by Melissa Brotton  |  20 December 2021  |

“Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me.” (Psalm 139:10)

My windshield wipers cannot keep up with the pelting rain, and the streetlights are barely visible, though I am driving on a wide strip in a well-lit city. Only a half hour earlier the rain had begun as a mere pitter-patter as I climbed into my SUV and turned the ignition. Never keen on night-driving or plunging temperatures, I know my risk is uncalculated even without the rain. Plus, I don’t know where I’m going.

Out There Somewhere

It was a stranger’s plea on social media to help a kitten caught underground in a storm drain that propelled me. I set down my steaming mint tea and collected some gear: a couple of towels, a cat carrier, some thick leather gloves. I hadn’t considered scuba gear. At present, I am plunging through wet streets, looking for Temple Street, where I would turn left. I had turned up the heat in the car. Now that the car was toasty warm, I dialed it back down. Heat makes me drowsy.

After miles of driving on the strip, craning my neck for the sign, I finally catch sight of it and veer into the turn lane to wait for the light. Rain rushes down as I turn the corner. Not far to go now. Just a block or two.

I see the store sign and turn left again into a massive lighted parking lot. There are a number of cars parked close to the warehouse door. A small group of people are huddled together in the middle of the lot, where there are few cars. I head toward this area, park, and turn off the ignition. Covering my head with a hood, I step into stinging rain and move quickly toward the group.

Two women turn to greet me as I approach them. A man of stocky build has lowered a man of lighter build upside-down into an open manhole. Rain rushes into the manhole, filling the man’s nose and eyes as he strains to see through a small grate at the bottom. It is growing colder by the minute. Our breath is steaming into the air.

“Okay!” the man below shouts, and the sturdy man draws him back out of the manhole. The raised man bounces to his feet, sputtering and coughing. He searches his pockets for a dry tissue but cannot find anything. I search my pockets too but have nothing to offer him. The two women have been explaining to me that they’ve been there for nearly two hours. The sturdy young man is married to one of the women. They have two small children in their car, and they cannot stay any longer. Reluctantly, they leave us, giving their phone number to David, the man who was lowered. He thanks them and tucks their number into his coat pocket. I take this opportunity to ask what I can do, and David asks if I can keep my car on so he can get warm periodically between taking his dives into the manhole.

“Are you still going to try?” I ask in surprise.

“Yes. I can hear the kitten,” the man answers. “As long as he keeps crying, I’m going to keep trying.” He grins at me, his face dripping.

The remaining woman holds up her hand. “Listen!”

Through the downpour we hear plainly the strong cries of a kitten below. “Meew, meew!”

The woman kneels on the pavement and echoes the kitten. “Meew, meew.”

The kitten swiftly answers her. “Meew, meew!”

I find out that David is an electrician and also operates a small cat rescue. We shake hands and both head to my car. As I turn on the ignition, he climbs into the passenger side. My car is still warm from my recent drive, so it shouldn’t take long to heat back up. David is soaked through and through. I hand him one of my towels, and he is grateful as he dries his face and head.

“Can we blast the heat?” he asks abruptly. “I’m completely soaked.”

“Sure!” I turn the heat up to full force.

David rubs his hands and shivers. I start to worry about the possibility of hypothermia, but he shakes it off. “No, I just need a few minutes to get warm before trying again.”

“Have you done this before?” I ask.

He nods. “It’s becoming a bad habit.”

“That’s dedication!”

“I try.” He grins again. After a few moments, he adds, “I’m gonna go at it again. Can you stay a while and keep the car running?”

“Yes,” I say resolutely, having no idea how long this is going to take. It is already past 7, two hours since I left home.

David jumps out of the car into the cold again. The rain has softened to a mist. I watch him as he returns to the manhole. The other woman has also gone to sit in her running car. She gets out too. The two put their heads down to the pavement, straining to hear the kitten’s cries.

After an interval of five minutes, David returns. I blast the heater again while he tries to warm himself. I mention to him that I am praying about the kitten, and he begins to tell me about his life, how he got into trouble and eventually went to prison, where he started reading the Bible and accepted Christ as his Savior. Later, after getting out of prison, he met and married a wonderful woman and began a ministry for animals. He has a large social-media following. Around the world, people wait to hear what will become of this storm-drain kitten.

The thought that I am sitting alone in a car with an ex-con in a strange town on a stormy night registers briefly in my mind, but something tells me it will be okay. I don’t know anyone else who would keep trying to save a kitten at such a cost. Intermittently, he leaves the car to check on and encourage the kitten by mewing into the manhole, then returns to tell me more pieces of his story.

We pray together, and he thanks me for staying.

I pull over to the woman’s car and invite her to join us. She agrees, turns off her engine and hops into my backseat. Her name is Leticia. They are both hungry, as they have been trying to save the kitten for the last four hours. We head over to a drive-through so they can order something. Then, we drive back to the parking lot. Though we are powerless to help the kitten at present, it feels better to stay close to it. On the way back to the parking lot, David has called a plumbing group because they have snake-cams. A plumber agrees to meet David back at the manhole in two hours.

It is nearing midnight, and we know that David must get home and out of his wet clothes, so the three of us make plans. David will meet with the plumber back at the manhole at two o’clock, and Letty and I will each go to our homes and wait to hear from him. If they locate the kitten, they may need our help again. For the time being, there is nothing more we can do.

Waning Hope

Driving home, I cannot escape my feeling of despair about the poor kitten. How can it possibly survive in the freezing rain in a storm-drain? As I pull into my driveway, I say my twentieth prayer for the situation and skedaddle into the house, where I, too, must change out of wet clothes. I put my phone close to my head in order to hear it ring, but when I check it at three, there is nothing. I also check David’s social-media page, but there is no news. Though tired, I decide to get up.

Moving through my morning routine, I pause periodically to pray, feeling a little guilty. Have I ever prayed this much for a human? I try hard to pray with faith but feel unsure my prayers have even gone past the ceiling. I long to go out to the spot again, but I have a lot of grading to do and know there is nothing I can do but wait.

By four in the afternoon, I am finally free of my workload. I jump into my vehicle again and head out to the spot.

The parking lot has been transformed: it is crowded with onlookers waiting for news of the kitten. A plumbing team has worked their snake-cam into the manhole, and they are studying a monitor. On the screen is a motionless lump in the shape of a kitten. No one is saying anything. A woman tells me in lowered tones that no one has heard the kitten for a while. My heart sinks.

Suddenly, someone calls out across the parking lot. The kitten has started to cry again. A cheer goes up in the crowd. The lead plumber sends one of his men to the spot, where they start to dig. Everyone can clearly hear the kitten’s urgent mews echoing out of a manhole, but it turns out our echolocation is deceptive. We learn that the kitten can be crying from quite a distance from where the sound is actually reaching us in that sprawling underground jungle. He could be anywhere.

As daylight fades, my hope dwindles too. Will everyone give up and leave again? Night falls. Someone has ordered pizza for everyone. We are still there, crying out to the kitten. NBC News has come to document the scene. I lie on top of a manhole, crying down with a high-pitched sound, “Meew, meew.” The kitten cries back to me, but his voice is hoarse. I wonder how much longer he can hold out.

The lead plumber finally spots the kitten on the cam. The little thing is moving quickly from tunnel to tunnel. Someone comes up with the idea of sticky-traps.

Breaking News

Ten pm, and I’m needing to leave again to take care of my own animal crew. After giving some donated items to David, I send up another silent prayer and crawl into my vehicle to head home. Just ten minutes after I leave, I get a text from Leticia with a video.

“We got him!”

I watch the footage of the plumbers pulling out a long cord with the the sticky-trap on it. Attached to the sticky-trap by only one foot, the kitten comes out too. He is quickly wrapped in a towel and placed safely in a carrier.

Relief overtakes me, and I send praises heavenward all the way home. Later, I watch films of the little grey tabby perched on David’s shoulder, safe and warm – now a social-media star. He has become instant friends with the one who saved him. It has been a 28-hour ordeal, but because of David’s unwavering persistence, the kitten learned to trust a reassuring voice from above in a time of critical need. Neither David nor the kitten gave up. They kept communicating with each other until the kitten was safe. At one point, the plumbing team discovered one small, dry pipeline just above the sprawling drainage system. Somehow the kitten found that one tiny spot out of the entire pipeline complex. Otherwise, he’d have been washed away as the freezing water flooded through the storm-drain. Just two days after his rescue, “Piper” is adopted by a family and now has his own little girl to snuggle with every night, never to be down in a freezing pipeline again.

Melissa Brotton teaches writing and literature courses at La Sierra University. Her special areas are nineteenth-century British literature and religious studies. She has published on the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Biblical ecology. She spends a lot of time outdoors, paints, and writes nature stories and poems. 

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