“You know about Hemingway’s cats, right?”
The question shot straight through my heart in an arrow of pain. How could my 19-year-old daughter Allison not know that I knew just about everything there was to know about Ernest Hemingway. After all, I’ve been an outdoor writer for all of her life, and she knows that Papa is the literal Godfather of my industry. I almost worship the man. I replied to her text with such information.
She replied, “I love you.”
She was forgiven.
The reason Allison was texting me about Hemingway’s cats was because a stray polydactyl cat had begun hanging around her house on the outskirts of Fredericksburg. But whereas Hemingway’s cats have six toes, “Cat” as my daughter named her newly adopted stray, had an extra toe on each back paw, two extra toes on one of her fore paws, and three extra on her other fore paw. For those of you keeping count that’s five toes per back paw, six on one fore paw, and eight toes on the other fore paw. Apparently, this is not as weird as I thought as polydactyl cats can have more than just one extra toe. So many in fact that the Guinness World Records recognizes two cats, Jake in Canada and Paws in the US, as being the record holder for most toes with each feline having 28.
Ok, that’s not polydactyl that’s mutation by way of nuclear accident.
Hemingway’s Key West home is currently home to somewhere between 40 – 50 polydactyl cats, all of which are descendants of a feline named Snow White. That cat was given to Papa by a sea captain named Stanley Dexter in the 1930’s. Polydactyl, or “mitten cats” as they are sometimes called, were considered good luck by sailors as they were considered better mousers and their extra toe gave them better balance on rough seas.
Unlike Hemingway, I don’t have any cats. I don’t have anything against cats, it’s just that my father hated them and would allow me to have one growing up. I’m not sure why he hated cats but know that his father didn’t care for them much as well. Not only did he not care for them, I don’t think he really understood them as I recall many times him complaining that his neighbor let his cat out of the backyard far too often. “And he never keeps that thing on a leash either!” I tried explaining to my grandfather that cats don’t stay in the backyard like dogs do nor do their owners generally walk them on leashes. He shook his head in disgust at my explanation.
My other grandfather had several cats, but they were all restricted to the barn area where they were to earn their keep by killing snakes or mice. This job was made more difficult as my grandmother insisted all their cats be declawed so they wouldn’t scratch anything (no, this demand made no sense). Despite this hinderance, the cats regularly killed a great number of vermin. The last cat my grandfather had, Fu Man Kitty, an all-black Bombay that was completely declawed, regularly killed and brought home baby armadillos, ground squirrels, snakes, and tarantulas. Fu Man Kitty’s other job was to stay in the front yard on Halloween. My grandfather did this as he got the biggest kick out of watching trick or treaters refuse to pass a black cat to come ask for candy. “Fu kept 18 people from coming up the walk!” my grandfather bragged the last Halloween of that cat’s life.
Maybe I’ll ask my daughter to bring Cat over to my house so I can start my own outdoor-writer-has-a-cat-colony-thing.
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This column first appeared in the Fredericksburg Standard Radio Post.