Cats in the Cradle

catWe lost our barn cat yesterday. I found her sprawled out on the concrete just a few feet away from the cat door we have out in the barn. It looked like she may have died from a head injury, probably attacked by a coyote. I didn’t know this cat well. Occasionally she would dart through the barn to a proven hiding place when I entered to leave food and water. Last week she came around the house and even got into our back room where she drove our indoor cats crazy with her carrying on. I’d mentioned to my husband, Ron, that she was probably in heat. Our neutered, grey tabby, Fast Eddie, kept us up for three nights, some primal residual egging him on to mate. The sound was low and sorrowful, like he understood what we had done to him; what he’d missed out on.

I’d been out on a walk when I noticed the cat. After putting the dogs up in the house, I grabbed a garbage bag and a pair of gloves. I’ve had to do this kind of thing before: the kitten that was half-eaten by a coyote; birds, lizards, and mice that lost their lives to cats and other predators; the Great Horned Owls that perished atop a faulty electrical transformer; song birds that chased their reflection right into our living room window. Each animal I’ve stumbled upon has caused a catch in my throat.

The barn cat was brown and white. She was young and had six toes on her front feet like my nineteen-year-old house cat, Little Miss Molly. Seeing those paws, I fell to my knees and sobbed. You don’t belong here, Beth, rose from somewhere deep inside me. There is no taming this wild place. I either play by nature’s rules or pack my bags and get out. Last week it snowed, followed by three days of brutal, frigid wind. Today it’s seventy degrees. The trees in our orchard are confused. The plum trees have blossomed in tandem. The peach trees are giving it another go after the buds froze in the last storm. Songbirds are fighting for space on the feeders, and the bees, so heavy with pollen, are buzzing around like they’ve had too much to drink. All this was going on yesterday while I walked back to the house with the barn cat cradled in my arms. I cried when I placed her on a table in the garage where she wouldn’t be disturbed until Ron could bury her. I cried while I poured a glass of wine and got dinner started. I was still crying when I went outside to feed the dogs. By then I had convinced myself I didn’t belong here. That I would be better off in a small house in town where my life would be manageable, a place where I’d have some peace of mind for God’s sake.

Then I looked up from the dog dishes and caught the sun setting behind the Chiricahua Mountains, leaving in its path a crimson sky; a slice of cornflower blue cut through the middle exposing a glimpse of heaven. I wiped my eyes. “Okay,” I said. “For now, I’ll stay.”

Along Came a Spider and Sat Down beside Her

cobweb-morgentau-dew-dewdrop-53367From nursery rhymes to Emily Dickinson’s poem, The Spider Holds a Silver Ball, these eight-legged, silk-producing arachnids ignite wonder for the curious-minded and, in Charlotte’s case, bestow wisdom that stretches far beyond the barnyard. And why not? Their ability to spin glorious webs that catch droplets of morning dew make romantics swoon. But as Little Miss Muffet reminds us, they are also to be feared.
I’ve been a gardener my whole life. I blame it on genetics. My people were Irish and Bohemian farmers. Hearty Northern folk who held the seasons in their bones. I grew up in the 70’s in the suburbs of Milwaukee, where lawn care bordered on religious doctrine and dads fired up the grill in the backyard on Saturday night. In our backyard we had a garden that rivaled those found on hippie communes. It never occurred to me that we were the only family in the neighborhood who spent the summer planting, harvesting, canning, and pickling. My sisters and I were too busy weeding to notice most people just went to the grocery store. I was a scrawny kid who froze most of the year. If for no other reason, I loved working in the garden because it provided plenty of warm sunshine. My mom had a shelf in the bathroom of salves, sprays, and repellents for the bug bites and scratches. If I complained to her about spiders or any other creepy-crawlies, I don’t remember. That all changed after I was bit by a mosquito carrying the malaria parasite while living in Honduras.
I was sick with malaria for five years. What I didn’t realize at the time was that few US doctors have the training or knowledge to address the long-term effects. When the last fever passed eighteen years ago, I thanked God I had survived. Little did I know that it was the beginning of a long list of health anomalies I would encounter over the years.
Our orchard and garden demand our full attention right now. Along with the work, comes a host of insects that can do me in. Whether it’s the seemingly benign grass spider that builds its funnel-looking web among the squash leaves or the banded garden spider whose ladder-like web stretches along the tops of tomato plants, I know that as soon as I enter their domain, I’m fair game. No matter how careful I am, spiders seem to be attracted to whatever it is malaria left behind in my blood.
We finally planted our garden last Friday. It was a terribly windy day. Both Ron and I were exhausted by the time we finished. After a hot shower and some lunch, I was still tired and took a nap. I woke three hours later disoriented and experiencing muscle pain and chills. I immediately checked my body for bites. Sure enough, I counted three. I couldn’t focus my thoughts to make dinner and over the next twenty-four hours, things went from bad to worse. A red ring formed around one bite (perhaps the sign of either a tick carrying Lyme’s disease or a brown recluse) and thoughts of worthlessness consumed me.
Two days later, as I started to come out of it, Ron and I went for a walk through the desert where I was bitten again. Beyond the pain and exhaustion, my greatest fear is that the confusion will stick with me. I wonder if in a week, a month, or a year from now, I will pick up a book or sit down to write, and all I will see are individual words on a page that my brain can no longer link into sentences and paragraphs. I’m terrified I will lose the ability to make sense of the world through stories and my thoughts.
I woke up today feeling much better. My Little Miss Muffet fear of spiders has receded some as I sit here thrilled that I am able to write this. The seeds we planted last week are poking through the soil. Nature waits for no one, and I have work to do.