A lesson not to be forgotten

It was one of those trifling requests. A friend-of-a-friend sort of thing, meandering through my busy weeks, until I had to give it thought. Then, suddenly , she was in my arms, a wrapped-up, squirming, squawking bundle. With hasty thanks, her owner left, and as I heard the car crunch out of our gravel driveway and onto the noisy street, I knew she was here to stay.

They had asked me to find a home for a cat, not especially me but all of us, in the general round of conversation. I always try to help when asked, but was meeting this time with little success. Information was sketchy: a year-old, spayed female. I already had three magnificent Himalayans - ''inside'' cats. With their flowing fur and Dresden-blue eyes, they were picture-book cats, easy to love.

The woman was moving away and no longer wanted the cat, which had been thrust on her by her son. Not without effort, she said, ''Well, I'll just have to put her to sleep.'' In a rush, without thought, I heard myself saying, ''No, I'll take her!'' Now I had to.

The struggling increased, as did the howling. I unwrapped her, and she seemed birthed, full grown, in the vestibule.

She was black, with two or three straggly white hairs under her throat. She was shorthaired, yellow-eyed, frightened and a little angry. Then I saw why nobody wanted her: there was nothing pretty or cuddly about this very ordinary cat. I named her Midnight, which became Minnie in moments, and our adjustment began.

Getting to know her, I found some things I liked, and some I didn't. She was highly intelligent, playful, to a point, but if stroked too long she'd bite - not hard, but hard enough. If she wasn't fed promptly, she'd wrap her strong teeth around my bare ankle, as a reminder. When I fed her she'd rub herself over and over again on my legs, saying thank you. Outdoors she found special spots under shady shrubs and displayed her blackness against the clay. At times she looked almost regal.

We had Minnie three weeks; then one evening she did not come home. I called to her throughout the next day. Worry began nibbling at the fringes of my thought; where could she be? Reluctantly, I went on a family outing and when we returned several hours later, she was not there. I called her name, loud and long. It echoed eerily through the evening shadows. All at once we saw her struggling toward us. She was crying. Obviously she had been hit by a car.

Sizing up the situation, we could see that she had dragged herself hundreds of yards from the street, down the rough driveway, up and over the rock garden, to the innermost back corner of the house where the dirt was cool and she could blend into the dark. She knew we'd see her there, since it was right next to the garage.

I was overwhelmed by the thought of this animal we barely knew, coming to the only home she had. I knew then I would want her, always.

It took several months of tender care, but at last she was well. Almost no visible evidence remains of that time when she so much needed to be wanted. Now, she never goes near the road. She surveys it from beneath the lilac bushes, watching the joggers push up our hill. Knowing our need of one another, both Minnie and we feel more at home than ever.

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