My husband Mike --fiance' at the time-- moved to Columbus in late-winter of 2003. I followed him after my job transfer went through in October. Between February and October of that year, I came down from Detroit to visit whenever I had two days off in a row, cramming as much as I could into my tiny red convertible.
At some point in the spring, Mike started talking about four cats that kept hanging around our barn. One, a little orange tabby, was very friendly. On one of my mini-moving trips that summer, I finally saw the little orange tabby. "That's not a cat," I told Mike over dinner. "That's a kitten. I bet he's not over nine months old."
When I was properly moved-in and settled in October, I met my neighbors. I found out the kittens were their barn cats. The neighbors raised horses and one of their barn cats had kittens in the fall. The momma cat had been hit by a car in front of our house. "I'm so sorry," I said. My neighbor shrugged and said, "She was a barn cat. Bound to happen."
Now, I know a lot of farmers with barn cats. I'm not faulting these people for seeing the cats as no different from the swallows that build homes under the apex of the barns. These are people who see animals who have sought shelter in their barns as nature that found its way indoors and it's Mother Nature's job to take care of them. Most barn cats are truly feral and hide in the shadows when humans are around. I suppose I was only shocked by the response because they took such good care of their horses, I assumed they would love all animals the same way. They had named one of the cats Minnie. If you name something, doesn't it make it yours?
As it got colder, we didn't see the cats for the whole winter. Occasionally I would look out our sliding glass door at a field of snow, hoping the little ones were warm enough and getting enough food. When spring came and Mike fired up the barbeque for the first time, the little orange tabby came running through the field. I'm fairly sure one of our friends had slipped the cat a morsel or two because from that point on, the little orange tabby made a home under our porch.
During a blizzard in late January of 2005, I glanced at the sliding glass door. There was the little tabby, huddled on the corner of our deck. I wasn't sure what to do --it wasn't my cat, after all -- so I made a little shelter for him from a kid-sized craft table, duct tape, and weed control fabric the previous occupants in our house had left behind. I stuck a few old towels in there and created a little hut for the cat. He slept in there all winter long.
By the middle of the next summer, I had started keeping a water bowl out for the cat and occasionally feeding him. Mike strongly opposed both the food and water as well as naming the cat. "The minute he has a name, he's gonna show up her hurt or something and we'll be stuck with a big vet bill because you won't be able to handle the idea that he's someone else's cat." But as much as he groused about the cat, I knew it was all bluster and bluffing. One day I walked into the garage to see the both of them, craning their necks to look under the hood of Mike's project Honda, then the cat looking intently as Mike described how he was going to try another way to fix the car.
One day in August, I was weeding and heard a weak 'prrt?' behind me. I turned around to see the little tabby, visibly sick with some kind of upper respiratory infection. I called my neighbors to tell them they should take the cat to the vet and was told, "We'll just let nature take it's course." I told them I didn't feel comfortable with that, I had had cats my whole life and this isn't something he'll get over naturally. "Well, do what you want," my neighbor responded casually. "He practically lives over there anyway."
I didn't have a cat carrier, so I scooped up the cat and put him in a picnic basket and drove to the vet's office up the road without an appointment. The receptionist assured me they'd get to him right away and started making a patient profile. "What is his name?" she asked. I said I didn't know. We'd only ever called him 'that little orange cat' as part of Mike's no naming theory. "I have to have a name to start a profile, so we'll put that in until you come up with a name. It is easy to fix."
He weighed in at a sickly 5.6 lbs, drastically underweight. When the vet saw how emaciated and ill the cat was, she started to angrily lecture me about animal care and proper weight. I explained that I knew, that it was a stray, that I basically had stolen him from my neighbors to take him for medical care. Her entire demeanor softened and she listened to our history with the cat. As she gave me the antibiotics she said, "If those people call you and want this sweet little boy back, then call me. I have some words for them. Try to keep the cat inside for a couple days if he lets you."
When Mike got home and found the cat in the house, I told the story. He just shook his head and smiled. "I knew this was going to happen, I told you this would happen." He had a gleam in his eye, as if he were already laughing at an inside joke. "We can keep the cat on one condition: his name doesn't change."
"We're going to call him That Little Orange Cat forever?" I asked. He nodded. We looked at the orange tabby sleeping soundly in the picnic basket on the floor. It was perfect.