I decided to break the fast with a cat story.
I know it’s taboo to write about your cat on your blog, but it’s also taboo to have a blog and not post anything for four months, so while I’m breaking the rules I figured I might as well go all the way.
But you said you weren’t going to put up meaningless drivel! you say. Good point. But just because it’s a cat story doesn’t mean it’s meaningless. Whether or not it’s drivel, well, you’ll have to make that call.
Our two cats, Smokey and Minnie, came from a farm in the Maryland countryside the summer after we returned from our sabbatical in Switzerland. The plan had been to take home one kitten, and we had chosen small, sweet, jet-black Minnie. She was perfect. But then one of her littermates swaggered out under the tree where we were getting acquainted, and we were smitten. He was big and striped and friendly and full of mischief. So much fun.
The two of them are as different as siblings could possibly be. Minnie is shy, delicate and vocal. She flees in a panic at the approach of a stranger, and has been known to hide for days at a time underneath a bed. Smokey is pushy and tough. He’s constantly asserting himself — on the countertop, the table, your keyboard. If you’re lying in bed, he’ll plop onto the book you’re reading and nibble at your chin until you scratch his head. He cannot stay inside for long; and once he’s out, he won’t let you get near him until he’s good and ready to come in again.
When we moved back to Switzerland, at first Smokey was challenged by the lack of outdoor access in our third-floor apartment. He soon managed to amuse himself by roaming around on the roof and dropping in the neighbors’ windows. This being Switzerland, his unannounced friendliness wasn’t always appreciated.
We were all relieved to move to a house with a big, wild garden. He became lord of the hunt, bringing home lizards, shrews, and the occasional bird, which he let go in the house. I put collars with bells on him, to warn the critters, but he always managed to ditch them. Once he came home with an enormous gash in his belly; 150 stitches, 800 francs and two weeks later he had charmed all the young female apprentices in the vet clinic and was back on his feet and out the door again.
The problem started when we moved for a second time, to a house only about a kilometer away. The house was brand new, one of four that had been built on an empty parcel of land. The neighbors told me a fox had lived underneath a big tree on the plot where our house stood. Maybe that was why Smokey didn’t hang around. Or maybe it was the other cats in the neighborhood, who were bigger and tougher than he was. Or maybe he had a girlfriend back home. I don’t know. But not long after we moved, he went out one day and didn’t come home.
He didn’t come back the next night, or the next. A couple of weeks went by. I scoured the old neighborhood day and night, calling for him with the special tsk tsk that meant food was in the offing. The neighbor’s daughter said she had seen him. Finally one day there he was. I sat very, very still with some food in a dish near my feet. He approached, rubbed up against my legs, and I grabbed him.
We kept him inside the house, but after a week or so he was just miserable. He sat by the sliding glass door staring outside and meowing. He jumped up on the table. He jumped up on the kitchen counters. He drove us crazy. Finally one day he escaped, and the whole saga repeated itself. Me scouring the old neighborhood, clicking my tongue, hoping nobody would report me to the police. I’d eventually snatch him up and haul him back home, imprison him for a week or two until I couldn’t take it any more. And it would start again.
On one of my rescue missions I ran into the Swiss-German couple who had lived in the house next door to us.
The Schneiders are retired, genteel types. Mr. used to yell at Brendan and Luc to keep it down when they were playing ping-pong in the backyard. I was a little scared of them, to be honest, and we were very careful to follow the rules about not running the lawn mower at lunchtime, after 6 pm or on Sundays. (Yes, that’s a law in Switzerland). Across the fence we marveled at their garden, an idyllic, manicured green carpet of grass, perfectly placed perrenials, a lovely lily-pad covered pond, large shade trees, a wide deck — the kind of thing you only see in magazines. Their home is not just a place to live – it’s their domain.
I told them what I was doing lurking in their cul-de-sac, and they admitted that they’d seen Smokey. They said the old lady down the street from our old house was probably giving him handouts. Smokey was bothering them, coming in their window, trying to eat their cats’ food. Their male cat didn’t like Smokey. But they felt sorry for him, so occasionally they put food out in a dish in front of their house.
I apologized. With Mr. Schneider’s help, I managed to catch Smokey again.
And then Smokey wormed his way into their lives, too.
Knowing he was not starving to death, I stopped searching for him when he vanished. I knew he was mooching, probably off a number of different kind strangers. Mr. Schneider called me a couple of times, and I came over and retrieved the vagrant.
And then Mr. Schneider started the taxi service. He’d put Smokey in his car and drive him over to our new house, pull into the driveway, open the door, and Smokey would leap out and come up to our glass door to be let in, acting for all the world as if this was completely normal. He’d stay home a couple of weeks, affectionate as all get-out, loving us to pieces, and then – bam – off he’d go again.
This went on for six years.
Mr. Schneider and Smokey got into a routine. Once when there was construction on the route they normally took, forcing them to take a detour, Mr. Schneider said Smokey got quite agitated, paws up on the dashboard, wondering what was going on. I took chocolates, flowers, wine, anything I could think of over to the Schneiders to thank them for their patience. Through the stiffish, Swiss-German exterior, I could tell they had a soft spot for Smokey.
When we decided to move, I knew we had to find a place for Smokey in Switzerland. Vancouver has coyotes and raccoons. Mrs. Schneider had a friend with a farm in the Basel area. So when Mr. Schneider pulled up a few weeks before we left and came up to the door instead of just letting Smokey out and driving off like he usually did, I figured he was going to share their contact information with us.
But no. Their cat, the male that didn’t get along with Smokey, had died of a mysterious disease. He was only five years old. If we were amenable, he said, they’d be willing to take Smokey. I tried not to jump up and down with joy – their cat had died, after all, and that’s a bummer – but what a relief!
The day before we left, I took our remaining cat stuff over to their house to drop it off. They invited me into the back garden and showed me all of Smokey’s spots. The patch of long grass that was left uncut so he’d have a place to lurk near the house. The shady spot in the side yard where he hung out in the morning. The bushes in the front where he had another favorite spot. His own chair on the deck, with a special cushion. This wasn’t their garden. It was clearly Smokey’s.
Smokey himself emerged, and strode over to submit to a last caress. King of the castle.
That cat had it made. He had engineered, over a 6-year period, the perfect cat retirement.
When I think of him now, I imagine him sitting on the deck, surveying his domain, dreaming of shrews and languid summer mornings. I hope he has some memories of us somewhere in his little cat brain, of us scratching his ears, burying our faces in his tiger fur, laughing at his antics.
It occurred to me, out on a run the other day, that maybe our move to Vancouver had nothing to do with us, in the grand scheme of things. Who’s to know whether or not the Powers That Be aren’t looking out for a particular cat who was ready to finally cut the cord and settle down once and for all? Stranger things have happened.