A Warm Dry Place
Anguished wailing cut through radio static and finally dragged a feeble consciousness into the morning. He had heaved his skeletal remains into the bathtub again and was trying to force his head through the cheap plastic walls into the darkness which lay beyond. I rescued him as before, but on contact with the floor he crawled across the linoleum for the nearest corner to brace skull against wall.
When the lure of water and food failed to rouse him I cleared out the corner of my closet and wadded a sheet for bedding. There was no weight to carry, just a confused cry and feeble kicking then a collapse onto his side. He lay with his forehead pressed against the wall and I watched the rising and falling of ribs, slow and steady.
I didn’t cry when my grandfather died. I didn’t cry when my grandfather died. I didn’t cry when my grandmother died. My eyes burned as I sat cross-legged on the floor. Each breath sucked the moisture from my chest and throat. Cracks grew, fissured and ached, slow and steady.
What name to sign on the certificate, print in the paper and etch in the headstone? Blessed be the stray cat who lives and dies unconcerned with silly memorials. On that windswept night two days prior, raindrops shaking from the trees and the thermometer flirting with freezing, you realize what is actually important. Catching me on the sidewalk before I disappeared inside was important. Rubbing against my leg and meowing was important. Showing that he meant no harm and that he wasn’t afraid of an opening door was important. Details like names or if he was really a he were not.
But he became a he since no one was interested in twisting him upside down and explore evidence of gender, least of all this cat who wandered free and uninhibited through the house. This was not his maiden voyage through the trappings of domesticity and we were not strange creatures to be ridiculed or feared. He would sit in your lap and allow you to run your fingers along the withering remains of his hollow frame or scratch his proud, if bulbous, head. He would not jerk when you found the knitted bones at the tip of his broken tail. He found his way into a bedroom, onto the bed and sat watching a sleeping housemate. Televisions, flushing toilets and clattering dishes caused no fear. He knew well the sound of a can opener.
Schröedinger also knows well the sound of a can opener and was not pleased to find that a tuna dinner came with company. There was spitting and hissing, stalking and growling, an adrenal overload that carried up the stairs, down the stairs and through every room. The stray took no heed of these overtures to violence and ignored even the most vicious complaints hurled in his face. When it became clear that attempts to befriend were useless, the stray stopped approaching. But he watched. He always watched.
Lambs lay with lions in this sleepy little town. Cats laze on lawns, squirrels dance in the streets, crows play in the trees and dogs shit rainbows. Into this paradise came Schröedinger. Born behind a toilet to a feral mother and deadbeat dad, raised in a house of changing roommates and cursed to share bowls with cats and dogs and the occasional raccoon, our rough and tumble city cat suffers the hyper-vigilance and anxiety of a war-scarred soldier. His capricious tolerance towards people crumbles at the sight of any living thing that does not feed him, let him into the backyard or pet him.
Most animals quickly access danger and almost as quickly dismiss false threats. Only the most sociopathic badger the weakening and sick. Although ravenous upon arrival and free of obvious trauma there was something off about the stray. The poorly balanced head on an anorexic body spoke of malnourishment but his teeth were strong, eyes clear and no drool or mucus crusted his face. The coat was clean, with a golden luster but his body was cold to the touch. He would climb onto the couch to sleep on your legs but would also climb into the chair and face the back.
By the second day water held more interest than food. I began following a mournful howl throughout the house, finding the cat with closed eyes, hanging his head by a dish of tuna or in the middle of the hallway. He climbed into the bathtub and took to laying on the floor of the bathroom. I would pet him, I would murmur supportive nothings and he would sit quietly with me for a moment before wandering off to stare at the back of the chair or toilet. That evening, leaving the couch to use the litterbox, he fell and slid. People sat with him, scratched behead his ears and lent their warmth but he would soon disappear to become lost and confused in another room.
Through our hours of watching, Schröedinger continued his own vigil. Wherever the stray chose to stir or sit there was a sentinel five feet distant. A hiss, a growl, another failure to provoke…time spent sulking under a bed then back to the front. But he was no where to be seen the morning I awoke to find the stray wailing in the bathtub.
And as the cat lay in my closet, head pressed against the wall with eyed squeezed shut, ribs rising and falling slow and steady, I sat cross-legged and watched. He knew can openers and litterboxes. He knew that sitting on a person’s lap would lead to getting scratched behind the ears. He knew that toilets flushed and showers ran and neither brought the end of the world. He might not understand why some other cat would hiss and spit and bat and stalk, but he also knew that being popular isn’t important.
Was he a house cat locked out and lost or chased away from home? Clean coat, good teeth and clear eyes don’t suit trash eating alley cats. Had his people packed up and moved away, too busy with boxes to realize they’d forgotten something important? I could let him drift away in my lap, let the realization that he was not alone wrap him in a shroud.
Head pressed against the wall, eyes squeezed shut. An independent spirit, confident and wise, secure in self. On a frozen wind-swept night he knew it was important to find a warm dry place. A chance to return to that dark closet, mirror of the one where he first entered this world blind and mewling and helpless. A world where he walked of his own accord, respected those who were kind and dismissed those who were not, and always knew what was important.
I slid the closet door nearly closed, letting in what grey light slipped through the shuttered blinds and letting out the tip of his broken tail.