Seven raised his head and let out a piteous meow. But no answer came from the room full of cold metal cages, only monsters barking from the room next door. Just a few days ago, his world had been made of warm wooden walls.
A barn—that’s what his mother had called it. Because he had a mother, a fine, sleek one…or at least he used to. Seven couldn’t find her now, no matter how many times he called.
She had licked his striped fur with quick, rough strokes as Seven filled his belly with warm milk. Then she told him of the swift-footed mice she’d hunted that day. “We keep the vermin out of the human’s food,” she’d said proudly as she wrapped her tail around him.
“Will I hunt?” he’d asked, unable to imagine leaving their wooden crate. He could barely toddle after his larger brothers and sisters.
“Of course,” she’d said. “You must walk until you can run. Never accept defeat.”
Lulled by the milk and the wise words, he’d nestled into her side. His brothers and sisters joined them, snuggling and purring. Seven drifted off to the small sounds of his family all around him, safe and warm.
He awoke to their crate swaying wildly. He staggered to his feet but fell right back down. The kittens cried out for their mother, but no answer came. The crate swung into bright light, and they cowered and crouched in corners. Seven tried to run, but a strong hand grasped him, and a voice said, “Oh, no, you don’t. You can all go together.”
Their crate was set down in a strange place, one that shook and made his belly sick. Their cries of distress were ignored, but the rumbling finally stopped. Their crate was replaced with a metal cage, and their mother with a bowl of food, but at least they were together. Nobody had any wise words, but Two finally said, “Mother will find us. In the meantime, we will keep ourselves neat and clean.”
They had all listened, perhaps because it was a relief to have something, anything to do. Seven missed his mother all over again, for his gray, stripy fur was long and stringy, not short and sleek like his brothers’ and sisters’ coats. But he kept at it. He would make his mother proud.
He’d only just finished and taken a single step toward the back of the cage when the door sprang open. “I guess we’ll start with you,” a deep voice said, and a callused hand grabbed him. Seven was set firmly on a cold metal table. His nails wouldn’t dig into it, no matter how hard he tried. He was poked and prodded, and at the end, the man took foul-smelling drops and smeared them into Seven’s coat, not caring how hard the kitten had worked to clean it. When he was finally reunited with his brothers and sisters, they all smelled like the drops. No one could bear to groom themselves—they huddled together for comfort. Seven didn’t want to accept defeat, but he couldn’t fight this. It was too big. The hands that reached in were swift and merciless.
But the next day he was ready for them. These hands were not as fast, and Seven had finally learned to run, or at least dive to the corner of the cage. The hands grabbed his brothers and sisters, but not him. Two had been the last to go. He’d caught one final glimpse of her face, so like their mother’s, and then she was gone.
He’d cried out, overwhelmed by the huge emptiness of the cage, and a soft voice answered, “You’re not doing yourself any favors, little one.” This voice was lighter and the hands moved gently. When they touched him, it didn’t feel like a defeat.
“Can’t you take him?” the deep voice asked. Seven shivered and cowered back.
The soft hands petted him again, one long stroke from his head to his tail. “I already have five cats, and we’re still paying down the credit card from the last vet bills. There’s no way I can take this little guy.” She bent down closer and whispered, “Stop running from the people. You have to charm them into taking you.”
Seven blinked. Stop running? Were these wise words he should heed, or only someone speaking because they must, like Two had done? And he had no idea what charm was.
But the soft voice didn’t say. Her gentle hands stroked him once more, and for a while, the cage was a bearable place. Then she bid him good-night and left. That had been hours ago. Now only monsters answered his cries.
Eventually, the soft voice returned. “Okay, this is your chance, little tabby. Let’s go show them what a terrific cat you’ll be.” Her voice lowered and she added, “But you’ll have to be brave.”
His mother had said to be brave, too. These must be wise words. He would be ready.
The woman carried him to another place, with glass walls and a chewed toy in the corner. The room smelled of fear. His hackles went up.
“He’s as ready as he’s going to be,” the soft voice said. “Just take it slow, all right? He doesn’t do too well when you try to grab him.”
She left the room, and a girl entered. “He’s so small,” the girl said, and her voice was gentle. She reached out with one finger and waited for Seven to sniff it before she tried to touch him. Her caress was slow and calming. She petted him softly for some time, and Seven felt a purr start to rumble up from his chest.
“Now for the hard part,” the soft voice said grimly.
Seven looked up, and his eyes widened. The woman had a monster by her side. She was holding it back with a rope.
But then the monster barked and bounded into the room, pulling the woman with him. “Matilda, no!” the girl cried, but it was too late. Seven ran for the corner. The monster leaped and grabbed him up in its fearsome jaws.
Seven yowled. No! He wouldn’t be a monster’s meal. He struggled and meowed as loud as he could.
The monster dropped him. Confused, Seven got to his feet and hissed, but the fearsome beast only groaned. Then she laid her formidable head down on her paws, black ears tipped forward as she gazed at him from deep brown eyes. Seven reached out with a paw and batted her on the nose.
The monster blinked and heaved a long sigh. Then she sniffed him, with such vigor that it lifted Seven off his paws. Seven’s body shook, but he stood his ground. He would not accept defeat. He would be brave.
Then the monster licked him, one long stroke from his head to his tail. Seven stopped quivering, and the monster licked him again.
“Matilda’s been so lonely, you see,” the girl said. “We were going to get her a puppy to keep her company while I’m at school, but they didn’t have any. So, the lady said we could try a kitten. And it worked!” She had apparently used up all her self-control, for she grabbed Seven and hugged him to her chest. “I’m going to call you Sven, after my grandfather,” she told him. “He was brave, too.”
Close enough. The girl’s hands gently stroked his head, and the kitten wriggled in delight. He would keep their food safe from the swift-footed mice, and even allow the monster to sniff him if she must. Then he purred so loudly, he surprised even himself.
This one is dedicated to Luke and Vanessa. : )