The Day the Ninth Life Ended: Reflections on a Passing Cat
She could be such a silent ballerina of a butcher, a soft padded graceful skimmer across grass and weeds. It is unclear how many birds, mostly of the small peaceful dove variety, she took with her. How many rats she devoured in fits of ecstasy, only to then expectorate like an unhinged public schoolboy readying for college. If she had been human in that sense, she would have been a perfect addition to the clans of bulimic courtiers of Louis XIV’s court, overindulging and then relieving themselves for future courses. This was a cat knowledgeable of living and knowing how to live.
But Miaow (or Miao) – not exactly the most original of names – was an astonishingly beautiful feline. Siamese, noisy, at times almost irritatingly loquacious. Lean to the point of being bony, milk white, with rings of black on her tail. To see her move was to drink in the spectacle of a four-legged dance.
Metronomically, she was guided by movements in the kitchen, the point at which she acknowledged you, a mere serving human, as relevant. The fridge opened; the plates readied; the cat, at the ready, making a sharp pleading sound that wafted across the street to the neighbours. Drawers opened, cutlery rustled. A pose would be assumed beside the bowl: that of the Sphinx. There were no riddles to be solved here, though. The solution was food, pure and simple.
She was the runt of the litter, bullied, and tormented by hierarchy and timidity. In her debut appearance, she seemed desperately parched and famine ravaged, her body a stretch of thin muscle over skeleton, age uncertain. She had made it down from a colony of other Siamese cats, tribal and keen to keep an eye on their lot. But her treatment was such as to make her flee – or at least consider wandering afar.
Even then, with her state and appearance, the sharpest of words from Hugh Hector Munro (Saki, to most) came to mind: “The cats of the slums and alleys, starved, outcast, harried, still keeps amid the prowlings of its adversity the bold, free, panther-thread with which it paced of yore the temple courts of Thebes, still displays self-reliant watchfulness which man has never taught it to lay aside.”
She eventually found herself occupying more and more time at an abode further up Casuarina Drive in a hot suburb of Townsville, North Queensland. She fled the Siamese realm that had bred and oppressed her. The new residence offered promise, a place of retreat with options: multiple bookshelves and books to hide in; rooms for sleepy seclusion; people to spoil her.
This was a place to conquer, with occupants to seduce. There was sanctuary, nourishment and, however promiscuous as she proved with her fidelity, Miaow always found her way back to the selected sanctum.
She loved invading the beds, spreading her rule of fur, and reigning across many a surface. During the summer months, her warmth could be excruciating, sneaking under blankets, craving the contact of human skin. Fur mingled with sweat; whiskers and wet nose found contact with the human body.
Miaow was never one of those cats kept housebound in the torturous manner humans relish. The struggle between cat and human is waged on various fronts, but to do so in small confines is to endorse slavery masquerading as forced love. The instinct of these quadrupeds is to sleep during the day and turn into keen, devastating hunters at night, where they prey upon other members of the animal kingdom. In Australia, as with other invasive species, they were introduced, and have created their fair degree of ecological mayhem.
Her idiosyncrasy – and in this sense a truly peculiar one – was an inability to work out how the door flaps worked. Gloriously beautiful as she was, she was reliably unintelligent in some respects, forever proving that the aesthetic is ever its own criterion. This meant that we, as true retainers and porters of the feline world, would oblige opening doors at ungodly hours.
Then, on this day in January, her body was found, curled up against the wheel of the car. It was only slightly cool to the touch, the fur still shedding vibrantly, her black ringed tail showing a murmur of warmth. Her eyes seemed to flicker.
The previous afternoon, there had been signs of visible wear. The meowing had lost its richness. There was nothing in the way of banter, the teasing jump on the table, the pressing reminders for attention. Food was not sought. A booking with the vet was made for a morning check-up.
In taking her in and placing her on one of the beds, a trick was resorted to. Go to the fridge; take out some sausage; pan-fry it. Let the smell waft with its resuscitating power. The body registered no flicker of recognition; the whiskers and mouth remained immobile, a deathly state petrifying. Not even the kitchen smells could spark the galvanic charge that would enable her to spring into action, stretch with admirable sleekness, and sing for her supper. She was gone, leaving her retainers to mourn and wonder.
Even now, it is hard to remove the used towels, the blankets she made her own in furry conquest. There are the bowls of food – dry food – that remain haunting reminders. There are the bowls of water, one placed on the back patio that became, at various points, a birdbath and watering point for a range of other creatures, including possums and green tree frogs. There are the packets of frozen cat food with titles such as “Fussy Cat”. There is the fridge container, occasionally streaked with dry blood, where a packet of such meat would be defrosted daily.
If cats, as Winston Churchill observed, look down on people (dogs looked up at you; pigs did so on an equal level), there is only hope that somewhere, her essence is gazing downwards, proud. For now, the realm of death has another addition, and life, a numbing subtraction.