Wednesday, 4 July 2007
When I was packing up my house, I had the care of, nominally at least, four cats. Having a house had unleashed in me the Crazy Old Lady Who Collects Cats, and I'd been a soft touch for cats who needed homes, with a changing population of up to five at a time. At the time of the move, I had two girl cats who were real housecats, a tortie with a Zen disposition, and a tiny tabby who was so skittish that some of my friends had never managed to lay eyes on her. I also had two boy cats, a near-feral long-haired cat and a big orange male who had once been the alpha animal but had largely decamped to the out of doors for reasons unknown.
The move presented some quandaries. Moving cats is tricky; you never know how they'll react. In the end, I moved the two girl cats to the new place, and did that thing where you lock them into a room until they seem calmed down. As for the boy cats, good fortune intervened in the form of a cat-loving neighbor. It turns out that the two males had taken up residence in his yard (tho not his house), and supped at the bowl he puts out for any neighborhood cat that wants a snack. When he learned that I might be moving the cats, or worse yet, might have to find new homes for them, he was adamant that they should remain with him. And so they have, having, as sometimes happens, much more fondness for their locale than for any ol' supposed owner. I have visited and learned for myself that they're perfectly content where they are.
In the new place, Zen cat settled in. After an encounter or two with a new household dog, protocol was established. But the skittish cat remained skittish and would slink into and out of the house warily. Her jumpiness excited the dogs' instincts, even the two dogs she'd been living with for years, and when she would run, they'd all give chase and out she'd go, over the fence, only to come back hours later.
Eventually she didn't come back at all. The area where we live is suburban, but there's plenty of wildlife, and we've seen owls and eagles, and heard tell of coyotes. This weighed on me, but the story I stuck by was that she'd been adopted by a neighbor. When I walked around the neighborhood, I'd look at windows to see if she might be sunning herself on a window sill. One day Sarah's youngest said "I saw Sophie the cat today!" According to the nine-year-old, the cat had been coming in under the fence, but the dogs, as usual, had chased her away. For weeks afterward, whenever I heard the dogs scrambling down the back stairs to bark at something, I'd go out and see if the cat was maybe back. But no, it was usually squirrels.
Late last night we were driving home with the dogs in the back of the car. A few blocks from the house and I spotted a cat in the corner of my headlights. A second or two later I registered that this was my cat. I turned the car around and jumped out. The cat had retreated to a yard but hadn't run away. I squatted down and hissed at her, and she came running right over. Sure enough, it was my cat, wearing a collar with a little bell on it. I picked her up and started walking to the car (to show Sarah, not to kidnap her), but the sound of the dogs freaked out the cat, so I set her back down and she scampered off to go sit under a parked car.
A neighbor had heard all this and was shining a flashlight around. I called out to him -- I figured he was neighborhood-watching -- and we chatted for a few minutes. The people next door to him had adopted the cat, he told me, when I explained that the cat had once been part of my household. "She's a wanderer," he said, explaining that she would go all over the cul-de-sac and (alas) across the busy street where I'd spotted her.
I figure I'll walk over soon and introduce myself and tell my story. I would be happy if she stayed with these folks, who probably don't have quite so many scary dogs. I want for her to have a happy home. Which for now it appears she does.
That's the first cat. The second cat was on NPR this morning as part of a story about Operation Homecoming, a book of writings by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ryan Alexander, who was once a Marine, wrote a poem that is probably the most-read poem on the Web today. You can hear Alexander read his poem, or here it is:
She came to me skittish, wild.
The way you're meant to be,
surrounded by cruelty.
I did not blame her.
I would do the same.
A pregnant cat, a happy distraction;
some sort of normal thing.
Calico and innocent.
The kittens in her belly said feed me.
And I did.
She crept with careful eye,
Body held low to the dirt,
Snagged a bite,
And carried it just far enough away.
She liked the MREs,
the beef stew, the chicken breast, the barbeque pork,
but she did not like canned sardines.
I do not blame her.
I would do the same.
She came around again and again
finally deciding that I was no threat,
that this big man wasn't so bad.
I was afraid to touch her as the docs warned us.
Iraqi animals were carriers of flesh-eating disease.
I donned a plastic glove and was the first to pet
this wild creature who may be
the one true heart and mind that America
had won over.
After a while I forgot the glove and enjoyed
the tactile softness of short fur,
flesh-eating bacteria be damned.
Her belly swelled for weeks
and she disappeared for some days
until her kittens were safely birthed
in the shallow of a rusted desk
in the ruins that lined the road behind us.
She came around again slim
with afterbirth still matted to her hind legs.
She would return, but not quite as often.
She came to eat and for attention,
but there was nursing to be done.
One day she crept up with a kitten in her mouth.
She dropped it at my foot and stared up at me;
she expected something, but there was nothing I could do.
The young black and white kitten was dead,
its eyes not yet opened.
It looked like some shriveled old wise thing,
completely still, mouth puckered,
small body curled and limp.
She let me take the baby without a fight.
She knew, but seemed unaffected.
She had fetched me a gift,
among the worried nights,
shot nerves from poorly aimed mortar rounds:
The evil, the innocent,
her baby and
I thought I should say a prayer and bury
this poor little thing,
but I did for it what will be done for me.
I laid it in the burn can amongst the ash
and said I'm sorry.
© Ryan Alexandar