We can only assume that she is dreaming. Perhaps she imagines that she dozes at the side of an abandoned well, on a warm summer day. She dreams of being safe in a world of wildflowers and green leaves, with cicadas buzzing, far away and high up in the hackberry tree.
Like all of our pets, she came to live with us as a foundling, a cast-off, a creature that no one else wanted. An animal that had no home. She came to us out of the cold, after a time of hunger and neglect, and it has taken four years for her to find herself, and to return to the ways of a normal cat again.
It was Christmas Eve of 2006. A neighbor knocked at our door. A stray cat was stranded on the roof of an abandoned house. Neighbor children told her it had been up there for several days, pacing the attic roof, crying out, evidently unable to find its way down. Could I help?
There is a tradition in our family of acquiring a new cat in time for Christmas. Diggory, our presiding tomcat, came to us only days before Christmas of 1999, as a replacement for Bartleby, who had gone to sleep under the oak tree with his predecessors. Other felines have arrived at the time of the solstice, or in deep winter. I could not refuse this latest pilgrim in distress. I looked around for my four-cell Mag-Lite, and pulled on my heaviest jacket.
There was hardly any snow, although it was cold. The house, a block away, was two Victorian stories tall, with a large attic. It had been abandoned for years. A gaggle of children stood on the sidewalk, pointing up. Sure enough, there it was, in the last light of evening, a small brown cat, moving along the roof, stopping now and then to yowl.
I considered my options. I keep a 24-foot aluminum extension ladder in my garage, but it would not get me up to an open window at the attic level. Perhaps I could risk gaining the porch roof, then somehow scale the side of the building, and from there make it up to the dormer?
Such thoughts were of course ridiculous for a person of my age. There seemed no way to bring that cat down. Concerned, I walked around the house, searching for an open window or a cellar door. Back in front, it occurred to me that I might as well try the front door. Miraculously, it opened.
Beyond was darkness, illimitable junk and debris, banged-up furniture, dead television sets, cardboard boxes of the unidentifiable, jammed and stacked milk cartons, more debris. No one had lived there for many years, and no one had ever cleaned it out. I had my flashlight. I plunged ahead.
I found the first set of stairs, which was almost impassable. I worked my way up to the second floor, then searched along the cluttered hallway for the door to the attic. That stairway, too, had to be fought through. I was worried. What if it all caved in on me? Who would come to my rescue?
In the attic at last, I could look along the arch of the roof and see light coming through the low, open window, above which the cat was stranded. But here, too, chaos reigned.
It was an eerie experience to thread my way through the wrack and ruin of the attic, among the wooden trunks, discarded chairs, racks of coats and dresses, an occasional dresser mirror, caved-in suitcases, and random debris that must have been piled there decades earlier.
I felt as though I had been progressing back through time, peeling away the years, from the first floor to this precise moment. I was deep in some forgotten material whorl, but there was a spark just ahead, a voice calling. I played the flashlight beam that way.
Would the cat trust me? Would it come when I called? I gained the low window, in front of which was a narrow strip of roofing, and below that, a ruined gutter. I called out: “Kitty, kitty, kitty!” Below, the children, seeing that I had attained the heights, began to cheer. The cat appeared. Unhesitantly it came to me. With one hand I grabbed it and hauled it in.
Then it was back through the debris, hugging the cat, making sure she didn’t get away – for it was a she, after all, although I am not sure exactly when we determined this. Down to the first floor, to the street, to the waiting crowd of onlookers. We trooped off to the neighbor’s porch, where the cat gobbled down some proffered deluxe cat food.
It was an extraordinarily thin, obviously quite starved and neglected animal, no bigger than a kitten, and of indeterminate age. Night was coming on. I stuffed it inside my coat and hurried home again. I did not dare expose it to the other two cats we had at the time, Diggory and Kathleen Ni Houlihan. They were certifiably free of cat leukemia and feline HIV, and I knew nothing about this animal. It would have to be quarantined in the garage, as its predecessors had been, until a vet could run the necessary tests and tell me if the animal was healthy.
So she went into the garage, where she was to remain for the next two weeks, until she could be tested, pronounced sound, and given the necessary shots and pills. After that, she took her place in the household menagerie — two cats, two dogs — and was gradually accepted.
Right away we named her Lucy, since we had acquired her so close to the winter solstice, and to St. Lucy’s Day, the shortest day of the year. One of Donne’s most moving poems seems to describe that gray afternoon when I approached the abandoned house, hoping to bring down the unfortunate creature:
’Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,
Lucies, who scarce seaven houres herself unmaskes,
The Sunne is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rayes;
The worlds whole sap is sunke:
The generall balme th’ hydroptique earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the beds-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d. . . .
She had come unexpectedly into our lives, at this zero moment of the year – the eve of the most traditional of our holidays – and now perhaps we would learn from her, as we followed her slow transformation from loneliness and abandonment back into a warmer world, even a world of affection:
Study me then, you who shall lovers bee
At the next world, that is, at the next Spring:
For I am every dead thing,
In whom love wrought new Alchimie.
For his art did expresse
A quintessence even from nothingnesse. . . .
Would there be a “new Alchemie” for Lucy? When I went out to the garage at midnight, on Christmas eve, to check on her, and to bring her more food, I was thinking, of course, of Hardy’s poem, “The Oxen,” and of the mystery of the animals’ kneeling. Lucy was not kneeling; she was hiding in the deepest part of the garage, and would not show herself. Still, I had a hunch that all would be well, and that these concluding lines from Donne’s poem were appropriate:
Since shee enjoyes her long nights festivall,
Let mee prepare towards her, and let mee call
This houre her Vigill, and her Eve, since this
Bothe the yeares, and the dayes deep midnight is.
Lucy came to live with us, then, and we soon realized that she was not a kitten at all, but a full-grown cat, perhaps a year or two old. Gradually she began to fill out. Gradually, too, almost all of her old hair began to fall out. She could be combed endlessly, and it seemed to make no difference. There was an endless supply of fur.
She was a loner, mistrustful of the other cats, not so wary of the dogs. She could not be petted or picked up; she ran away and hid at the slightest approach. Curiously, she could not jump; did not seem to know how. We began to understand. She was borderline feral. Separated from her siblings and her mother at an early age, never cuddled or petted as more fortunate cats are. And thus hugely unaccustomed and resistant to being touched or handled.
Gradually, all of this changed. It took more than four years. Her coat stabilized. She even learned how to jump. And she turned out to be a formidable mouser. She is clever and resourceful, and will tap with her paw on the edge of her dish when she wants something to eat, or when her water bowl is empty.
But she is still standoffish, still secretive, and tends to disappear for hours at a time. In the summer she has her hiding places, an assortment of leafy bowers near the front porch. It was while she was ensconced in one of these, a couple of years ago, that I snapped the accompanying photograph.
There is an organization in my city called Indy Feral that does wonderful work on behalf of abandoned felines. At dozens of “stations” around the city, feral cats are trapped, given shots, neutered, released, and then kept alive by volunteers who feed them daily. It is a marvelous program. In my neighborhood there is a station that has been tended for years, day in and day out, by a compassionate lady named Anne, from an adjoining neighborhood.
Sometimes I have accompanied her to the station, hidden in high grass on an abandoned lot adjoining Pogue’s Run. It is a ramshackle affair, made of skids and old wooden boxes, covered with scraps of canvas and pieces of plastic sheeting. The dozen or so resident cats sense her approach, and emerge from the nooks and crannies, or come running from the underbrush. She is their lifeline.
There is also in my neighborhood, barely a block away, but across the creek, another wonderful organization called “The Face Clinic,” which is a low-cost animal clinic established and operated by a far-seeing group of volunteers and animal-rights activists. Here, residents of the Near Eastside of Indianapolis – and from anywhere at all – may bring their pets for their annual shots, and for brief check-ups. It is not a full-service veterinarian establishment, but a kind of stop-gap organization that seeks to encourage people to take better care of their animals.
In the waiting room of the clinic, off to one side, is a room that is mostly concealed by Venetian blinds. But if you peek in carefully, you see a large, sun-lit room that is entirely inhabited by cats. There must be a hundred of them, of all colors, shapes, and textures. They inhabit a world of padded ledges and special cat mazes, and they all seem marvelously happy and at peace. They co-exist, and there is no fighting, no rough stuff. Mostly they sleep or, as contented cats will do, sit with folded paws, seeming to meditate.
I asked one of the staffers where they all came from. “They’re cast-offs,” she said. “We get a lot of them.” To the clinic’s credit, they are not abandoned or put down. Evidently they are given up for adoption. In the meantime, they wait in what surely must be the closest thing to cat heaven that I have ever seen.
Lucy, too, has a heaven of her own, that she has found and made for herself, among the shadows next to our front porch, beneath the leaves and flowers of the elderberry bush. You can see it in the photograph, where she endures with all of the presence and poise of a cat woven into the fabric of a Renaissance tapestry.
She is still her own cat, a loner and a pilgrim. She co-exists with Kathleen, but neither of them likes the other. Nor will they sleep together, as Kathleen did much earlier with the beautiful calico, Fiona, who is no longer with us. Lucy goes her own way. She is mad about catnip. She ignores my desktop, but she loves to watch Diane at work on her laptop, and will brush up against the upright screen.
On winter mornings, as Diane is finishing breakfast, she puts down the one treat that Lucy has especially come to like: a small white bowl containing a spoonful of vanilla yogurt. Lucy emerges from the dining room, aware that this is the high point of her day.
The other two cats have no interest in yogurt. It is all hers. Such simplicity, such innocence. Some mornings as I watch her, she seems to be genuinely pleased, and even thankful for this small morsel, and I am reminded of “A Child’s Prayer,” by Robert Herrick, Donne’s near contemporary:
Here a little child I stand
Heaving up my either hand;
Cold as paddocks though they be,
Here I lift them up to Thee,
For a benison to fall
On our meat and on us all. Amen.
“Paddocks” are frogs, thought to be unusually cold, as Lucy had been, for too long, before we found her. A “benison”? A blessing.
Lucy has come home at last, and found her bower, and she is content. And her dream? I would hope that at times she dreams that there will be others like her, who will be taken in from the cold and given the blessing of a small refuge, out of the storm.
We cannot save every lost creature, we cannot prevent the horrendous abuses that are now inflicted on so many of our related species and fellow inhabitants on this planet. As Isaac Bashevis Singer has reminded us, “for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.”
But we can continue to plead their case. And every now and then we can save one or two. It is not enough. Not nearly enough. But for each of us it can be a beginning.