Guest Story: MINOU

Hi everyone,

Please find below a guest story by Ronald Peeleman which he originally wrote for the book “French Stones: Life in a 12th Century Crusader’s Castle,”.:

Soon after moving into their brand new offices, the mairie declared war on Saint Siffret’s cats.

The announcement came in the form of a document placed in the display case at the side of the mairie where building permit applications were usually posted. Stamped with blue and red seals (so everyone knew it should be taken seriously), it announced that the commune “once again” intended to combat the village’s feral cat population. Only this time, the document stressed—they meant business!

It made for funny reading, because the sternness with which it was written suggested irritation on the mairie’s part, which was entirely understandable, given what we’d heard had happened during the prior anti-cat campaign.

There was no question that Saint Siffret had a feral cat problem. We’d seen it for ourselves one day, when, during a peaceful stroll through the village (perhaps distracted by the beauty of the place, or having become lost in conversation) we mindlessly turned a corner and found ourselves in a very bad cat place.

Easily twenty feral cats loitered at the front of an unprepossessing house toward the end of the street. The cats louchely lay in the middle of the street, were strung across the home’s lower story window ledges, and gathered beneath a ragged-looking shrub across the way. They were a grisly bunch. Ears had been chewed off in battles, eyes put out in brawls, and wide patches of fur had gone missing in kerfuffles.

The cats spotted us the moment we turned into the street. Twenty heads instantly swiveled in our direction, and forty eyes (more or less) regarded us with suspicion as we approached. The cats, both in number and unattractiveness, were an intimidating sight, and brought us to a stop. We looked at them. They looked at us.

“This feels weird,” Linda said. “Should we keep going?”

“They’re cats,” I said dismissively and moved forward, but began to question the wisdom of my decision as we drew closer to the feline mob. The cats tenaciously held their ground and glared at us as we approached, trying to bluff us into turning back. And it almost worked. But the tails of those hiding beneath the shrub began to flicker nervously as we drew closer, and they were the first to run. Others, in small pairings, followed. The oldest and toughest cats, however, stayed where they were. They clustered in tight groups near the home’s stoop and stared daggers at us as we approached, their elongated bodies kept low, heads even lower, the tips of their tails always slightly in motion.

I took pains not to make eye contact with the cats as we passed by, figuring it would only cause trouble. But I snuck a quick glance out of the corner of my eye toward the end, and realized that none of these cats were going hungry.

They couldn’t possibly have, with all the food set out for them by the old woman who lived there. Plastic bowls of various colors and sizes cluttered the house’s doorstep, ran along window ledges, and were placed beneath the shrub opposite. A bowl had even been positioned on top of the creaky wooden shed across the street.

Unfortunately for us, the street dead-ended, and when we turned around we saw that the cats had regrouped, meaning we would once again have to run the gauntlet. And it was only then that we understood how having a mob of cats ruling the neighborhood might lead someone to call the mairie and demand that something be done about the situation.

But launching a feral cat removal program—and having it succeed—were two entirely different things, and everyone we spoke to seemed to think that it was highly likely that the mairie’s latest initiative was doomed to fail, just like the prior campaign had.

Villagers told us that the first campaign had begun with a burst of optimism. The mairie posted flyers throughout the village which informed Saint Siffretians that the feral cats in the village were unsightly (everyone would have agreed); posed a potential health hazard (a definite possibility, given their mangy nature); and did not present a visitor-friendly image for one of the prettiest villages in the region (heads would have nodded in approval). Further, the mairie assured, only humane traps would be used, and every cat that was caught would be taken to an animal shelter where it would be well treated.

Feeling confident that the citizenry would support their effort, the mairie put out the traps…and a few days later came to the realization that they had been stolen.

Worried that the same thing might happen again, the mairie made pointed reference in their announcement to “some” in the village who had in the past taken it upon themselves to interfere with the “most necessary program,” and stressed that stiff fines would be levied against anyone caught removing the traps.

Everyone having been duly warned, the mairie again put out the traps. And they disappeared, just like the earlier ones had.

This shouldn’t have surprised anyone. The well-meaning people at the mairie had simply failed to take into account their fellow French citizens who, deep within their genes, coupled a strong rebellious streak with an instinctive affinity for the downtrodden: the downtrodden in this case being the village’s wild cats. When we took walks in the village it was almost laughable to see how many more people than usual had put out food for them.

And there was no question that the people of Saint Siffret appreciated and supported their mayor. Most people endorsed the mairie’s initiative. But no one much liked the idea of trapping animals either, and after a while, the mairie flew the white flag and focused their attention on less controversial items of business.

One evening, as Linda and I took a post-pogrom walk through the village, a wisp of a kitten—more shadow than solid—slipped through the cracks of a pair of ancient, barely held-together wooden barn doors and bounded cheerfully up to us. It had jet-black fur and the tiny brass bell on her red collar tinkled prettily as she brushed against Linda’s legs.

Linda was instantly won over and bent down to pet the singularly friendly kitten. “You’re so pretty, but why are you out all alone at night?” she cooed, using the tone of voice she usually reserved for young children.

Then she quickly stood up and turned to me, and I could see she was troubled. “She’s starving,” Linda said, almost whispering. “Her ribs are showing. Feel them.”

I bent down, and found it impossible not to be dismayed as I felt the sharp ridges of the kitten’s ribs when I stroked its side, each outlined in bold relief. Now I was the one left with the questions. She was such a pretty and friendly little thing. Why was no one feeding her? Especially in this village of cat lovers?

Linda bent down again and resumed petting the kitten, the cat reveling in the attention it was being given. “She has a collar on,” Linda observed. “So someone’s taking care of her. But I wonder why she’s so skinny.”

“She’s been abandoned,” I blurted out, surprised at how quickly the words had come, and we instinctively knew it was true.

“What should we do?” Linda asked, as she gently ran her thumb between the kitten’s eyes, which purred loudly.

What indeed? We could return every evening to feed her, but then what? We were scheduled to fly home in less than two weeks.

“There’s nothing to do,” I offered weakly, and Linda sighed in response. She gave her kitten a sad look, another pat, and then we stood up and walked away, a deep pit growing in both our stomachs.

But the kitten followed us. We were sure she’d turn back at the end of the street, and when she didn’t, we thought she’d do so after we reached the castle gate; but it trotted happily all the way to the courtyard with us, where she found the old stone well worthy of investigation.

“Don’t let her leave, I’ll get some food,” Linda instructed, and hurried up the stairs. I took a seat on the lower steps and watched the kitten explore the area. Our little visitor sniffed at the lavender plants, keenly and cutely watched the haphazard flight of a moth fluttering by, and then suddenly bolted—surprisingly fast—for the cover of the oleander bushes next to the Dumoutier’s wall, and hid there.

Something had spooked her. It was completely dark now, and difficult to make the kitten out, hidden as she was deep within the shrubbery. She kept her head bent low, almost level with the ground, and her wide, innocent—but clearly fearful—eyes peered out from beneath the thick cover.

Experience told me to be still and wait, and a few moments later I heard a slight something on the gravel at the far side of the courtyard. Slowly, cautiously, a thick-set orange cat began to cross the open area. It was an ugly thing, taut and muscular. One of Saint Siffret’s feral cats.

I began to understand that the kitten was an intruder in the larger cat’s territories. It explained why she was so skinny. The village’s stray cats, older, bigger, tougher, didn’t allow her near the food bowls, and it was nothing short of a miracle that our plucky little kitten had managed to survive on the margins.

Our front door opened, and the light from within flooded the courtyard. Seeing it, and then Linda at the head of the stairs, the cat sprinted through the courtyard and jumped over a low wall and disappeared.

Linda held a plate in her hands on which she’d piled more slices of ham than any cat, much less a kitten, could ever eat, and was surprised to see me sitting on the steps alone. “Where is she?” she asked. “Did she leave?”

I pointed. “Beneath the oleanders. A big cat scared her.”

Linda nodded and crossed the courtyard to where the kitten was hiding, and called for her to come out. But she wouldn’t.

“Come on sweetie,” Linda urged, holding out the plate, and turned to me after several fruitless attempts. “She doesn’t want to,” she complained.

“That big cat has her spooked. You should put some food on the flat rock next to the stairs,” I suggested. “Then we’ll go inside and see if she comes out.”

Linda wasn’t overly keen on the idea (she wanted to play with her kitten) and again tried to coax it to leave the shrubbery, but failed.

“All right,” she finally conceded, and tore several sections of ham into bite-sized pieces and arranged them on the stone. We then walked up the stairs and entered the house. But no sooner had we done so than we hurried to the kitchen window to see what would happen next.

The kitten waited a long time, and then ventured a cautious half step toward the food. A second and third exploratory step followed. She looked to the left, where the big cat had last been seen, and seeing that the coast was clear, bounded for the ham, which she ate greedily before once again retreating to the safety of the oleanders.

When we opened the door the following morning, the kitten was waiting for us, and Linda fed her more ham. Our little pet (she was ours now) spent the morning at our sides, and stayed close while we worked in the garden. She couldn’t have been cuter if she’d tried. The kitten attacked the weeds that Linda threw to the side and swatted comically at them with her paws. Then, when Linda began to water the irises, the kitten lunged for the hose. That done, she tried to climb the ivy—though not well—and fell clumsily to the ground.

“She’s definitely abandoned,” Linda said as she watched the kitten closely. “And she can’t feed herself because of that bell on her collar. Everything hears her coming. That’s why she’s so skinny. She can’t catch anything.”

Linda thought for a moment. “I’m getting that thing off,” she said determinedly.

But the kitten didn’t give her a chance to do so, because it slipped away soon afterward and disappeared. And when we returned to the house for showers and lunch, it was clear that Linda had been doing much thinking.

“We can’t keep feeding her ham,” she declared. “We have to get her some proper cat food.”

The trip that followed suggested that the French dote on their pets like few other people on earth do. Row upon row of the freshest, finest, most stylishly packaged dog and cat food we’d ever seen met our eyes when we arrived in Montaren. And none of it was cheap.

We were on a budget, and spending the equivalent of a restaurant meal on a stray cat didn’t seem justifiable, so we bought the cheapest offering available (which was still shockingly expensive compared to U.S. norms). And that evening, when Linda spooned some of the store-bought food on the rock near the stairway, she was pleased to see the kitten come bounding up without hesitation. The kitten was so ravenously hungry that Linda had to finish spooning the rest of the food around her, and some of it ended up on her head. But the cat didn’t care, so focused was she on her meal.

We soon fell into a routine. We fed the kitten first thing in the morning, and then she would disappear during the heat of the day. But she’d return in the cool of the evening for dinner, and afterward, the three of us would sit on the steps together and watch the evening wind down.

A few days later, I rounded the tower gate and found myself face-to-face with the ugly tomcat that had frightened the kitten earlier. I rushed at it aggressively, and the cat ran away, jumped over the Dumoutier’s wall, and disappeared in the greenery below…never to be seen again. The kitten, feeling more secure because of it, followed Linda into the house after the following morning’s feeding for the very first time. There, it stretched out on the Oriental rug in the great room and dozed contentedly in the pool of sunlight that fell in through the window.

Linda sat down next to her and ran her hand along the kitten’s body, the cat keeping its eyes closed and purring softly with pleasure. Linda smiled and petted her some more, and then turned to me.

“She needs a name,” she suggested.

“Minou,” I replied without thinking.

“It’s a generic word the French have for a cat,” I explained. Linda considered this for a moment and then nodded her approval. Minou it would be.

Minou responded to the daily feedings. She put on weight, and her coat began to take on a glossy sheen. She also began to make herself quite at home. She’d cuddle up on the daybed with me when I watched a bike race on television, and joined me on the steps every morning while I drank my daybreak cup of tea. I loved our time together then—the way she’d forcefully push her head into my palm so I could pet her roughly, the way she liked.

But Minou was a pushy little thing. If she showed up late in the morning, and found that her mistress had already left to buy the morning bread, Minou would jump in my lap and demand to be petted. And if I didn’t give her the amount of attention she felt she was due (and she believed she was due a lot) Minou would jump on the table and walk back and forth across my computer’s keyboard to punish me, making a mess of whatever document I was working on.

Oddly enough, Linda’s relationship with Minou was closer than mine, which bothered me somewhat, because cats had always preferred me. Recognizing a kindred spirit, they would run straight up to me, and not give Linda the slightest bit of attention. Linda could whisper sweet enticements all she wanted, reach out to pet them, tell them how pretty they were; but the cats would turn away with a haughty sniff and settle in my lap every time.

Not so with Minou. She and Linda were close from the moment they met. I looked out the window one afternoon and saw the two of them in the garden, curled up together in a deck chair: Linda reading a book, and Minou dozing contentedly in her lap. It was such a pretty scene that I took a photo on the sly.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Linda had an ulterior motive, and when she returned to the house, she proudly held up her prize: a red collar with a brass bell on it.

“Now she’ll be able to eat when we leave,” my wife triumphantly declared.

Minou soon began spending most of the day with us, and when it came time to retire for the evening, I’d pick her up gently—Minou always complained at the unfairness of this with a gentle meow—wish her a good night, put her out, and then close the door.

It took only two days for Minou to turn the tables on us. We were heavily asleep one evening, Minou having been put out earlier, when something jumped into bed with us.

Loud purring came from the darkness. “Minou, is that you?” Linda asked groggily.

I must have forgotten to put her out, I thought. Heavy with sleep, I cradled Minou in my arms and descended the ridiculous stair/ladder without either of us falling off it to our death, put her out, and returned to bed.

Minutes later, she was back in bed with us.

“How?” Linda wondered.

I had no idea.

“Take care of it,” came the mumbled command from beneath the covers (Linda’s cat suddenly having become my responsibility).

How had she gotten back in the house?, I wondered as I retraced my way downstairs and once again put her out. It was puzzling. The walls of the house were too steep and high for her to climb, and she’d proven a failure at climbing the ivy, so I knew she couldn’t have entered through a window. For a moment, I wondered if she might somehow have squeezed through the rotten-away section at the bottom of the front door, but quickly rejected the notion. A rat maybe, not a cat.

And then I knew. We left the battlements door open every night so cooling breezes could enter the house during the night. After I’d put her out, Minou had simply walked down the steps, crossed the courtyard, and climbed the fig tree that grew near the wall. From there it was kitten’s play to jump onto the battlements walkway, enter the house, climb the stairs, and jump into a warm bed again.

Even now, I could hear the sound of Minou’s brisk little steps on the gravel, and then that of her nails on the trunk as she climbed the tree. I moved quickly to the landing and closed the door. Locked it too.

Through the door’s glass panels, I watched Minou drop onto the walkway and slowly, and quite confidently, stroll to the door—and stop when she found it to be closed. Then she looked up, and saw me standing there. And I swear she frowned.

There would be no more nighttime visitations from that point on…but a more daunting challenge soon presented itself. One afternoon, Minou was lazing at her usual spot in the living room when she suddenly sat up, almost as if she’d had a seizure, and began to claw the Oriental rug she’d been lying on with an insane fervor.

Linda and I yelled at her in unison and Minou instantly stopped clawing the rug, her face displaying a bewildered look, wondering what might be troubling us. We watched her, she watched us, and after a little more time passed, Minou got bored with whatever game we were playing and curled into a tight ball and went to sleep.

We waited a few more minutes before deciding that her clawing had been an aberration, and exchanging shrugs, went back to whatever it was we were doing. But not five minutes later, Minou lunged for one of Linda’s beautiful rush chairs and began tearing at it.

The sound of lovely furniture being destroyed brought Linda running. She had no patience for that type of thing. “Throw her out!” she commanded.

I picked Minou up, she sagging limply in my arms, and put her out and closed the door. Our kitten meowed her apologies from outside. She promised to be good, but Linda was having none of it, and Minou eventually realized she’d have to accept the fact that she was persona non grata for a time, and left.

She returned in the morning, flashing that pretty little smile of hers, dripping with apologies, and promising to be good. Minou then fell asleep on the rug, looking the very picture of feline contentment. But the moment our backs were turned she went at the covered chairs near the secretary, and was again thrown out. (Less gently, this time.)

Minou’s behavior left us flummoxed. She’d been perfectly well-behaved until then. We caucused, and decided that she had been on her own for too long, and needed to be taught how to behave herself. So we set house rules. Minou would be thrown out the moment she retracted a claw. There would be no leeway, no reprieve, no parole. She had to learn.

It didn’t work.

Tired of being thrown out, Minou began running away after she’d been bad. Up and down the house we would go: room to room, level to level, Minou weaving through chairs, hiding under tables, sheltering beneath the day bed, and when I finally felt I had her cornered, she’d dash through Manfred’s decorative iron railings (inconveniently cat-sized), and hide some more. She was fast and flexible, and capable of hiding in the narrowest and lowest of confines.

Linda thought it was hilarious.

For a while, it looked as if Minou might have the upper hand, but then I brought trusty Mr. Broom into play, and Minou discovered that its bristly end was able to follow her wherever she went, no matter how low a space she managed to squeeze herself into. Eventually she was cornered, caught, and thrown out with little in the way of gentleness.

And then one day, the balance of power shifted. Minou came into the house in the morning like she usually did, and like the parents of a wayward child, we again made the mistake of believing her when she promised she would be good. Minutes later, the sound of claws on the leather Chesterfield sofas brought us running.

Minou didn’t run away this time, knowing it was pointless. I scolded her sternly, bent down to pick her up—and she raked her sharp claws across my hand.

She then fronted me, glaring and hissing, her back arched high, hairs on end. She had turned into a black demon. It was frightening, and I tasted the acridity of the adrenaline that flooded through my body.

We faced each other; Minou’s posture warning me not to make another stupid move.

It was a pivotal moment in our relationship, I knew. The scales were going be tipped in one direction or the other, with serious consequences for everyone involved. If I gave in, she would rule the roost from now on.

I took a moment to think, Minou glaring at me the entire time. After some reflection, I realized she had given me just enough claw to let me know she was unhappy with the prospect of being thrown out again. She could have hurt me badly if she’d wanted to, but had chosen not to.

There was that in her favor. And she loved us, there was no question about that either. But Minou had clearly communicated she wasn’t going to put up with being exiled anymore.

I retreated to the kitchen to do some thinking. Minou’s eyes never left me, and she watched minutely as I walked past the end of the counter and disappeared from sight. Realizing she had won, she padded to her favorite spot on the rug and curled into a ball to take a nap.

It was there that I ambushed her with Mr. Broom, who was normally kept on the landing. If I’d walked there, Minou would have been tipped off. But Linda had swept the kitchen floor earlier and hadn’t put the broom away, God bless her.

There would be no gentle nudges or pokes used to convince Minou to leave the house this time. Wild baseball swings and tree-cutting chops were the order of the day, and I swung mightily at her as we ran up and down the house like demented twins: Minou yowling loudly, me screaming bloody murder.

Minou was a black blur as she ran from the putative shelter of one piece of furniture to another, but everywhere she went Mr. Broom followed, and eventually, she was forced out the door and down the stairs.

There would be no repeat of the clawing incident, and Minou seemed to have learned from the experience. And so, like any family with a wayward child, we made do. Minou came into the house the following morning, and behaved herself. But we watched her closely. And Mr. Broom always stayed close to hand.

A week later Linda came up to me, and from the look on her face I knew she was about to bring up what had been running through my mind as well. “What will happen to Minou when we leave?” she asked “How will she survive the winter?”

I had no idea, and we decided to ask Jacqui and Emile if they would take care of her, but were surprised to see them show little interest. “She’s a wild cat, she’ll make do,” Jacqui said unconcernedly.

David Green wasn’t going to be any help, being in London. And the Dumotiers were unresponsive when we hinted that we might leave a quantity of cat food behind for our little kitten.

There was nothing to be done about it, Minou was going to be on her own. The days flew by like they always did at the end of a vacation, and on the last day, with heavier hearts than usual, we began to close up the house. Minou stopped by in the morning and Linda gave her a double serving of food, and left an extra-large serving for her dinner that night.

And then we left. All I could think of, as we drove away, was what would happen in a few more hours. Minou would be surprised to see that our front door was closed. She’d meow, but no one would answer. She’d sit and wait patiently at the door for us to appear, and might even scratch at it gently. But no one would come. And the same thing would happen that evening. And the following morning too.

We thought about her often during the long and harsh winter that followed, and when I reviewed the Midi Libre’s web site from home, I invariably read stories devoted to the horrifically low temperatures that kept the region in an icy grip. There were periods of snow, and week-long subarctic mistrals. It was a long, bitter season, and when we returned the next summer, we wondered if Minou had survived. And if she had, if she would remember us.

Emotion hoped for ‘yes.’ Logic suggested otherwise.

The flight, as always, was long, and cleaning the house of its collection of dust and dead things, and dealing with jet lag, represented its usual challenge. But we muddled through, and the following morning Linda and I unlocked the front door, stepped out, and called her name.

And she came running.

Minou was no longer a kitten now, but a cat: bigger, sleeker, with a shiny, healthy coat of fur. She came without hesitation and pushed herself forcefully against our legs as we sat on the stairs together, purring loudly, reveling at the touch of our hands. Linda’s removing the collar and bell the year before had made all the difference. Our little kitten had become an efficient hunter, and not only survived, but thrived.

That aspect was made apparent a week later when Minou, once again dozing on her beloved rug, heard birds chirp and instantly awakened. Her body turned taut. Every sense was finely attuned.

Linda and I were having breakfast at the time, and smiled to see her reaction. We knew what she didn’t: that birds nested in the cavities of the roof tiles every year, and that they were perfectly safe outside, high up the wall where no cat could ever reach them.

The lack of insulation in the roof allowed the sound of the nestlings to enter the house, giving Minou the impression that…somewhere up there…among the beams…were birds for the taking. She moved slowly to the wall from where the sound had come, her ears flicking nervously, and she looked up.

From the table, we watched her keen intelligence come into play. Minou traced a line along the mass of beams that ran across the ceiling, and I wondered how long it would take her to conclude it was impossible to reach the nest. The lowest of the beams was nine feet off the ground, putting the birds—had they even been inside the house—well out of the reach of a tiger, much less a village cat.

Then an utterly amazing thing happened. In one unbroken movement, Minou sprinted for the upholstered chair standing next to the secretary, jumped on its seat, and then ricocheted off the back like an uncoiled spring and landed on top of the secretary. From there, an impressive vertical leap put her on the lowest of the roof beams. Seeing it left us speechless. Speed, grace, balance, and power had all been present in equal measure.

Minou was ten feet up now, and began to stalk the birds. She took a careful step forward, then another, listened, paused, and drew nearer, but instantly froze whenever the nestlings stopped calling. Soon she had reached the highest point of the roof line, so close to the birds she could almost taste them. She took another step…and her head bumped against the wall.

Minou took a bewildered step backward and sat on her haunches to figure it out. The birds were definitely there. She could hear them, perhaps even smell them. They were only inches away. And yet, they weren’t. She confusedly looked down at us, and we laughed at her.

Minou stayed in the beams for a long time, and we began to wonder if the stories we’d heard about cats becoming stuck in trees might be true. But our concern proved to be baseless. In one synchronous movement, Minou bounded from one beam to the other, dropped to the top of the secretary, hit the upper part of the chair, was instantly on its seat, and with a final movement, landed effortlessly and gently on the stone floor. Then she moved to her favorite spot on the carpet and began to groom herself.

“Wow,” we said in unison.

Two weeks later, another bird episode manifested itself. I’d gone on a long training ride and found an exasperated wife upon my return.

“A stupid bird flew into the house and doesn’t have enough brains to fly back out,” she complained, and pointed at a thickset bird that was perched on top of the open window frame; freedom and fresh air lying only inches away.

“Can you help me?” she pleaded. “I can’t believe how incredibly stupid this thing is.”

We caucused, and decided to work together and herd the bird toward the open window. Linda waved a large towel noisily in the air while I swatted at the bird with the broom. The idea was that it would be set into motion by me, see Linda’s flapping towel, veer to the side, and then fly out the window.

But the bird was every bit as stupid as Linda had said it was. The chunky thing completely ignored the beckoning window and fluttered in a wild panic to the Indian room, then to the kitchen, and then back—we chasing it, waving arms and shouting; first, words of encouragement, and then increasingly grievous insults. Nothing we did worked, and the bird ended up perching high in the cluster of beams, where it was safe from both broom and towel, keeping its bill open like the aviary mouth-breather it was. From there, it looked down at us with dull eyes.

We decided to throw balled-up socks at it, which didn’t improve the bird’s already panicky state. Several times we had it fluttering at the very edge of a window or door, but our intruder stupidly turned away at the very last second and flew around the house some more. It was so unintelligent that it even banged into the walls at times. And then our simpleton with wings decided to perch even higher in the tangle of beams and seemed to be content to stay there.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a movement near the front door. It was Minou. She entered, and noticing the commotion, sat down to watch the curious spectacle of Linda throwing things at the bird in an effort to get it moving, and when it did, the two of us chasing it throughout the house.

A bemused expression crossed Minou’s face. She seemed to find the scene highly entertaining: Linda, waving her arms and shouting like a madwoman; me, waving Mr. Broom in the air at something other than her; and the bird, wings flapping noisily and flying into things. Minou’s head went back and forth as if she was watching a tennis match.

After a dozen minutes of concerted effort we finally had the bird cornered near a window. I waved the broom at it and the bird flew straight for light and open air—and then maddeningly!—turned away at the last second and fluttered deeper into the house, and then through the stone archway of the landing, where we could hear it smash into the wooden steps leading to the bedroom.

It was too much for me. “I cannot believe how stupid…” I began.

And Minou bolted past me.

“Minou, no!” I screamed, but she paid me no attention. The extended black blur she had become flew up the stone steps and disappeared through the entrance. I raced after her, tripped on the uneven steps, caught my footing, and stumbled through the archway.

We crossed paths at the top of the stone steps, Minou with the bird—oddly enough, looking entirely untroubled—held in her jaws. I skidded to a stop, dashed back and caught up with her in the living room and commanded her to release the bird at once, but Minou pretended not to hear, and casually trotted toward the front door. Without as much as a “by your leave,” she passed through the doorway, ran down the stairs and disappeared in the thick shrubbery below the Dumoutier’s house.

Minou’s disobedience made me furious, but left Linda entirely unfazed. “It’s what cats do,” she said calmly. “It’s only natural.”

It was Linda’s aunt Halcyon speaking through her, I realized. A sweet, completely non-judgmental woman, aunt Halcyon (few people have ever been more appropriately named) was preternaturally patient and understanding. A calmer, more composed person, I had never met.

Linda patted me soothingly on the shoulder. “It’s only natural,” she repeated.

I looked in the general direction where I’d last seen Minou. Down there, beneath the oaks, the dark deed was probably even now being done. An appropriate punishment was required.

“Don’t feed her tonight,” I grumbled.

“And don’t give her any breakfast either. That was a big bird.”


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