He was just a pup. A ball of black fur, hardly bigger than my hand. But he knew his way around Kabul, and way better than we did. "No time to explain—get in the car," he barked, pulling up in an ancient MG. We hadn't much choice.
It was Jan. 22, 2008. I and my compatriots—two Red Crescent Aid workers—had spent the last three hours pinned-down by Gulbuddin Heckmatyar's snipers in the Saluddin District. We dove into the tiny car and the dog sped off, expertly zig-zagging between piles of sandbags, burning trash and tires, as bullets pinged off the street and walls around us.
"My name is Mr. Nibbles," the dog said, a minute or two later as the car rolled to a stop inside a walled compound. "But people call me Fritz." Unfolding ourselves from the antique MG, we thanked him. I offered a hand in front of his nose, too briefly, then tried to pet his head. He bit me.
"Sorry," Fritz said, rolling over on the front seat to offer his belly. "It's a bad reflex I picked up here."
Flash forward to 2017. Fritz is still with me, still driving that old MG with the same devil-may-care recklessness. An old soul, you might say. A raconteur, but still guarded about some things. Mysterious things from his past we'll probably never know the full truth about.
But none of that matters. He bites less often these days, and we share a laugh every time we see one of those bumper stickers with the paw print asking, as if rhetorically, "Who Rescued Who?"
The mewing drew Karen to the fence, but it was some time before she saw the kitten, wedged in the hand-wide space between it and the shed. He did not seem to want help.
We'd spoken to the neighbor about the feral colony that had taken up residence under his own shed, 10 houses or so up the road. Year-in and year-out, litter by litter. There'd be a lot of cats, then fewer, and then none. Or, almost none. Then a lot of them again. It tore Karen up to think of them out there, dying every winter. The neighbor said his sister knew some spay-neuter-release groups that could help. That was two or three litters ago.
It was late June now, and this one was small for late June, a tiny gray tiger with a white bib, boots and mittens. There were no others around. Karen took a bowl of water out in the mosquito-thick evening and knelt next to the shed for an hour making purring sounds, raising the pitch at the end like a question.
The kitten finally came out, tentatively. Then he bolted under the deck, again out of reach.
Karen figured he'd die out there overnight, parched or prey to some animal. The bald eagles that nest in the highwire towers would like him. It was full dark and nearing bedtime before she could be persuaded to come in, tears streaming down her face, bug welts rising on her arms and legs. She left the water out and a few kibble.
It took two days more to get the kitten inside. The vet advised he be shut in the spare bedroom, away from the dog and the old cat, lest he infect them with some unknown feral thing. A long-planned, two-week vacation sealed his fate. The cat-sitter was professional and very understanding.
When we came back, it took another week to coax the new one out of his indoor prison. Terrified of the dog, he decided he didn't need anyone but Karen. So we named him Stockholm, after the syndrome.