happily, as she dropped the mouse off with Nutmeg, who stared at her with no small amount of astonishment.
“We thought you’d never come back!” Tommy replied, also very surprised.
“My folks were just concerned that if they let me out once they’d never see me again,” she clarified. “I managed to convince them, though.” She nudged the mouse forward with her foot. “But, um, how is it?”
Tommy inspected it. “Looks great,” he said. “It’s very fat.”
“Fat makes it slow,” Catherine confirmed.
“But will you stick around?” he asked. “I’d love it if you would.”
“Sure will,” Catherine replied. “I’m famished.”
After some time Catherine’s family realized where she was going off to when they let her out (particularly on Sundays; catching up with Bruce over bacon was always a lovely treat); they were partially alarmed that she was traveling so far over so many roads, and also partially alarmed that there was a huge alley full of cats who didn’t have any owners, but mainly relieved that she was only visiting friends, and not going anywhere dangerous. The cats tried their best to convince Catherine’s owners that they were quite content and happy that way, but somehow they managed to convince them that they all were desperate for humans to care for them, and they got an article in the paper about all the “desperate street cats crowded into a tiny alley” who liked to “have late-night meetings, which are very funny”.
One by one the cats were adopted by passers-by who had read the article, starting from the youngest kittens and moving up. Some particularly generous individuals adopted entire families, and then sold the kittens off to other people. But by some miracle they all stayed local, and on Sundays they would either be let out of their homes or wriggle out of some unlocked window, and would travel all the way to Cat Alley. There, Bruce would bring enough meat to feed everybody, and Nutmeg would cook it up with the help of her daughter Ginger (and after a time, her son Basil took to the task also, especially since the crowd had grown so big). They would tell stories around the cooking-fire, would sing and dance and play late into the night, and return to their homes by morning to sleep in late.
Some of the cats had been resistant to the idea of being adopted, but after a while most of them warmed up to it, glad that they now had plenty of space, plenty of quiet, someone who was always looking out for them, and more food than they knew what to do with. Nutmeg was glad that she didn’t have to cook all the time – though she did still enjoy it – and Bruce was glad to not have all the cats meowing next door while he was trying to sleep, though he hadn’t grudged them for it. Now, the Sunday meetings were a regular treat, and while they sometimes wanted to be together more, they were content with the companionship of their humans.
(As for the mice, they were very relieved now that the cats were being cared for. They would still go on hunts, but it was very seldom, and sometimes the cats were so contented that they would see a mouse and not bother with it!)
Tommy saw the dispersion early on, and altogether decided that he didn’t want an owner, so he went to live near the gardens before anybody picked him up. The gardens were in the suburbs, so sometimes Catherine would hop over to visit, and they’d play among the bushes and trees and flowers like kittens, and kept up that routine for a long time, until they grew grey and old.