She was just a cat. Eleven years old. Not as fast as she used to be, perhaps.
When the kids were young, they had visited Aunt Angie’s farm for a week, and had played in the barn daily with frisky, scampering, cuddly, six-week old kittens from Oreo’s latest litter. When they returned home, they marched through the door with a shoebox, and an announcement.
“Guess what, Daddy?”
Two kittens, named Zoe and Chloe, and as different as night and day. Zoe, the black kitten, with puffs of white, was a meanderer—slow and aimless, a lap sitter, affectionate, quite content with domestic life, and the security of the food dish.
Chloe, in tiger-striped gray, retained the free spirit of her barnyard heritage. She could cuddle for thirty seconds, maybe. She was a darter— under the dresser, under the bed, out from the dresser, out from the bed, behind the sofa, out the door.
“Clever, clever, kitty, kitty, kitty,” someone would coo. “Danger, danger, no, no, no.”
“Gonna be a miracle she don’t get run over,” I’d say. “Stupid cat.”
“Okay, okay, she’s not a stupid cat,” I’d retract. “My mistake.” Then, I’d mutter, “She’s a kitten.”
Over the years, from time to time, one or both cats would go through those special times of heat (the serenade of the tortured meow), but while Zoe would remain a life-long spinster, Chloe would have three litters of her own before we had her spayed. Not all of the kittens survived. But one that did, Poof, became a great favorite of the two youngest boys, and was allowed to join the family. The boys were ten and twelve when we bought a little acreage, forty miles away, near Lost Nation.
Poof’s dappled, marble-cake, polka dot-esque markings gave him a clownish appearance. He became their best friend, and constant companion, acting more like a dog than a cat. I had given strict instructions that no cats were allowed upstairs in the bedroom areas. It was to be a Dander-Free Zone. But I knew Poof was being allowed into the boys’ room. The move had been hard on them. They missed their old neighborhood friends, and Poof filled a void. They told me later that Poof would sit for hours on their beds, just “keeping company” while they did their schoolwork. All the while, he would purr. Poof had a motor.
Poof used to irritate me a lot. If he were left alone for any length of time, we would come home and discover entire rolls of paper towels, or toilet paper shredded and scattered across the floor. In my mind, I used to call him a “son of a Chloe”, but I wisely kept these words to myself. Instead, I came to accept his antics because the boys loved him so. It even got to where Poof would (occasionally) venture to sit on my lap. Not too often, but enough that it mattered.
One day Poof died. It was a strangulation-type accident, when his collar caught in some bushes near the house. I had worked a long night shift, and was sleeping. It was mid-morning. I was awakened to the sound of anguished sobbing. I was needed downstairs quickly!
Both boys were crying, and looking lost, and bewildered. One shook his head, and slammed a hand on the kitchen counter. The other held Poof’s lifeless body. They looked to me, with hope in their eyes, that their father, who could fix anything, would somehow be able to adjust this too.
But they knew. His body was warm from the sun. But, he was stiff.
We comforted them in their grief, and they spent the afternoon saying goodbye, with dignity. They picked a place under the apple tree Poof loved to climb. They wrote notes of farewell, and placed them alongside their friend, in a shoebox, along with a few cat toys, and kitty treats, and a small roll of toilet paper.
I was never more thankful that I had already made peace with Poof, than I was that day. It would have done no good for the boys to suspect me of harboring secret glee over the death of their beloved. It was a good reminder to keep short accounts.
Never go to bed angry.
Don’t fight over money.
Always say, “I love you,” when leaving home.
In the country, there are two kinds of barn cats. Some roam from farm to farm, looking for handouts. They are friendly, and would love to come inside and be adopted. Many have been fed from our back porch, but we did not bring them inside, not even in winter.
But, there are also feral cats. Feral cats are seldom seen. They chase, fight for territory, and do not come near humans. One of these feral cats was known to us simply as “the yellow cat”. Poof, had he lived, would have been an alpha-male competitor of the yellow cat. Chloe was aware of the yellow cat, but relied on her own stealth and quickness. She never came home bloodied.
At first, when we moved to Lost Nation, we no longer worried about her being outside. Then, her last litter arrived. It would fall to Zoe, once again, to care for the kittens, and cuddle them as if they were her own. Chloe was not a good mother. Aunt Zoe never minded.
Then, one late fall day, I went to bed angry.
I was stone-walling—not ready to apologize, not ready to listen. I had been wronged, and it didn’t matter what wrongs I had also committed. I was not ready to talk. I was going to make my wife endure my silence for an entire night and day, while I went to bed, then went to work, and “processed” things. In my cave. Alone.
As usual, I figured out that I was the most guilty, and would need to do some serious apologizing for judgement errors and hurtful words. I would need (again) to do a better job of seeing and sensing her needs. It would not be easy. Pride is a bitter pill. It can seem easier to throw in the towel, and shout, “Me! Me! Me!” “I was wronged, too!” “I will if you will.” And on and on. I certainly did not relish going home that night. Mending can be wearying. But, I knew it was best to move beyond the hurts, and remember the vows. Remember the vows.
It had been nearly twenty-four hours since voicing any terms of endearment. I drove mechanically home, down the same familiar highway. Rounding a curve, I watched a car approaching an intersection up ahead. It slowed, but then did not stop. The driver pulled directly in front of my car, leaving no room for braking. I swerved violently, left heavy skid marks on the road, fishtailed through the shoulder gravel, and spun out in the median grass. My heart was racing, and I sat stunned. But, I had avoided a very high speed collision, and I was still alive.
I started to get angry. Very angry.
“Fatal!” I thought, “That could have been fatal!”
Spinning wheels, I had every intention of chasing down the idiot in the other car. It had just kept going down the road. But then I remembered that I had already been angry.
“Short accounts,” I said out loud.
I let the other car go. I turned off the radio. For the remainder of the journey, I didn’t think about justice, or rights. I considered consequences. Would my death in a fiery crash have “served her right” or would it have left, instead, an ocean of regret for the survivor? Or, what if I got home to find a suicide note? It had been known to happen.
Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.
“Okay, Lord, I get it. I get it.”
I did not know what I would say when I got home. I did not know if she would want to talk. Sometimes talking wasn’t enough.
I turned the last gravel corner before the house, and approached the drive.
There in the road, illuminated into long shadows by the headlights, was a very flat, very still Chloe. I closed my eyes. I sighed. I turned into the drive.
Inside the house, my wife sat in semi-darkness in the living room. She had had a hard day of thinking as well. I could sense deep depression in her demeanor (funny how I couldn’t sense what she needed the day before). Neither of the boys was home from athletic practice.
I sat down on the coffee table. She looked away. Wonder what he’ll say this time? Words. More words.
“I’m sorry,” I began softly, “but I have some bad news to share.”
Chloe had been a good mouser. She had loved to hunt. She would catch-and-release, catch again, eventually kill, but never eat. We had had her de-clawed, but she was not deterred. She had eventually moved on to birds. That had been a problem because we wanted to attract birds to a porch feeder. Chloe would stalk, hide, and wait…and wait. Claws, or no claws, she got her bird. We moved the feeder.
She had always been quick. She had learned how to time her movements, like a base runner timing a pitcher before stealing second base. The housecat moniker suited Sister Zoe fine, but Chloe’s passion had always been escape. We had all learned to master (what surely looked like a strange dance to our neighbors) the fine art of entering the house by first swift-kicking through a narrow door opening, before opening a portal wide enough for human entrance.
I remember opening a window in the bedroom, once, when the screen fell out. Having seen Chloe escape through that route before, and sensing that she was in the room at that moment, I instinctively reached my hand towards the opening and closed my grasp just as a furry blur brushed past, and I caught her by the tail, while the rest of her body was already tasting freedom. It was a magically unrepeatable moment. I’ve since wondered how it felt from her end.
At first, when she escaped, it would cause a family crisis. With six children under ten, a “Chloe Alert!” was the family way of signaling “All hands on deck!” and “Man your battle stations!” Everyone had to fan out across the yard, or the neighborhood, until she was cornered and secured. I never captured her. She would not come my way. Cats just kind of know, I guess. We started using that to our advantage. I would stand in whatever gap was the biggest escape route, ensuring that she would not sprint in that direction. After each episode, there would be a lot of cooing, and loving, and cuddling of the Great Houdini by the rest of the family, while I just rolled my eyes. Eventually, she became more daring, and went further from the yard. She would stay out all night. Litters happened.
Whenever she was out, there was anguish in the home. In pursuing her own indomitable way, Chloe taught me a lot about how words can come back to haunt. The lesson was never easy. I would often find myself in the strange position of having to say nice things about a cat I didn’t even like, because everyone knew I didn’t like her, and it was now my duty to convince everyone that I hadn’t plotted to run her off, and I did not hope that she would be run over by a car.
She always came back. Always. But, it was on her terms. A soft meow at the door, and joyous hearts, no longer despairing, would fling open the door, and Queen Chloe would strut on in—a hero’s welcome every time. Of course, coming home on her terms meant she was not coming home on my terms, and I always found that rather annoying. From the security of someone’s welcome home embrace, she would glance my way, with a look that seemed to be saying, “Take that, evil cat-hater man!”
On the night Chloe died, it was dark, and cold. It was beginning to drizzle. The forecast was for heavy rain overnight. So, with flashlights in hand, we went together down the long drive to retrieve our pet one final time. It was apparent that she had been run over by a large tractor, as the tire marks continued down the gravel. From the shoulder grass, about twenty yards down the road, we could see the reflection of two eyes. The yellow cat. Had Chloe been fleeing? Did she not see the tractor? Was she simply not as nimble as she once was? The yellow cat would know. It sat there silently. Watching. Like it was sorry.
We picked up Chloe, the hunter, and laid her to rest.
The wounds of our contentions were still fresh.
We didn’t speak.
We held hands.