Leo, my Mama's best-loved cat, had the coveted position of fifth child in our family - all the love and attention with no real responsibility and no threat of discipline. We were a teeny bit jealous, we other four. He thought he was her true baby, a human being even, because from the day he was born she bottle-fed, held and comforted him. Like Dr. Seuss's Horton the Elephant, she was faithful 100%.
My mother nicknamed him Befirrfin the Fierce (though when she called him so, it sounded decidedly babyish). His fur was white and soft gray with tiny patches of black and tan, and his eyes were close in shade to my dad's - what my mom very jokingly referred to one time as "cow pie green". Large and muscular, much larger than the tiny creature who bore him, he was a hunter and a fighter. He got in a nasty fight with some stray tom once, and it cost him a chunk of his ear. And he used to come into my room just to mess with my black rabbit Freddy. Freddy, too, was a brave, adventure-seeking soul. My lop-eared friend blocked Leo from entering his domain, and they used to stare each other down, jumping and padding back and forth until Leo took a few swats and then swaggered away until another day. I swear he smiled; he just loved riling Freddy.
By far, though, the greatest battle Befirrfin ever fought, the one that won the gratitude and admiration of all our family, was against The Rat. It was a rodent of legendary proportions that lived beneath our stove in our little L-shaped kitchen. You could hear it shifting its weight around back there in the evening; shivers went down your spine and your toes curled. Sometimes you caught flashes of brown by the back. Leo spent many nights sitting with his pale eyes fixated on the space between the wall and the stove, creeping closer. An epic battle was bound to happen, but I, for one, always hoped I wouldn't be caught in the middle of it.
It occurred one night when I was in bed, thankfully. The noise of it, the hissing, thumping, running, clattering cacophony, roused my parents, because their room was adjacent to the kitchen. Mama got up, Dad said, ready to rush to her baby's aide. Dad made her lie back down. "Leo will take care of it."
It was about time for that hideous rodent to be gone.
When we got up in the morning, Leo was calm and collected, acting as if, despite some scrapes, nothing momentous had occurred. The large rat was lying dead and bloody on the kitchen floor, more hideous in that state than I had imagined it alive in all its glory. We could finally be rid of it - after a good deal of clean-up.
Though we were all so glad the wicked Rat was dead, it was not only undesirable rodents that Leo stalked. I can still see him sitting in the corner of our old living room, batting at a moth or butterfly that had come in. We kids tried in vain to pull him away from the pretty insect several times, but Leo was fascinated and the look in his eye savage as he decimated its wings. We tattled on him to Mama, and her sharp response was, "If Leo wants to catch a butterfly, let him catch a butterfly."
Still, the hunter/fighter was the only part of his nature Mama feared, because it pulled him away from her. Even with all our extensive yard and the field to roam, Leo's wanderlust got stronger as he got older. Due to a few extended absences, his forays into adventure had to be supervised in case he got ideas of vanishing. Mama was very upset any time we exclaimed, "Leo's loose!". Out into the yard she dashed, and if Leo was still around prowling the edge of the yard, her negotiations with him began. Poor wanderer, you could see the war of thoughts in his tense body, wide, intelligent eyes and constant ear twitch as he looked from Mama to the lane or field and back again. He paced and sat, paced and sat - wanting to race to freedom but unable to ignore the person he loved above everything. Many times we watched her approach him slowly, speaking softly and persuasively, and then she snatched him up into her arms when she was near enough. Our scolding for letting him out soon followed.
Though Leo was the bold and pugnacious Befirrfin the Fierce, with Mama he was just a big baby. She draped that large cat over her shoulder to pet him, and he melted into her gradually, his body going limp until he began to drool with happiness. When she turned away from you, you could see the moisture on her shirt. Until he died she held him that way, and it was his favorite way to be caressed and cuddled. If I held him as she did and by chance he drooled down my back, it was a great honor. At least I felt so.
When we moved to Boise, Idaho, life was harder for the few pets we had still. It was cramped. It was city life, and that is an abysmal change for anyone used to running around in the country (I cried alot). The smells are different, and sometimes they are more diverse and exciting because of the plethora of creatures cramped within a square mile. In Idaho, Leo felt the old urge to seek a fight, a brief escape, and Mama had the usual work of persuading him to come back.
It was in Idaho that Leo's habit of following Mama around grew worse. Wherever she went he was behind her. She wore nothing but heels, my mother, and so if while doing laundry or making dinner she had to turn and grab something, there was almost always a yelp of pain from her beloved cat-son. He never learned, and it didn't matter how many times she scolded, "Leo!" It didn't matter how many times my dad admonished, "Honey, you have to watch where you're stepping!" He remained at her feet, as close as he could get, and Mama always expected him to move in time or not be lying within danger. Sometimes after such accidents, she pressed him to her face in apology for a few moments and then carried him off to my dad. If that didn't work he spent time on her shoulder, drooling. Probably, that's what he wanted all along.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~I wasn't home the day Befirrfin the Fierce died. I was living in Virginia, as I recall, when Dad phoned to tell my sister and me the news. He had health problems for a while, so it wasn't a shock. Yet I regretted not seeing him again, felt like another strong tie to our life in Tennessee was gone, and I knew my mama was inconsolable. I remember Dad being jealous, saying half in jest that he wondered if she would cry as hard over him as she did over Leo.
Dad buried Leo at the roots of a potted tree, so my mother could carry him wherever she went, knowing he was enriching another life. Two years ago I watched my dad turn the earth and finally transplant that tree, for a sojourn, into my aunt and uncle's yard in a little town in Idaho. We were all quiet and respectful as Papa draped his arm over my mom's shoulders, a moment of silence for Leo. There Befirrfin will remain, and there the tree will flourish, until Mom and Dad come back to claim them.
Dedicated to Mama Darlin'. I hope she will forgive me if I didn't do justice to her Leo.