Feral When I Wanna Be
Shortly after I moved into the house I bought in Guerneville, CA, oh these long ten years ago, a rather badly battered tomcat showed up on my doorstep. His ear was torn up, the side of his face deeply gouged and scratched. He growled and hissed when I came near. I set some food down and let him be. He stuck around and, though it took a couple of days, he finally let me close enough to check, clean and treat his wounds. Granted, I got my share of bites and scratches from the exchange, but over time the wounds healed.
The next couple of years found him an infrequent visitor to the house. At first he would wait patiently outside the kitchen door until I noticed him. Later, finding the dog door, he would slip quietly into the dining room and sit off to one side until food was offered.
He was a gentle and patient cat during his visits. Though it was obvious from his numerous battle scars he was a warrior out in the real world, he never got into it with my other cats, never tried to dominate them, despite the fact that he was un-neutered and they all were. Nor, thankfully, did he ever try to mark the territory as his own. As for my dogs, three at the time, well, they just accepted him as part of the cat burden they had to bear.
I never name critters when first they arrive. I wait until they tell me their names. And they will. If you listen. He told me his was Feral-When-I-Wanna-Be. It was a bit of a mouthful but it fit. He wasn’t into being picked up and held but, at some point along the way, he began to tolerate the occasional stroke along his back, a quick scratch behind the ears or under the chin. But only for thirty seconds or so, then he would growl, spit, lash out with a claw and turn away, back arched, ears slightly flattened. I think he wanted the strokes but he was a warrior, you see, and warriors can’t be that vulnerable for long.
Feral had longish hair with a slight curl to it, black over all with a white chest, white boots and a white curly-cue on his left cheek near his nose. Like all my critters, he picked up several nicknames over time: Socks, Soxer-boxer, Box of Rocks, but he was always, first and foremost, Feral-When-I-Wanna-Be.
In later years, as he got older, slower, less able to compete with the younger warriors plying the battlefield of life, he began showing up more often. And staying for longer periods of time. Over the last winter he would often remain in the house for several days, and nights, at a time, something he had rarely done in the past. He even had his favorite chair and would growl quite fiercely if you tried to remove him from it.
When recent events in my life dictated a complete change of scenery, I debated long and hard about what to do with him. Should I leave him to his territory, the only land he had ever known? Or take him with me when I moved? In the end, it was his increasing presence and the longevity of his stays that convinced me I should take him with me.
He took to the 1200 mile trip in the car quite a great deal better then I expected. Better, in fact, then some of my other cats. Indeed, where I was expecting major wounds in trying to cage him, I got not a one. Once to the new house, I was determined to keep him, and the other cats, inside for at least a few days until the shock of moving wore off. To my surprise, he didn’t seem to mind a bit. No complaints, no moping or scratching at the door. He found his favorite chair, curled up, and slept.
Time passed. He and the other cats found their way outside. He took to it well, finding a sunny spot to sleep. He’d disappear for some hours but always returned by nightfall. I got a bit of a shock when, at one point, he disappeared for well over a week. I feared the worse of course, but one day, there he was again, sitting on the porch, waiting to come in. Shortly after that I discovered him crawling through a whole in the side of the house which led into the compartment where the water heater is located. He had found himself his own little private apartment where he could be safe, away from the other cats. I put a cat bed in there, and water and food. Whenever I found myself worrying about him, having not seen him around for a time, I would go to his ‘apartment’ and, sure enough, there he would be, curled up asleep, his food bowl empty.
Can you be inspired by animals? I think you can. There was something about Feral that mirrored a place I hold inside, something about him that moved me. While I was writing my first novel, that tome that shall forever electronic gather dust, I came to the realization one day that he and my MC were very much the pair. Feral was already in the story, background scenery as it were, but when that realization came, I brought him a little closer to the foreground. I wrote this paragraph, knowing as I did that it was as much about my MC as it was about him.
It was JJ the cat was drawn to. When ever he sat out on the porch or puttered about the yard, the cat could be found somewhere near, following him from place to place, a discreet distance away. Sometimes he would sit and stare, as though watching out for JJ, protecting him. He still put on his feral act whenever held too close or lifted, but JJ had noticed of late that he was staying closer to the house for longer periods of time, even to the point of sleeping inside in the winter months. It was almost as though the cat wanted to stay, to give up its predatory existence and settle down, grow fat and lazy but something inside it, some mystery it could never begin to understand, drove it again and again to the hunt.
I knew upon his first arrival that he would stay. And I knew, too, that I would never ‘have’ him in the same way I ‘have’ the other cats. He would not grow old and die peacefully in his sleep as I’m sure my other fat and lazy ones will. He was a warrior. Warriors don’t die fat and lazy in their bed.
Three weeks ago, during something of a cold spell here in Albuquerque, I went out one night to find him. He liked staying out at night. Nature of the beast and all that. And with his rarely leaving the yard and with the ‘apartment’, I usually swallowed my fears and let him stay. But the nighttime temperatures had fallen into a range he had never experienced in his life and I had been noticing how stiff and slow he was getting over the last few weeks. So I made a search.
He wasn’t in the yard. Not unusual. And he wasn’t in his ‘apartment’. That was unusual. Finally, after a somewhat frantic search, I found him, of all places, under the front porch, curled up on the cold ground. I knelt down and tried to coax him out. He has always been a reluctant cat but, to my surprise, he wouldn’t come at all. Finally, freezing now myself, I reached in to pull him out and, to my shock, he backed away from me. Not far. A step at most. But he backed away.
Do we anthropomorphize animals? Perhaps. I think it’s within our own human nature to do so. Is what I experienced that night an anthropomorphous event? Again perhaps. Does it matter? Not a bit to me.
When he backed away, he gave me a strange look. It was an odd look, a sad look. A knowing one. At the time, what I heard in my head was, “No. I don’t want to go in.” I refused then to acknowledge the rest of the words the look conveyed. With a good deal of trepidation, I left him be. In the morning he was gone.
It’s been nearly four weeks now. The food in his ‘apartment’ has gone untouched. His water bowl is crusted with ice. Each night I turn the porch lights on, front and back, make idle, endless trips to both doors, staring out into the cold night, looking for him. As I drive from place to place, I look up and down streets, barely admitting to myself that I’m looking as much for a body as an ambulatory creature. I put in a lost cat report with Pet Harbor and every morning my heart cracks just a little more when his picture doesn’t appear in the email they send me.
I keep remembering that night, often chastising myself for not having dragged him inside despite his wishes. But what I want from an animal is a companion of sorts, not something caged and denied its own nature. And, in the last few days, the veil of denial is lifting on the thing I’ve known since that night he backed away from me under the porch. He wasn’t just saying no, he didn’t want to come inside. He was saying good-bye.