One damp May morning, I noticed an orange cat slipping through a gap in my foundation, into the crawlspace beneath my bedroom. It had been a particularly rainy spring, and I didn't begrudge him – most orange cats are male, I knew – the shelter.
A few days later, the orange cat was outside the foundation, enjoying the rare sunshine, accompanied by a calico kitten. Apparently, "he" was a she, and had a baby. Over the next few days, I tried to approach them, but they were far too skittish and I was far too slow.
I kept an eye on them for the next week, looking for an opportunity to catch them. Finally, one night the kitten decided to go for a stroll while her mom was out hunting. She made her way around to the far side of my house before running out of bravado. I heard her crying, enlisted my next-door neighbor's help, and together we tucked her into a cat carrier for a trip to the vet the next morning.
"What if there are more?" my neighbor asked, while patting the kitten in the carrier.
"There can't be any more. Look at how healthy and huge this kitten is." She wasn't just a large kitten; at four weeks, she was the size of a moose. "No way a feral cat could have supported more than one this size, especially this early in the spring when there isn't much to eat."
"But what if there are more in the litter?" she insisted. "We can't just leave them under your house."
I didn't like the idea of kittens growing up wild, on a busy street, and eventually producing more feral cats, any more than she did. But I'd only seen one calico kitten, and this was it. "There can't be any more."
I was convinced it was true. I hadn't been around kittens in many years, preferring to adopt full-grown cats, but in the days before responsible pet ownership included spaying/neutering, my childhood cat had had several litters. My most vivid memory wasn't of witnessing the miracle of birth, but of how noisy the babies were.
"They're living under my bedroom, just a couple feet away from my bed," I said. "I might have missed the cries of a single kitten, but if there were more, I'm sure I would have heard them. And if I didn't, surely my own extremely territorial cats would have noticed them."
"Okay," my neighbor said. I could tell she wasn't entirely convinced, but she was too busy bonding with her new calico kitten to question me further.
The next day, my neighbor and I were strolling around the yard, checking out the spring flowers. She was ahead of me, around the corner of the house, and I was back near the spot where I had first spotted the mother and kitten. I heard my name spoken in a quiet but firm tone. "Get over here," she said. "There's more."
I thought she was talking about the tulips and couldn't understand why she sounded so exasperated with me. A few extra flowers didn't seem like much of a problem.
"Tulips aren't supposed to have ears," she said.
I looked where she was pointing and saw two furry little faces – another calico and an orange tabby – peering at us with a mixture of curiosity and anxiety. The kittens had found a second exit from the crawlspace while their mother was out hunting.
My neighbor – faster than I am – quickly captured the first one, the orange tabby, and handed her to me while she went after the remaining kitten. When the calico continued to elude us, we drafted my neighbor's teen-aged son to squeeze into the 18" high crawlspace. Eventually, he pulled out a spitting little furball and handed it to his mother so he could brush the insulation out of his hair.
She was thrilled that we'd caught both kittens relatively easily. And then it dawned on her. The kitten was the wrong color. The one in her hands was another orange tabby, and we'd definitely seen a calico face peering out from the crawlspace.
"There's more," she wailed.
Her son went back into the crawlspace and poked around until, finally, a calico tumbled out of the insulation and joined her siblings in the cat carrier.
My neighbor happily adopted a second kitten, and I kept the last two. For weeks afterwards, though, my neighbor would scan my yard, concerned that we might have missed one of their siblings. I kept reassuring her, "We've got them all now. Really."
"No more kittens." We've been friends for twenty-plus years, so I knew what that stern tone meant. She was reminding us both that we were responsible adults, and we would act accordingly, even when the faces of temptation were blue-eyed and brain-meltingly cute. She repeated the warning every time she saw me. "No more kittens. We have enough."
"No more kittens," I agreed, even as I bonded with the two kittens I'd initially planned just to foster until I could find a good home for them.
A month later, I answered a knock at my door. A woman stood there with a gray tabby kitten in her arms. "Look," she said. "We found your kitten in the driveway."
No more kittens, I thought, even as I took the kitten – who clearly wasn't mine – from her. I had four cats by then, which was two more than I'd ever intended to have.
I called my neighbor. "You'll never guess what I found."
"No more kittens," she said. "You promised."
"He isn't part of the original litter." He was about a month younger, double-pawed, and, unlike the feral kittens when we first caught them, completely fearless around humans.
"I'll be right over," my neighbor said. Later that night, as she left with the latest addition to her family, she told me in her responsible-adult tone, "No more kittens."
We made it through the summer and fall without finding any more kittens, and the winter was too harsh for the feral community to breed. It's spring again now, and the gap in the foundation under my bedroom still hasn't been fixed. We check it regularly, my neighbor and I, and we've been both relieved and just a tiny bit disappointed that there are no more kittens.