Wednesday, January 19, 2011

In The Beginning

In which we read of trust and longing, of old friends and of the beginnings of things, and learn somewhat of the purpose of rivers.

It was March of 2001 when the spousal unit and I moved in together here at our little brick house in the City, all full of hopes and enthusiasms and dreams for "Ever After." His teenage daughter, for whom he was the custodial parent, was a part of our little household; I had high hopes of dramatically debunking the "Wicked Stepmother" mythos by what I knew would be my splendid step parenting skills. My biological children were all grown and married; the next generation, the generation of grandchildren, had begun to make their appearances on the world stage. I was working as a tutor in a math help lab, trying to get into graduate school. The Twin Towers still stood proud and tall over New York's harbor. Life was good. We had no intentions of getting a cat -- much less thirteen!

We disposed of our cars, giving mine to a charitable organization in exchange for a tax write off and their coming to haul it away for scrap. The spousal unit's car, when it gasped its last, went to a cousin. No tax write off, but it was hauled away at no expense to us and the cousin got the benefit of the scrap. We embraced the walking lifestyle we had wanted, learned the mass transit system. We began walking to the grocery store, the coffee house, the library, the bookstore, and occasionally, to church. We began to meet our neighbors, and to consider taking part in our neighborhood association. For a time, things were going exactly according to plan.

I've recently discovered the German writer, Hermann Hesse. I'm currently reading his "Steppenwolf", and am intrigued, but earlier, a few weeks back, I read what advertised itself to be his most famous novel, "Siddhartha." It's set in India, during the lifetime of Siddhartha Gautama, known to us in the West as THE Buddha. However, the book isn't about THE Buddha; rather it concerns the adventures of a young man who happens to carry the same name. The two Siddhartha's do meet at one point in the book; our hero comes across, as a young and arrogant ass in his exchange with the Enlightened One. The Enlightened One only smiles, blesses young Siddhartha, and lets him go his way.

Later, Siddhartha is an old and broken man; he comes to live with a poor ferryman on the banks of a Great River, and here he learns much wisdom. He learns, among other things, to listen to the river, to attempt to hear and to understand what it says, and also, he learns to accept what it brings, for it surely brings what things he needs.

It's a metaphor for life itself, that river. I wasn't really ready, or didn't think I was, when the river first began to bring me cats.

Bonus daughter number one, the then-teenager, had gone away to spend the summer with her mother, as was the custom in their family. The work schedule was light in the help lab over the summer, and I myself was taking no classes of my own for a change that year. I found myself with some time on my hands. Because I love the sun, because I crave its warmth on hands and feet and face, its brightness in my eyes and shining in a clear, blue sky, I began to spend a lot of time outside in the yard, soaking myself in the decadent delight of having a yard. It was there that the river swept up MamaCat, and we became acquainted.

I had lived for the six years previously, during the days of my exile, the time of my Corporate Slavery, in a tiny, walk up apartment in a moderately fashionable suburb. It had no yard, no balcony or patio even. Our house in the City sits on two lots; there was once, long ago, a second house, which burned. The then owner acquired the empty lot and fenced the two as one. Although it's a tiny pocket handkerchief of a yard compared to, say, the several acres of my mother's house in Texas, my wild wilderness of a yard was (and is!) yet wealth beyond reckoning after my lawnless six years of solitude. Trees, birds, grass, flowers, squirrels: what more could one want? One thing was missing it seems: we had not yet been blessed with cats.

We first noticed MamaCat lurking at times in our back yard. We didn't mind; she was a beautiful, tiny thing. Her coat was a muted calico, and she was very, very small, and extremely shy. I tried in vain during the time our paths crossed to make friends, but she would have none of it, ever. Who knows what acts of humanity engendered that fear? We didn't feed her; at the time we knew nothing at all about Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), about the Alley Cat Allies protocols, or managed colonies. We just knew she was a lovely little thing, and we were happy to have her hide out under our deck when she needed to, just as we were happy to find cardinals or mocking birds, butterflies and squirrels making their homes nearby.

Then, one night, the spousal unit came in after work and said, "I think MamaCat has had kittens." The deck, which we had defended as a safe place for her, had been deemed safe enough for the birthing of babies. We could hear them mewling in their little kitty voices under the deck. We sat in the kitchen over a pot of coffee and took council together as to how we ought to proceed.

The very first thing that must be done, we decided, was that MamaCat must have some assistance in feeding her babies. It was all well and good, we reasoned, for her to hunt mice and rats if she was feeding herself, but now she had babies, and so we must help. We figured out how much we could afford, translated that into catfood, and began to assist with feeding.

MamaCat had birthed a litter of three kittens; we named them Simba, Rikki, and Fuzzy. Simba had a beautiful, smoke colored coat. She was very, very shy, like MamaCat, but loved MamaCat to distraction. Whenever MamaCat would come in, after having been away on the serious business of hunting, Simba could be seen running to greet the small matriarch, tiny grey tail straight in the air. She clung to MamaCat, following her closely everywhere.

Rikki and Fuzzy were marked identically alike; they were both grey tabbies. The only way we could tell them apart was that Fuzzy was a bit fuzzier, and hence his name. Rikki was originally named Richard the Lionheart; she was intrepid, and marvelously curious. When she was no bigger than my fist, a miniscule little furball of a thing, she could be seen out prowling the yard, exploring, learning about everything. Even when I would come out onto the deck, through the back door, when Fuzzy and Simba would dive for cover, heading for the safety of under the deck, Rikki would stay. She would bound down off the deck; she was curious, but not stupid. Humans were not to be trusted. But she would sit in the yard and watch me; as I leaned up against the railing of the deck, talking to her, she would watch my face with her bright round eyes, her ears pricked forward, listening. Later, when we found out she was a girl and so could not be a Richard the Lionhearted, we shortened her name to Rikki, and so she is today.

Having the summer mostly to myself, I began the process of taming these three little wild ones. I would put food out on the deck, then sit quietly, still as a meditating monk, as the kittens came up on deck to eat. Day by day, I put the food bowl closer and closer, until they were eatiing right at my lap, as I sat crosslegged and still.

The next step was to move the food bowls inside. Instead of sitting quietly on the deck, I sat quietly in the laundry room, the foodbowls just inside the back door. At first this was unsuccessful, so we upgraded from dry cat food to tuna. I sat still as a statue; slowly, slowly, the kittens began to come inside, to eat just inside the door. One deep breath from me and they were gone in a flash, so I learned to sit still; to not gaze directly at them, but over their heads. See, I thought at them daily, struggling not to breathe, not blink an eyelash, I'm not scarry, not in the least. I'm as safe as a tree, or a rock.

The process of moving the dishes closer and closer was repeated, this time inside the laundry room. Eventually, the kittens would crawl onto my lap; I held food in my hands; they learned to take it from me. Gradually, I added slow, slow movement; ultimately, they allowed me to pet them, sometimes. From outside, from the very far corner of the deck, MamaCat watched, though she would never, ever come inside. Come to me, I urged her, with thought and body language and prayer, longing to give her a human home. Please come to me. I promise not to hurt you. Let me help your family. Let me help you. But she never would.

In the end, I was able to close the door one day when Rikki was inside. She hid behind the stove for three days, as we coaxed and comforted and enticed with tuna. Eventually she forgave us, accepted us as her human family. She is still brave and curious and smart. As I write this post, she dozes on my bed, looking at me from time to time through a half opened, sleepy eye. She is a grand old lady of ten summers now.

After Rikki joined us, Simba and Fuzzy were very, very leery of us for a bit. Fuzzy continued to get bigger and bigger. Soon we could see that he was a male. As the summer waned, as I continued my efforts to make friends, Simba began to come into the laundry room again to eat, to crawl into my lap, to let me pet her. Fuzzy would watch from the door and would eat at arm's length, but he never again let me pet him. One evening, I was able to close the door with Simba inside. Our indoor cat family now consisted of two: Rikki and Simba. For some few weeks, Simba would have nothing at all to do with us, hiding mostly under the couch, coming out only to eat. Then one evening, with no warning, as I sat in the living room, she walked out from under the couch, climbed onto my lap, started to purr. I'd been forgiven; I'd been accepted. It felt like a very good thing. As I write this today, Simba loafs on the back of my chair, one grey paw resting lightly on my shoulder. She, too, is a grand old lady of ten years.

As I look at them, these two little spinster cat ladies who have been such a large part of my life for a whole decade, I'm somewhat stunned by the passage of time. Has it been, really, ten years? So much has changed since that March, when the spousal unit and I moved in together here, to make our home in the City. The River has brought much has  to our lives, and has also washed much away.

And yet, gazing at Rikki and Simba (and Treasure and Sasha too!) I am convinced that the river continues to bring us exactly who and what we need.

stlcatlady is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of short stories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjects: felines, philosophy, and folklore. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com.


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