Midnight was the what they called her, although she was calico colored with splotches of orange and white fur intermingled with the black. Black was the predominant color within that swirl, and she was often invisible, seeming to appear only when she chose, as if she moved within a perpetual night, so the name seemed fitting. Her every movement had a calculated wariness, as though she expected the universe to bare its claws at any moment.
When it did, she would reply in kind. They all could recall the day the neighbor’s dog took it into his head to attack her. He charged, fangs bared, as she emerged from under the step. Though they expected her to disappear back under where he couldn’t reach her, Midnight stood her ground, not even flinching as the dog approached. Just as he arrived, looking to snap his muzzle into her neck, she struck, one quick paw, barbed with claws, on his snout. He scurried away whimpering, and seemed reluctant to look in her direction again, while she went upon her way.
There were harder things in the world than her, though she refused to bend toward them. One day, as the weather turned crisp and leaves began to change their colors, she left the step and her four kittens, crossing over through the garden, under the fence and into the haystacks. These were always teeming with mice, which she would catch with ease. Some she would take back to the kittens to play with and to learn the lessons they needed to learn.
As she stalked one mouse through the maze of of hay bales, intent on its scurrying form, she failed to notice the coyote. It was there as both she and the mouse burst out from the bales, staring at them as if it had expected her all along. With a snap of its jaws the mouse was dead. Midnight came to a sudden halt and glared, while the coyote snarled at her.
Another cat might have fled immediately, but Midnight knew better. She hissed, her hair standing up on end, even as she crouched lower to the ground. The coyote froze in turn—for only a second—unsure what to make of this cat, pondering whether it would be more trouble than it was worth. That was all the time Midnight needed. She was gone, fleeing into the bales and beyond, back to the yard and the trees that surrounded it. She was halfway up one before the coyote even realized where she had gone.
Who knew how many such near misses she had. She never counted them. It was simply another day on the knife’s edge of life and death. And she had dealt out enough death to have no illusions of what would come for her someday. But not that day, and not for so many that followed.
The seasons turned with a steady regularity. Winters were spent huddled in secret crevices of the barn, where mice could always be found, with only the odd sorties outside for mice and birds, and whatever scraps they put out on the step. In the spring she would appear, after a worrying absence of a few days, with four or five tiny kittens, their eyes barely opened. She would leave them under the step and disappear into the barn, the bins or hay stacks, to hunt for mice. After a month or two, when the kittens were big enough to move about easily, she would take them out, one by one and teach them all she knew of hunting.
But mostly, or so it seemed, she was alone, seen only in fleeting glimpses as she made her way among her favorite hunting grounds and sleeping haunts. This was what they thought of as her natural state. And inevitably, it was one she returned to as summer turned to fall and the kittens grew older. Some would see the winter, but many did not, snapped up into the jaws of coyotes or in the talons of an owl or hawk.
She remained, constant as the years, even as so much changed around her. The barn fell into disrepair, no longer having a purpose. The cattle, which had once filled the pens, were gone. And they were gone too, the house they lived in empty. They did not pass up and down the steps, did not leave out little scraps of food for her or the kittens. The haystacks, where she had once hunted, dwindled and were gone.
Another winter came and the usual places she found warmth—the barn and the shed—did not offer quite the same protection. The snow and wind managed to find her wherever she huddled, and the cold was difficult to ignore, as it had not been when she was younger. There were days when she did not leave whatever crevice she had tucked herself in, and when she did finally emerge, she was stiff and sore, seemingly hardly able to move. Her whiskers and some of the fur around them began to turn grey, adding another color to her coat.
It was a long, hard winter, bitter with cold and heavy with snow. She found it difficult to find mice, who hid beneath the drifts of snow where she could not go. Spring came eventually and she emerged with it, a worn and wasted thing, barely clinging to survival.
But along with the return of warmth and green things, they arrived. The barn was torn down and another built. Cattle returned to the pens and, later in the summer, the haystack was restored. Mice were plentiful and food was left on the step again, and Midnight was soon herself again, if a little leaner than she had once been.
They tried to coax Midnight to come near enough to touch with treats and other things, but she would wait until after they had given up before she would approach and eat. They soon abandoned any attempts, catching glimpses of her here and there, watching them warily before going on her way. If they could have put words to the look in her eyes it would have been: this world is mine.
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