Nine Lives

NINE LIVES – By Kathleen Brandt

I was thirteen when I lost my favorite cat. Her name was Snow. That was my idea of a joke, at thirteen. She was pitch black, without one white hair, something I’d never seen before and never have since.

She used to greet me when I woke up in the morning by sitting on my chest. She’d be purring as I groped my way out of  dreams. In the exact second that I reached full consciousness, she’d make this little sound, halfway between a purr and a meow. An enquiring sound: “Prrroww?” As if to say, good sleep?

She made the same noise when I got home from school, but with a falling, satisfied tone: “Prrrroww!” You’re home, you’re back where you belong, we’re together. She’d meow for food to my mom, or purr when she sat on my dad’s knee, but she never made that noise for anybody but me.

When we slept with her draped over my chest and one paw possessively on my face, I’d dream. In the dreams Snow was the size of a great black lion, and we’d walk gravely together and exchange words full of sly wise humor.

One day, when I was walking home from the bus, I saw her lying on the side of the road. Her mouth kept opening and closing. There were three kids standing at a little distance, discussing it. I threw all my stuff into the wind and ran. I never did find my math homework.

I skidded to my knees beside her. It was obvious there was no hope. She was looking at nothing, making no sound, just opening and closing her mouth. I put my hands on her.

“Old lady Waterston hit her,” someone said.

“I saw it.”

“She swerved just to hit her.”

“She did not!”

“She says black cats are bad luck.”

I ignored them. Snow was looking at me now. She closed her mouth and opened it. I petted her ears, and she said, “Prrrowww,” and died. She’d only been waiting for me to get there.

I cried for a long time, but of course eventually I stopped. My dad investigated and said Mrs. Waterston, who was indeed superstitious, never admitted to anything. He even made her open her garage so he could look at her car, which I thought was brave of him. “It was a very clean car,” he said.

After a few months we got another cat. He was emphatically my mom’s cat, spending all his time sleeping in her chair unless she was home, when he slept on whatever she was knitting. I petted him and fed him and played with him, but I never really loved him.

Now I’m on the high side of forty-three, and I’m not sure I can count the number of cats I’ve lived with. My ex-husband and I had three before our marriage ran out of gas and we had to find homes for them. Before that, cats just came into and out of my life. Some came from the pound, some from the pet shop, some just walked in ragged and unloved from the street and took us as their home, as cats will. Some ran away, some died, some were given away when we moved, some had too many kittens and had to be put down.

Now there’s Tympani. There were three kittens in the litter, and my son wanted to have them all. I disagreed, mostly because the mother hadn’t been well enough to take care of them and we would have to hand-feed them. That’s a serious time commitment, and neither of us really had it. But when we went in to look at the kittens, against my better judgement, they were three squirming balls of fur with their eyes just open, and they smote my heart as nothing has done since the divorce.

It was like looking at my son for the first time. He was early too, though not by much. He’s the finest thing in my life, and I would never trade him, despite the trouble he’s been. These kittens just leapt into my heart in the same way.

“You won’t be able to save them all,” the owner said, hope and regret mingling in his face. “The mother had to be put down.”

“We’ll take them,” I said. My son goggled at me and I had to laugh. I picked up the white and black one, and it sank its tiny needles into my thumb and bit my wrist, which was as high as it could reach. “All of them.”

“You realize how much work you’ll have?”

My son and I ignored him, already conspiring. My son, who is a trombone in his high school marching band, named them Tympani, Allegro and Pizzicato.

So we got up every two hours to feed and clean them, we warmed bottles and had loopy two-a.m. conversations about whether the cat-milk was warm enough or too warm, and fell asleep in a pile with the kittens and my son’s head on my shoulder. We were dragging every day for two weeks, my boss nearly fired me, and two of the kittens didn’t make it.

We were left with Tympani, who is a striking gray and white cat with a stripe down his back. He’s aggressive, playful, and has huge feet. As I write, he’s about ten weeks old. His ears point amusingly when he pounces, and his eyes are great cauldrons of gold.

He loves me. It’s that simple. Whenever I walk in the house, I have to watch out for him, as he would prefer to wind figure eights between my ankles and wrap his tail around my calf, purring so loudly you can hear him two rooms away. If I leave the house, he sleeps on the couch, but when I get back he always seems to have climbed onto something high, and the moment I’m in the door he launches himself through the air onto me. A true cat owner knows that the scratches you get on the shoulders and chest from a cat balancing himself on your body are signs of love.

He sleeps on my chest.

I tried not to love him back. I guess I’m a fool, but I have never forgotten Snow, and I have never truly given my heart to a cat since then. I wondered sometimes whether I was loyal to her memory, or only afraid to lose something I loved.

Tym didn’t care. He gave me an exuberant, unconditional love, the kind dog people say you can only get from dogs. He butted my hand when I forgot to pet him for thirty seconds, he would not eat until I came into the kitchen to fix breakfast, he assumed the right to wash my hands after every meal. If I tried to move while he was doing this, he wrapped his paws around my wrist and gave me a nip to make me hold still.

Last week I had a dream. Tympani and I were walking in a ruined city, where the sky was turquoise and the only moving things were birds. Tym was the size of a pony, and I walked with one arm slung around his neck, and he went on soundless paws beside me. We spoke of love and loss and children and how attractive the birds were.

When I woke up, his paw was on my chin, and he was purring, purring, loud enough to rumble my bones.

“Tell me the truth,” I said, looking into the molten furnace of his eyes. “Are you Snow? Did you come back?”

He gave me the wise, inscrutable look that cats always have, whether you have asked them a question or not, and did not answer. But from that moment I loved him back. I couldn’t help it.

One day he will be gone, I know that. But you can’t hold back love because you’re afraid of losing it. If you do that, you have lost it from the start.

He never did answer my question, although in my dreams I am sure he could. I always forget to ask when we’re dreaming. There’s always something more interesting to talk about. But when I came home from work yesterday, I asked him again. “Are you really Snow? Is that what it means when they say cats have nine lives?” He just purred, and began very thoroughly to wash his left paw.

But when I turned away, behind me I heard it, very softly. “Prrrooww,” he said.

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