Updated: Mar 4
The story of an old man and his pet.
Chapter 1: The Strumpvines
Norman Strumpvine lived in an old, rambling house. It had been around for longer than anyone could remember. The land had belonged to his father, Gordon Strumpvine, and his father before him. There had been a Strumpvine living on rural route two, outside the town of Bottomhill, Montana, since the postman arrived on horseback. The first Strumpvine thought of himself as a settler. In those days, Bottomhill was only a couple wooden buildings and a few people.
Times had changed, but the Strumpvines had stayed the same. The original homestead, a one-room shack with a single window, had been cobbled together with timbers, homemade cement, and loads of determination. The one room cabin remained, but generations of Strumpvines had continued to build on those rude foundations. By the time Norman was growing up, the house was large enough for him to have his own bedroom.
The farm was Norman's life. Every day, he woke up early to milk the cows and feed the pigs. Then, he walked three miles to catch the school bus. By the time he got home, more chores were waiting. His afternoons were spent taking care of the animals. He also helped his father with the crops. After dinner, his mother would help him with homework. Every night, Norman fell asleep exhausted. Working the farm made him feel proud and happy. He was excited to graduate. Then, there would be no reason to leave the farm each day.
The Strumpvine family raised corn. They also kept cows and pigs. The only animals Norman knew were sows, heifers, and the occasional bull. But he always wanted a pet. His father did not believe in keeping animals as pets.
"Animals are for work, not for play," Gordon said.
Later, after years of raising, feeding, milking, and butchering farm animals, Norman forgot about his wish.
Like his father, Norman traded with neighboring farms for eggs, poultry, fruits, and vegetables. The Strumpvines rarely made the journey into Bottomhill. But when they did, it was a big deal. Once a month, the whole family would pile in the car to visit the grocery store. It was a chance to shop for items they could not make themselves. They also visited friends in town.
Sometimes they made the trip to see the circus. Or go to the county fair. Norman enjoyed the trips to town, but he felt best when he was working. He did not like to see Bottomhill change and grow. The world could grow more modern. That was its business. He was happy to have the farm stay the same. The life he had was all he knew. Then, one day, everything began to change.
Norman's wife, Martha, passed away. After Martha was gone, Norman stopped farming. He stopped doing much of anything. His two sons had taken jobs and started families in cities far away. They were the first generation to choose the allure of city life over working the land.
"A goose does not change its feathers. You belong here. You belong to the land," Norman said when they told him their plans. But they left all the same.
Once his sons left, there was no one to work the land. The animals were sold at auction. The land lay fallow. Norman was all alone. Bottomhill was over ten miles away. And it had been that many years since Norman had gone there. He could think of no reason to go. It only made him miss the happy times. So, when it came time to sell the tractor, he also sold the family car.
Norman's only company were the neighbors. The three boys were mischief makers, but he paid them to cut his grass. They also brought him eggs and vegetables from their farm. Norman was lonely. He did not want a new family. He wanted a cat. A cat would make everything better.
Chapter 2: A Big Surprise
One day, Norman heard a knock at the door. He was not expecting anyone. Curious, he opened the door and discovered a small cardboard box. This is odd, he thought.
Norman saw the words "KITUN 4 NURMEN." They stood out boldly from the piece of notebook paper scotch-taped to the side of the box. This can't be right, Norman thought. But the box was not a dream. He held the weight of it in his hands. Then, he knew it was real. His heart swelled with joy. It was unexpected, especially on such a cold Monday, which had been filled with nothing but dark clouds and the promise of rain.
Norman did not see the freckled faces of the neighbor kids. He did not see them tear around the side of the house. Hidden from sight, they watched and snickered as he came upon the package.
Norman took the package inside. He had to clear the clutter of dishes and papers from his kitchen table. Then, he set it down. When he opened the box, Norman discovered something very surprising.
It was not a furry, four-legged critter. Instead, he held in his hands a small, fuzzy, and yellow creature.
"Huh!" Norman exclaimed.
He inspected the creature. It was baffling. The ball of fuzz blinked and chirped. Norman brought it close to his heart.
"What should I call you?" Norman asked.
The chick seemed to like the way his voice rumbled in his chest. It snuggled even closer and squawked in protest when he lifted it away. Carefully, he turned it this way and that. But it was impossible to tell if it was a boy or a girl.
"I will call you Kitten," Norman decided.
After returning the chick to its box, he walked into his bedroom. It was the same room that had belonged to his grandparents. When he was growing up, it had belonged to his parents. Now, it was his. He sat on the bed and thought about his dilemma. He had wanted a cat and now he had one. But it was an odd cat. Then, Norman remembered the story of the ugly duckling that had grown into a swan.
"When it gets older, it will be the most beautiful cat of all," Norman said.
But there was no one to hear.
Chapter 3: A Problem Solved
After a while, the chick began cheep! cheep! cheeping! in an unbearably loud way. All the noise woke Norman from his nap. Groggy-eyed, he made his way back to the kitchen. He peered into the small box. The chick was still nestled among paper towels and shredded bits of newspaper.
"Kitten, you are so noisy!" Norman exclaimed.
The chick looked up at him with its small, round black eyes. Norman guessed that Kitten was probably hungry. He began looking through his cabinets to find food for his new pet. Norman sifted through boxes of cereal, mac and cheese, cookies, and canned goods only to discover that he had nothing for his pet to eat. Frustrated, Norman sat down at the kitchen table. He had no idea what to do.
An hour passed and then another. Still, Norman had no answers. Kitten began chirping again. Norman put his hands over his ears to block out the sound. Then, Norman heard someone knocking on his front door.
"Hi," three small freckle-faced, blue-eyed, curly-haired redheads chimed in unison.
"Uh...hi," Norman responded.
He was surprised to see the neighbor's kids. It was hard to remember the last time they had dropped by for a visit.
"Mr. Strumpvine, we heard that you got a new kitten. We brought over some extra cat food," the oldest boy, Jake, announced.
His brothers tried to stifle their chuckles behind their mittened hands. Jake shoved a brown paper bag labelled "KAT FOOD" into Norman's hands. Norman wondered how they knew about his new pet. But he did not have a chance to ask. The boys were already gone. He watched them run down the road back to their farm. Norman decided not to worry about it. He was just glad to have food for his precious Kitten.
Norman sprinkled a handful of food into the box. The chick eagerly pecked at the starter feed. Norman smiled. Finally, his pet was quiet and happy. Norman went back to his bedroom and laid down to rest. By the the time he woke up and made his way back into the kitchen, the sun was setting. He could not believe the sight that met his eyes. Shredded newspaper was everywhere. The table was a mess. When Norman peered into the box, he saw that it was covered in dried white and black poop.
"Kitten, what have you done?" Norman cried.
Carefully, Norman lifted Kitten from the dirty box. Where could he keep her? Piles of dirty dishes filled the counter, but there were no other boxes. Frustrated, he set his pet on the floor. Norman began searching the cabinets for another box. But he only found half-empty cereal boxes and canned goods.
Norman began rummaging around under the sink. He was so busy that he forgot all about Kitten. Then, he heard a loud chirp right behind him. Norman stopped and looked behind him. Kitten had appeared between his feet. She looked up at Norman, hopped over his ankle, and disappeared into the cabinet. He was shocked by how fast she moved!
"Oh no," cried Norman.
He began throwing bottles and cans onto the floor. He did not notice the bottle of bleach rolling around on its side. The lid came off and a yellow puddle spread across the floor. But Norman did not notice until he felt the cold liquid soak his pants. Instantly, his blue jeans turned white. Norman sighed. There was no use crying over spilled bleach. His pants were ruined, but he did not stop to change.
The cabinet was empty, but there was no sign of Kitten. Where is that yellow puffball! He looked around the messy kitchen, but there were no clues. Norman was worried, but he did not know what else to do. He decided to grab some paper towels and wipe up the puddle. The paper towel turned brown with old dirt. But the floor underneath was sparkling white. Norman smiled and decided to keep going. While he was scrubbing, he looked under the sink and saw a small hole between the cabinets.
Aha! he thought. Norman chased his pet through one set of cabinets, then another, and another. The floor was littered with forgotten pots, pans, and utensils. Finally, Kitten was trapped in the final cabinet.
"Gotcha!" Norman said.
Feeling victorious, he reached in to grab his pet. Kitten chirped loudly in protest, jumped over his hand, and took off across the kitchen floor. Norman ran around the house for almost an hour, chasing Kitten between table legs, under the worn sofa, and around the bed. Kitten never seemed to get tired. Finally, an exhausted Norman got lucky and trapped her under an empty coffee can.
"You are nothing but trouble, Kitten," Norman muttered angrily.
He carried the coffee can back into the kitchen, his palm clamped tightly over the top. Norman looked at the wretched state of the low box and could not bring himself to put Kitten back inside of it. He could not believe how tired he felt. How do other people do it? he wondered.
Norman thought about where he could keep Kitten. In a drawer? No, Kitten would have no air. In a cabinet? Well, there was no room. In the garbage can? It had high sides and plenty of fresh air. Norman was frustrated enough to consider it for a moment, but he loved his new pet too much.
He wandered into the bathroom. Without thinking, he put Kitten in the bathtub. He looked down at her. She looked so tiny in the big tub. Kitten's small black eyes seemed to say, this is no fun. But Norman thought differently. This could work! The tub was spacious, and the sides were high enough that Kitten could not jump out.
Then, Norman remembered that baby animals need to be kept warm. The tub solved one problem, but created others. Norman picked Kitten up as he sat on the edge of the tub. The porcelain was cold. He could feel it through his jeans. Kitten snuggled against him. He guessed that she was cold and hungry.
Norman thought and thought until he came up with a plan. Still holding Kitten, he found a roll of paper towels and lined the tub. Then, he put Kitten down and gave her two small bowls. One was filled with water, the other was filled with food. Finally, he dragged a small space heater in from the living room to keep the bathroom nice and toasty.
Norman knew he would miss the space heater. It kept him warm when he sat to read the newspaper or watch TV. But, keeping his pet alive was more important. Warmer days are only a few short months away, Norman thought. He could wear an extra pair of overalls until then.
Chapter 4: Kitten Grows Up
Each day, Norman let Kitten scurry around the house while he scrubbed out the tub. It was frustrating to try and catch her, but Kitten got bored when there was no chase. About the time he finished, she would appear at the bathroom door. A loud chirp of displeasure would follow. Norman would lay his hand against the cool tile. Then, Kitten would jump into his palm.
Holding her close to his chest, Norman felt grateful to have a pet. Even if she was ten times her size worth of trouble. Then it would be time to set Kitten back in the tub with clean food and water bowls. Cleaning and feedings became a game. Norman would sing all the while. Kitten was delighted by the sound. She made a great show of ruffling her feathers and bobbing her head.
As time passed, Kitten slowly lost her downy yellow feathers and grew to be a fine and fat chicken. Each morning, Norman woke up with a sense of purpose. Gone were the days of long, empty hours and no way to fill them. Chasing Kitten around the house had opened his eyes. There was a mass of clutter that consumed his home. He worried that Kitten would eat one of the crumpled aluminum gum wrappers he found scattered around the couch. One time, he found her tangled in a discarded plastic bag. Norman felt it was his job to make the house a clean and safe place for his pet.
Even David, the young man who delivered Norman's groceries each week, noticed the changes. David hid his smile behind his hand when he was introduced to Kitten. He was barely able to hold in his laughter until he was back in his car.
David did not try to tell Norman the truth about his pet. He simply said that the grocery store did not have any food that would be right for Kitten. But Norman was not worried. Each week, a paper sack labelled "KAT FOOD" would appear on the porch. Norman was relieved each time one of the mysterious packages appeared. He had nothing else to feed Kitten and she was getting bigger all the time.
Kitten continued to live in the bathroom, but she had outgrown the tub. Each day, Norman would find her seated on the back of the toilet, perched on the tub faucet, or nestled in the sink. She would be anywhere but in the tub. Norman could no longer keep towels in the bathroom. They got ruined because Kitten pooped everywhere.
As Kitten grew, Norman fashioned a harness and lead from some old twine. He began walking her along the rutted dirt road. The only other farm belonged to William. He was the father of the three troublemakers.
One day, Norman saw William repairing a fence post.
"Howdy, neighbor," yelled Norman.
He smiled big and waved. He did not want his neighbor to miss the spectacle. William looked up. Immediately, the smile fell from his face. He could barely believe his eyes. Norman stood there, but he was tethered to a chicken.
"What's the matter?" Norman asked.
William was stunned, speechless.
"Well, what do you think of my cat? Managed to get her on a leash and everything!"
William was confused. He did not want to upset Norman. Part of him was happy to see his neighbor. But another part of him thought about the missing chick mystery.
"When did you decide to get a pet?" William asked.
He was careful about his words. He did not want to say the wrong thing.
"I found Kitten on my doorstep when she was very small. I've been taking care of her ever since," Norman replied with a big smile.
"Norman, it's good to see you out and about. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some other things I need to do," William said.
William tipped his hat to Norman before heading back to the house. Norman shrugged his shoulders. He did not know why William had rushed off. Usually, William was much friendlier. Norman's feelings were hurt, but he continued on his walk. Kitten strutted, head held high, which made Norman smile. Before long, he forgot all about the strange encounter.
Chapter 5: An Unexpected Visit
The next day, Norman made bacon, eggs, and toast for breakfast. He was just sitting down to eat when he heard a knock at the door. Annoyed, Norman looked at the calendar. His groceries were delivered on Tuesday. But it was not Tuesday, it was Saturday. No one ever came to visit on Saturday.
Norman opened the door and was surprised to see William and his son, Jake.
"Come in!" Norman said, throwing open the door.
His mouth formed a big grin that showed his crooked teeth. What are they doing here? he wondered. The two redheads stepped inside and shrugged out of their jackets.
"Hi, Norman. I hope we're not disturbing you, but Jake has something important he needs to say," William said.
Jake was hiding behind his father. William stepped aside. Jake wrinkled his freckled nose, obviously unhappy with this turn of events.
"It's about your new pet..." William began.
Norman ran a hand through his short, grey hair. Were they here to take his pet away? He took a step back, unsure what to do. William saw the way Norman's eyes widened.
"You're here to take Kitten away, aren't you?" Norman asked angrily.
There was no way he was going to let his pet go without a fight. But deep inside, he wondered if they could take his pet away. What will I do without my pet? he thought. Norman's palms were sweating, and he bit his lower lip. He was starting to feel very afraid.
"Norman, we just wanted to come by and see your pet," William said. He could not bring himself to call a hen by the name Kitten.
"OK," Norman replied.
"We didn't get a chance to talk yesterday, so I thought we might come over and invite you both to our farm this morning," William said. He kept his voice light and friendly.
"Alright then," Norman mumbled.
He did not know how to refuse. They were his neighbors. They had always been kind to him. There was no one else he could ask when he needed help.
William just wanted his hen back. He also wanted to tell Norman the truth. The best way to do both things was to get Norman and Kitten to come to his farm.
Jake wanted to go home. His ears were burning from the lecture he had received earlier. William had been furious to learn the truth. Not only had his sons stolen a chicken from the farm, they had been very mean to a harmless, lonely old man.
William had assigned all three of his sons extra chores. And no desserts for a week. Jake had groaned aloud at the prospect. The extra chores did not bother him so much, but a week without sweets was a terrible punishment. Jake was ashamed of his actions, especially when he understood the consequences.
Norman looked from father to son and back again. Kitten was the reason he got up each morning. Without his pet, what reason would there be to clean his home or go outside? For the first time in years, he had something to love. And he did not want anyone to take that feeling away.
Norman stroked his stubbled chin and shuffled the short distance to the bathroom door. He walked into the small room and rifled around in the cabinet for the makeshift leash. William and Jake crowded in behind him.
The eyes of the farmer and his son opened wide. The bathroom was covered in feathers and chicken poop. On the floor, the food and water bowls had been knocked over. Kitten was proudly perched on the rim of the sink. She cocked her head at them. It was a ridiculous sight.
William was stunned. Chickens did not belong in bathrooms any more than cows belonged in kitchens. He clasped one hand over his mouth to keep from laughing. He covered Jake's mouth with the other hand. Laughter would not do. He did not want to offend Norman. Luckily, Norman had not noticed. He was too busy scolding his pet.
"Kitten, what have you done? Look at the mess you made!" he fumed.
Norman was embarrassed. He did not want anyone to know that the mess was an everyday fact of life. They might think he was a bad pet owner. And it might be a reason to take Kitten away.
"Norman, let's go ahead and make our way to the farm. We have a surprise for you."
William was eager to hurry things along. Jake's features were screwed up into a question mark. He was also curious about the surprise. His father had only said that they were headed to Mr. Strumpvine's to set things right.
"A surprise?" Norman asked. "Will I like it?"
"Of course! What kind of question is that?" William said with a broad grin. "Now, let's get going. We're burning daylight here."
"Well, I guess I can clean this up later," Norman said.
Chapter 6: The Chicken Coop
What a strange sight we must be, William thought, as the group made their way to his farm. He was glad that there were no other houses around. It would be hard to explain the situation to a bunch of bored and nosey neighbors. No one said much during the walk. As they got closer, the group could see cows peacefully grazing in the pasture. But everyone's attention was focused on Kitten. Cows were just cows. A chicken on a leash was something special. Norman beamed with pride.
The group walked past the farmhouse. It was a big house, painted white with black shutters. Underneath all the windows, flower boxes held a rainbow of colored blossoms. They kept walking until they reached a large garden. The garden was full of giant plants that were heavy with fruit and vegetables.
"Where are we going?" asked Norman.
He had thought that they were going to the house until William guided them past it.
"You'll see," replied William.
He was walking ahead of Norman and did not stop to look back. Kitten was beginning to get tired. She stopped often to peck at the ground and ruffle her feathers. Norman stooped down to pick Kitten up. He had to walk quickly to keep up with the others. On the far side of the garden, there was a small building. William stopped at the door.
"Here we are," he said.
Norman was glad that they were done walking. Kitten was starting to get heavy. He just wanted to go home and take a nap. There had already been enough surprises for one day.
William smiled and threw open the door. Norman wrinkled his nose. The smell was awful! But it was not unfamiliar. Norman followed William and was shocked by what he saw. There were at least twenty “kittens" all happily perched on their nests. A petite woman with long blond hair and sparkling green eyes was also waiting for them.
"Hello, Norman. It's good to see you again," she said.
She extended her hand, but dropped it when Norman just looked at the ground. Norman knew Nancy. She was William's wife, but he was in no mood to be social.
"Hello," he muttered.
Norman felt awkward and uncomfortable. Everyone in the room stared at him as he held Kitten under his arm. The simple twine leash hung loose and dangled to the ground.
"Look, Kitten, there are so many other kittens here!" Norman said.
For some reason, the word 'kitten' stuck in his throat. It just seemed out of place.
"Norman, what you have is a chicken. It is not a kitten," William said.
"It's not a chicken, it's a cat!" Norman argued.
Normally shy, Norman said this with great conviction. The sky was blue, the earth was round, Kitten was a cat.
Kitten began to get restless in his arms. Norman put her down. Kitten pecked at the feed covering the dirt floor. The other hens watched her intently from their nests. But they made no move towards the newcomer while the room was crowded with people.
Jake wanted to burst out laughing, but his muffled snickers went quiet when he caught his father's eye. This was all his fault. It had seemed funny at first, but disappointing his family was no laughing matter. A long, uncomfortable silence hung in the room. Finally, William spoke.
"Norman, I know you love your pet. You're our neighbor and we care about you. We're always here to help you. But this animal is not a cat. It's a chicken. It's just like all the other chickens here. That's why I wanted to bring you to the chicken coop, so you could see for yourself. These chickens are an important part of our life. They give us eggs and food. We do our best to give them a good life, but they are not pets. They are working animals. Do you understand?"
Norman saw concern in the eyes of the people around him. Then, he watched as Kitten opened her wings and made the short flight to investigate an empty nest.
"I'm not stupid," Norman mumbled.
He stared at the dusty tops of his worn leather shoes.
"No one thinks you're stupid, Norman," William said. "We know you're lonely and we're sad for it. Jake knew you wanted a cat for company. My sons thought it would be funny to take one of our baby chickens and put it in the box you found. They didn't give it a second thought. They stole from me. And they tricked you. I am ashamed of their actions. What they did was wrong, and Jake owes you an apology."
William stood behind Jake with his hands on his son's shoulders. Jake was now in the center of the small room and all eyes were on him.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Strumpvine," Jake said.
His cheeks were flushed, and his voice was barely more than a whisper. He had never felt so embarrassed. Norman simply nodded. He did not know what else to do. It was like a bad dream. A bad dream that was going to end in the loss of his pet. He could see himself returning home and being even lonelier than before. William stepped forward to untie the piece of twine from around Kitten's neck. She was happily settled on the vacant nest. In that moment, Norman knew she had found her true home.
Norman wiped tears away with the back of his hand. He did not want anyone to see him cry. If Kitten truly belonged to his neighbors, then taking her back would be stealing. Norman loved Kitten, but he was not a thief. Shoulders slumped in defeat; Norman turned to leave. There was no reason to stay.
"Don't leave yet, Norman. I know this has been a hard day, but we've got a surprise for you," William said.
Norman turned back. He felt unsure about any more surprises. The last surprise had not worked out very well. William walked over and threw a burly arm around Norman's shoulders.
"Right over there," he said.
Tucked in a corner of the small room was a pet carrier. Norman had not noticed it before. Nancy bent to open it and pulled out a meowing ball of gray, striped fur.
"This is for you, Norman. A real kitten of your very own," Nancy said.
Norman held out his big hands to receive the tiny creature. Big, amber eyes looked up at him. Norman's heart melted. He held his new pet and smiled.
"What are you gonna name him?" Jake asked.
Norman looked at William, Nancy, and Jake with gratitude. This was a real kitten. Finally, his wish had been granted.
Norman thought for a moment, held up the kitten, and said, "I think I will name him Chicken." Everyone in the room began to laugh.
Chapter 7: An Invitation
On the way home, Norman was glad for William's company. It had been a hard morning. They walked most of the way in silence, which suited Norman just fine. He held his new pet and felt content. William seemed lost in his own thoughts. But, as they came upon the path that led to Norman's home, he made a decision.
"Norman, I would like it if you would join us tomorrow for Sunday dinner."
Norman thought for a moment.
"I don't want to be in the way."
"I understand, Norman."
For several minutes, they stood in silence. Finally, Norman spoke.
"Would it be OK if I brought Chicken?"
"We might be able to work something out."
Chapter 8: A New Family
From that day forward, Norman raised Chicken and lived a happier life. He did not have to clean the bathroom every day. Chicken used his litterbox, which was much easier to clean. He kept Norman company when he took a nap, and purred in his lap when Norman read the newspaper.
The boy who delivered his groceries no longer gave him strange looks. Instead, he brought Norman cat food from the store. Norman no longer had to wonder what he would do if the mysterious bags of food stopped appearing. Norman’s days became peaceful and happy. His home was clean, and Chicken kept him company. Every Sunday, Norman ate dinner with William's family. He also began to visit during the week.
A few years later, Norman was too old to take care of himself anymore, but William's family had grown to love Norman, so they invited him to live with them. Norman almost cried when he first saw his new room in the farmhouse. It was not big, but he did not need much. Norman promised that he would find a way to be helpful. William thought long and hard before coming up with an idea.
"Norman, would you help us gather eggs each day?"
Norman nodded. It was a perfect idea. Chicken came with him to his new home. He followed Norman everywhere. But he was not allowed in the chicken coop. Each day, Norman would go to the chicken coop to visit Kitten. Impatiently, Chicken waited outside, meowing and scratching at the door.
Norman helped gather eggs, but was happiest when Kitten hatched a clutch of newborn chicks. They reminded Norman of the baby chick who had mysteriously appeared on his doorstep. He also remembered what a mess she made. He missed having a pet chicken, but he did not miss the cleaning.
When he left the chicken coop, Norman would scratch Chicken behind the ears. Chicken always purred, which made Norman smile. He could not imagine life without his cat. When he went to bed each night, Chicken was there to snuggle up to his feet and keep him warm.
There were many other cats who lived on the farm. Norman delighted in their company. Soon enough, he noticed the appearance of several striped kittens. He named them all and took it upon himself to care for them. William was grateful for the extra help. His family was so busy taking care of the farm that they did not have time to give the cats the extra attention they needed.
One day, Jake surprised Norman by calling him Grandpa Norman. The name stuck and Norman felt that he really was part of the family. His days were full, and he had no reason to feel lonely. Norman kept the old Strumpvine home, but did not visit often. In time, Norman decided to give the old Strumpvine farm to Jake and his brothers. Norman wanted them to have a place of their own. He did not want them to leave their family and go to the city.
At the end of his life, Norman was surrounded by a new family, and many pets. He still belonged to the land. He was still a farmer. He was still a Strumpvine of Bottomhill, Montana.