The Vacant Lot
In which Kitty Freddy and his little family almost starve to death and go through many roller-coaster adventures.
We came into the world in the springtime on a vacant lot, my sister Caramel and I. Our Mummy cat (Maman, we used to call her) was a little black kitty and practically still a kitten herself. We were her first litter. The weather was scorching that spring, and Maman, who had no experience being a mummy, soon ran into a desperate situation. Only two weeks after our birth, all three of us almost died of hunger and thirst.
Luckily, a miracle happened. Here is the whole story.
Once upon a time, a little black kitty lived on a vacant lot not far from a large park. When the weather was nice and warm, she stayed home. A giant chestnut tree stood in the corner farthest from the street, and it was nice to sleep on the dry leaves that had accumulated under it over the years.
The kitty sought refuge elsewhere when it rained or the weather was chilly. Sometimes she would sneak through a broken window into Mrs. Martin's cellar in the neighbouring house. Another option was Peter's sheltered terrace, a few houses away. The old man kept a large paper coal sack, convenient for frosty nights. The kitty would slip into the bottom of the bag, make herself a nest, roll up in a ball and fall asleep. Of course, she would emerge all covered in soot in the morning, but it didn't matter: her fur was black anyway! She just had to shake it up a little bit.
This was her life, the same as her mother's had been before her and her granny's. Whole generations of black cats had lived on that vacant lot, one after another. Nobody knew why there weren't several cats at a time or where the previous renter of the lot had gone. Naturally, finding food was a daily problem. To eat, the little black kitty would go through garbage or pilfer food from gardens. There were plenty of dogs in the neighbourhood, and their bowls were usually well-stocked. But she had to be careful not to get caught by one of them.
Then one day, as her first birthday approached, she felt something change in her body. Her belly was becoming rounder and heavier, and something was even starting to move in there! What could it be? It was frightening, wasn't it?
That night she complained to her friend, Rosalie, an old ginger cat from the park. The old lady was said to be her grand-grand-grand auntie. Cat generations follow each other very quickly, it seems.
"You're expecting, my dear!" exclaimed Rosalie. She had been through this many times when she was younger.
"Expecting what?" The black kitty couldn't remember ordering anything, so what should she expect?
"Babies, my dear, babies! Little kittens are in there! Get ready, start looking for a house!"
The black kitty was at a loss. The area where she lived was very posh, and the square footage was among the most expensive in the whole country. She had checked the property advertisements, sniffing the hedges in the gardens here and there. But oh dear, all the beautiful houses were already taken: the cave inside the woodshed, which would have been so convenient; the one-room apartment inside the rhododendron bush; and this beautiful home on soft, dry leaves in Mrs Martin's hedge! All were occupied, and none of the owners was willing to swap for a coal bag or a damp cellar. It seemed impossible to find a family home in the neighbourhood unless you were a millionaire. And she wasn't – her only fortune was a champagne cork and a small piece of red ribbon, which she cherished too much to exchange.
She turned to Rosalie. "Auntie Rosalie, can you help me?"
"Well, my dear, look around you! Sometimes the obvious escapes us," said Rosalie and trotted away. She was not concerned about housing: she had the whole park to herself. Ah, wealthy relatives are so selfish at times!
But what did she mean by "the obvious"? Black kitty looked around and couldn't see any suitable shelter nearby. The vacant lot where she lived was an almost empty space aside from the big chestnut tree and tall grass. The matter was becoming urgent because the big day was not far off. Then she noticed it: right there, close to the massive iron gate at the entrance to the vacant lot, a young fir tree with branches hanging low. It was the perfect place! Well, there were some pros and cons. On the positive side, the vacant lot was fenced off, and even the gate was closed with a big padlock. Humans wouldn't be able to enter, which was good. So far, she has only had bad experiences with humans. Sometimes they threw stones at her when she passed through their gardens, and sometimes they even asked their dogs to run after her!
But this little tree was so close to the street! It was almost leaning on the fence, and the busy, frightening street was just on the other side. Hmm, what to do? Frankly, the choices on the vacant lot were minimal, so she decided to visit the interior of the little property.
She bent down and crawled inside the branches. It was quite a cosy place! Not precisely Versailles, rather a modest one-bedroom studio with no kitchen or bathroom.
"How much is it?" she asked the tree, not knowing that trees don't talk. But they do sing! A light breeze blew through the branches, and they whispered a sweet melody:
"It's nothing, my dear—this tree is for free!" At least that's what it sounded like to her. So often we hear what we want to hear.
"Merci!" she cried, for she was a French cat.
She skipped over the tall grass with a light tread, searching for nursery equipment. She found loads of dry leaves under the chestnut tree that she could use to make a bed; then, she collected some moss from Mrs Martin's garden to soften the leaves.
And oh, what a bargain! She spotted a pair of woollen gloves on Peter's terrace that the old man had put out to dry and then forgot to pick up. Perfect for wrapping babies in! That way, they wouldn't be cold at night, and Peter certainly had lots of other gloves – this pair was very old but valuable anyway. It was a complicated item to take with her, but she managed to drag the gloves through the gardens and gradually into her new home.
All that was left now was to build a front door. Just across the street was a thick hedge. She braved the heavy traffic several times, and little by little, she brought back enough small twigs to hide the entrance to her tiny house. That was it! Once finished, her new home wasn't inferior to those modern buildings you see in posh architectural magazines.
Now that everything was ready, the kitty became impatient. How many kitties were there in her belly? One, two, a hundred? She had no idea.
One day, very early in the morning, she began to feel pain: her belly hurt so much that she became afraid. She left her little house under the tree and hid in the tall grass, curling upon herself. But the pain wouldn't go away; it was getting stronger and stronger. Suddenly she understood. Quickly, she ran back to her home, and by the time she lay down on her cosy, soft bed, I, Freddy, had come into the world! Yes, I was the first to emerge from my Maman's belly. I was so curious to see what the big wide world looked like! Time to say oh and ah, and sister Caramel arrived. Little minx that she is, she declared: "I was first! It's just that you pushed me at the end!
A Very Hot Spring
In the beginning, everything went smoothly, and our first days were beautiful. We drank the milk Maman offered us, cuddled up to her belly, and spent our days sleeping, buried in her soft fur. We grew fast, and after a week or so, Maman led us out to show us the world beyond our house. Phew, dear reader! I never imagined the world could be so big! And fenced on all sides! Only one thing frightened me: on the other side of the enormous gate was a track, and monsters streamed over it in all directions. They were going so fast! Faster than the speed of light, I swear! Our Maman said they were cars, and the track was a street. She told us we should never go near it under any circumstances.
We didn't need to, as playing on the vacant lot was so much fun. We jumped over the tall grass, played hide and seek, and chased each other. If only we weren't so hungry all the time. Our Maman would go out several times a day to find something to eat, but that spring the weather was boiling, and food was scarcer than gold. Even the supply of flies and worms came up short. Water, too, was sorely lacking. It hadn't rained for months, and all the puddles in the vacant lot dried up. Evening after evening, our poor Maman came back with nothing. What little she could find from time to time was for us, her kittens. We were only two weeks old but were already eating solid food because our Maman could hardly give us any more milk.
The situation was desperate, and events almost turned out tragically.
Exhausted, Yet So Brave
It had been a particularly tough week. For several days, we had nothing to eat and nothing to drink, and our Maman had no more milk left to offer us, not even a drop. Caramel became so poorly that she refused to leave the inside of our home. Maman was afraid for her, but she, too, was so weak that she wobbled and dragged her paws when she walked. I still had enough strength to chase flies; from time to time, I even managed to swallow one or bring it to Maman and Caramel. But soon, I too became too tired and stayed inside, curled up next to my sister.
One dreadfully hot afternoon, the three of us were lying inside our tiny home, unable to find the strength to get up. Caramel and I were snuggled up to Maman, and she was kissing us from time to time to cheer us up. I felt her desperation. I don't know how it was possible, but I could always feel what Maman felt, even when she was not near me.
Gathering her last strength, Maman decided to try searching for food one last time. "Don't move from the house," she said. "Just wait for me; I won't be long." And she wobbled away, her poor paws hardly able to carry her.
I remember it well – it was the longest afternoon of my life: I truly believed our Maman would never return. Later she told us how it went.
After more than an hour of wandering through the neighbouring gardens, our Maman had visited every place she knew. Yet she couldn't find any food. There wasn't a single crumb in front of the bakery. Neither were there any leftovers near the dustbins; there was nothing in the saucers of the neighbourhood cats, and even the dog bowls were hopelessly empty.
If only I could find something for the little ones, thought Maman. Poor little black kitty, so thin that we could have counted her ribs if we had known how to count, yet she cared only about the two of us. Even her once-shiny black coat had become dull and grey.
She had been walking around for hours, and the afternoon was almost ending. She had never ventured so far from the vacant lot before. She thought, I should go back now, while my legs can still carry me. I'm usually back by now. The poor kids must be worried. She imagined the two of us sitting by the gate, desperately calling for her. They must be so impatient, she thought. She felt her strength failing – would she even be able to return home? She stopped in front of a small wall at the end of a little garden; she could see a paved path leading to a terrace on the other side. Should she try this last garden? She knew that jumping up on the wall would exhaust her, even though it was a low one. I'll just look in this new garden, and then I'll go home, she thought. So, she gathered all her remaining strength and jumped over, only to find herself in yet another unknown garden.
A vast bamboo hedge lined the paved pathway leading to the large terrace. There may be some food on this terrace, thought our Maman. She saw a fountain at the end of the path: fresh water! She hadn't had any for days, and she was so thirsty. Quick, she thought, I can reach it, I can do it! I want to drink, drink!
Sadly, her poor paws refused to carry her just those few steps further. Too weak to take even one more step, she collapsed halfway between the fountain and the terrace in the middle of the path.
She lay there on the warm flagstones, unable to get up and drag herself any further. What will become of my darlings? She wondered. Who will take care of them if I don't return? She was filled with sadness.
Maman knew she should meow, call for help. Maybe there was another cat in this garden that could help her. She thought of her neighbour, that vain Charlotte. If only she were close, she would be willing to help. And even that pirate Big Head, the gardens' bandit, would help. After all, wasn't he the kids' dad? Cats do help each other when needed. She tried to meow, but no sound came from her exhausted little body.
This is the end, she thought. My little ones, my poor little ones! If only they were here, near me. She closed her beautiful green eyes and sank into a coma-like sleep.
Dear reader, do you believe in miracles? I do!
For you see, the garden where our Maman was trespassing belonged to Mum. Yes, the very Mum who was to pick me up off the pavement one stormy night a few weeks later. But a lot would happen in the meantime.
I'll let Mum tell you how she first met our Maman. She knows the story better.
Life Hanging by a Thin Thread
I remember my first meeting with the little black kitty very well. It was a hot April afternoon. I was working in my home office on the first floor when suddenly I saw a small black shape in the garden, creeping along the path. It was moving with great difficulty as if each step forward were a challenge. It frequently stopped, sat down to regain strength, and resumed its slow walk towards the terrace. Looking closer, I saw that it was a cat: a tiny black kitty. Suddenly, the little kitty collapsed on her side, stretching out her legs and lying motionless.
At first, I was afraid she was dead, but then I realised that she might just be utterly exhausted. I rushed to the kitchen to fill a bowl with cat food and another with fresh water. Once in the garden, I approached her slowly, trying not to make any noise. Had she noticed my presence? She showed no sign of it: her little body remained motionless, and her ears did not twitch. I called her softly – I was close to her now. Her fur was dull and dirty, and one of her hind legs seemed hurt; a trickle of dried blood was visible. She was skinny, and I thought it must have been long since her last meal. I put the two bowls close to her head and drew back a few steps.
I don't know how long I waited, but it was long enough to get me worried. Just as I had decided to fetch a basket and take her to the vet, she raised her tiny, skinny head, looked up at me and opened her mouth, probably to greet me with a meow. But no sound came out. She was so weak that even her voice had failed her.
"Poor baby," I said, "my little darling, eat a little. Look, I brought you some delicious food!" She raised her head to the bowl's height and caught a couple of cat biscuits. After swallowing them with difficulty, she got up by folding her front legs under her body. In this uncomfortable position, she started eating biscuit after biscuit with long intervals between bites. Any hungry cat would have pounced on the food and emptied the bowl. But this poor kitty was so exhausted that even eating was a task beyond her strength.
That day, her life was hanging by a fragile thread. Had I not seen her, she would have stayed there, lying on our garden's paved path, sinking little by little into unconsciousness and then into nothingness.
A good quarter of an hour later, with some more biscuits swallowed, she had enough energy to sit up properly and eat and drink with more spirit.
That day, she stayed in our garden for over two hours. She kept eating little by little, then resting again. I was so happy to have rescued her that I kept running into the kitchen, looking for good things to offer her. Ham, leftover chicken, a bowl of milk, treats – whatever I thought would please her. There was plenty of cat food at my house to feed my seven Maine Coons. They weren't allowed into the garden but could come to the patio. Curiously, on that day, and probably because it was so hot, they all slept inside.
It had started to get dark when she finally decided that her belly was full enough. She rummaged in her plate and carefully picked out the most prominent remaining piece of ham, holding it tightly in her mouth. She looked at me as if to say thank you, turned around, and slowly started to walk towards the low wall from where she had probably come. Carrying the piece of ham was not easy; she often stopped to put it on the ground and rest a little before picking it up again and continuing on her way.
It was evident that this kitty had little kittens somewhere. But where?
I followed her progress, trying to spot her tiny body here and there while she slipped from garden to garden, hedge to hedge, but it was difficult to make out her black shape as the darkness descended. All I could do was hope she would return the next day for more food.
Here ends Mum's telling of the story. As for us, to our utmost delight, Maman came home later in the evening with a piece of ham. I don't know who was happiest – Caramel and I, as we finally got something to eat, or Maman as she watched us gobbling up our small dinner!
We thought that happy times had finally come for us. Maman had found a place to get food, and the weather cooled slightly. We played and jumped and ran around, as happy as can be. We chased butterflies, napped under the chestnut tree, and cuddled with our Maman. Happiness reigned on the vacant lot – our kingdom and I thought nothing unpleasant would ever happen again. I was partly right. Indeed, for a short while, life did improve.
But after a couple of blissful weeks, disaster struck. Again.