The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Happenstance Kingdom

By Marijane G. Ricketts © 1991

Issue: April, 1991

We're not revealing animal frustration here. This is a non-zoo kingdom in mountainous Bruceton Mills, West Virginia. A roller coaster road swings our car around curves wide enough for only one vehicle at a time. We honk for the invisible car oncoming, just in case. The passengers, knowing we could drop a hundred feet off the open side, sit stiffly, anxious eyes scanning blue hill panoramas.

We reach a green plateau. The car is parked and we teeter on unsteady ankles down a gullied road, rock strewn. Blackberries hang heavy over the fences. We blow dust off those we sample. Striped apples cascade on limbs above them. Bird calls advance us toward the house, still invisible.

My young niece alerts me to ready the camera. She says I will never see this again. She won't tell me what, though she cannot help smiling. Halfway down the hill, gargantuan gray geese honk our arrival. Dogs bark on-chorus. We pass unsheared sheep that give up chewing, survey us stoically. Their lean-to lists unsteadily into a fence.

A weathered one-story house angles into side view. First steps inside the gate rivet us to our tracks. Think "welcoming committee" - but like nothing you ever experienced before. Dozens of heads, turned toward us, line the walk on both sides. For a moment nothing moves as we comprehend these tiny faces. But one step more, and they break rank.

Cats alive! And their kittens, defying individual description, bound into action, some toward us, some skittering off. One up the drain pipe, sunlight haloed in its silky tail swishing overhead. Everywhere you look, an elfin face; peering around the gatepost, or eyes coming at you, bush after bush, through abundant shrubbery. But the cats scatter long before I escape bewitchment, remember my camera. "I told you to be ready," my niece says.

"Let's try it again," I beg.

"Sorry, it doesn't work the second time." She says, enjoying the joke.

Granny, thus alerted to our arrival, limps through a ramshackle doorway. Onions hang there, drying. Granny's skin at 64 is no more wrinkled than those tubers. Long staff in hand, like some pariah paying for an unfortunate fall on iced slopes, and thus a broken hip, she approaches carefully.

A miniature hound dances between us. I speak astonishment at her nippled belly when she paws my knees. I had thought her a puppy. Then a blond collie noses gently into my hands, but my eyes are with the cats.

Blue-eyed kittens sit like porcelain white sculptures, heads high, tails curled around front feet; silky blacks send back the light in muscled ripples; beige and black striped tigers chase tabbies into dog paws that grapple gently, roll them about the yard.

"Don't tell me you've named all these — how many?" I ask.

"Lord, no... thirty nine last time we counted... big tom, little tom, blue tom, green tom..."

"How did you get so many?"

"They multiply," she laughs. "Costs me $20 a week for their food - fat as butter balls until I took away the milk!"

"Cat's enough?" I ask.

Granny chortles, swinging her free arm toward the house. Reluctantly I give up this bewilderment with cats, kittens and dogs at play to follow her. Inside her kitchen, every countertop and table holds big pans and bowls of farm produce.

"I made $100 at Big Bear Lake on Saturday," she announces, "selling my blackberry pies." A box of tomatoes, grapefruit size, brings my eyes to the floor - lush yellows and reds.

"Something got into them tomatoes this year," she says. "They didn't set on like they should." She points to gallon jars of vegetable soup claiming one corner of her sitting room. "Those go real good," she says. Another box projects bean pods a foot long, green swells defining the large beans inside.

"I have 14 lambs to market next Saturday," she muses.

"You do all this by yourself?" I am amazed.

"Yes, I never wanted to leave this place. Not even after Harry died."

"Don't you get snowed-in back here in the hills?"

"Don't need to go nowhere in the winter... leastways, not now," she counters.

We ramble to the garden behind her house. Sunflowers like antenna dishes stand above a tangle of greens. Pole beans hang from a trellis, tomato vines underneath. Sleek butter-yellow crooknecks, up from hiding in tall grass, hang on her sturdy fingers. She lays 18-inch zucchinis in our arms. "Look... them bird house squash have clumb clean through them apple and pear trees." (defining inside corners of the fence).

We gaze in wonder. Gourds like hoop skirted dolls with clinched waists peek through green leaves — a doll tree! The smallest birds imaginable flit about quarter-round cut holes.

"All I did to start 'em up was throw seed under them trees."

"And you have bird meat for the cat families," I tease.

"Them cats don't eat birds, no way," she replies. "Can't get at 'em."

I hope to cuddle the lambs. Granny calls to her sheep, the newborns already moved away from us, high on the hill facing her house. Although we don't understand their baa-baa conversation, the outcome is perfectly clear to her - negative! They are not coming down and the climb up is too steep for Granny. Disappointed, I give up the wish.

I also want pictures of the cats. Unbelievably, none are in sight. But at Granny's call, they stream into view, erupt from every green bush and weathered board. Now we can't shake them. I click away as they follow us out of the yard, down the rutted road, a phalanx of imaginary cat troops on the move. Some drop out to climb fences or horse around with the dogs. Some, with only eyes visible in the shrubs, can make you believe you are seeing elves. Finally, waving goodbye, and backward moving not to turn our backs on Granny and her curious animal convent, we resume our long walk back to the car. An old ram, unnoticed as our visit began, towers above us, forefeet high on outcropped rock. His horns swirl royally around his head. He gives our departure full attention. We know without discussion that he owns this kingdom. And so do the deliberate stepping little "banties," the loud mouthed geese, the shy sheep, the placid cows, the gentle dogs and the multifarious cat tribes. Only the black crows and flickers complain about it.

I look at the hay bailer, indolent with rust on the hill; the Land Rover four-wheel drive, and the Snowmobile. How different, life in this ecologically friendly kingdom - not the nuisances civilization claims - a bit of cat heaven on a craggy West Virginia farm.