Quimby & the dog who herded cats

Quimby & the dog who herded cats

by Daniel Borgström

Quimby is a mature, well adjusted orange cat who lives on a farm in Vermont. He's basically in tune with the world about him, and despite his habit of hunting and killing birds (a propensity not at all approved of by the humans of his household), he does for the most part go along with the program. He does his best to put up with whatever demands others may see fit to impose upon him.

Last fall, while I was staying at the farm belonging to Quimby's humans, the electric lights unaccountably flickered on and off in my room one dark night. The next morning I mentioned it to my hosts, and was informed that those were probably the activities of a ghost, believed to be that of a little girl who'd died back in the 1880s. It was an old house, built more than a century ago, the home of a succession of families who'd lived and died there; some of those former inhabitants seemed inclined to hang around, their shadows still flitting in and out among the hand-hewn timbers. The little girl was one of them. Although this ghostly child sounded harmless, I did find these reports of her continued existence rather disquieting. It would be reassuring to have a roommate, I decided, one who still belonged to this world.

Then I thought of Quimby, who might be willing to make himself available, though it would involve some inconvenience on his part, since he loved to spend his nights out of doors. I invited him to share my space, and, in the event of the ghost's appearance, to extend his paw and hold my hand. Being the good-natured cat that he'd shown himself to be -- companionable and also courageous -- he obligingly moved in with me.

Our arrangement worked out reasonably well. Of course, being something of a night owl, he often stayed up into the wee hours of the morning, presumably chasing mice. Or at least that was my interpretation of the sounds of scurrying and pouncing that I heard in the dark.

The ghost did not reappear, or if she did, I didn't hear it. However, after several days of noticing an increasingly unpleasant smell in my room, I looked around for a source and found two dead mice lying right under my bed. They were, it would seem, Quimby's gifts to me. Although I didn't share Quimby's taste for mice, I knew it was well intended.

Quimby's relationships with the rest of his world, which for him consisted of the house, barnyard, fields and forests of this Vermont farm, were likewise amicable. He was at ease with the chickens who flocked around the yard, and not even the overly aggressive geese disturbed his tranquility.

He even got along well with dogs. At least he tolerated them, although their canine idiosyncrasies may have seemed strange and overbearing at times. One of the more annoying ones was the neighbor's dog, Serena, who sometimes came to visit in the company of her human, Lorita Adkins. Serena was a dark brown German Shepherd, a kind and gentle creature but possessed of some dogged obsessions which were particularly challenging for Quimby.

Early one evening, after having put in a good day's effort doing whatever his projects for the day may have been, Quimby had joined the rest of us by the fireside, napping on a cushioned chair. It was a pleasant gathering; a couple neighbors had dropped in. Then Serena arrived in the company of her human, Lorita.

The next thing I saw, out of the corner of my eye, was the dog nudging the cat. "Get up!" Serena seemed to be saying, and though Quimby clearly understood the message, he did not wish to be disturbed.

"I think the kitty wants to sleep," I said to the dog, giving her a pat and trying to direct her attention elsewhere. But Serena would not be deterred. She persisted in nudging Quimby.

"Serena is a herd dog," Lorita told me. "It's her instinct to herd other animals. She'll herd sheep, she'll herd cattle, she'll even herd geese and chickens. That's who she is. She's a herd dog."

"And cats?" I queried.

"Yes, she also herds cats."

Quimby lifted his head, then brandished his claws warningly, as though he were about to sink them into the nose of his persecutor. The tactless canine just stood there, persisting in her demand, not seeming to realize that she was being truly outrageous. Just as it seemed that Quimby was about to lash out, he withdrew his claws, gazing at the dog for another long moment.

It seemed to me that Quimby was having second thoughts, perhaps feeling that violence was not the answer to this dilemma. Though not exactly a pacifist -- he did on occasion kill birds -- he seemed to be thinking that this foolish dog, no matter how misguided she may have been in her cat-herding instincts, did not deserve a sharp claw in the nose.

Quimby turned his head away, gazing as though into another dimension, seeking an answer. He furrowed up his brow in the most expressive way I've ever seen on a cat's face. I was amazed to see a cat so capable of a facial expression, surpassing anything I've ever seen on a human face. Who knows what levels of complicated thought may have been passing through this cat's mind? An English translation might be something like:

"How can this be happening to me? What is this world coming to? Nobody herds cats. Oh what am I to do?"

For some moments Quimby seemed to struggle with his thoughts in this manner. Finally, deciding that this drama had gone far enough, Lorita interceded, taking Serena by the collar, and pulling her away from the cat.

A few evenings later I saw the conclusion of this strange interaction.

I was, as before, sitting by the fire with three or four others including Lorita, when I happened to notice what the cat and the dog were doing. Serena was herding Quimby across the room, and Quimby was allowing her to do this. She herded the cat towards the kitchen area, then in one door of the pantry and out the other, then back towards and past the fireplace. Around and around the room they went, the dog herding the cat.

It must be trying for a cat to maintain his peace of mind, his tranquility and, above all, his feline dignity in situations such as this. I won't say Quimby made the right decision (it perhaps did not occur to him that the dog might now be encouraged to continue in her cat-herding). I'm just saying that, rightly or wrongly, he took what seemed to him a reasonable course of action.

While struggling to be his own cat, Quimby deals as best he can with the bizarre demands of those around him.

danielfortyone ( ) gmail.com

February 14, 2016
last updated April 16, 2018


audio Daniel, a guest on WGDR, a Vermont community radio station

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