Lulu pines for one open road in particular

Our prodigal cat has returned home - yet again. In his honor, we are opening a can of Tender Morsels of Fatted Calf.

For Lulu has returned from his 32nd trip across a wild and formidable landscape, back to our former house in the center of town, two miles distant. We have started keeping a tally of his trips, marked in permanent ink on his travel box. His 2002 trip stats are impressive: 25. Thus far in 2003 he's racked up seven trips 'round the horn. Somehow this six-toed, marmalade-colored tabby manages to cross predator-infested land that offers no quarter for cats. And when he makes it back home, he looks as if he has spent the week at a spa.

We do not know his particular path, but it's easy to narrow down the possible routes. He must cross through the thick woods of the adjacent property owners - Cyr, Colson, McArthur, and Parish - on his way back into town. Then there is a large open meadow - a good 300 yards of mouse-rich hay and wildflowers, which is also the hunting ground of at least one gang of foxes. Bobcats have also been sighted there, and bald eagles patrol it regularly, to say nothing of the coyotes - all of which are problematic for a cat that does not "blend in," and who has no trees to climb in retreat. He is entirely vulnerable but, apparently, not defenseless. I suspect he is a kung-fu master.

If he survives the meadow, Lulu must then cross salt water: the British canal, a wide tidal stream that cuts across a narrow isthmus separating "off-neck" Castine, Maine, from the town proper. Lulu is not a swimmer, so we imagine he takes to the road and uses the bridge to keep his toes dry. Up the hill, through more woods, across the seventh hole of the town golf course (more foxes), and down the sixth fairway to our old house. It's a journey of two miles as the crow flies. Lulu usually makes the trip in a day or two. I wish I knew the full story. He is defying fearful odds.

Compared with Lulu, the lives of our dogs, Gus, and Ivy, are an open book. Theirs is a tripartite focus on meal time, sleep, and squirrel time. When Lulu shows up, they greet him with a mixture of chagrin and curiosity. Ivy seems to want to hear his stories; Gus just seems to wonder why the Fatted Can is never opened in his honor. Mealtime for dogs is kibble. Squirrels aren't food. And sleep is just dreaming of food and squirrels.

But I digress.

Lulu is a one-way cat. There is something about this path back to the old house that is irreversible. He never makes it home by himself. When he shows up on his former back deck, meowing, it is as if a former life awaits him when he bounds up to the door. It is for naught; This can only be a sojourn from life in the new land to which we moved a year ago. The lady who lives in the old house, my mother, is not fond of cats. She phones us on Lulu's arrival to arrange the return trip - pronto.

"Lulu's back," she says, and we know to grab the Kitty Karrier and drive into town to fetch him. When we call his name, he usually saunters out from hiding in his lair in the fake bamboo, or trots over from the neighbor's raspberry patch, and tolerates being stuffed in the travel box for the car ride home - again. He knows the drill. And Lulu also knows he is not welcome at Mom's.

So why does he keep re-enacting "The Incredible Journey"? While we'd like to think that he actually lives with us, given the number of times he has gone walk-about I've come to feel that perhaps we are the spa, or merely a way point between his voyages of discovery.

As T.S. Eliot revealed in "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," despite outward appearances, cats lead lives of great tumult and daring, skirting Barbary Coasts beyond the ken of their owners. They sail junks, wage apocalyptic battles against pugs, Pekes, and Poms - canine adversaries of overwhelming force - give the "all clear" on the night mail train, and leave mystery and mayhem in their wake. For an owner who assumes intimacy and confidence in the relationship, it's awfully hard to tell what they're thinking.

Lulu's naming follows a certain Eliot-like logic. Cats have three names, he told us: the name that "the family use daily"; a more particular, dignified name; and finally, the name "the cat himself knows, and will never confess." He started life as Trevor, but shortly needed another syllable and became Trevor-Lou. This, in practice, evolved into just plain Lulu. Thus, Lulu has an "ineffable effable, effanineffable, deep and inscrutable singular name," which he keeps to himself. As he relaxes from his travels, here on our front porch, oblivious to the lazy dogs and the screeching blue jays threatened by his return, he is surely dreaming of his true moniker and emblem. It is his mantra: Magellan, Leatherstocking, or Lulu and Clark.

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