"I didn't know it was Paul's nuthatch." Loo the cat peered down at Schnitz the dachshund who was her closest friend. Then she looked up, squinting into the late autumn sun.
"I didn't know he'd been watching it for days. Frankly I thought he was watching me watching it."
Schnitz rolled over. The ground was chilly, but it gave off that just-rained-on smell he loved. Loo's hunting trouble wasn't new. It had been going on for two years now, ever since Paul had brought Loo home from the public library where someone had left her. Paul was nine, the younger of two sons in the family. Paul's mother had always felt one dog was enough, and Schnitz, being that dog, had agreed heartily. But on that morning in August, Paul's mother had given in. Loo, a calico kitten, rib-thin and trembly, was brought to the vet who dusted her for fleas and gave her shots. Schnitz had been around cats, but on the whole he'd avoided them. Then suddenly there was Loo! Well, he had to admit, apart from this hunting problem growing worse by the second, the two years hadn't been at all unpleasant. He sat up. Loo was swatting a leaf on the lowest branch of the wild cherry tree. Not at all unpleasant. After his jaw had stopped snapping shut at the sight of her, and Loo stopped hovering under the table, good things began to happen. They walked together, they talked. Loo had become rather gorgeous, fleshed out, her coat glossy thick. Gray, apricot smatterings, white breast, white halfway up four legs. Marvelous whiskers and a tail that talked. Schnitz had learned early on that the clue to understanding Loo was her tail: flips long and short, arcs wide and low, arcs high and swift, strokes to the right, strokes to the left each had a distinct meaning. Her face was unusual, wide, with a deep-bridged nose ending in a chalky smudge. But it was much more difficult to read than her tail, at least for Schnitz. Yes, he admired Loo, but now, instead of giving full attention to this crisis, she was playing with a leaf! She knew Paul loved birds. He'd set up every type of feeder outside his window. The leaf in shreds, Loo began washing her paws with precise sweeps of her tongue, opening wide the toes to lick between each claw. Schnitz made a decision. "Perhaps you'd better leave." Loo froze, paw in midair.
"That's what I said. Leave. Paul is in his room; he's very sad. The bird is in tissue paper, for burial by the pond. Loo! The moment has come!"
It was difficult to fathom that how-can-you look and her tail, just lying there. He knew she was bothered, but there was no other way for her. Her world extended deep into the woods, horizontally and vertically. He was a home-body. Soft flower beds and turned earth were his delight. He buried everything he found. Burying soil was what he needed, and a bit of shade when the sun was hot. And to climb under the sheets of Daniel's bed at night. Daniel was Paul's older brother. They understood each other. Daniel and he. Sleeping with Daniel brought his mind round to Loo again.
"Leave!" Loo's eyes were like discs now, her ears twitched back and to the side. "Where to?"
"I don't know. Where do you go when you disappear and everyone rushes about?" He wanted to add, "and forgets to run me for my health," but he didn't. "Where do you go?"
"I go. Up beyond the pines, down below the meadow. But I couldn't stay away forever, Schnitz. That won't do at all!"
"Right. That won't do at all. But what will?"
* * * * *
Paul sat looking out at his bird sanctuary, trying hard to blink away his tears. His mother stood beside him.
It's her instinct, coming from deep within her. It makes her go after your finger under the rug or bedspread. She doesn't think about it, it's there, like the spider weaving a web or " she bent to kiss his wet cheek "like you sucking that same finger when you were younger. Daddy and I could have pulled it out every night," she smiled, "which we didn't and it would have found its way back anyway. It's you. As a matter of fact, it's all of us at one time or another. Think of a baby sucking its thumb. It's an instinct, sucking, necessary to nurse at the mother's breast or get milk from a bottle. Loo's hunting is an instinct for getting food, too. Same as the very first cat and all cats since then."
"It's not the first time we speak about this, you know."
Paul looked at his hand. His mother was right. As a matter of fact, he used to suck two fingers, the index and the middle one. And he sucked them even now once in a while when he liked a book he was reading or when he was tired. No doubt. His mother was right.
* * * * *
"Let's talk in the den," Loo gave Schnitz a nudge.
That pit in Loo's stomach wasn't a fur ball, it was misery. She'd not forgotten that time, two years ago, when she'd looked up at every child outside the library, rubbing against legs, hoping that someone would pick her up. Then Paul had come along, and life seemed perfect, except . . . she was a cat and had to hunt!
Loo sprawled on the rocker, paws down, tail over, head turned in, one eye open. Schnitz sat directly in front of her.
"It's a bad dream," she said flatly, shutting the other eye.
"While you were man's best friend, cats were being worshiped!" High flourish to her tail.
"The Egyptians placed our statues in their temples, and the Chinese believed they could tell time by looking into our eyes!" Loo opened hers full size.
Oh my!" Schnitz had heard it all. He was loved and admired, with jet coat and perfect rust-colored markings. And there wasn't a thing to be ashamed of in his history. Faithful, brave, honest, that was the dog. He'd never told Loo what some people thought of cats . . . sly, fickle, unreliable, aloof, and much too independent.
"Cats are loved and admired around the world," continued Loo, "and I'm not supposed to hunt?" Loo's tail executed a wide arc, then flipped up and down.
"Does Paul think it takes only a leap and a spring to make a catch? It takes perfect planning and timing, infinite patience and muscle control. I work hard! And then, when I give Paul my prize catch, he bursts into tears! But how else can I thank him for adopting me?"
"Loo, earlier you wanted help. Now you're wallowing in self-pity. Think. There must be some other thing you can do. At least leave your kills in the meadow or the woods. Paul does not want to see them. Why not cooperate?"
"Why won't Paul cooperate? Why should I be scolded for something as much a part of me as my whiskers or my fur? How about taking me as I am?"
She curled into a ball, paw across her eyes, and Schnitz knew the discussion was closed. He crossed the kitchen, ran upstairs and into his bed.
Hours later, Schnitz heard movement on the stairs. Letting a minute or two pass, he followed, stopping just before the kitchen where he would see into the den. A wall light was on. Paul sat in the rocker, holding Loo, his face close to hers.
"I'm sorry." The boy rubbed his cheek against Loo's side.
Schnitz concentrated on Loo's tail. If she accepted the apology, it would move side to side. Nothing.
Why doesn't she give him a sign, a lick, a look!
"I understand, Loo. I don't like your hunting, but I love you. Remember the day we found each other?"
"Mother explained to me about hunting . . . in a new way. It's an instinct, like me sucking my fingers when I was small. Here I am, nine years old, and I still put them in my mouth once in a while. Your hunting is an instinct to get food, even though we feed you. I understand now."
What a perfect explanation! Schnitz had always known his mistress could be relied upon for just about anything.
Still no movement from Loo. She couldn't refuse Paul's apology. Not now.
Paul placed Loo carefully back into the warm depths of the rocker. He turned off the light and shut the door. Schnitz backed away. When he was sure Paul had reached the top of the stairs, he crept up and pattered along behind him.
And in the darkness of the den, Loo's tail, with long flowing swishes, moved slowly, but deliberately, from side to side.