Friends

It started when I was very young. My parents had two cats. As I lay on my blanket staring at these fascinating furred creatures, I was suddenly aware that they were speaking to each other.

"How small it is, almost our size." The charcoal colored one commented.

"Yes, and somewhat careless, lying in the middle of the room where the giants might step on it." Her companion, an orange and yellow tabby replied. "Especially since it does not seem swift enough to move out of the way, should the Giants come by."

I attempted to reassure them, to tell them that my parents would never step on me, or injure me in any way, but they did not hear me. Frustrated, I began to cry. My parents always responded to this. I was sure that if I cried, the cats would notice me and pay attention too.

They did, Charcoal twitched her ears and glanced over at me. Tabby walked up and sniffed politely. Yet, when I repeated my reassurances, they still did not hear me. Disappointment joined my frustration and I cried more loudly.

" Tiger!" My mom called as she came into the room. "What did you do to Anna?"

Tabby backed off a few steps and then turned to face my mother, warning her of my presence with a loud

"Meow!"

Mom bent and picked me up, checking my face and hands for signs of Tiger's claws. There were none, of course, but mothers can be paranoid. Satisfied that I was safe from my parents' feet, Tiger rejoined Charcoal and they watched my mother carefully to be sure there were no accidents.

By the time I was three, I had given up the notion of talking to my furry protectors, but I delighted in listening to their tales of what lay outside the house. They would spend hours gossiping about other cats in the neighborhood and Tiger's attempts to catch birds. I was six before I found out what he wanted to catch them for. It was something of a shock.

Cindy and Tiger remained a source of rainy day entertainment and gossip, but little more.

Believing that my interaction with the animals was good for my personality and self-esteem, my parents proceeded to turn the house into a zoo. Fish, hamsters, and eventually a rabbit joined the household. These creatures were uncommunicative and therefore boring. The hamsters and the rabbit were cuddly; the fish were a reliable source of gossip for the cats.

Shortly after my ninth birthday, my parents divorced. It was a friendly affair, according to other people whose parents are divorced, but it was not fun. Dad moved out and got an apartment on the other side of town. My brother and I were shuffled back and forth between house and apartment like a priceless painting. My life lost its stability and I became miserable.

As if in answer to my misery, a new cat moved into the neighborhood at my Dad's. I saw her for the first time one summer afternoon. She was a black and white stray, alone and hungry. The humans who had been feeding her had disappeared and in their place was only an angry woman with a broom. The cat had been living off garbage and the occasional bird she was able to catch.

I could almost feel this cat's belly clamoring at her. I went back into the house and got a can of tuna. I opened and drained it, placing the oil in a small bowl and taking a small piece out of the can. I went back outside and approached as closely as she would allow. I set the bowl of oil down with the piece of tuna beside it and retreated to the steps, where I sat down, watching her.

"Food! She brings me food!" I heard the cat mutter to herself. I sat quietly as the cat fought with herself over how badly she wanted the food. Eventually, hunger won out, as it usually does. She darted in, snatched the scrap of tuna, and darted away. When I did not jump up and try to murder her, she returned, slinking up to the bowl of oil. She drank the oil while keeping a weather eye out for surprise attacks. When she had finished, I tossed a second piece of tuna her way, careful that it flew to one side, rather than directly at her. Her fear and caution were still raging and any suggestion of an attack would send her racing away.

"A giant with manners." I heard her mutter. "If only she would not stare so."

I averted my eyes, looking at the ground several inches in front of her instead of directly at her. With my peripheral vision, I saw her ears twitch and she took several steps forward.

"How much more food can I get from her?" I heard the cat wonder. "Does she have water?"

I tossed a second piece of tuna, letting it land closer to me. Then I scooted backward, careful not to look directly at her. This continued until I had her eating bits of tuna outside my back door. I brought a bowl of water for her.

"Good water!" She exclaimed silently as she drank. She glanced at me again. I felt her disgust at the chlorinated water of the swimming pool where she usually drank and her curiosity at my response to her wishes.

"Do you hear me, Giant?" She asked with raging disbelief. A piece of tuna sat uneaten before her. I had been waiting until she finished each piece before offering another, wanting to draw her toward me.

"Yes, little mother." I said softly. "I do."

Her ears swiveled.

"I do not understand you." She replied. "If you hear me, close your eyes in a proper greeting."

I squinted, trying to watch for a reaction through mostly closed eyelids. Mama cat sat, speechless. She was too startled even to think.

Then she came up to me, somewhat hesitantly, and nudged my ankle with her nose. A proper body rub followed.

"I do not know how it has happened, but as the first Giant to hear me, I cannot call you less than Friend."

I stroked her in return and gave her the last of the tuna, watching her watch me. I was elated. Finally I had a cat that would listen to me. After several minutes of mutual affection, I went inside. I was glad that for the day at least, she would not be hungry.

"Anna?" My Dad called that evening as he was making dinner.

"Yeah, Dad?"

"Did you and Eric have tuna for lunch?"

"No. I gave it to a cat that showed up."

"The whole can?!" He demanded. I backed up, avoiding his gaze as I realized that Dad might have had plans for the tuna, plans that did not include a hungry black and white cat.

"Yeah. She was hungry Dad." I heard him sigh in exasperation. My Dad didn't fly into rages like Mom, but his sighs and glances could be as intimidating as other people's yells and shouts.

"All right." He said at last. "But next time, use cat food. Not tuna fish. Deal?"

"But we didn't have any cat food. Besides, she liked the tuna fish."

"I am sure she did. But I get the tuna for us, not for every stray cat that shows up. Remind me when we go shopping tomorrow. I'll get some cat food."

"Okay, thanks Dad."

We went shopping and Dad got a small bag of cat food. That evening, I went outside to look for the cat. She was there, sitting at the top of the stairs, looking hopefully at the back door. She saw me and stood up, tail twitching.

"Do you bring more food?" She asked.

"Coming right up." I assured her. I slipped back inside and brought out both food and water. Then I sat down nearby to keep her company as she ate.

In return, she introduced herself. She told me about the last Giants she had stayed with and about her mother and siblings.

In the days that followed, she gave long discourses on the fine and fearful aspects of the neighborhood.

There were the local male cats that would sing in the hopes of mating with her. There was the family on the next block who ate chicken a lot and tossed out the skins where anyone with half a nose could find them, so you had to be ready and waiting if you wanted to get some before the males got it all. There was the Path of Death where Giants sent huge metal rocks flying by. You didn't go anywhere near it if you had any sense. Finally, there was the house where her Giants had lived. That was a place to avoid now. Now there was only the Angry Giant who howled and snarled and attacked with a small tree.

Dad had seen her and told me that she was pregnant. I named her Mama cat. After two months, I had her coming into the kitchen to eat on a regular basis.

The first rainstorm that winter was a humdinger. I decided to invite Mama cat inside, I hadn't seen her around for several days, and truth be told, I was starting to worry about her. I went to the back door and whistled the short melody that meant 'Dinner' to any cat within hearing, as long as they were willing to come close enough to me to be petted. Few were so willing.

Mama cat's meow made me jump. It came from under the porch.

"I have a surprise for you." She said, and crawled out, bringing a tiny bundle of fur with her.

I would later name the kitten Zipper, for the way she scurried about the kitchen and living room. Zipper's arrival allowed Mamma Cat and I to work out the finer points of two-way communication with cats. Soon we had agreed on signals that meant 'yes' 'no' 'food' 'water' 'friend' 'come' 'run away' 'good' 'bad' and other essential responses.

Mama Cat and I faced all the usual trials… noisy neighbors, trips to the vet, and vacations away from home. Mama Cat would tolerate my Dad feeding her, but she missed sharing sleeping space when I was gone.

Then, in one afternoon, I realized how important cats are.

I had arrived home from school and let both Mama Cat and Zipper inside. I turned on the TV, looking for something besides the World Series to watch. I finally found a documentary on Ancient Rome. I settled on the couch and Zipper jumped into my lap, settling down for a snooze. Mama Cat curled herself around my knee. Half way through the program, both cats bolted upright. Zipper sank her claws into my leg so deeply, I was sure she hit bone. Mama Cat hooked her claws into the fabric of my shirt sleeve and pulled.

"Zipper!" I screeched.

"Run! Run outside! Go!" Her thoughts were frantic. She bolted into the kitchen and toward the window I left open for her and Mama cat, a moment later she was out the open window and headed toward the open lot next door.

"Outside! Go!" Mama Cat repeated. She held her ground, but her ears were flat against her skull. Her eyes bulged in terror. "Go!" She ordered. "NOW!"

More puzzled than frightened, I turned off the TV and started for the door, thinking that perhaps she heard a cat in distress; maybe one who had been hit by a car. She had given a milder version of this sort of performance when a neighbor's cat had gotten in the way of a moving car. Mama Cat streaked by me bounding out the open window and into the open field.

Three steps from the door, the ground heaved. I went to my knees, skinning both palms.

'Earthquake' I thought. All the stuff they tell you in school suddenly raced through my mind.

If you are outside, get out in the open.

If you are inside, get under something.

I glanced around looking for something to hide under. There was a table in the main room. I started toward it.

The ground shook again. Stuff fell off shelves. The overhead lamp came down with a crash and the sound of breaking glass. Broken glass now formed a ring around the table. I scooted back toward the door, cramming myself into the frame of the kitchen doorway.

There was no shaking this time, only a terrible, wrenching lurch. Even on hands and knees, I could not keep my balance, I fell flat, knocking my chin on the floor. Around me were the sounds of snapping wood, plaster and more broken glass. I glanced up; a huge crack ran across the lintel of the doorway. Every window in view was broken.

"Come out!"

I turned around and stared at the frame of the kitchen window. Mama Cat stood there, her ears flat against her skull and her eyes bulging in terror.

"Come Out! She repeated, and it sounded like really good advice. I bolted through the kitchen and out the back door. I didn't stop until I was in the middle of the open field next door.

The cats and I stayed in the lot for the remainder of the afternoon, waiting for Dad to get home. Neighbors began to gather. Everyone was checking buildings. I recognized Mr. Chapman, from across the lot. He had cats too. He had helped me to take Zipper to the vet once.

Are you ok, Anna?" He asked, his eyes finding the bruise on my chin.

"Yes. But I don't think the apartment is safe right now. I am waiting for my Dad.

Mr. Chapman left long enough to make sandwiches and get a couple of sodas. Then he joined me until Dad got home.

I stayed with my mom until Dad found a new place. He managed to get most of the furniture out before they demolished the old building. The computer couldn't be salvaged though. Now we have a new one and the word processing program is great; so I am writing this to warn you.

Listen to your furry friends. More is coming, and they will know about it before we do. Listen and do not be afraid to tell others to listen too. It is better to be thought crazy, then to be mourned dead.

THE END