There’s a pecking order in the Weiner household, and that order includes anything that breathes and eats. So not only do each of the hounds have their place, every newcomer is ranked and treated accordingly. A bug mistaking a corner for sanctuary or a dog bowl for the Mother Lode, will quickly be assessed as impotent, worthy of a couple hunt moves and then summarily dispatched. Likewise, visitors to the home will be sized up and dealt with. Franny likes to move toddlers off the couch with an explosive snarl and a harmless pinch of the teeth– quite effective– and for the visitor with more inherent status, like a grown man, she waits to see if they evince a liking for her, then returns the favor with ankle love bites.
Then there is The Cat. Several years ago we rescued an abandoned ranch cat who had been living on her own for 3 years. That made her a Zulu warrior princess in name and deed, and that’s what we called her. Wild Zulu had survived coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions,stray dogs, crazy hunters, ice and snow.. even so, Zulu and the Weiner Gang understood the pecking order within the first 15 seconds of Zulu’s arrival. The Cat was, without discussion, designated the Lowliest of Low Hairballs With Claws. The claws were accorded some respect, so she was allowed to live as long as she stayed out of the way, didn’t interact with the People too much, and didn’t eat the Weiner’s cookies. This was the pecking order, but by flattening her ears and staring yellow malevolence at the barking dogs , Zulu may have been sending the message that the pecking order would remain fluid.
For 3 years Zulu resided in a state of perpetual perfect patience on the porch, hunting the woods and fields by night, sleeping by day in her little cat house atop a cabinet. Of course, she was wary of the dogs, having assessed quickly and correctly the perils, and didn’t even look for much attention from her humans. She kept to herself, and after the first year or two, the dogs seemed to have forgotten about her.
But, of course, they hadn’t.
Except for the occasional dust- up, Zulu stayed out of the dogs’ way for so long the dogs were lulled into thinking the Truce, as it was known, would be permanent, and The Hairball, as she was known, would stay in her place. But there came the day she went from ignoring, and being ignored, to snaking a long black arm out of her cat house and snagging my hand as I passed by. The message was clear: “I’m here.” Surprised and pleased, I delicately pried the tips of several pale talons out of my skin, scratched her under the chin, and made little kitten noises at her. This quickly became routine. That same summer she also began getting up in the push-out window that opened from the kitchen onto the utility porch. High above them, she eyeballed The Clowns, as they were known,barking and jumping around with a complete lack of dignity while she studiously sheathed and unsheathed her claws. Before long she was lapping milk from a bowl on the sill. She got tuna. She came more frequently, to sit and watch the clown show beneath her.
None of these little moves up the popularity chart went unnoticed. Weiners have exquisite radar for Special People Love, so as Zulu got more attention, Mokie and Izzy went back to checking her moves. They chased her back up the rock wall onto the roof every so often, and she, in her wisdom, went along with their nonsense, never taking the velvet gloves off the claws that could teach a couple of clueless Dachshunds what ninja knives in a hurricane looked like.
Instead, Zulu the Diplomat began distributing gifts. Suddenly, tiny decapitated mouse heads started appearing at the back bedroom door. The first time I saw one I was without my glasses, standing barefoot in the pale morning light, and it took me a minute peering near-sightedly down to realize that the tiny perfect black eyes and nose and whisper thin whiskers were actually…yes, yes indeed, that was a real mouse head on the doormat!! The dogs didn’t take nearly so long. Whereas I usually had to shove them out the door in the morning to do their duty ( they, of course, prefering to squat on an expensive rug ), they now clammered to run out as soon as the cock crowed. Before long, Zulu started depositing the whole rodent enchilada. Mokie,in particular, was wild with joy. She would bounce out of her bed at 5 AM and claw at the door like a contestant on the Price is Right sniffing out a new car. A little pile of steaming entrails would greet her, and she wouldn’t even glance at Zulu slinking smoothly into the porch room behind her, snuggling into her little cat bed, smiling her little cat smile. Later, Zulu upped her game and started delivering not just mice, but voles and fat gophers, too. The Weiners were endlessly entertained by all this, and, of course, they knew who was doing it by now, the Hairball smell was all over the warm and ripe feast.
Meanwhile, Zulu continued to live and sleep on the porch, a cold place dogs only visited when they were in a state of disgrace. Thus reassured, the Weiners grew complacent in the great game of Status, which, as all dogs know, requires constant reassessment and much political manuevering, snarling displays and butt kissing, something like congressional campaigns. Only Mercedes, who had never quite gotten over her fright at her first look at Zulu, refrained from racing to check out the morning deposit. She preferred to peek around corners and make sure the Black Devil wasn’t lurking anywhere nearby. As for the others, Fritz continued to ignore Zulu except for the ocassional deliberate OOPS!, bumping into her as if he had lost his hearing and acute sense of smell as well as his sight, while Franny contented herself with narrowing her eyes at her in a bitchy manner. Certainly Mokie and Izzy no longer chased or threatened Zulu when they encountered her outside. Why chase away your personal waiter bringing you your breakfast?
The Day The Earth Moved was Tuesday, April 5, 2011. It was 8 am. The morning was mild, promising warm weather. The door to the porch was slightly open. The dogs were lolling on the couch, having spent 20 minutes jockeying for position next to me as I sat drinking tea and working on my computer. They had finally settled down, in positions roughly equivilent to their Status: Underdog Franny in her skinny huddled ball under the corner of my robe, Underdog 2 Izzy half on top of her, Underdogs 3 and 4, Mokie and Mercedes, jealously eyeballing each other, and Fritz, as Top Dog, laying heavy as a log across my lap. At that moment I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye. The door was moving open. A small black head with perkily alert ears and slitted green eyes was angling around the door frame, looking at us all.
Zulu was making her move.
Five dog heads slowly turned as one to view this unheard of intrusion. There was a little ripple of electric excitement as their eyes, ears and noses told them what they could not believe was true, that Hairball was entering their house. In daylight! Cheeky as a squirrel! Zulu stopped for a second, feeling their ripple of energy as it flowed over her long, twitching whiskers. She advanced one paw delicately into the room, eyes fixed on the dogs. As mesmerized as the Weiners, I placed one warning hand on Mokie’s stiffening flank. Mercedes looked on, terrified. As the dogs leaned out slowly over the edge of the couch to get a better look, Zulu eased another paw down, and slowly curled her advancing form around the door. Then in one fluid movement she cleared the door completely. She sat down, extended a sinewy hind leg , regally swept her tail aside, and started to clean herself.
Of course, this fine display of feline chutzpah completely disarmed the Wieners, and they, being reasonable dogs, immediately knew the game was up. It took Zulu another couple forays to join the dogs, placing herself in the neutral territory that was the back of the couch. Gradually she moved from the unoccupied end to my end, and perched near my shoulder. A couple more weeks passed, and then one day I found her sliding down onto my lap. Fritz made room for her. Mokie raised her head, opened one sleepy eye, then plopped back down. Mercedes jumped straight up from the couch as if the poles had just flipped,but Franny and Izzy just resumed snoring.
There is a new pecking order in the house now, as regards my lap. Zulu gets pride of place there whenever she chooses to claim it. It doesn’t matter that the dogs form a canine blanket over me, Zulu will encroach as smoothly as a tide among rocks until she achieves the desired shore. Once there, she becomes a rock herself. Exasperated, I gently try to dislodge her; cooly defiant, she digs in with her claws. Waking to the altered landscape, the dogs just look at me. I am Uber Top Dog. I should have stopped it.