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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

Apple Trees, Wheelbarrows, and Herding Cats

Cat, Moonlight, Théophile Alexandre Steinlen
Cat in the moonlight, c. 1900 Théophile Alexandre Steinlen- Chatau Claire

If men were trees, I would consider Mr. Dearborn to be an apple tree. Stooped, honest, and unassuming, his crooked limbs turned outward. His trunk, although stable, was twisted and thick, and his joints were gnarled and intriguing. His grayish face—like aged bark—was lined with experience. He was usually expressionless except for an occasional look of wonder. I don't remember him speaking clearly or often, only murmuring a few sounds that carried an occasional whistle.

The fruit that he bore came in the form of cats. Mr. Dearborn had at least fifty cats, if not more, which to a seven-year-old girl was much better than apples.

He lived on the road that led to Sandwich Notch, up a ways on the left-hand side, across from our long time family friend, Maisy Bloomberg. There wasn’t a Mrs. Dearborn or offspring that we knew about.

Until that summer, when my sister Susan, friend Lyn, and I discovered his feral barn cats, he was simply an old man who no one seemed to notice. It wasn’t long before he became the focal point of our very existence.

At first, we were a bit skeptical, unsure of how we would be able to play with the fascinating felines without interacting with the old man. We thought about just going into his yard and playing with them, but we might get in trouble, and no one in town seemed to say much about Mr. Dearborn. We never saw him at the store or the post office; we only caught glimpses of him in his window or shuffling out to his small, boarded-up barn where the cats jumped and played.

Finally, Lyn moved ahead with the direct plan, which required courage and was obviously the only one that would work. She and Susan stood on the wide granite slab step, and Lyn knocked hard on the weathered oak door. I stood on the grassy stoop watching the kitties frolic. I knew that if Mr. Dearborn did something unimaginable, I could run really fast.

The door opened a crack, and he leaned forward. “Hmmmmmm?” His oval, gold-rimmed glasses were fogged, and he had a sizeable tan hearing aide affixed on one ear.

“Can we play with your cats?” Lyn put her hands on her hips. Susan smiled.

“Hmmmm?” He ran his fingertips across the white fuzz on his head.

“Your cats! Can we play with your cats?” Lyn shouted.

I was proud and hoped that when I was ten-years-old that I would be so brave.

Susan pointed to the back yard where even more cats were filing out of a crack in the barn wall. “Cats.”

It was muggy, too hot for him to be wearing a tattered brown sweater buttoned all the way up to his chin. He looked over his glasses beyond Susan and Lyn and set his sights on me. I shrugged my shoulders just in case we were overstepping our bounds.

He may have smiled; I’m not sure. He scratched his head again. “Yesssss. I ‘spose.” He turned away and shut the door.

We dashed across town to Lyn’s house and got her Aunt Ginny’s wheelbarrow. Lyn had an elaborate plan, and that was to create a village for the cats. We would name them and assign a family and abode to each cat lucky enough to be selected.

“Hey! Where are you girls going with that wheelbarrow?” Billy rode towards us on his cool red Stingray bike with a banana seat and slammed on the brakes laying rubber on the asphalt. I was still young enough to be impressed, but luckily, I outgrew the likes of it.

“We’re going to get some cats from Mr. Dearborn’s and bring them down to Ginny’s to play.” Susan always leveled with Billy. Lyn turned her nose up and kept pushing.

“Does Ginny know?” Billy did a wheelie and stood holding his handlebars, front wheel in the air spinning.

“Mind your beeswax.” Lyn rolled her eyes.

Like everyone else who interacted with Lyn, Billy did as he was told. He mounted his bike and rode towards the playground where, if he could figure it out, minding his beeswax would be enjoyable.

When we got to Mr. Dearborn’s house, Lyn rolled the wheelbarrow across the uneven ground, to the barn. We immediately started chasing cats and putting them in the wheelbarrow. I went after a gray cat; it squirmed and scratched me. I tossed him in and wiped the blood from my arm onto my pedal pushers. Susan and Lyn were screeching and trying to keep the cats from escaping. Expressionless, Mr. Dearborn stood at the window, watching.

We came up with a method of transporting the cats. Lyn pushed the wheelbarrow; Susan held the cats down in the cart, and when one hopped out, I chased it and returned it to the cart. We managed to carry five cats at a time. It took us hours just to make it less than a quarter of a mile down the road.

This activity required a great deal of time and became our pursuit for a better part of the summer. About a dozen cats were willing to participate and cooperate as much as felinely possible. They were appropriately named and took their rightful place in the pecking order in the grand compound we had created.

All of us became accustomed to the drill. Gather the cats, fuss, and fumble with them until they are in the wheelbarrow, capture the ones that escape, and herd them into the compound.

On my eighth birthday, Susan, Lyn, and I were climbing my favorite tree (not too far from the compound) when I fell. I dislocated my shoulder, and my elbow suffered a compound fracture. I spent the summer in the hospital, in traction.

When I came home, I was elated when Susan and Lyn presented me with Smokey—my favorite—a gray, short hair with emerald green eyes. Apparently, Lyn and Susan told Mr. Dearborn of my accident and asked if they could give me one of the cats as a present. He agreed, which we girls thought was so generous. I preferred Smokey over all the others when we first met and began our cat escapades. He was mellow and seemed unaffected by the antics of the others—both human and feline.

Just over a decade ago, I returned home to Sandwich. When I drive through the hushed, unchanged village, I conjure a clear vision of three young girls giggling, scolding, and managing fidgety cats hopping in and out of a wheelbarrow. Proud of our determination and success, my heart warmed. We did not give up.

On my way to Sandwich Notch, I pass by Mr. Dearborn’s house—now boarded up. Out of the corner of my eye, I think that I see the shadow of a dead apple tree stooped over the granite step with a cat perched in the crook of the outstretched limb. I hesitate and sometimes almost turn around to see if it will come to me. But I continue on and smile as I recall how herding cats was wicked fun.

Excerpt: Heady Blossoms, Marya


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