Back in the Barn – Short Story by Debra Sherman

“Well hello there.”

There’s a lady looking down at me while I lie here curled up in this blue bin on her back porch.  She doesn’t realize at first glance that I’m badly injured.  I was hit by a car two days ago.

I look up and manage to purr a little, but now I’m dozing off again, wriggling to get comfortable in the bin while my mind drifts from present to past.

I was born a year ago, one of a litter of three.  Our mother was a barn cat who lived near here – or I think near here – I’ve lost track of how far I’ve traveled.

Mom worked hard to create a home for us in a box in the corner of the barn.  She played with us every day, and she’d let us venture as far from the box as our courage would allow – until she became uncomfortable with the distance and tugged us back.

Occasionally a person, a dog, and even sometimes raccoons, would enter the barn.  Mom would quickly whisk us back to the box, gathering the three of us under her belly until the danger passed and we were alone again, free to scurry around the barn, stretching our growing legs and practicing our hunting and fighting skills – skills Mom was diligently teaching us as part of our daily play.

As I lie here remembering that time, I realize my siblings and I had no concept of danger – or hunger – or cold – or loneliness.  These are things that didn’t become known to me until that terrible day last October.

Mom was hard at work preparing for winter, pushing hay from the barn floor up into our box.  She was irritated because we weren’t helping.  She called us toward the box several times, but we didn’t obey, and before we knew it, we found ourselves outside the barn.  We were in awe of the wonders we saw once we walked out into the yard – tall grass, trees, a nearby farmhouse where children were playing in the front yard.

The three of us gaped as we took in all the new sights around us.  We knew we’d be in trouble with Mom if she knew we were out there, but the temptation was too great, and we hoped she was too busy to notice our absence, at least for a few minutes.

I walked out ahead and urged the other two to follow.

There was a very small house near the big farmhouse, with a hard circle of dirt around it, a bowl of water sitting nearby, and a long rope that lead into a small door at the front of the little house.  As we approached it, my younger brother decided to investigate by poking his head into the door.

Suddenly, a dog’s head appeared, then shoulders, then a full body, and we were terrified as we realized this was a bigger animal than we’d ever seen before.  My brother jumped back, but not quickly enough to avoid the dog’s snapping jaws.  The dog grabbed my tiny brother, shook him mercilessly, then tossed him to the side to pursue my other sibling, who was standing nearby too shocked to move.  Again the dog’s jaws were too fast and too powerful for a small kitten to defend himself against, and the dog began to shake my older brother as well.

For a moment, I stood frozen.

As the dog continued to violently shake my brother’s frail body, I realized I’d be next if I didn’t get out of the way, and quick.  I ran as fast as I could back toward the barn, and began screeching as soon as I spotted our mother.  Mom looked up from the box and ran toward me.  I ran out of the barn, toward the small house, and she followed me.

I held my breath as I saw the frightful expression on my mother’s face when she first laid eyes on that dog.  She turned back toward me and gave me a strong push toward the barn.  I stumbled a few steps, and when I regained my footing I saw Mom running full speed toward the dog, and I let out a fearful cry.

As she approached the dirt circle, the dog quickly grabbed my older brother again, while Mom managed to snatch up the second kitten in one quick, smooth motion.  While the dog’s jaws were snapping down again and again on the kitten she couldn’t get to, she quickly ran with the other, and dropped him in a lump at my feet.  She stood still for a moment, looking at the two of us, as if she were afraid to turn back in the direction of the dog – afraid of what she would see.  Then suddenly she turned, bolted toward the dog a second time, and as she sunk every claw into the dog’s neck and bit down hard on its ear, the dog yelped and dropped the other kitten.  Mom jumped off the dog and hovered over the kitten, snarling like I’ve never heard her snarl, with every hair on her body standing on end, making her appear huge and dangerous.  And for a moment – for one proud, miraculous moment, the dog looked scared.

Mom took hold of the kitten and began dragging its limp body.  My heart raced as she neared the edge of the dirt circle, and I realized if she could take just two or three more steps, she’d be out of the dog’s reach.

Just as her front paw touched the grass surrounding the circle, the dog lunged at her.  While he snatched her up into his mouth with a quick snap, she dropped the lifeless kitten.

I closed my eyes tightly and turned away as I heard her screaming.  A moment later, the screaming stopped.

I opened my eyes again and looked at the dog.   He took my brother in his mouth and placed him inside the doghouse, then slowly scooped up my mother’s now limp body and placed her in the doghouse as well, with a slow gentleness that left me confused.

I remained with my younger brother, tucked down in the grass.  The dog laid down in the dirt, and there was silence.

A few moments later, the children who had been playing in the front yard of the big farmhouse came running toward the dog, and as they approached, the dog stood up and began wagging its tail.  One by one, the children were petting and hugging him.  As they unhooked him from the rope and joyfully ran with him toward the farmhouse, I wondered if they’d be as affectionate if they knew what this animal had just done.  Look in the doghouse, I thought.  But they didn’t.

Once the dog was inside the farmhouse, I decided it was safe to go to my mother.  I poked my head inside the small house, and there she was, lying still alongside my older brother.  I pulled my brother out first, struggling to pull his weight while I gently moved him to the tall grass in a nearby ditch.  I went back to get my mother, and found I could only pull her a few feet at a time.  I’d stop to rest, then pull her a few feet more until I was able to place her in the grass as well.  I sat for a few moments, then retrieved my younger sibling, pulling him to the ditch and managing to get us all into a familiar and comforting position – Mom on her side with the three of us snuggled under her belly.

Soon it was dark, and I spent the rest of the night curled up in the ditch with my family.  No one was purring, or playing, or jumping, or meowing.  No one was moving, except me.

The next morning I awoke cold and hungry.  As I looked at my motionless family, I realized that they’d moved on, and I took comfort in knowing they were probably in a place now where ferocious dogs don’t exist, and where you don’t have to return to the barn alone, wondering how you’ll survive on your own.

For the next several months I managed to take care of myself.  I stayed in our box in the barn, and never went further than I had to to find food.  Mice were easy to catch, and plentiful in the old barn, and it rained often enough for to me to take a drink from the abandoned wheelbarrow just outside the barn’s main doors whenever I wanted.

When animals or people entered the barn, I hid in the box like my mother taught me.  At night I was lucky enough to have dreams about my family so at least for a few hours I could run and play with my siblings again.  I even felt the warmth of my mother’s body from time to time, and experienced the sensation of her licking my forehead while I slept.

Spring finally arrived, and I felt strong and capable, and brave, and healthy.  I felt proud of myself for managing to survive the winter alone.  I’d managed to meet all of my needs:  shelter, food, water, but after all those months living in the barn, the loneliness was becoming unbearable.  So I began venturing further and further from the barn, crossing yards, roads, and ditches.  Occasionally a person would give me a pat on the head or a scratch under my chin.  Some even fed me sometimes, and I’d express my gratitude by purring while I ate.  Eventually, I made a friend – another tomcat who’d show up every evening to lie next to me in a backyard shed I’d managed to claim as my own.

Life was good.  I still missed my family and thought about them every day, but my new friend and I had lots of fun.  We’d catch mice, play, and at night we’d snuggle together in the shed.

Two days ago, while caught up in the excitement of chasing a squirrel, my friend ran out into the road and was struck by a car.  He didn’t look – didn’t stop at the ditch like we usually do.  Instead, he bolted out, eyes focused on the squirrel, and before I could make a sound, the car hit him hard.  I shut my eyes tight when I realized it would happen, heard the terrible sound of his being run over, then opened my eyes to see him motionless in the middle of the road.

I ran to him, and as I put my nose to his, I could feel the warmth of his breath.  I rubbed my forehead on the side of his face, and he purred quietly.  But when our noses touched again, the warm breath wasn’t there, and I knew he was gone.  I sat with him for a moment, trying to calm myself, experiencing the same shock that consumed me the day the dog attacked my family.

I decided I’d try to move him off the road and into the grass, but when I lifted my head to look around, I was stunned by the image of the front grill of a pickup truck just feet away.  I bolted for the ditch, but the truck swerved the same way, and before I could change direction, I was hit by the front tire.  When the truck passed, I shot out and managed to make it to the side of the road.

I quickly realized I was badly wounded.  Within seconds, an excruciating, shooting pain shot from my rear paw, all the way up my side to my shoulder.  I shrieked, then stayed perfectly still; it hurt to move.  I was trying to breathe, but with each breath came another shot of pain.  So I held my breath, then blacked out.

When I came to, the pain was still there, but I was able to breathe.  I stayed still, managing each shot of pain by breathing in deep, then breathing out slowly.  Eventually, I was able to creep back to the shed.

The next morning, I awoke to little relief, but I could move well enough to clean my wounds.  By evening the bleeding, which had been constant but slow, stopped.  I stayed in the shed all day, and a second night, cleaning my wounds, and welcoming the short periods of pain relief which were coming more often as time passed.

This morning I felt hungry, and my mouth was terribly dry.  So I decided to venture out, slowly making my way to a dish filled with rainwater at a nearby house.  I drank until the bowl was empty.  I needed food as well, but the chances of catching anything in my disabled state were slim.  I spent the rest of the day wandering from house to house, resting often.  I felt hopeful I’d eventually find food, but a couple of hours ago I began feeling weak.  This bin was the first safe place I noticed, so I crawled in and I was sleeping here until a few minutes ago when this lady woke me up with her sweet hello.

She’s back again.  She keeps coming out to the porch, talking sweetly to me, then going back into the house.  She’s on the telephone and I can hear her describing me – what I look like, how badly I’m injured.  Back and forth she goes, inside calling people, then outside speaking sweetly to me again.  I keep dozing on and off, and keep wriggling, because I can’t get comfortable in this bin, nor do I have the strength to jump out.

A van pulls up and a man gets out.  He opens the side door of the van, and pulls out a small cage with a towel on the bottom of it.  He’s wearing thick gloves, and as he sets the cage down on the porch next to the bin, I realize he’s here to collect me.  I don’t see this as the help the lady arranged for; yet I perceive it as a rude interruption to my quietly resting here.  I hiss at him, and as he picks me up by the scruff of my neck to place me in the cage, the extent of my wounds becomes apparent, and both he and the lady gasp.  As the man escorts me in the cage to the van, I hear the lady begin to sob.

The van stops and I’m taken into a large building.  A man pulls me gently from the cage and gives me a shot that brings instant relief of the pain I’ve endured the last two days.

“Transport this one to the hospital,” he says, and I’m placed back in the cage and put back in the van.

In the van I’m drifting in and out, getting sleepy while I rejoice in the absence of pain.  I think about the lady from the porch, her comforting voice, and the warm love that radiated from her.

I think about my mother and my two siblings, and as I lie here in this blissful, pain free state, I wonder if this is how they felt that night we spent together in the ditch.  I hope this is what they felt – because it’s peaceful, and wonderful.

My breathing slows and I’m feeling more calm and content than I’ve ever felt.  I feel like I’m floating, and as I open my eyes, I realize there’s a soothing light surrounding me.  I shake my head a little and blink my eyes closed again, and when I reopen them I realize I’m not in the van anymore.  How did I get to this place?

Nothing is familiar, yet I feel ok here.  It’s warm and sunny, and there are fields of tall grass that stretch for miles.  There’s a small creek nearby and there are birds I can hear but can’t see.  I begin to move and realize I’m no longer injured.  I feel light and free.

I get the urge to run – fast as I can – through these luxurious fields of grass, but before I can take my first step, I see movement out of the corner of my eye.  I turn to look, and there are two small figures – moving so quickly that I can’t quite focus.  I stare for a moment, then realize the figures are familiar.  They’re grey like me.  They’re fury like me.  They’re….

They’re my brothers!

I run to them quickly, and the three of us run in circles, joyfully pouncing on each other and wrestling in the tall grass.  I can’t believe it.  I’m overwhelmed with joy!

We spend the rest of the afternoon this way, playing, running, and when the sun begins to fall, I follow them to a quiet corner of a field.  We lie down together, and as we squeeze in tight like we did when we were kittens, I feel a warm sensation I haven’t felt since the barn.  There’s a rumbling purring sound and warm breath on my face.  And I realize it’s my mother, lovingly licking my forehead.

September, 2009
Photo by Laurence Lagasse

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