Cat, Egg-Mouse, Astronaut

THE neighbor's cat, Stripes, was coming through the tall grass in the backyard. He was fat as a pumpkin and ... striped. We saw him from the kitchen window, where Mom had left us in charge of the soup. It was clam chowder out of a can. We were taking turns stirring it on the stove. The stove was next to the window. "Look at Stripes!" my sister Binny said.

The way she said it made me want to look.

Outside was sunny and bright, with the leaves falling all around, bucketfuls, most of them in the tall grass that Dad doesn't like to mow.

"What's he doing?" I asked her.

He'd caught something, that's what. But we couldn't see what it was because of the tall grass and Stripes still so far away, just this side of the stone wall. Eyes low, muscles twitching, he looked ready to pounce.

Thump! He pounced.

Binny made a noise - "Oh, no!"

She's sensitive when it comes to small animals. Once she let a whole family of hamsters loose inside the house when she thought they looked sad stuck inside their cage. Mom and Dad had a fit.

But they were gone today, shopping.

Binny was on her way to the rescue when I stopped her with, "Let's let nature take its course." I'd heard that on TV, a show about lions. Or was it bears?

She didn't understand.

"It means wait and see what happens."

For once she did as I said. I'm not sure why. Maybe she was as curious as I was. We watched out the window and here's what we saw:

Stripes was playing with what he'd caught, the way cats do. Swatting at it with his paws, sniffing, licking, running around in a circle, making the poor thing's life miserable. He'd even pretend to let it escape, get just so far, when - thump! - pounce all over again.

This went on all the way across the backyard, toward the house. Swat, sniff, let go ... pounce! Swat, sniff, let go ... pounce! Closer and closer they came, until at last we could see what he'd caught: a small brown mouse, the size of an egg. An egg with a tail.

"A baby mouse!" Binny exclaimed.

No, it wasn't a baby, but it was small, popping out of the grass or zigzagging on top, until Stripes - thump! - would recapture it.

I had to practically hold Binny back.

But then a funny thing happened. The egg-mouse saw the tree that Dad had planted last summer beneath the kitchen window, a sapling, scraggly and thin, and made a run for it, up the trunk and out along the branch to the very end, where it hung, bouncing, right over Stripes' head. Here's a picture:

Binny let out a whoop! But couldn't Stripes, big and fat as he was, jump that high and - gulp! - swallow that mouse whole?

That's what I thought anyway.

But instead of jumping the cat sort of stood up on his hind legs, stretched out a paw or two ... up ... up and missed by inches, the mouse out of reach. Stripes tried again and again, until his puzzled face said, "Darn! What am I gonna do now?"

I answered, "You'll jump!"

My voice gave Binny a start and had her backing toward the door, when what Stripes did next stopped her. Slowly, step by step, he went over and, just like the mouse, began to climb the sapling. Now remember: fat cat, skinny sapling. The higher he climbed the more the sapling bent over; the more the sapling bent over the more the branch with the mouse went down ... down ... down. So that by the time Stripes had reached the top and was hanging upside down, the egg-mouse was touching the ground.

Now what? The cat took a look over his shoulder, saw the mouse within reach, wiggled his nose, and ... jumped.

Can you picture it?

Sprong! The sapling snapped back the way it was. Waannng! The branch whipped the air. Waanng! Waannng!

You're not going to believe this, but that dumb mouse hung on! If he'd been smart and let go, he'd have been a rocket ship, up and away, catapulted to safety, maybe even as far as the woods next door. And Stripes wouldn't have had a clue.

Too bad, because once more the cat was beneath the bouncing mouse, swatting at the air with his paws, as the branch got slower and slower....

And then a terrible thing happened - our doorbell rang. "Don't move!" I said to the window. "Be right back."

With a deep breath I turned and ran for the front of the house. Behind me Binny called out, "I'll get my hamster cage!"

Was it Mom and Dad with the groceries? I threw open the door. Standing there was a woman with rings on all her fingers.

"This mail of yours got delivered to us by mistake," she said. Her voice was friendly and she smiled.

I took the mail, "Thanks," and went to close the door.

"Oh, by the way," she went on. "Could you give your parents a message?" She said something about a yard sale the next day at a house down the street, asked me to write the message down, but I told her I'd remember and slammed the door. I'd hear about being rude from Mom and Dad that night.

There wasn't a second to lose. I threw the mail in the air and ran back through the house. Binny was dragging her hamster cage across the kitchen floor. The two of us carried it outside, down the steps, and around back. Stripes was sitting beneath the branch, licking his paws; the sapling was still, the egg-mouse gone.

"Oh, no!"

Binny started to cry.

"Come on." I took her hand. "Let's have some soup."

But she didn't want any. I knew what she was thinking; we could've saved that mouse, but now it was too late. Stripes had eaten it.

Or had he?

"Look!" Binny suddenly exclaimed.

There, zigzagging in the leaves and sticks at the edge of the woods, looking for all the world like a joyful astronaut who's come to a miraculously safe landing was the mouse.

'Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum Pages where kids can find stories that will tickle imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles will appear twice a month, always on Tuesday.

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