The Cat with Three Legs

New strays continued to spontaneously generate on my patio, replacing the old ones as soon as me and my neighbor, Jill, found homes for them.  Jill, and I took turns feeding them.  But there was this one stray short-hair that didn’t look too good.  His eyes were watery.  He didn’t seem to see very well. He vacuumed up whatever food I left out but didn’t gain much weight.  Could’ve been worms.  And he only had three working legs—he limped along without using the other. Once I spied him close through the patio glass.  The bad leg was covered with open sores, and the claws were badly mangled like bent tines on a fork.  He couldn’t retract them.  Probably a fight. He wouldn’t last the coming winter. Not Chicago.

I got the idea of trapping him.  So I go to Ace Hardware and buy a raccoon trap.  And it did its job real good.  I must’ve caught two or three raccoons every night.  I’d spring the cage door, and boy, would they run.  I’d set the trap again. A few minutes later, I’d hear the cage rattling, and it was the same raccoon. It got to be a game.  I’d put out hour d’oeuvres.  They’d crash my party.  And I’d have to put them out.  Now I knew what a mooch I was in the old days. Once I even a caught a young raccoon when the damn trap didn’t have any food in it.  They even learned to get inside it when the door was closed. Maybe they’d been the ones behind that spate of car thefts. But Three Legs?  He never even bothered with it.  I had to try another way.

I figured if I sat out while he ate, getting closer each night, he’d get used to me.  You know, like in those animal documentaries.  I’d move the food a little closer to my patio door each night.  Maybe one night he’d trust me enough to approach.  Maybe one night I’d get him in to my house.  It was worth a try.  He looked so damn miserable.  The tops of his ears were serrated from squabbles with raccoons and possum.  He’d be easy pickings for a coyote on those three paws.

I’d have to take my time.  The key was patience.

I leave the patio door open so he can see me sitting there. A fly buzzes in and torments me half the night, drawn to my office by the glowing computer screen.  I try various useless methods of fly trapping, then finally settle on an old saw:  Didn’t they say something about catching flies with honey?

I stuff a Kleenex loosely in a coffee mug, and drip some honey on the tissue.  Mad fly comes, nestles on the rim of the cup.  But I got to take my time.  Soon enough, it’s tempted deeper into the cup by the honey, it’s head down and his ass (thorax) to the heavens.  I strike, capping the mug with another Kleenex.  I walk it outside and lift the lid.  It buzzes away. How very Buddhist of me. And how smart. I’ve outsmarted a fly.  I mean, we have something like 98% of our genes in common with them, but those 2% we don’t share make all the difference.  It reminds me of how I’ll catch my three-legged feline outside.  With patience.

I fed him as the autumn came, talking a vet into giving me some antibiotics for the sores on his legs and the puss from his eyes.  I assembled a fur lined cat house on my patio.  I bought a cat cubicle and fit a hard-shelled plastic liner over it.  To keep the cold and wet from getting in, I took a Styrofoam packing frame from my computer box and fit it on the bottom.  I was real proud of myself.  Of course he never used.  None of the animals would—not the skunks, not the raccoons, not the possum, not the other cats.  I couldn’t figure out why until one morning at 2 a.m. when I couldn’t sleep.  I heard vague animal noises, and as usual, they weren’t coming from my bedroom.  I wandered downstairs in my boxers and looked out my patio glass.  I made out the silhouette of coyote ears on my neighbor’s patio.  Then it lunged at something, something that screamed.  I’d never seen an animal move so fast as that stalking coyote when it sliced in for that prey animal, which I was afraid was one of the stray cats.  Coyotes will clean neighborhoods of cats in a few days.

Shirtless, in my sweats and slippers, I jumped out on the patio, scaring the coyote off.  I chased it down through yard after yard, fully aware that some of my neighbors had been haunted by a peeping tom the last few nights.  At 2 a.m., when flashlightless exhibitionists chase coyotes, the coyotes will usually find a way to escape. Out of disgust.

I took to feeding Three Legs in the day to avoid the bestial procession of raccoons, possum and skunks that made the nightly pilgrimage to my patio, sometimes coexisting on the same chunk of concrete in cooperative efforts to share meals.  One night I even discovered a raccoon and a skunk sharing the same pile of cat food.  But usually, the skunks had the dance floor to themselves.

Three Legs would meow when he saw me.  Classic Pavlovian conditioning.  He’d limp toward me when he heard the patio door slide open.  But then he’d hiss when I’d approach with the food.  I guess animals should be allowed their inconsistencies too. It’s just defense, it’s just fear when someone hisses at me.

As the weeks went by and the weather grew colder, I began to worry about Three Legs, so I started feeding him more.  Then the unexpected happened.  His eyes seemed to clear up.  Could the medicine I’d given him have worked?  And he wasn’t limping anymore.  More than that, he put on weight.  He’d been a little too slim before.

I fed him before work in the morning.  That way he wouldn’t have to compete with the raccoons and possums.  The skunks?  Two of them took up residence in Jill’s backyard.  I’d watch Three Legs eat on the stoop outside my back door, always curling his serpentine neck so he could get a look at whatever might sneak up behind.  Animals seem so pitiful when they hunch, wary like that, on the cold stone of the patio. Wariness is the touchstone of the four-leggers, as weariness is the touchstone of the biped race.

I came to accept that I indeed had a new charge, a backyard pet—it was just that he didn’t see it that way.  And I guess Jill and I also adopted the raccoons and skunks and possums.  They were all ours.  But the townhome board didn’t se it that way.

The winter of 2002-2003 was especially bitter.  November saw unseasonable subzero and January through March was a solid three months that rarely got above the teens.  Three Legs?  He survived it all.  Oh, his eyes teared up sometimes, and he never trusted me enough to get within an arm’s length, but he seemed to put on weight, if anything.  And he had a couple of other cats along with him.  One was a plump if smaller version of himself.  The other?  A black short hair.

Three Legs seemed to treat the two newcomers like offspring, which Jill suspected they were.  He’d let them eat right alongside with him.  In fact, he’d let the one who was a photocopy of himself take over a freshly killed can of IAMS.  Sometimes, he’d even stand guard as the youngins ate.  Weird thing was, the little gray short hair that looked so much like Three Legs would scamper off anytime he saw me, whether I was headed his way or not.  But he wasn’t scared to walk right up to the biggest, fattest raccoon of the winter, muscle in on a meal, and eat right alongside him.  Even Three Legs, big as he was, wouldn’t do that.  Cats fall second to raccoons in the food chain.

It’s May now, and Three Legs has survived another winter, the old timer alongside a new generation he probably fathered.  Just the other day, I spotted him at sunrise perched on the wooden fence that separates my patio from my neighbor’s.  That fence is pretty damn high, and Three Legs didn’t have any hard times getting up there.  Three Legs is four legs again.  He teaches me about resilience.  He is the definition of that concept.  When I teach the concept of resilience to my clients, I use Three Legs as an example.  I often wonder how he stayed warm, let alone survived on those merciless subzero nights when all he had was a tail for a blanket.  I wondered where he got his water in the dry times. How did he survive the outbreak of West Nile virus that killed so many birds and small mammals last year?  I was amazed at how he kept himself safe from the coyotes and dogs, from the cars that rushed by. Not to mention the host of diseases that should have killed him by now.

To be resilient is to bounce back from trauma.  Three Legs survived, and healed himself along the way.  He never yowled when it was cold or mewled when he was soaked with cold rain.  He never complained over the life he’d been given, with the sole consolation of freedom.  He didn’t strut when he caught a mouse.  And he didn’t expect recognition for the remarkable record of his survival.  And as I was thinking these admiring thoughts, wise, old, tattered-eared Three Legs hopped down from the fence, peered up at the bird house with new nesting house sparrows inside, then took his time across the parking lot to patrol his territory.  He stopped by a pick-up truck he hadn’t seen before, lifted his tail, and marked the hubcap with his scent.

© 2021 by Michael C. Just

Mike’s novel, The Dirt: The Journey of a Mystic Cowboy, is available in softcover or eBook formats through Amazon.

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Two of his short stories have recently been published online. The Obligate Carnivore has been published by the Scarlet Leaf Review @ Category: MICHAEL JUST – SCARLET LEAF REVIEW

I See You, Too has been published by the 96th of October @ I See You, Too – 96th of October