The Day the Fur Flew When Tom Horton moved to Smith Island, it was a dream come true. He could muck around the Bay again and know his children would be well-educated in a one-room schoolhouse. There was just that one little problem with the cats.

June 09, 1996|By TOM HORTON

Excerpted from Tom Horton's new book, "An Island Out of Time,: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake." It has been years, whole generations in their time, since the holocaust, but there are still cats of the island who remember. They scatter at my approach or watch from beneath the crab shanties balefully, ears laid close to the skull and muscles tensed. I still don't like to look them in the eyes. They were just being cats. I was just defending my family.

For the record, I like cats; grew up with dozens of them, cried when they died, and devoutly hoped there was a cat heaven to receive their furry souls. For all that, I guess I never liked cats as much as the islanders, who support a feline population several times the size of their own.

The dogs here, even big ones, mind their manners around the cats. They are hopelessly outnumbered and they seem to know it. "Cats in heat tonight," is perhaps the most ubiquitous entry I find on reviewing my monthly journals. They are as much a part of the island milieu as sea gulls and foghorns. It was not uncommon to see a dozen, or even 30, waiting for the daily handouts at the back doors of island homes. The rest of the time, no basket of bait or sack of garbage or catch of fish could be left unattended for a minute. Downy, newborn kittens consistently outcompeted my education raps to schoolkids. A cabin door left cracked on my boats was always an open invitation to spray urine. You met cats on the marsh, cats on the tideflats, cats in your compost bin and on your porch roof. At some point I began to think of them as vermin.

Theories ran the gamut as to why the island had so many cats. Naming cats was great sport. Chuck Berry, so called on account of "he is a old black cat" was so loved by his owner that even when his kidney condition grew obviously terminal, the man borrowed $100 one day to charter the island ferry in a vain dash to the vet for Chuck. Personally, I always liked Roy Orbison. He was a handsome tom with huge, dark patches around his eyes.

One of Roy's kin, a low-slung, stocky animal, was called Little Jimmy Smith, for his remarkable resemblance, I was assured, to "Little Jimmy Smith over to Rhodes Point he's got little short legs and this belly almost drags the ground." Little Jimmy, the islander, must have been a specimen, because once I began describing Little Jimmy, the cat, to an islander from Ewell, and before I even got to his name the man said, "Hey, that sounds like Little Jimmy Smith to Rhodes Point." Another was named for an islander with an allegedly similar misshapen ear. Was it possible, I once wondered, that for every islander there was a companion cat?

Perhaps the charm of cats was also that fawning over them was an acceptable lapse in the overwhelming pragmatism that kept outward displays of affection to a minimum among even the most loving families in these hard-working communities.

Also, cats acknowledge no masters, and that surely touched a chord in the independent islanders. And in a place where children had become scarce, cats bred with abandon, welcome waves of new and adorable life washing over the island, regular as the tides. Never mind the appalling sights every winter of mewing, staggering, crusty-eyed kittens, born too late to make it through the cold weather. Maybe it finally came down to an issue of freedom, the single word I heard most when I asked islanders what they valued about living here. There is a telling scene in Katherine Patterson's Newberry Award winner, "Jacob Have I Loved," about teen-agers growing up on a fictional island that seems obviously derived from the author's travels to Smith and Tangier. Two youngsters in the story are shocked by an elder's cussing as they round up stray cats. Such language is "against the commandments," the old captain is admonished.

"I know those blasted commandments," he replies, "and there is not one word in them about how to speak to tomcats."

"You're right!" [Louise] screeched through her laughter "I bet there's not one word in the whole blasted Bible on how to speak to cats." And as they all rolled with mirth, she thought: Why was it so funny? Was it because it was so wonderful to discover something on this island that was free-something unproscribed by God, Moses or the Methodist Conference? We could talk to cats any way we pleased.

In a place where the all-encompassing, salty regime of the Chesapeake permitted little diversity in either plant life or people's careers, cats were true indulgences. roaming and reproducing unfettered, "lilies of the field," toiling precious little, to judge from the equally ample populations of mice and rats.

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