Too Many Dandelions

Too Many Dandelions
Sarah Mankowski

No cat should outlive her giggle-kit.

I was asleep on the soft bed next to food-maw’s leg when the bell called phone shook us both awake. After living with humans for nearly fifteen years, a cat learns to accept all manner of obnoxious sounds. Humans are noisy animals. They are always talking and when they are not talking they listen to other humans talk on TV. They fill their homes with machines that ring and buzz and hum. Even their footsteps thud.

I stretched, but as I settled back to doze food-maw screamed one word: “Amber!”

Amber is the name of my giggle-kit. Long ago, back when she had little hands that smelled of peanut butter and apple juice, Amber lifted me from the litter of kittens. “Look! She’s a golden tiger like Dandelion.” Later, as she held me in her lap, seated cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV, Amber told me that Dandelion was the cat in her favorite cartoon. “But you’re not a cartoon cat. You’re real. You’re my best friend.”

She always shared her fish sticks and her secrets with me.

“ . . . Keep my secret, Dandelion,” Amber whispered, her breath smelling of cough syrup as we cuddled under the blanket. “I hate having the flu. And I hate it when mommy and daddy fight.”

“ . . . Keep my secret, Dandelion.” Amber’s hands smelled of bubblegum and crayons. “I hate school. Everybody picks on me.”

“ . . . Keep my secret,” Amber sobbed, her face smelling of pizza and tears, “I hate mom and dad for getting a divorce.”

As food-maw listened to the deep voice on the phone, tears streamed down her face. I lifted my ears, trying to comprehend a few words. “ . . . Domestic disturbance . . . badly beaten . . . miscarriage . . . critical condition . . . hospital . . . Ron Rollins arrested.”

“ . . . Keep my secret, Dandelion.” Amber’s skin smelled of cigarettes and perfume. “I’m in love with Ron Rollins. Mom doesn’t like him, but I don’t care.”

I scratched my ear, confused. Where was Amber? Why was food-maw crying? Why did I sense very bad things?

“ . . . No Dandelion, you can’t live with me. Ron doesn’t like cats. He might get mad and hurt you.”

As I sat on the bed scratching my ear, food-maw silently dressed and left the apartment.

I tried to doze, but an uneasy fear prickled my whiskers. When I sensed morning I went into the kitchen and sniffed my empty food dish. Food-maw always filled the dish with kibbles before going to work. I lay down beside the dish and waited, but the apartment was silent: no human footsteps, no voices; even the TV was mute.

The day passed and the apartment grew dark. No one came to fill my dish. I was thirsty, but my water-bowl was dry. I went into the bathroom and licked a little water from the shower floor. My legs wobbled more than usual as I struggled up onto food-maw’s empty bed. I slept.

Morning came again, but silence lingered over the apartment; my dish was still empty. I longed for human noises to assure me that all was well.

When night came again, I finally heard a sound, a key turning in the door. I lifted my ears, but it wasn’t food-maw or Amber. I heard two strange women: “Poor, poor Ellen. I can’t imagine losing your only child.”

“See if you can find a suitcase while I gather up a change of clothing.”

Fear for Amber, fear for my own survival, propelled me to action. As soon as the strangers opened the door I ran as fast as my wobbly legs would carry me, straight out into the night.

The humans called, “Come back here kitty,” but I didn’t stop. I raced over the balcony, down the stairs, across the parking lot, then into the wide road where loud cars raced by on swift wheels. Dodging the roaring monsters, I crossed quickly. I trotted over gravel and grass. Where was Amber? Where was food-maw? I finally stopped to rest beneath a leafy shrub, to give my poor heart a chance to stop thumping.

No sooner had I stopped, however, than I heard a dog yelping. “Wake up, my brothers and sisters. I smell a strange cat on the run. I can smell her fear on the wind.”

I moved on, but not running. My feet padded over leaves and grass while I listened to the dogs’ conversation. I felt surrounded by dog chatter, as every dog in the area woke up and spread the message that a strange cat was walking through the neighborhood.

Amber and food-maw had always provided whatever I needed. I was an indoor cat, accustomed to full dishes of food, soft beds and a clean litter box. Now, in the strange outdoor-world, I was lost and alone.

I caught the scent of dog on a sudden gust of wind.

The dog was close on my heels. His footsteps were nearly as heavy as a small human. He sniffed the breeze and snapped his jaws as he came at me from behind.

In front of me, a high wooden fence blocked my path. Behind me, the dog barked, “Brothers and sisters, I have her, I have her!” In desperation I sprang forward and ran straight up the wooden fence.

With a sudden burst of dog laughter, I realized two big dogs were waiting in the yard behind the fence. They rushed at me barking with delight, while the dog on my heels leapt at my tail. This was not good. I was atop the fence with two dogs leaping and laughing on my left and the third charging the fence to my right.

After a moment of petrifying fear I realized the dogs could shake the fence, leap and bark, but as long as I kept my head and my footing, they could not reach me. I made my way along the narrow route, slowly, cautiously, carefully placing one paw in front of the next. This would have been an easy feat for a kitten, but I was no kitten. More than once my legs wobbled and my paws slipped, and the dogs below howled with laughter. “If we shake the fence harder she’ll fall, she’ll fall!” they boasted. “Shake harder. Shake her down into my jaws.”

Each bark, each burst of dog-laughter, prodded me to try harder. My life was not going to end in such an undignified manner! At last I came to a crossroads of sorts. The fence branched to the left and right, encircling other yards. I stopped and sniffed the air. No dogs in either yard. Which way should I jump? Did it matter? I leapt down into the yard to the right.

The night breeze was beginning to smell of dawn. Exhausted, I slunk under a shrub and slept.
* * *

Not long after dawn I was awakened by a blue jay perched on a limb above my head, loudly denouncing my presence. The jay launched into a diatribe about the evil of cats, reciting every cat-crime committed against his relatives since time began.

Ignoring the squawking bag of feathers I rose and stretched my aching legs. I sniffed the morning. Did I smell . . . yes! Cat food!

I padded across the grass to the patio of the small white house. There were two bowls, one of fresh water, one of dry food. I hadn’t realized the extent of my hunger until my teeth bit into the first nugget.

“Paws off the kibbles, sister.”

Looking up from the bowl, I found myself eye-to-eye with a golden tiger like myself. That’s where the similarity ended. This was the fattest cat I had ever seen. “What’s a few kibbles to you, Fatso?”

“Back off, Wobble-legs,” she growled.

There is a thing that is well understood among all female cats. We must find and name a weakness or fault in all competitors. This is our way.

“Dandelion!”

Fatso and I looked toward the stern, human voice. She was a plump food-maw with a dusting of flour covering her clothing. Although her voice was stern I sensed her fondness for cats.

She looked directly at me. “Haven’t seen you before? Come here and let me look at your tag.”

I obeyed, even rubbing my head against her hand to say that I accepted her as a friend.

She took my tag between plump fingers. “I am Dandelion. I live with Amber Osborne, 620 Marsh Lane; Apt. 204.” She stroked my head. “Well now, that explains it. A customer told me about the tragedy while I was working at the bakery this morning. I’ll let Amber’s mother know you’re safe. We can always make room for one more Dandelion.”

Fatso switched her tail to show her disapproval. “We have too many Dandelions already. My food-maw is a Dandelion magnet.”

“More Dandelions?” I inquired.

“One more,” Fatso grumbled. “Scruffy, she is. Food-maw says I must be nice because she’s had a rough time and grown skittish. One scruffy, skittish Dandelion was nuisance enough. Now we have you. Just keep your distance, sister.”

Plump food-maw brought fresh bowls of food, spacing them out for the three of us, while issuing stern warnings against fighting. She called, “Come kitty, kitty, kitty. Come on out. No one will hurt you.”

A golden tiger’s head poked out from a shrub, then the scruffy old cat timidly padded across the grass. She looked at Fatso and me with apprehension before burying her nose in a dish of food.

Too hungry to worry about Fatso, and deciding that Scruffy was no threat, I settled down to enjoy my meal.

Later, bellies finally satisfied, we sat in the sun and groomed ourselves–three golden tigers named for the same silly cartoon Dandelion. “Do you have a giggle-kit?” I asked Fatso, deciding that if we must share the yard, we should attempt a truce. Female cats dislike the close company of other females, but we are practical enough to cease hostilities as long as a proper distance is respected.

“My giggle-kit is named Mark,” Fatso answered. “He lives at a place called college.”

“You must miss him,” I offered.

“Who has a chance to miss Mark?” she said. “He comes home often enough so that food-maw can mend his clothing and fry him a chicken.”

“Your food-maw is nice,” I said.

“Too nice to strays,” she grumbled, and glared at Scruffy and me.

“I wasn’t always a stray,” Scruffy said, her paw still raised from washing her face. “My giggle-kit was named Bradley. We lived in a big house with soft pillows, a clean litter box and piles and piles of fresh food. I had my own food-maw with a soft lap for napping. I had it all . . . ”

“ . . . No cat should outlive her giggle-kit.” Scruffy paused to lick her paw. “Food-maw and heavy-feet gave Bradley everything he wanted. When he asked for a car for his birthday, they gave him one, bright red and fast, just what he wanted. But in his excitement he was careless. . . . After Bradley was gone food-maw blamed heavy-feet and heavy-feet went away. Food-maw began to drink a slow poison called vodka, and she would forget to feed me. Finally, she had to give our house to a man who came in a big car. When she packed to leave, she forgot about me. After a time my belly told me to look for food. I was alone and always hungry, then I came here.”

“Lucky me,” Fatso grumbled.

“Have compassion,” I said. “My Amber–”

“Yes, yes, I know. She is also gone,” Fatso said. “I heard food-maw talking to the neighbor.”

“Gone?”

“Gone–no breath, no heartbeat–dead,” Fatso said. She didn’t say it maliciously, but in the matter-of-fact tone of a practical cat. In my heart I knew she told the truth.

I walked over to a shrub and lay down with my chin on my paw. I was Amber’s cat. Amber was my giggle-kit. If Amber was gone, what was left in the world for me?
* * *

Around midmorning I became aware of a distant rumbling of thunder. Plump food-maw came to the door to call us inside before the rain. Fatso went quickly but Scruffy paused, glancing back at me. “When I was on my own, I was trapped in the rain many times. It’s not good, particularly when there is thunder. It’s difficult to trust strange houses, but if you’ll go in, I’ll go too.”

I followed Scruffy into the house.

A hard clap of thunder sent Fatso flying for the security of food-maw’s under-bed. Since this was a strange house for Scruffy and me, we were unfamiliar with good hiding places. We raced after Fatso and dove under the bed.

“No, this won’t do at all,” Fatso protested. “Find your own safe places.”

“We’re staying,” Scruffy challenged with a hiss. “You can leave if you don’t like it.”

Fatso hissed. “This is my place!” The three of us were almost close enough to touch noses.

“She’s too fat to move,” I suggested.

“Even her food-maw thinks she’s too fat,” Scruffy said. “I heard her telling the neighbor that when Mark comes home from college Friday, he needs to take Fatso to the vet to talk about her weight.”

“My what?”

“Your fat,” I said. “Your rolls and rolls of fat!”

Fatso bared her claws. “See any fat on these, sister?”

“Stop squabbling, you Dandelions!” Food-maw scolded. We heard her sink down on the bed above. “I had to work at the bakery all night and I need my sleep. One more sound from under this bed and all three of you go back out into the rain.”

Scruffy and I didn’t know food-maw well enough to assess the threat, so we fell silent. Fatso knew her well, and she was also silent.
* * *

Over the next couple of days Fatso, Scruffy and I kept our truce by keeping our distance. Scruffy liked to hide under the bushes and share her fondest fantasies with the rancorous blue jay. Fatso stayed indoors, hogging food-maw’s soft lap. I lay in the sun and thought about Amber.

Then, on a sunny morning food-maw came into the yard with a woman that smelled like my old apartment building. She held my cat-carrier. “I told Ellen I’d pick up the cat,” she said. She glanced over the yard. “Three yellow cats. Which one is Dandelion?”

“All three are Dandelions,” Food-maw explained. “There was a cartoon some years ago-”

“I wouldn’t know about cartoons,” the woman said with a hint of impatience. “Which is the right Dandelion?”

Food-maw picked me up and showed the woman my tag. “She’s a sweetie. Came right to me the first day. I have a theory that cats who are fortunate enough to know the unconditional love of a child, mature into extraordinary creatures.”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” the woman said. “Will she try to scratch when I put her in the carrier?”

In one expert motion food-maw deposited me into the carrier.

“Oh, thank you,” the woman said. “Well, I’m sure Ellen would want to pay you for looking after Dandelion.”

Food-maw shook her head. “Getting to know this sweet kitty was reward enough.”

The woman placed my carrier in the back seat of her car. She drove back to the apartment building where I had once enjoyed a contented life with Amber. Car rides, even a brief ride, make my stomach angry. I didn’t feel at all well as she hauled the carrier up the flight of stairs, the carrier recklessly swinging back and forth. She plopped it down on the mat in front of the door. “Safely delivered,” she declared with a sigh. “I’m sure you’ll be fine in your carrier until Ellen comes home.”

The carrier was too small for me to stretch or stand. Time passed; the sun grew hotter. I wanted out of the carrier. I wanted water. I wanted to hear my giggle-kit skipping up the stairs with her schoolbooks and backpack. “Keep my secret, Dandelion,” she would sing out, her breath smelling of milk and oatmeal cookies, “you’ll always be my best friend.” I wanted to feel her soft little face pressed against my fur again. She would giggle with delight. “Your whiskers tickle!”

Amber would never skip up the stairs again.

Thirst and heat become overpowering, yet there was nothing to do but lay with my chin on my paw and wait for food-maw to come home. When I finally slept, I dreamed I was trapped under Fatso and I couldn’t breathe.

At last I heard footsteps on the stairs, then my food-maw’s familiar voice. Even though she was right in front of me, her voice sounded distant and very sad. “Look at you, Dandelion. You look about as wretched as I feel.” She lifted my carrier. “Poor old kitty-cat.”

Food-maw placed the carrier in her car, but the sun and thirst had made me too miserable to complain. We drove for a time and when we stopped and went into a building, I recognized the smells of my vet’s office.

The woman behind the desk spoke sympathetically to food-maw, “We’re so sorry about Amber. And this is her cat?”

“Yes, I called earlier to make the appointment. I wish this wasn’t necessary, but she is so old . . . ”

“Dr. Frank is a bit backed up today, but he’ll be with you in a moment.”

Food-maw had scarcely set down my carrier when the door opened and a tall young man entered with a carrier identical to my own. A familiar scent reached my nose. Fatso. “Mrs. Osborne,” the young man spoke to my food-maw. “I doubt you remember me. I’m Mark Jarrett. I used to go to school with Amber. My mom was looking after your Dandelion.”

Fatso said to me, “What have they done to you, sister? You look worse than Scruffy did when she first showed up.”

I didn’t respond.

“Back in grade school Amber and I would walk home from school together and talk about our Dandelions,” Mark said.

“Yes, I remember,” food-maw said. “She was always fond of you.”

“Mom didn’t mention that your Dandelion was sick.”

“Oh, it’s just age,” food-maw said. “I wish I had a choice but look at her. I hate to think of Amber’s old cat suffering . . . ”

“Mrs. Osborne, you don’t mean you’re going to put her to sleep?”

“Wobble-legs,” Fatso hissed at me. “You had better snap to and pay attention before it’s too late! Your food-maw looks at you and she sees a pathetic old cat. You’re making her decision easy by lying limp like you’re already dead.”

Even though I felt weak from being stuffed in my carrier in the heat all day, I understood why food-maw had brought me to the vet. All cats have heard stories of the old cat’s final vet visit. Even the sanitized office air can’t conceal the truth from our sensitive noses. I simply didn’t have the strength to care. I lifted my nose. “What’s it to you, Fatso? You don’t want me around.”

“No, but don’t take it personally, sister. I don’t want you or Scruffy in my yard, but I don’t wish you harm.”

“I have heard that a cat has nine lives,” I said. “Why should cats get nine lives and giggle-kits, only one?”

Fatso glanced up at Mark. “Mark should have one thousand lives.”

“Mrs. Osborne,” Mark said, “Our Dandelions are getting old, but they have a few good years left.”

Tears rolled down my food-maw’s cheeks. “I can’t stay in that apartment anymore. Everything reminds me of Amber. My sister invited me to live with her, but she’s allergic to cats. And who’s going to adopt an old cat with wobbly legs?”

“We will! With me in college and Dad stationed overseas, Mom’ll be glad for the company of another cat.”

“Traitor,” Fatso muttered.

“I can’t impose on your mother, Mark.”

“Mrs. Osborne,” a voice called out. “The doctor’s ready now.”

“Wait,” Mark protested. “Please don’t do this, Mrs. Osborne. If anything were to happen to me, I sure wouldn’t want my fat cat put to sleep. I want her to enjoy a long life! Think for a moment, please! What would Amber want you to do?”

Tears poured down her cheeks as she gave my carrier to Mark. “For Amber.”

Mark left the vet’s office with a cat carrier under each arm. Only after he placed us into the car did he snap his fingers and say, “Dande, I forgot about your vet visit! We were supposed to talk about your weight. Oh well, with two extra cats in the yard you’re bound to get more exercise.”

Fatso grudgingly shares her yard with Scruffy and me now, although we try very hard to stay out of one-another’s space. Fatso likes to sleep in the patio chair, while Scruffy intimidates the birds from her secluded den under the shrubs. I lay in the grass, glad to be alive. As long as I am alive, Amber lives inside my memories.

Sometimes food-maw comes into the yard, plump hands resting upon her wide hips, and she proclaims, “My yard is full of Dandelions.”

To which Fatso always grumbles, “Too many Dandelions.”

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