Tales of the Deep South, gleaned from our years of living on the Florida/Alabama border.
She was a Southern cat, born a few miles south of I-10, just below the Mason-Dixon line. She was Pesky by name, and most certainly pesky by nature. This cat, one of the orange tabby tiger-striped variety, was aggressive and outgoing, living up to her reputation in more ways than one. Take doors for instance. No matter how tightly you closed the screen doors, wanting in or out, if she couldn’t open the door, she would shred the screen with claws honed razor-sharp, and prance on through in the most nonchalant way. She was fiercely independent, determined, but never hesitated to throw herself tummy side up for a good belly rub.
Pesky came to us courtesy of a couple of friends; he studying Lord knows what at a religious institute of Higher Learning, located in this small Florida town, which shall remain unnamed, I for one preferring to live to tell another tale. This institution was presided over by a President whose wife spent many a hot sultry night in the Emergency Room of the tiny country hospital, her body covered with bruises; coming, alas, from Lord knows where. It was a small town, only once removed from the swamps; located a few watermelon stands south of Alabama. Walk half a mile in any direction and you’re in the country, surrounded by rivers, ‘gators, spiders as big as your hands, mysterious swamp ponds, and even more mysterious swamp people.
Just bear with me for a while, I promise this is a cat story. It is joked for every mile you travel inland in Florida, the IQ of the general population goes down one point. But, I’m talking about good honest folk who live in humble tin-roofed dwellings, two room shacks, each one with the mandatory rickety front porch. The rooms have no ceilings, and bare light bulbs dangle ‘longside a twisted-up fly paper or two. Drive by fast (although on the one track, mud pulled curving roads leading into the swamp, this might prove a mite tricky) and through the bare board cracks, you can almost see what the occupants are having for dinner. In the lingering heat of the evening, you can spot a couple of dogs hunkered down under the front porch cooling off in the shade. Above, at porch level, a mess of cats dines on leftovers of corn pone, red beans and rice, always to the accompaniment of the steady hum-buzz of flies, and never without a swarm of gnats. You go nowhere in Florida without your halo of gnats.
These families most often lived off the swamp. There was ‘gator when no one was looking. Barbecued, succulent; sautéed, or roasted…a real culinary treat. ‘Possum can be fixed in more ways than you or I could ever dream up. They even have festivals to honor this dinner time staple. “Trot” lines weaving their way across the limpid swamp ponds are tended daily to “ketch a chick’n or two for dinner.” (Snapping turtles, able to take off your arm with one bite!). And, of course, the staple of swamp cuisine, catfish, or crappy, fried crispy or blackened in true ‘cajun style, served with hush puppies to mop up the juices. Turnip greens is the vegetable of the week, and no one makes biscuits like those who live in the swamps… except maybe Popeye’s.
Back to the Cat! The limit for shooting deer in Florida is one a day, but calling them deer is pushing the bounds of literary fantasy. Due to adaptation, climate, or just plain cussedness, Florida deer, although plentiful, don’t grow up to be much bigger than dogs. Hunting in swamp country could consist of walking out your backdoor yard, crossing the farmer’s dormant soybean field and traipsing into the nearby woods. Now as a general rule, Pesky sure did like to hunt. It’s said that cats only ever play one game, and that’s hunting, and they are not far wrong on that one.
In the chill of a winter morning, Jay, the boy hunter, in the manner of his swamp buddies, would rise before dawn to prepare himself to hunt in the woods across the field. Dressed warmly against the crisp December morning (we are talking Northern Florida here), he would steal quietly away from the warmth of the sleeping household. In his wake, marching briskly, tail up, with paws lifted high as she tiptoed across the frost-bitten stubble, Pesky hurried to match his stride, criss-crossing over to run alongside. She was always the reliable hunting companion, ready to go. Jay, about 11 at the time, small and lithe, bundled up against the cold, a red hunting cap pulled down over his head to protect his ears, Dad’s 50 caliber muzzle loader slung across his shoulder, would stride toward the woods with a purpose, a bobbing orange shadow always in his wake. Together, they disappeared in the thin hoary mist rising from the fields in the pale, early morning light.
Crossing into the trees, with Pesky running ahead, they searched for that special tree chosen earlier that fall in which to build a deer stand. Moments later, Jay climbed up the familiar tree and settled into his comfy perch, followed quickly by his small tabby companion. The next few hours would be spent in silence, eyes narrowed, peering deeply into the mist, ears pricked and strained, listening for movement in the dense thickets surrounding them? Pesky would cuddle up, and Jay rubbing her neck, appreciated the warmth she willingly shared as they sat in the chill silence of the pre-dawn hours. Cat ears, sharp as they are, pricked at the slightest sound, her elegant golden head raised, eyes narrow slits, ears all a’twitch. What was that! They looked, peering, seeing only shadows in the mist. They listened, sounds frozen in the icy air. Nothing ventured across their path in the early dawn. Finally, the sun crept higher in the sky, bathing the woods in a warm ruddy glow, rising above the trees; a dazzling display of golden shards of light, dispersing the mists like magic, releasing its glowing southern warmth into their chilled bones.
In the long silence, they had waited for their prey, neither one had seen or heard anything larger than a covey of quail, flushed out by a fat dark cottonmouth slithering silently down to the nearest swamp pond. Pesky stretched, yawned, questioning. Wasn’t it about time to leave? Birds began to chirp, their talk shrill and clear, announcing another day of foraging and feeding. Stomachs rumbled, both cat and boy felt the pangs, and having nothing to show for their endeavors, breakfast sounded like an awful good idea. Descending from the tree the pair hurried back to the warmth of the house.
After hearty breakfast had eased the discomfort that comes with not eating for a few hours, a light bang of the screen door, a muffled dull thud caught Jay’s attention. He opened the back door to find on the porch, not a rabbit, not a possum, and certainly not deer meat, but a large squirrel, still warm, feet awry, head askew, tail straight out. A calling card of condolence… perhaps? Of a cat, flaunting her prowess, letting us know who was the real hunter in this family!
Published in: Pets