Before he turned five, our son requested a brother. Or a sister. It didn't matter which. We asked if a cat would suffice and he smiled long enough to change the diameter of his face. So we drove to the animal rescue with a borrowed kennel in the trunk.
The volunteer escorted us into a room that stank of urine and newsprint. She'd worked there for years, she told us. She had cats at home, six or more, and three neutered dogs. As she spoke about the rising number of stray cats in the Valley, our son poked his fingers into several cages. He cooed and called out a list of names he kept in his head. This one, our son said. A long-haired cat with tortoise-shelled hues. She's probably a year old, the volunteer said.
She gave us a history of the cat: things they knew and things they assumed. She might be spayed, she said. Then again, she may not be. She passed us a coupon for the procedure in case we needed it. We looped our names over a standard contract, promising to take good care.
A good home, the volunteer said. And she smiled, but her bottom lip gave out, a small twitch, as she scratched between the cat's ears.
That first night the cat made demands. For hours, she kneaded our son's thighs. Finally he grew tired of her and pushed her away. I'll build you a house, he said. He raked through his Lego for a suitable floor and when the cat started mewling, he set her outside his bedroom and abandoned the project to build a spaceship instead.
She continued to mew, so we gave her a saucer of milk. The dog lapped at it.
She mewed more, so we opened a can of wet food, a brand recommended by the volunteer. She ate a little, then demanded we pick her up to stroke her long, twitching ears. We did this for a time, our hands and arms growing tired. She purred; we thought she was finally content. When we tried to go to bed, she screeched.
All night the pain of animal desire kept us awake.
In the morning we brought her to the vet. The secretary took the coupon and surveyed our tired, responsible faces. An SPCA special? she said. She smiled and slid a finger down the cat's nose. What a sweetie.
Our son asked again for a baby brother. Or sister. The cat, he said, was okay, but it wasn't the same. She mewed to come in and he let her in, then poured dried kibble into her bowl. (This food, though not wet, had been approved by vets.) The dog sniffed it and we led him to the basement until the cat finished eating. She nibbled and stood at the closed front door. There, she mewled again. And our son suggested a cat door, something she could open on her own. It would make our lives much easier, he said.
The annual post-card arrived from the vet to remind us of the vaccinations. We took the dog, who was healthy, and the cat, who needed brushing, and inoculated them against pet diseases. The vet recommended a flea anointment for both animals.
The trip cost over a hundred dollars. Two, if you include the high-end pet food.
Money became tight after the baby was born. We shopped for cat food at the grocery store because the stuff there cost four dollars and lasted a month. The annual post-card arrived and we brought in the dog, skipping the flea treatment. Our son suggested a new home for the cat. She didn't feel like his cat anymore. And, he said, she never really did. But we told him you can't relinquish your responsibility toward someone just because you're tired of them. He nodded and said he wouldn't clean the litter anymore, though he'd only done it once, and badly. He asked for a cat door. We said no, imagining the baby stuck there, once she learned to crawl.
When the baby started walking, she stalked the cat. She grabbed handfuls of fur. She lifted the cat up under the front legs, squeezing until the cat twisted and scratched her young, new face. We tried to teach gentleness, but grew tired of this constant lesson. Whenever we sensed trouble, we let the cat out and left her there.
Still, she spent time indoors, eating dry kibble and curling up on the wing-backed chair. We brushed her on occasion. Our daughter entertained gentleness long enough to stroke the cat and acquire her first word: 'kitty.' She followed this with a mee-oow, the way we did when we read the farm book. We laughed and applauded. Then she smiled and grabbed the cat tightly and said her second word: 'ow-side'.
Months later, after his sister had been potty trained, our son reported that his room smelled of feces. He blamed his sister and brought us to the crime scene. We discovered the cat had alleviated herself beside the dresser. The dog sniffed it. We grabbed the cat by the scruff and tossed her from the front door. She landed with a slight jolt and looked at us for one hard minute. Then she licked herself and disappeared beneath the sprawling boughs of the spruce tree.
Another veterinary post-card arrived. Then another. The dog was all caught up on his shots. But where, the secretary asked, was the cat? Oh, we'd bring her in another time, we said. And she told us of a scare amongst cats in the Valley. A contagious form of leukaemia. Terrible, we said. And we tried to remember the last time we'd seen the cat. A week ago? Or more? The bowl on the top step was empty and we hadn't heard her mew for more.
Maybe she's dead, our son said.
Kitty? said our daughter.
We searched and beneath the spruce we discovered a clump of bird feathers and a dried up turd.
Weeks later, we arrived home to find her on the front step. We stepped from the car and she mewed louder than ever before. Our son ran to the gas station and bought a sac of food. Our daughter set up a blanket in the garage. After that, the cat stayed close though we brushed her less and less.
Summers went by, some winters too. Our dog died and we all felt the loss of him; we even held a small ceremony.
Without the dog to guard the yard, a family of raccoons pawed through our garbage. They grew bolder and climbed the front steps to bat the cat food bowl with their claws. If it was full, they finished it off. We made note to feed the cat in the mornings. Despite our efforts, they came around and in the middle of one night, through dreams and open windows, we heard screeches of animal combat. We rushed to the door and hissed; raccoons scattered across the lawn.
The cat went missing for several days. In any case, we didn't see her.
We painted the kitchen and talked about moving to a bigger house.
Between the second and third coat, our cat showed up for food. Her ear was bloodied. The racoons, we thought. Nothing fatal, nothing she couldn't handle through self-grooming.
The house went on the market and the realtor told us to clear out for viewings. We hid the cat in the garage with the bowl. She kept quiet by the lawn-mower and her ear grew worse. Pus oozed from the injury and blood dried into her matted fur. You don't look good, we said. None of us wanted to touch her.
Then we left her alone while the house looked beautiful and showy.
She ate infrequently, every four or five days and we kept hoping she'd go off, the way animals do, to die quietly and with grace. But she didn't go. She stayed on. Her ear grew uglier and more infected. We wiped Polysporin over the scabbing wound. She barely lifted her head.
People tramped through the house, imagining their lives in our furnished rooms. The realtor high-lighted the big yard and the south-facing windows.
Finally he called to tell us it had sold.
I'll be over for you to sign papers, he said.
We called the mortgage broker, who called us back. Then amongst the deals and signatures, a call came from the SPCA.
Did we have a cat? And did she look like this? We squirmed. We shifted. Her ear was bloodied, the woman said over the phone. Did we know? She was in terrible condition. The woman, a volunteer at the shelter, wanted us to pay the thousand dollars to have our cat repaired. We couldn't do it, we said. Not now, not ever. Though we'd pay for euthanasia, we owed her that.
The volunteer (and we pictured the one who'd watched us sign the papers all those years ago) let out a defeated sigh. You'll have to surrender the cat to us then, she said. Are you willing to do that?
Yes, we said.
Yes, we were willing.
Traci Skuce heard the music. Then came the rain.
Published On: October 18, 2012
Permanent Location: http://www.forgetmagazine.com/121018d.htm