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Winter's End

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On Wednesday, March 8, the sun shone, and there was a promise of 60-degree weather over the weekend. In my tiny urban garden, sparrows fluttered at the feeder, spilling seed on the melting snow. Pigeons announced, cooing and peeping, that babies were being raised in the hole left last fall when part of our crumbling back porch fell down. Stray cats crept into the light and sat still and grew warm, blinking their eyes at the sun. Dense clusters of green spears, from daffodil bulbs I should have divided years ago, poked through the black earth along the south-facing wall of our house, where the snow was already gone.

I worried that a late freeze might kill the daffodils. But it was hard to worry. Everything seemed to be saying, in unison, "Winter is over, and we lived through it."

This is a winter's tale that began long ago, last summer, when I got to know the neighborhood's stray cats--two tabbies and a grubby gray-and-white. Evidently feral, they wouldn't come into the garden while I was working there; instead they'd watch me warily from the shelter of the tomato plants and pea vines and green peppers in our neighbor's garden, which is separated from ours by a wire fence.

One day I threw them some cat food our own cats had disdained; they fought over it, and I saw how thin they were. After that I left food out for them every morning. Then in November, on a cold day, I saw a tabby kitten huddled in a patch of sunlight on top of a garbage can. That's when I started leaving a basement window open, so they'd have somewhere to go.

One chilly morning when I was putting out food, the grubby gray-and-white cat came cautiously up to the fence that separated us. I put two fingers through the wire, and he moved close enough so that I could scratch his head. The next morning when I came out with food, he was waiting on my side of the fence. As I reached the bottom of the stairs he ran up to me, and when I bent down to him he crawled into my arms and purred.

I had long since promised my husband that we wouldn't take in any more cats. We had nine at the time, and it was his opinion that the limit should have been set at six. So I made a bed in the basement for the gray-and-white cat, whom I called Leamas.

I took to spending a little time with Leamas each night. I would sit in a broken rocking chair in the dim light from a single bulb located near the basement door, and rock and hold him while he purred.

Over time, as the weather grew colder, the two adult tabbies and the tabby kitten turned up in the basement, too. When I was there they kept to the darkness in the back, far from the door, but sometimes I'd see pattern in the shadows or a golden eye and realize that Leamas and I were being watched.

Last winter was mild by Chicago standards, but it seemed harsh to me. In the basement, the hot air off the boiler in the back fought the cold blast from the open window at the front, and the temperature was at best a truce. It often hovered around 40, and seldom went above 50, even near the boiler.

Outside the rain and snow fell hard and at an angle, so the plastic dome over the bird feeder didn't keep the wet out. I'd come out most mornings to find the birdseed turned to frozen sludge. I'd use a bamboo stick to dig the stuff out of the long, hateful tube that is a Droll Yankees feeder; then, my hands frozen, I'd find I could barely grasp the doorknob well enough to open the door to the basement, where I kept dry birdseed and fed the cats.

The worst came in January on a night that was well below freezing. Fearing trouble, I came down to check the basement late, in my bathrobe, and found that the water pipes near the open window had frozen. The water in the cats' dish was frozen too, and there was no working tap to refill it from; their food had turned into a solid gray-speckled chunk. Cats watched me from cold though not yet freezing perches near the boiler.

I thought of bursting water pipes, frozen cats. But I was afraid to shut the window even for one night. Perhaps I was irrational, half dreaming, but I was convinced that one of the cats might be left outside and freeze to death. I found a couple of old rag rugs and nailed them over the open window so the wind was blocked but the cats could get in and out; and I was surprised--more than that, stunned--when the basement started to warm up.

In the morning the water dish was thawed out and the taps were running again, nothing had burst, and no cat had died.

Indeed, on balance, the creatures of the garden seemed to get through the winter all right.

I have no way of knowing how many of the sparrows and pigeons that came to the feeder survived the winter, though feathers I found in the basement gave evidence that at least one sparrow died to supplement the cats' diet. But we still have sparrows and pigeons, and they have even been joined recently by a redheaded finch.

The cats were somewhat easier to trace.

It took Leamas very little time to persuade my husband that the "no more cats" rule contained a serious flaw--namely, that it did not allow Leamas to come inside. The gray-and-white cat, no longer grubby, was in by Christmas, and the no-more-cats limit was reset at ten.

Within days, however, his place in the basement was taken by Fred, who, being black-and-white, had the appearance of wearing a disordered tuxedo. Fred didn't keep as much distance as the tabbies did, but he refused to be touched by human hands. Through the winter he and the tabbies never lost their wariness of me. But with regular meals, they grew muscular and plump; the tabby kitten just grew. In the relative shelter of the basement, they cleaned their coats, which had been thickened by the cold, and these began to shine.

Sometime in late February the snow turned to slush and I began to think of spring. It was then a skinny, filthy orange-and-white cat turned up. This cat had no fear of humans. When I bent down to him, he'd reach up and put his paws around my neck, asking to be picked up; I soon noticed that the paws had no claws.

I looked around the neighborhood for signs, thinking someone might have lost him. When the signs weren't there, I still figured this cat's prospects were good: a lot of cat lovers won't declaw a cat but would be glad enough to take one if the dirty deed had been done by someone else.

Sure enough, on Thursday, March 9, another sunny day, I had lunch with a friend who'd pampered two cats for more than a decade--and when they finally died of old age she'd consoled herself by reupholstering her couch. Over lunch I talked about the homeless, loving orange-and-white cat I'd by now called George. My friend protested, weakly, that she traveled too much to have a cat. But then she said she'd "look at him" as soon as she got back from her next business trip. I knew George had a home.

On Friday it was warm again. Slim green sprigs from crocuses I planted last fall had begun to appear, and again I worried about a late freeze. As I filled the bird feeder, George sat in the sun on the garden path, warming himself and watching me. When I was done I scratched his head.

That night when I got home from work I noticed that George was limping badly. He growled when I tried to pick him up or get a better look at his leg. But he didn't seem to have any other injuries, and I guess I wanted to believe it was just a cut or sprain. I decided not to take him to the vet that night but to bring him in the next day.

Saturday was even warmer than the previous day. As my husband put the cat carrier in the car, I talked of wanting to take a week off from work to enjoy the weather and the garden.

At the vet's we found that George's pelvis was pretty much a mess; he must have been hit by a car. We did what we could. The vet gave George a large dose of tranquilizer, and we talked to him and stroked him until he relaxed and purred, and then we went on talking to him and petting him until he finally fell into what seemed like a deep sleep. He didn't seem to notice as the vet shaved his forepaw and then inserted a needle in the exposed vein. Blood swirled into the liquid in the syringe, red mixed with gold, and the liquid disappeared and George was dead.

Sunday, March 12, was chilly and gray. It was then I thought of writing this, our winter's tale. I thought I would say that, while winter is harsh, a false spring is cruel.

Was it at that moment or a little later Leamas bullied his way onto my lap? And my husband said he'd seen Fred and the tabby kitten (now an almost teenaged tabby) playing among the daffodils that persist in coming up.

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