My helper and I: on adopting each other

Ben is half of what used to be a working due on our farm called Bill and Ben. These two came with the property and had been originally employed to keep the rats and mice around the barn down to manageable numbers. Consequently, they were wild and unapproachable. If they were wild and only because our interest coincided with their own. Bill left us after a year -- we think his defection was due to neighboring sardines -- but Ben stayed on, an unassuming reminder of the permanence of the place, with a quickened interest in us.

He was nothing special to look at. For a start, he was not one of these dandies who wash. Perhaps his drab exterior was correct for the undercover work he did. Once he accepted our good intentions, he showed himself well-mannered, but distant. He could have come from an aristocratic line that had fallen on hard times. My mother was convinced that his one blue eye denoted Siamese ancestry. (He has two eyes altogether, I hasten to say, only the other one is green.)

Ben's other claim to this same ancestry was supported by what you might call his Importunate Neighbor Ploy. It didn't take him long to realize that we are a soft touch when it comes to Nurturing Life. Once we were on speaking terms, I was treated to a monologue on the disadvantages of starvation. This would continue until I found him something to eat, which I always did from sheer exhaustion.

I have to admit to another reason for allowing myself to be maneuvered in this way; I loved to watch his gradual integration into human and domestic animal society. Our two Labradors, Dougal and Jamie, were not reticent in their approach and would leap on him each day, with a wild greeting, every previous rebuff having fled from their minds at the joy of seeing him again. The ever-present threat of their good will kept Ben at continual action stations. Even at rest, he personified primitive alertness.

His relationship with his previous employers must have been strictly business. He seemed to be learning the art of society from scratch. When he purred his rusty purr, it was as though the machinery had been long out of use and needed oiling.

With some quiet encouragement, Ben started coming out of himself, to the extent of initiating the dialogue, especially at milking time. Each day when I went into the cowshed and established my bona fides, the hayrack would burst into life. Ben would spring down and pace the concrete, encouraging me as I milked (more slowly than he liked) until I was ready to be escorted back to the kitchen. There he would make sure of his bowlful, warm and frothy.

Ben now seems to have reached the plateau in his rehabilitation. A few weeks ago, my husband, John, sailed into the yard on his bicycle, handlebars in one hand and a kitten in the other. He had been cycling along a remote stretch of road and, pausing after a particularly taxing bit of hill (so that the dogs could catch up with him), he heard piercing complaints coming from the hedge. The kitten (after due thought, we named her Kitty) had climbed up for a better view of the prospects and become firmly wedged. Some people and animals respond to adversity as though it were labeled Opportunity, and Kitty was one of these. She took in the new situation and adopted us without any formalities. She also adopted Ben.

Ben came alive. He accepted full responsibility, found her a billet in the barn and at daybreak delivered her to the back door. There he sat patiently, until able to surrender his charge to a higher authority.

These days he can be seen purring rhythmically on the hearth; his coat is fresh and clean. He has put on weight. This may have something to do with his self-imposed attendance at Kitty's regulation three meals a day. At these times he is present in a purely auxiliary capacity, you understand, testing food for quality. He can also be seen in broad daylight, sunning himself on the windowsill, or if he is getting bored, in the middle of the lawn, to tantalize the dogs. I think he likes being ambushed by them, almost as much as he enjoys complaining about it.

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