Dusty: Cat, Friend & Mouser Extraordinaire

Best friends - Dusty & I (circa 1970)

Dusty was a very special friend to me. He came into my life when I was 9 years old, born to a stray (who had adopted our family 2 years earlier) named Smoky. His mother had had 2 litters previous to his, but the tomcat got them all. This time, Dusty was the only one that escaped, because my father was able to hide him in the hayloft before it was too late.

Dusty was spoiled rotten by his mother Smoky, since she could devote herself solely to him. She was a great mother, and we watched with fascination as she eventually started to teach him all about the important hunt. She first brought home her catches and would eat it in front of him, allowing him to sniff and examine. Next, he would try nibbling on a mouse or shrew; he found he rather liked them. Once he got a taste of them, Smoky couldn't keep them coming fast enough! He literally stuffed himself, the little piggy! We would laugh, wondering how many today. I think the record was 5 mice she brought in, and all for her son. Eventually, she started bringing her prey home alive, and would present them to him and we'd see how he would play with them, and not know what to make of them, and then his mother would show him how it - the kill - was done. It was humane, really - cats take a mouse by the neck, make a quick bite, severing the spinal cord (or as my father would say when he witnessed it, the cat would do a coup de grĂ¢ce...) It was an amazing process to watch over a short time as Dusty was growing up. It's another story, but during this critical time, he lost his mother. But she was there long enough to help him grow up. He never forgot his lessons, and was an amazing mouser the rest of his long life.

Dusty and I hung out a lot.  We slept together, we hunted together, we played together, we took walks together.  He wasn't sure what to make of my horses, but he sometimes played chicken with them!  He was pretty brave, sniffing noses with Sunny a few times, considering how much bigger Sunny was compared to him.  He loved to show off his kills, and would often come trotting out of the pasture or woods, proudly carrying a mouse, vole, shrew, gopher, or other feline delicacy, for us to crow over.  I swear, he looked so proud every time!  We'd pause whatever we were doing, Mom would even come out of the house, and we'd watch with fascination as he went through the cat ritual:  play, torture, play some more, let the prey think they were escaping, then viola, execution!  He would usually eat the head first, which he particularly seemed to enjoy (BRAINS!)  He invariably would leave nothing but...the tail.  Sometimes, even when we weren't there as an audience, we would come home later to find a tail or two on the steps.

Dusty in his (doll) bed, getting ready to go to sleep...
I was very fortunate to be at my parents' home when Dusty passed away.  One night he wanted to go to bed, but couldn't get down the stairs on his own.  He was 18 now, and his arthritis was catching up to him.  I took him downstairs in my arms, and tucked him into the doll bed, his bed for so many years.  In the morning, he wasn't up at the top step rattling the door like usual.  I wasn't immediately alarmed since he had had a hard time getting downstairs the night before, so I went down to help him get back upstairs.  When I got to his bed, he was curled up like he was still sleeping.  But he wasn't sleeping anymore.  His beautiful body was already cold and stiff.  Dusty was gone, having crossed over the Rainbow Bridge.  I cried and cried like a baby that day.  It was the middle of the winter, so he had to be put in the shed until spring to be buried.  Wrapping him up and saying goodbye was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.  But I'm so glad despite the pain, that I was there with him to the end.  Eighteen years is a long time to be a friend to a cat, and I felt privileged to have been a friend to one named Dusty...


Butchering Day

On the chopping block...

I remember the last time my family butchered chickens.  I was three years old.

I had spent the summer wandering around our yard, curious about the woods, but afraid to explore them yet.

The smell:  hot water mixed with chicken blood and feathers in the old copper boiler...

Running around the adults as they dispatched bird after bird, I stayed away, keeping a distance so I could see, but not so close at to get in the way.  I was told "don't get close" - sharp knives, hot water, blood and guts.

My grandmother and mother took them after their heads were cut off and they were hung up to bleed out. Grandma and Mom did the butchering in the yard right outside the kitchen, between the house and woods, just east of the big tree swing.  They worked on a table of planks over some saw horses; the birds were gutted, sliced open and bare hand reaching in, organs pulled out.  Smokey the cat milled around not far away, hoping for some fresh giblets.  Next they were put in the hot water, to help with removing the feathers. Final step was rinsing them inside and out.  In the end, they had went from feathered friend, to Sunday dinner, all in an afternoon...

I didn't know it then, but it was a sort of initiation.  I now knew what fewer people know nowadays: Where my food comes from.  My family didn't do it to save the earth, or eat healthier, but because they needed to, to get by. Our family was able to help themselves by having a garden, some livestock, and skills to process them into healthy delicious food on our table. What a blessing!