Barn cat politics are complicated. They are full of alliances, double-crossing, and violent overthrows. My personal introduction to all this began last summer when a young beauty named Roxy arrived without fanfare in our barn. She proceeded to charm our crusty old tom, Yellow Cat, raise a litter of kittens, then slip away as unobtrusively as she had come. The litter consisted of 4 boys and 2 girls. One of the boys and one of the girls were transported via my Subaru to become house cats, and are enjoying domestic bliss with my sister in Duluth. The others were left to the freedom of pack life in the wild.
We decided 4 outdoor, and 2 mostly indoor cats were plenty of cats, so we made it impossible for the remaining female, Dora, to grace us with kittens. "Those toms will start disappearing though," the man of the ranch warned me.
"Why?" I asked. "They are all getting fed premium cat chow, there is infinite space to roam, and Dora is a no longer in a position to incite battles for her affection." As is often the case with these types of inquiries, the man of the ranch simply shrugged his shoulder. Some things just go the way they go.
Alfie was the first to disappear. A burnished gray and white striped cat with golden eyes, he had been the tamest of the brood. When I fed the orphan calves their bottles, he would tiptoe along the round metal fence railing and leap to my shoulders, purring. This maneuver was never once greeted with a friendly response, as sticking the landing depended on the use of claws. He remained undeterred, and my crankiness did not lessen his affection for me. He was the cat who would emerge from the underbrush to wrap himself around my ankles, yowling for caresses, and he never missed a meal.
Then one day he did. And another. And another. We've not seen him for 2 months now.
Next Yellow Cat started appearing a little worse for the wear, a new triangle of ear missing here, a tuft of hair missing there. Fortunately for Yellow Cat, he and Ellie the guard dog are best friends, so he simply spends all his free time with her now. He visits the barn for breakfast and supper, but keeps his distance from the other cats if he can help it.
That has left the remaining two males, Francis and Thor, to vie for the position of top feline.
Francis is all gray. He is sly and sneaky, wafting like smoke through underbrush and tall grasses. He is lean and getting leaner by the day, and has inherited Yellow Cat's slightly cross-eyed gaze, which makes him appear a wee bit sinister. If I turn to discover him staring at me, the hairs on the back of my neck begin to prickle.
Thor, on the other hand, is the biggest cat on the ranch, with muscles like a clenched fist. His coloration matches Alfie, his lost brother's, but he also has a gleaming white chin, and pure white socks. Thor never prowls. He strolls, struts, and sometimes stalks, but he does it out in the open, like a lion pacing across the savannah.
The cats often follow me as I proceed through my evening chores. Perhaps it is the smell of milk replacer in the calves' bottles that draws them, or maybe it is just anticipation, as they know the barn, and their bowls, will be my last stop. Francis keeps his distance from Thor, sticking to the raggedy weeds beside the corral, while Thor saunters on the other side of the fence, unafraid even of the dairy herd's heavy hooves. Slim little Dora walks with me between the two, glancing up around with eyes bright in her coal black face.
When we finally make it to the barn, Yellow Cat is already waiting, hunched on the raised bin next to the empty bowls. He braces for my approach, ready to bolt if I come too close. Even after all this time, he still doesn't trust me. Thor leaps up beside him, and Yellow Cat flinches, but holds his ground. Dora and Francis wait by the door. I pour out the kibble, and Yellow Cat and Thor crunch heartily into their dishes of food. Francis creeps up beside me and lunges silently onto the bin, hoping that my presence will keep violence at bay. He gobbles down only a mouthful before Thor is on top of him, hissing and spitting. I jump back -- even I am startled -- and Francis runs from the barn. He'll go without supper tonight. Dora stays by the door. She'll wait till the others are gone before she tries to eat.
I trudge back to the house, and I say trudge because my steps and heart feel so heavy. I wish I could keep the few animals under my care safe. I wish I could make them get along. Meanwhile, Europe is filling up with refugees fleeing crashing bombs, food shortages, and violence. I am walking back to my safe, cozy home while fathers and mothers, grandparents and small children, are arriving by the thousands aboard flimsy rafts. They arrive, carried by the rugged waves of the Mediterranean. Or, they arrive foot sore and bruised from walking rough roads with everything they own tucked into plastic bags. And when they do arrive, weary but thanking God, many of the places they arrive at tell them: you can not stay here, you are not welcome. Still, they are the lucky ones; some will not arrive at all.
I can't explain it, but every child in every photograph of these refugees looks like my baby, and every mother looks like me. A little boy's limp body is lifted from the sea, and it reminds me of the Bean, loose-limbed in his sleep, so tiny and fragile and precious. For better or for worse, motherhood has cracked my heart open and made it impossible for me not to notice that it could easily be me carrying my boy, my arms long past aching, both of us covered in a thousand miles of sadness.
I feel as powerless to influence world politics as I am to influence cat politics. I can put out more food, add an extra bowl, try standing guard while they eat, but eventually Thor will probably achieve his goal of driving Francis away. Across the Middle East and Africa, mothers and fathers will shuffle their beloved children into small boats, train cars, and the dark heat of cargo trucks, to escape death and deprivation, even though they aren't sure they have anywhere to go. Bombs will keep exploding. Homes will keep being destroyed. It is so sad, it is so desperate, it is so common. Cats aren't the only species capable of systematic cruelty and turning a blind eye to the suffering of their own kind.
So, tonight I go back to the barn, put out that extra bowl of food, and stand in the dusky shadows while the cats eat. And tomorrow I will pack a box of diapers and blankets to mail to an island in Greece that is inundated with migrants. They are small, these gestures. It is an act of faith that they mean anything at all, but they are the beginning of trying to do better.
This is a bible verse I've quoted in this column before, because I think of it all the time: "We are all members of one body." Myself, my baby, a mother from Syria, a father crossing the border from Mexico. We are all members of one another. Right now it will be my hands that reach out to offer aide, and someday it will be someone else's hands that offer aide to me.