For a while this week, I thought I’d be writing notes on the death of a cat. It was a near thing. Involuntary felicide is the term for what almost went down, with me as the perpetrator. While I have recently admitted to a personal passion for intentional muricide, (a useful word, having to do with mice and murder), this close call was a very different matter.
The day started out well enough; it was piano lesson Tuesday. I spent most of the morning trying to play an elusive piece by Bach featuring staccato in the left hand and legato in the right. This is not an easy way for me and my brain to produce harmony. But, whenever I do manage to get what Bach was getting at, I’m reminded of those rare and grace-filled times when the unremitting daily stream of life’s staccato and legato elements seem to blend, if only for a moment, into a coherent, harmonious whole.
After the lesson, which went well enough, due in no small part to a musical mentor full of tact and mercy, I invited my teacher to have tea and meet our coon kitten. Lady Diana, Huntress-in-Waiting, was in great form, lying on her back in my teacher’s lap, offering up her elongated torso for a professional tummy massage in adagio tempo. My piano teacher soon left us, well-satisfied with our cat, if not with my playing, and we followed her out the door to take our afternoon walk. And that was the last we saw of Diana.
Elizabeth and I headed across the fields and into the woods of the neighborhood. We don’t walk the gravel roads these days. In this strangest of winters, the unpaved lanes that cut through the back woods of Douglas Point are covered with ice. Like nature’s own Zamboni, the unseasonal warmth of these days has combined with night-time below-freezing temperatures to produce a slick, treacherous frosting of ice on all the dirt roads. So we choose a course over the miles of paths our neighbors have cut through their forest lands. On the trail we met friends from the far end of the Point who were on their way to pick up the day’s mail. They asked if we had heard the barred owls calling to each other across the forest. I thought I had heard something unusual, I told them, but figured it was just some mourning doves having an afternoon argument off in the forest clearings. “No, listen closely,” they urged, “it’s owls sounding off.” We hadn’t gone much farther down the path before we heard that unmistakeable love-song with the most practical of lyrics: “Who, who, who cooks for y-o-o-u?”
It was when we returned home that the near-tragedy occurred. On the way back, Elizabeth and I had decided on our own domestic answer to the owls’ plaintive question: this evening, she’d get supper and I’d wash up. So, I had a little time before dinner for some reading in my well-loved reclining chair. Just as I was about to settle back in the recliner, I felt the need for a lap companion and got up to look for the kitten. She was nowhere to be found. I looked everywhere — under every piece of furniture, behind the washing machine, in the fireplace grate, up the flue, (which, mercifully, was closed), and in every drawer and cabinet in the house. Molly, our labrador retriever was no help at all. She suffers from a deficit in her education, never having been taught the “Find the cat!” command and response at obedience school. She’s useless at retrieving kittens, but was all enthusiasm accompanying me from room to room. She considered crawling on the floor a great improvement in my behavior and seemed delighted that I had finally gotten this “indoor play” thing right.
Elizabeth postponed serving dinner to join the hunt. After going over the same territory for a third time, we suspended the search and sat down to supper. It was a quiet, morose meal from start to finish. Even always-ready-for fun Molly had figured out that something disturbing was in the air. In honor of the occasion, she assumed that glum and morose expression that only a Labrador can produce on its normally goofy, comical face. During the shared silence of the meal, I realized that I loved that tiny creature with the oversized feet, the constant purr and the eyes of an owl. I wanted her to be part of the harmonies and dissonance of our family life for a long time to come. I wanted her to warm our laps and our hearts and to help with the ice-bound edges of our lives.
As we rose from the table, Elizabeth theorized that someone might have come in and taken the kitten while we were out in the woods. “But that’s not possible,” she corrected herself, “this is Maine!” We decided Diana had to be somewhere in the house and that we would go together over every inch of every room to see if we could find her — alive or otherwise. We started with the great room, a room which had already been so thoroughly searched that I knew there was no place for a kitten to hide. I lay belly-down on the floor and moved slowly, like a giant, geriatric lizard, peering under each article of furniture.
Then, I came to the recliner chair from which I had first set out on this sad odyssey. Unaccustomed as I was to viewing this favorite piece of furniture from below, I now saw something that stuck me as unusual. The leather covering suspended across the chair’s underside had an almost imperceptible bulge in it. I slithered over, reached up under the chair and began the slow process of extricating a furry substance. As I gently tugged, I wasn’t certain whether what I had in my hands was dead or alive. Out came our beautiful coon cat, blinking and purring, with an expression that seemed to be asking, “What’s the problem here, and why are you disturbing me in my newly-discovered personal hammock where I fit just perfectly?”
All I could do was to sit in the recliner and be quiet with Diana settled in my lap, already purring in her sleep. I thought of how close a thing this was. I thought of what might have happened had I stretched back on the recliner with the cat beneath me surrounded by the hinged bars and expanding and contracting springs of the chair’s inner workings. I thought of what I’d learned today from Bach and the owls and my neighbors and wondered why I so often fail to appreciate what I’ve been given until I discover it’s gone.
Diana has already moved on from all the fuss of last night. This morning I sat at the table calmly eating eggs on toast, drinking tea and listening to the BBC Radio pursue its self-appointed mission to explain the U.S. to the British and to the rest of the world. The Brits had cheerily chosen breakfast-time in America to inform us that the New York City subway system is over-run with rats. Usually, I don’t allow this kind of thing to set the tone for my morning, but the correspondent was so chipper about the goings-on in the bowels of Gotham that I was completely taken in.
The report spared no detail, the correspondent in clipped English waxing particularly enthusiastic about the contents of the subway’s cavernous trash collection-room. Just as he described how the garbage-filled trash bags undulated with the motion of the squealing rats within, I suddenly felt tiny, needle-like claws piecing my right leg in four different places. I jumped up in fright, knocking over the chair in my confusion. From the floor at my feet, amber-eyed Diana stared at me, trying to figure out just what it would take to get into my lap, confident that she had already made it into my heart.
Edward R. Dufresne © 2012