In the spring of 1961, Dad dumped a wet burlap sack on our kitchen floor. Something big squirmed inside. We expected Rainbow Trout or Striped Bass. We gathered around the sack to see his catch.
“Don, don’t leave those fish there. I just mopped the floor.”
Dad leaned on the counter, still in his waders, his wicker fishing creel slung over his shoulder.
“Penelope, don’t be mad, eh.”
Inside the sack something jerked up right. We took a step backwards. The sack muffled a hideous yowl. A cat, long and lean, his white coat wet and matted emerged. He looked around, sat on his haunches, and growled.
“Don, not another stray? If you haven’t noticed, we have five kids, eh.” Mum threw up her hands in exasperation.
“Mum, Mum please let’s keep him.” The heart of a rescuer beat in my sister Susan’s chest—just like Dad.
“We don’t need another cat. The last one stayed a month. It clawed up the side of the Chesterfield.” Mum let her breath out through her teeth trying to control her frustration. The cat arched his back and hissed. We took another step backwards.
“Don, that cat’s going to be trouble.”
“Penelope, someone tried to drown him. I found that bag on the riverbank, double knotted. Double knotted,” Dad repeated. “That cat crawled out of the Saint John River, inside that sack, dragging a five-pound rock. When I untied the sack, he bit me. That’s what I call one helluva cat, eh! He’s got Manx in him too.”
Mum leaned on the counter accepting the situation. The menacing creature surveying her kitchen was about to join the family.
“Zoë, go get the Iodine.” I raced to the bathroom medicine cabinet and returned with the bottle.
“Mum, you put it on him. I’m scared. He might bite me.”
“It’s for your father, not the cat!” Mum rolled her eyes. She took a can of tuna out of the cupboard. “Don, he’s got more than Manx in him. You may regret this one. Look at the scars on his face. That’s a chunk out of his ear, eh?”
Scary cat rubbed up against Mum’s legs. When Mum put the can of tuna on the floor, he lunged at it. Mum squealed and jumped back.
“Penelope, he’s half starved, eh.”
“Dad what happened to his tail? Did someone cut it off?
“No Zoë, he never grew a tail. It’s a genetic mutation. His back legs are longer than his front legs too. He’ll be a good ratter, eh.”
“Don, we don’t have rats.”
“Big ones lived on the merchant ships I sailed on out of Saint John, eh. If a Manx wasn’t part of the crew, we kept our eyes peeled for one in every port.”
“Ew, Dad, you lived with rats?” Dad walked his fingers up Susan’s back and tickled her neck. She squealed, jumping away and hid behind me.
“I’ve never seen a white Manx. We’ve got a rarity here, eh.”
“We’ve got something here for sure,” Mum said. She frowned at the kitchen interloper. Dad tried to coax Mum into a better mood.
“Let’s call him Stumpy. What do you think, Penelope, eh?”
“Nooo, Daddy. We want to call him Honey Bunny. He’s our bunny.”
“He’s not a bunny.” Mum glared at Dad.
Then looking our way, she chastised us. “What kind of a name is that for a beat-up old tomcat, eh?”
“Penelope, he’s not old. He’s in his prime.”
“Honey Bunny! Honey Bunny!” My younger sisters jumped up and down chanting their name choice.
Dad caved, outnumbered by Honey Bunny’s newfound fans. Honey B glared out at us from under the kitchen table. He’d dragged the tuna can with him and licked every last bit of oil, growling in between licks.
“Don, I don’t want that cat biting or scratching the children.”
“Penelope, he’ll be fine once he settles in.”
Honey Bunny trotted to the door and meowed. Mum let him out. She looked smug. “That’s the last we’ll see of him, eh.”
“He’ll be back. Penelope, you fed him tuna. You’ve won his heart.” Dad put his arm around Mum and whispered. “Just like you won my heart, eh?” He tried to dance around the kitchen with Mum. She wanted nothing to do with Dad’s shenanigans.
“Don, you’re too soft hearted. I’m the one who’ll be feeding and cleaning up after that cat.”
Honey Bunny returned later in the evening and wrapped his body around Mum’s legs, purring in a kind of raspy, throaty staccato. “God help us, if that’s his purr.” Mum pushed him away with her foot and put a saucer of Carnation Milk on the floor. “I guess he’s here to stay. Some brave soul needs to give him a bath, eh.”
“I don’t think bringing water anywhere near that cat would bode well for anyone.” Dad held up his Iodine-stained hand, swollen around the puncture marks. “I’ll try to wipe him down later, eh.”
Honey Bunny’s eyes, a piercing green, the color of Peridot crystal, unsettled us at times. He yowled more than mewed. Our next-door neighbour’s black Labrador retriever, Gypsy, ran away whenever she saw him. His purr, more of a growl, kept faint-of-heart cat lovers at a distance. He could hack up the biggest hairballs we’d ever seen.
He slept behind our oil stove when he chose to come home for the night. Our cats never saw a vet and never went under the knife for neutering or spaying. They came and went when they chose, often never returning. His presence in Ketepec, our tiny village, soon became known. Little white Honey Bunnies with tails of varying lengths spoke to his prowess in the field of romance.
Our “White Menace” established himself in our little hamlet, and people talked about his notoriety. Honey Bunny, a tomcat in every way a cat could be a “Tom,” often came home looking like a lawn mower rolled over him, bloodied with tufts of fur missing. Grammy never called him Honey Bunny. She named him “Scrappy.” He responded to any name thrown at him if it meant food. We loved him regardless.
One glorious spring morning, birds chirped in the birch trees and a fresh breeze fluttered the kitchen curtains. My siblings and I sat around our kitchen table eating Cheerios before heading off to school. Honey Bunny slunk in through the open screen door, after a night of carousing, bringing horror to the peaceful morning.
One of Honey B’s startling green eyes hung out of its eye socket. A chair crashed to the floor, a cereal bowl overturned, and milk ran down a table leg. Shrieking, my siblings sprinted from the kitchen with Honey Bunny chasing them in a kind of sideways lope.
Chaos reigned. They jumped over furniture and scrambled for safety from the scary creature. Months ago he claimed our hearts as the family cat. Mum’s voice rose above the din. “Everyone, get your book bags. Don’t forget your lunches. Off to school, except you.” She pointed at me. “Zoë, go get Mr. Hagerman.”
I stood stock-still.
“Now, not tomorrow!”
I scrambled out the door, no shoes, and terrified our neighbour, Mr. Hagerman, who thought one of the Harris children must have died. On our dash back to our house, Mr. Hagerman thundered along the path behind me.
Mum, the face-of-calm, and Mr. Hagerman still panting from the run to our house, removed a good-sized twig lodged in the socket, and popped Honey Bunny’s eye back into place. I shiver remembering the moments of hideous howling even though I covered my ears.
Mr. Hagerman, a big man, deployed the swaddle-straddle method. He wrapped Honey Bunny in a towel. With a knee on each side of the howling cat, he managed to hold him down while Mum pushed his eye back into place. Lacking a medical device, Mum used our silver sugar spoon. We never saw that spoon again.
I couldn’t finish my breakfast and feared petting Honey Bunny in case his eye came loose. I left for school turning to see Honey B lapping up the spilled milk and Cheerios pooling around the table leg. Honey Bunny’s gaze a little off kilter, unnerved me with his wonky stare.
Honey B required other surgeries. Dad spent the better part of one evening during hunting season in heavy work gloves picking birdshot out of his backside. He employed Mum’s eyebrow tweezers, much to Mum’s dismay.
She chastised Dad. “Don, I paid five dollars for those tweezers.”
Dad’s left eyebrow went up. “Five dollars!”
There was no time to discuss the expensive tweezers. Snarling and swearing filled the air, and no one dared breathe in case we distracted Dad. In the end the extraction of five pieces of lead and one battle scar, a long scratch on my father’s forearm, attested to a traumatic day for father and feline.
In begrudging backhanded clemency for the shooter, Honey Bunny resembled a bunny in color and, of course, his loping gate brought a rabbit to mind. Every time Mum opened the door to let Honey B out, I screamed afraid until hunting season ended. Mum’s tweezers went the way of the silver sugar spoon.
Honey Bunny flirted with danger. One New Year’s Eve Day, he showed up limping, tucking a front paw close to his body. His paw, swollen to twice its normal size, and his white fur streaked in black grease upset my siblings and me.
We stood around waiting for our father to fix Honey B. Dad shot us a fatalistic glance, his eyebrows almost touching. “I am not taking that damn cat all the way into Fairville, eh.” A vet visit, unheard of for any animal living under our roof elicited tears from my siblings.
“Dad, you have to save Honey Bunny. His leg might be broken.” I pleaded and begged. My youngest sibling clung to Dad’s leg.
“Cat’s have nine lives, eh? He’s used up three.”
Dad looked at Honey Bunny’s sorry state, his children’s tears, acquiesced and took Honey B to his first and only visit to a vet. The vet, none too happy about being called out on New Year’s Day, took one look at the scarred, scruffy, grease covered cat, resisting being held in my father’s arms, and announced his diagnosis. “That animal’s been in a cat fight and it looks like he got the worst of it.” Dad muttered under his breath, “Damn cat.”
This revelation cemented my father’s resolve and constituted the proof he needed. He dropped the antibiotics into Mum’s hand, narrowed his eyes and looked straight at me. “I am not spending another dime on that damned cat. Fifteen dollars! Double on New Year’s Day!” Then he looked at Mum with a smug smile. “Good luck getting those pills down his throat, eh.” He dumped Honey Bunny out of the bath towel onto the kitchen floor.
Honey B hissed at Dad letting him know he didn’t appreciate the car ride, the vet visit, or being dropped on the floor. Dad hissed back. Mum, amused that her husband might be regretting rescuing Honey Bunny, warned Dad. “We’re in for more hiss-trionics with this cat, eh.”
“Hey, I make the jokes around here, eh. I’m not laughing, Penelope.”
Mum, correct in her summation of more pending drama with Honey Bunny, found herself involved in a horrific sequence of events. Our family remembers the scuffle with startling acuity. The shocking event, still present in our family’s collective memory, never grows hazy.
Twilight brought a steely blue cast to the ice covering the river. The snow sparkled on the ground. We sat sprawled on the living room carpet, cozy and lulled by the warm air rising from the floor vents.
Dad usually arrived home from work in time to catch the end of Star Trek with his children. It remains one of our memories of special times with Dad. He loved Mister Spock. Dropping into his overstuffed armchair, he gave us Mister Spock’s hand salute and favorite line “Live long and prosper, eh.”
The smell of roasting chicken wafted through the house. Anticipation floated on the air. Honey Bunny hung around until after dinner in case something tasty ended up in his food bowl. Plus, when the temperature dipped, he forwent his nighttime escapades in favor of the warmth behind the stove. We heard Honey Bunny’s loud meows, letting Mum know he expected some of the roasting chicken.
What happened that evening stays forever etched in my mind. I even remember the Star Trek episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles.” Tribbles, the little fury ball-like creatures, invaded the Starship Enterprise rolling over the ship and multiplying like crazy. Little did we know the pending melee would cause us to miss the ending of that famous episode.
Honey Bunny, tantalized by the smell emanating from the oven, paced the kitchen watching Mum prepare dinner.
“Damn cat, get out from under my feet.”
Just about the time Dad normally arrived home, we heard our mother take the Lord’s name in vain.
Usually, Mum said, “Jiminy Cricket” and we knew to disappear. Real swearing from our mother startled us into action. In a small stampede, we ran to the kitchen, five faces framed in the doorway, expecting blood or worse, burnt chicken. A stench reached our nostrils. Honey Bunny squatted under the kitchen table.
My brother, Mark, shouted abandoning any sense of restraint or decorum. He shouted the refrain again pointing at Honey Bunny. Did he think we couldn’t see or smell?
Mum grabbed a broom from the closet. She swiped at Honey Bunny, attempting to shoo him out the kitchen door, to no avail. Mum screamed, petrifying us.
“Get out, get out, you godless damned cat.”
My sister started to gag, triggering the reflex in my younger brother. Mum turned on us.
“Get out of my kitchen!”
We froze. The broom made contact with a loud thwack. Honey Bunny fled from underneath the table. Mum, now a crazed lunatic, chased him around the kitchen yelling.
In the mad scramble, Honey Bunny attempted to flee to the dining room. We hold the vision, in a blur of fur and fury. Mum grabbed him with herculean strength by the scruff of his neck. She swung Honey Bunny through the kitchen and heaved him out the back door like a heat-seeking missile—a flying feline.
At the same time, in a horrendous twist of fate, my father started up the steep stairs to our kitchen’s side door. He met our cat, an airborne Honey Bunny, claws extended and still spewing diarrhea. We heard the sickening thud. Honey Bunny hit Dad square and heavy on the chest.
In unison, Honey Bunny squawked and Dad groaned. Air left feline and human lungs. Dad fell backwards, a pile of flailing limbs into the sparkling snow, issuing a stream of words we’d never heard strung together before.
Honey Bunny streaked into the deep New Brunswick woods and didn’t return for two days. Our kitchen looked like a murder scene, except it wasn’t blood sprayed across the cupboard doors. We stood stock-still in the battle zone for a few seconds and then fled with the speed of Hermes on winged feet to the living room—terrified.
Mum and Dad engaged in a heated exchange about why we continued to feed and house Honey Bunny. We cowered, too scared to make our presence known. Mum called us to the dining room. Quiet reigned through dinner.
Dad pushed away from the table, not looking at us, uttering his ultimatum, “When that damned cat comes back, it’s a potato sack, a rock, and the river for him. He won’t crawl out this time, eh. I’ll pay ten cents to whoever brings me the biggest rock.” My greedy brother scrambled for the kitchen door. Mum grabbed him by his shirt collar.
We didn’t protest Dad’s last words because we’d never seen him this outraged and resolute. We knew to cross our father bordered on suicide. We also knew he didn’t mean it; he loved Honey Bunny and the river lay under solid ice. The rocks sat under two feet of snow, frozen to the ground. Our kitchen smelled of Javex bleach for weeks.
My siblings and I never spoke of the incident again except in secret and with hysterical nose-snorting laughter. My father, British to the core, believed in decorum and he didn’t often laugh at himself. For years my brother, Mark, pantomimed the whole incident, and we rolled on the linoleum floor until our sides hurt, and convulsions threatened.
A year after the fateful collision between Dad and Honey Bunny another mortifying incident in Honey B’s cat life occurred in, of course, the dead of winter. New Brunswick experiences more than its share of frigid winter. We required snow tires, snow shovels, hand warmers, mittens, toques, scarves and cinders on the driveway. Most importantly, we needed storm windows to keep the house cozy. Storm windows now belong to a bygone era, replaced by double-paned glass.
Dad installed the second set of windows after Halloween. However, unbeknownst to my father, earlier in the fall Mark whipped an errant rock through our kitchen storm window where it leaned against the woodshed. For a few months, I used the threat of telling Dad to extract servitude from my brother.
Dad, known for his ingenuity and work-around improvisations, put up a sheet of heavy plastic. He held it in place by nailing slats of wood to the existing window frame. Dad beamed proudly of his inventiveness. Mum questioned the aesthetic look.
“Don, is that going to stay up all winter?
Dad frowned. “It works, eh.”
I believe Dad’s creativeness crossed over into the realm of payback, at least subconsciously, for his earlier fateful encounter with the flying diarrhea-spewing fur-ball. Mum held conversations with Honey Bunny in the early morning after his nightly escapades. She told Honey Bunny he surprised her every day when he showed up for breakfast.
Honey B always announced his arrival home after a night of carousing, and his desire to come in for warmth and sustenance. He did this by leaping onto the kitchen windowsill and howling until someone acknowledged his appearance and opened the door.
We sat crowded around our kitchen table finishing our breakfast. My younger siblings squabbled about the prize at the bottom of the cornflakes’ box. They loved the little submarines that ran on baking soda.
Standing up on his chair, Chip, the youngest, pointed at the window. “Here comes Honey Bunny.” We looked up and saw Honey B loping up one of the tire tracks left in the snow by our car earlier in the morning when Dad left for work. Honey Bunny, picked up speed heading for the windowsill, causing us to gasp in unison.
Mum ran to the window and started to pound on the glass. We foresaw the outcome. Mum sprinted for the front door. Honey Bunny, already in flight, sailed straight for the kitchen windowsill. He hit the heavy plastic with a resounding thunk and flew like a cannonball launched from a catapult out into the driveway, landing in a thicket of thorny blackberry canes.
Shrieks of laughter greeted Honey B. He skulked toward the open front door. Honey Bunny, indignant and hostile, trotted between our legs to his place behind the stove. No one saw him until Mum poured our leftover milk and cereal into his bowl. Mum talked to Honey Bunny while he lapped up the milk. “Stupid cat. It’s a wonder you didn’t break your neck, eh.”
Our youngest brother looked concerned. “How many lives does Honey Bunny have left?”
“Oh sweetie, don’t worry, Honey Bunny’s tough, eh. He’ll be around for a while.”
When we recounted the story to our father at dinner, we laughed. We tried to recreate the sound of Honey Bunny hitting the plastic window until Chip choked on his Tater Tot. Mum gave him a thump on the back. “Enough!” Stop this rowdy behavior. Eat your dinners, eh.”
We moved on from our tale of Honey B’s morning mishap and talked about other things without sound effects. A smug smile continued to play at the corners of Dad’s mouth. Throughout our dessert of fruit cocktail, a bemused look stayed on his face. Well into the evening, we heard an occasional chuckle from behind Dad’s newspaper.
Honey Bunny’s persona gave off the vibes of a tomcat to be reckoned with, although he never bit or scratched my siblings or me. One exception existed and we learned to be wary if he heard the crunch of a Scotties potato chip. We always asked about Honey B’s exact whereabouts before we opened a bag.
He ran up our bodies, claws extended, to get to the chips. He became insane in his quest, like an addict. If a bag of chips lay on our pantry shelf, he snuck in during the night and tore open the bag eating every last chip, licking and re-licking the bag. Mum started keeping the potato chips in a drawer in the kitchen.
If we held a potato chip in our hand, Honey Bunny followed us anywhere we chose to lure him. He let us dress him up in delicate bonnets and frilly doll dresses, his limbs sticking out at an odd angle, to crunch on a chip, or to lick the salt from our fingers. The picture of his scarred face with its wonky eye after the spoon surgery, framed in lacy bonnets, still warms my heart.
Honey Bunny became passive and limp accepting his fate. The Carnation milk my siblings fed him from baby doll bottles assuaged his tomcat temperament and prompted his acquiescence. When we pushed him around our yard in a pink doll’s pram or swung with him on our rope swing, he protested with little baby-like whimpers. My mother, in an effort to protect Honey B and us, yelled from the doorway.
“Stop torturing and humiliating that cat, eh.”
Honey Bunny stayed with us for four years, a long time in the history of cats living under our roof. My girlfriends and I found his body in a huge snowbank made by the snowplow along R.R. #2 below our house. Honey Bunny, stiff as a stuffed trout, flash-frozen in mid-flight over the deep snow, leapt from this world. We wondered if a car hit him on one of his late-night excursions or if someone shot him because he resembled a rabbit.
My dad, to console his children, told us he buried him under a pine tree in the woods behind our house. He tried to comfort us. “Come on, buck up, Honey Bunny’s spirit’s still around, eh. He’s too tough to be totally gone. He’s playing with the squirrels in the trees and chasing rats at the burned-out mill.
My girlfriends and I clambered around the timbers at the mill, playing hide and seek. I thought, yikes, there are rats at the mill?
Of course, burying him posed a formidable task with five feet of snow and the ground frozen like concrete. Children believe their parents. Our father could accomplish anything.
Years later we gathered for Christmas. My siblings and I reminisced about Honey Bunny’s many adventures. In a poignant moment, my sister Brenda recalled how sweet it felt to know Honey B lay buried behind our house under a pine tree. Laughter and the occasional fit of giggling drew our father to the living room.
Dad, leaning on the doorframe, looked at his five adult children, incredulous for a moment. “I put that old diarrhea spewing reprobate in a cardboard box, took him to the city dump, and slid him down the incinerator chute.” We sat speechless. Dad turned, shaking his head. We heard him say in a tender way, “Damn cat.”
Corrienne Zoë Heinemann writes under the pen name of Zoë Sutton Harris. She has written four short stories, one of which is in the process of being published. She is also in the editing stage of a coming-of-age memoir about growing up in the small village of Ketepec on the Saint John River in New Brunswick Canada.
Zoë graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a master’s degree in social work.
She has lived in California for forty-three years with sojourns to The Bahamas for four years and to Kazakhstan for eight years. She now lives in Northern California outside of San Francisco with her husband and rescued mutt, Lucy. She has two adult children.