I once lived on the streets of Chicago. Harsh winters. Hot summers. Wind and rain. Hunger. Fearless dogs and feral cats. Taxis. Rushing commuters. Bicycles. Unpredictable humans.
Until one of them spotted me. He jumped off his two-wheeler and scooped me up. I landed inside a big brownstone. Tall Guy brought home a bag of food. Got my own bowl, too. Some days he let me on the balcony, where I lounged in the sun and watched dogs on the beach. The earth ended there. Nothing but water beyond.
He named me Juniper, after a bush. Got the idea from his garden-center job. He also called me Little Girl, or Underfoot, and guessed I was not yet a year old. He held me overhead, stretched out like Supercat, and walked me around the place. I loved flying.
A month passed, then two. I ended up confined to his small bedroom. He had three college roommates, all sneezers. I heard a new word: allergies. My human friend turned sad. He had a small black box that rumbled at random — one night he talked into it. “Mom,” he said, “I have a big favor to ask.”
I met the human called Mom soon after. Tall Guy said goodbye and locked me in her car. It rumbled like the black box, only more. Through the windows, I saw buildings and trees fly away like leaves. I howled till I was hoarse. Due west for three long, miserable hours.
Inside her garage was a rabbit. In her house were worse despairs: a large dog and a male cat. She trapped me in their turf, unmindful of rules. Where I come from, even the youngest alley cats knew those. Separation. Finally, she thought to close doors. I got the basement. Heard the dog above, sniffing, searching for me.
Adjustment — another new word, used often the first week. And “Oh no, fleas.” I heard her on her small black box. “A spay, please. She’s under a year, we think.”
I was put in the car again and passed to a stranger. Spent the day in a cage, out of the cage, on a cold table, back in the cage. Before dark, I heard the vet tell Mom, “She is actually a he. And he’d already been neutered. We shaved him before we realized. And he’s not one, he’s about five.”
My human family, not exactly animal experts. They talked it over and decided, “Juniper still works.” When they’re all together, they laugh and remember the errors. They could have looked before they named me. And shaved me. Insult to injury, the neighbor girl thought my name was Jennifer.
In time I befriended the foxhound, Annie, and the big tabby, Gabe — the rabbit, Molly, kept safe in her cage. We had three years together. Watching Annie tree squirrels and circle for hours, excited. Staring at birds, and dogs out on walks. Tackling Gabe. Sunning on the porch. Playing chase in the house. Making Mom open the door. Let us in. Let us out. Let us in. Let us out.
I learned adjustment never ends. Lost old Molly first, Annie two autumns later. Should have known when Gabe lay next to Annie her final days. Big Dog stopped going up steps, so Mom slept on the couch the last week. We ached when Annie was gone. For a long time, we thought she was ’round every corner, behind every door.
Gabe and I adjusted. Two male cats on one turf. I stopped pouncing on him. He let me touch noses. Gabe was getting frail, not feeling right. He let me lie closer and closer. When he shivered, I sprawled on him, giving warmth at night. A year after Annie passed, Gabe did, too.
Ceaseless adjustment. I’m twelve now, the sole animal left. I do volunteer work, keyboarding for Mom — both computer and piano. I can still jump from fridge top to upper cabinets. I’ve never been more secure, more content. I do wish she’d sit more often, for unlimited time curled up in her lap, and to bat at the strings of her hoodie.
Got a full belly every day, fresh air when I want it. Interesting work. A faithful family. When Tall Guy visits, we play Supercat. I still love to fly. I don’t even mind sharing my name with a bush outside my home.
My home. That sounds so right.
Back in the day, it wasn’t this way. It was high risk at big cost. Turfs fought for, earned or lost with scratches and bites. Cars and bikes and humans to dodge. Scraps to scavenge. Weather was brutal as often as not.
I have my own territory, my own turf now. Climate-controlled, with food in my bowl. Safety and warmth and people I adore.
Published previously in The Dispatch/ Argus, December 2013.
In memory of our good buddy, Juniper.
February 19, 2015