#7 ~ prisoner of hope
The mornings come to me quite early here.
I am up before the sun. I make a cup of strong coffee in my room to take to the flower filled veranda that hovers just over the Aegean, where I watch the sun make its appearance as small fishing caiques purr past, gliding through a glassy sea infused with the golds and silvers of the new morn. Among the 5 or 6 colorful boats that pass by there is sure to be one with it’s captain, in full voice that ripples through the still, singing his way into his new day.
I am alone … there, in the quiet that is natural to this place.
Just me, the wren singing his aria and the soaring gulls that float past at eye level … and the chorus of swifts that scream through the air above me, commenting in unison on the state of the day. Embraced there by this morning loveliness, I will write for a few hours before heading down to the heart of the village, the harbor, to watch it come to life.
Psipsina and Koukla will meet me on my way out the front door … Psipsina is always waiting overhead in the arbor woven with night blooming jasmine, her upside-down Cheshire grin and a polite “maaaaoow???’ greeting me as I step out into the morning and after a somersault, a tightrope walk across the narrow wooden railing and a graceful float to the ground, she dances me to her feeding spot. I’ve known Psipsina for 3 years now – somehow the little redhead has survived life as a Greek island stray.
The cats still have it pretty rough here, but I have to say she always looks good. There must be someone who lovingly sees her through the leaner months for she has a soft, glossy bunny coat and does not sport weepy eyes or the telltale greasy, dirty nose of a street cat that must rummage through garbage for a meal.
From year to year Psipsina has remembered me by the jingle jangling of my silver bracelets –– and once it’s established that yes, indeed, it is the ‘music of that kind food lady’ she hears, she sets up camp on the window sill above that delicious arbor and delights me every morning with her song and dance.
When she’s not busy eating, she likes to just sit and chat and will sometimes climb into my backpack for a quick nap … but she also can be quite sneaky. I once opened the door to my room to find Psipsina sitting right there in the hall … looking up at me patiently, as though she belonged in the house. There she was at my door –– there are 5 rooms on that floor –– no matter the front door to the pensione was closed, and locked! How did she get in? Only the cats will ever know that. But she marched right in and jumped up to curl in comfort on my bed. No, this is not a typical street cat. Koukla mou (my little doll) is also not a typical street cat. She’s a young, lithe, happy little thing, a beautiful dark calico who really seems more interested in socializing than eating kibble, curling in my lap while Psipsina eats, gazing up at me with what looks like a sure smile on her squinty eyed face, her white toes spread and paws kneading in a gentle ecstasy. Drooling.
There are 2 other mostly grown cats who also come to me to be fed regularly, Agapi (love) and Asprolaki (little white) … again, these cats are in good flesh, are clear eyed and would make beautiful companions for anyone with an open heart. Why they are plying the streets is beyond me. Abandoned? Perhaps. Though these two have a healthy fear of strangers, with the humans they trust they are chirpy and lovely and not at all shy about showing their gratitude. I feel blessed that they trust me.
In my last few visits to the island, spring and winter, I’ve noticed that several of the old neighborhood grandmothers, the yia yias, have taken to caring for cats. On one of the breathtakingly beautiful cobbled strolls I take from my pensione to the harbor, there is one small house … always emanating some delicious, herb infused aroma … with no less than 9 fat and happy cats lolling about the stoop waiting for their scarved and black clad slave to serve up the breakfast orders. These fortunate few are also not at all like those who must lurk in the shadows, the desperate, haunted ones, the sickly, hungry ones who live from garbage can to garbage can. But it is those cats I still find in abundance everywhere I go.
Caring for the unwanted ones is one way that I can give back to this island that has afforded me much peace and inspiration over the years. I do what I can for the strays of the village neighborhoods while I am there … there are many that are far more needy than my crew of fatties, and on my daily rounds to their feeding stations I leave heaps of kibble and any leftovers I’ve gleaned that they might find appealing. It’s never enough …
The very best I can do is sadly only for those who will allow my touch. I am able to dose these cats with a good ‘one spot’ product purchased from my Veterinarian, one that eliminates fleas, ear mites, heartworm and internal parasites all in one go – a pricey but miraculous treatment for these unfortunates of the streets. In the past I had to struggle to dose ears for mites with one product, use another product for the fleas and forget about worms … none of them would tolerate my jamming a pill down their throats! This year I was blessed by the generosity of many folks who wanted to help in some way with the needy street urchins of the island. They donated money, used in part to purchase a lot of this miracle product that makes it possible for me to take care of more of the street cats than ever before. After treating the cats and setting a bit aside so that I could administer a second dose at the end of my month’s stay, I took the generous amount left over to the island’s dog shelter. Along with the remainder of the donated cash, it will all come to good use for the many dogs there. (The animals thank all of you who donated so generously to their cause!) You can visit this amazing place that is attended by angels by clicking the link to the right of this page –– Skiathos Dog Shelter.
I am never prepared to accept that there are any of them that I cannot help … but my heart is always challenged in one way or another at some point in every visit ‘home’. This year’s trial came to me late in a night blessed with a much welcome stillness; finally some quiet, after several noisy days and nights of construction that disrupted the peace in my usually placid neighborhood.
Mew. Meeeew. Mewwww. I really didn’t take any notice at first. The sounds of cats … hungry, happy, fighting, mating … is hardly something unique in the soundtrack of a Greek village’s night. But it continued. And grew stronger, more insistent. Within an hour I was out there in the dark of the new moon with no flashlight and a 7-foot high wall between me and the yeowls, trying to figure out WHAT this was about. I couldn’t see a thing! I couldn’t do anything! The plaintive cries, sounding more and more like a kitten only 4 or 5 weeks of age, went on for awhile, pulling at my maternal instincts, tearing at my heart – but then, they stopped.
The next morning, just as I contemplated diving into a blank page with all the words still dancing around in my head a pathetic ‘mew, meeeeeew’ sliced through the quiet! I peered over the railing to the dense tangle of bush below but there was nothing there that bore any relation to those cries. It remained unseen. I flew down the stairs and out, walked through the construction mess next door over heaps of rebar and form planks and buckets and dirt, to bushes far too thick to investigate. Yet that is where the tiny thing seemed to be. Where was its Mama? I’d not seen any new Mama’s in my little world of streetlings there in the neighborhood. This baby sounded desperate.
How did it come to be there?
I won’t say any more about that now other than this … there are boys, and girls, the world over who will do despicable things under the pressure of peers to prove themselves. Here, sometimes they still test their bravado, in the dark of a drink-fueled night, by tossing unwanted kittens over cliffs into the sea. And there are some people still see this as a way of curbing the population. So, I will never really know who was responsible, but whatever the intent, this one hadn’t been tossed far enough –– the dense thicket caught it instead, saving it from a sure drowning. But now it prevented the kitten being rescued!
There was nothing that I could do, so I went on about my day – haunted by those pathetic cries.
MEOW. MAAAAAAAAW. When I returned to my room in the late afternoon, the cries were louder still. Such strength of spirit! The kit was not growing weaker – it simply seemed more alive! But still, it was nowhere to be seen.
And late in the night when I came home from my evening’s meanderings? The cries were more desperate, more insistent. I could not sleep. All I could hear was fear and hunger in that kitten’s cry. What could I do? I wept. I had to close my windows, which for me was not at all unlike just turning my back. Even that didn’t work – I had to use earplugs to sleep.
And so it went for two more days and another night … on and on and on. But no one else seemed to hear it! Was I imagining things? Was this just the ghostly archetype of all that I find wrong in the world, distilled into the mirage of a motherless kitten?
Of course, I’m thinking … Great. I’ll have to just sit here, the helpless kitten in its death throes just feet away but out of reach? Is this what I get, for saying that I like animals better than most people? Are all of those people who think I’m a nutcase, RIGHT? As Paul has written, sometimes it’s a curse to care …
The next day, all alone at my secret, peaceful spot by the sea I daydreamed of a world where all living beings were cared for, a world where humans had common sense and did the right things, harming no one, harming nothing, a world with no hungry children … no kittens tossed to the seas.
And that night … to escape reality manifest outside my window I resorted to what I NEVER do while on the island –– I turned on the television. I watched the Greek news, bad Albanian soap operas, English films dubbed in Greek, anything to offset the sound of the unseen kitten’s wailing. It didn’t offset the thoughts, though … Was it in fear? In pain? Shouldn’t it have perished by now, no Mama, no food, no water?
Finally…….. in the evening of day three, it made it’s appearance.
Yes, there it was, just emerged from it’s snarled prison of bushes! I saw it from the veranda above, a tiny speck of white and ginger and calico perched in the low branch of a fig tree just outside the tangled copse!
At that very same moment, my future ally in a pending search and rescue also finally caught sight of the wee thing! Carla is a wonderful, rosy cheeked, matronly Swedish woman who was staying in the apartment below, and was, apparently, the only other human within miles to hear 3 days and nights of frantic kitten screams. (… also an animal lover in need of a good night’s sleep!) Carla was on her tiptoes, peering over the wall after the kitten’s constant cries for help.
I heard her gasp aloud.
She looked up, our eyes met … thumbs up … we both smiled … and then we set to work …
Carla was all business. She marched right out over the construction mess in her going-out-for-the-evening clothes and fancy shoes to help me place planks of wood here and there that the kitty might use to make way from the tree by the bushes, to the higher ground where we might be able to catch it. Then she scared the living bejesus out of the kitty with sprays of water from a hose … sending it over a plank bridge and straight into my arms.
Pathetically tiny, the kitten was all bones, dehydrated, far too young to have been on it’s own all that time. She dove greedily into our offering of water, growling as she lapped it up after not having had any water or nourishment for three days. I held the bony little bit close to my heart so that it could absorb any warmth and life I had to give. A wild thing, she trembled in my hands, terrified.
But now what?? She was too small to eat kibble, we didn’t know how to easily come by goat milk – and we knew that our beloved landlady would have a fit if either of us chose to keep a foundling in our room.
“To zee fish market, to zee taverna!” Carla proclaimed!
Iannis, the owner of the fish market in the harbor, was known to take good care of strays there, feeding them fish and milk by day and giving them a safe place to get away from the harbor chaos. By night the cats all queued up to beg courteously from people dining at the neighboring taverna there at water’s edge. So, Carla put the loudly protesting kitten into a bag and marched it down to the harbor and I watched, holding my breath as she set the tiny thing free … to face 5 fully grown cats and a forest of human legs there at the taverna. As if its last 3 days weren’t trauma enough. The kitten promptly ran off into the nearby bush.
My heart sank.
But that was the best that we could do.
I walked past the market early the next morning, hopeful, but not really expecting to see the kitten there. But there she was, quiet, her belly round and full, her tail up at full sail. By evening she was practicing leaping in and out of a small urn filled with fishing line and playing in a wild kitty abandon with two other tiny kittens all along the front steps of the market.
In just days she was adopted by a thin, black mama cat who allowed her to nurse alongside her own babies –– or perhaps this was one of her own, gone missing?
Over the next few weeks I watched our foundling grow and thrive, observed her learning to beg for a bite of something at the taverna alongside her new Mama, saw her hanging out with all of the ‘big kids’ at the market’s morning rally when the fishermen brought in their catch. And often saw her sleeping in a soft, warm pile of kittens … She was safe. This one had a chance.
Of course I hope to see Psipsina and Koukla and the rest of the gang next spring when I return – I am always hopeful, but have learned over the years to expect nothing and just do what I can for those I find in my path. There will be another story to tell, there always is, but I hope that along with some tale surely fraught with peril, I will be able to report that Psipsina came dancing to the jingle jangle of my bracelets, and Koukla has grown into a fine fattie who still likes to dream of lovely cat things while curled in my lap … and that there is a young white and ginger calico gal, sprawled in the sun on the fish market steps with the blacks and grays and oranges, stuffed with fish and goat milk, who seems to be winking at me as I walk by…