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.