Always Up for a Fight

When I was fifteen, my mother gave me a kitten. I had wanted a cat since mine had run away when I was eight. But my step-father didn’t like cats. Since my mother had split from her husband a few months previously, I had been lobbying for a cat. She didn’t see the harm and put it on her list as a big deal birthday gift that wouldn’t be a big cash outlay.

The kitten was just a domestic shorthair. He was all black except for a tiny bow tie and small bikini. He was a fiery little handful that taken from his mother too young, but he reminded me of a panther and I named him Bagheera after the character in The Jungle Book.

We became playmates instantly, and I started teaching him some fun tricks. I could put him on the floor and pat my hip, inviting him to climb. He would run up my pant leg into my arms, which was very endearing to me. My grandmother, however, did not find it endearing when he tried to climb up her stockings. Boundaries.

Baggy, as my mother called him, liked to ride around on my shoulder and quickly learned how to climb all the way up there on his own. At night he would insist on being in my room and would sleep on my back. I always slept on my belly, so Baggy found a snuggly spot on the back of my neck when he was small. As he grew, he found a larger snuggle spot in the small of my back.

From three months old, I took him outdoors to relieve himself. I wasn’t much into cleaning litter boxes. One day he was playing in our front bushes when the cat from next door came to visit. Baggy was ready to play, but Charles from next door smacked him around instead. Baggy was so frightened that he peed himself, which may have scared Charles off.

From that point on, I taught my kitten to fight. I would knock him over on his back and grab at his belly so he would grab on and get his back feet into the fight. Then I would spin him around and send him sliding across the wood floors of our living room and growl at him so he would come running back at my hand and dive at it. He became ferocious in his attacks and after a while I needed to wear a work glove to protect my hand. He hated that glove and would attack it with delight, on or off of my hand.

Baggy became a great mouser and the bane of all squirrels, chipmunks, and baby rabbits. After a while, Charles again attacked my half-grown kitten. This time it was Charles, an overgrown house cat, who was scared half to death. He ran home to mommy, and she gave him the sympathy he wanted, calling my kitten a monster for hurting her “poor Charles.”

Bagheera roamed the neighborhood the same way I did. From the house, I could see him going up the road or down to the marsh. When I called him from the door. He would come home, so he wasn’t going too far in those early days.

When he was a year old, we moved to Old Saybrook and lived on Main Street. It worried me that the busy street would be a problem, but the backyard and garage held so many adventures he seemed to stay out back. I often saw him exploring the cornfield, chasing field mice and sneaking up on birds. He cleared the old house of mice before spring. Then he concentrated on the squirrels and the blue jays.

He became a large cat and could make any other cat in the neighborhood back down. But he tangled with a raccoon once, and the critter didn’t back down from the threat Baggy posed. I don’t know how the raccoon fared overall, but Baggy came out of it with a nasty split in his tongue. The wound was infected at first, but it got better and healed with a fork in the tip. His first major battle scar.

We moved again after a year-and-a-half, that time to the top of Ferry Hill. The house had ten acres and a lot of squirrels and rabbits. Most of the hill was undeveloped, so he had about 40 acres to roam without interference. But that wasn’t enough.

I used to walk to work down at the nursing home under the Baldwin Bridge. I worked overnight there for a few months in the winter of 1980/81. I followed the old driveway down to Springbrook Road and crossed Route 9, cut across the parking lot of HoJo’s and followed the road from there. It cut off a good five minutes from going under the bridge and out by Floral Park.

One morning, I picked up his footprints in the snow. I followed them from the dumpster at the restaurant, up the bank, across the highway, up the other bank, across the road and up the same old driveway that I used for my shortcut. The tracks led right to the house where Baggy was waiting outside the door. I don’t know if he found the dumpster on his own or if he had followed my tracks and found it on the way.

Bagheera kept his kittenish ways and habits his whole short life. When we lived on Ferry Hill, I used to play hide-and-seek with my younger siblings all over the yard. While I crouched down at the edge of a bush by the corner of the house, Baggy sprang out of the bushes, whacked me on the side of the head, and ran off around the house. I didn’t know he knew how to play tag.

In February 1981, Bagheera didn’t come home. It was common for him to stay away for a day or so, but not in such cold weather, and not for two days at a stretch. They had fired me from the nursing home, but I walked the path where I had seen his tracks, half expecting to find him mangled alongside of the road or the highway. I found no trace.

We had a lot of snow that winter, but as it melted in mid-march, I spotted a black patch in the woods near Drummer Trail as I drove down the hill. I went down to investigate. It was him, uncharacteristically lifeless and cold, but intact. No wounds from a car. No bites from animals. He was just a little damp.

As I hugged him and said goodbye, I was pleased that he lived his life and gave his love to me for three years. I had worried what would become of him when I went away to boot camp later that year, but now that was settled. The garden where I buried him is still undisturbed, even though the house next to it is long gone. He is perfectly fine.

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