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Cat Lady

By: Patricia Halloff

Reprinted with express permission.

February 2008

Grey Cat
My God, how cold it is, how dreadful, on these bitter night streets: It is as if my lungs are choked with black ice. Wind whines and moans like a wounded animal. I am on my nightly rounds, pushing my cart of mercy through streets lined with charred shacks without windows; landscaped with vacant lots glinting black glass, billed with craggy remains of burned-down buildings; spotted with hovels unfit for habitation, but nonetheless inhabited. It is like a journey through my Krakow after the bombings, through an ice-bound circle of hell, as looking to the right and to the left, I hobble through streets' and alleys deserted by all but me, crazy Elizabeth, and occasional furtive figures, almost as bent as I in the face of the wind, who trudge past me (God willing, they don't stop) muttering obscenities and curses. Crazy stupid old lady and her dumb cats, they say among other things.

Crabbed and fearful, my damaged heart loud in my ears, puffing and blowing, I inch along to where we meet, my cats and 1: a derelict building listing like a sinking ship, paint peeling from its cadaverous frame, its boarded windows like eyes closed in pain. Except for the wind and my wheezing, it is very quiet here.''Chi chi chi," I call softly. I call my loves to me. "Chi chi chi."

How beautiful they are, how swift, how brave. As if conjured by a magician, they appear suddenly, coming from all directions toward me, from hiding places even I have not seen, softly toward me, their fine eyes large and luminous with secrets I will never know. Their poor shivering bodies tensed against the icy wind-some still strong with youth, a few old and battered like me, scarred and damaged by battles, exposure, want-they come. With little cries of welcome and pleasure.

It is in the cheerful tones of a medical professional I greet them. I do not insult their dignity with pity. "Meals on wheels," I say. "Come and get it." I put dishes down and fill the dishes with my offal stew. I move like a drunkard: wobbling, losing balance, fighting not to fall. Leaning on my cart, siphoning air between my chattering teeth, I watch them eat: the quick thrusts of their poor heads, the jaws at work with such gusto, the fast tongues hasty with gravy. Tentacles of ice are squeezing the breath from me. I ache with cold. Huddled together they eat; scrunched up against the cold, fur tattered by wind, ears flat against their heads, they eat quickly.

"That's right," I say. "Keep strong."

Qhen, whoosh! as swiftly as they came, they disappear. All at once they are gone, my ill-starred ones, to whatever shelter they have found. The street is empty, stretches before me as if stricken still by the wind. Creaking, wheezing, wobbling, I squat to gather my dishes. And it is then I see her for the first time. Her head hanging from her neck like a broken flower on its stem, she huddles against the derelict building; her eyes are closed against the wind that whips her thin body. I think. Oh my God, what should I do?

"Chi chi chi," I call. But she does not respond. Wondering where I will hide her, if I can carry her all that way, how I will find the strength for this rescue, I say, "Puss puss puss." She does not move. "Puss puss," I call but she will not come. In a demon dance the wind whirls around me, pulls the words from my numb mouth with icy fingers, throws them beyond her hearing, sucks the breath from my body. "Chi chi," I call, still squatting then shuffling in a wrestler's walk slowly, arduously, toward her. Her fur glistens with frost, her poor ears are frozen, she is too feeble to stir. I know, I know what that is. I know in my own bones the exhaustion she feels, the weakness of age and infirmity.

Crabwise on my haunches, somehow-God knows how-I manage with great effort to gather her up, to lurch like a marionette with rusted hinges to an upright position without dropping her. I hug her, feel her shivers in tune with mine, feel the pitiful weightlessness of her, the bones light as dry twigs, the spine prominent and knobbed by age jutting her fur. She is more gossamer than flesh. I groan, "Oh my God." She is so old, so old: wasted, weak, a skeleton. There is an air of decay about her. I open my coat and wrap it around her; with what little life remains in it, I feel her heart flutter against mine, as short-breathed, bent almost double against the resistance of the wind, I list toward home, holding her with one arm, pushing my cart with the other. I do not dare stop even briefly to rest.

This is the dangerous moment; re-entry. One misstep will bring catastrophe upon us-we must not be seen. I enter the building through its service entrance, peer around the corner, make certain the hall to my apartment is clear of the barbarians inhabiting this monument to the beanless, the potless, the broken, who covet cruises they cannot take. My heart pitching, I pull my coat over her head and negotiate the final steps to safety. Well done, Elizabeth! Ready to drop but triumphant, I lock my door and pull my curtains. Can you be too careful in a place where you are watched so carefully, regarded with so much suspicion and hostility? "Elizabeth," they croak in their hoarse voices, "how many times you been mugged already? When you gonna stop, woman?"

I turn on the light. To mask sound, I turn on the radio, I unwrap my coat. "There, there we are," I whisper and stroke her head. Her skull is delicate as an eggshell; she sighs; she opens eyes yellow as citron, as Van Gogh's sunflowers. Gray as morning mist, as will-o-the-wisp, her fur is nevertheless ragged and torn with ulcerated sores, greasy with filth. How tired she is, how way-weary; exhaustion lays on her like a pall. Her small face is haggard and drawn. In the face of such need, my own weariness diminishes. "Never fear," I tell her. "Elizabeth is here." I fix a bed for her with soft rags and lay her gently down. I whisper, "Drink, pretty puss," and offer her milk. "Eat, eat, my love," I murmur and give her some stew. She tries, she cannot. "Sweet girl," I say, "tomorrow will be better." I stroke her thin body until she sleeps. Can you believe I am happy? In my decomposing, decrepit, wretched state? Dying in this last place beside a dying cat? I am happy. I am filled with such love for her!

My gray girl is dying. Slowly. Death does not deal kindly with cats. A few days later, when Helga raps on my door, she is trying without success to eat a little stew.

"I know what you got in there, lady," Helga growls through my partially opened door. "You got another cat in there, aintcha?" She folds suety arms over breasts like beanbags. With fierce and jaundiced eyes, she glares. "I gonna tell! I gonna tell you bring in here disease and filth!" Outrage fights stolidity for control of her face. "I got myself to think about! My health is all I got, lady!"

Where once defiance lived in me is now panic; where once clarity, confusion. Only determination remains steadfast. My heart jumping in a spastic dance, Jiy voice shaking, I plead with her. "Please, Helga. Please, what harm to you?" I say. I tell her, "She is very old. Not sick, just old." I say, "I keep her in! How can she harm you here? She is dying. It won't be long. Let her die in peace," I say, but my words are not strong enough to touch the heart of Helga.

"It's against the law!" she shouts, already on her way.

I wave my hand in resignation, go inside, shut the door. Soon the phone or doorbell will ring and I will be helpless to stop the ring or the ultimatum it will deliver. Awaiting the executioners, I pick up my gray girl, sit down on my bed and hold her on my lap. What else to do but hold her and wait. Tears run down my face. What I want is to take her and run (but I can no longer run) to where no one can harm her (but no such place exists) is this world that counts her poor life as nothing because it has no practical value, no utilitarian merit, no serviceability. What is a castoff cat but rubbish, litter, superfluity? Of what good is it? Of what earthly good?

It does not take Helga long to rally the forces she needs to protect her wellbeing. The doorbell rings, there is a terrible hammering on the door; voices mutter and hiss without. Stroking my girl, trembling, through watery eyes I watch the door open: There are no tenant rights in public housing.

"For Chrissakes!" yells Eddie the superintendent. "If I didn't see, I wouldn't believe!" "What I tell you?" asks Helga behind him.

Eddie shouts as if over a long distance. "Get it the hell out of here in ten minutes!" He points his twisted finger at me. "OR YOU GET NOTICE!"

Without hope, I whisper, "Soon she will die." My heart is flopping weakly, like a fish a breath away from death. "Please, a week?" Her life force is so weak, a failing lick of flame in the wasted body which lies so lightly on my knees. There is nothing left to her.

"TEN MINUTES!" he yells over his shoulder and they are gone.

What will get me though this hour, this day, what little is left of my own life? What except anile stubbornness, a soul bleeding but still up for war against all the odds, enables me to struggle into my coat, wrap her in towels and creep slowly down the winter street to Dr. Cohen? A frigid wind dries my tears before they fall, stiffens my face. The sun is a puddle in the dirty sky strewn with clouds like tattered rags. My numb lips whisper, "Rest, sweet love." Opening his door, I whisper, "Sleep, my sweet girl, sleep."

Inside I say, "Doctor, please. She has no place. She is dying. On the street she cannot live."

"Elizabeth Elizabeth Elizabeth," he answers, sighs, shakes his head.

I hold her while he fills his needle. I stroke her sweet head as delicate as an eggshell. Her eyes look into mine. I whisper, "It's alright, sweet girl. Sweet love, rest." I look away only after he injects. Without sound or tears I cry.

Website: Sisypuss: Memoirs of a Vagabond Cat

Copyright 2008: Patricia Halloff

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