by Raki Kopernik
I didn’t see you at first. I was distracted by everyone else vying for attention. But I felt you, like the lingering ghost of a long passed grandmother. When I turned, your gold eyes were staring at me. I met your gaze, and the rest of the room disappeared. I approached and saw that your belly had been shaved and you were swelled with milk. You had been found pregnant on the street. An abortion to save you. I didn’t try to touch your belly. I looked back at your face, intense and full.
I’m coming home with you, you said.
For the first few days you hid in a box of sweaters in the closet. I checked on you every couple of hours, your eyes glowing in the dark. I whispered to you through the clothes so you would get familiar with my voice.
It’s okay, I said. You’re home now.
You started to come out, little by little. At first, just into the room for a few minutes. Then for an hour, then you got up on the bed, then you came downstairs. Finally, you went out into the back yard and we walked through the garden. You looked up at me, I down at you. I smiled. You smiled back.
You started to sleep in the bed with me at night. You were never one to sit on anyone’s lap or rub around legs. You didn’t approach people and you didn’t ask for much. But at night, you arrived. At first, you just curled around my feet. It was such a gift to have you close, so I felt I couldn’t move once you were on the bed. I didn’t want to disturb you, or you to think I was trying to get you to leave, which you did if I moved at all. Even if I sneezed or farted. I held everything in. I wanted to be close to you. I took what I could get.
You started to sleep in the crook of my knees every once in awhile. I listened to you breathe. I watched you sleep, your belly rising and falling, your arms twitching with dreams. I lost so much sleep that first year but I didn’t care. You filled my life with a sweetness I had never known before. I fell in love hard and it hurt and it was the best pain.
I started leaving the bathroom window open enough for you to come in and go out freely. I wanted you to feel autonomous. Some nights you didn’t come home. I searched the neighborhood and cried to my friends. But you were never gone for more than two days. I got used to your feral ways. Once, after two days and no word, I panicked a new kind of panic. On the third day, you came home covered in motor oil, looking like a wet mouse. I washed your body with a warm cloth and you didn’t contest. You said you got trapped in the neighbor’s garage. I warned you against walking through unfamiliar open doors. It never happened again.
By the third year we decided to move to the woods for awhile, a twelve-hour car ride away. I put you on the floor of the old Subaru and you found your way to my lap while I drove. This was the only time you ever sat on my lap. You purred loud, a purr I knew was self-soothing your fear and distaste for car rides. I talked to you the whole way down, reassuring you that everything would be okay, that you would love our new place. When we arrived, I left the car door open for you to come out when you were ready. It didn’t take you long. You seemed ecstatic to be out of the city. Your nose couldn’t take in all the new smells quickly enough. I showed you the cabin and opened the back sliding door to the porch overlooking the pond and the garden. You found a perch in the sun and rolled your body, smearing your scent everywhere. People told me not to leave you alone outside, that a cougar or a hawk would get you. It happened to them, they saw it, it was real. I didn’t worry. I wanted you to be free. Also, you were so fast.
We took walks through the forty acres of old growth forest around the cabin, looking for chanterelles and other wild plants. You walked by my side, panting when you got hot. Sometimes I picked you up and carried you on the way back. You were wild but so small. You tired out quickly. Once, we walked the dirt road toward the main road. There was a property with big, majestic horses along the way. Sometimes the horses walked right up to the fence that butted up to the road and we fed them carrots. When you saw the horses, you bolted into the woods. You had never seen such a big animal. We searched for you for hours. We shook your food bowl and called your name into the night. I cried. They were right, all the people who said you wouldn’t make it in the woods. But then, just as I was about to give up, I spotted you in the crook of a tree, in the smallest shadow of its engorged roots, hiding, shaken and puffed. I scooped you up and hid you in a t-shirt as I walked back passed the horses. I never let you walk that path with me again. When you tried to follow me, I shooed you back to the cabin. Your feelings didn’t seem to get hurt. I always told you what was what and you listened. I felt your trust.
That year at the cabin was your most feral. The cabin was full of cracks and holes and the mice and wood rats took advantage of our buckets of dried nuts and grains. You did your job without us having to ask. You caught the rodents, mostly when they arrived at night, chasing their tiny bodies around the cabin, injuring a leg, slitting open a belly to let out streams of blood across the floor, tossing them up in the air and against the white painted doors, staining them red. We started closing the bedroom door at night. I didn’t like waking up to tortured, half-living creatures in my bed. We had a funeral for the first mouse you killed, buried him at the edge of the garden. I cried and begged you to stop the killing, or at least, to eat your kill.
I quit feeding you in hopes that you would eat the rodents. It worked. The torture didn’t stop, but there were fewer and fewer dead bodies around. I listened to the crunch of your tiny sharp teeth break through even tinier rodent bones. It disgusted me and I loved it. I loved your wildness. It felt like the life you were supposed to have. We grew our food in the garden and you hunted yours. We swam in the pond and you watched, sipping at the edge. We worked in the garden and you napped in the shade of the corn. We lived in harmony with the land, you and me.
Sometimes we slept outside, in the garden near the shed. The shed had a sloping tin roof you liked to jump up on. In the middle of the summer, I saw you up on the roof looking majestic. I snapped a picture: cat on a hot tin roof. I couldn’t get enough of that joke. Once, you tried to jump up but didn’t quite make it. You hung on by your front legs, swinging for a few seconds. I laughed, reached up, and helped you down. You licked your chest and walked away. We never spoke of the incident. You were embarrassed. But you always let go of things like that quickly.
Over the next few years, we lived in other woods nearby, building new gardens wherever we were. You always walked with me to morning waterings, hauling wheelbarrows of compost up and down paths, and strolling through gardens to harvest and admire flowers. Sometimes, if you saw or heard something you wanted to get closer to, you sat back on your hind legs, your front legs up and your neck long. We called you Prairie Dog when you did that. It was my favorite thing you did.
You sat when I sat and we listened to the wind together. You continued to sleep in the crook of my knees and sometimes, in the winter, you forced your way under the covers. Once in a while you woke me up with your breath on my face, your tongue on my eye, or your paw gently patting my face. But you never sat on my head or scratched my face. You never peed or bit or jumped where you weren’t supposed to jump. My heart ached anytime I had to leave wherever we were living, even if just for the day. I wished I could bring you with me. I missed you all the time.
We moved back to the city eventually. By then your hunting days had begun to slow. With age, you became more affectionate. You still never sat on my lap, aside from the occasional car ride. But more and more often, you found your way under the covers at night and in the morning. You started sleeping closer to my face. We spent time looking at each other, slow blinking and purring. I set up a door for you in the window to go outside anytime you wanted. You used it, a little less so in the wintertime when the rain came. The thump sound of you coming in through that door, your jumps from the window to the ground, was comforting.
There were only two times you peed on the bed. The first was in the rainy city. I knew right away something was wrong. You never had a box. You always just went outside. But after that, I set up a box and you used it right away, and often. People said you might have a urinary infection, so I fed you tinctures and raw meat and you healed quickly. It was a long time before the next time you peed on the bed.
Those following years were calm. No hunting, no overnights elsewhere, no illness. We lived easy and slow. Cats and dogs came and went with roommates and although you managed, you always seemed relieved when it was just us. You liked a quiet life. Your coat filled out and fluffed up. You had strong muscles I could see, but a healthy soft layer I could gently grab and kiss. We both started to settle down. I thought this would be our last place, our forever home.
And then, I fell in love again, with a person.
It was the last time we did a long car ride and it was the longest. Three days to the middle of the country. I worried for months about how you would handle the journey, until the day came to get in the car. I stocked up on tinctures and mellow herbal pills and sprays to help you stay calm. But I hardly used any of them on you. You didn’t sit on my lap this time, but you did great, better even, than we did. My new person and I needed the herbs more than you did. You were perfect. You were always perfect.
You adjusted quickly, found your spots next to the dining room radiator, the bedroom radiator on the meditation cushion, and then a rotation of places we knew to look for you. Sometimes you took to the basement couch or any of the bedrooms at any given time, on the grandpa chair, or in the summer when I couldn’t find you anywhere, the bushes out front or under the deck out back to cool off. This time, it was our forever place. You didn’t mind the three-year-old who stayed with us for half the week at a time. We taught her how to love you gently and you were patient. She learned quickly. I was so relieved. I took pictures of her hand on yours, you calm and easy, she smiling and commenting on how cute you were.
That first winter was the coldest you’d ever experienced. You chose not to use your door to go outside at all. The snow seemed to scare you at first, and then it just made you cringe. I bought you a heated bed. And another smooshy bed. I bought you new toys that you licked but didn’t play with. I started giving you treats with vitamins for aging and arthritis. We developed a new routine. Every evening, as I got into bed, I lay on my back and you lay on my chest, your front arms extended almost to my chin. I rubbed your shoulders and the space between your eyes. You let me touch your pads and claws, stretched them open. We blinked slowly. Your motor ran high and loud and as soon as it stopped, I knew you’d jump down and go into the other room. We did the same thing in the morning, or anytime I was lying down on my back with a blanket covering my body. I had to be flat on my back and there had to be a blanket. You came when I called your name and you lay down when I patted my chest. I whispered stupid nicknames into your face and you closed your eyes and sighed.
My little chicken, my fluffy goose, I said.
My friend said that her cat always gave her a reason to live in the times she didn’t want to live. I knew exactly what she meant.
One day I noticed a bump on your chin. It grew bigger by the day and I knew I had to call someone. The vet stuck her finger in your mouth and burst a puss bubble that made me gag. She gave you antibiotics and two days later, in the middle of the night, you scratched the bump and it erupted, leaving your chin and chest wet, a gaping gash under your chin. I washed you with a warm cloth. It didn’t seem to bother you. But when the vet had examined you, she squeezed your belly and legs and said you were likely in some other pain. She said you were aging gracefully, but that I should give you pain meds. From then on, I squeezed a tiny syringe full of gabapentin on your food. That gave you diarrhea, so I added a shake of psyllium powder. I put more water bowls around the house and one on the back porch where you liked to lie in the summer. You drank all the water all the time. The porch water bowl attracted some fat squirrels and other cats. You didn’t care about them, but I liked to watch the neighborhood animals come by to drink. I was proud that you drank so much water. We all need to drink more water.
The water slowly became the main dish. You had days with no food, just water, all the water. I worried, and then you’d bounce back wanting food, so much food, all the food. That last summer you were outside most of the time. You lay in the sun and when it got too hot, crawled under the deck. You moved slow but you ate, you drank, you were aging gracefully, like the vet said. Everyone said that.
When winter came, you stopped going outside as usual. But then, you started going out to lick the snow. You licked and you came back in and stuck your hands in the water, then your face, then you just lay there with half your face in the water. You were wet all the time. You waited outside the shower so you could jump in and drink the leftovers. I turned on the tap and you drank and drank and dunked your whole body in the water. You couldn’t get enough water. When I picked you up, it felt like I wasn’t holding anything. You became so light, like a little cloud.
Soon, all of your bones jutted and I talked about you all the time. How will I know when it’s time? I asked everyone. Everyone said I would know, that you would tell me. But you didn’t. You never did. You kept bouncing back, less and less each time, but still. You ate a little. You loved. You used the box. You did all the things.
I didn’t know until the day I knew. I heard the scream and the howl, your body flipping over itself, shaking. My heart split, flipped over itself like your little body. I panicked and I cried. We called everyone we knew but it was Christmas and no one could help. When we stopped calling, you laid down, your head so heavy, and I rubbed your tiny body. You tried to get up but you couldn’t walk straight. I picked you up and put you in a smooshy bed. I made one more call.
The next two days were the hardest days of my life. Seventeen years, most of my adult life, the longest relationship I ever had. We spent those two days lying on the floor and I told you everything was okay. I told you I would help you. I told you you would always be mine. I will always love you, I said over and over again. Friends came by to see you off. Every time I opened my mouth, I cried.
The last night was the longest. You kept trying to get up, thinking maybe this time you’d be able to walk. But you couldn’t. You wobbled and cried, and I gently pressed you back down. You didn’t resist me. Finally, you let yourself pee in the bed. I didn’t care. I told you it was okay. You never closed your eyes. Neither did I. When the sun came up the vet arrived. I took you downstairs and laid you on my lap on the couch. You only cried when I tried to move you, but on my lap you lay so still. The life had already started to fade from your eyes. The vet asked me if I wanted a paw print. Yes, I told her, I want everything you have to offer. She pulled out a circular piece of clay and pressed your paw into it. She told me to let it dry, and that I could paint it. Then she did the first injection, which she said was just to deeply calm you. She let us sit there for what felt like a really long time. Then she asked me if I was ready. I said no. But okay, yes. She did the second injection, the final one. Your eyes were still open, and there was liquid in them. I asked her if you were crying. She said sometimes the ducts get clogged when there’s severe dehydration, so the water gets diverted and excretes through the eyes. I wanted to close your eyes. It didn’t seem right for them to be open. I tried to gently ease them shut. We used to have this game where I’d hold your tail and you’d wiggle the end of it around quickly. Then I’d let go, and it would float, like a feather, back down. After the second injection, I picked up your tail and when I let it go, it fell, limp and heavy.
The vet put your body in a woven basket. Two weeks later a wooden box arrived with your ashes. I put the box, along with the paw print in clay, a picture, and all the candles and crystals, on an altar.
I put my finger in the paw print every day. I always feel you – it was the last place you touched. I miss your earthy rain smell. I see you out of the corner of my eye every day. I hear you jump in through your door, onto the bed, coming up the stairs. I see you in my dreams, where I realize I was wrong, you didn’t die, you were here all along.
In the spring, I will plant a big catmint bush and sprinkle in some of your ashes. Not all of them. I want to keep some of them closer.
About the author:
Raki is a first generation American, queer, Jewish writer. She is the author of The Things You Left (Unsolicited Press) and The Memory House (The Muriel Press), both Minnesota Book Award finalists. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and has been shortlisted and nominated for several other awards, including the Pushcart Prize for Fiction and the Pen Faulkner Award in Fiction. She is a fiction editor at MAYDAY Magazine and an adjunct creative writing teacher at The Minneapolis College of Art and Design. You can find her here: https://rakikopernik.wixsite.com/mysite and follow on Instagram @rakikopernik.