Slow Learner

Barrett Bowlin

When the clinic takes in the prowling ginger stray, they run fluids because he’s dehydrated. Feed him prescription-grade meals because he's malnourished and thin. There's a kink in his tail from a bone that's broken. The vertebra's already been set out in the wild, and the kink’ll stay put for his lifetime. Somewhere, he’s caught an immunodeficiency virus.

He could live five years, my wife tells me.

So when she brings home the cat from the clinic — and, with him, pills and powders and an infant's feeding schedule — he roams the basement. Leaves us the body of a mouse down there to find one evening, the emptied shells of desiccated insects he's used as toys the next.

He puts on weight again, mewls for attention now. He gets us to open the glass door to the back yard, and we obey. Leaves for hours at a time, disappearing through the shrubs or hiding in the thickets, returning only for mealtimes and when it's raining.


The story might seem familiar:

A warrior, made low from his battles in a strange land, is taken in by a local family. He is wounded and unconscious, not expected to live. Does so anyway under the care of a healer. Regains much of what made him strong, but not all. The missing part, the extra strength that almost killed him at first — it's been replaced now. Acceptance of what’s gone fills the hole in his heart with patience. An understanding that what’s been lost will never be his again, but that it doesn’t need to be. So he rises once more. Teaches the people who cared for him before now to care for themselves, to be warriors like him.

This is not that story.


His first week outside, the ginger leaves a chipmunk at the door to our back porch. Mid-foot over the threshold with my afternoon coffee, I catch a glimpse of it from under my sandal. I pull back, shut the door, drink at the kitchen table instead. Like I hope it’ll be, the body’s gone by the time my children get home. Another, larger animal has moved it away and probably eaten it, or the cat’s come back to retrieve what’s his.

Two days later, a squirrel. The white of the neck has puncture marks of red. I stare at it through the glass and take our dog out onto the front lawn instead. She relieves herself in the waving green blades near the hostas that the deer like to eat in the nighttime.

Come morning, the squirrel’s gone, and the cat trots back into the house at dinnertime. He stares blankly as he meows for his tin of beef-parts pâté, dashes up to our bed on the second floor after he feeds, spends the rest of the evening staring at me as I fold towels and hang scrubs. There’s an impatience to this, a disgust with me he somehow communicates.


Out again in the fresh air and on the hunt.

I stare at the dead body of a crow. Its eyes are still open, calm now and drained of whatever fear the cat’s bitten into them. Its wingspan juts against a screen door resting on its side. Metallic, black feathers have fallen from the bird's coverts and are scattered around the body, so I pull down a shovel from a wall hook in the garage.

I lift the crow with the scoop, walk it down to the edge of the back lawn, down to the point where our property meets at the corner with the neighbors’ fences. I toss the bird behind the thick yellow of the forsythias. It rots for a few days, stinks up the boundary of our grass like a warning, and then it doesn’t anymore.


“He loves you,” my wife tells me, laughing as I describe the dead things. “He's bringing you gifts to eat.”

“This isn't love,” I tell her.

“It is,” she assures me. “Wait until he starts to trust you. Then he’ll bring you animals that are still alive. Mostly.”

But the ginger never does. The gifts he brings me will only ever be dead.

He’s patient with me, though. The refusal of the crow must have been too much, and so the cat tries a new approach. A vole this time, then another mouse. We recede, dropping in size and difficulty of capture, down to furry baubles he’s caught when he’s bored. On most days, if I can leave the carcass alone until the next morning, it’ll be gone.


The offerings stop entirely, as quickly as they started. The ginger wakes each morning in our bedroom, eats his breakfast in the kitchen while I toast waffles for the children. Waits at the back door, studying the day’s terrain through the glass.

He’s disappointed in me, I can tell, doesn’t think I’m ready. Not to hunt on my own, not yet. Months from now, though, he’ll try again. The presents will come — punctured, bones broken, inert — and he’ll wait for me take his bloodied gifts. When I refuse and remove them, again, he’ll start over, patiently, working his way back up.

One day, he’ll be as fit as he’s ever been, a latchkey pet that will crouch and warm himself in the sunlight, hunting under the moon and returning for dinner before I head upstairs for the night. Sometimes he’ll be hungry, sometimes not. On the nights he barely touches his food, we’ll wonder what he's done to spoil his dinner.


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