Even though it happened when I was only a tiny kitten, I can still remember the first time I died because I was dead not too long before and the feeling, or lack of feeling, was still all too familiar. In those early days, death was all I could think about and my dread was piqued whenever mother went out to scrounge for food. Without her warmth and love I felt the cold hands of death all around me and I would do nothing but cry and cry until she returned. That void that came before me, that void that would surely come after me, haunted me day and night and I cried all the tears I could, as if it were possible to squeeze out the fear one drop at a time.
My siblings didn’t cry as much. Their chubby bodies afforded them a certain bravery, especially my three older brothers who would crowd around the small crack mother left through to poke their heads out into the weeds beyond. The lively scamps would pass hours in that portal, play-fighting and grooming each other, and I would watch their shadows dance gracefully on the moist walls. When mother would finally return, drumming her tail lightly against the side of the house to announce herself, she would hiss at my brothers. “Don’t go outside!” She would try to bite their necks, but the little ones were too fast for her weary teeth. They would zip around her and nip at her soft underbelly and finally come to rest on her nipples and take their feed. My sisters would come back from the dark recesses of the crawl space, where they had spent all day sleeping and listening to the outside, and they would take their place beside my brothers and feed as well.
Tired-eyed, mother would count her babies. “One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six…? Where’s my Seven?” she’d yowl at me. I was still too weak to talk or move, so I did all I could do and cried instead.
(Despite T.S. Elliot claims about “practical cats” and the naming of such, we cats have many names over our lifetime, way more than three, and our names need not be particular or peculiar to keep our tails perpendicular. After the long birth, mother was too tired to name her kittens anything other than the number we were born. This is fairly common for cats, especially strays. Being the seventh-born, my very first name in this world was Seven, but my second name was quick to follow. As soon as they could speak, my siblings started to call me Zero.)
The day of my first death was just like any other. Mother came back, weary as usual but still somehow mustered the strength to drum her tail on the side of the house. My brothers welcomed her and tackled her to the damp earth. The dirt caked onto her fur. With the weight of all that mud and the weight of all my brothers, mother looked so tired and so heavy. I suddenly wanted to lick her clean and get rid of all the weight and make her light again. I struggled to move, but I was still too weak to rise and only cried. My sisters came over from the dark corners and joined in on the feast. Mother extended her muddy paw at me, feebly swiping the air, calling to me to eat, but I remained where I lay. So, with my six siblings hanging from her breast, mother took a few heavy steps over to me. Her fresh paw prints gleamed in the wet earth. She plopped down close by and stared at me intently. I could hear her voice in my head:
Her eyes then shut and did not open. I still could not move. My brother’s and sister’s clumsy new teeth drew blood from her stomach. A rank smell crept into my nose. I wrinkled my nose and closed my eyes as if I were about to cry, but, oddly enough, something inside me finally clicked. Energy surged through my body and I was finally able to rise. I walked properly for the first time in my life, lightly like a cat should, with my tail perpendicular, and I plopped down with the rest of the litter and drank from my mother. When her milk entered my mouth it tasted wrong. My siblings didn’t seem to notice and went on sipping, but I could not, and I sat there and cried and laid my head on mother’s body. That’s when the other’s noticed and they laid their heads and cried too.
After some hours, my siblings left the crawl space in ones and twos, but I could not rise from my mother’s body. My newfound strength had vanished. The last to leave was my oldest sister, One. She looked at me curiously. I heard her voice in my head:
“This is how you want one of your lives to end?”
There was not judgment in her gaze, or pity, but instead there was a wide-eyed look of comprehension. She was witnessing my life, just as I was witnessing her’s. Witnessing is a cat’s most sacred act. The ultimate purpose of our small, fleeting existence is still a mystery to us, but some cats swear that to live is to see life lived. I looked over at mother and then back up at One only to catch her tail curl around the entryway. She was gone. A moonbeam reflected down the narrow alleyway and off a broken mirror into our hovel and bathed mother and I in white light.
One came back. Of course she did. Just as I did. That is the natural way for us cats. Even though dogs get all the credit for finding their way home, cats are the creatures that come back. No matter the place, if we still call it home, we will return. One would never let mother rot without giving her a proper send off. My eyes opened to the first rays of the morning following One through the entrance. She sat by my mother’s body and started to sing our customary funeral song: The Song of Ten. The song doesn’t exactly translate into human speak, but here is a rough estimation of the lyrics:
You’re one, two, three fast
You’re four then five
Six and quickly seven
You’re eight and you’re nine
You’re heading right to heaven
But I will remember your face
I’ll see you in the next life
In your rightful place
I’ll see you on the other side of eternity, my friend
I’ll see you as a leaf, or a branch, or a tree
I’ll see you when I see you
And even if you don’t see me, you’ll still know it’s me
Out of this life and into the next
And though I won’t know your face
Don’t cry, don’t worry, don’t fret
I’ll see you in a special place
And though I won’t know your eyes
From the dew upon your brow
Don’t worry, don’t meow, don’t cry
I’ll know you’re there inside, deep down
Without time, without a minute to spare
I’ll know you in my core
And in that single moment
I’ll know you forevermore
You’re one, two, three fast
You’re four then five
Six and quickly seven
You’re eight and you’re nine
You’re heading right to heaven
But I will remember your face
I’ll see you in the next life
In your rightful place
I couldn’t tell if One was happy or sad while she sang. Perhaps she felt a mixture of both. All I felt was fear. I was afraid that with my mother gone I’d be trapped in the pit of my loneliness forever. I was afraid that without her milk I too would be gone, gone again, gone for good. So I did what I had always done up till then and I cried. I would have cried forever if my big sister didn’t love me enough to make me stop. She stopped singing her song and glared at me so strongly that I swallowed my cries.
“Mother won’t hear her last Song of Ten if you keep crying so loudly,” she hissed. My hair stood on end. “You’re not a kitten anymore. Stop crying.”
Young and dumb as I was, I knew that the dead couldn’t hear a thing, but what One said still struck at my heart. The fact was that I couldn’t hear the song over my crying. I stopped and listened and I felt a warmth spread through my body. My mother had sung that song to me every night of my life, but when One sang I felt like I was hearing it for the first time. In the presence of a dead body, the lofty sentiment of the lyrics rang true, and in that moment I came to know the song’s purpose. The Song of Ten gives us cats the strength to go on. It gives us warmth when its cold and food when there’s none. It’s the song we sing when a loved one passes, but it’s also a song we sing at every party. We sing it in the alleys at midnight under the full moon where we feel truly alive and we sing it in the shadows of a cramped apartment at night when we feel trapped with death. After I heard that Song of Ten, One’s Song of Ten, my mother’s last Song of Ten, I never cried again. I was never again the self-doubting and weak kitten that I had been. That kitten version of myself was dead and from that moment on I never felt like a Zero again. I was and could only be who I truly was: Seven.
One and I lived together for some time after our mother’s death. During the day, we napped on the porch. The boys who lived in the house above us started leaving out water and food. They were a couple of college kids, clumsy and loud. The boys would try to lure us into their home with treats and toys, but having been wild all of our short lives we were wary of humans. They would party into the early hours of the morning and the low frequencies of their songs would shake the floorboards. The constant creaking was quite unpleasant, but their noise kept the other cats away and afforded my sister and I a comfortable peace. Time passed slowly. My sister and I slept together and groomed each other. She taught me to pass the daytime hours listening to the outside world. She taught me the simple pleasure of chasing my tail. We would curl up and share warmth through chilly days. As we curled together, the lines of our bodies became so uncertain that if it wasn’t for the stark contrast in our coloring, her white and I black, we would have ceased to be individuals and become one. These tender stillnesses were some of the happiest moments of my early life. At times, I was so well cared for that I forgot about my mother’s corpse slowly decaying in the corner of the crawl space.
As we grew and became more confident in our bodies’ amazing agility and resilience, One and I ventured out into the night. We lived on a side street between two busy avenues. Perched on the fence on the corner of the block, we’d watch humans speed by in their cars, driving without a care for what was on the road. My being a black cat did not bode well for crossing the road in the dark, which was when we’d make most of our excursions, so we were confined to our street, which was fine by us. There were plenty of backyards to explore and field mice to gobble up. We even learned to climb the large sycamore tree in the backyard and we would spend our days snoozing in its branches. The crows would tell us of skyscrapers and mountains and incomprehensibly large bodies of water and we’d listen and see these things in our mind as they talked in their broken way. Their tales emboldened us. Through the crows’ crooked cawing, we came to know about the vast world and we lusted to see it all. We couldn’t stay in that den with our dead mother forever. In return for the kind talk, we’d kill rats for the crows. We even let them take away our mother.
With our mother gone, life returned to our noses and we sniffed out all the other cats in the neighborhood and went around meeting them one by one. Most were disinterested in us, as is the tame cat’s way. They couldn’t jeopardize an easy life with their humans by fraternizing with us strays, who might be carrying any number of parasites and diseases. Still, we made fast friends with a few of the other strays on the block. We offered them shelter in our crawl space and each happily accepted and invited a few friends, so before long there were thirteen of us living under the house. The boys who lived above us didn’t seem to mind. As more strays filled our hovel, the boys set out more and more food. We lived happily for some months like that.
The best part of that time was when the moon was full. Us and our new found friends would climb the sycamore and bask in the gray light of the moon and cleanse our minds. We’d pass entire evenings in that thoughtless state. To this day, when I curl up, completely still and thoughtless, it is those youthful, moonlight feelings that fill the void in my mind.
Our peace came to an end when One started going with one of the local strays—Scar. When Scar was only a baby some cruel child took a knife to his side and cut out a strip of his fur. It never grew back and was replaced by a stretch of cold, pimply skin. They also took the tip of his left ear. Scar was a black cat just like me and was always offering unsolicited advice about how to survive this cruel world. Before the kittens, he told me that I should watch out around humans because they despise black cats and will commit unthinkable cruelties upon our soft, fragile bodies. That was when Scar would still talk to me and the other cats in our home.
When One became pregnant, Scar changed. He couldn’t help it. A dangerous brew of fear and instinct consumed him. The more he thought about his children, the more ferocious he became. He felt that the whole wide world was against them and he couldn’t stand the thought. He would rage in the daytime when we were all asleep and pick fights with us one by one and won every one until I was the only cat not banished, but my exile came swiftly enough.
One was too swollen to move, so I would go out and scrounge what I could, just like mother did for us when we were kittens. Scar did not like this one bit. He didn’t trust my nose.
“You were born in death,” he would hiss at me. “You cannot smell it on others. You’ll bring back some diseased thing and feed it to your sister and my babies!”
It didn’t take long for his fear and anger to explode. He attacked me one day when I returned to the crawl space carrying a tiny mouse between my teeth. He pounced and clawed, pushing me out of the crawl space into the side yard. I sat at the entrance to our home and watched my sister’s breast rise and fall heavily. I set the mouse down and waited until dark.
At midnight, I tried to enter again, but Scar barred my way and slashed at me and took a portion of my eye with him. He hissed and I fled across one of the large avenues that bordered our small sanctuary. Luckily, not many cars were on the road and I made it across safely. I curled up under a dumpster in a gas station parking lot and all the blood in my body rushed from my head. I laid under that dumpster for I do not know how long.
I woke to our favorite crow, Ernest, dragging me out from under the dumpster. I looked up into his face. My eye twinkled at him. He let go of the scruff of my neck. “Sorry chap,” he cawed in his funny accent. “You smelled dead.”
“I was dead,” I said, rising and shaking the dirt from my fur. I sat licking myself clean.
“You cats are strange creatures,” he cawed again then took flight.
It was noon and the sun was hot and the air was dry. The smell of rotten food wafted out of the dumpster. I turned my nose up at it and hobbled away. The sun filled my fur with a nurturing heat, like that of One when we kept each other warm at night. She would be fine. She still had many of her lives, but I still feared that I would never see her again. So I took aim and approached the avenue. Cars zipped by and I observed the other side of the street from underneath a mailbox. There was some method to the madness that allowed the humans to cross unharmed. I puzzled over it for some time before a twinkle caught my eye. There was a blinking light on the other side of the street. When it lit up one way the people crossed, but when it lit up the other way they did not. This was the first time I came to understand a human thing. A small joy grew inside me. I liked knowing. It gave me a secret satisfaction, but the overwhelming anxiety of not seeing One again smothered my joy.
I managed to cross the street and approach my old home. Scar was napping on the porch by the bin full of cat food. He smelled me before he saw me and sprang to the top step on his tippy toes. He hissed and the hair on his back stood straight up. He looked enormous, easily the size of a small dog. Instinctively, I backed down. One of the college boys came to the front door to see what all the fuss was about. “Somebody bugging you Bugsy,” he cooed. That was the name he used to call me, but it was apparent that he couldn’t tell Scar and I apart. “Shoo,” he hissed, petting Scar and calming him down. “Get away from here!”
Consumed by sadness, I bolted from the house, running faster than I had ever run before. With my head twisted around so I could scan the house for any sight of One, I ran right into the street and was hit by a car. I saw it speed away from me and my one remaining eye closed.
When I came to, I was splayed on a cardboard box in what I would come to know was a tent, a flimsy structure that humans use to live outdoors like wild animals. It reminded me of the dank, damp crawl space where I was born. I tried to rise, but a sharp pain ran from my left hind leg up to the tip of my ear. My eye socket twitched and I felt my eyelid rub against a tough cloth. I could feel a band around my head and pawed at it, but quickly withdrew my paw and yelped in pain.
An old woman’s soft voice descended on me, “I wouldn’t do that youngin’.”
A wrinkly hand pushed me into the soft cardboard and lightly rubbed my side, toppling me over gently. My whole body relaxed. That was the first time I had ever been pet. I laid there for a week afterward, feeding off whatever my caretaker could scrounge up. She didn’t seem to eat much herself, but when she did eat she made sure I had something to eat as well, at least a chicken bone or the scraps of meat from a discarded sandwich or burrito. Rain fell continuously. It’s droplets beat against the canvas tent and dripped into the buckets that my caretaker had strategically placed around our small living space. This metallic runoff sustained us.
My caretaker didn’t talk much and she didn’t move much either, just like me. We napped the days away, sharing our warmth under an old, raggedy blanket. Every now and then people would come by to check on us. It was through these visitors that I came to know a bit about my caretaker. Her name was Viola. She liked to remind people of this by saying that she was named after an instrument. She lived up to her name too, passing the frigid, sleepless nights singing old blues tunes. The whole camp would listen to her voice wind its way through the rain. To me, all of the songs sounded like different renditions of the Song of Ten. I liked them very much.
Viola called me Percy. That was her son’s name—used to be her son’s name. He died in what was she called a war, an event where thousands of humans ruthlessly murder each other for no good reason at all. I did not fully understand what this was until much later. There could not be a concept more foregin to a cat than war, but I came to know the word because she used it all the time. She said that I reminded her of Percy. She’d go on and on about him, recalling him as a sweet young boy and a handsome young man. She said Percy and I had the same eyes and it must have been true too. With each passing day, she looked less and less like a human to me and more and more like my mother.
When the rain broke, I felt much better and started testing my three-legged strut around the tent. Viola was feeling much better too and even left the tent to eat breakfast. I waited at the entrance, happily swishing my tail and watching her laugh and eat from steamy bowls by the small fire with the others. The sky was still gray and threatened rain. The air was warm and smelled of gasoline. Cars passed us on every side and even above us there was a roadway that never stopped roaring.
Suddenly, I felt a huge rumbling coming our way. Two giant vehicles, easily the size of four cars combined, rolled up the avenue. They were trailed by three smaller cars with spinning lights on their roofs. Viola and the neighbors, who were smiling and joking only moments before, had their faces turned upside down. Everyone rushed to their tents and gathered their things. Viola was crying. She grabbed the portrait of her son in a military uniform and stuffed it into a suitcase with a broken zipper. She gathered her few possessions in the suitcase and tied a shoelace around it. In her hurry, she spilled a bucket of rainwater all over the floor of the tent. I hopped out of the way onto a forgotten stack of books. She was reaching down to grab me when a gloved hand tugged her away. Her hand receded from me and clutched at the air as she toppled over backward out of the tent.
I heard the stern voice of a male that reminded me of the college boy who had defended Scar. “Nope, nope,” said the man, ripping the rest of Viola’s body from the tent. “Time to go.”
“But Percy!” Viola wailed, as she did sometimes when she sang me blues songs. “He’s still in there. He got hurt in the war. He don’t know no better. Let me get him.”
The man peered in the tent and I dragged myself out of sight, into the shadow of one of the buckets we used to collect rain. I shut my eyes so the man couldn’t make out my black fur amongst the shadows. Cats can become invisible almost any time we please.
“There’s nothing in there,” said the man, removing his head from the tent. “C’mon. Time to go.”
“Go where?! My baby! He’s in there! My Percy!” Her big, beautiful, sad voice faded away as they dragged her off. I heard her feet scrape gravel on the sidewalk, until the loud, long horn of a truck on the freeway drowned her out. I balled myself smaller and smaller. Someone pulled at the tent and crammed me in the corner with the rainwater and the forgotten books and the buckets. They heaved me into a metallic receptacle. Other tents were stacked on top of me, slowly blotting out the dim rays of the sun that were starting t0 penetrate the thick clouds. There was a loud whirr and everything surrounding me became closer and closer. I became smaller and smaller until I was no more.
I felt someone pull me up by the scruff of my neck like my mother used to do when I was a lame little kitten. Hard metallic edges clipped my body as something pulled me from the pile. Everything around smelled rotten and rusted, a smell so disgusting that I quickly passed out, but before my consciousness faded entirely, I saw the large, round face of a man with no hair. The sunshine reflected off his polished bald head. I pawed at the halos flickering above him. The man smiled down on me with a crazy, crooked grin. He wore glasses with lenses so dark that I couldn’t see his eyes, and I only saw myself squirming in his large hands.
When I came to again, it was night. Stars twinkled in the distance. I was curled up in a wicker basket with a plate of kibble within paw’s reach. My body was still weak, but I clawed my way to the kibble and ate until I was licking the plate clean. I let my tired head fall on the soft pillow under me, but my ears perked up to hear one of the most beautiful sounds I had ever heard. It reminded me of Viola’s singing and my One’s singing as well. There was a voice but it said no words. It sounded like the trains that the crows would tell us about, that I’d hear in the distance all those nights I lived in the crawl space and all those nights I lived in the tents with Viola too: strong and lonely and proud. Those train whistles were the only constant in my short life, so when I heard that music, even though I didn’t know where I was, I felt like I was home.
I looked up and saw the same bald man I had seen earlier. He was holding a rectangular metal box to his mouth. It had holes cut out in the front and back and he blew air through it to make those train sounds. His face had many wrinkles and he forced them all into the box too. The sun shone on his head as he rocked back and forth. Then he stopped blowing into the box and bellowed: “I’ve got the garbage blues.” He blew again then paused and sang: “I’ve got the mile high garbage blues.” He did the same again, blew into the box and sang: “I’ve got the mile high garbage blues but at least I’ve got you.” As he sang the last word, his voice grew into the early morning squee of a blackbird and he winked at me. He tilted his head back and laughed to the clouds then picked up a clear bottle from the floor at his side and sipped its clear liquid and laughed again.
I don’t know how many nights I passed just like that one, sitting staring at the street and watching the cars go by and watching the piles of garbage across the street grow higher and higher and listening to my caretaker’s smoky, metallic call rise above the noise of it all. We passed seasons sitting on his porch, him drinking and singing and smoking and calling out supplications to the sky. People always stopped to chat with the man. They called him Old Walter. Whoever talked to him always walked away in a fit of laughter or stay, that is if they could walk away. Most would sit on the front steps for hours listening to him sing. People would crowd the small porch to listen. When Old Walter finally grew tired, he’d call over to me, “MuddyCat,” he’d call me. “Come over here and sit on my lap.” We’d sleep the night away out in the open air no matter how cold or hot it was. Luckily, it never got too hot or cold.
One morning, the man stirred, as he usually did, reaching for the glass bottle that smelled like juniper and alcohol, but he didn’t grip it with his usual sureness. His hands tightened around the bottleneck and his arm spasmed uncontrollably. He smashed the bottle into a million pieces on the floorboards of the porch, but he didn’t rise to clean the mess. I didn’t know what to do so I spent some hours on his lap, lounging as usual. People passed by and shouted good morning to Old Walter, but left him alone assuming he was asleep. An uneasy feeling welled up inside me. It wasn’t right, all the drink slipping through the cracks in the floorboard. Old Walter wouldn’t have wanted it to go to waste, so I drank the clear liquid and yowled the Song of Ten until I couldn’t anymore.
I woke up and felt the cool earth all around me. Tiny bugs crawled in my fur and I shivered. I shook my body and pushed myself upwards until I came through the dirt into the sunlight. They had buried me in the little patch of grass in front of the house. I turned my back on the porch and the chair where Old Walter used to sit. I couldn’t afford to look back. The grief was so great I might have lost one of my lives right there, and I was starting to run short, so I walked down the block instead and hooked a right as soon as I could. I wanted to be far away from the putrid reek of the dump. I walked alone with my thoughts until the sun set and then I walked some more and my thoughts faded like the rays of sun into the night. Despite all the hardship and loss and misfortune I had been through, I felt strong. I felt like I could walk miles and miles all alone without food or water if only for the joy of sniffing the plants I passed on my way: the lavender, the wisteria, the roses. I felt like I could walk forever following that smell. I loved my light step on the pavement, the way my lithe body swayed in the gentle, aromatic breeze. Finally, I came upon a large body of water and paused to admire myself in its rippling surface. Backlit by the stars, I thought I didn’t look too bad, especially for the scamp that I was. Sure I was missing the eye and a piece of my ear, but the look I had in the one eye I had left was could make the meanest, snarling dog think twice about trying me. I was finally tough, truly alive, far from the whining little kitten I had been.
There I was admiring myself when love struck. A white, long-haired cat came up and sat beside me and peered into the water with her piercing blue eyes. I stared back into her reflection. She was so white and large, at first I thought she was the moon. Luna, I would come to call her. I knew this word because Viola was always going on about it. Those were cloudy days, but Viola would pine for la luna, a word she said she adopted because it sounded so much prettier than moon.
Without so much as a meow, Luna and I started going together. You see, dear reader, humans have to play all these games and give presents and talk all the time before they decide to have babies. This is not true for us cats. It’s all in our eyes. You could learn the answers to one thousand mysteries looking in a cat’s eye.
I loved everything about Luna: the way she walked, the way she talked, the way she ate, the way she slept. She had been through just as much as I had at that point, perhaps even more. It’s against our customs to disclose how many lives we have lived to another cat. This is hard to explain to a human, but I will endeavor to nonetheless. By disclosing how close we are to our final, true death, we grant death a certain power over us. I think that power can rightly be named fear. That fear becomes the arbiter of our actions and, as I have said before, that is not the cat’s way.
Luna and I were a perfect match for each other. This was evident by her choosing me and only me to be the father of her kittens. Cats can become pregnant by multiple fathers, but that’s not what my Luna wanted.
“You have survived up till this point and it shows,” she said to me one night as we laid curled up like a yin-yang symbol in the hollow of some tree by the lake. “Your broken body is a testament to your strength, not your weakness. I want that same tenacity for our baby strays. I only want to have your children because then I’ll know for a fact that they’ll be strong enough to thrive in this cruel world.”
This was the sweetest thing anybody ever said to me.
So we found our own dark, dank crawl space and gave birth to our own litter. Unlike my own father, I stuck around and fed Luna and our babies. We had an astounding eleven kittens. When they grew, we took them out to the tennis courts by our hovel. There the thirteen of us would hunt rats and field mice and silently watch the tennis balls with wide eyes as they made their trips across the court and back. Those were happy times that don’t deserve to be marred by too many words. What I can say is that we slept most of the day away and we groomed each other often. For outdoor cats, we were quite the kempt crew. Eventually, our happy children started to wander away, following their noses and their ears into the story of their own lives, and, before long, only Luna and I remained. We went about our established routine, hunting vermin, grooming each other, and watching the tennis ball steadily.
I wanted another litter. Being a father was the only good I had ever done in the world. I had filled it with offspring that would go on to produce offspring of my own ilk, a kind species of cat that is more concerned with observing and creating than violence. Unfortunately, Luna’s time was drawing near. Our babies had fed on her lifeforce and left her wispy and gangly. It got to the point where she would not leave our home even for the idle joy of watching the tennis ball. I would hunt and bring her food, but one day I returned and Luna was there no more. I curled up next to her body and licked it clean, but by the taste of the decaying flesh I knew she would not return. I was thrilled for her. She had made the journey and would continue on her way with new feet and ears and eyes in a form that I would never know. She had completed our most sacred act and I commemorated her with thirteen Songs of Ten, one for each member of our family. When I finished the ceremony, out of respect for the love of my life, I laid up next to what used to be my Luna and refused to move. The familiar scent of death was ever present. I basked in it. I drank it in with my nose, until I was able to pay my Luna the ultimate respect by surrendering my life there next to hers.
When I came back, yet again, Luna’s body was gone. Her absence still remains one of the great mysteries of my life. It couldn’t have been the bugs or scavengers otherwise my body would have been dragged away too.
I didn’t puzzle over her absence for long.
I felt clean and light, a feeling I had grown to cherish after being crushed to death so many times. I hardly even gave Luna another thought and set out in search of what the world had to offer me this time. As I did after Old Walter’s death, I exited our hovel, turned to the right, and started walking. I paused now and then to rub my tail on whiskers on whatever I pleased: water fountains, a bunch of lavender, car tires. I left my aroma on what I rubbed and carried the aroma of the objects I rubbed with me. I continued on this way until I felt hungry.
It was almost midnight and giant rats traipsed across the dimly lit streets. I eyed them greedily, but they were almost too big for me to take alone. Still, it was either eat or starve, and I was very hungry. I tucked myself underneath a parked car with the hopes of catching one unaware. I spotted a fat one, pausing in the middle of the street to look at god only knows what with it’s creepy, beady eyes. I’ve never liked rats, not seeing them or eating them. Their putrid, sinuous innards never tastes right and their blank stare always makes my hair stand on end. Nevertheless, there I was with an empty belly and a fat rat in front of me. I came out from under the car nimbly, quietly, and slowly, hidden underneath my midnight coat. The rat paused and stood on its hind legs. It didn’t see me, but it knew I was close by. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw another cat, a tabby, poised and ready to strike. The other cat made eyes at me and I knew that we would do this together. I lashed out at full speed toward the rat. The rat ran in the opposite direction, toward the feline stranger ingeniously hidden in a rosebush. The other cat lept out just as the rat crossed its path and clamped down on the rat’s fat neck. I could hear the rat’s tiny bones break in the still, silent midnight. I approached the kill and the taby moved aside without a word. We feasted together. Many other smaller cats swarmed around on us and ate as well. Still hungry I suggested we hunt more and they were all too eager to oblige. That night alone we devoured upward of ten poor souls.
As day broke, the gang of cats started to wander off. Perched on a fence, I watched the beams of sunlight trickling through a sycamore tree. The taby came up and sat next to me. He began grooming me and nuzzling me. I could tell he didn’t want to leave me, but he was the leader of his tribe, so of course he had to go. “Come with,” he purred. I had nowhere else to be, so I obliged.
I began living with that ragtag crew of feral cats in an abandoned train station on the outskirts of town. The inside of the train station was covered with mangled letters that hardly made any words, not that I could read at the time anyway. (I guess I should say a few words about cats and language. You might be wondering how a rogue like me can identify words or letters or even graffiti. I’ll admit graffiti gives me trouble a lot of the time, but usually when I read something I know what it means right away. The language doesn’t matter. If I stare at a word long enough I’ll come to know what it means. I’m not exactly sure why I am capable of deciphering words in this way, but I think it has something to do with cats’ acute observational skills. Most cats have the ability to understand any language, I think. I have no idea why or how humans made a their language, but the meaning of each word is all there in the shape of the letters and the sounds of the utterances. I’ll admit that spoken word is easier for me to understand; be it human or crow, the voice never betrays the intention of the words. The most difficult part about human language is that humans almost always say one thing when they mean another. To the kitten, human speech may seem garbled and unintelligible, but as we grow your motives become all too apparent to us.) It was quiet in the train station. Only the gentle moans of heroin addicts filled the cavernous space.
Our gang’s numbers were not static, with all the coming and going, the death and rebirth, but I’d say there were easily 75-100 of us. The taby, Merrick, was their leader and I became his right hand, his counsel of sorts. There was not much governing to do in our small commune. All importance was focused on the hunt, so it fell on Merrick and I to scope hunting grounds and devise strategies which we used to kettle thousands of rats over the course of our tenure at the train station. Other than the hunt, we lived a quiet life, basking in the beams of the sun and moon that fell through the many holes in the roof. There was enough light for all and most days and we all sat in our own spot and sang or talked or slept. There is not much to note about the bliss us cats can experience. There are no words to describe it in human language, but “sublimity” comes close.
I do remember one particular night from those innocent days. Merrick and I were grooming each other on the second floor balcony. Moonbeams and starlight fell on us from a large hole in the ceiling. Merrick paused his grooming and looked at me with his big yellow eyes. I stopped and met his gaze. We stared at each other for quite a while and finally he said, “Why do you live?” This is a common way of speaking amongst cats, just replacement words to show affection like I love you or good morning in human speak.
“I live to die my final death,” I responded, as was our custom.
“That’s where you’re wrong.” He tilted his head. “That’s where we’re all wrong. We live to live.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I scolded him, turning my body away from him. We both sat facing away from each other.
“Sure it does. Let me ask you this: Why do we hunt?”
“For the feast, of course.”
“But sometimes we don’t catch anything. Why do we hunt then?”
“I guess for survival then.”
“Ah, but survival is something we always have until we don’t. We can never obtain it, only lose it. So we can never gain survival by hunting, only lose it by not hunting. So I ask you again: Why do we hunt?”
“I don’t know. To not lose our survival, I guess. This is dumb. You’re not making any sense.” I growled at Merick and walked away toward the stairs. I climbed to the third level and looked down on Merrick. His yellow eyes stared back. We looked at each other till all the moonlight was gone.
Finally, he called to me, “We hunt to hunt.”
He said no more and disappeared into the shadows.
We never talked of life and death again, which is only right because it is rude to talk about such things amongst cats who have so much on their minds all the time, but I have thought about it plenty and I think Merrick was right. Death may be the feast, but the joy of the feast could never beat the thrill of the hunt.
All things end, and even in our comfortable life there at the train station, even with the safety of our numbers, we knew that life too would end.
The end came for the addicts first. They had always been kind to us. They pet us with empty eyes and left their scraps out for our consumption. They collected water in buckets, like Viola had done, and let us sip from it. When it was cold, they let us crowd their fire and when there was no fire our bodies kept each other warm. Despite their kindness, the end still came for them.
It was dawn when the men arrived in their cars and dump trucks, much like it had been when it ended with Viola. The men swept in and grabbed the addicts by the scruffs of their coats. They dragged them off shouting harsh words like “possession,” or “unlawful,” or “junkie.” The addicts were not allowed to take their stuff, so we commandeered as many raggedy blankets as we could before the garbage men took them away. We pushed our little society out of the light and into the nooks and crannies of the old building. Next came men in quieter cars. They wore suits and ties and carried clipboards. They squinted through the glasses on their faces and scratched furiously on their pieces of paper. They tried to count us, but we were too many to count, and then they left without a word. A few days later, more men came, these with kind eyes and nets. They lured us out of the cracks with a drug they called a “treat” and snatched us up one by one. Merrick and I were lured out at the same time. Merrick was like my shadow; we always did everything together. They captured him first and put him in the truck, then they came for me. I was in a frenzy. My shadow had just been ripped out from under my paws. The more tangled I became in their net, the more I lashed out with all my might. My claws struck one man across the eye. He hissed and clutched at his wound. “Soon he would look like me,” I thought. “Good. Now when he sees his face he will see my own.” I had scored my retribution and resigned myself to my fate, but the man, bleeding fresh blood on the dirty floor, could not accept his fate and began to slam his net on the ground, beating me to a bloody pulp. I remember the furious words he spoke before throwing me into a tiny compartment on the side of his truck: “You’re lucky we’re taking you! The rest will get the poison!” Then he threw me as hard as he could. My head slammed into the metal cage and broke my neck. With my last bits of consciousness, I marvelled at the sun shining through the hole in the roof one last time, then the man slammed the door shut and everything was dark.
The shelter was not as bad as you might think. Sure, we lived two or three to a cramped cage, but we didn’t have to worry about food or water. That was paradise. I missed the open air and the moon, but I could find enough joy in a sure meal and a sure drink. Things were not so bad.
A lot of the cats who came into the pound with me were adopted quickly. Sure, they were scamps, but each one of them had a heart of gold that they wouldn’t hesitate to put on the line for anyone they loved. They found homes in no time. I loved the look of each one of their faces, squished in the arms of a small child or an old person, a reluctant, toothy smile plastered on. The life they were moving on to would surely be long and filled with food and happiness. Surprisingly, not many cats have this kind of life. You would think we would, given the fact that we have been designed to be kept by humans, but even for a cat life is mysterious. We pass through them seemingly without a care, but that doesn’t mean we are without suffering. For us, domestication means love, care, and undying servitude. Nothing pleases us more than being praised and pampered. I hoped that kind of life was ahead of me as well. My lives had been exciting up till that point, but I was growing old and tired and nearing my end. I needed a place where I could lay up and pass on.
Fate never ceases to surprise! I was caged with none other than my own son, my very own Seven. He was small, like me, and he didn’t have the light in his eyes yet. He was still a bleary-eyed kitten, though, by the size of him he had to be on his second or third life. His fur was so white that he blended in perfectly with the sterile wall at the back of our enclosure. His blue eyes floated on the wall like he was a ghost. I told him he’d never get picked up if he stayed near the back like that, unseen. He didn’t care. He didn’t care for anything. He was totally listless, which, might I add, is perfectly natural for a cat. Still, being his father, I had to try to get him what was best in life, so every time a human came around I’d lay up next to Seven and become his outline. When people saw us next to each other my grotesqueness amplified the natural beauty he inherited from Luna. Within a few days, Seven was leaving the pound clutched in the excited arms of a young girl. Pippy is what she was calling him as she was leaving. The rest of the cats got a good howl out of that one. A cat named Pippy! Do you believe it?
Things were not all good in the pound though. Once a week those who had been waiting for a whole month to be adopted were gathered up and taken to a back room. They did not come back. I now know the word for this phenomena: euthanization. I did not then, but we knew what was happening. The humans didn’t seem to mind. It was only a cat’s life they were taking. We were wholly inconsequential to all of themthem, except for one person, the receptionist. She cried every Sunday when it was time for the culling. She was an old lady, with curly grey hair. Her glasses had a shiny golden rope attached to them and all us cats would watch the sparkle every time she came back to check on us. She checked on us often, way more than what was expected of her. She named us all her own special names. She said that I didn’t look like a Linda, which was what the man who had brought me in wrote on the paperwork. I was more of a Bandit. Bandito, she called me. She didn’t give Merrick a different name, she just called him Merrick.
Merrick lived in a different wing than I, but at night when it was quiet we would call to each other across the empty hallway. Sometimes we’d sing and get a good number of animals in the shelter to do a huge tune. We taught them the Song of Ten. The dogs would sing along in their earnest, clumsy way, not knowing a single word they were uttering. The birds however would sing in a round, responding to our lyrics with details of the tragedies that cats perpetrated against their kind. This was all in good fun of course. We were all animals. We understood the cycle of life.
Sadly, my euthanization was accelerated because of my outward appearance. Although I could drag a two pound rat a mile, that didn’t mean anything to the technicians at the pound. My missing eye and my lame leg and my clipped ear meant I had just about no chance of being adopted. The technicians would tap my chart with their pens and grimace, and, eventually, my time ran out. I wasn’t disappointed. I knew no family would want me. I was a stray through and through. As they brought me to the back room, I called out to Merrick one last time, but his voice did not call back. Loveable scamp that he was, he was probably already adopted by then. So it was just me and the technician and the cold needle sliding into my veins. The technician prepared another shot and stuck it in me. Just as I was passing out, I saw the old receptionist slide into the room, tears streaming down her face. She reached out for me, but, suddenly, everything went black.
When I came back, I could see through the window that it was night outside, late-night. The sky was blackened by fog. Two big, white peepers eclipsed my view like twin moons. Magnified by thick glasses, the two brown eyes drank me in. “So you do come back!” the receptionist shrieked with delight. She had pulled me out of a bag and was holding me by the scruff of my neck. It’s hard for me to say what was in the bag. Let’s just say there were a lot of unlucky customers. Poor things. To lose your last one that way, to be melted down into gelatin, it just wasn’t right, but çe la vie; that’s the circle. But I had no time to think of that, there were two circles catching me in an act that desecrated the human conception of, well, life.
“I always knew that your kind came back. I’ve seen it a few times, but nobody ever believes me!”
I meowed back at her. That was all I could do at the time, but even if I could speak the human tongue, I wouldn’t have said anything. It’s dangerous to let humans know about the special qualities of us cats. If they found out, who knows what they would do to us, especially since they already kill us for simply existing without a human home. So I meowed a few times and started cleaning the death stench from my fur.
“Don’t worry. Don’t say a thing.” The receptionist picked me up and put me in her handbag. “You’re coming with me. I’ll take good care of you.
My new caretaker was named Beatrice. She was about as old as I; that is to say, she was on her last life too. Her modest apartment was lined with pictures from her past. She had been around the world a few times. Many different smiling faces peered out from the photographs. Beatrice was always smiling and talking to me, telling me all about her adventures in Greece, or Latvia, or Transylvania, about her trials in Egypt, Iraq, and Germany. She had been to 46 countries and had achieved recognition as a world renowned novelist at one point; although, that was some years ago and it seemed like not a soul remembered her name or her work.
She would lay her books out in front of me and read me each of her harrowing adventures, line by line. And when we had finished reading all of her books, she would pull out other ones that she thought I might like and read them to me. I remember one in particular, Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison. In that book, Beatrice read me a passage that must have been the truest thing any human had ever thought. I will include it here for you, dear reader, and not say much more:
A man doesn’t live just one life, Bliss, he lives more lives than a cat—only he doesn’t like to face it because the bitter is nine times nine, right along with the sweet he wants all the time. So he forgets.
It was in this way that I fully learned to read and speak a language that Beatrice called English. Before this, I thought all humans spoke only one language, but Beatrice would read me French poetry, English tragedies, Greek legends and Spanish novels. Even though I said nothing back, Beatrice still encouraged me to learn every language, as she had done in her long, industrious life.
“Why not?” she’d gloat. “You’re a cat that comes back to life. Why shouldn’t you be able to learn everything there is about this world.”
She was right too. Cats have an infinite capacity for language, but, as I’ve said, we never give away that we can learn because then others would expect things out of us and we’d have to forfeit the life of leisure that we normally enjoy. Nevertheless, Beatrice opened me up. Her candor and kindness reminded me of… reminded me of all the best creatures I had met in my lives. She had my mother’s caring heart, my sister’s frank kindness, Viola’s diligent perseverance, Old Walter’s lackadaisical independence, Luna’s undying love, and Merrick’s fierce loyalty. She made me feel safe and slowly I opened up to her. I had to. She was so hard on herself. She was so lonely.
I remember it like it was yesterday. Beatrice was crying. It was the first time I had seen her frown. Only moments before, she was prattling away at me about growing up with her family in the rural south, somewhere in Georgia. She was saying that no matter how much she accomplished, her family never believed in her. They were always waiting for her whole world to come crashing down and for her to come back to Georgia with her tail between her legs. Even on his deathbed, her father spoke ill of her.
“You sure have done a lot Beatrice,” he said between coughs (he was dying his only death.) “But one thing you’ve never done is made me proud.”
I could understand his spitefulness, his cruelty. In not so many words, Scar had told me the same thing when I was still a child, but I knew, in my old age, Scar put me out not because of anything I had done, but because he was afraid of me. He was afraid of what I might do. He was afraid that One loved me more than him. It was the same for Beatrice’s dad I think. He was afraid that Beatrice loved the world more than she loved him. In my experience, words of cruelty are almost always spoken out of fear.
That lack of love, that fear, is what turned Beatrice’s smile upside down. It’s what made the tears come from her eyes. It’s what made her put the extension cord around her neck and stand on the chair.
“Everyone who has ever loved me is dead,” she lamented, shaking. She clutched at neck and broke the thin gold rope. Her glasses shattered on the floor. “And everyone I wanted to love me is dead. And here I am talking to a cat! Why am I still alive?”
She got up on her tippy toes. Her legs were trembling.
I had to say something.
“I love you,” I told her in English. I’d never said that to anyone, not even Luna. Cats don’t have to speak to express how they feel, but my words truly touched Beatrice’s heart. Her heels touched the chair and she stared at me with her mouth wide open. Some minutes passed and she still stared at me with that insidious extension cord around her neck. So I said it again and again. “I love you. I love you.” She ripped the extension cord off her neck and gave me a big hug that messed up all my fur, but I didn’t mind too much.
I’ve decided many things here in this modest home with Beatrice. I’ve decided to die here with her because there is nothing left out there for me. I am an old cat, I’ve lived many lives. I would not trade any of them for the world and I still have one to live, in here, with Beatrice. I’ve told her everything there is to know about me. “You’ve got quite the story,” she said one day while watering the petunias that hung in a planter box outside her window. “You should really let the people know.” I told her my concerns. I told her how people would expect more from cats and how I would be doing a disservice to my kind by giving away some of our most sacred secrets. She assured me not a soul would believe a crazy, crooked story like this one, especially if it was penned by a notorious, old charlatan like Beatrice. And, so, lured by a promise of notoriety, I was easily convinced. In this story that you’ve just read, I’ve sold out the secrets of my kind, but who can blame me; I am only a self-serving cat after all.
Now that you’ve read my story, go ahead and judge me. I’m sorry my storytelling might not be up to the standard of your thousand plus years of literary history. Or maybe even go ahead and judge crazy old Beatrice, but your nasty words will just roll off us like old hair. I hope you’ve learned something, but if you haven’t, maybe you will on your next life. Best of luck, dear reader, and don’t forget, life isn’t about waiting to die, life is about living and there really isn’t much to say about living, not living truly. So go in peace and truth and with wonder in your eyes. I’ll see you on the other side of eternity.