When I first met the cat, she was hiding in the foliage of that horrible maple sapling.
My yard is full of attempts at maple trees. I don’t know where the original maple tree grew here, long before we moved in, but there must have been one. By the time we got here, there were two little maple saplings springing up too close to the porch, mixed in with the hiding trees. There are tiny maple shoots the size of bushes all around the property. We mow them. We weed whack them. We remove their limbs with hand saws. But they always grow back. The most irritating maple sapling is sprouting from the concrete steps of my back porch, ruining a perfectly good planter. That mud is too shady to grow anything in. Now, something was hiding there, rustling the leaves, making quite a noise.
I was afraid it would bite me, so I kept my distance. I couldn’t quite see what it was, except that it was about the size of a raccoon. I don’t want to startle a raccoon.
Next morning, I saw the cat.
LaBelle is as infested with stray cats as my yard is infested with maple saplings. Elderly shut-ins leave great big salad bowls of cat food on their porches to attract them the way other people leave out seed for the songbirds. The cats are fearless, to an irritating degree. We’ve had cats come in the window, more than once. In the winter they take refuge in the basement, coming in through the old coal chute window that the landlord keeps meaning to nail shut. If we don’t keep the basement door closed at all times, they come in to visit the kitchen. I don’t mind them, unless they bite.
This cat was hiding in the gap under my back porch. There’s a weird place where the porch juts out at a funny angle, like a stage for a dancer; the nook this makes is where I keep my compost heap. Under the porch is a big gap that goes down to the foundation to the house, and a door to the basement that is nailed shut. When the landlord bought the house and brought it up to code, he nailed a big piece of plywood over the front of the porch so that nothing could get into the gap, but the plywood fell off and he never got around to replacing it. That’s where the cat was hiding when I came out to water the potatoes.
She looked at me, cautious, vulnerable, not at all like a bold LaBelle stray.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I like cats. Nice to meet you.”
She padded out of her refuge, keeping me at a distance, and slunk around the side of the house.
I don’t know why I immediately decided that the cat was a she. She was a warm amber marmalade cat. Something like eighty percent of marmalade cats are boys. It just came to me that she was a girl cat, lost and traumatized by LaBelle like I am. I named her Jeanne D’Arc, thinking it might give her some confidence.
The next morning, as I was adding last night’s coffee grounds to the compost heap, Jeanne peeked at me from her hiding place. She was all the way back against that unusable basement door. I tried to speak gently to her, but she was having none of it. I kept talking until she bolted out of sight once again.
Yesterday, I found that there were groundhogs at the community garden two blocks away. The boisterous man next door said there was a whole family of the beasts under his back steps– they were the reasons his two sleek pit bulls were madly tearing around the small yard. They couldn’t quite get their noses under the steps. I wished they had; the groundhogs had eaten the lettuce I was growing for the guinea pig, and taken a big bite out of one of the brand new cauliflower seedlings. This has been quite the year for groundhogs. I see them bumbling around the vacant lots, or lying dead on the narrow one-way roads.
I hate groundhogs. They will decimate a garden in one night. They are never not hungry and you can’t fence them out. At our old house, bordering a strip of woods, our garden was under constant attack from the vermin. They didn’t respond to sudsy ammonia and they didn’t shy away when I ran at them with my shovel. I’ve learned that the only tactic when battling a groundhog is retreat. I dug up the broccoli and cauliflower seedlings, carried them two blocks to my house, and re-planted them in the backyard garden patch. I watered them well to help them overcome transplant shock. And then I stayed in the yard, puttering and weeding and talking to the plants, until twilight.
It was then that Jeanne came out of her hiding place under the porch.
I went very still and said nothing.
She didn’t cringe from me, but she didn’t approach either. She only padded across the yard to the alley, and disappeared.
The next morning, the groundhogs had munched another community gardener’s lettuce. I hoped the dogs next door would find a way under the steps. I will stick to planting tomatoes and zucchini, which groundhogs don’t like, in my raised bed. But my backyard patch was happily untouched. The broccoli and cauliflower had survived the night. They were standing strong.
I started to wonder why the groundhogs were leaving my yard alone, when they were tormenting the other parts of LaBelle. And then I remembered Jeanne.
I went inside to do some internet research. Yes, groundhogs are afraid of cats. The sight of a cat and the smell of their litter repels them. Jeanne was a guardian. She was protecting my yard from the invading hordes, just by taking refuge there.
I’ll bring a can of fish outside in case I see her again.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.