So we needed an adventure. There are places where all feels right with the world. And sometimes we all just need to go there. Blow the stink off, relocate your spirit, align your body to other meridians. Spend a Saturday doing more than laundry or grocery shopping.
Two hours away, near Arcola, Illinois, there is a wildlife sanctuary. It is owned and operated by the Aikman family; now in their first full year of operation. Last year the Kaskaskia River limited their grazing lands. There are 150 animals from 50 species native to 6 continents living here in a peaceable kingdom. They are not caged. The limited predatory species, hyenas and serval cats, have their own enclosures.
But here the buffalo really do roam. Alongside zebras, Watusi cattle, camels, elands, draft horses, miniature horses, donkeys, alpacas, Scottish highland cows, et. al. They are loved and they are well-fed and each one has a name and a story. Although native to other climes, they were born here in the Midwest. They are all part of a conservation effort.
Those are the facts. And now for the feelings:
Wonderment. Joy. Happiness. Inspiration. Pleasure.
We sat on the wagon, tractor pulling us through the paddocks, going to wherever this diverse herd may be enjoying their morning. Fabio, the Bactrian camel (see above), was my immediate favorite. Although he was in the process of shedding his winter coat, he was still a very handsome and photogenic boy.
We were given small bowls of feed to scatter by our feet in the wagon. We stopped, we scattered the feed, and then they came. Bison, cattle, blue wildebeest, elands, elk, zebras, alpacas, horses, and emus. There are groups of ducks, geese, pheasants, peacocks, guinea fowl.
Then there are the emus. Our guide told us that emus are both curious and ill-tempered. They will not attack four-legged creatures, but the will come after humans because we walk upright on two legs like they do. So why have them around? Because they act as guardians for the smaller four-legged species who appreciate them. Emus own “hangry” as an expression. They have zero manners, large pointy, pecky beaks and giant three-toed claws. They remind me of Petyr Baelish from Game of Thrones. And yes, I love them. How has an emu never been a Disney villain?
In the midst of the herd, I was suddenly 8 years old again. Mrs. Huber handed me the lyric sheet for “Free to Be” by The New Seekers. I would learn it and sing it and forget it for 40 years. Then today, I would remember the joy I felt when this wide, deep blissful adventure fit neatly into the ideals of a song written in 1972.
We walked the path through the other enclosures. Cavies, potbellied pigs, tortoises, goats and sheep. A miniature horse and cow and deer – all the same size – all living together in harmony. Different but equal. Different but not in competition. All amazing in their own little way. Like us, without ego. Like us, without the fear of our perceived differences. Free to be You and Me.
Two days. I had 48 hours to find Cougar a new home. Someone who could see in him all the wonderful glowing, feline qualities that I did.
Nancy Birnbaum was 7. Our backyards met diagonally and she was perpetually left outside alone. Her parents were nice and good people. Her brother Jimmy was in my class. He was pink-skinned towhead kid who was constantly auditioning for school bully sidekick. One time Davey Shoemaker, our class bully, told him to follow me home after school and give me a gut punch. It had rained that day and I caught him following me and whacked him squarely in the forehead with my umbrella. It left a mark. He didn’t speak to me again but he didn’t try to punch me either.
I suspect he had managed to punch the smaller kids in the neighborhood, which is probably why Nancy had no one to play with. We had nothing in common except that no one wanted to play with us. Nancy had met Cougar twice. She had seen me head to the garage with the cat food and had been curious.
Cougar leapt from his perch in the rafters and circled us. He tilted his head and narrowed his deep golden eyes. I handed Nancy one of the cat food cans and let her feed him. “She’s a friend. It’s okay.”
He rubbed against her shin and she plopped down, putting the food on the floor between her outstretched ankles. He purred and rubbed his ears against her pink canvas shoe. Then he shoved face in the cat food, grunting happily while she petted him.
“A silver cat with gold eyes!” she giggled. “Cougar’s my friend!”
“He really is the best cat. He’s a ratter too! Not afraid of anything. He’s silver like a knight wearing armor.”
Cougar wound around her, nudging and making tiny sounds of happiness. Nancy was small, not so wild. Most importantly she was kind.
“Somebody has to take care of him. I’m moving away. I have food for about two weeks and a brush. You probably need to ask your mom. I don’t want you to get into trouble.”
“Oh she won’t care! I love him!”
“She probably will when you run out of food or spend all your time in our creepy garage. So please just ask.”
“You mean because of Howie?” Her face darkened. My stomach felt like lead. “My mom says he’s dangerous and not to play over here with you.” Her bottom lip stuck out and she fought little sobs.
The whole neighborhood had seen him chase me, yell, threaten. They had peeped through curtains and shutters and shook their heads and clucked their tongues. They had engaged in gossip feeding a deep poison cauldron of speculation about what else went on in our house. Isn’t is sad and awful. Isn’t it tragic? That girl is in trouble. That girl IS trouble. There was a swell threatening to drown me. And they were helping to make the weather.
But I had Cougar. He had been my champion. And now I had to be his.
“Tell your mom to meet me here in about an hour. Make sure no one sees her come in.”
I sent Nancy off, skipping with the possibility of having her own champion. I made it into the house silently, locked myself in the bathroom. I filled the sink with water and cleaned myself up, brushing my teeth, putting baby powder in my hair to dry out the oil. I found some clean clothes that my mom had bought from a garage sale and squeeze myself into them.
Once I was somewhat presentable, I went quickly to the garage and gathered up all the cat food, little homemade toys and the brush into a paper sack from Lawson’s.
I sat on the cushionless plaid couch and gathered Cougar into my lap. This could be goodbye. He mewed tiny question marks, batted at the sack and started kneading my leg.
“I don’t want to leave you, but I can’t leave you here. There’s too many bad people, my love. You deserve someone who loves you.” I felt dizzy, acid cloyed at my stomach. My shoulders ached. Why did they call it a broken heart when you felt it all over?
The door creaked and Nancy stepped inside with her mother. Mrs. Birnbaum was a chubby, no-nonsense lady. She wore her dark, wiry hair in a Dorothy Hamill bob and a Hawaiian floral housecoat that snapped up the side. Her hands moved from the housecoat pockets to rest on her hips. She sighed and looked at me and Cougar, colorless lips in a curl.
“So this is the cat?”
“Mom! MOM! Look! He’s perfect!” Nancy bounced up and down like a tiny version of her mother on springs.
“He’s big. He’s a biggie. He eats a lot probably.”
“Well, he’s a mouser, but I give him two of these cans a day.” I handed her one of the Friskies tins.
“Mmmm. You love this cat? Why are you giving him to my kid? What’s wrong with him?”
“I’m…I leaving. Going to live with – somewhere else. I don’t want him to die or starve or be left here with Howie.”
She put her arm around Nancy. “That guy’s an asshole. I shouldn’t use that word in front of you, but he is. That’s a big cat, Nancy.” She shook her head, looking at the garage floor.
“I know! Cougar’s huge!” Nancy crowed.
“You’ll be someplace safe?” Mrs. Birnbaum looked me in the eye for the first time.
“Yes. There’s a lady in Cleveland I’ll stay with.”
“Oh Mom! I love him! I love you! I hope Jimmy loves the cat.
“Jimmy will love the cat or I’ll beat Jimmy’s ass. Don’t worry about it.”
“Okay. C’mon then, Biggie.”
Biggie? Cougar looked at me, patting my red face with his velvet footpads. I stood up and handed the food bag to Mrs. Birnbaum. Cougar never took his eyes off the bag. I watched his graceful exit as he padded after her and across the yards to her backdoor.
I thought my heart would crack and splinter and ache. But it did not. My Cougar, my valiant friend and champion was no more. In a sweet 30 yard journey, he had left his feral life with me to become the adored, well-fed Biggie Birnbaum.
And now I was ending my time as a feral girl. Tomorrow, I would move into a beautiful townhome in Cleveland with Barbara Scully. I would learn the joy of doing girly things like makeup and putting pink rollers in your hair just right. I would learn about Buddha statues, Night Gallery and Sha-Na-Na. She would teach me to cook eggs and make Irish coffee. For three weeks, I would learn to be a normal human girl again. Barbara was an amazing lady. And like Cougar, she would be my friend for the rest of my life.
Oh, my friend! My little love. My family. Cougar the bright and shining had spent the last three weeks being my furry beacon of hope. Summer was almost here and I would leave this place for good. I spent nearly all my time in the garage. I slept there and ate there with my friend. I couldn’t cook the hot dogs, so I would buy spaghettios and eat them cold.
Everyone was waiting out the school year before they sent me off. I had been to school twice in the last week. Once to give my book report on “Socks” by Beverly Cleary. Once to show up to a parent meeting in the office in my mother’s place. They had called and called the house, but did not get an answer. They sat me down and barked at me. I needed to come to school. I needed to bathe. I needed to wear clothes that fit. I needed to make a damn effort. I needed…what I really needed was anyone who cared to make a difference. What I had was a feral stray cat and spaghettios and $7 in my sock drawer.
They asked for my mother’s work number. I gave them the number of Carney’s Tap where she tended bar at night. I said go ahead and call. They were still barking when I left.
I used to get scared being alone at night when mom worked. Back when she still drove the Cobra, before Cougar, I would ask if I could just come with and sleep in the back seat in the parking lot. She let me do this one time and then not again. She said it wasn’t safe.
But now things had changed. I slept in the garage and Cougar slept on my back or on the high, soft space I had created from old sofa pillows. There were people in the house now that I did not know. When I did go in, I went in and out through my bedroom window and kept my door locked. One of the people staying there was named Howie. He was a mean, hairy guy with giant nostrils and big round eyes. I called him Cowie because he was the closest thing to a minotaur I had encountered. He hated kids. After a week of his moving in, our electricity and phone was restored. My mom kept saying, “See? He’ll take care of us.” But I had already heard him say he couldn’t wait for me to be gone. Everyone was running out the clock.
The cash from my grandparents arrived every week on Friday. I had to get it from the mailbox to my sock drawer unnoticed. I had a routine for this, but Howie had been watching. Friday came and I stuffed the envelope under my shirt and ran upstairs. I locked the door and opened my sock drawer and the magic red box.
Then suddenly the door swung open and there stood Howie.
“What you got?”
“Nothing. It’s just a note from my grandparents. They write to me.”
“Bullshit. You’re a lying little shit, you know that?”
He’d broken the lock on my door. The magic red box was empty. My food money and Cougar’s food money was gone. I still clutched the envelope and bolted for the window. I slid and jumped before he could get to me. He stood there thrashing, cow face all red, nostrils flaring.
“Hey Howie,” I yelled up at him. “You got some white shit on your nose, you fucking thief!”
By the time he hit the door, I was already across the field by I-71. Out of his sight, off his radar.
I walked to Lawson’s like nothing happened. I called my grandparents collect and told them not to send me anything else. I could make it until summer okay. I spent all the money on spaghettios and cat food and a pack of donuts. I had to haul it to the garage and hide it, but I doubted Howie would steal cat food.
“And just let him try, Cougar! You’ll vanquish Cowie and send him to the minotaur cave.” Cougar purred loudly and kneaded my leg.
My mother told me that night that I would be going to live somewhere else until summer. She had talked to the school. She had also talked to Howie. I was to move in with my stepfather’s ex-wife, Barbara. Relief washed over me.
Anywhere but here. That was my reply. Anywhere but here. She almost slapped me.
But then she didn’t.
I had two days. And I realized I would have to say goodbye to my champion, my love, my family, my Cougar. I could not be his feral girl any longer. I had to find him a home.
(Artwork by Daz Lartist)
We were rat poor. Meaning we could no longer afford trash pickup. The awning of our patio had fallen. The garbage grew. The rats came. Two bloated, scurrying, toothy pirates clicking their nails across our pavement and keeping me from my own back yard.
When my stepfather John died, it derailed my mother. It broke her heart, her mind, peeled her tenuous grasp away from the workings of everyday life. It was not her fault. He died suddenly, the day before my 10th birthday, from a heart attack. When he had the heart attack, he was driving a semi and travelling across an overpass on I-74 near Danville, Illinois. The rig went over the side.
By late spring of 1979, the rats came, our lights were shut off and I had outgrown all my clothes. I knew I would be headed to my grandparents in summer, but for now my world was dark and cold and small. I took cold showers by candlelight and ignored homework and the world outside. My grandparents sent me $20 every week in the mail. I would walk down to Lawson’s and buy bread and hot dogs and cheese food slices and always one Whatchamacallit chocolate bar. I hid the money in a small red box in my sock drawer. I hid myself from the world. I hid in the back row of 5th grade because I was failing. I hid in my room because the neighborhood thought I was a bad kid. Being a bad, poor, stupid, fat kid made me quiet and lonely.
At night, I would sit on my dresser and dangle my feet out of the second story window. I would name all the constellations I could see. I thought Orion was the best name for a man ever. And Orion had two dogs. I wanted to grow up and marry Orion and play with the big and little dog and live among the stars.
I looked down one night and noticed that one of the rats was lying half eaten on the patio. I didn’t see the other one anywhere. Something larger than the rats had done them in. There was no time to imagine monsters for me now. I usually wallowed in the escape of a good horror movie or novel, but life had gotten too close, too real. I needed to make it until summer. I grabbed my flashlight and climbed out of the window, hanging a bit until I could drop onto the tall grass.
The moon was bright enough for me to see a path to the side door of the garage. No one ever went in there. My mom parked her old brown Duster in the driveway. The woman had driven a Cobra and a Mercedes and a Cadillac at one point – always parking in the garage. But they were all gone now. Now she bolstered herself for the nightly dash from the beater car to the front door cursing rats.
The garage had its own life, a slow breath of dust, secrets and remnants of a creative life. It housed random bits and parts of craft projects so long gone that even the concept was a jumbled haze. Old acrylic paints, damp particle board, warped paneling, dried up markers. It has a dresser full of old books from a neighborhood garage sale – back when the neighborhood somewhat made an effort to include us. I had looked through them once, but it was mostly old romance novels and books filled with cleaning hints. One was a fake book that opened to show two plastic figures in various sex positions. It was poorly made trash. At the time, I felt like I was too.
Suddenly, I heard a soft rumble growing louder. A grey calico tomcat slid himself around the corner of a cardboard box and tilted his head at me, eyes half closed. His name was Cougar. I just knew it. I knew it like I knew he would be my friend. I sat on the floor and he leapt down and settled into my lap. He was bigger than any cat I had ever seen. He had vanquished the rats and made my backyard safe. He was my hero.
He rolled on his side and put a paw up on my face. The tears came like a waterfall. I had a friend who required nothing of me. I stroked his face and scratched the top of his head. I was afraid I would make him angry or skittish by crying. I had heard that cats hate to be wet.
But he stayed and napped a bit, his rumbling purr blocking out silence and fear. It was nearly 2 a.m. when he slinked away from me and outside to prowl the night.
I stayed home from school the next day. I hid in my room until the house was quiet. I grabbed five dollars from the red box and cut across the fields to Lawson’s, staying out of sight of the school. I hated that place. I was going to fail 5th grade and I didn’t care. Today it was more important to feed my new friend.
I bought 3 packets of wet cat food, treats and a small wire brush. I couldn’t afford the little mouse, but I could probably make him one.
The trip from Lawson’s to the garage was blissful. I kept thinking of songs I could sing to him. “What’s New, Pussycat” by Tom Jones was on the top of the list. Also I could read aloud to him. I still had some poetry books that my grandparents gave me. Cougar may be a rat-killer, but I was sure that cats appreciated the finer things.
As soon as I got to the garage, he found me. He rubbed against my leg. “Hi human girl, you are my human girl.” He claimed me. I suspected he knew about the food so I fed him right away. I opened the tin and sat back inside a large cardboard box watching him devour Tender Vittles. His gratitude rumbled loudly and I noticed he was chewing mainly on one side of his face. The other side looked normal, but didn’t operate very well. He’d survived a scuffle or two.
When he was done, he made a relaxed jog to where I was sitting and began to clean himself. I took the brush out of the bag and held it in the air next to him. He began stroking one side against it, then the other. Eventually, Cougar let me brush him and his grey fur began to look pewter, then silver. He was such a big, beautiful boy!
He claimed me as his family at a point in my life when no one else would.
(Artwork by Daz Lartist)