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.

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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.