On Cats I Have Known

On my desk at work I have three framed photographs.

One, situated next to a plush Cthulhu beanie, blue with a yellow heart and a smile, is a picture of my niece. She would have been, at the time the photo was taken, about three, maybe four months old. She’s wearing a brown dress with peach-colored sleeves, against a white background. This was from one of her first formal picture sessions.

The other two pictures, which stand against the wall of my cubicle, are pictures of cats. Both are in cat-themed picture frames.

One is in a black frame. A cat, sitting inside a flower pot, bathed in sunshine, stares up at the camera through the leaves and stems of the plant. It is, in my opinion, one of the best photographs I have ever taken. The interplay of light and shade convey a mood of vibrancy.

Her name was Guinevere. She was a polydactyl cat — she had seven toes on her front paws, five on her back. Genetics put her together strangely. She was a grey tabby on the top, white underneath. She was short-haired from the tip of her nose to midway down her spine, whereupon her fur changed consistency completely and she had longer, even slightly curly, fur. She was also smelly.

You can see that picture here.

She died, eight years ago, in my arms. There was a colony of feral cats in the barn near my house, and one day in October, many of them took suddenly ill. Guinevere was one of them. And she died.

I don’t know how I got through work that day. My company’s regional vice president came to visit my store that day, and I wasn’t in the mood. I was on autopilot. I went to the hobby store, across the hall in the mall from my store, and I bought a toy I had been looking at for Guinevere — a ball and jacks set, because she could work her extra toes like thumbs. I wanted her buried with it. It came in a bag, and after work when I put her in the shoebox and laid her on t-shirts that I knew I would never wear, I put the bag of toys between her forepaws. I laid more t-shirts atop her, to make sure she was warm, closed the box, and buried her in the backyard, at the edge of a field that had long ago grown fallow.

I don’t remember when I took the photo of Guinevere in the flower pot. I suspect it was sometime around 9-11, as the picture comes from a roll of film that was shot that September. The date on the back of the photo, when Ritz developed it, is December, two months after she died. September seems reasonable.

The other cat photo is of Percy.

It’s a brown, wooden frame, with the word “Cat” etched a half dozen times around the frame, each in a different typeface, along with stylized images of cats playing and pouncing and sleeping, because these are things that cats do.

The photo, on the back, is dated February 22, 2006. The picture would have been taken no more than a week before then; it’s from the same batch of film from my visit to Philippi, West Virginia and my first Farpoint convention.

The picture is this one. Percy is on my bed in Raleigh, half-awake.

Observant people will notice that a) I sleep (not past tense) on a pillowcase with the classic E.H. Shepard version of Tigger, b) my bookcase of Star Trek novels stood in the corner (with the Double Helix sextet prominent), and c) I had the Robot City novels on another bookshelf in the room.

Percy was not named, as I was asked a few months ago, after Percy Bysshe Shelley. Rather, it was short for Percival, one of the knights of the Round Table, and one of the knights to achieve the quest of the Holy Grail. Percy had a brother named Galahad, but there was no way to shorten Galahad that didn’t sound stupid. There was not, however, a Bors.

My first thought for their names, as an aside? Fafnir for Percy, Sigurd for Galahad. The dragon and the dragonslayer from the Eddas and the Volsung Saga. No, I cannot pick normal names.

To look at them, you would know they were brothers. They were, in almost every way, identical in their markings — reddish fur, strewn with yellow, marked in circles on their flanks. But Percival was a long-hair, while Galahad was a short-hair. Percival was like Peanuts‘ Pig-Pen, as the photograph above attests; wherever he went, a cloud of loose hair would follow. Touch him, and fur would fly loose. He was scruffy, he was unkempt. He looked massive, but it was all illusory; wet his hair, matte it down, and he was no larger, really, than Galahad. A little heavier, perhaps, but not much more than that.

Some cats are born old. Galahad was such a cat. Where Percy was exuberant, Galahad was sedate. Where Percy would tear through the house and crash into walls when he lost traction on the hardwood floors, Galahad was lithe and nimble. Where Percy would play with anything and anyone, especially loving to wrestle, Galahad could scarcely be bothered.

I came by Percival and Galahad thanks to my neighbors. One of their cats had kittens. They had two cats — one was a solid grey cat named Ribbon, the other was orange with white feet and tummy named Cheddar. And Cheddar had five kittens.

Cheddar and Ribbon both spent a fair bit of time hanging around, outside my house. I always had food out for Woodrow — sometimes, the big lug preferred to eat outside — and the neighbors cats both would avail themselves of whatever I put out. She was a friendly cat, Cheddar, and it never bothered me that I was feeding someone else’s cat. And it was no real surprise that when Cheddar moved her kittens, when they were large enough, she moved them to my carport.

I first saw the kittens on an evening in June. I’d driven home from work, pulled into the driveway, and I saw something run across the carport and duck behind the wheelie bin. It was after dusk, and while I’d turned the engine off I left the headlights on. I walked slowly, quietly, methodically toward the garbage can, and crouched down. My hand darted out, into the gap between the wheelie bin and the wall, and my hand clamped down on something I couldn’t see. I picked it up, withdrew my hand slowly. The kitten was doing the hiss-hiss-spit thing that kittens are wont to do, and when I held it in the light of the Beetle’s headlights, I saw that it was yellow and reddish and scruffy.

This was how I found Percy.

All told, that evening, I found five kittens. One was identical to Percy, but with short hair. One was the color of a pale rose wine, another was like Cheddar in miniature. The last was a tortoise-shell, and she only ever tolerated people. She would play and frolic with her siblings, she would eat cat food if it were provided, but she was never friendly and she would run at the first sight of anyone.

My neighbors didn’t mind that Cheddar and the kittens took up residence on my carport. In truth, they were indifferent to their cats. Their other cat, Ribbon, had had kittens a month before Cheddar and those kittens, save the one they let my sister have, simply disappeared. When my neighbors moved away, they took Cheddar and Ribbon with them, leaving the kittens behind, though, in reality, the kittens had become mine.

When my grandmother came to live with me in Raleigh, the question was this — how would she react to the cats? When I was younger, and my grandparents would visit, my grandmother would be mean to the cats that we had. She would scream at them, she would scream at my parents that she was allergic to cats. In reality, she is not allergic to cats, and I do not understand now, nor did I ever, her need to lie about cats and allergies.

She hated the cats. They had to go, she insisted. I would not hear of it, and so I ignored her. She shut them out from a room they liked to play in, as the cats had free run of the house. Over time, her attitude softened. She would pet Galahad with her foot, or she would dangle a cat toy on a string for one of the cats to play with. She insisted that she was allergic to cats, but she didn’t mind the cats most of the time.

In truth, if it had ever come down to a choice between my grandmother and the cats, I would have chosen the cats. I needed the cats. Percy, especially, who would sleep with me every night, who would knock open my bedroom door with his head, jump into bed, and make himself comfortable atop my crotch. That was, for some reason, his favorite sleeping spot.

I moved to Baltimore, bringing my grandmother back to her home.

I left Percy behind.

Percy had run away in June. He came back, after about two weeks, a little shellshocked but generally fine. He’d clearly gone somewhere and been treated well, and he fell back into his usual routine. Then, about three weeks before the move, he ran away again.

I waited as long as I could before leaving Raleigh, hoping against hope that he would turn up. I would walk the neighborhood in the evenings calling for him, to no avail. But I could stay in Raleigh no longer, and I had to leave him behind.

I tell myself that Percy is okay. I tell myself that he is alive and happy and content, that he is running around, that he is scruffy and his head is getting scratched and a cloud of fur envelops him wherever he goes.

I tell myself that Percy would not have been happy here in Baltimore. My grandmother, back in a familiar environment, reverted to the dour, somewhat sadistic figure I remember from my youth, and she treated the cats that I did bring hellishly. She would not have let him have free reign of the house, and he would not have tolerated being locked up in the basement. I tell myself that he was better off staying behind in Raleigh, that by staying there he could be free, that by staying there he would be content.

I tell myself this every day. I have to tell myself this every day.

Because I miss him so very much. Because he was my cat and I loved him to bits.

Because I never got to say goodbye.

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