He was stealing from me. The first time I saw just a flash of gray ringed tail disappearing into the autumn night mist as I opened the back door to pour kibble into the empty cat dish on the porch. Another stray cat among many who visit the farm. A few stay to become “our” cats.
He did stay over the past year, keeping a distance in the shadows under the trees. A gray tabby with white nose and bib, serious yet skittish, would watch me as I moved about feeding dogs, cats, birds, horses. He would creep to the cat dish only when the others drifted away.
There was something in the way he held his head. A floppy forward ear betrayed hidden wounds I could not approach close enough to see. I startled him one day as he ate his fill at the dish. He ran away, the back of his head looking like he wore a red cap. His back scalp was completely missing from forehead to neck, not oozing or actively bleeding, so not something new.
This was a nearly mortal injury from a too close encounter with a coyote, or bald eagle or bobcat—his attacker only got away with part of him.
This cat was fighting for survival through his trauma and pain, his tissue raw, still trying to heal. He had chosen to live.
My first inclination was to trap him, to put him humanely to sleep to end what must be obvious suffering. In truth, I wanted to end my distress at seeing him every day. My mind’s eye would envision the florid flesh even as he hunkered invisible in the shadowlands of the blackberry thicket. Yet his disfigurement did not keep him from eating well or keeping clean his pristine fur.
As much as I wanted to look away, to not confront his mutilation, I began greeting him from a distance, honoring his maimed courage, through the icy blasts of winter, and four foot snow, through cleansing spring rains and humid summer heat with sticky flies. Still his scar never quite healed, a sanguine reminder of mortality.
I never will stroke that silky fur, or feel his burly purr, because I think he still knows how.
But I feed him his daily fill, as he feeds my need to recall:
Each breath he takes is sacred air, no matter how obvious or hidden may be his wounds, nor how much, because he lives, he bleeds deep red.