The complicated process of coming home
Author: Rachael Ikins
Lola’s hands urge me to the crate. I dig my claws into the blankets.
Her voice burbles comforting tones. We’re going somewhere. As the outdoors flashes by the window I wish I could escape and find my sister. Long ago a man threw us into weeds next to a road. Before we had lost our milk teeth. I miss my sister.
Lola walks into the Bad Place, me swinging at her side. She takes off her coat. Lola is a nurse for animals.
We enter one of the small rooms with giant pictures of cats on its walls. Here veterinarians stick needles in cats and force pills down their throats. I shiver.
A woman joins us, not a doctor. She smells of dogs and cats, from a home, not a hospital. Lola pulls me out, sets me on the table mat between herself and the new one whose name is Veronica.
Veronica’s fingers flutter on my fur like a butterfly. I pretend to be stone. I hold my breath, turn my head into Lola’s stomach.
Veronica murmurs, “Just look at me, buddy. Just one time so we know if we are supposed to be together.”
Her voice is so gentle, in spite of my rock hardness my neck creaks as I look at her. We hold each other’s green eyes. Veronica slow-blinks. Closes then lazily opens them. My heart slows.
She says “Okay. Cato is ours.”
“That’s a great name. Cato. It suits him.” Lola smiles.
I watch without her knowing.
“Yes,” she says. “ I can still call ‘Kate’ because I’m not done with saying her name.”
Lola guides me into a new crate with a soft liner that smells of an ancient cat. A queen, I think. I burrow in. Another car ride.
Oh, to be able to escape. No sooner do I think this, than the queen to whom this crate belonged is beside me, her beauty, blinding. With deep blue eyes and brown silky ears. She rubs the top of her head against mine, puts a paw on my back, and washes my face. I can’t help it, I wiggle with joy. Memories of mother fleet through my mind.
She tells me, “This is your journey, son. You are going home now. Forever. They need you, especially the one driving the car. Be brave, patient as she grieves. If you have need, just call me.” Then I am alone in Katie’s crate, and the car has slowed to a stop.
Veronica walks around. Through the crate handle I can feel her heart beat, almost as fast as mine. It skips.
Dogs bellow as she fumbles with keys. I don’t like dogs. Some chased sister and me into the woods. They say everything at the top of their lungs. That’s why cats are much better hunters. We know how to sneak up on prey. Dogs bound after, yelling, surprised when the rabbit zips away.
She hugs the bouncing canines. I smell another cat.
Veronica carries me to an upstairs room with a big wide bed mounded with pillows. She closes the door and opens the crate. I burrow into that pile as fast as I can but not fast enough. I feel her fingers graze my back. I dig deeper. She leaves, the door snicks shut.
I stay buried. Through the fabric I smell a litter box. I really have to pee but don’t dare leave my fortress.
I can hear below the window she has taken the dogs outside.
Then a more alarming sound, a cat sniffing the crack under the door. I pretend to be stone again. Maybe the stranger will disappear.
Time passes. I can’t help it, I doze. An exhausting day, and still light out. Food scents drift up the stairs and the sniffer on the other side of the door runs down, loud feet for a cat, in my opinion. He or she must be big. Or clumsy.
I’m so homesick I want to vomit. Vomiting always makes me feel better. I decide I don’t feel safe enough to hack up even a tiny hairball. I want to go home.
Veronica and the dog pack climb the stairs. I burrow deeper wishing I could dig myself into the mattress. The door opens as she tells the dogs to back away. They whine and sniff. I don’t want to meet them
Tuna scent fills the air. I haven’t eaten in a long time. My stomach growls. She talks to me, puts the plate near my pillow pile. I feel her hand. She touches me, says my new name quietly “Cato boy, Cato, welcome home.”
Even though I like how she says it, I don’t want that name, to be touched or to like her. She doesn’t stay.
Once she leaves I scramble from the pillows to find a better hiding place, where I am sure she won’t find me. I ignore the food.
The room has a closet. I can’t claw the door open. There is a big dresser with barely space for a kitten beneath. I cram my body as far back as the wall. Good.
Next time she comes to visit me she lies on her belly on the rug, looking at me with those slow blinking green eyes of hers, reaching to pet me. I’m too far away.
I stay put all afternoon. I hear the others below coming and going. TV. I smell human supper making. The plate of tuna has dried. Last time she visited me, she shoved it under the dresser with me. I ignore it. I shiver. Why can’t this be a bad dream? I close my eyes tight, then open them.
I notice cat toys on the rug. Little mice that smell of catnip, a round circular track with a ball to bat round and round. A crinkly red tunnel. A wand toy with a funny bird dangling on the end hangs from the doorknob. I refuse to play with any of them.
Veronica comes upstairs after supper and lets herself in. She carries a cell phone and a book. She lies on the bed for awhile tapping the tiny screen, and then changes her mind and stretches out on the floor in front of the dresser so we can see each other. If she looks at me I turn my head away. She reads aloud in a soft voice. After awhile I want to like that voice.
After dark and another trip with dogs outside, everyone comes upstairs, dogs gated behind door to her bedroom. I heard the water when she showered which aggravated my need to pee. She enters my room in the dark.
“Goodnight, little man.” She says. “What a brave boy you are, Cato. Such a scary day. I hope you can sleep.”
She goes and leaves the door open!
The house falls silent. I hear wind outside, others’ breathing from her room. The clumsy cat must be elsewhere. I scramble out from under the dresser and throw myself into the litter box. Oh. What a blessed relief. As I bury my leavings I sniff the scent of the other cat who has used this box too. It’s a female. About my age. I wonder if it is Sister. I don’t think so. Startled by the sound of a car passing by I leap and cram myself under that dresser. I’m so hungry I wolf the dried tuna as fast as I can. Lick the plate. Not one speck remains.
My belly full, bladder empty, safe in the dark, at last I fall asleep.
Too soon my eyes snap open. Was it a bad dream? Where am I? I look around, and the whole day’s memories drop on me like a rainstorm. I cry. I cry as loudly as a I know how. Over and over I wail my grief.
But then someone answers me. I pause to listen. It is Veronica. Every time I howl, she answers me.
“It’s okay, Cato. I know you are scared. This is so hard. You will be alright.”
In this way we pass the hours of the darkness. I see the moon sinking through the windows of the bedroom. I hear mice in the walls. The dogs are restless in her room, and that big cat sits in the hall on a small chair watching me. She has long hair.
Everyone is worn out when the sun comes up. She brings me fresh food, water. Routine continues. Dogs in and out, sometimes she drives the car. Every so often she visits my room. I never come out from under the dresser. I don’t want her to touch me. I eat in the dark as fast as possible. I race into the box, dig a hole and poop. Somehow I feel better that the scent of my poop and pee is now in the air of this space. It makes this mine even though I just want to go home.
Time passes. Every night once she goes to bed, I cry. Every night she answers me. We cry back and forth across the hall as the moon arcs across the sky.
One night instead of cramming beneath the dresser I decide to go under the bed to lie against the wall. There are many tempting toys here. I drink from the bowl of water she left.
I listen when she reads to me. Sometimes she just talks, telling me about her Kate. Sometimes I hear in her voice, the same grief that is in mine on the loneliest nights. She cries.
Time passes, a month, two months maybe. Days are lengthening and darkness comes later. Veronica does two new things. In the evening she lets all the animals come into my room. The dogs are small unfortunately. How I hate dogs. They squeeze under to smell me. I don’t try to hit, just shrink myself smaller and smaller against the wall. I pray she will take them away.
She stays. They hop up on the bed while she reads.
Just when I think I am about to explode with terror, that other cat stalks into the room. Wow, is she big! She has beautiful hair in autumn leaf colors. Sister and I were both whitish tan with red ears and tail and white paws. I never saw such a big cat. I want to be afraid of her, but she radiates calmness. I hear Veronica talking to her so I recognize after awhile that her name is Ruby.
Ruby squeezes under the bed and sniffs me over. I let her. Then she turns herself round and round and flops down in front of me. Suddenly I feel safe. Nobody can get to me because Ruby is my wall. Sure enough the little black dog named Bug wiggles his way in and Ruby growls at him.
Ruby stays with me until morning. It is the first time I don’t cry. She doesn’t try to make me do anything. She is just there. Quiet, calm, soft. Veronica brings breakfast and we eat together. Ruby uses the box, too. Our scents mix. Because we lie so close under the bed, the smells of my fur and hers also blend. I decide I don’t mind.
There is a cat tower in front of the window. Ruby sits up high watching birds in the feeders below. She looks over at me as if to say “Come on boy, jump up and see the world.” One day I do. Veronica finds me there. We both freeze. She is happy I can tell, but habits are hard to break. I dive under the bed. For a long while I can smell the fragrance of her happiness on the air.
Autumn comes. I enjoy watching leaves fall and bat at bugs on the screen. Veronica spends time every night dangling wand toys for Ruby and me. We chase them up and down the stairs.
On the landing, there are more cat toys. In the bathroom next to my room live 3 cat boxes. Soon my box joins them. If I feel scared I can race upstairs under the bed. I am fast.
Ruby and I roughhouse. Sister and I were so little we had no mom to teach us important cat things. When I am too rough, Ruby teaches me manners.
She suggests to me that I let Veronica touch me. It is time.
First, she held her hand still and I rubbed back and forth against her fingers. I loved it! But I got so excited when she tried to stroke me, I hit her. Ruby says nice cats don’t hit. I never see Ruby around Veronica. She isn’t much of a touch cat so while I don’t argue with her I’m not sure what to do. I want Veronica to touch me. When she has gotten out of bed for the day, I go in and sleep where her body has lain. If she sees me I run, but I love sleeping in her spot on the warmth and fragrance of her.
Sometimes I roll on her dirty socks and shoes like they are catnip.
Nights I sneak downstairs. Ruby and I hunt in the dark. I eat on the counter in the kitchen. One day I caught a mouse in the garage woodpile. Veronica was so proud of me, but she is still sad. I feel it.
One winter Saturday a man brings a crate containing a loud little cat. Veronica runs outdoors. Ruby and I are so curious. After the man leaves Veronica does all the same stuff she did with me, taking food, reading, but one day when the door is open I see the most curious thing. The new cat, Gabby, is lying right on Veronica’s chest. As Veronica strokes her she purrs. No hitting. Is this how it is done? I wonder. I decide to get to know Gabby better and to watch.
Gabby becomes my best friend. She might be small but she is tough, brave, and does that little girl have a temper?! She and Ruby growl but never fight. Girl stuff, I know. Gabby loves to roughhouse with me. We chase and knock over cat towers, eat bugs, play wand toys, catch balls. We love the boxes from Chewy.com filled with rustling papers. Veronica leaves one in the front hall and we spend hours every day ambushing each other.
Gabby always climbs in bed with Veronica to sleep next to her early mornings. One day I decide to join them. Veronica had just settled when I jumped up to nest between her knees. Her hand touched me briefly to let me know she knew I was there and it pleased her. But when she turned over I jumped down.
I see Ruby on her lap after supper sometimes, too. Ruby hates being brushed. I love it. Veronica holds the brush, and I rub myself back and forth on it getting all the itchy loose hair off. Ruby runs and hollers and ends up with dreadlocks of wadded hair so we have to take her to the Bad Place where they clip it off. I wonder how a cat as calm as a Ruby can be so skittish about grooming? Maybe the long hair. Mine is short and neat.
One day I let Veronica pick me up. She keeps her body relaxed so so do I. We hold each other for a minute then she sets me on the counter. I am smiling and purring. She pets me. I don’t hit her. We do this more times. I jump into bed with her more times. Sometimes after she is asleep I stay almost all night.
A whole year has passed since that horrible first day and those lonely weeks. Sometimes when all of us, even the dogs, arrange ourselves in comfort around our sleeping human to guard Veronica through the dangers of the night, that beautiful ghost-cat, Katie, appears to us. Only we cats can see her though I think the dogs suspect something. But they’re only dogs after all.
Katie looks at us while we protect the woman who was and still is the love of her life and she slow-blinks those amazing blue eyes. Sometimes she settles soft as breath on Veronica’s chest which was where she slept in their life together. But she can never stay and never while Veronica is awake. We promise we will make sure Veronica is safe. Then Katie flies off to the moon, her enormous ears like angel wings where she plays with all the others who lived with and loved Veronica all the hard years of her journey. They play until the sun wakes up and then they disappear with the stars.
But we remember. We always remember. When night falls and the constellations wheel through sleeping sky, they come home.
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