Once, in Pennsylvania, I shot a cat. Sharpshot his eye and his gut with a little twenty-two. Put a stop to him with two final Ts and tacked up his hide where the rest of his litter would see because my farm is home to only so many. Some stayed on anyway. I tacked them up beside the others. I tried, but could not lay a bead on Flederjohn’s tomcat who pizzled my old bitch-cat every spring. The others went over to eat at Flederjohn’s and I was left mostly alone that winter, taking cider and filing tiny crosses into the copper noses of a new box of shells. Had the bitch tabby—their mother—and her warmth spreading wide over my lap. Sometimes when I put down my file and looked up from the table they were doing jumping jacks. Sometimes they were waving hello with both arms. I came to think of the hides nailed out there on the barn wood as boys in warm coats that I had bought for them.
In the summer there were kittens of her and the tom’s color. The hearts that fell out of her were red until she licked them and then I could see they were kittens. Made me think she was putting their colors on with her tongue. They just kept on spilling out. Then I saw her reach down and gently bite the head from her littlest tabby like it was made of wax while I was on my knees rolling out the burlap. She kept tearing at it as long as it kicked. That made me decide to put her in too. Dead thing with the exact same coat as its mother. Wasn’t too hard to roll her in, she was so weak. Flederjohn’s tom sat in an apple tree watching me and then left and then came back to watch again.
I burned off the groundcover that night so I wouldn’t have to see the weird nest she wound up in the grass. Then I took them over across the road. Poisoned Flederjohn’s pond just a little, I guess, but his cow still drinks and the milk I buy off of the old man is still sweet. Wasn’t thinking much about the wind, just mostly about burning out her nest.
Funny thing—saw it standing naked with a wet bed sheet on my shoulders when I had to stomp out a corner of Flederjohn’s cornfield that night. The tom, his tail alight, ran up an apple tree and I thought he was going to put my orchard to the torch. I swear I saw my trees burning and he went tree to tree trying to get higher, away from himself. Thought the whole orchard would be dead, that there would be nothing to press for cider, but in the morning they were like before and by October there was color in the branches again, stronger even than normal. Whenever I see green, like on the sign that shows you the way to Wilkes Barre, I think of those winesaps.
Yesterday I was out painting over the sick branches I sawed off. Saw a lizard and caught him. My eye just saw him and my hand caught him without asking my heart’s permission. His tail came off in a blink. With a dry snap he left it and he ran back up the tree.
The tail went on spelling out words in my fist while it lived. Made first an M which then rolled over into a W and then I don’t know what. An O straightened into an I and then it died. I told Flederjohn about it that Sunday and he told me the tail was like as not trying to write out the name of its owner. Sometimes when I get bothered about a thing, I go tell Flederjohn on Sunday. He said it had lived on a long time, considering the tail no longer knew its right name in the world.