When we left town for Julia’s funeral, I had to board my dogs at the vet. I also arranged to pick up a new barn cat when I picked up the dogs.
The cat came home to the farm last Sunday night. He is a young male with a bit of long-haired breed somewhere in his background, giving him an extremely plush (and currently very dirty and disheveled) coat of seal grey. I named him Bobby Seal.
Bobby is one of the last cats from the same dairy, sadly now sold, where Freddie and Flossie were born. Like them, Bobby adores human contact — when stroked he purrs with so much enthusiasm that his whole body shakes — but he is badly frightened by all the changes in his life. He spent his first days on the farm hiding in the warm coils in the back of the refrigerator in the tack room.
When I dragged him out by the scruff of the neck a couple of times a day for petting, he would rest for a while in the winter cat nest (an old rubber tub lined with a heating pad and towel) and then melt away to vanish again. I worried if he was eating and drinking in the below-zero cold.
Flossie, my older tabby, has not helped. She was very excited when I carried the cat crate into the barn, laid it on the floor of the tack room, and opened the door. She ran to the opening. Bobby cowered instinctively and growled in fright. Flossie has not yet forgiven that momentary rudeness.
She inspects him as she stalks up and down the tack room desk, making angry warning warbles in her throat.
She is clearly affronted.
This dirty ragamuffin teenager is not what I had in mind when I said “seeking tall dark companion!”
Meanwhile, with lambing due to start any day and a blizzard in the forecast, I had to spend most of the week mucking the deep bedding out of the sheep stall before the lambs and snow arrived. Removing the bedding four times a year is always is a tough and dirty job, but the long quiet hours with a pitchfork provided an ideal opportunity to socialize Bobby to his new home.
He does not yet know how to climb up the stall walls, much less the ladder to the hayloft, but each day I settled him on my down vest on top of a folded back stall door where he could watch me work in comfort.
Mucking the deep bedding is always the same. When I break the dry surface of the bedding hay with my pick-axe, trapped ammonia is released in a cloud of steam. The sudden stench is overwhelming. Methodically I chop strips with the pick-axe. The matted hay and manure can be peeled back in layers like dirty wet rolls of carpet. Each of these is broken into heavy clods and pitch-forked into the aisle.
It is slow work.
One quarter of the stall will make a pile of steaming clods twelve feet long and four to five feet high.
All the animals who don’t leave the barn in the cold will wander in and out to inspect my progress.
Forking the heavy clods into a wheelbarrow and maneuvering each load over the frozen ruts in the driveway (without accidental dumping) to the manure pile requires more hours of sweat. By the end of each day my muscles are trembling.
However Bobby has made great progress. By Friday night the stall was finished and rebedded with clean hay, and the terrified little cat who would hide himself in the veriest crack, seemingly scrunched to the dimensions of the butt end of a 2×4, was for brief intervals dozing peacefully in the open.