Monday, February 21, 2011

La Tristesse Durera Toujours

In which we meet a lonely cat and a lonely artist, and are confronted with the power of things we can not know.

Daubigny's Garden by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

His name was "Vincent." Rather, that was what we called him, for what human truly knows the true name of any cat? To be completely truthful, we don't even know for sure he was a he. Fluffy fur trousers hid the pertinent area of anatomy from casual view, and he was shy, terrified of humans. Terrified not only of humans, but of dogs, of traffic. It was only his need, his hunger, which drove him to our back porch. We were never able to touch him, to stroke and to comfort him. So we never learned his gender.

We called him "Vincent" after Vincent van Gogh, because one of his ears
was severely mutilated, horribly crumpled. He wore a fur coat which would have been magnificent had it not been so tattered; a long haired gray tabby, very much like our own beloved Sasha, though Vincent's stay with us was years before Sasha's arrival. I  wondered what life he had lived before he found us. Everything about him said it had not been an easy one. The crumpled ear, the cowering, cautious demeanor were signs to scar your heart.

One Spring he showed up, hanging around the edges of the colony at feeding time. Cringing back, he never drew near the other cats, never risked the wrath of the younger, territorial males. This is one reason I think he was probably a male. In my years now of casual colony watching, it seems to me that unknown females join the colony more readily than unknown males. I don't know if this is because hungry females are more fierce in asserting their needs, or if it's because the territorial enforcers, the young males, feel no threat from a female. With my own particular cultural conditioning, I'm inclined to believe the strange females pose no threat to the young males. I could be wrong. It could be something else entirely. Mysterious indeed, Gentle Reader, are the curious ways of cats.

In those days, we were still feeding the colony out of one communal feeding trough. Two cookie sheets, end to end, made up their table. Vincent would never approach this gathering. Day after day, I watched him hanging back, waiting, and then, when all the others had fed and gone their ways, he would creep up, to finish off what crumbs were left behind. Even the slightest breath from me would send him racing away. I fretted, wondering if my clumsy breathing, my frightening movement, had cost him his only food for that day.

We started setting a special bowl for him, away from the colony, but not too far. We were hoping he would join the colony,would be welcomed to its midst. We were hoping for integration. The individual bowl solved the feeding issue, if not the issue of integration. From the very edges of the yard this shy fellow, hounded to fear and spirit-crushed beneath what forces I could never know, would watch, would wait. When the colony was feasting and I removed myself to the back door, he would come. To his own small dish he would come, and eat in peace.

His first disappearance caught me by surprise.  He was gone for a day, then two, then ten. I was in agony. I feared the worst: the hunting instinct of dogs, the crushing wheels of speeding machines,  the cruelty of humans. Then, one night, there he was again, lurking in the shadows of the mulberry bush, watching me with enormous green eyes, waiting, but not coming close. I filled his bowl, retreated to the back door. Belly always low to the ground, prepared to disappear into darkness at the slightest perceived threat, he crept forward; he ate from his bowl. A few regular members of the colony raised their heads, regarded him momentarily, then went back to eating:  Skitter, Miss Kitty. He finished eating and made himself into a loaf, alert but resting in the shadows.

My public hopes for Vincent were that he would integrate with the colony, make a home with them. My private hopes were that he would come to trust me, would allow to bring him inside, into our home. Something about him spoke to my empathy, told me  this was an elderly cat, hard used by life, approaching his later days. I have no proof any of this was true, yet I felt it to be true. I wanted to bring comfort to those last days. I wanted to be for him a safe haven, at last.

He stayed with the colony a few weeks, then disappeared again. Again my fears ran rampant. Again he returned to us after a few days, stayed a while, then wandered away. This became a pattern. Always I was so glad to see him return, to see that crumpled gray ear and those disreputable whiskers.

There came a day when he returned no more. The days of his absence stretched on, a week, a month, a year, and more. We were forced to declare him missing in action.

I am not fond of uncertainty. I dislike unsolved mysteries, unresolved arguments, unknown outcomes. You may have seen those old maps, where the edges of the known world become blurry, and the artist indicates only, in letters writ large, in a lovely antique script, "Here be dragons." These maps make me uncomfortable. What kind of dragons, I want to know. What are their sizes, their species, their numbers? Are they fire breathing, winged, or aqueous? Are the explorers quite sure they saw dragons, or was it something else entirely? Perhaps they captured a vision on video.

Living with uncertainty is uncomfortable, but so often, we have no choice, because we simply have no access to the answers we seek. As Doris Day sang in the days of my mother's youth:  "Will I be pretty? Will I be rich? ....What lies ahead?" She sang the uncomfortable answer as well, "The future's not ours to see."

My hopeful heart yearns for a happy ending for Vincent. I like to imagine he found at last a loving human home and lived out his life in comfort and luxury, surrounded by love. I know this is unlikely, but I hope it nonetheless.

In the meantime, I miss him. Even after all these years, I scan the bushes at the edge of the yard for a pair of great green eyes in the shadows of the mulberry bushes.

"La tristesse durera toujours," Vincent Van Gogh whispered on his deathbed. "The sadness will last forever."

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. Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. OHG - what an interesting story. I don't like things without closure either. Would be nice to know what ever happened to Vincent.