Cat By Tail

Cat By Tail

Cat By Tail 1535 1600 Jane Hammons

(CW: animal cruelty)


Their hutch was really a box made to hold firewood, but two baby cottontails Dad brought home from the field briefly occupied it. When he presented them to us, we didn’t ask what happened to the mother. Dad hunted. We ate his prey. We also knew the kind of damage farm equipment could inflict on things in its way. My brother and sisters and I took the firewood out and put straw and the baby rabbits in, then propped the lid open with a stick so they could breathe. If Mom determined we would take care of them, their status might elevate to pet, and we’d make a trip to the veterinarian in town.


One morning when it was my turn to feed the rabbits, I was greeted by a lumpy bull snake. What I knew about such lumps told me the snake was pregnant. What I knew about the wood box told me I was wrong. There was only one way those lumps would exit the snake’s body, and it wasn’t as baby rabbits. I slammed the lid shut and hoped the snake would suffocate. But I had to tell someone what I saw. My brother wanted to drag the snake out. Poke it with a stick. We argued. Soon the wood box was like a carnival sideshow, the whole family peering into it. “Leave it,” Mom said. “It got in. It can get out.”


For a few minutes, it was ours. Dad said he found it on the highway coming back from Mexico, where he often went alone. I was skeptical. It was difficult to picture Dad pulling over to rescue an armadillo, or even to catch one. He carried it by the tail from his pickup to the backyard where we were playing. It clawed and twisted, an armor-plated muscle that won the battle, falling to the ground and heading for the fence where a cool groove worn by water from a leaky spigot provided a route to freedom but not before Dad grabbed it by the tail and pulled hard while we watched in horror, afraid that like a lizard’s, the armadillo’s tail would come off. But the armadillo got away whole. “Some people eat them,” was all Dad said before going into the house to wash up. We’d reluctantly eaten plenty of his unappealing catches: the legs of huge bullfrogs, the tendons tough and discouraging. Had he not made a point of saving the heads so he could show us the teeth of sheepshead fish iced and brought back from the Gulf of Mexico, those might have been more appetizing, but it was hard not to imagine them—even filleted, sautéed and presented on a platter—biting back.


For longer than we cared to have it, and it was only for a few days, we had a rooster with deadly spurs. A fighting cock is not a pet. Nor did it fit into our understanding of livestock. We knew about cockfights, and we knew they happened in the big barn near the reservoir. Unlike my older sister’s puppy, we knew to steer clear of it while it strutted about the back yard. She found the puppy’s body one morning, soft belly slit open, bits of bloody fur and flesh scattered across the patio. She called for Mom who rushed us back inside the house, and by the time we were let out again, pieces of puppy along with fighting cock had disappeared.


After the puppy slaughter, my sister kept black mollies in an aquarium in her bedroom. Safe.


Some livestock got pet treatment. Maybe because it was easier to have a farmworker bring them into the house than it was to herd us out to the nearby corral, Mom filled bottles with what looked like milk but not the kind we drank and attached long, thick rubber nipples to them, then positioned each of us in front of a lamb that pulled hungrily at the bottles in a gentle tug-of-war. The ones that finished first scampered and skidded, long-legged and awkward, on the kitchen linoleum until someone fetched them.


For a short time there was an incubator in the pump house. We watched for hatched eggs, then fed baby chicks and took them out to nuzzle and play with. One day Dad ushered us out to the pump house to show us the bodies of several dead, bloodied chicks. We feared we had done something wrong. But Dad wasn’t angry. He wanted us to know that baby chicks sometimes killed each other, pecking at the feed that fell onto their backs. No instructions followed—be more careful feeding the chicks; or if you see a chick with feed on its back, separate it from the rest; or even, don’t peck your brother to death. He just wanted us to see the bloody tableau. One day the incubator, like so many things, vanished.


In spite of the fact that Dad hated them and threatened to shoot or drown them, we had cats. Under an often-vacant house about a half-mile down the road from ours, feral cats had litters, and we frequently checked for kittens by crawling under an opening beneath the front steps. A fluffy white one my little sister was allowed to keep got vaccinations and a name. One day she came screaming into the house. Snow White, she cried, had fallen apart. We trekked out to the back yard to confirm her story and saw clumps of white rice from a pot Mom had thrown out with other food scraps for the animals. We tell this as a funny family story without acknowledging that by the time she was five, my little sister had every reason to believe a cat might crumble into tiny pieces.


My parents had long loud arguments about almost everything. But the only animal I remember them fighting about was one of the many quarter horses Dad brought home from Ruidoso Downs Racetrack where he sometimes worked as a horse trainer. My little brother and I did not like to ride horses, so Dad forced us to. My brother was five, two years younger than me, and courageously sat up straight, held the reins and took several tours around the corral without crying or complaining. When he dismounted he ran to the house. Not one to put on a brave face, I fretted and begged. Once Dad had wrestled me into the saddle and handed me the reins, I sobbed and wailed until the horse raced for its stall, bucking me off as it went under the doorway where I hit my head and fell to the ground, breaking my arm.

Mom was already on her way to the corral, my brother reported events happening there. She scooped me up as she yelled at Dad for bringing broken down racehorses home for us to ride. Silent and furious she drove me to the hospital in town. I don’t remember the pain I must have felt, but only what I recall as a soothing darkness that may reflect how I felt at the hospital rather than the reality of the ER, the x-ray imaging room and the cubicle where I sat on a table covered with stiff white cloth as our family doctor and a nurse wrapped my arm in layers of gauze and gently smoothed wet plaster of paris around it, forming a secure container for my tiny bones.

Pony and Donkey

As we got older, we learned that a lot of things came our way as payment for gambling debts. One mean Shetland pony that liked to bite, so nobody rode it. From a distance, we watched it worry the perimeter of the corral until, perhaps, Dad used it to pay one of his own debts. For a while there was a gentle donkey with large dark eyes.

Sometimes Dad got paid with things that were not animals. We’d find bales of hay stacked in the front yard or bizarre things like the large industrial stam-fed pants presser that sat on the sun porch until Mom had it hauled away. A few times, we stayed in a shabby cabin in the mountains behind Ruidoso Downs Racetrack. It was destroyed in an explosion. Gas leak, Dad explained.



When my father was three years old he was gored in the head by a bull.

The damage done by the bull’s horn caused him to lose his right eye. Rarely does anyone in his family talk about this, but once, his mother, my grandmother, explained to us that she had told him to stay away from the bullpen.

What happened to him.

When he was three years old.

Was his own damn fault.

My grandmother was a rough woman. When she was 11 months old, the youngest of five children in 1912, her father died with 80 other miners in the infamous San Bois mine explosion in McCurtain, Oklahoma. As an adult, she and her husband and six children, traveled around Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico, looking for work and often living in dire poverty. Like Ma Joad, the matriarch of John Steinbeck’s iconic American family in The Grapes of Wrath, my grandmother had the kind of strength and survivor qualities admired in this country. She was also a bully.

“Johnny Johnny ain’t not good gonna chop him up into kindling wood.” She liked to sing that at the table when we came for dinner. I didn’t think she would really chop him up, but I was tortured by the words, her taunting laughter. I cried. Uncontrollably. Sick to my stomach, I couldn’t eat. Adults laughed. Johnny ducked his head, put on a brave face. Ate his dinner.


On the back of a black and white school photograph of my father taken when he was in third grade, someone has written Sammy, Borger, Texas, 1942. Shy, he tilts his head to the right, shrugs his shoulders up around his ears, and flashes a beautiful smile, one he still has. In the photograph, his right eye is closed: the eyelid hangs like a shade pulled down to cover the socket. It would look like a wink if it were a more controlled squint. But around that eye, the skin sags. The medical care he received as a toddler gored in the head by a bull saved his life but did not adequately address the damage. In some school pictures he wears a black eye patch. He didn’t get an ocular prosthesis until, at age sixteen, he and my mother dropped out of high school to get married because my mother was pregnant. Her parents bought a prosthetic eye for him and paid for additional surgery to improve muscle control.



As it turned out, Mom liked dachshunds, and after my parents divorced, there was always one living in the house. And even though Johnny often lived at Dad’s house, the dogs Dad bestowed upon him lived at ours. One, a not very bright Weimaraner with gentle green eyes named Tracy, lifted her leg to pee on a boyfriend who was kissing me good night at the front door. His shocked cries brought Mom and my little sister to the door, and the incident became another funny story for the family file. The date went home in a pair of Johnny’s jeans. Tracy died in the way many country dogs die: she ate poison wrapped in a hot dog thrown into our yard. My little sister found Tracy with Otto, one of the dachshunds, mournful at her side. Hondo, the German Shepherd, was hit by a car and is the only one of our pets to have a significant afterlife. When our stepfather found Hondo in a bar ditch not far from the house, rigor mortis had set in, and so he and Johnny dug a deep grave out by the clothesline. But it was not quite deep enough. They had to break Hondo’s legs to make him fit. My older sister told this story to her friend Polly Owens, who was married to the writer Louis Owens. In his novel, The Bone Game, a dog named Custer is buried in a similar manner.


Cats Again

This cat is a memory formed from a story Mom told me about Dad swinging a cat by the tail. In my child’s imagination, Dad takes a cat and whirls around gracefully like Apollo throwing a discus. The cat stretches out—its tail a straight line from Dad’s hand. When he lets go, the cat sails like a cartoon over the roof of the house, out across the fields, to an unknown beyond.

More Horses

Dad was pulling a trailer containing the quarter horse he planned to run at the New Mexico State Fair in Albuquerque, where my sister and I were attending the University. As he neared town, a truck forced him off the road. The horse died. Dad was badly injured and hospitalized for a couple of weeks. The hospital called my sister per Dad’s instructions, and she notified his wife and our grandparents. In various combinations, they gathered at her house until Dad was released. A few days passed before my sister told me about the wreck—which would be investigated as attempted murder. I didn’t go to her house or see Dad or anyone in his family, not even my sister, until they all left. When my sister tried to make me feel guilty about that, I assured her I did not need to share the burden of her choice to have a relationship with Dad. She assured me I was just plain mean. I disagreed, but if true, I know where I got that trait.

When our parents told us they were getting divorced, the only thing I felt was relief, though I pretended to be upset like my siblings who cried. To hide the fact that I couldn’t, I buried my face in a pillow. Of my father’s four children, I am the only one who never lived with him. And I never spent any more time with him than was mandated by the custody agreement, which he mostly failed to abide by anyway. My relationship with him is defined by a sense of obligation. If I’m passing through whatever town he is living in, I visit. I talk to him on the phone a few times a year: on my birthday, his—he was born on Christmas, so two birds with one stone.


According to Mark Twain, “When you hold a cat by the tail, you learn things that cannot be learned any other way.”  It is hard to know what, if anything, Dad has learned in his 88 years—but it is not Twain’s lesson. He walks through life with his cat—back hunched, teeth bared, claws out, hissing and biting—forever inflicting pain that he refuses to admit and, thus, can’t release.


When my father was three years old, he was gored in the head by a bull.

When I was 11 years old, my mother divorced my father, and I was, like the cat and the armadillo, damaged but free.

When my youngest son was six, he wanted a puppy for his birthday. His father was difficult, an alcoholic and drug addict; our marriage was ending. I was talking to lawyers, getting restraining orders. I had been largely a single parent even when married. I feared I was not capable of the patience required to be a good mother to a six-year-old boy, his eight-year-old brother, and a puppy.

He settled for a bird. A bird lives in a cage. That, I could handle.

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