One morning over three years ago, my wife M took notice of a little black cat in our back yard. M being who she is, she went outside to get a better look at him. The cat greeted her with a plaintive cry - miaooww - followed immediately by a warning - hisssss - and crouched under our decrepit patio furniture, staring balefully. Inside the house, our four kitties - Venice, Baxter, Scooter and Roxy - scowled with disapproval at the interloper.

We called him Jack because he had one eye - or one good eye, at any rate. His right eye was not missing but was disturbingly recessed as though it had been cruelly shoved in. Most days the recess glowed red; sometimes it wept a sickly greenish gunk, a sure sign of infection. Jack had two large patches on the back of his head where his black fur had been torn away, leaving mottled gray skin. It was easy to imagine all these injuries having been caused by the jaws of some ferocious dog. He was a scrawny little guy with gray hairs scattered here and there among the back. It was impossible to guess his age. He had a patch of white on his chest. Between that coloration, the eerie eye, and the scolding voice, he put you very much in mind of Poe’s titular feline.

Jack took to showing up in the mornings before we left for work, and in the evenings after we had returned home. His appearances were sporadic enough that we might go for days without catching a glimpse of him, then suddenly there he would be, crying for attention, hissing at any approach. We took to feeding him; it seemed cruel not to. We would fill a bowl with dry kibbles, set it in the middle of the patio, then re-enter the house. Only once we were inside would Jack approach the bowl. He ate with gusto, ever pausing at some sound or other; when he was done, he was done, trotting quickly along the flagstone path to the back of the yard, slipping through the corner where two fences did not quite meet, disappearing.

And then one day, with winter coming on, he stopped coming. By then, we had decided that he likely made some kind of home at a local lumber yard where a number of feral cats hung out. We pitied Jack that year in the same general way we pitied any animal who had no business living out of doors, but felt that we already had a full house with the four rescue kitties in the household.

Spring came, and Jack made a reappearance. We were delighted to see him again, but concerned over his appearance. His bad eye looked awful, and he seemed to have lost weight, if that was possible. We took to feeding him wet canned stuff, as M was concerned that he wasn’t getting enough liquid (he always disdained the water dish we set out). By now, Jack had become relaxed enough to eat while we we sat outside - though a respectful distance away on the back steps. He still hissed in warning, but maybe not as long or often. He was a sloppy eater; often, when he glanced up, he’d be wearing food on his chin.

We felt closer to Jack by then, and talked about taking him in. Jack was still far too untrusting for that, however. One day such thoughts became academic: he failed to appear, and that absence stretched into weeks, then months. A year went by, and we were forced to conclude that he had met his end.

Late last fall, M ventured out to California to visit one of her sisters, leaving me and the kitties to run the ranch without her. On a cold Saturday morning of that week, I paused by a kitchen window, then stared. Jack was sitting on our patio table, waiting rather expectantly. When I tapped on the window, he looked at me and meowed. My second move was to prepare a bowl of food for him. My first move was to grab my cell phone and take a quick picture. When I took the food out to Jack, he actually came to me. He meowed again. He didn’t hiss. He ate, sloppily.

After he had finished his meal and done his usual business in our garden, I fired off the pic to M’s cell phone in California. She called back in moments.

“Sweetie,” she said, “is that an old picture?”

“Five minutes old,” I replied.

Jack was back, and minus the hiss. In the coming days, he allowed M to approach him, even to pet him. Eventually, things progressed to where he would climb in her lap and purr. Not every day was like that, though; he remained fitfully skittish and one expected move by either of us would cause him to bolt. Winter came, with ice and snow and grave worries on our part. One day following a substantial snowfall, I cleared the front walks, the driveway, and an extensive series of paths from the patio to the back corner of the back yard, all with Jack in mind. M thought it was a sweet gesture. So did Jack, apparently; the next morning saw him moving briskly along the cleared path, heading for his breakfast appointment.

Weeks passed without much change in Jack’s willingness to acquiesce to a cat-napping, however. One attempt to bring him inside ended in failure and a rather mistrustful cat. We didn’t see him for a couple of days, and when he did appear, it was clear that he’d gotten the worst of it in a fight. That was a bad day.

We laid plans to adapt the house for a fifth cat. We alerted our vet, who instructed us to bring him in regardless of appointments as soon as we had him. We decided to lodge him in the basement, but the walls there needed scraping and re-painting; that project obviously had to be completed in advance of snatching Jack. We browsed the web and found a fancy extendable gate purported to defeat any cat trying to get under or over it. We installed the gate near the top of the basement stairs, providing a sense of security that lasted less than a day: Baxter, smartest cat in the world, quickly made a mockery of the gate. So too, later, did Scooter. Off to the ReStore at Habitat for Humanity, where we bought a real door for use in conjunction with the gate, making for a double-entry arrangement that we now call “the airlock.”

And then, this past weekend, we grabbed Jack. We set out our largest pet carrier and placed a bowl of food inside. Jack nosed inside - betrayed, as Bugs Bunny would say, by his baser reflexes. M locked him in, and took him to the vet. Jack got the complete workup - urinalysis, bloodwork, neutering, microchipping, five hundred dollars worth of care. We knew the concerns about feral cats and particular illnesses, and had been lucky in the past with former strays Venice, Scooter and Roxy. Jack was not so lucky: he indeed tested positive for the feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV.

The disposition of Jack was never really in question. Out in the wild, he would remain a threat to spread the virus to other cats. Euthanizing him could be argued to be a humane choice, but we rejected that option out of hand. So long as we had the means to keep Jack comfortable yet separated from the other cats in the household, there was only one real choice for us.

So now we have a cat in the basement. He so far disdains the comfortable beds we have provided and sleeps instead on the pipes up near the rafters - in the same fashion, we imagine, that he once slept high up on stacks of planks at the lumber yard. He took quickly to the litter box - though he has marked a couple of corners as he was taught in the old country. He curls on M’s lap, fawning appealingly, and even allows me to pet him…sometimes. (M is definitely the favored custodian). It seems pretty clear to us that he was, at some point in his life, somebody’s cat.

And while it’s impossible to know the circumstances that brought Jack to a homeless state, I find myself these days paraphrasing Baudelaire (as relayed by Lovecraft, at least): people allow cats to wander outside and unsupervised with an audacity that would be incomprehensible if we did not know that it is the result of ignorance of the danger.

Either that, or they really, really hate their own cats.

We hope to create a better long-term situation for Jack - if not with us, then with someone who can offer him more than a gray basement, someone willing to provide for a special needs animal. But in the meantime, Jack is warm, dry, fed, and safe - things he could hardly count on before.

Good boy.


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