She’s the ugliest cat I’ve ever seen. At least, I think it’s a she. Always hard to tell. Poor thing has horrible breath. Anyway, she’s so ugly she’s almost cute. And obviously desperate for affection.
Every morning, she is on the back porch. Sometimes I catch her unaware, closed eyes, face tilted to the morning sun. Whatever must she be thinking?
Lately, she’s brought me horrid little gifts. I know she’s trying to endear herself; I can’t shame her for trying. I rub her leg to let her know I’m thankful.
Old Tom, the neighborhood codger, disapproves of me befriending Poor Thing, as I now call her.
Nasty, vicious animals, he spits at me. They carry terrible diseases.
Tom is irascible, but there is something to be said for wisdom and longevity. I try not to slight him.
When the weather turned colder, I became concerned. Poor Thing came to the porch less and less. Her coat changed. Now, her scent is different. Her face is a little fuller but no less ugly. When she does not show up, I find myself worrying. I’ve really become quite fond of her.
This afternoon is a little warmer. Perhaps the coldest months might be behind us. There’s a patch of sun on the porch and I am waiting to see if Poor Thing will visit. I’ve called for her several times but regrettably this only summons Old Tom.
What are you doing calling for that beasty? I’ve told you no good can come from that, he hisses at me.
Tom, my goodness, Poor Thing is no threat to you! She’s harmless. Don’t get all bothered on my account. You’ve been around several blocks at this stage in the game; if you don’t like her, move along.
Old Tom fixes me with his one good eye. I see his hackles are up and his tail is fuller than a raccoon’s. He stealthily approaches, which alarms me. I feel my own fur raising, my ears flattening to my skull. Tom speaks low and in that guttural that I know is meant to be taken seriously.
You fool, he growls. That foul smelling, furless wretch you’ve befriended is no cat.
Tom has gotten very close to me; spittle has hit my whiskers. I cautiously back up. I’m frightened of his claws but it is his words that have wounded me. Poor Thing is inept and ugly, it’s true, but she shouldn’t be hated for those things. I open my mouth to defend my pet but Tom roars on.
Idiot. Those plastic mice and “food” she’s given you; she’s trying to trap you! Ever wondered why she is so large or about those hideous sounds she makes? Take it from old one-eyed Tom here, you don’t want to mess with a human.
And there, he said it. I pull my tail down defensively, wrap it around my back ankles. I tuck my chin to my chest. Poor Thing, poor thing! I feel an ache deep within me. I think about her large naked face when she puts it close to mine. Her chemical breath. Her dull blocky teeth. I knew, I knew, of course I did, that she wasn’t really a cat. Of course, she isn’t. But there is something so pitiful, something that moves me so, when she sits on the step and pats her big paw for me to join her.
Tom is nearer now. I smell his warm, feral scent. It is comforting. He brushes the top of my head with his jaw. I wait to feel his teeth graze my ear, to reproach me further but he purrs into my neck. I want to tell him no, that Poor Thing would never trap me, that she needs me. Tom has never felt the warmth of her paw when it rests in my fur.
You’re fine, you’re fine, Tom purrs. You didn’t enter its’ den. Let this be your first, your most important, your last lesson. Wild things are wild; you cannot change that. Tom licks my inner ear. I lean into the bath as he washes my eyes and nose. It’s been so long since I have been touched, other than by Poor Thing. So long since I was with Mother and my siblings. I hear the cries and calls of the colonies at night but I have been too ashamed to ask to join them. Me, the runt, left behind; who would want me?
As if his tongue has tasted my thoughts, Tom lightly nips my neck and says, you’re not alone. I look into his golden eye, noticing now more mirth than meanness. Maybe Tom was once a runt too.
The sun slinked off a while ago. A light from within Poor Thing’s den has come on and falls upon us.
It’s time, Tom growls and jumps from the porch. I follow. I look back only once, from the safe side of the fence. She is standing on the porch with a dish in her hand. I wince as she calls. Poor thing.
A version of this story was first published in The Dodge literary magazine April 2022.
In November 2020, my beloved tuxedo cat, Neo, went missing. As I searched for him, for weeks (he came home!), another little feral tuxie began following me home. Lucky is now an indoor cat too! This story began when I started to think about how I appeared to Lucky and whether he was really willing to take a chance on me. Thank you for reading. Also, adopt don’t shop and if you can support your local TNR, please do so!