CHAPTER 5 SUNK IN A FUNK
I drank no more milk that day. Instead, I forced myself to leave the porch and go to the wheatfield. I did not want to be defeated by the milk. It was trying to overpower me with its creamy sweetness.
The sky was gray with clouds and darkened the farm with an early twilight. There were Deer in the wheatfield. I could see them wading through the golden stalks, heading toward the Big Water. I approached them by chance and when they heard me they fled, bounding toward the forest on the other side of the field. Watching them leap for cover made me feel proud. I felt like I was the biggest, strongest, most dangerous animal on the whole farm. I felt like I had protected the Man’s field, too, and that Jack would have been proud to know what I did. Maybe that was why I approached the beautiful Cat with the fire-and-snow stripes, my tail swaggering and my chest puffed out. She should have been impressed with me, I thought, since I made a whole herd of Deer go running for shelter. I was a hero.
“Hey,” I said to her, quite confidently. “My name’s Stormy.”
She was cleaning herself with her tongue. Instead of stopping and talking to me, she continued cleaning herself. She also turned her back to me. I was confused. I thought she would be impressed!
“Did you see how I made those Deer run?” I said. “They sure ran fast, didn’t they?”
I laughed loudly, thinking she would find it funny, too. But my laugh quickly died as she got up and walked away from me.
“Wait!” I said. “Where are you going?”
“I told you not to talk to me anymore,” she said. “Milk-breather.”
“I’ve stopped drinking milk,” I said. “I don’t drink it anymore.”
“I can smell it on your breath,” she said. She glanced back at me, over her shoulder. “I can smell it in your fur and I can see it in your eyes and I can sense it in your heart. You are cream-hearted.” Her words were sharp and hard and hammered my ears like a Woodpecker’s beak. “Real cats don’t drink milk. They kill and they drink blood.” She cast a scornful glance back at me and I saw how her white chin was stained pink. Her eyes were a wild yellow, like a dandelion buzzing with angry bees. “Real cats drink blood, not milk given to them by humans. You are not a real Cat. You’re too much of a milksop.”
I wanted to say that she was wrong—that I was a real Cat—but her eyes stung me so sharply in my chest that I felt like my heart might stop. She did have angry bees in her eyes. Her eyes were beautiful and dangerous like bee-hearted dandelions.
“I won’t drink milk anymore,” I said. “Today is the last day I drink milk. I promise. I will drink…whatever I need to to be a real Cat.” I could not say the word “blood”.
It wasn’t a lie in that moment. I would have done anything for her in that moment. When she looked at me I felt the urge to obey her.
“You can’t even hunt well enough to kill anything,” she retorted. “I watched you and that stupid dog hunt that fox yesterday. That fox let you follow him for fun. He was mocking you. You and that stupid dog that’s always yapping like an idiot.”
“That Dog is my friend,” I said, feeling my anger rise. “His name is Jack. He is not stupid.”
“No stupider than you, maybe,” she said. “At least he knows what he is. You think you’re a dog and so you’ll never be a real Cat.”
She was standing on the other side of the pond, now. Near her paws I saw the skeletons of Wood Ducks. They were scattered in a ring around the pond, each one chewed clean and white.
“I am a Cat,” I said, trying to say it with as much self-belief as I could muster as I looked upon the skeletons of the Wood Ducks. “It’s true that I’ve been trained by a Dog, but I’m a Cat. I can do Dog things and I can do Cat things. Watch. I can meow like a Cat.” I meowed, which I thought to be very impressive. “And I can purr.” I began to purr, which was quite strong in its own way. My purr always made the Woman happy, so it had to be a good purr. “And I can bark like a Dog. Listen.”
This was a mistake. The truth was that I had never perfected barking like a Dog. I tried, but I always sounded like I was coughing up a hairball, and just as often I did cough up a hairball. I did so presently, much to my horror.
“Sorry,” I said, heaving and trying to avoid looking at the hairball I had coughed up. “Jack says I bark pretty well…for a Cat…”
She had already slipped under some crisscrossing branches and disappeared into the overlap of the woods. I was too embarrassed and upset to follow her. I sat down by the pond and looked at my dark shadowy reflection in its muddy water.
“I am a real Cat,” I told my reflection. “Aren’t I?”
My reflection looked doubtful. Overhead I could hear the Wood Ducks griping at me in their high-pitched, honking squawk. They wanted me to leave, so I did, even though I knew that the fire-and-snow Cat would have said that a real Cat would have never left at the behest of a bunch of uppity Wood Ducks. The Wood Ducks even laughed at me as I left. It made me so mad that I didn’t even feel pity for them at the thought that they would end up like the rest of the Wood Ducks that visited that pond: piled in a jumbled heap.
I returned to the house feeling like my whiskers and my claws had been taken from me. Laying down in the clover, I tried to calm myself and take a nap. But I was restless. I was upset. My mind was full of fire and snow, bees and dandelions.
To my annoyance, Goldie’s chicks ran toward me, just like they did whenever Jack sprawled in the clover. This was odd and unexpected. They had never ran to me before. Any other time I would have been gladdened, but I was upset. Feeling upset, my anger found its claws when the chicks started climbing all over me. It was like the chicks were demeaning me. I jumped up and hissed at them, calling them the worst word I could think of.
“Leave me alone, you cluckers!” I hissed. “Or I will eat you up!”
They fled to Goldie, cowering under her wings. She looked at me like I was a Hawk or a Raccoon.
“What is wrong with you, Stormy?!” she demanded. “Don’t you ever threaten my chicks again! Do you understand?”
“Keep your chicks away from me,” I said, walking away. “And I won’t threaten them.”
All she could do was gape at me, and scowl. Jack came running toward me.
“What happened?” he said. “Did a Fox attack?” He glanced around so wildly that I thought his head might twist off. “Coyotes? A bear? Was it a bear?!”
I just kept walking. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to be around anyone. I was angry at them, and at myself, and I wanted to just be somewhere quiet where I could be alone. I went up the stairs to the porch to lay down on the rug. The milk in the bowl had started to stink. I had wasted so much of it, and yet I didn’t care. I was glad I wasted it, even if I felt as soured as it smelled. Good riddance, I thought.
The door opened and the Woman came out onto the porch. When she saw the spoiled milk she became angry.
“Stormy!” she exclaimed. “You ain’t getting any milk if you ain’t going to drink it!”
She picked up the bowl and went inside, her stomping footsteps making the whole porch shake. She slammed the door, shaking the whole house. The Man started to yell and the Woman started to yell, too. Everybody was making noise.
“Why won’t everyone leave me alone?!” I hissed. Furious, I ran off the porch and sprinted away from the house. Jack called after me, but I ignored him. I ran until I arrived at the lightning-blasted oak on the other side of the Big Water. I then laid down among its roots, where the grass was high and arched all around me, hiding me from everyone. I tried to take a nap.
Naps were not as easy as they used to be. For some reason whenever I closed my eyes my head was full of everything that had recently happened: the Foxes mocking me, the beautiful Cat belittling me, the chicks climbing on me, Goldie berating me, and the Woman yelling at me. Even when no one was near me they still bothered me. It was like wind upon the water— the waves rose and crashed long after the breeze passed.
Sighing, I opened my eyes and stared up at the sky. The black shadow of a Hawk circled above the field. No sooner than I saw it, the Hawk dove like a lightning bolt into the tall grasses. There was a pause, where I could only see the tall grasses and nothing else. It was as if the Hawk had buried itself in the earth with its plunging attack. But then it rose in the air, hoisting itself with casual flaps of its wings. In its taloned feet I saw clasped a little Rabbit, its ears dangling below its limp body.
I should have felt sorry for the Rabbit, but I felt sorry only for myself. The Hawk knew what it was. It was a Hawk. It was not a Hawk and a Dove. It had not been raised by Doves to do Dove things. When it plummeted from the sky the only thing in its mind was to kill the Rabbit like any real Hawk would. Only, it did so without thinking about it. It simply was a Hawk. I had to second-guess my Cat instincts because the Dog in me always ran circles around my inner Cat and barked at it to play. The Dog ran in circles and confused the Cat in me, spinning and spinning in my mind. My mind was always chasing itself in confusion.
It was Jack’s fault. He raised me to be a Dog even though I was a Cat. I was mixed up, like a Squirrel entangled in its own knotted tail.
I thought I knew what to do to help untangle myself. I would do what the Hawk did. I would hunt a Rabbit— not like how a Dog hunts a Rabbit; not with barking and chasing and losing the Rabbit. I would hunt the Rabbit like a real Cat. I would do what my claws and ears and whiskers told me to do.
So I crouched low and slipped through the tall grasses that looked like ribbons. My tread was soft and silent, like water trickling down a windowpane. I felt my Catness asserting itself in my bones and muscles and whiskers and claws. I saw a rabbit soon enough, and the rabbit did not see me. It was brown with a reddish tint to its pelt. I could sense the warm blood in its body, and felt my mouth salivate. I encouraged my Catness to hunger for its blood. I told myself that blood tasted better than milk. I told myself that to drink it would make me a real Cat.
Yet, when I sprang for the rabbit I hesitated, or, at least, I barked a warning to the Rabbit. It heard me and dashed away, zigzagging through the wild grass.
“Why?!” I shouted at myself. “Why did I warn the Rabbit?! Why? Why?! Why?!!!”
I plopped down on my butt and just stared up into the dismal gray sky. Depressed, I laid down and closed my eyes, wondering what was wrong with me. I did not know how long I laid there, but something approached me.
“There you are, Stormy,” Jack said. “I found some blackberries. Do you want to eat some blackberries with me?”
I opened one eye a sliver of the way. “What’s the point?” I said.
“They taste good,” Jack said. “That’s the point.”
For a moment I resented Jack. He was trying to make me be like him: a Dog. But I looked at him and I saw how happy he was to have found me, and to share blackberries with me, so I stood up and followed him toward the edge of the woods where the wild blackberries grew. It was near the barbed wire fence that separated the Man’s farm from what lay beyond it. You had to be careful with the barbed wire. Just looking at it made the crescent tear in my ear ache. You also had to be careful when eating blackberries. Blackberries had thorns of their own and could cut you. And while some blackberries were sweet and juicy, others were sour and bitter.
“I wish all of them were sweet,” I said, spitting out another sour blackberry.
“That’s what makes them fun to eat,” Jack said. “They surprise you.”
“I only like to be surprised when it is a good surprise,” I grumbled.
“Then you are going to be disappointed in life,” someone said.
I glanced around, wondering where the voice came from. Then I looked down. It was Scampers. He was stuffing his cheeks with blackberries. I was surprised to see him so far from his burrow.
“What are you doing out here?” I asked.
“Preparing for Winter,” he said. “You can never start preparing too soon.”
“But the blackberries have only recently ripened,” I said. “And most of them haven’t ripened at all.”
“Have you ever heard the Woman talk about Blackberry Winters? That is what I am worried about.”
“Blackberries make it snow?” I asked, mystified.
“No, Stormy,” Scampers said. “It means the Winter comes when blackberries are still on the vine.”
“I wish there were berries that caused Summer to come sooner,” Jack said, misunderstanding as much as I did. “Maybe strawberries do that. Strawberry Summers?”
“No, Jack,” Scampers said, “I said they don’t cause the weather to change.”
“No! And neither do blackberries!”
“What about cranberries?” Jack said. “The Woman always drinks cranberry juice when she is ‘under the weather’.”
Scampers tilted his head left and right in herky-jerky movements. “I don’t know about that,” he said. “I’m not the Woman.”
The sun came out from behind the gray clouds. With clouds in one half of the sky, and the sun in the other half, it was like sleeping under a blanket next to a fireplace. The air became hot and stuffy. The heat drove us under the shade. Jack started to pant and his tongue hung out of his mouth. It was purple with blackberry juice. My tongue must have been purple, too. I wondered, suddenly, if my chin would be pinkish if I ate strawberries. Maybe I would look like the fire-and-snow Cat that I saw near the pond. If so, maybe she would accept me for a real Cat if I had a pinkish chin. Maybe, then, she would have wanted to talk to me and tell me her name. Maybe she would think I had drank blood. After all, strawberry juice was sweet and blood was metallic. I knew this because when I tore my ear some blood dripped into my mouth. All blood tasted the same, according to a Bat I spoke to once. That was why Cats and Dogs and the Man and the Woman and the Chickens were all part of the same Pack. Our blood was the same.
And you were not supposed to hurt those in your Pack.
“I wish we could eat some of the strawberries in the Woman’s strawberry patch,” I said.
“That’s forbidden,” Jack said. “The last time we did that, she sprayed us with the water hose.”
I didn’t like the water hose. It was like a big snake that hissed and spat at you and stung your butt.
“Sometimes I take strawberries from her patch,” Scampers said.
“You’re not supposed to do that, Scampers!” Jack said. “You’re part of our Pack, so you have to leave them alone. Only trespassers steal from Master and the Woman.”
“But if I’m part of the Pack,” Scampers reasoned, “then shouldn’t they share the strawberries with me?”
Jack considered this for a while as he chewed a blackberry. In the meantime, I asked Scampers another question.
“Why do Chipmunks move so fast?” I asked. “Why do you talk so fast?”
Even as Scampers told me why, he moved fast and talked fast, his cheeks bulging with the nuts and berries that he gathered from the woods.
“Because we live short lives,” he said. “So we have to make do with the time we are given. I know my whole family history because my father told me. He told me it all in one afternoon. You think I talk fast, but you’ve never heard two Chipmunks talking to each other. I am talking very slowly right now. If I spoke at my fastest speed your head would explode.”
“Wow,” was all I could say to that.
“We could die any moment,” Scampers continued to explain. “You never know when a Hawk will come bolting from the sky and take you. Or a Fox. Or a Snake. That is why I need to find Love. So I can have children and tell them my family history. If I don’t, it will be like my family never existed. And I love my family too much to let them disappear.”
There was rustling on the other side of the blackberry vines. Jack growled and Scampers clambered up on my back. We all watched the bushes closely, wondering what would appear. Suddenly, an animal stepped forward on four Squirrel-like paws. Its tail was like a Squirrel’s tail, too, or perhaps a Fox’s, except black and striped with white. It was too big to be a Squirrel, too black to be a Fox, and looked almost like a Cat.
“That’s a Skunk,” Scampers said, climbing down from my back. “Best to give him some space. Don’t want to be too nosy around him. Literally.”
The Skunk walked across the field at an easy pace, his poofy black-and-white tail bobbing happily. He moved as if he had nothing to fear in the world. I was envious of his easy attitude. Being a Skunk must have been nice and carefree.
“He doesn’t belong on Master’s land,” Jack growled. “I’m going to chase him away!”
“I wouldn’t do that…” Scampers began to say, but he was too late. Jack was already running toward the Skunk, circling around him and barking at him.
“You don’t belong here!” Jack barked. “You’re trespassing! Leave! Leave! Leave!”
The Skunk ignored Jack, at first, walking at his own easy pace through the overgrown grass.
“I said you are trespassing!” Jack barked. “Leave right now or I will bite your butt!”
Jack stood behind the Skunk, angered that the Skunk was ignoring him. Jack snapped at the Skunk, not yet biting him, but getting closer and closer with his teeth. The Skunk did something very peculiar, then. He stood up on his front paws, lifting his body and tail up in the air, like the Man would if he could stand on his hands. At first I thought he was doing it to prevent Jack from biting his butt, but Jack was so startled that he stopped biting and just stared at the Skunk. Yet, the Skunk continued standing on his forepaws.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s a neat trick.”
“That’s not the trick,” Scampers said, fleeing in the opposite direction.
I was confused as to why Scampers ran away, but before I could ponder it, there was a blast of stinky spray that spewed out from under the Skunk’s tail. The green stream splashed Jack in the face. Even at the distance I could smell the stinky fumes. I retreated all the way to the other side of the field, retching as I went and abandoning Jack to his fate.
“Skunk-funk!” Jack cried. “Skunk-funk! Skunk-funk!”
He ran blindly toward the Big Water, yelping as he went. Charging into the shoals, he dove in and drank all of the water his little body could hold. Then he trudged out, soaken wet, and shook the water off. As far away from him as I was I could still smell him. The Big Water did nothing to purge the odors from him. It just made him wet and stinky.
Yipping for help now, Jack dashed toward the house. It was as if he had been stung by a hornet. He probably wished that he had only been stung by a hornet.
The Skunk lowered itself onto all four paws and walked away as casually as before. He seemed unfazed by the whole encounter.
“He’s going to need a soapy bath, isn’t he?” I said as Scampers approached me from the woods.
“He is going to need several soapy baths,” Scampers said.