We’ve decided to share our burdens and our lives with a Maine Coon Cat. We came to this decision through a combination of pure research, peer pressure and petty prejudice. The prejudice has to do with my love of dogs in general and of our English Lab, Molly, in particular. Cats are fine, but dogs set my soul to singing. The problem with Molly, of course, is that she’d rather befriend a mouse than catch it, and the predatory rodents in our garage and attic are of the essence right now. So, when I typed “Of Mice and Cats” into the computer search engine and came up with Maine Coon Cats, I was smitten. Several articles described Coons as “perhaps the most dog-like of cat breeds, well-known for their mousing ability, especially the females.” A dog-like distaff mousing Mainer — what’s not to like here?
What got me to consider the cat-world in the first place, however, was the overwhelming opinion of my friends. When I shared our recent Mouse Agonies Saga with them, a clear majority responded that it was our duty to recast our domestic culture by inserting a cat into the ecology. Most of our friends declared themselves as moderate-to-liberal members of the Caucus for Cats party, but certainly not all. One colleague, a university language professor, came out of the closet and confessed that she was the mastermind of a plot to set underground incendiaries to eliminate the pests plaguing her suburban garden. I told her I didn’t know you could do that in suburban America. She went on to explain that she didn’t actually lay the explosives herself. She got one of our mutual friends to do the deed — a well-respected professor of theology. It just shows you never know about people — even your closest friends! At the other end of the spectrum, one dour Mainer told me that he’s given up entirely on this conflict. “The mice and me, we have a truce,” he drawled. “I stay out of their way, and they pretty much keep out of mine.”
It turns out that it isn’t easy to find a Maine Coon Cat in Maine. I did my due diligence on the internet and discovered that Maine has few breeders propagating its Official State Cat. I made a few calls from the short list I was able to compile and immediately got a sense of the soft underbelly of Maine’s cat-breeding establishment that is clustered around our state’s only kind-of-big city, Portland. Looking back on those phone conversations, I realize that, from the get-go, I said all the wrong things. The first breeder I tried to interview interrupted me before I’d hardly begun with the declaration: “Garage? You’re looking for a cat to patrol your garage? We breed house-cats only; no kitten will leave this cattery for a garage!” I wanted to reply to her archness by saying something particularly catty, but she made me feel so inappropriate that all I could muster was, “I see what you mean.” The other breeder I called didn’t let me go on too long before referring me to what was, as my mother used to say, another kettle of fish altogether. “You don’t want one of our kittens;” she insisted, “you want the Friends of Feral Felines Society.” I researched this unlikely outfit, but found there was no Coon Cat and no certifiable mouser to be had from them at this time.
And then, I thought of Uncle Henry’s, a literary gem of a want-ad periodical published in Augusta and found everywhere in Maine. I picked up the latest issue at S & J’s, the general store that serves the southern reaches of Coddington. I had walked into the store prepared for conversation. You have to in Maine, unless you want to be known as impolite. When you go shopping here, figure that it’ll take you a minimum of ten minutes to get what you need: one-hundred-eighty seconds to pick out the items and seven minutes for the human interaction. Add at least five minutes if you walk in with your dog, which is encouraged. At the market at the other end of town, everybody’s friend Molly makes her grand tail-wagging entry and then heads straight for the deli at the rear of the store for the delicacy du jour, or du moment. But at S & J’s, it’s the treat that awaits her from behind the front counter that satisfies.
Once Molly had been mollified by an over-sized dog cookie, I got into a conversation with Becky, a young woman in her twenties. From her post behind the cash register she had been eyeing me as I flipped through Uncle Henry’s, trying to decide whether or not I should buy it. I asked if she knew whether Uncle Henry’s had cats for swap or sale. Becky assured me they had “just about every animal you could imagine in there.” Then she confided, “Every week I look through it for a horse, but of course I can’t afford it. I’ve wanted one ever since I was a little girl.” Becky works two jobs, like many Mainers these days, in order to keep body and soul together. As I paid for the magazine, we talked a little about having goals and being faithful to your dreams while the ever-entrepreneurial Molly pleaded for, and finally procured, a second giant-sized biscuit.
Back home, I opened Uncle Henry’s to the “Animals” section and quickly found that Becky was right: you can find just about anything in its pages. On offer this week, for example, is a Weanling colt, half brother to Einstein, smallest horse born in the world.” There’s also an eight-year old Haflinger mare who, the seller avers, has done barrel-racing,” and a six-year-old Tobiano Paint, green broke, that’s been shot off numerous times. Inserted among the exotica of barrel-racing mares, shot-off Paints and extremely small horses you’ll also find a good deal of barnyard pathos. Consider this plaintive inquiry: Do you have a big goat, beef creature, pair of steers a couple months old? My horse needs a companion. And then there is this sad bulletin: I have a beautiful grey and white checkered male rabbit for sale. My daughter has lost interest. Not in life, we hope, only in bunnies.
Throughout the pages of Uncle Henry’s, cheery hype is interspersed with no-nonsense disclosure. Someone has Adorable piglets for sale in Arundel. $50, while on the facing page, somebody is touting Two nicely-shaped Boer doelings, [goats] — may trade for firearms. I’d really like to meet the benevolent soul from Bangor who advertised: Wanted, any inexpensive farm animals, [they’ll be] family raised and taken care of, [with] lots of food and a warm barn. These will be family pets. Visitors welcome. I’ll take a pass, however, on exploring a relationship with the creature who’s for sale on the same page: Stormy, a large, grey, good guard donkey. Has issues. $500 firm.
Uncle Henry doesn’t believe in much indexing of the material that comes in over his transom each week. If you’re looking for something specific, you have to read pretty much through everything. I was doing this and there, among the chaotically arranged enticements to consider bunnies, puppies and fish of all stripes, I spotted this offer, the only one of its kind: Maine Coon Kitten. Magnificent female spotted tabby, raised underfoot.
That afternoon we made our way down through the rolling hills of mid-coast farmland in search of the magnificent female. The directions brought us to an entry gate where a “No Dogs” sign was prominently affixed to the rusted fence wiring. There we were met by a cat lady in golf shoes who unlocked the gate and led us over a path covered with ice and snow to her converted summer cabin on the side of a forested hill. In the dim light of the dying day we were introduced to Diana, Huntress of our dreams, and, may her goddess namesake be willing, the eventual huntress-heroine of our garage and attic.
After meeting the kitten’s mother, brother, cousins and friends, and armed with a 30-day buyers’ remorse guarantee, we gathered Diana to the folds of her dog-blanket-lined portable crate and slid back down the path, guided now by the thin light of a crescent moon. With a ‘what were we thinking?’ feeling sinking ever more deeply within, we made our way to the stay-open-late store in Belfast. There, we re-bought all the feline impedimenta we had so recently given away after the stray my wife Elizabeth had befriended for sixteen years had finally given up the ghost. At the time, we were convinced that we would never need a cat in Maine.
Life doesn’t let up on the lessons it has to teach us. Over the years we learn, for example, that we are known for what we accomplish. That may be an important lesson, but these days present other things to be learned as well. Recently, I’ve come to believe more firmly than ever that we’re also known by the dreams we continue to nurture, by the friends we have grown to trust and by the animals we are privileged to love. Diana of our newly-minted hopes and aspirations, direct result of our friends’ caring concern, has dwelt among us for three days now. Her initial response to our hospitality was to glower at the dog and to cower from us. But she’s coming along. She’s been sitting on my lap the entire time I’ve written this, subverting hour by hour my reliance on her thirty-day return policy.
What’s become apparent so far is that this cat’s got potential as an editor. She’s deleted several of my sentences, (like many editors I’ve known, for no discernible reason), by standing on the computer’s touch-pad whenever she gets bored and highlighting the text the cursor happens to be on. She then makes the line disappear in a flash by scampering back into my lap. Whether she will ever delete a few mice around here remains to be seen.
Edward R. Dufresne © 2012