Nonfiction

The Cat and the Cradle


On any other day but this, Casey wouldn’t have minded his kennel. Open the door and he’d walk right in. He took comfort in small spaces that struck me as instinct conspiring against him. What could a cat like about a place with only one way out? But as soon as you emptied a box big enough for him – or not, as I’d seen Casey attempt a cereal box – he’d be curled up inside, wide-eyed and apparently marvelling at his good fortune, perhaps even proud of having seized the opportunity to respond to some ancient impulse, right or wrong.

But on this day, late in 2012, I swung the kennel door open and he hesitated. He poked his head in then started to back out. I put a hand out to stop him. He pushed against me briefly, then went inside. The pause knotted my stomach.

Even if he’d sensed something wrong, Casey didn’t make a sound as I carried him out to the car.

Even if he’d sensed something wrong, Casey didn’t make a sound as I carried him out to the car. Maybe age was mellowing him, as my wife Leah, who knew him longer than I did, sometimes said. But thirteen isn’t old for a housecat. Every now and then he’d still bolt pointlessly around the house, claws skittering on tile floors. His favourite game, batting a crumpled ball of paper out of the air, required the agility of a kitten, which he still had. In the car, I put him in the front seat, the kennel door facing me.

Just after I turned the key and started down the driveway, my tears started. Casey sat obliviously, his front paws tucked under his body like every morning while he sat with us at breakfast. No matter where you were – and particularly where I was – he wanted to be there, too. In fact, all Casey ever wanted was the time and attention of people. At a stop light, I wiped my eyes and opened a packet of treats – a huge bag bought just a few days earlier, even though I knew this was coming – and poked two or three through the bars of his cage.

By the time I arrived at the animal shelter I could barely control my sobbing. Inside, a woman in nurses’ scrubs sat at a computer looking as calm and detached as a loan officer, and I felt as though I’d been called in to finally pay up. This is where Casey came from, when Leah’s sister, Marielle, his owner before us, picked him out as a kitten. He’d soaked himself in his water dish then rolled in his litter, caking himself in it, hiding his yin and yang coat, white as fresh snow along his underside from nose to tail, and otherwise black as bitumen. “We just thought he had character,” she says.

The women told me to put the kennel on the desk and asked how she could help. “I have to have him put down,” I managed, my throat tight and burning.

She’d clearly seen this before – she wasn’t unfriendly or indifferent, but inert. There were no other pet owners in the office, which felt like a mercy; recognizing this brought a wave of shame over me. “Why do you need to put him down?” she asked, her fingers hovering over her keyboard, waiting for my answer, her eyes divided between Casey and her screen, but not meeting mine.

“I have a new baby,” I said.

By Ryan McGuire

By Ryan McGuire

 

Besides his appreciation of confinement, Casey the cat had another puzzling instinct: at times he needed to kill the very thing that kept him alive – us. Leah believes this was a bonafide disorder, calling it a failure in “aggression control.” Marielle goes with “aggression misplacement,” noting that Casey was “the runt of the litter.” Both variants, however, suggest an inherent, even natural, tendency toward violence. The animal in pets is the problem we want domestication to solve, when, really, taming has only succeeded in burying it at varying depths, none sufficient to prevent resurfacing.

There’s a folk tale about a scorpion that asks a tortoise for a ride across the river, promising not to sting him en route. Tortoise isn’t so sure. David Rakoff told the story best, in rhyming couplets, no less: “The scorpion replied, what would killing you prove? We’d both drown. So tell me, how would that behoove me to basically die at my very own hand, when all I desire is to be on dry land?”

Casey too could only suppress his nature for so long.

Casey too could only suppress his nature for so long. You could hardly blame him. As Rakoff’s protagonist proclaims, while it and the tortoise disappear into the river: “I’d claim some remorse or at least some compunction, but I just can’t help it. My form is my function.”

To his credit, Casey wasn’t completely unpredictable. His trigger was the scent of another animal – you just couldn’t predict when that trigger might appear. When he was with Marielle, he’d attacked a woman who’d come from a visit to the zoo. Leah and a friend – who smelled of her own cat – once had to take refuge in the bathroom as an enraged Casey clawed frantically at the locked door. “People who saw Casey attack don’t debate whether he was dangerous,” Leah says. That’s why, throughout her pregnancy, she insisted Casey no longer live with us once the baby was born.

Marielle’s husband, Bryan, would have understood the need for this more clearly than I. Years ago, when they’d moved into a bungalow on the edge of the river valley, they had two cats. One was Casey, the other a lethargic diabetic calico named Monty. A territory dispute followed, and one morning Bryan discovered a pile of cat hair in the living room. It belonged to Monty, then cowering atop the refrigerator. My brother-in-law, in his underwear and slightly hungover,  reached for him just as Casey entered the room, keen to finish what he’d started. “He just went ape-shit,” says Bryan.

While Casey yowled and bit and clawed, Bryan went for the scruff, got a grip, lost it. Out of fear of hurting him, he pushed that cat away rather than try to fight back, but he just kept coming. Casey sunk his teeth into his thumb and Bryan pulled back, ripping away flesh in the cat’s teeth. Once the blood spilled, the attack stopped. Casey “snapped out of it,” says Bryan – as if instinct had recognized the desired outcome and no longer required the cat’s services, releasing him. But it was too late. Bryan had seen how effectively Casey had complied. “I think he would have killed Monty,” he says. “For a few weeks after I was completely paranoid of that cat.”

Perhaps all this suggests that the small spaces make sense. Like any male staking out resources, Casey worried about territory. Arguably, he was securing his own safety. By crawling into a box – or his kennel – his domain was more comfortably defined, with physical barriers against usurpers, and maybe, then, uncertainties.

 

“Is he healthy?” asked the woman across the desk. Haunting meows and panicked barks came from a room behind her.

“Yes. Sort of,” I said, still sniffling and unable to muster the words to explain a kidney condition that had required medication all of his adult life.

“How old is he?”

“Thirteen.”

She typed. “He has a history of violence,” I told her. “We can’t keep him with the baby.”

She didn’t answer. Later, I’d see that she had recorded the reason for euthanasia as “Geriatric.”

At the sound of the other animals, Casey sat upright. He had the look of a hunter: muscles tense, ear pricked, pupils black and broad. He jerked his head left and right, pressing his nose to the holes in the sides of his kennel. There was nothing in him that was recognizable as pet. This was a relief to me.

The woman stopped typing and picked up what looked like a handheld metal detector. She opened the kennel to scan Casey for an identification chip.

At any other time in his life, he would have taken advantage of that open door. If he wasn’t capable of memory, Casey had learned to associate humans in scrubs and the faint smell of antiseptic with things happening to him that he would not like. He did not trust vets, and often needed restraining by multiple assistants. But this time, as if to prove I never really knew him, and that now I never would, Casey remained calm.

“You’re being so good,” said the woman. She rubbed his head and closed the door.

The day before, I’d called and talked this matter over with another staff member. Cats Casey’s age are difficult to adopt, she told me, but they could try. I took that to mean he would have to spend a long time at the shelter. He would have to learn to live with animals that I wouldn’t be able to shoo away. This would happen day after day, until Casey’s altered state overcame him, and he would be put down anyway to make room for a cat with a chance at a better life.

Or – perhaps worse still, if he was the cat I presumed him to be – he was adopted. What if he were to impress some young family, or an elderly person looking for reliable companionship? When Casey arrived at his new home, only one person could ultimately be blamed for the animal in him, poised and waiting.

 

Because of luck or contract we had somehow struck in our effort to share space, that’s not the Casey I ever knew. There was a pathetic tenderness between us. If I were lying around, he’d be on my chest, purring, or stretched along the length of my crossed legs. If I put a finger beneath his paw, he’d curl his claws lightly around it and hold on. “He was your boy,” Leah recalls, her voice tinged with resentment.

That said, we had our spats: disagreements over pointedly placed hairballs or the shredding of armchairs or rugs. But they never lasted long, and he’d always be first to offer an apology.

They happened like this: once tempers had cooled, Casey would go into self-exile, not out of sight, but at a distance. He would make himself as small as possible, folding his feet beneath him, and he’d avoid eye contact. Eventually, he’d approach slowly, watching for signals of how he might be received were he to try to settle into your lap.

This ritual – and the humanness in it – was one reason Bryan and Marielle didn’t put Casey down for the Monty incident. It made him seem less the perpetrator of his own violence and more the victim of it. It made him pitiable – perhaps even enhanced the “character” Mareille saw in him – and therefore more lovable. And so it made suckers of us all. At the time of the attack on Bryan, Marielle was pregnant; they knew they couldn’t take any more chances. Instead, they asked Leah to take Casey into her tiny bachelor apartment, and she did, knowing that one day, likely before he had passed, she would want children of her own. Regardless, she chose to save his life. For a while, anyway.

Regardless of how Casey’s temper softened with age, he couldn’t part with it completely. One day well into her pregnancy, Leah texted me while I was on my way home to say she had locked herself in the bedroom. A neighbourhood cat, patched black and white like a Jersey cow, had appeared on the other side of the screen door, which Casey took as an affront. He surrendered to rage immediately, unleashing a demonic yowl that sent Leah for cover. After arriving home and chasing off the Jersery cat, I crept inside. Casey was pacing slow circles and making quiet, strangled meows, as if muttering to himself. His back was arched and his tail up and puffed like a desert cactus. He was ready for – perhaps even feeling deprived of – the fight the screen door had prevented. I crouched at a distance.

“Hey buddy, it’s OK,” I said. My past arguments with Casey had taught me enough to know when I’d be able to reach him, or when to lure him into the spare room to cool off behind closed doors. But this time, his back relaxed, his tail dropped and he slowly made his way to me, affectionately butting his head against my thigh and letting me stroke his back.

It didn’t matter. Leah was done with the ever-present threat of violence. “I had him for seven years and dealt with this low-level stress throughout that time,” she says. “I wasn’t about to have that with a newborn.”

For the few days that Casey and our daughter’s time in the house overlapped, Leah never allowed him to see her, and I didn’t protest. Conceivably, Casey never knew she existed, and that she was the reason he no longer had a place in the family, though that probably doesn’t matter. As Marielle says, “The minute you have kids you’re like, ‘It’s just an animal.'”

Indeed, Leah’s only thought during that time was to protect the baby.

“I don’t think I even said goodbye to him.”

 

While I sat watching Casey sniffing about his cage, I wanted to tell the woman at the animal shelter that we, Leah in particular, couldn’t take a chance on this cat. I also wanted to tell her that I knew I was an awful person for what I was doing. But I didn’t. I was afraid she would stop typing and look at me and say, “Yes, you are.”

She printed an agreement for me to sign, and a bill, most of it for the return of Casey’s ashes. “You can take a few minutes to say goodbye if you like,” she said after I’d signed. She turned back to her computer.

My vision blurred with tears. A line had now formed behind me, and from the conversations it seemed everyone was hoping to adopt or find lost pets. I was standing in the way of new starts and happy reunions. I opened Casey’s kennel and rubbed his neck behind the ear, afraid at first of a bite – even hoping for one to show me I’d made the right decision. Nothing. But no affection either. He pulled away, distracted still by the sound of other animals. Conscious of eyes on me, I whispered, “Goodbye Casey,” and closed the door.

“Is that it?” I asked the woman at the desk.

“Yes,” she said, with mild cheeriness.

I got up and walked out, forcing myself not to look back at Casey in his kennel, quietly convinced of his safety.

Outside, I sat awhile on a bench. It was overcast and cool, but pleasant for late October. As I looked at a small flower bed filled with shoulder-high ornamental grass I remembered that Casey had never spent a day of his life outside. Casey the housecat. Casey the hunter. What did we really expect would happen in the end, given the contradiction we demanded he reconcile? “I’m sorry,” I said to the grass, but, unlike Casey’s apologies, mine seemed unconvincing.

 

Could we have tried to live with Casey? Could we have attempted to acclimatize him to one more changed environment? Of course. Perhaps the better question is, could we justify the risk? “If cats were double the size they are now,” Douglas Coupland has said, “they’d probably be illegal.”

A friend once told me a story about a cat and a cradle. It happened one night while he was drinking Rusty Nails with a friend of his own who’d recently become a father. With the other’s wife out for the evening, they were watching the baby, which they did between mixing drinks. They kept the baby in the room with them in a bassinette. The cat was there, too.

Animals, like people, watch for opportunity; unlike people, they almost always act when it arises. When my friend went to mix his next Rusty Nail, the other man perhaps preoccupied with his own, the cat leapt into the bassinette and sunk its claws into the child’s shoulders.

My friend remembers a bottle of scotch in one hand, then – after a dash across the room – it being replaced by the scruff of the cat’s neck. Before he had considered his next move it was made: his free hand closed over the cat’s head and twisted, hard and fast and sharp. The cat instantly went limp in his hands. He dropped it and picked up the screaming baby and held it to his chest.

Casey’s capacity for violence made us uncertain of how he’d react to a new – and defenseless, Leah often reminded me – person he needed to learn to share territory with. My friend’s story, which we’d heard years before we decided to have a child, didn’t help. Were we introducing a new trigger. And, because Casey was older, we believed him, fairly or not, incapable of change. Then there was another difficult question to consider: if necessary, could I do what my friend had done, and without the fortification of a few Rusty Nails? Judging from my trip to the shelter, I could barely have someone do it for me.

 

During my drive back from the shelter, rather than try to lift my spirits by recalling the good times with Casey, I gave in to resentment. I couldn’t understand why my sister- and brother-in-law had handed the problem to Leah, why she’d agreed to take it, and why all of this had fallen to me. I couldn’t understand the compassion and kindness any of them had shown, or perhaps I envied it, which only made me angry at myself. I couldn’t understand why people have pets at all. The relationship seemed to perfectly illustrate love’s flawed mathematics, the way it so often compels you to extend yourself at a deficit.

But when I opened the back door to the house and stepped inside, the anger disappeared. Casey was more dog than cat at times. Whenever I came home he’d rush to the door and meow, shake his tail in a vibration that started at the base and tightened to near stillness at the tip. He’d let you scratch his head before he darted to his food dish and back to chew in front of you, teeth bared. He wanted you to be impressed by him, proud of him. I took off my shoes and walked past his dish, still half full.

I climbed the stairs to our bedroom, where I found my wife and daughter napping. Leah woke and looked at me as I sat down on the bed. She gave me a sad smile. I lay down beside her and let new tears slide down onto the pillow, my eyes tired and stinging. The baby, not yet a week old, squeaked quietly in the bassinette at our bedside.

“I know,” said Leah, to the baby or me, or both.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Don’t be sorry. That wasn’t your responsibility.”

But what she said next seemed to confirm that it was: “You were his favourite person.”

I lay there a few moments longer, listening to the sound of my daughter. I got up and reached into her bassinette, and she opened her tiny hand. I put my finger into her palm and it closed instinctively, tight. For a little while, I let her hold me.

Messenger_Scott_2014 Scott Messenger lives in Edmonton where he writes essays, spends too much time on public transit, plays in a band, does some freelancing, drinks fancy beer, runs endless river valley trails, and hangs out with his family. He works there, too, as an editor for techlife and Eighteen Bridges.