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©Katherine Dunn.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Lesson in the barn and of the cat

“Smoke,” he thought, but he remained calm.

As a very old gentleman cat, he had lived in the old barn since his birth in the catacombs of the stacked hay. Cleaning his paws, one toe at a time, he had been enjoying the warm sun creeping in through the cracks in the ancient tin roof.

Like the multitude of animals that had lived in this old barn, he had found it a haven from wind, water, snow or the jaws of raccoons or coyotes. It had once been home to ponies, a pig, a flock of sheep, donkeys and ducks herded by one old goose. Remnants of a family that once intertwined with these creatures of the past were visible in all the cobwebbed corners, an old bike with a pink basket tied to its rusted handle bars, ski poles of short stature, old halters with bronze name tags and some tin cowboys, elf size.

The smell of smoke had interrupted the old cat's morning bath, both of tongue and sun, and that interruption was made worse with the sounds of two boys. The old cat recognized their sound to be that of the twelve year old range and he knew their smell to reside a mile down the road. With his age he didn’t leave the barn much, but over the years he traveled his five-mile radius daily and knew each individual property’s smell.

While he did not fear the two boys, he sensed casualness mixed with disrespect and mischief. They began swinging from one of the barn beams, rotted at the base and the old cat noticed one was holding matches, and one a bent up cigarette, half smoked.

"Best get down from there, now!" he said in a crusty farmer tone, stern with a hint of a curmudgeon.

The boys witnessed the old cat’s mouth move and speak and one boy began to run, tripping on old barn debris.

"I didn't say you had to leave, “ said the old cat, still sternly.

The other boy crept closer. He reached out a finger and touched the old cat, quickly, and pulled away.

"Yes, I'm a cat. Yes, I speak your language. Are you shocked by this?" asked the old cat.

"Ahm ....yes, no!" said the larger of the boys, obviously the alpha of the two, the cat thought. The old animal summed him up fast as a twelve-year-old smart ass wrapped in a child’s fear.

"Come over here then, both of you. Come, sit down with me, “ said the cat, patting a hay bale couch.

Leave it to a talking cat to get to two imps like this to do as they're told.

"Do you have time for a story? I assume you do since you have time to swing from barn beams?" asked the old cat, sitting directly across from the two boys.

The initial brashness of the boys had settled a bit, and their real ages began to surface in the bug-eyed, scared out their pants expressions.

They nodded in agreement.

"Oh, good, I do so love to weave a yarn for visitors. Let me tell you about my old friend here, the barn. See the names carved into the wood slats over on those stalls?“ asked the old cat as he pointed to a grouping of carved words on a beam.

“Those are the many names of lambs born in this barn. And ponies, and chickens. This old barn's remained a steady and willing harbor for any creature, be it a wounded raccoon or a feral mother cat about to give birth. It's never judged the activities of any of these souls, nor have I ever seen him play favorites. And today he's welcomed you two strangers in, hasn't he?" the old cat asked.

The boys once again nodded their heads in agreement with the cat sage before them.

The old cat went on. "This barn has served gallantly, without complaint. It asks for nothing in return, no food, and no water. It never sleeps, always protecting those of us that live here. He's weathered more rain, heat, hail, and snow than you two will see in a lifetime. He's stood somberly enduring the sad cries of a child mourning the loss of her kitten, holding her while she leaned into his strong fir boards. The after birth of lambs has soaked his floors and bones are buried here, “ the cat said stoically.

The two boys listened intently as silent as nothing must sound, their eyes still wide, listening to the old cat.

The old cat continued, but in a quieter, calmer tone, "Old barns are like any old creatures, they creak and ache and can sense when passage is approaching. They feel a deadening in their foundation, their haylofts don't breathe as well. They don't fear death, but they do fear the manner in which they might die. Falling down a little bit at a time, becoming food for the worms, that 's an acceptable death, you see, or to be taken apart and reused in another barn, that is the highest of compliments to an old barn."

The old cat repositioned himself slightly, leaning toward the boys with intent eyes, his voice hushed slightly, and he went on,

"But to die from the selfish flame of a cigarette, that is one thing that strikes fear in the heart of any barn! “ said the cat like a troubadour at a county fair talking to a gathering of old vets.

“And it's known as a fact amongst all barn dwellers,” the cat went on, “that any creature that strikes a match in a barn will feel a burning in the chest for days, and that heat will slowly reach down to their toes, and then back up to their nose. No one around them will see anything different so when the guilty party cries out in burning pain, they appear crazy, and will be carted off to a basement where they will most likely live forever with a burning feeling in their skin and bones until they die."

The boys wore mummified expressions of angst.

"And that boys, is why you should never light a cigarette in a barn. Now get along home before it gets too late to see your feet on the road."

And the boys stood up, at first cautiously so as not to upset the old cat, but soon they were running from the barn. The old cat settled back into bathing his feet and the old barn creaked.

Post Note: Years later one of the boys moved far away and was never heard of again. The other boy stayed in the local area becoming a teacher and raising sheep. He never married, preferring the solitude of single life and a flock. He had one cat.