Leopold the Lion-Hearted
by Ann Schwarz
Josie had always been afraid of the old house. It smelled of decay and mold. She imagined ghosts lurking in its shadows, keeping company with large rats and slithery snakes. She tried to keep these thoughts from her mind, as she looked around the room with her flashlight, at first seeing nothing. Then a low growl came from under an old wardrobe Aunt Edna had stored away in one corner. Josie crouched and shone the flashlight underneath, where she found the kitten hiding. It fluffed its fur and hissed at her. She had ventured out alone tonight to feed this little tawny kitten. It had been sitting on Aunt Edna's front porch demanding food in an imperious voice for one so tiny. Aunt Edna had chased it away and told it to never try to get near her house again. Then she looked at Josie suspiciously. Josie believed she meant it too. She sadly watched the brave little kitten scamper off and crawl into the old log cabin Aunt Edna refused to tear down.
Aunt Edna did not own an animal that didn't have a purpose. Everything on her farm she kept because it did something useful. Ralph, her dog, was the only animal she kept as a pet.
Josie had waited until she had finally heard the sound of her Aunt Edna's snoring, before she had climbed out her bedroom window with the bag of leftovers she had taken from dinner that night. A piece of wood had tumbled loose of the woodpile and had made a loud thump against the side of the house. Josie had frozen waiting for the lights to come on and Aunt Edna to charge outside in her bathrobe and curlers. But nothing of the kind happened.
Josie smiled and all of her fears of the old house were forgotten. Here was the brave little soul she had longed for Aunt Edna to take in. Josie's heart ached for it. It was trying to survive in a world that had abandoned it.
Setting the flashlight on the floor, she tore leftover roast beef into tiny chunks. She set the saucer close to the wardrobe and waited. The kitten, hunched and eyeing her suspiciously, sniffed at the contents in the saucer. Slowly it nabbed a piece of the roast beef and quickly disappeared under the wardrobe. Josie waited, hoping it would be less afraid of her if she sat quietly and watched it eat.
After the saucer was empty it crept slowly out from under the wardrobe and circled her cautiously. It sniffed her hand and licked a finger that still smelled of roast beef. Josie smiled and turned her hand palm up for it to inspect. The kitten grew braver and finally allowed Josie one quick pet. Then it turned and jumped at the bag its food had been brought in. The plastic bag rattled and the kitten played with it even more, rolling and batting at it with its paws. It began to purr and Josie laughed softly because the sound was loud enough to resemble a rusty chainsaw. After it had tired of the bag it circled Josie and then crawled into her lap. She petted it some more and it began to knead her leg with its tiny paws purring all the while. She took advantage of the moment to study its looks in the dim light.
Its fur was fluffy and light yellow like the coat of a lion. It had tufts of hair around its ears and a long fluffy tail. It blinked its eyes up at her in contentment and she wished she could snuggle with it in her bed and fall asleep listening to its purr rumbling against her. She sighed knowing it would be time for her to leave soon. She hated the thought of leaving it alone in the creepy old house. It reminded her so much of a tiny lion cub, only with a fluffier coat. Josie got up to leave. It ran toward the wardrobe when she stood, and Josie froze. The kitten stopped and began to lick its shoulder nonchalantly, and Josie turned and left the way she had come. She felt its eyes watching her out of sight and heard a tiny meow in the doorway of the old house. But she ignored it and ran back toward home and her bed. She fell asleep dreaming of a tiny kitten with the heart of a lion.
Josie decided to call the lion-like kitten Leopold. She continued to feed Leopold every night for the next several weeks. But she began to worry for his future.
He was the only creature that she could shower with affection. She knew Aunt Edna loved her. After all she had saved her egg money for months to buy Josie the shiny red bike she had wanted for her birthday. But Aunt Edna rarely hugged her, and she never kissed her goodnight. Josie loved her Aunt Edna, but she loved Leopold too. What would become of him in the winter when it grew so cold at night? She decided the only thing she could do was to find him a proper home. She decided Dr. Green the veterinarian would be the best person to help her.
"So who have we got here?" Dr. Green asked the next morning.
"This is Leopold, my kitten. But I can't keep him because Aunt Edna doesn't like cats. I'm afraid she would hurt him if she found out. I need you to help me find him a proper home."
"Well Josie I will keep my eyes and ears open for someone looking for a kitten." Dr. Green said. "But I have to be honest with you; it might be best for you both if you fessed up to your aunt and pleaded with her to keep him. There are just too many kittens out there and not enough homes."
That night it seemed to take Aunt Edna an unusually long time to fall asleep. When she finally did, Josie crept out of her room as usual. But she had no sooner gotten down from the woodpile than the lights came on in the downstairs kitchen. Soon after, Aunt Edna came out fully dressed with a flashlight to see who was outside.
"I thought that was you Josie," she said. "Going to feed that scrawny kitten again in secret?"
Josie stared at her in surprise and amazement.
"You didn't think I would notice you squirreling away leftovers? My suspicions were confirmed when I talked to Dr. Green this afternoon. He came over to check on Rosalind and her new calf. He mentioned your visit this morning."
"But how did you know it was the kitten?" Josie asked her astonished.
"What other strays have we had left on our doorstep lately?" Aunt Edna said gruffly. "Come on child." She moved briskly past Josie. "Let's see what kind of a job you've been doing caring for this kitten."
Josie followed her obediently, still not sure what to expect next. When they reached the inside of the old house, Leopold greeted Aunt Edna's appearance by arching his back with his fur on end and hissing fiercely.
"He's a sassy little creature," Aunt Edna said with a measure of admiration in her voice.
"He is very brave, Aunt Edna," Josie told her determined to make her like him. "And he is excellent at catching bugs. He would be useful around the house to keep out mice and pests. You are always saying you never have enough mousetraps to keep out all the mice in the winter. Please, Aunt Edna, don't you think we could keep him?"
Aunt Edna studied Josie quietly for a long time before answering. "I don't like the way you sneaked around like this behind my back. But it looks as though you have done a good job of caring for this little nuisance. And you did try to find another home for him. I'll let you keep him on one condition."
"What?" Josie asked breathlessly.
"You promise me that next time you decide to take in an animal, you will ask me first, and not sneak around on me like this again. It isn't safe for you to be wandering around at night like this alone. And it hurts me to think you don't trust me enough to ask me if you can have a pet of your own."
"I'm sorry Aunt Edna," Josie said. "I promise not to be dishonest with you again."
Aunt Edna nodded and then did something surprising. She pulled Josie close and squeezed her shoulder in affection.
"Collect your kitten and let's go home. It's late and an old woman like me needs her beauty sleep."
Josie smiled and grabbed up Leopold in her arms snuggling him close. "Come on Leopold the lion-hearted," she said. "You've got a real home now."