Monday, January 21, 2013

Animal Farm Alaskan Style

Our household was eccentric. We never had running water, sporadically had electricity, but we always had a matched pair of Seal Point Siamese cats, who were always named Daphne and Gilmore. My mother had christened the first pair and their successors always bore the same name. Although she was a demon for shortening Christian names, rather like her Maine forbears who would give a daughter a name like Prosperine and then call her Prossy, Daphne and Gilmore were always addressed formally by their full names.

They were all descended from Anna Fisheye, who unfortunately had been named by me. An imperious kitten with a commanding language of meows and purrs, she had ridden in on the shoulder of one of the bachelors, when he moved to our little Alaskan town from Chicago. We all were enchanted by her at first sight and my mother told her owner that when Anna was old enough to have kittens, we would take two of them, male and female.

I don’t know if Anna’s owner had thought about breeding her. She was still very little, and I suppose that they were both recovering from her arduous journey north. But Joe was in love with my mother, and somehow when Anna was old enough, a purebred Seal Point Siamese male came to call upon her on an extended visit.

Heaven only knows how Joe had found Anna’s mate in 1950’s territorial Alaska. It was a rough country then and most people kept cats as mousers and dogs as transportation. Sleds pulled by eight huskies were a common sight in winter; Joe soon had a dog sled and team himself. But before that he found the father of Anna’s kittens and brought him home.

That alone must have been quite the little odyssey. This cat would have turned Joe into a hunchback if he had perched on the man’s shoulders and his personality was far from cuddly. Before his mission was accomplished, he would stalk the woods at night near our house and scream at our window for food. He was massive with a baleful stare ; my mother called him Mephistocles.

I wanted to keep him but once his job was completed, he vanished. After beginning his dynasty, he was never needed again. Anna Fisheye obliging produced both male and female kittens, and two of them became the first of the Daphnes and Gilmores.

I think Mother had vague dreams of making some pin money by raising Siamese cats. Other women might choose chickens as a way to supplement their household money but not my mother. She was a woman of original ideas that were never accompanied by a marketing plan.

Anna Fisheye had produced six kittens. It was reasonable to assume that her daughter would do the same. We lived in a village of 98 people, which at best meant 25 families. Even if each of them were willing to purchase a purebred Siamese kitten, which was doubtful since barn cats could be had for free, that market would be saturated after three litters. Nevertheless, Daphne and Gilmore grew up, vigorously and regularly reproduced, and the kittens moved on. We never asked where they went.

The Siamese cats were a much more durable enterprise than the Flemish Giant rabbits that my father bought, built hutches for, and bred. They were intended for food, not profit but the first time we sat down for supper, asked what was on our plates, and were foolishly told “Rabbit,” all three of us burst into wild sobs. We were never served rabbit again but that winter we ate quite a bit of “chicken.” Then the rabbits all died and my father’s next foray into the realm of useful animals was a team of sled dogs.

There were eight of them, and each came with his own doghouse. They set up camp far behind where we played outdoors and we were sternly forbidden to go anywhere near them. It was a fairly routine occurrence for children to be mauled by sled dogs, my father told us. They were dangerous and shouldn’t be thought of as pets.

What my father hadn’t been told was that one of them actually had been someone’s pet, even if he’d never achieved the honor of coming in the house. I was convinced he liked me and often assured my father that Sitka was a good guy, not a mauler, which produced more horrific tales of children who were hideously deformed by scars from dog bites.

My father practiced his dogmushing skills until finally he agreed that it was the time to take his three little girls for a sled ride. Bundled up like small Siberian peasants, we were placed in the sled, my father shouted “Mush” and we began to move. The runners squeaked in the new snow, the dogs panted happily and all three of us began to sing “Jingle Bells.” We were living the dream until somehow the long harness that linked all of the dogs became tangled, the sled stopped, and my father waded into the canine confusion to put things to rights.

Sitka was the wheel dog, the last in line and the closest to us. Finding that he was the only dog not in the tangled mess, he seized his chance. He rushed toward us and happily began to nose our faces with obvious affection. We responded with pats and endearments until my father looked up. “I saw him near your faces and I was sure the next thing I saw would be three little girls without noses,” he told us later.

We were desolate when he put Sitka back to work and we cried all the way home.

Sitka loves us,” I argued, “Why can’t he be my dog?”

“We already have a dog,” my mother replied, “Nushnik would kill Sitka if you brought him in the house. What’s wrong with you? Don’t you love Nushnik anymore?”

That was a low blow. We all adored Nushnik, a huge mixture of German Shepherd, Siberian Husky, and Saint Bernard. He had been my best friend since I was three; by the time he was six months old, he was taller than I when he was in a sitting position, and I thought of him as my big brother. He was so gentle that even Daphne and Gilmore’s kittens played with him but he was savagely territorial. Other dogs quickly learned to stay off his turf and away from his children. He would have killed Sitka; I knew that, but I still felt the bitter injustice of Nushnik receiving all of our affection while Sitka was heartbroken in his miserable dog house.

I couldn’t do anything about this until break-up, when the snow melted and it was warm enough to sit outdoors. Then I’d take my copy of White Fang to a tree near the doghouses and read aloud until my voice got tired. They all watched me attentively, not only Sitka but even the ones that I never approached, and when I would turn to leave, they’d remain in sitting position. Usually I went back to them for one more chapter.

It was the best I could do. They seemed to enjoy it and I hoped they didn’t miss it too much when my father decided that dogmushing was too much work and sold them all.

They were followed by goats because one of my sisters was allergic to cow’s milk, but they were never truly attractive pets, although we tried to love them. They smelled and they were stupid animals. We never asked if we could bring them in the house.

In this wild whirl of animal inconstancy, the Daphnes and Gimores were fixed points. They loved us, slept with us, had adorable babies, and when they passed on, were replaced by another Daphne, another Gilmore. To hell with rabbits, goats, even sled dogs—Nushnik of course didn’t count. He wasn’t a pet; he was one of the kids and of all of us, I knew he was my mother’s favorite. And why not? He adored her, he obeyed her, and he never talked back. His life was enviable, we all knew, because he was good. Sitka, I sometimes thought, should have been so lucky.

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