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The night before Thanksgiving, around 8 in the evening, my cat Malcolm was killed on his way across my garden, just 50 feet from my kitchen where I was cooking pies. Feeling uneasy that he hadn't returned after I called for him twice, I told myself he'd found a mouse, was absorbed in the smells of the moist, balmy 30-degree night, and soon would scamper up to the back porch nuzzling his nose impatiently against the door to be let in.

My other two cats had not stayed outside for long. Sam, the oldest adult male, was once the leader of a pack of five strays that wandered into our garden feast of birds, water and juniper shelters four years ago. On nights when the temperature dropped to zero, they slept on our compost pile, huddling together to share body warmth and the heat of the pile. Sam was the most wary of the five, the only cat to never set foot in a trap or otherwise be caught by humans. Tigger, the young female, lived those first five months of her life with Sam in the winter outdoors learning to survive by hunting mice and birds and eating scraps from the compost pile. Sam and Tigger, sensing danger in the night, responded quickly to my call on this night.

At 10 p.m., I walked our property calling Malcolm's name. The night was still and silent, with a hint of moisture in the air, the stars shining through a thin gauze of clouds. I could feel Malcolm being lured into this night, and how he might refuse to answer my call. But I knew that his lean body and his memories of starvation never kept him outside in the cold for this long.

Malcolm arrived at our back porch on a freezing February day this year, starved, a one-year-old male tabby with a singular mission -- getting into the warm house and being fed. We nursed him to health for three weeks, had him neutered, built a door on his room with a metal grate on the bottom half so he and the other cats could smell, hiss and harmlessly swat while they adjusted to each other.

At first, Malcolm's starvation was so intense his whole body dove into the bowl when fresh food arrived. Trusting humans, he seemed comforted stretching his body on my chest, his face to my face, our breaths mingling, his paws straddling my neck, his purr blending with my beating heart. Over the months of this year, we watched this young male, this spunky, guileless spirit, bring amusement and more love to our lives.

Early in the morning, Malcolm would come into our bedroom, jump onto our bed, and meow for his morning treat, a portion of raw egg, stirred slightly to mix the yolk and the whites. At the sound of cracking eggshells it was all Malcolm could do to keep his twitching body in place. He always licked the plate clean, then finished up any leftovers on Sam's and Tigger's plates. With egg dribble on his chin, he waited on a table by the door to be let out. The impulsive one, he never stopped to sniff the air for danger before bolting headlong out the door.

Eventually I gave up the hunt. After a long, nightmarish night of fitful sleep, getting up every hour to see if he'd nibbled on the food I left on the porch, morning finally came. The house felt empty as we made breakfast. Sam watched me intently from the living room and would not go outside.

After breakfast, as we finished our coffee, Tim said, "Laura, come with me. I need to show you something." He stepped out the door and I followed close behind. We walked across the garden to an open area between Ponderosa Pine and a Juniper hedge. "See, Laura." He pointed down to Malcolm's footprints in the snow. "He was heading for the house." Tim stepped a few feet away, pointing to spatters of red blood in the icy snow. "This is where he died." Just two feet away, the snow flattened, marked with soft parallel ridges. "His body was dragged here, then carried off into the trees." I knelt to pick up a tuft of his black hair, feeling its softness in my fingers, bringing it to my nose to smell his sweet smell.

I went about the mundane duties of the day. Driving in my car, standing in line, making calls, Malcolm's body, face and smell appeared. Coming home from work, Malcolm would normally greet me by stretching his long, lean body on the floor, gesturing for a scratch. Arms and legs outstretched, he'd expose his soft, yellow-haired underbelly, I'd nuzzle my face into his downy fur, breathing in this pure gesture of trust.

It is hard to find peace. Malcolm's death by a wild animal seems a fitting, though sad and untimely, end. I tell myself, "Better that his body feed a hungry coyote than he suffer a painful illness or be killed by a car," but that is meager consolation. I will always miss this animal, this spirit, my friend, who brought such love, joy and tenderness to my life.

Note: Due to the drought this year, our wild animals are especially desperate for food. Bring your pets in before dark. Danger is greatest just after nightfall.

-- Laura Spear owns ForestEdge, a private garden in the Black Forest. You may email her at tlspear@earthlink.net.

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