The streets of heaven are crowded with angels (and one fussy cat)

A few months ago, my brother forwarded me a link to an op-ed piece in the New York Times written by a journalist whose cat had just passed away. When your own family members are sending you links about cats, you know you’ve become that person.

But I read the article and found that I could relate effortlessly to the author’s struggle to quantify what it was exactly he was feeling. To balance an actual emotional investment in a pet with the scores of things in one’s life that demand more important investments, emotional and otherwise. To rationalize a seemingly projected attachment with the very real and fundamental need for most of us to bestow and receive affection. And to recognize that, like the author, I had against all odds come to develop a grudging sort of relationship with the haughty little queen that had deigned to take up residence in my house, and in my life.

Ours was a fairy tale story. Kind of. Like any woman worth pursuing, I had heard about her well before we actually met. It was March 2013, and I was in the middle of my Pre-Service Training when I received information about where I would be living for the next two years. My soon-to-be volunteer neighbor sent me a text to say hi, and added that her cat had just had kittens in case I wanted one. I’ve never really been an animal person — anyone who knows me knows I have a hard enough time expressing my feelings for people, much less a pet — but having a cat meant not having to deal with mice, rats, tarantulas, and other, creepier things in your hut, so I told Sarah that I would love to take her up on her offer. A cat owner I would become.

Two months later I found myself biking back from Sarah’s house with a hissing, squalling kitten strapped to the back of my bike. I had just moved into my site a few days prior, and between the stares and cocked eyebrows that my cat-in-a-basket was eliciting from passersby, and the other stares and cocked eyebrows that I was already receiving as the new foreigner on the block, I was feeling about how my panicked prisoner sounded. Later that evening I crouched next to my bed with my headlamp trained into the farthest, darkest corner of the room; gazing back at me with unmitigated terror was a quivering mess of downy fur that stuck out on all sides like porcupine quills. I sighed. “Little cat,” I said conversationally to my new kitten, “This isn’t going to work. You’re supposed to be making me feel less scared, not the other way around.” I prodded a small dish of dried fish with my foot that I had filled as a peace offering. She flinched at the sound and glared balefully back at me. “Fine,” I replied, trying not to sound huffy. “It’ll be there in case you change your mind.”

It was the first time I’d ever spoken seriously to an animal. It would not be the last.

Fast-forward two weeks and we were beginning to overcome our inauspicious start. I had named my reluctant new housemate Hobbes, in a nod to my favorite fictional feline, and after her initial terror had turned to distrust, then to acceptance, and then to curiosity, Hobbes had taken to following me around everywhere like a little dog. I was overjoyed, and tried hard not to show it. I watched her antics with growing amusement as she tested boundaries in that manner unique to small kittens, approaching an object of curiosity like my brush slowly, edging toward it with the utmost of caution, then finally poking an exploratory paw out to touch it. Once assured that the brush wasn’t going to fight back, she happily abused it until she got bored and moved on to something else. When she sidled up to me and kneaded her little body up against my legs, I gratifyingly took this for a sign of affection. Little did I know that she was simply beginning clinical trials for How To Make The Human Like You, storing away data points for future reference when she might best use this to her advantage.

By the time we’d been together for three months, Hobbes and I were well on our way toward comfortable domestic bliss. I learned her routines and her favorite activities (mostly, sleeping and eating). Her favorite place to nap was on my sunny front porch, and her second favorite place to nap was wherever put her within paw’s reach of me in case food happened to materialize out of thin air. But not just any food. I found that even though I bought small dried fish specifically for her, my snobby pet preferred pretty much everything that I ate instead. And when I informed her that she received better food than most of the kids in my community, she just yawned dismissively as if to say, “It’s not a farthing less than I deserve, Human.” We were getting to know each other.

As I watched my cat pad languidly but purposefully around the hut, I began to realize that it was I who was living in her space, and not the other way around. My home started to change in small ways because of my furry roommate — a cat door appeared at the top of one of my brick walls, complete with a tree branch ramp for her to reach the entrance from the outside, and all food went into large sealable storage buckets after I quickly learned that it took approximately 1.7 seconds for a curious cat to come sniffing around if I left it out unattended. Just as quickly, Hobbes learned the sound of my food bucket sliding out from under the table and from then on, no matter what she was doing at the time, the rough scratch of plastic on cement would instantly send her on a swift beeline toward the kitchen, tail pointed high in the air and twitching in anticipation. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t inclined to give her any of the food I was cooking; she was quickly mastering the same complex technique my neighbor kids employed to get me to give them something: ask so loudly and persistently that Matt eventually acquiesces in order to get you out of his hair.

After about half a year, Hobbes had transformed from a kitten into a small cat. And she was a looker, too, covered head to paw in silky soft white fur with a calico tail. Her slim paws and small, regal head made her appear prim, even delicate; only her piercing green eyes belied her true nature as a ruthless hunter and cunning tactician. She learned things about me — things like Matt doesn’t like to get cat hair on his clothes, and Matt doesn’t like to have cats in his lap, and Matt doesn’t like to have cats taste-test his food while he’s cooking — and then used this information chiefly to do these things anyway when she wanted to be sure to get my attention. And whenever we disagreed on something, I invariably lost, for what lonely man can withstand for long the guiles of a determined cat?

As so often comes packaged with beauty, Hobbes developed the kind of personality about which adjectives like “haughty,” “snobbish,” “dismissive,” “high-maintenance,” and “demanding” are tossed about with disapproval but also with grudging respect. And although I huffed and scolded and remonstrated, I couldn’t deny that I was entertained. Arguing with my cat was marginally but undeniably preferable to arguing with myself, and since she maintained her end of our original bargain and kept the house swept clean of anything smaller than she was, I was content to put up with her incessant complaining and her fur accumulating everywhere. So by the time she started having kittens of her own, kittens that cried loudly, pooped and peed everywhere, tore up anything I left within their reach, and generally negated the value of having a cat to keep out the riffraff, I was already too set in my ways to offer much in the way of resistance.

Thus began the halcyon days. At first, intoxicated by new fatherhood, I spent hours observing the kittens with unconcealed delight, documenting their every action for posterity with my camera and marveling at how tiny and adorable they were. Then later, after Hobbes continued to pump out litter after litter and it began to seem like there were always cats in various stages of growth underfoot, I slumped comfortably into the caricature of the beleaguered dad, largely ignoring the little yowling balls of fur pinballing around the hut. I would look up over my book at an exhausted Hobbes sprawled on the floor and with a raised eyebrow I would angle at her the time-honored look that said, “You did this to yourself, girlfriend.” She would shoot back the time-honored look that said archly, “Let me remind you, Human, that you’ve just about outlived your usefulness to me.”

I knew that our domestic partnership had always had an expiration date. This was a marriage of convenience, not of passion — I provided my cat with a comfortable and leisurely life, and in return she provided me with a mirror for my affection and an additional personality to fill the lonely hut. I knew that we’d have to part ways eventually, but it just didn’t seem like it would be that big of a deal. Hobbes would stalk primly off into the wild fringes of the village after I left, terrorizing lizards and mice by day and continuing to toy with the neighborhood tomcats by night. She would be fine. She was infinitely better adapted to this life than I was, and I thought that she would survive and thrive long after I had gone.

But as it turned out, I thought wrong. After spending a few days away from site running errands in Mansa, I returned to my hut late in the afternoon to find Hobbes sprawled lifelessly on the kitchen floor. Bite marks around her neck bore fatal witness to what must have been the only time in her life she was unable to escape the determined pursuit of one of the village dogs. As I stood there dumbly, trying to comprehend what had happened, I heard pitiful cries from another dark corner of the hut. A closer inspection revealed three tiny kittens, clambering blindly over a fourth recently dead sibling. They had just been born a week earlier and wouldn’t be able to survive much longer without their mother. Still reeling from the macabre scene, I stepped into the living room to get a grip on my emotions. Then I steeled myself for what I knew I had to do next.

I chose for the gravesite a secluded spot in back of my house, away from where the neighborhood kids liked to play. News of the cats’ deaths had spread swiftly through the village, and a few dozen of those kids were congregated now, as curious to measure my reaction to the recent turn of events as they were to watch me fill the shallow grave back in. They fidgeted but stayed uncharacteristically quiet as I bent over shovelfuls of fresh earth. Finally one of the smaller girls broke the silence, asking me in a tiny voice if I was going to have a funeral. I looked down and was quiet. I thought about the dozens of funerals that our community has borne witness to over the past two years, about the mothers, sons, uncles, and babies taken too soon from this world, and about the dozens of life-sized holes in the community that they have left behind. Then I thought about Hobbes, about the life that we shared together as unlikely companions over the past two years, about the way her outsized personality had filled my home, and about the cat-sized hole in my heart that she had now left behind.

The sun was setting now, and in the receding light I looked back up into the darkening faces of the surrounding children. They shuffled uncertainly. I forced a smile and told the little girl that of course not, of course we wouldn’t have a funeral. It was only a cat. Only my cat.

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What I don’t know

Lenge "helping" to net a pond

My little host brother Lenge “helping” to net a pond

I’ve been in Zambia for over two years now, and during that time I’ve written nearly 200 posts on the topic. You’d think I’d have gotten the hang of this Peace Corps blogging thing by now. And yet I still don’t feel like I’ve come remotely close to adequately showing you what it’s really like to be a Peace Corps volunteer. Sure, I can describe the things I do, the things I see, even the things I think. But these are still things that I know, wrapped up in a me-blanket stitched with the threads of my perspective and woven into the fabric of my experience. And I’ve slowly come to realize that the essence of the Peace Corps is much more intrinsically linked to the things I don’t know than to the things I do know. What it’s like to be a volunteer is much more accurately depicted in the things I’m unable to express than in the things that I can.

I can show you photos of adorable grinning children and I can share stories of how they simultaneously bring me boundless enjoyment and constant irritation, but I don’t know how to convey the consternation I feel at knowing that in a better world these kids wouldn’t be hanging out at the foreigner’s house all the time because they’d be in school instead. I don’t know how to show you how it feels to see ringworm, malnutrition, and open sores so often that my brain starts to trick me into thinking that this is normal. I don’t know how to describe the hopelessness of seeing something so easily fixable in a different world and being unable to fix it in this one. This is what it’s like to be a Peace Corps volunteer.

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Some of my neighbor children returning from work in the bush

I can relate to you funny encounters from when I’ve greeted people in the local language using the completely wrong words, and I can describe how I tell them what color the water in their fish ponds should be when they have a good bloom, but I can’t tell you what people in my village say about me behind my back. (Or, let’s be real, in front of my face — my Bemba is still as painfully awkward as a middle-schooler with acne and braces with a crush on the ridiculously early-developing and decidedly acne-free girl in front of him in his 8th grade English class). I don’t know what they really think about why I’m here or what I’m doing. I don’t know if they like me, dislike me, are amused by me, or are annoyed by me. And I can’t fully trust my counterpart and best friend when he assures me that people do like me, because I know he likes me and this is what people tell their friends when they like them and want to protect their feelings. This is what it’s like to be a Peace Corps volunteer.

I can show you how I draw my water from a well and charge my phone from a solar panel, but I can’t explain how it feels to know that in just a month’s time I’ll go back to faucets and electrical outlets while my neighbors will be pulling buckets out of a hole in the ground for the rest of their lives. I don’t know how to show you that the amount of guilt I feel at these times could fill the Grand Canyon. I don’t know how to describe the crushing disillusionment I feel in play-acting at what for everyone else around me is real life. This is what it’s like to be a Peace Corps volunteer.

Washing clothes (and trucks) at the edge of the lake

Washing clothes (and trucks) at the edge of the lake

Writers are often told to write what they know. When I remember this advice, I can’t help but despair a little — with every passing day, I find that I know less and less. But what I don’t know could fill a book. Or a blog. So maybe I’ve been going about this whole writing business the wrong way. Maybe I need to start writing more about what I don’t know instead.

One thing I do know: President Obama and I are from the same country, despite nine out of ten Zambians refusing to believe me

One thing I do know: President Obama and I are from the same country, despite nine out of ten Zambians refusing to believe me

ZamTwitter, Month 22

Random news from my 22nd month of Peace Corps service, in 140 characters or less.

February 7 – Just half-wobbled, half-sprinted out to my latrine and dropped trou a split-second before I exploded. My village must think I’m so weird.

February 11 – We’re in a rainy season drought: every afternoon the sky darkens and a few drops fall, then it gets sunny again. The farmers are not amused.

Following a fish farmer out to her ponds

Following a fish farmer out to her ponds

February 13 – Ughh. An extremely unpleasant side effect of a midnight thunderstorm blowing in is the huge gusts of wind which spray sand all over my bed.

February 17 – Spent nine hours today getting to and sitting during a meeting in which I spoke for all of five minutes. Sounds about right.

February 18 – I’ll never get used to the supreme disorientation of staggering half-asleep onto the first bus barreling through my village before dawn.

A common view -- on the bus, waiting to leave

A common view — on the bus, waiting to leave

February 20 – There are 27 people on this 75-seat bus. And two of them are babies. Why can’t all 11-hour bus rides be like this?

February 22 – At the new Pre-Service Training in Chongwe and just shepherded 20 new trainees through the market. Can’t believe two years has already passed.

Nothing quite blends beauty and chaos like a Zambian bus station

The outside of a rural Zambian market on a calm day

February 25 – I’m eating and watching a dubbed Indian soap as five Zambian trainers analyze tonight’s plot of Samira nervously meeting her future in-laws.

February 28 – Peace Corps in the 21st century: in addition to sessions on Zambian culture and aquaculture, trainees also learn about cellular data plans.

March 4 – Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you haven’t. Walking to the doctor holding a vial of my poop, I realize the cap isn’t screwed tight.

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March 5 – Just traded two packs of Juicy Fruit and a can of expired Altoids for two bottles of water and a Fanta. Love Zambia’s barter economy.

March 6 – Nothing says cultural exchange quite like a Phillipine-made film in Tagalog dubbed in English playing in Zambia. Gonna miss the buses here.

March 9 – Netted and restocked 1,500 fish today from Sebastian’s farm, but the big news in Nshinda is that Hobbes has new kittens. Five of them.

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These are not these kittens. These are old kittens. This just proves that I’ve taken a lot of pictures of kittens.