KILLING THE KITTENS

By John Thomas Tuft

He was just so tired. Every day felt like he was screaming underwater while friends and associates watched from the shore. It wasn’t one big thing but all the little ones that piled up, adding to the feeling of being slowly pushed under the water. Jeremy kept having the recurrent dream about killing the kittens. A dream that was all too real. It was from being on the sheep farm as a teenager. Pregnant ewes roaming the hills in the chill of late fall, the lambs they were carrying destined to provide the income for the family next year when they were sold at forty pounds right as Easter arrived next Spring. Provided that they all stayed healthy. Nature giveth and nature taketh away.

Out in the barn was a passel of cats, supposedly earning their keep by eating rodents and bugs. Every morning when Old Man Stassel put out the feeding troughs, the flock would hear the grain rattling into the bottom. It worked better than any dinner bell. They would traipse down the hills, through the stands of oak and poplar, across the creek and uphill to the barnyard. There OMS would corral them all in the pen and walk among them looking for sick or suffering sheep. He was quite handy with the crook, and if one needed a shot of penicillin or dewormer, quicker than you could shake a stick, he would snag the back leg of the sheep and yank it under control. Grab a thick handful of wool to stabilize the animal, and plunge the needle in. Spray a red or blue X on its side and onto the next one. If a young ram needed to be banded, the same technique applied. In this case wielding the funny looking plies that popped a very tight rubber band around the appropriate aspects of their maleness.  If he spotted one too sick or contagious, OMS would nod to Jeremy to come tie it in the execution stall inside the barn. Later after the flock had eaten and moseyed back into the fields, a quick bullet to the brain was the merciful way to contain any spread.

One of Jeremy’s responsibilities was keeping an eye on the barn cats. The barn was for the couple of horses and one cow that OMS kept, not the sheep. But the kittens were susceptible to getting a parasite that passed through their waste and if it got into the sheep would cause the lambs to abort. Losing the lambs meant losing the family’s livelihood. There is an aspect of cold, hard reality to the romance of farming of any type. One evening he reported to OMS that the latest batch of new kittens seemed sickly. What should he do? The grizzled sheep farmer looked him in the eye, steady like. “You do what’s best for your flock. This ain’t some version of All Creatures, Great and Small. It’s up to you who gets mercy.” Jeremy was upset. “I don’t want to play God.” OMS gave him a look of almost sorrow, offering cold comfort, “Tell that to anyone who has ever started a war, anyone who drives drunk, ignored signs of coming catastrophes, or abused a child. Do what is needed for the flock.”

Jeremy had trouble sleeping that night. At dawn he made his way back to the farm and entered the barn. Slowly he filled a bucket with water then went to gather up the sick kittens… The memory of that day came and went throughout the years. Now as he drove up the drive to the old farm, his head wrestled with a different dilemma. The decision affected so much of his life, and the lives of others. “Is giving up on God, a way of playing God?” he asked his reflection in the mirror. After college and a stint in the Marine Corps, Jeremy went to seminary. He was ordained and was ten years into serving in the church. It took awhile to notice that something was wrong, but it definitely weighed on Jeremy. Bit by bit he felt his faith slipping away. At first it simply made him work harder, try harder to do right. To be right. But it only served to underline what he was suspecting: being right in matters of faith is a nebulous thing, a phantom of certainty, a whiff of smoke that never satisfies on its own.

Now his thousand questions were a thousand cuts, bleeding him, leaving him in constant pain. His marriage suffered, his work with his congregation suffered, his soul was a dry desert. The paint on the old farmhouse was faded, peeling. The barn leaned a bit away from the wind. Old Man Stassel was now an elderly gentleman farmer. He welcomed Jeremy and listened to his story. His woes, his fears, his worries, his wrestling with the decision to leave his call and then do…what? OMS listened then looked out the window to the distant pastures, now empty. “Do you remember the morning you had to drown the kittens?” he asked softly. “It’s the same thing. You decide what is best for the flock. You decide who gets mercy.”

Jeremy’s heart sank. What kind of wisdom was this? OMS sensed this and looked him directly in the eyes. “Killing the kittens was not wrong. There was no judgement other than the one you pronounced on yourself. It was hard. Giving mercy,” and here he pointed to his own chest, “especially to ourselves, is hard.” He leaned over and touched Jeremy on the knee.  “Mercy costs everything. And it always will…”

Words are magic and writers are wizards.