When he told Loki where he was going and asked whether the god wanted to come along Loki just looked up at him with a far-away look in his eyes and shook his head. At first, Gabriel thought he was too lost in the book he was reading and because he really wanted company prodded him some more.
“Why not? There are lots of animals there. Maybe they’ll let us pet some.”
“I don’t like prisons,” Loki said. “They remind me of … that cave.”
This time it was impossible to mistake the haunted look in his eyes. Gabriel was mystified.
“It’s not a prison,” he exclaimed. “It’s a charity!”
“Whatever lets you sleep at night,” Loki returned darkly and withdrew back into Middle Earth.
And so Gabriel went to the shelter alone.
The woman that met him at the gate was very friendly, but looked a little strained.
“I’m looking for my cat,” Gabriel explained to her. “She went out on Tuesday evening and still hasn’t come back.”
She nodded, invited him inside and led him through a big courtyard. Farm animals watched them out of wooden stalls and two small wooden paddocks.
“Most of them are old animals that nobody wanted when the farms were sold off,” the woman explained, when she noticed his surprise. “Others are abuse victims that are only staying until better owners can be found. We’re actually getting paid for keeping them. The retirees and strays are financed from donations.” She sighed. “It’s never enough, but we just barely manage to get by without putting any of them down unnecessarily.”
The door through which they entered the main building was badly in need of paint, as were the walls, but vet and food bills probably had to come first and it wasn’t likely that the animals would mind.
“Our latest addition is in my office,” the woman explained and showed him into a small room with mismatched furniture and a cold and dirty looking tile floor.
The cat was on the floor anyway, hiding under a shelf in a dark corner. It took a few minutes to coax her out. She was scared, underfed and heavily pregnant. Gabriel’s heart went out to her right away, but she wasn’t TaMiu.
“The vet doesn’t have time to check on her and perform the abortion until Monday,” the woman apologised. “And we’re so full we have nowhere else to isolate her.”
“You know what,” Gabriel said. “I’ll take the poor thing home with me. If someone comes looking for her, you can send them to my place and if nobody does, I’ll keep her. And I’m sure I can find good places for her kittens.”
The woman smiled at him, but shook her head. “She is a heartbreaking sight, isn’t she? I’m often tempted to adopt cases like that as well, but you really can’t let your heart lead you to such rash decisions. She’s too much of a risk. Probably has all sorts of worms and fleas and possibly diseases that she could give to your own cat. No, I won’t give away a cat that hasn’t been wormed, cleaned up, vaccinated, and given a clean bill of health, especially not as a second cat.”
Gabriel nodded sadly and decided not to mention Earl Grey. “The kittens, though …”
“I know it’s sad, but there are simply too many cats around here already. The woods of Tadfield are full of strays. It’s for the best. Now, since this isn’t your cat, let’s go on over to the cat-house and see if we can find her there.”
They left the office and walked down the dark corridor. The woman stopped with her hand on the handle and looked back at Gabriel.
“I’m afraid the fastest route to the cat-house from my office leads through the dog kennel,” she warned.
“No problem,” Gabriel assured her, wondering why she even asked. He guessed some of the people coming here to adopt cats might bring children that were afraid of the larger dogs, but he wasn’t a child and quite liked dogs. They were His creatures after all.”
The moment she opened the door, however, he understood. The noise was deafening. The dogs were kept in groups in along row of … well, they looked like nothing so much as cells Gabriel had to admit, uncomfortably reminded of Loki’s words.
Through the ear splitting noise it was impossible to even think and Gabriel later decided that it had made him overestimate the numbers, but it seemed like there were hundreds of dogs of all breeds and sizes in an endless row of cells each and everyone throwing him- or herself against the cell door barking at the top of their lungs.
Most were barking pleas for attention, some threats and all of them to be let out. Only in the last cell there was one large black and white dog that just lay in the back corner and didn’t even glance their way.
The cat-house was almost spooky after all that noise. Its cells were of exactly the same size and build as the dogs’, but here everybody suffered in silence. They had some furniture in each cell, old chairs and couches, cat trees, and cat carriers or cardboard boxes to retreat into.
None of the cats moved when they entered, none made a sound. They sat in their boxes and on their chairs just far enough apart to make sure they weren’t touching. Gabriel could feel their misery and hopelessness and he wanted to adopt them all, but he couldn’t fit over a hundred cats into his room back at the manor.
Unconsciously, he stepped closer to the first cell. There was a beautiful long-haired white tom sitting on the back of a faded green couch at the center of the cell, a pale grey cat to his right, black to his left and a brown tabby curled up on the seat below. A small black and white was peeking out of a cat carrier in the corner and … and … and … At least twelve cats in total and some were probably hiding out of sight.
“Your cat won’t be in here,” the woman said. “All of these cats have been here for months. The newer arrivals are further back.”
Months! He nodded quietly, not trusting his voice right now and followed her down the isle between the cells. Green and yellow eyes followed them every step of the way, but no heads turned, nobody got up or moved a paw.
Gabriel tried not to look too closely into any of the cells they passed, but it seemed as if every furry face magically attracted his eyes as if everyone of them were whispering: ‘Please, I can’t take it anymore. Take me out of here. You have room for another cat or three. Take me.’
But he didn’t have room for all of them and how could he choose?
TaMiu was in the very last cell. Her head jerked up the moment she saw him and she let out one single uncharacteristic mew of recognition, of joy and hope. The other cats nearby looked at her in surprise.
“That’s her then?” the woman asked. “Oh, of course she is.”
She ran towards him the moment they entered the cell. Several of the other cats now got up as well, some disappeared into hiding places, some merely retreated just out of arm’s reach, others tried to dart outside and escape, but the woman headed them off with an ease born from years of practise.
Gabriel picked up his cat and held her close. For once TaMiu allowed herself to purr loudly.
“Well, another happy reunion,” the woman said. “You should get her a collar and tag with your phone number on. Then we can call you right away, if she should ever end up here again.”
Gabriel nodded. “Thank you, I’ll do that.” And one for Earl Grey, too. His salary wasn’t large, but if it’d spare one of them only one night here, it’d be well worth it.
“You suggested earlier that you might want to adopt a second cat …” the woman ventured cautiously. “I know you meant the one in my office, but maybe you’d like to have a look at some of the ones that are already up for adoption?”
He looked around the cell at all the sad and frightened faces. Of course he wanted to adopt another cat, but once again he was back to the question of how to choose.
“Which one has been here the longest?” he said finally. He couldn’t ask all of their stories, try to judge which ones were most deserving. He’d take the one that had been passed up the most.
The woman looked at him for a moment, then nodded and led him back to the first cell he’d looked into. She went inside and straight towards a box in the corner. Her hand disappeared inside and she pulled out an orange and white cat, with a scar on his right hind leg and badly torn up ears. One of his eyes was green, the other a startling, unusual blue.
“We call him Patches,” she said. “He got run over by a car and brought to us three years ago. The vet estimates that he’s about fifteen, he’s cross-eyed and kept a limp from the accident. Oh, and he’s almost painfully shy.”
“I’ll take him,” Gabriel said. As if he could have made any other choice.
He took TaMiu and Patches home in carriers the woman lent him as it did not seem wise to carry two cats that didn’t even know each other in his arms, and sent back the carriers the same day along with as much money as he could spare this month. It wasn’t nearly enough to help the cats he’d had to leave behind, but at least it’d help.