Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Guest Blogger's Lesson

OLD TOM
by Dexter L. Fox
The two-hour drive over twisting state roads through the Indiana farm country seemed nearly endless, an almost weekly ritual. My Dad had the car loaded so we could leave as soon as I got home from school. When the timing was right, we would arrive for supper in my grandmother’s high-ceilinged kitchen. My mother and father would linger over coffee and pie while I rummaged around for anything to occupy my attention. Later my grandfather would gather up the day’s trash and take it out to burn in the rusted fifty-gallon drum that served as incinerator on the alley behind the house. There wasn’t much to engage my interest.
We stayed in my grandmother’s second floor guest room, but the real object of our visits was ‘the farm,’ half a mile down a gravel road a couple of miles out of town and whatever chore obligated us for the weekend. Dad roused himself and me, early in the morning just as the sun came up, or even before. He liked to arrive just as the tenant finished the milking. Then dad would have a cup of coffee over breakfast and catch up on local news next to the woodstove in the kitchen where he had grown up as a boy.
The milking was often in progress when we got to the farm. I remember standing in the open space of the barn listening to our tenant shift the milkers from one cow to the next. At the end of the morning he would take an old bucket and milk one of the cows by hand. That was when the cats would creep out from the stalls, the hay, or in through the stable door at the back. When he had finished milking he would pour out a basin of fresh milk, and the cats would gather around like barflies at some local tavern.
Maybe it was a holdover from earlier childhood, the threat of an all too familiar boredom, or my last chance to assert myself before a day of farm work that caused me to devil the cats. I learned that I needed to wait for them to finish before attempting to capture one for my personal enjoyment or sport. As time went on I probably coaxed most of them into a game or two, but they were after all barn cats. By nature they were skittish and sometimes difficult to entice. It was a challenge to distract them and then to keep them entertained and vulnerable. Kittens of course were easily beguiled; mature females could be lured away with a piece of twine or some subtle repetitive movement, but the patriarch of the feline tribe, Old Tom, was a force and a challenge.
Tom was a yellow tiger with disdain to spare when it came to my feeble attempts at his seduction. His yellow coat had grayed many years before, and it was difficult to speculate how many of the kittens I nuzzled he had sired. Generations and generations of them I suspect. Still, the canny feline held sway. Younger males were somehow culled from the clan over which he reigned. I suspect he knew every slat in our barn, where the tiniest passageways were, the loose boards, and which openings to navigate at any given moment to scuttle noiselessly from place to place. I don’t doubt that he earned his keep. He certainly kept the place in kittens, and I never recall any particular rodent problem. If he was aggressive to our hens I never heard of it. He had, it seems, a nearly perfect symbiotic relationship. We got a rodent free barn; he got a daily basin of warm milk and all the females he could service. It was a worthy bargain but I wanted more.
I wanted to humble Old Tom. I wanted to cradle him in my arms and tickle the thinning fur of his lithe belly. I wanted to hear him succumb to the sensual extravagance of purring under my touch. I wanted to debase his ownership of the feral realm over which he prevailed. I wanted to prove that far from brazen and powerful, he was only skittish and shy. A cat, like any other, that could be seduced by warm milk, a soft hand, and gentle stroking. I knew I would need to restrain him. I knew that if I ever succeeded in laying a hand on his taut frame he would turn with a ferocity that would clearly demonstrate who was master of that situation; and yet I persisted.
It became something of an obsession with me, and Old Tom knew it. As the cats received their basin of milk he would sit eyeing me, awaiting my first move, assessing strategies, contemplating his response with chess-like deliberation. Often he simply turned tail and disappeared through a crack, around a corner, or into a cranny that afforded some impromptu refuge. More than once I dismantled his improvised cover only to discover that once diverted by his ruse, he was content to loiter at the milk basin behind my back. If I switched strategies and watched for his escape, he had the cunning to out wait me. If I attempted to run him down he, with minimal effort, simply seemed to vanish into the dusty air of the barn. His bearing uncompromised by the likes of me.
Early one fall morning a cold mist hung over the grass. We arrived as the sun began its first assault on the morning chill. The milking was done, but I walked to the barn to see if some greedy tabby still lingered trying to tease the last dregs of milk from the basin. The barn was empty, the basin dry. I left to walk back to breakfast at the house. Then for no particular reason I altered my course to walk through the feed shed and corn crib. From the angle of my path I saw, almost at once, Old Tom stretched out in the bin with the soybeans, the victim of morning lethargy and the relative warmth of his soybean retreat. I caught my breath. At last my old adversary had let down his guard. I paused. Tense and still I drew in a deep breath so that not even my breathing would alert my sleeping prey. With deliberate stealth I bowed my step so as not to risk the brush of fabric as I stalked my adversary. Step after careful step I approached the bin, certain that at any moment Old Tom would spring up and scramble for cover. Half way to the bin I eased my arm to full extension, cautious of any sound as my moment of triumph neared. And I succeeded. I reached the bin and paused for just a second; aware that I was about to unleash a frenzy of startled fur and flailing claws. Then, with deliberate force, I grabbed him where his muscled neck met his broad shoulder.
The response was instant, like the horrible moment when there is no retreat and yet the deed initiated cannot be altered. An electrifying moment when the nervous system responds before the brain processes what has occurred. My hand, stretched out to pluck him from sleep, restrained not the supple body I expected, but a rigid body of stone. Old Tom was unyielding, cold, and dead. The horror of the moment propelled me back several steps. I gasped in unexpected panic. Did a cry escape my lips? Was I even too stunned to shriek?

Later that morning, when we lifted Old Tom from the bin with a long-handled spade, his side was compressed, flat, molded and firm in the frozen rigor of his death. We buried him unceremoniously in the dirt behind the corncrib, his passing unattended by the heirs of his dominion, his grave unmarked and void of any sign. Yet I carry him with me indelibly imprinted. Now there could be no further opportunity, no last attempt, no reprieve for failed cunning. The game was ended. The triumph his, even in death.
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