Fred and Her Big Gift

Dedicated to Marjorie and our fur friends:
Bennie, Riley, Remo and the ladies – Kissimmee, and Sage

 

Violet cleared her throat, licked dry lips, and glanced toward the teacher.

 

Miss Moore smiled and nodded encouragement. Violet wiped her sweaty palms against the skirt of her calico dress and began with only a brief stutter.

“Um. Hello. My name is Violet Edwards, and I am in the third grade.” Even though she was well-known to her classmates, a peek at her teacher confirmed she had correctly performed the required formal introduction.

Relieved, she said, “Fred is my cat. She’s a calico Maine Coon and bigger than any cat I’ve seen.” She connected her thumb and forefinger on both hands into an over-sized circle and held them up. “Her paws are this big, and she’s this tall,” as Violet indicated a spot just above her knees. “She has ear and toe tufts, which my mom calls bedroom slipper feet.”

Laughter erupted.

Undaunted, Violet continued, “Well, I ‘spose I should explain her name seein’s how Fred is a girl.”

The teacher cleared her throat, and Violet realized she had used improper grammar. Her face reddened. Gram and Ma often reminded and corrected her speech.

Sheepish, she said, “I was six the day she scratched at our back door. To hear her tell it, Ma said I insisted her name was Fred. We didn’t know that calico cats are always ladies. But by then, it was too late. Truth told, I was tired of trying to explain that Fred was a girl and not a boy. So, we left it at that,” she shrugged. “Besides, she’s big and fluffy, and you can’t tell the difference.”

A hand raised at the back of the room. Miss Moore acknowledged the classmate who stood and said with a snigger, “How’d you learn she was a girl?” As the teacher’s eyebrows raised at his cheeky question, he sat to his best friend’s guffaw.

A bit breathless at being able to share a favorite tidbit, Violet wriggled, eager as a puppy to begin. “Well, it was spring, and the boot box by the fireplace was near empty. Everything had been cleaned and stored so, aside from extra socks and a couple of worn slippers, it was empty. It was a warm, cozy spot, so Fred made good use of it.

“I was setting the table and heard the strangest sound. So, I checked the box, thinking the noise came from there. The crate has high sides, and inside were tiny kittens seeking their mama. She was busy, cleaning her babies and rightly proud of herself.

“At my holler, Ma came. Our Fred was busy, and we didn’t want to disturb her while she did her cat-mom job. Once her kitties were clean and tidy, Ma fetched an old towel. She lifted the babies out of the box, Fred too, so she might make it Spic and Span®.

“It was something special,” she said as delight-tinged her voice. “It was magical to hold the kits. There in my lap were blind, mewing, itty-bitty shapes rolling and searching for mamma. I hated to put them back, but Fred seemed anxious, so we placed her babies inside. I don’t know much after that as I had to set the table and finish my chores.
 

“By my ninth birthday, Fred had three litters, each larger than the last. The first she had five babies, the second there were seven. I think the last set she birthed ten, but one of them didn’t make it,” she said with downcast eyes. Remembering Gram’s efforts to revive the tiny kitten, her shoulders slumped. Understandably Violet’s grief was echoed by many classmates. Well used to the vagaries of farm life, everyone had experienced similar losses.

“But long as we have Fred, Ma and Pa won’t let me keep a kitten as it wouldn’t be fair to her. Otherwise, it was easy to find homes for such a ‘prestigious’ litter,” Violet said with pride at having used the word correctly.

“You see, this being Maine, that’s our state cat. We read about the breed in the county library’s Encyclopedia Britannica. People call them the ‘dogs of the world’ because they act more like man’s best friend than any dumb ole’ dog,” she said, drawing out the last three words for emphasis.

Not wanting to be faulted for disparaging canines, Violet grimaced at her teacher, expecting a reprimand. Relieved to realize Miss Moore seemed intent on trying not to laugh, Violet continued her story.

“And, Fred is more special than just being a girl and extra-large. She’s our guard cat and spends most of her day perched on an old post.” Violet paused to make sure she still had their attention.

“She sits there even though the fence and the gate are long gone. I see her being sentry watching the road and the neighbor’s chickens against hawks,” she said with a nod, knowing many understood the need to protect against fowl-stealing critters. “She swishes her tail, and that’s a sight for sure. It comes half-way down the post and is akin to a ‘potentate’s fan,’ Ma says,” even if Violet wasn’t sure what that meant. “Frankly, it’s her best feature,” she said with a single shake of her ponytail.

“How much further do I tell?” she asked Miss Moore.

“You’re doing fine.” Addressing the class, her teacher said, “With a quiet show of hands, who wants to hear more regarding Violet’s adventure with Fred?”

Seemingly synchronized, every child’s hand shot up, some wriggling fingers by way of emphasis.

“Well, there you have it. Miss Edwards, please continue.”

A quick breath followed as Violet considered what next to share. Most already knew her story, but not everyone. Sometimes it was nice to hold something of yourself inside and not share it all. But maybe not today.

“This summer past Papa and Gram came to live with us. I am glad because Gram is a good cook,” she said with twinkling eyes. “Since there are five of us, Pa decided he was ready to buy a Frigidaire,” she said in a rush, not wanting to sound uppity. “It’s a long way into the city, so they needed to stay overnight. That meant Papa and Gram stayed home with me.”

On hearing of the new luxury, several classmates were open-mouthed. Most had ice closets that held block ice for refrigeration. Less than ideal, they were indispensable in a kitchen where butter, cream, and whole milk needed to be kept cold.

“Well, this is where my yarn takes a turn,” she said, using one of her Papa’s favorite adventure-telling phrases. “Took a while to sleep cause both Gram and Papa are fierce snorers.”

Rippling laughter sounded.

Violet shrugged, grinned lopsidedly, and then continued, “They are something to hear, especially Papa. Ma told me the two had been together for fifty-five years, and I believe it. They did everything together, including snore in syncopation,” pleased once again to have used a big word to satisfaction. She studied the dictionary every night alongside Gram and was elated to apply what she’d learned.

“So, you can understand what I mean; there’s a sound a windmill makes as their blades rotate. There’s a low sound followed by a higher screech that’s sharp and then fades as they spin. It sounded much the same those two. He snores deep and low, and hers takes off after he finishes. Fortunately, once I closed both bedroom doors, it wasn’t so bad.”

She reddened slightly and said, “Oh! I’m wandering a bit. Besides, I wanted to mention that because it was troublesome before I figured out to shut the doors.”

Violet scanned her classmates. It felt good to know she had their interest. Pleased, especially that Miss Moore cheered her on.

“Where was I?” She pondered a second, nodded, and resumed her account. “Well, my door never shut well, or at least I assumed so until I saw Fred turn the doorknob.”

Noting incredulous expressions, she said, “I’m not fooling. When Fred stretches, she can reach the handle.” She held her hand in a ‘scout’s honor’ position, “She comes and goes as she pleases unless there’s a bolt or the door is locked.

“That night, when I was deep asleep, Fred tried to wake me. I feel as if it took her a while because I had weird dreams. First, she walked across my tummy, patted me on the cheek, and then scratched me.

“Still mostly asleep, I rolled to my side. You will never guess what Fred did next.” Violet paused, gratified to see everyone appeared eager for her to continue.

“You know this thin strip between your nostrils?” she said, grasping the area. At a couple of head nods, she continued. “That’s called the septum, and well, that’s where Fred bit me!

“It wasn’t hard or anything,” she said to her class’ collective indrawn breath. “She held fast to get my attention, and criminy did she have it! I don’t think she let go until I sat up.” Violet grimaced at the memory, rubbing her nose as she did so.

“Anyhow, while I complained, she bit my hand and then stared. It wasn’t a blood-draw bite but did bruise the next day, so I knew she meant business. That’s when things got weird.

“I’m not sure I believe it myself, but Fred talked …”

Ignoring sniggers, Violet said, “Fred said, quite clearly… ‘Come. Help.’ Well, if I wasn’t awake before, I was then! By the way, she has a pleasant kitty voice.”

Genuine laughter erupted as children leaned forward, impatient to hear her tale, including those who already knew the end.

“I dressed and tied my shoes though one was a problem. My lace broke and was tough to tie. I grabbed my jacket and followed my cat. On the landing, I listened for my grandparents, and their snoring hadn’t changed one jot,” she said with a chuckle and a grin.

“As we passed through the living room, Fred tried to drag my mom’s granny-square afghan out the door. I giggled, so Fred gave me a dirty look. However, with a cat’s face, how can you be sure?” she said with a shrug.

Unbridled merriment continued for some moments.

A ‘tsk’ sounded.

A glance toward her teacher had Violet decide to rephrase what she had said. “Well, Fred maybe just hooked a claw, but it did seem she wanted it. I figured it was a good idea, in case someone was hurt. So, I rolled and tucked it under my arm, being careful not to let the screen door slam. Outside Fred paced along the walk, her tail swishing in that imperial manner she has,” Violet said, perfectly echoing her mother’s tone.

“Fred led me through the orchard. It was full dark, but she was easy to follow,” Violet said, then looked abashed, realizing she needed to explain. “Her backside is mostly white, so I didn’t have much difficulty in that regard.”

After the classes’ next outburst, Miss Moore raised a finger to her lips for quiet and then nodded to Violet. She was eager as her students to hear the rest.

“My Pa had cleared a lot of riverside brambles in early spring, and they dried and hardened into the most wicked thorn patch. Fred led me there. From a distance, I espied something wrong, but it was so dark it was hard to tell for certain. The moon had not risen, so the light was scarce. I was surprised because as I came closer, I discovered a little nipper caught by the stickers.”

Everyone, including Miss Moore, uttered an ‘oh’ sound.

“He was properly snagged, too. At first, I couldn’t make out which was his head, arm, or leg as he was a bit sideways. I felt around and started to cut ‘im away,” she said, her nervousness having fled as she recalled the night.

“Of course,” she said, puffing with undisguised pride, “That would’ve been nigh impossible if it hadn’t been for my Swiss Army knife.” With that, she stuck her hand into her dress pocket and displayed a bright red pocketknife emblazoned with a well-known white cross.

“Pa granted permission to bring it so you could see. But under no circumstances am I to open it,” she said, shaking her head side to side. She held it aloft by one end and handed the treasure to her teacher.

“Santa brought the knife for Christmas, though I have to say Ma was rather against it. She said girls shouldn’t have knives. But then didn’t have much to say once I pointed out she and Gram use knives every day in the kitchen.”

With a chuckle, she indicated the shiny red knife Miss Moore was gracious enough to hold aloft. “It has all sorts of nifty things. There’s a miniature saw, scissors, a can opener, and two blades.”

Returning to her story, she said, “The little boy was tiny. Once I figured out which was his head, I used the scissors on his hair. I then used the small blade to free both legs ‘afore I did his hands and arms. I was afraid he might try to pull himself out too soon, so that came last. I also didn’t want to cut him by mistake. By now, he wasn’t crying so much as whimpering, calling for his mama.

“By the time I finished, he was crying full-on. I didn’t want to be hunting for his parents what with him wailing like a banshee. Being so small, I wrapped ‘im in the granny afghan and carried him home. He settled down a mite in my arms but kept having shudders; he’d been bawling so hard.

“Golly was Gram surprised. When I arrived, she’d been in the backhouse and was washing up. She was rightly amazed when I handed her the bundled afghan.

“She roused Papa, and between them they had the tyke cleaned, bandaged, fed and asleep in my bed. Of course, they praised me for discovering the boy and asked how I knew to look.

“I didn’t want them to think I was crazy, so I said I’m not sure, maybe an angel told me. All the while, Fred kept stropping my legs, landing headbutts as she purred loud enough for the neighbors to hear.

“Come first light, the sheriff was called. He and his deputies found no sign of the boy’s folks, though they did spot his footprints on the riverbank. The sheriff said tracks started at the water’s edge and led away to where he ended in the briars. He thinks maybe a skiff landed against the bank to leave the child.”

Violet paused for a long moment. In a distracted voice, she said, “Pa said the Depression was hard on a lot of folks. There’s many can’t feed or clothe themselves, let alone their kids.” Her face reflected sadness as she gazed at the floor, and her chest contracted. The class was unusually quiet as they too reflected on the tragedy of an abandoned youngster.

She shifted her feet and looked at her classmates. “Later, I overheard Gram talking about Moses and his rush boat on the river’s edge, discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter. Maybe this is like that, and his mama tried to keep him from harm. Setting him ashore was the best she could figure to do if they were in dire straits. You can see our porch light from the slough bend, so maybe she hoped we might keep him when she couldn’t.

“Well, that’s it except to say even the judge thought it was a good idea to adopt him, seeing how his people left him on our farm, sort of as a gift. So, Ma and Pa did, and we named him Joel. Fred spends her time between the fence post, his crib, and the foot of my bed, making sure we’re all safe.”

Violet huffed a breath and clasped her hands behind her back. She stood taller as her tale came to an end; her expression somehow more mature.

“Even if only me believes that Fred talked that night, I know because of her, we saved a little boy. Joel gets to live with us as my new brother. It’s a good thing. Isn’t it?” she said to robust clapping and a few cheers, one of which was Miss Moore’s.

Author's Comment

Writing, for me, has always been about scratching an itch, best relieved with placing thoughts to paper. With my short stories, the gratification is instant and the pleasure tenfold, especially when the work allows an enjoyable read for someone else. Now that I’ve retired and can write anytime, anywhere, I often wake to half-heard conversations, plot lines, or character sketches taking place in my subconscious. It’s great entertainment, even if still half-baked.

Bio

Darlene Stickel is enamored with words, their power, and unique qualities that elicit emotion, empathy, or entertainment. For her, they resonate color and complexity and, when used well, are like brushstrokes of an old-world master on a fresh canvas. In 1982, an epiphany awakened her desire to become a novelist. In the intervening years, she improved at crafting emails and business communiqués. Now retired, she’s gathered disjointed first drafts, rough notes, recorded dreams, new inspiration, and is on the cusp of a long-held dream.

2 thoughts on “Fred and Her Big Gift

  1. This story is delightful. I love that not only can you write, but you can draw as well (that is your signature on the picture of Fred, isn’t it?)

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