Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Dallas Lore Sharp > Text of Calico And The Kittens

An essay by Dallas Lore Sharp

Calico And The Kittens

Title:     Calico And The Kittens
Author: Dallas Lore Sharp [More Titles by Sharp]

One spring day I found myself the sole help of two blind, naked infants--as near a real predicament as a man could well get. What did it matter that they had long tails and were squirrels? They were infants just the same; and any kind of an infant on the hands of any mere man is a real tragedy.

As I looked at the two callow things in the grass, a dismay and weak helplessness quite overcame me. The way they squirmed and shivered and squeaked worked upon me down even to my knees. I felt sick and foolish. Both of their parents were dead. Their loose leaf-nest overhead had been riddled with shot. I had climbed up and found them; I had brought them down; I must--feed them! The other way of escape were heathen.

But how could I feed them? Nipples, quills, spoons--none of them would fit these mites of mouths. What a miserable mother I was! How poorly equipped for foundlings! They were dying for lack of food; and as they pawed about and whimpered in my hands I devoutly wished the shot had put them all out of misery together. I was tempted to turn heathen and despatch them.

Unhappy but resolute, I started homeward, determined to rear those squirrels, if it could be done. On my way I remembered--and it came to me with a shock--that one of my neighbor's cats had a new batch of kittens. They were only a few days old. Might not Calico, their mother, be induced to adopt the squirrels!

Nothing could be more absurd. The kittens were three times larger than the squirrels. Even had they been the same size, did I think the old three-colored cat could be fooled? that she might not know a kitten of hers from some other mother's--squirrel? I was desperate indeed. Calico was a hunter. She had eaten more gray squirrels, perhaps, than I had ever seen. She would think I had been foraging for her--the mother of seven green kittens!--and would take my charges as titbits. Still I was determined to try.

My neighbor's kittens were enough and to spare. One of Calico's last year's lot still waited a good home; and here were seven more to be cared for. Might not two of these be spirited away, far away; the two squirrels substituted, and the old cat be none the wiser?

I went home by way of my neighbor's, and found Calico in the basement curled up asleep with her babies. She roused and purred questioningly as we bent over the basket, and watched with concern, but with no anxiety, as two of her seven were lifted out and put inside a hat upon a table. She was perfectly used to having her kittens handled. True, strange things had happened to them. But that was long ago; and there had been so very many kittens that no one mother could remember about them all. She trusted us--with an ear pricked and eyes watchful. But they were safe, and in a prideful, self-conscious, young-mother way she began to wash the five.

Some one stood between her and the hat when the kittens were lifted out and the squirrels were put in their place. Calico did not see. For a time she thought no more about them; she was busy washing and showing the others. By and by it began to look as though she had forgotten that there were more than five. She could not count. But most mothers can _number_ their children, even if they cannot count, and soon Calico began to fidget, looking up at the hat which the hungry, motherless squirrels kept rocking. Then she leaped out upon the floor, purring, and bounded upon the table, going straight to the young squirrels.

There certainly was an expression of surprise and mystification on her face as she saw the change that had come over those kittens. They had shrunk and faded from two or three bright colors to a single pale pink. She looked again and sniffed them. Their odor had changed, too. She turned to the watchers about the table, but they said nothing. She hardly knew what to think. She was half inclined to leave them and go back to the basket, when one of the squirrels whimpered--a genuine, universal baby whimper. That settled it. She was a mother, and whatever else these things in the hat might be, they were babies. That was enough, especially as she needed just this much baby here in the hat to make good what was lacking in the basket.

With a soft, caressing purr she stepped gently into the hat, took one of the squirrels by the neck, brought it to the edge of the table, and laid it down for a firmer hold; then sprang lightly to the floor. Over to the basket she walked and dropped it tenderly among her other babies. Then, having brought the remaining one and deposited that with the same mother-care, she got into the basket herself and curled down contentedly--her heart all whole.

And this is how strange a thing mother-love is! The performance was scarcely believable. Could she be so love-blind as not to see what they were and not eat them? But when she began to lick the little interlopers and cuddle them down to their dinner as if they were her own genuine kittens, there could be no more doubt or fear.

The squirrels do not know to this day that Calico is not their real mother. From the first they took her mother's milk and mother's love as rightfully and thanklessly as the kittens, growing, not like the kittens at all, but into the most normal of squirrels, round and fat and splendid-tailed.

Calico clearly recognized some difference between the two kinds of kittens, but _what_ difference always puzzled her. She would clean up a kitten and comb it slick, then turn to one of the squirrels and wash it, but rarely, if ever, completing the work because of some disconcerting un-catlike antic. As the squirrels grew older they also grew friskier, and soon took the washing as the signal for a frolic. As well try to wash a bubble. They were bundles of live springs, twisting out of her paws, dancing over her back, leaping, kicking, tumbling as she had never seen a kitten do in all her richly kittened experience.

I don't know why, but Calico was certainly fonder of these two freaks than of her own normal children. Long after the latter were weaned she nursed and mothered the squirrels. I have frequently seen them let into the kitchen when the old cat was there, and the moment they got through the door they would rush toward her, dropping chestnuts or cookies by the way. She in turn would hurry to meet them with a little purr of greeting full of joy and affection. They were shamefully big for such doings. The kittens had quit it long ago. Calico herself, after a while, came to feel the impropriety of mothering these strapping young ones, and in a weak, indulgent way tried to stop it. But the squirrels were persistent and would not go about their business at all with an ordinary cuff. She would put them off, run away from them, slap them, and make believe to bite; but not until she did bite, and sharply too, would they be off. All this seemed very strange and unnatural; yet a stranger thing happened one day, when Calico brought in to her family a full-grown gray squirrel which she had caught in the woods. She laid it down on the floor and called the kittens and squirrels to gather around. They came, and as the squirrels sniffed at the dead one on the floor there was hardly a mark of difference in their appearance. It might have been one of Calico's own nursing that lay there dead, so far as any one save Calico could see. And with her the difference, I think, was more of smell than of sight. But she knew her own; and though she often found her two out among the trees of the yard, she never was mistaken, nor for an instant made as if to hurt them.

Yet they could not have been more entirely squirrel had their own squirrel mother nurtured them. Calico's milk and love went all to cat in her own kittens, and all to squirrel in these that she adopted. No single hair of theirs turned from its squirrel-gray to any one of Calico's three colors; no single squirrel trait became the least bit catlike.

Indeed, as soon as the squirrels could run about they forsook the clumsy-footed kittens under the stove and scampered up back of the hot-water tank, where they built a nest. Whenever Calico entered the kitchen purring, out would pop their heads, and down they would come, understanding the mother language as well as the kittens, and usually beating the kittens to the mother's side.

So far from teaching them to climb and build nests behind water-tanks, their foster-mother never got over her astonishment at it. All they needed from her, all they needed and would have received from their own squirrel mother, was nourishment and protection until their teeth and legs grew strong. Wits were born with them; experience was sure to come to them; and with wits and experience there is nothing known among squirrels of their kind that these two would not learn for themselves.

And there was not much known to squirrels that these two did not know, apparently without even learning. As they grew in size they increased exceedingly in naughtiness, and were banished shortly from the kitchen to an ell or back woodshed. They celebrated this distinction by dropping some hickory-nuts into a rubber boot hanging on the wall, and then gnawing a hole through the toe of the boot in order to extract the hidden nuts. Was it mischief that led them to gnaw through rather than go down the top? Or did something get stuffed into the top of the boot after the nuts were dropped in? And did the squirrels _remember_ that the nuts were in there, or did they _smell_ them through the rubber?

One woodshed is big enough only for two squirrels. The family moved everything out but the wood, and the squirrels took possession for the winter. Their first nest had been built behind the hot-water tank. They knew _how_ to build without any teaching. But knowing how is not all there is to know about building; knowing _where_ is very important, and this they had to learn.

Immediately on coming to the woodshed the squirrels began their winter nest, a big, bulky, newspaper affair, which they placed up in the northwest corner of the shed directly under the shingles. Here they slept till late in the fall. This was the shaded side and the most exposed corner of the whole house; but all went well until one night when the weather suddenly turned very cold. A strong wind blew from the northwest hard upon the squirrels' nest.

The next day there was great activity in the woodshed--a scampering of lively feet, that began early in the morning and continued far toward noon. The squirrels were moving. They gathered up their newspaper nest and carried it--diagonally--across the shed from the shaded northwest to the sunny southeast corner, where they rebuilt and slept snug throughout the winter.

Calico did not teach them this; neither would their own squirrel mother have taught them. They knew how, to begin with. They knew _where_ after one night of experience, which in this case had to be a night of shivers.

[The end]
Dallas Lore Sharp's essay: Calico And The Kittens