Friday, October 16, 2009


One morning a brown face appeared at our door. It peered in, eye-level with our floor on its stilts, taking in the strange, magical world of the foreign family. I was lying on my stomach on the opposite side of the veranda with my math papers spread around me and absently poking bits of leaf through the floor board. I watched a piece flutter to the gravel below, like a tiny WWII bomber, shot down in flames of glory by a Japanese gunship ... and looked up to meet the curious eyes.

"Whadda-you want?" I asked in Pijin, bored, but willing to take any diversion over my schoolwork. Village kids often came to our door, sometimes just out of boredom to stare at us. Other times they would bring requests for assistance, or gifts from their families; a plate of succulent fish heads with the blank, opaque eyes that stared up at you, some taro pudding that looked like blocks of poo on the plate, or even the occasional chicken egg to sell. Some of which actually had yolks instead of fetuses when you cracked them open.

"Come and see, my cat had kittens and this one is for you," the urchin responded, and over the floorboards poked a little pointed face, with a white patch surrounding its pink nose, sleepy blue kitten eyes, and little bumps of ears.

"Oh!" I cried, and scurried over to cuddle the little fur ball to my chest. "Thank you!" The child grinned at me and settled down on our steps to watch the rest of the kelaipa (white) family's reaction to his gift.

We decided the kitten's name over dinner. Our veranda was too narrow to afford enough moving room during the day with a table down the middle of it, so my dad had rigged up a large sheet of laminated plywood, which he attached with hinges to the wall. During the day it folded flush against the wall, held by a swing hook, and at meal times we suspended it with a rope on the free side, like a drawbridge. We squeezed in around it on flour and rice buckets to pounce on whatever food my mother had managed to cook up. "Vultures!" she would scold, as we all jockeyed with our plates for the first spoon full as soon as the last 'amen' was said.

"I think we should call it Jimbo," Matthew said. I looked indulgently at my littlest brother, but immediately gave the suggestion a mental veto. 'Jim' was the name of one of our cousins back home, and Matthew had already named one cat after him.

"I think we should name it after something in Austin," Anna said thoughtfully.

"How about Austin?" was the next inevitable remark. Lame. I looked to my dad for help.

"Well, what are our favorite things to do in Austin?" Mom prodded. Ideas were thrown out:

"The park!"

"Grandaddy's house."

"No, stupid, Grandaddy lives in Houston."

"Don't call your sister stupid, Nathan."

"What's Austin?" (this was from Matthew, the youngest, who had already forgotten everything except for his current world of palm trees and smiling, butt-naked friends).

"How about Barton Springs?" Dad suggested, seeing the conversation was in danger of getting completely derailed. "There's also Barton Creek, and Barton Springs Road..."

And so we decided to dub the cat 'Barton', in honor of our home town. Barton grew into sleek adulthood and gained his place in family lore as the stupidest cat we ever kept. He would lay in the very middle of the main breezeway through the house, and get his tail stepped on at least once a day, whereupon he would yowl and swipe at the owner of the offending foot, and get kicked out the front door for his pains. He feasted on canned tuna every night, which we secretly fed to him in the dark, after the danger of watching village eyes was over - it was considered supreme wastefulness that bordered on sacrilege to feed an animal anything but the very last scrapings of table scraps. And even table scraps were better given to the pigs or the chickens, who at least served a purpose and could be eventually eaten in return.

Barton was particularly hated by my Dad, who generally hates all cats on principle, but was tolerated because he kept the mouse population under control. He was our cat until we went on furlough a few years later. Upon returning to the village after our re-Americanization, he had disappeared, gone to the place that village animals go to after their short, stark lives. But for a brief time of glory, Barton was the better fed and kept than any cat (and probably most kids) in Luaniua village.

1 comment:

  1. Getting caught up on your posts (instead of getting done all the other stuff I'm supposed to be doing while we're in Honiara =) We remember Barton - somewhere there's a great picture of one of our kids (Erich?) holding him by the neck. I love reading your reflections of life in the Sols!