The Red Queen

The highlight of Elsabeth’s day was her final visit with the Red Queen, a mottled black and orange feline who was a master hunter, a highly intelligent and cunning creature and neither domesticated nor feral.

Placing a bucket of cat care supplies on the ground, Bette checked the gloves in her pocket and scanned the area around and behind her. The moon was full and bright, illuminating the otherwise unlit backyard like a spotlight. Scanning the area was an old habit gained during many exploring, tracking and surveying trips into the protected habitats and woodlands throughout the region.

Dealing with truly wild creatures within their own natural environment was Bette’s true love. Time and an aging body had taken that away from her, but the Red Queen brought a tiny piece of it back into Bette’s life. It was the reason why she was both grateful for the company of this particularly difficult cat, and constantly conflicted about the cage the Red Queen currently (begrudgingly) called home.

Carefully checking the area as she opened the door and turned on the shed light, Bette greeted the Red Queen and her jailmates with a cheery hello. All of the cats were present and visible. As expected, each one purred, howled or growled their own greeting in return – with the notable exception of the Red Queen.

The cages were formerly used to rehabilitate birds of prey, so they were exceptionally large for cats. However, the tree-like perches and the ability to clean the cage without opening a door made them ideal for this particular pride of felines.

Cheshire, the most skilled and esteemed escape artist among them, was meowing, pacing and leaning against the bars, trying to entice Bette into scratching his ears and opening the door to the cage for a common domesticated-cat-snuggle. Chuckling to herself, Bette reached through the cage and gave Cheshire a friendly scratch behind the ears, but refused to let him out. She knew better.

Immediately after all food and water were distributed and the litter boxes changed, the Mad Hatter leaped into his food bowl, knocked over the water dish and proceeded to yowl and fight with the scattered pieces of cat food like a crazed creature being attacked by invisible demons. Bette crossed her arms and watched until the Mad Hatter paused and cast a glance in her direction. Bette was not fooled. The door remained closed. Mad Hatter tired of the game and took his usual perch on a wooden tree limb just over the cage door, where he silently watched Bette fill and double-check the water bottle that acted as a backup for the water dish.

Placing a hand on her lower back as she stood up and stretched out tight muscles, Bette paused a moment before packing up the supplies and returning to her own home for the night. The silence was pleasant – and unexpectedly interrupted by the sound of crunching.

Looking in the direction of the sound, Bette found the Red Queen regally watching the nightly routine from the highest perch allowed by her cage, with a mouse in her mouth. It was impossible to shake the feeling that this dead-mouse-crunching was a conscious and clear message to her captor – the Queen was not happy.

Bette smiled wide. This was an animal acting as it should. This was the wilderness, the law of nature and the incomprehensible intelligence that lived within all wild creatures. This was the reality that human beings had ceased to acknowledge and the primary reason why Bette found communication with her fellow humans frustratingly problematic.

“Well played my Queen,” Bette replied. Then she finished packing up the supplies and left the shed feeling both happy and homesick. Damned time and the inevitability of aging, they placed the best of life and adventure just out of reach.

Crazy Cat Lady

 Another cat. The little beasts are everywhere.

Elsabeth put down her binoculars and checked the clock. She was due at the The Four Bettes bookstore in two hours. There were nine cats currently living at the shop and five more in her home. She could temporarily house five more, but that was the limit.

Another look through the binoculars confirmed a few frustratingly common facts: the cat did not have a collar and it was hunting birds. A quick sweep of the area revealed a few common, and at least one endangered, species warily eyeing the potential predator.

Sighing, Bette placed her binoculars on the table and scratched the ears of the feline happily curled in her lap. After decades of work as a biologist and a conservationist, she couldn’t stand to watch discarded pets feeding on already struggling wildlife.

Pets were a wonderful addition to any household – if the humans properly cared for them. Most humans didn’t take their responsibilities seriously, and a precious few were aware of just how devastating their actions were to local habitats. To make matters worse, many people simply did not care about the consequences of their actions. Bette’s last attempt to explain basic environmental preservation to a potential cat-owner had, once again, illustrated this fact. It was infuriating.

Gently pushing Buttons off her lap, Bette walked past a recently completed oil painting. The paint was still drying on the artistic representation of her conversation with the environmentally dispassionate would-be cat owner. The art was a physical manifestation of her frustrated anger. There were several dozen similar emotion-induced pieces of art stored in the basement and attic. She was extremely proud of them because, (and only because) they were inexplicably effective at drawing out and permanently containing negative feelings. She called them her calming paintings, but everyone in town just called them ugly. She was OK with that.

Grabbing a pair of animal handling gloves and a pet carrier, she set out to catch the latest visitor to her vegetable garden and the thin strip of suburban woods behind it. By the time she’d gotten close, the cat had made several unintentionally humorous and endearingly clumsy displays of poor hunting skills.She resolved to name this one Robin. The next would be Christopher or maybe Eeyore.

Between the 14 cats currently in temporary care, there was a Winnie, a Pooh and a Bear. All of them had displayed behaviors similar to the collection of characters described in the old Winnie the Pooh stories. The bookstore was filled with lost or abandoned cats named after the Christopher Robin crew.

Cats named after classic fairy tales had stronger personalities than the Pooh Bear crew, but they made excellent pets, just the same. Felines with names inspired by Alice in Wonderland were an entirely different matter and all of them were living in Elsabeth’s house, waiting for an owner with the skills to properly manage them.

While ‘Alice cats’ held the wild end of the spectrum, the opposite extreme was reserved for ‘book cats,’ named after household objects. These fancy felines wanted nothing more than to live a quiet, domesticated, indoor life. This category was dubbed ‘book cats’ in honor of an overweight black and white male named Books who was granted permanent residence at the bookstore, where he proudly demonstrated the weight of meaning behind his name.

Elsabeth was convinced no one knew her found-cats were named after characters in children’s stories and household objects. It was a rare point of self-delusion for an exceptionally practical and fact-driven woman. In fact, this blind spot was so unusual that people unconsciously went out of their way to protect her from the truth. It was as though she was the only one ignorant of an embarrassing facial blemish – no one wanted to be the person who hurt her feelings by pointing it out.

While the entire town immediately noticed the naming conventions, it was the children who started requesting pets named for particular fairy tales – with full intention of changing the name after taking the cat home. The adults, naturally, started asking why and for an entire week the puzzle was the hottest topic in town. It was so much fun trying to figure out what personalities traits went with each story or character that the silence around Elsabeth increased. No one wanted to ruin the game by asking for a cheat sheet.

By the end of the week, the cats had proudly worn their names and demonstrated what they had done to earn the titles, the town had developed a new secret-language for cat personalities and Elsabeth’s status as the crazy cat lady was firmly, fondly and irrevocably established.

As for Elsabeth, her favorite cat was Buttons but Teapot came in a close second. She suspected the rest of the cats knew who the favorites were and she was OK with that.

So were the cats.

Creating a Home

Creating a Home. via Creating a Home.

“Soon Julia’s house was filling up with lost and homeless creatures of every description.”

“The dragon made toast and the mermaid washed the dishes. The folletti tended the fire, the goblins mopped up, the ghost was in charge of dusting and the troll picked out the music.”

Julia’s House For Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke

Dinner

Dinner time is weird. Georgia tried to ‘go with the flow’ and ‘just have fun’ and ‘meet people’ and…whatever else the adults suggested, but she couldn’t get past the weirdness. Every human being on the farm packed into one room, sat at two long tables, and ate a buffet-style meal. Every. Single. Night.

At first it was exciting, then it was interesting, but now it was just weird. And loud. Very loud.

Georgia’s mom was chatting with some guy with a dragon tattoo on his left arm and a burn mark on his right hand. They’d started an uncomfortable discussion about farm animals when Georgia asked about the burn. She listed to them talk about travel and budgeting and other boring adult stuff – until it became clear he wasn’t going to answer her question. Then she started looking around for someone else to talk to, but the only kid nearby was her brother.

Dinner was some kind of meat in a thick sauce. Georgia thought it might be Bar-B-Que and decided to try the vegan hot-dish instead. It was OK. The salad had crunchy bits and dressing already mixed-in and the fancy desserts looked uninteresting.

Soon, the room would begin to wind down and Georgia could excuse herself, stuff a chocolate chip cookie into her pocket and escape to her room. She was lost in thoughts about the half-read novel sitting on her desk when Jeff, her brother, poked her arm to get her attention.

“Why do we have to sit together?” Jeff asked.

Georgia made a face. They had the same conversation almost every night.

“Families sit together.” She replied. “We have to.” She added, as if that settled the matter.

“I want to sit next to Ryan.”

Georgia made another face. Ryan was Jeff’s best friend. They did everything together. Ryan was OK, for a boy, but his sister, Riley, could be a pain. Georgia did not want to sit next to Riley.

“Charlene likes to talk to Rick and mom likes to talk to Alletta.” Georgia replied. “Alletta doesn’t like to sit next to Rick.”

“Can’t you and Riley just be nice during dinner? This is boring.”

Georgia sighed. Obviously, Jeff didn’t believe the families were required to sit next to mom-friends. This was going to turn into another long family conversation, she could see it in his eyes. Trying to explain that it wasn’t just about being polite or talking nice during dinner. It was about Riley, who could be very mean and sneaky, especially when she was bored. Riley was bored a lot.

“What about Sophie, Olive and Billy?” Georgia asked, latching onto the first reasonably safe family she could locate.

“You’ll be nice to Sophie?” Jeff asked, clearly not entirely believing her.

“We’re in the same class,” Georgia replied, rolling her eyes. “I’m nice to her everyday.” Which was true. Sophie was quiet and like to read, just like Georgia. They never shared a conversation, but they were very polite about the school supplies.

“Mom!” Jeff shouted, reaching across Georgia to grab their mother’s arm and pull, nearly causing a plate of food to fall from the table.

“Jeffery!” Their mother scolded.

“Mom! Mom! Mom!”

“What?” Mom was now exasperated and Georgia was to shocked and confused to say something.

“Georgia has a friend!” Jeff announced excitedly. “She actually said she can be nice to someone. Can we sit next to Billy next time? Pleeeeaaasee?”

“I…” Mom started, looking at her children in a state of wordless surprise.

Georgia just started at her brother with a mixture of embarrassment and rage. She could feel her face turning bright red, which only made her angrier.

“We’ll talk about this when we get home.” Mom stated, ending the conversation.

“I’m done.” Georgia replied. “I’m leaving.”

Mom paused a moment before agreeing, but made it very clear Georgia was expected to go straight home.

Stomping her feet and pulling apart random weeds that she ripped out of the ground along the path back to their house, Georgia thought about what Jeff said and got even angrier. At home, she dropped on her bed and stared at the chocolate chip cookie for a long time before finally eating it and picking up a notebook to doodle in while she thought and thought and thought.

When mom and Jeff arrived, Jeff was positively bouncing with the good news – they were going to sit next to Billy tomorrow night and Georgia could actually talk to her one and only friend, Sophie.

Mom sent Jeff to his room.

“Alright Georgia,” she said, sitting on Georgia’s bed. “Out with it. What’s really going on?”

It was going to be a long night.

PB and J on the Swings

Lunch at the Wild Raccoon school was a lot like lunch at home. One of the adults came to cook the meal in the community building, where classes were held. The older kids helped. The meals were good, but never fancy. Today there were sandwiches and green beans.

Georgia took her peanut butter and jelly sandwich and slipped out the door to sit on the swings while she ate. From the small playground, the world looked huge.With only her lunch for company, the world felt even bigger than it looked.

The community building was built along the edge of the farm, on top of a hill high enough to provide a perfect view of every house. The apple orchard was on the opposite side of the farm and, from here, looked like nothing more than a bunch trees.

Georgia munched on her sandwich, closed her eyes and listened to every living creature making any kind of noise – including the boys playing fart-sound games inside the school room.

She liked it here. She would never admit to that, verbally or otherwise, to any member of her family. But, the truth was, she liked it – she just didn’t know why.

Gross Cows

Georgia used a scoop to fill a feed bucket while Bobbi shoveled gross stuff out of a stall in the barn. She’d asked Bobbi why there was so much shoveling and what all of this stuff was and Bobbi had given her usual short answers. Mostly, it was stinky because it was gross and it was being shoveled and dumped someplace else because it was gross.

Looking at the feed bucket and the hay already dumped into the troughs, Georgia decided cows ate gross things, too. She was beginning to wonder why she drank milk, ever, when cows were so completely gross.

“Did you write that story about the tent worms?” Bobbi asked.

“No,” Georgia replied. “I have to write a report on dandelions and cattails. Ms. Becca said I could put it in story form, but I can’t write more than four pages.”

“Only four?” Bobbi replied, wiping something grosser than gross on her pant leg. “Harsh.”

“I know!” Georgia responded with more force than she’d intended.

Bobbi shrugged. “It’s good practice. Good stories are about the things that happen in the space you have, not the number of pages it takes to make something happen. I try to force myself to write short all of the time. It’s hard, but it makes for a better story.”

“How do you do it?” Georgia asked, thinking about the six pages sitting on her desk.

“Write until the story is done and then go back and cut cut cut.”

“Cut cut cut?”

“Yep, remove everything not necessary and rewrite with whatever is left, just to smooth things over.”

It sounded like a lot of work.

“Are you done shoveling the…gross stuff?” Georgia asked.

Bobbi laughed. “Yeah, this is the last of it. I’ll just dump it outside.”

Georgia filled the feed troughs while Bobbi emptied the wheelbarrow and then they let the cows in together. This was the part Georgia liked. The cows were always so happy to get into the barn and they never fought over a stall. Just quietly walked to their own spot, started eating their dinner and waited for the milking machine.

Dan followed the last cow into the barn and started attaching the machine to very full udders.

“Does that hurt them?” Georgia asked.

“hurts them more when we don’t do it.” Dan replied. “Their udders get really full and, if they aren’t milked, they get to full, and that hurts a lot.”

“C’mon Georgia,” Bobbi called. “We need to get cleaned up for dinner. Don’t want any gross stuff on your hands.”

Georgia looked at her fingers and made a very emphatic eeeuuuuwww sound as she skipped out the barn door, which made both Bobbi and Dan laugh.