This story was inspired by Melanie's reminiscences of her cats, most of whom I have met and have made me laugh. I have never read about a science-fiction writer who did not love cats. Why this should be I do not know, unless it is the experience of an alien intelligence in your lap. And, like writers, cats are inventive, curious about the world, and do not want to be disturbed.
TWO CATS IN THE YARD
Kissa and Mummy Cat
We had two cats before we had a yard to put them in. I had not been in Montreal more than a few weeks before I got myself a cat. Together with my room-mate--a draft-dodger like me whom I found at the War Resisters' League Gandhi House, and a genuine Quaker pacifist--I hitch-hiked to Toronto to see a couple of girls he knew. Nothing happened with the girls, but they did have a batch of kittens and they offered one to me. The kittens were Persians, but the feisty little runt of the litter was a long-hair Tabby and didn't look like a Persian at all. I put a bag on the floor, and she crawled into it and went to sleep, so I picked up the bag and hitch-hiked home. She slept all the way. The people who gave us lifts said, "What's in the bag? Your lunch?" "No, it's a cat. See?" "Well, I'll be damned."
I called her Kissa, which means cat in Swedish. I thought it was cute that the Swedish word for kiss is "puss", and the word for pussycat is Kissa. My on again/off again girlfriend in New York was a Swedish artist. She had gone to school in Paris with a French girl who married a Quebecois and moved to Montreal. Returning to New York from a visit with this girl, she suggested I go to Montreal, which she knew I would like, and apply for Canadian citizenship. The Vietnam draft was getting a little hot for me, so I did just that. After a few on again/off again visits, she moved to Boston, joined a cult and pretty much vanished out of my life, as people in cults do. Can't blame her; I was kind of a mess.
Kissa came from a Jewish family, but I decided she was Muslim, because she sat several times a day with her forehead down between her paws, facing east, though that could have been because the sofa faced that way. When she was small, I would put her on my shoulder and she would ride to the store or the bank or wherever I went, looking around at the passing scene with no fear whatsoever. When she grew older, she would still hop up on my shoulder when I sat leaning forward, say, when I was toking up. My friends were much amused. She would put her head down so I could blow smoke in her face--don't try this at home, Kids--and then she would chase imaginary mice around the house.
Kissa stayed with me through seventeen years, seven apartments, and three relationships. She was the official greeter-cat for the apartment on St-Joseph (The Last Homely House at the Edge of the Wild); my war-resisters' commune on St-Urbain (The Last Homely House At the Edge of the War, which I shared with my new girlfriend Sherry, two Marine deserters, and a bunch of transients); the huge student/hippy building on Avenue du Parc (The Garden of Paradise); my quiet and dark stove-heated flat on Esplanade (Plato's Cave); the sixth-story walk-up overlooking Parc (again); the ground-floor high-ceilinged apartment I shared with Christina in Shaughnessy Village; and our big two-bedroom/two-bathroom flat on a hillside in Westmount. Whenever we moved, I would put Kissa on my shoulder and walk to the new place. If she was frightened by the traffic, she would tuck her head in my arm-pit. The last move was a bit traumatic for her. We heard her crying and found her sitting on the vanity. Before we could finish unpacking, I had to put up the three-way mirror so she could admire herself from all angles. I think she was a Leo.
When Christina moved in with me, she came with her own cat. Her husband got Nutella, named for the peanut-shaped figure she took at rest, and Christina got Mummy Cat, a substantial tortoise-shell with huge, beautiful eyes. Kissa didn't take to Mummy for some time. She was in a bad mood one day and wouldn't let Mummy use the catbox, so Mummy went and peed on Kissa's food. But they got used to each other after a while. I was working at McGill and had lots of friends to party with. Kissa was used to communes and always mingled so she could be admired by everyone, but Mummy would find a high place like the top of the fridge or a wardrobe and sit quietly, watching. People would suddenly notice her luminous eyes peering out of her dark camouflage, jump, and spill their drinks.
Mummy died first and Kissa soon after that. I kept Kissa going for a while with pills from the Vet. I would sit down and open a tin of Pate de Foie Gras, dip a Ruffle in the pate for me, and dip a pill in the pate for Kissa. I don't suppose the Foie Gras was that good for her, but she took the pill with no fuss. On the last day, Kissa had just had her injection and was dying on the vet's table. I petted her until she was cold, and then Christina and I talked about going to the SPCA for more cats. I think the vet thought we were callous, but that was our way of coping.
Cinnamon and Tina
Christina took an hour to pick out a cat at the SPCA, but I knew in a second which one was for me. Every cat in the place was sucking up to the visitors and doing their cute routine, but there was one tiny calico who was sitting quietly amid the din, with her tail wrapped neatly around her feet, looking regally about the room. The name on the cage was Doudoune, which in French means boob or doofus, but I decided to call her Athena because she had a regal bearing and grey eyes. Later I called her Tina for short, because she turned out to be a doudoune.
Eventually, Christina narrowed down her choice to a big, strong orange cat with white trim like a creamsicle, named Canelle, which means Cinnamon. We packed them up in the SPCA's cardboard boxes and took them home on the Metro. That was a mistake. As soon as the train started with a roar, Tina freaked out and began ripping the box to shreds. Also, my hands, as I fought desperately to hold the box together and stop her from running off into the subway system. Too late we realized that we should have sprung for a cab.
We took them directly to the vet for shots and neutering. He put them in the same cage because he didn't have the heart to separate them. Soon thereafter, they bonded even more, because we went on vacation and asked the super of our building--a severe German lady--to feed them. When we returned we found only half of the food gone. "They didn't finish what I gave them," she said. We realized she was a dog-person and couldn't believe any animal wouldn't polish off every scrap of food put in front of it. Later on, this lady opened up a retirement home. I hope she gave the old people dinner if they didn't eat all their breakfast.
Cinnamon was easy to figure. Like a lot of orange cats, it seems, she really liked her food. I think she was a Cancer. She was built for comfort, not for speed, while Tina was definitely built for speed, not to mention bouncing off the walls. We had to feed Cinnamon on the floor and Tina on the kitchen counter; otherwise Tina would sit back and let Cinnamon eat everything. The only food that Tina was crazy about was veal. Couldn't get enough. Vets kept trying to put Cinnamon on a diet, but she was so miserable that we gave up on the idea. Anyway, that's why we let them divide up the place horizontally; Cinnamon used the floor and Tina made her way around the room on the upper levels, leaping from one piece of furniture to another. They did, however, like the cardboard boxes we arranged for them to sleep in. Tina liked to stretch out in the corner of Cinnamon's big box, and Cinnamon liked to sleep in Tina's tiny box, crushing the sides and squashing it flat. Cinnamon's favourite game was Between the Sheets. When she heard us making the bed, she would come running. After we put on the lower sheet, she would jump up and lie on her back. We would put the second sheet on top of her. She would make four tents with her legs and we would tickle her. She would twist and turn and roll from side to side under the sheet, snorting like a city bus.
Tina's favourite perch was the ironing board. She would lie at the narrow end with both front legs hanging straight down. For a doudoune, she was remarkably inventive. She could unlock doors and get in anywhere. Apparently, she was working on a thesis entitled "Water: where does it come from and where does it go?" For this research, she would watch the drip from the tap, following it down and watching it go down the drain, then look up for the next drop. She would do this for minutes at a time, but then she got bored and moved on to some other research. Water never bothered her. She would hop into a full bathtub and wade about. One time Christina was washing underwear by hand in the sink and went to answer the phone; when she came back, Tina was standing chest-deep in the soapy water, kneading the underwear. She also did research on gravity, knocking things off the counter and watching them hit the floor. When we played paper-ball batter-up she would leap high in the air off the end of the bed, then bring the ball back to me. My cat was a retriever.
One winter I saw her looking intently at the snowstorm outside the window, then looking at the roaring fire behind the glass fireplace doors, then back at the window again. "Note: behind this glass it is cold, behind this glass it is hot." I decided she was a Gemini. I know for a fact she was trying out for the Pentathlon of the Feline Olympics: curtain climb, sofa vault, litter throw, hundred-meter fit, and marathon retch. Cinnamon, on the other hand, was not Olympic material, though she was doping up; when we sprinkled catnip on the floor she would roll in it until her fur was covered, and then walk off so Tina couldn't get any of it.
In the condo, when the carpenters came to install the skylight, Cinnamon was horrified. "Did you see that? They cut a hole in the roof!" She spent the whole time hiding from the sound of power-tools. But Tina found an out-of-the-way perch on the scaffolding and would watch the work for hours. The workers used to talk to her, explaining what they were doing and why, as if she was an apprentice, and she would listen intently. Perhaps she was researching a way to get out through the roof and escape over the tiles, because she was a Houdini of the first water. We found this out when we moved to the condo with the garden.
The building had been erected on the former location of the Grand Trunk Railway repair shed, which explains the rusted spikes we kept digging up in the garden, and the fact that we had to plant bushes between rotting ties deep in the ground. Now it is part of Griffintown and has come up in the world--the sagging brick tenements replaced by condo towers, the antique shops lining rue Notre-Dame replaced by high-end restaurants. In New York, everywhere I lived--East Village, SoHo, the Bowery--became trendy after I left. This time it happened while I still lived in the place. I like to say, "I live in Griffintown. I just can't afford to eat here."
In the garden, we had an apple tree, a postage-stamp patio, wooden fences between the units, and a cedar hedge at the end. The first thing I did was to spray-paint chicken-wire in green and stretch it along the bottom of the hedge in a doomed effort to keep Tina inside. You did not dare to put a garden chair too close to the fence because she would be up and over in a shot. One of the many times she vanished, I spent an hour prowling through the lanes and yards among the condos, calling out her name, to no avail, and then I thought to check under the concrete back stairs to our building. More than one critter had been living in there at various times, and it seemed a likely place for Tina's research. I got a flashlight and peered into the dark place underneath, only to find Tina standing next to me, peering in herself. "Whatcha looking for?" "You, you little doofus."
When we first brought the cats into the house, they hid in the basement room with the packed boxes for days. At one point, Tina apparently talked Cinnamon into following her up the stairs, but the sound of footsteps on the second floor scared her back down again and Tina followed. Finally, Christina grabbed Cinnamon, took her up to the bedroom, and dumped her on the bed. "See? That's the bed. Smell familiar?" And it was all right to explore the house after that. But it still took another week to get them out in the garden. Once that happened, we had a hard time getting them back in again.
Tina was beside herself with desire for a bird. They used to use the eaves-trough as a highway and she would follow the tick-tick-tick of little feet. Every once in a while a bird would hop up out of the trough and Tina would spin in circles. I wrapped chicken-wire around the apple tree so she wouldn't climb up after birds and kill herself. Once I saw her waiting under the tree looking at a bird on a low branch, when suddenly she leaped four feet in the air and caught it between her front paws. Then, on the way down, she realized she had to let go of the bird or fall on her face. I don't know what kind of swear-words cats use, but she said them. Tina was always in fine voice and not shy of expressing herself. There was a little cat next door named Maisie who kept sticking her paw through the fence, wanting to play, but Tina would growl and hiss like a bad heating system. Poor Maisie.
Cinnamon never cared for the birds, perhaps because she didn't have a hope in hell of catching one, but she did learn how to hunt worms. She would cock her big ears and listen for the sound of them moving through the soil, like the birds did, then pounce and slowly pull them up out of the ground. She wanted to bring them inside and eat them on the carpet, but we said no. She would wait for a few minutes while the worm's two ends wriggled in front of her face, and then stalked off and ate them grumpily. She may have been on a diet at the time and needed the protein, like Papillon.
Tina was obviously my cat, but she did not play favourites. Yes, when I was home writing in the summer and Tina heard the keyboard stop clicking, it meant I was taking a break and lying on the bed. She would come up the stairs, stretch out on my chest, and purr loudly, as the curtains fluttered in the warm breeze. I defy you to stay awake in that situation. But she slept every night on Christina's head, putting a paw on her nose and patting it gently. Cinnamon would be by our feet.
Tina was sickly, actually, and had a heart condition. We were always taking her to the vet in the cage, and she would scream bloody murder the whole way. One time the doctor was trying to give her an injection, but her feet were so small he could not find a vein. He kept sticking the needle in her, while she yelled in fear and agony. Suddenly she broke away from him and his assistant and ran to me at the end of the table. She put her head on my chest and looked up at me, begging me to take her home. But we were trying to save her life and I had to give her back to the vet. I have lost friends and parents, and I have gone through operations of my own, but that is still the worst moment of my life. Shortly afterwards she died on the operating table. So, what the hell, I could have brought her home anyway.
For weeks afterwards, Cinnamon would look up the stairs and call for her. Then Cinnamon was diagnosed with inoperable cancer and we lost her too. We put their ashes in the same jar together and put it up in a corner atop the kitchen cupboards, where we had made a bed they both liked to sleep in. A month or so later, driving home from Ottawa with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on the DVD player, we were blindsided with, "Our house is a very, very, very fine house, with two cats in the yard," and we both burst into tears.
Freddie and Ferdie
Freddie the Freeloader would appear now and then, even when Cinnamon and Tina were around, sauntering into the courtyard as if he owned it. He was a full Persian, and he was gorgeous--God's gift to female cats and admired by humans everywhere. He would leap lightly to the top of the gate, pause for dramatic effect, and drop down into the garden, if there were people to admire him and give him a treat or two. Tina would be beside herself, of course, screaming cat invective, but he was twice her size, not even counting all the fur, and she could do nothing. Freddie would ignore her completely. "I'm here to see the people. I don't deal with cats." Cinnamon would beat a hasty retreat every time. Confrontation was Tina's job, not hers.
Shortly after Tina died, and Cinnamon was still alive, Freddie turned up one summer afternoon. He leaped up onto the gate, looked around for the noisy one, and hopped down. Twenty pounds of orange fur came down on top of him, bore him to the ground, and pummelled him into the dirt. He scrambled in a panic to the top of the gate and looked at us in shock. "What the hell got into her?"
"Sorry, Freddie," we said. "It's her garden now."
After we lost Cinnamon and Tina, we really didn't want any more cats, but as Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, nature finds a way. We never went out looking for a cat, so they started to turn up on their own. I don't know if they were attracted by the pee-mail on the BBQ cover, or whether word got around somehow in cat-circles, but the food we had left over from Cinnamon and Tina got used one way or another. When the weather turned cool, I began to build an Inn. The Inn of the Prancing Cat, perhaps. Christina's father had done the same, building what he called a Buda on the back porch, with a swinging door and soft beds inside. Entire families of cats moved in, and he bought St-Hubert BBQ chicken to cut up for them.
I used an Archivex box, myself--cardboard strong enough to carry paper, with a fitted lid. I glued Styrofoam to the bottom, the lid, and all four sides, and cut a swinging door into one end. The whole thing fit inside a thick garbage bag to keep the wet out. It was only a little bit bigger than the cat inside and kept in the body heat quite efficiently. When it needed to be cleaned, I just took it out of the plastic bag, opened the lid, and changed the thick towel I used for bedding.
Our favourite guest was Ferdinand the Bull. After Freddie, we had Ferdie. In the summer he showed up for a meal now and then, and a snooze on a chair cushion or under a bush. You could tell he had a hard life. After a while, when he let me touch him, I could feel he was all hard muscle under his skin. It felt like a washboard. In the fall, when it began to get cold, we would let him inside to warm up and he was the perfect guest, sleeping on the rug just inside the patio-door and leaving when he chose.
The winter was a bad one and it began with a huge snowstorm. We woke to find an igloo outside, the snow piled in a huge mound over the top of my Buda, between the covered BBQ and the house. Ferdinand was inside--perhaps knowing that the storm was coming--and he stayed all winter. There was so much snow that the courtyard became impassable, and he was as safe as could be. Christina would open one side of the patio door and you could already hear him purring. She would kneel down and put the food and water dishes right inside the box, so he didn't have to come out to eat. "It's warm in there," she said. When nature called, he would walk across the ice-covered drifts and do his business under the hedge, at the far end of the garden. He was a very polite guest. And, of course, no cat would leave such an advertisement to predators anywhere near where it slept.
One day, in the Spring, when the snowdrifts had begun to melt, he was gone, and he never returned. I suppose he succumbed to one of the many dangers on the street, but we had kept him alive and safe through the terrible winter, able to relax and sleep peacefully, without fear of starvation or attack for the last few months of his life.
Mookie the Bear and Oscar the Grouch
Next year, the Bear showed up. I called him the Bear because he was a huge golden-eyed grizzly ball of fur. Later on, after a good washing, he turned out to be pale orange and white. He was staying at the Inn and would come in for food. For a while we let him stay overnight indoors, but he peed on my head one night and went back into exile. But he was a sweet, goofy guy and we decided to find him a home--some place with people willing to keep him groomed, because he was certainly not meant to live on the street.
So we decided to invite my Friend From Work, Debra, for dinner, as she had lost her cat, Heather. Actually Heather was herself a graduate from the Inn that we had turned over to her, but Heather had Kidney Disease and died soon after, so, having already given her one defective cat, I was not certain she would take another from us.
I needn't have worried. At dinner, Debra could see Bear out in the snow, trying to get our attention through the patio doors. Debra tried not to make eye contact, but it was too late. After dinner we let him in. Bear obviously realized it was a job interview and he turned on his abundant charm, flattening himself on the carpet like one of Heinlein's Flat Cats, taking the play position like a dog at the dog-run, and creeping toward Debra, flirting outrageously with her. She fell in love instantly.
First, I had to bring the Bear to the vet to get his shots--it was important to turn over a cat in good condition this time--so I stuffed him in the cage. He barely fit with all his tangled locks. Cinnamon, who was very much like him, had barely fit, herself. One time I had taken her to the vet, put the cage on the floor beside my chair in the waiting room, and someone's tiny little dog came over to investigate. Cinnamon swelled up even bigger and hissed like a cobra. "Careful," I said to the lady. "My cat hasn't had breakfast yet."
Well, the Bear filled up the cage even more efficiently. He yowled all the way and the traffic was bad even for Montreal that day. I had to park a block away from the vet and walk, carrying the heavy cage. A few steps from the vet, the Bear ripped the door off the cage and made a break for it, but his big hind feet got caught in the door and he hung there, trapped. I had to grab him and hold him in one arm and carry the broken cage in the other, but at least I didn't have to search for him in a strange part of town after promising him to my friend. I walked into the vet--some kind person held the door open for me--dumped the busted cage on the floor, and put the cat on the counter. "This," I said, "is the Bear."
The vet examined him and pronounced him in pretty good shape for a foundling. I left him for the shots and all, but first I had to put the door back on the cage. So we turned over a cat in good condition. He was re-named Mookie, which suited his clown-like personality perfectly. It turned out he had Feline AIDS, but he lived a good long time and Debra and her boyfriend Eric loved him to pieces. He endeared himself to Eric by walking up on his chest and sneezing in his face; I guess he had learned that peeing on someone would get you thrown out in the snow. He would meet them at the door like a dog, talking all the time in chirps instead of meows, played excellent paper-ball batter-up with his huge paws, and always slept with Debra. He ended up like an old man, with not too many teeth, but abundant wisdom.
Oscar was about as different from Mookie as a cat could be. A neighbour boy named him Oscar the Grouch because he had a skinny body and a big round head, complained all the time, and hung out with the trash-cans. But Oscar quickly learned that our yard was the place to be. He had food and a nice cushion to sleep on--we left one out for him at night--and if it rained he had bushes with big leaves to sleep under. It was early summer when he appeared, barely out of kitten-hood--an elegant little grey tuxedo cat with a white vest and white boots--and we dismantled the Inn during the summer because it actually got too hot inside.
At first he was timid and unsure of himself. He had a girlfriend that came around, though he had no idea what to do with a girlfriend, and a tough orange tom chased her up a tree while Oscar circled below, fretting loudly. But he grew up quickly and often disappeared for hours, coming back all scarred and bloody, with his ears chewed, happy as he could be. We took him to the vet and had him patched up, and then it happened again. He was becoming a real cat's cat.
When the moon was full he would vanish all night, and I gave up looking for him. He brought home small dead birds and presented them to us with pride, and was bewildered that we didn't appreciate the gift. I'm sure he didn't stop killing them, he just stopped bringing them home. The neighbours were not thrilled with this. One time I found a dead rat in the yard, but whether Oscar had killed it or some neighbour had tossed it in the yard, I do not know. It was almost as big as Oscar himself. One time he was inside and the birds were teasing him, dancing just outside the glass door while he growled and chattered in frustration. Suddenly he launched himself head-first into the glass with a resounding thud, stunning himself. I decided he was an Aries and lowered the blinds. He would race up to the top of the tree at top speed, then turn and yell in all directions.
As summer stretched into fall, we had to make a decision. About the third time we brought him to the vet to get his battle-scars tended to, the doctor said we were going to continue to pay through the nose, and one day he would lose an eye or something. We had to make a housecat of him. So we switched our policy; instead of letting him come indoors in the day and putting him out at night, we kept him in at night and put him out in the day. And then we took him in for the big operation. I have taken many a cat to the vet and it was always the same: they scream bloody murder on the way and when it is time to come home, you just open the cage and they walk in. But nobody yelled louder than Oscar. I suppose the other cats told him, "Never let them take you to that place. You'll come home with pieces missing, or won't come home at all."
It didn't stop him from going to the fights; it just stopped him from participating, and he didn't stay out for three days anymore. He took to living indoors all right, and slept on a different chair every night. But he still had to go outside every day. If the snow was deep he would jump up on the fence and walk on top to the end, then crawl into the cedar hedge and continue as far as he could, creeping from branch to branch three feet off the ground to get to his favourite latrine in the far corner. Intrepid, that's what he was. I ended up digging a pathway through the snow directly from the back steps to his latrine. The snow was over his head, and if I put curves in the trench he couldn't see from one end to the other, making the trip more exciting. When he wanted to come in, he would rap like a machine-gun on the door with one back foot, and if he did not come when Christina called, she would flick the outdoor light on and off, and he usually showed up in a minute or two.
Oscar was the most ordinary cat in my life, the least eccentric and the most catlike. Kissa was the one I lived with the longest, and Tina was my special baby; why, then, was Oscar the only one I wrote a poem about?
...the sweet small clumsy feet of April
came into the ragged meadow of my soul
The more that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain, but do not think you can avoid a broken heart by never having children. Someone will provide. The sweet white bowlegged feet on which Oscar came into the ragged meadow of our garden must have been the feet of April for only Aries could have ploughed head-first into life as he did and announced each victory in such fine voice:
See! How quick I climb this tree! It is mine. No more will orange interlopers chase my girlfriend up into the branches while I fret and whimper on the ground below. I am Tarzan of the Apples. Love me.
I have an announcement. I have done my business in the box. I know that you will wish to see to it at once. Love me.
Here I am. Back from the hunt. I have brought a small dumb bird to prove my prowess. I am a mighty hunter. Love me.
I must point out the deficiencies in my food of late. There is insufficient chicken and some liver is required. I will resume eating when the situation is resolved. Love me.
I am off to see the fights. For some reason I do not participate as fully as I once did and should not be returning with more battle scars, unless some orange tough gets in my face. I pity the fool. Love me.
I grow old. I grow old. Each morning I shall sit in the garden sunning first one side and then the other. In the afternoon, I will sleep on cushioned chairs in the shade of an umbrella and in the evening I shall lie in Mommy's lap. I do not care that much for food now and I seldom wander off on shaky pins to check my marks. I am ready to go now. Love me.
Perhaps it was because he was my last cat. We had given up the heartbreak of loving a cat and were content to care for the odd stranger in the yard, at arm's length, as it were. But Oscar forced us to try one more time, when we were old enough to know better. We even put off our duty to put him down, selfishly I suppose, and for a time we put a needle and an I.V. drip into him every day to hydrate his body, as instructed. He put up with this without a single complaint until we couldn't do it anymore and brought him in for his last visit. We had his ashes put in an urn with a winged sleeping cat on it--kitschy and stupid, but he was our angel after all, and we didn't care. We put it up on the high cupboard with the other urn and found Tina's and Cinnamon's footprints still in the dust.