My wet (canned) catfood comes from Chewy by UPS, undependably these days, as is true of most delivered things these days. When we communicate their messages are always full of cute cat puns and they always ask for photos of my cats, because they assume that all cat owners are nice ladies with beloved fur-babies. I just tolerate it because there’s no choice.

When the vet has to deal with my cats — and I only go to him for euthanasia when things are out of control — $50 each, I can be there or not, and take the bodies for burial or not — the young women assistants identify the cats as “barn cats,” because they are from the Mid-West where people still have barns with cats.

It’s fair enough. This is a cat colony, generations of cats with only food and shelter making them think they belong here in spite of other rude intruders. I don’t have money for big vet bills. They are too transient to invest hundreds of dollars in them.

This batch of kittens eluded my usual practice of drowning them before their eyes open. (Have you fainted yet?) As soon as they were big enough to scramble out of the birthing box (yeah, I make them a soft box in the closet where it’s dark and safe) the mother took them somewhere outside. I wasn’t able to find them. They were gone for days. The mother had been sick and the genetics were inbred. I figured I’d seen the last of them. One had died at birth.

Then Tuxie, a previous kitten (the one the same mother took under the floor to a place I couldn’t reach under the geranium window alcove) who has appointed herself assistant mother and often got into the box with the kittens, came back in with all four kittens, two pairs of twins. One set was black and white and the other set was what I call “pastel calico” — meaning tri-colored in light colors.

They were wary and otherwise weird. They established themselves in an improvised burrow behind my kitchen desk. Tuxie controlled them and interfered with me if I went near them. She’s small but fierce and stood between us. Gradually, partly baited with evaporated milk, they began to accept me.

If I petted them, they became statues. They never meowed or purred and their fur was tufty, three lengths and sticking out in all directions. They stared without blinking but, thankfully, didn’t get the gummy eyes of previous batches. This batch is called the Grasshoppers because when startled they jump straight up in the air. The previous batch — the one the yearling Lesser Tomcats belong to — were called the Buttons until they grew up and became Zippers. Two are left: InkyDink and Gillespie.

There were nine adults in the winter. Now there are three. Some kind of attrition or migration or maybe the Town of Valier has taken the rest. (They trap cats.) I took two bulging female Zippers to the vet. The unflinching young female assistants understood. These cats are more of a natural history project than cherished beloveds in floofy apartments. I don’t play with them. But then my house is a cross between a warehouse and a campsite, so there’s plenty to explore and strew around. Luckily, we never have company and I rarely go anyplace.

Blackfeet say that the dogs are a separate tribe that chooses to collaborate and share with humans. These cats are something like that. Actually, there is one small corner of the kitchen penetrable by mice who eat kitten poop, which is handy. Cat poop is very high in protein because they eat meat and have short guts. A cat litter box outside tempts even dogs. The kittens ignore mice unless they are flannel with yarn tails. (I do buy cat toys. One destroyed and flattened faux bug disappears and then comes back.)

In the beginning I properly acquired two kittens from the classified ads that belonged to an Air Force family in Great Falls that was splitting up. Three little traumatized girls had smothered the kittens in displaced hugging and kissing, carrying them everywhere. The worried kittens found my house rather bleak. I got them as I started a new teaching job, but it blew up in my face (long story) so at least they didn’t have to be alone all day. Their lives were short — about 6 years — but they had veterinary care right up to the end.

To accommodate those two, I had installed a cat flap. The house was only empty of cats about three days. A pastel calico had haunted the neighborhood for years, much too feral to pet or even give a name. Then one day she appeared with kittens and I fed them, which meant the kittens were no longer feral. We went along that way for a while until the neighbors bought a little pickup from south in the state, I suspect Butte. Three kittens were hidden in it. (It broke down in weeks.) One kitten stayed with the neighbors, one died, and one came over here to join this household. I admired him as he was emphatically striped, vigorous, but noisy. As he grew up he began to turn into a belligerent bar fighter and destroyer.

One of the pre-existing kittens was Blue Bunny with a coat definitely blueish. (Blue Bunny is the name of a local ice cream company.) The Bunny fell madly in love with the bar-fighter. Half his size and much prettier, she would sit next to him and lean on him. Her first kittens were his. Then he disappeared. Typical. He came back that winter and yowled at the window to be let in. NOT. She missed him mightily and transferred her affection to me.

Most of the kittens since then have been gestated by Bunny, who was a good mother. Fathers were just ordinary locals. Then she figured out what I was up to and as I was gathering up babies while she was outside, she returned and grabbed two before I could stop her. The trap door to the space under the house was open and she took them down there. One she picked up shrieking by the hind foot instead of the nape. That was the black-and-white kitten who became Tuxie, the nearly trannie female household enforcer. I didn’t see them again until they were old enough to totter out. Luckily I left the trap door open. The other kitten was the one whose face was torn somehow so the vet had to put her to sleep.

Tuxie only had a set of kittens about the same time as Bunny’s next set and that was when I dislocated my shoulder and lost control of the household. I put all the kittens in one box and both moms got in with them. Some babies got “edited” and the remainder became the Zippers.

This morning when I got up the Hoppers were stretched out in the early sunlight pouring through the east window by my computer, gilding their fur which is actually beginning to look normal as they shed their baby coats. Gillespie is sleeping not far away, still healing. InkyDink, one of the lesser toms, had been sleeping with me and spent a little time stretching and tending himself. Tuxie is prowling the territory. She is pregnant. I don’t know what will happen next.

Black Toe (top) and Peaches — Hoppers who are almost small cats now.

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.