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Thursday, December 08, 2005


Tell a story about an animal:

When I first saw her, she wasn't very friendly. I had to coax her for a few weeks to trust me enough to come close, but by the end of summer she'd sit in my lap on the delapidated old lawn chair on our front porch. She'd purr while the sun set over the farmland across from our rented house and I'd never felt happier.

I had just finished my degree in French Literature a few months before, and while I was happy in Idaho and loving the change from city to country, beach to farm, I was also feeling a bit at loose ends. I hadn't found a job yet, or met any friends. I felt without moorings. As the cat purred on my lap I remembered a passage I'd read by Colette, something about her cats (Colette had a great love of animals and cats in particular) which had made my heart swell up with love for every cat I had ever owned as I read it and so I named this cat Colette. As a way to connect my old life and my new.

She rewarded me with her batch of kittens, certainly not her first, judging from the ease with which she left them on our porch that day. "Here, now you take them," she seemed to say. And I did.

Charlie was the funny one. The ham. He and Bill had a special rapport that started the day that Bill picked him up by the scruff of his tiny little neck and he hissed ferociously at him. He was so cocksure of himself, that his hissing would scare the crap out of this man, that Bill about fell over laughing and they were fast friends from then on.

Hillary was the smartest one. She was also vocal, the way some cats are, "mow"-ing and "mrrp"-ing conversationally, almost constantly. Hillary Clinton was making waves at the time as the "I'm no stand-by-your-man Tammy Wynette-cookie-baking woman," debacle so I named this cat who never seemed to know when to shut her mouth in her honor. It wasn't an insult. I admired them both.

And Darryl, she was the oddball. The runt. She had probably not developed completely in the womb, and even now outside of it she was too timid to compete for milk and food and merely took whatever was leftover. She was half the size of the others. She was also the shyest. Her shyness went beyond simple meekness and bordered on the neurotic. Long after the other two had come to trust us and let us play with them and hold them, Darryl shrunk into the shadows and hid under cars, refusing to let us get close to her.

Eventually the other two learned how to pull open our sagging screen door by its corner on the bottom and run inside our house. Inside was where there was always food and warmth (or cool shade) and kitten toys. Darryl wanted no part of it. One day, though, as I held back and out of her sight, she tentatively followed the others in and instantly regretted it. She looked trapped. Cornered. She tried to figure out how to get back out but before she could I had latched the screen shut, and since I had her trapped there, between the screen and myself, I dared to risk alienating her forever by taking advantage of the proximity and touching her. As I crooned softly, "It's ok, you'll be ok..." and lowered my hand slowly and gently to her she cringed and cowered and trembled. When my hand stroked her fur her eyes popped open in surprise and just that quickly she decided that this touching thing, it wasn't so bad. Purring loudly, she rubbed up to me and greedily demanded payback for all of the barren, love-starved months she'd endured until now.

It wasn't long before word got out that we were hosts of an unwed-cat-mother facility. The next mother to deposit her offspring on our porch was a bedraggled white cat I named, simply, Mama-Kitty. I feel bad now that she never had an identity beyond her parental role. She left us three fluffy white kittens. I managed to give one away to a co-worker (I had found a job by then), and the other two we named Buster and Oliver.

Buster. He was the quintessential kitten. When you think of kittens and their funny antics, the chasing of tails, the batting at pieces of yarn - you think of Buster. He played the role to perfection. I couldn't help but love that little guy with all of my heart, as if he were my child. I thought of him while I was away at work, wondering what he was doing.

His brother, Oliver, was the complete opposite. Gloomy. Shy. Timid. Cynical. If Buster was the guy who was always the life of the party, Oliver was the "emotionally complex" one. And yes, I adored him. I loved Oliver with less of a physical, grabbing-up-and-smooching kind of love than I did Buster, but in addition to loving him I respected him. I understood him. We were peas in a pod.

Oliver trusted very few in this world, and while I was admitted to this esteemed circle it was Buster who received the best of Oliver's love. They curled up together to sleep every night. If Oliver ever, ever came at all close to "playing," it was because Buster was poking at him relentlessly until he finally gave in and started to swipe back. Buster was good for Oliver. He was going to show him how to become more free.

And then he was run over by a car, Buster was. I grieved noisily and openly, sobbing at home, at work, at the laundromat. It felt like a part of my body had been torn off. But I could only imagine the heartache that Oliver felt and in time he and I pulled together and became even closer. We had several connections now, and we shared the kind of grief that you never really recover from.

He trusted no one but me now. When my parents visited at Christmas, Oliver managed to squeeze himself underneath the refrigerator, so convinced was he that these people meant him harm. I wrung my hands and worried a lot because I couldn't see how any creature could fit themself into that small of a space, underneath something so solid and heavy, and survive. But when my parents would leave the house to do Christmas shopping Oliver would sneak out, dazed and traumatized, and huddle next to me on the couch.

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