If you have read the bio for my latest novel, The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs, you might have noted this line: While living on a farm in Tennessee, Cylin’s family kept more than twenty barn cats. That’s a bit of an exaggeration. Really, we had four cats. The rest were kittens. Perhaps that sounds even more insane, and trust me: It was.
When my family moved to a small farming town in rural Tennessee, we brought along our family pet, a Maine Coon cat named Pyewacket. He was a bit of a pampered cat, accustomed to having the affection of three kids and two adults who waited on him and weathered his terrible moods (hence his name).
Our new farmhouse came with an enormous red barn and acreage in the back. We quickly discovered that was not all it came with: the previous owners had left their pets. Actually, “pets” is not quite the right word, they left behind the working animals of the farm. Not the livestock—the horses, cows, pigs and chickens—but the cats who lived in the barn. There were several who didn’t have names, but we were told the two main cats were called Mitzi and Diamond, and we could expect them to produce litters every year. Litters of kittens! Their offspring were the best mousers in Putnam Country and they were coveted.
When the large animal veterinarian came out to check on our livestock, Mom asked him to give the barn cats their shots as well. He looked at the scruffy, partly feral cats that we had managed to secure with flea collars and laughed. “Those are barn cats, you don’t give them shots!” He scoffed at the flea collars and noted the huge pan of Friskies my dad had put out, with a fresh bowl of water. “You feed those cats and they won’t do their jobs.”
It seemed he was right as I noted, over time, that the cats grew fat and sassy. They went from being skittish to friendly and cuddly with my brothers and me as we poured cat food out for them everyday. We soon learned that it was not the Friskies that was giving the barn cats rounded bellies—it was Pye. Our beautiful Maine Coon cat had managed to escape the house a few times and, as the barn cats delivered that spring, the pretty little black kittens gave him away as the father.
Mom, an OB nurse, helped each female deliver, providing fresh bedding and everything they would need to produce milk for their babies while my brothers and I took care of the hovering, watching, and eventually spending almost every waking hour with the sweet kittens. But soon, with over twenty cats and kittens living in our barn, it was clear that something had to be done. First, my parents took our pet cat and had him fixed at the vet. The female barn cats would have their turns after they had recovered and weaned their kittens. But for those three months, we had a barn full of the most beautiful kittens I had ever seen.
My dad took out an ad in the local paper, advertising “Free Barn Kittens, Best Mousers in Tennessee!” And word spread. Just like in my novel, where the famous captain’s cat, Mrs. Tibbs, delivers kittens that are sought after as excellent ship cats, our cats were known as superior mousers, sure to keep your barn feed free of vermin. Once people got a look at the kittens, they came in droves. One woman came all the way from Kentucky after seeing a photo of Mitzi’s litter, and she took two. My parents would carefully interview prospective owners in the driveway before taking them to the barn, just to be sure they were decent folks.
Within a few days, the numbers dwindled from over 20 cats in the barn to closer to 10, then 8. I cried myself to sleep, thinking of all the kittens—and we had named every single one—that I would never see again. I felt that I had lost everything when we moved to Tennessee, all of my friends, my former life. Now my new life seemed filled with loss too.
The next morning, my parents turned away a prospective owner, telling him we’d given all the kittens away. They had decided to let us keep two! We named them Arthur and Wrassman and took them in to the vet for all their shots (and had them neutered as soon as possible). After our time in Tennessee, they came with us back to New England and lived with my family for over twenty years.
Just as my fictional cat, Jacob, wonders after his siblings, thinking to himself that they must have gone on to have their own adventures aboard other ships, I still sometimes think about those barn kittens, and the cats they became. If Arthur and Wrassman are any indication, they lived long, happy lives–hardy stock, half Tennessee barn cat, half Maine Coon, and they inspired a middle grade novel about another proud, hard working cat–Mr. Jacob Tibbs.
CYLIN BUSBY is the author of fiction and nonfiction books for young readers. She is a former senior editor of Teen magazine and the author of numerous magazine articles. Her memoir, The Year We Disappeared, co-written with John Busby, was a Wall Street Journal Best Seller, a PW “Best Book” and a Cybil Award winner. While living on a farm in Tennessee, Cylin’s family had over 20 cats in the barn, keeping the livestock feed free of vermin. The cat in this book is based on Graybeard, born a feeble sickly runt, who went on to be a great mouser. Cylin now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their son.