We’re dog people. And as all dog people know, the only fault of a dog is that they don’t live long enough. When one reaches the end of her too-short life we are faced with the question of what to do next. In Montana, on our little farm, we buried them in the orchard. But the most heart-renching thing about selling the place was driving away and leaving behind the bones of Delia and Mattie, Chumley and Maude, Gus, Elinor, Sophie, Jonah.
My husband was considerably younger then, and anyway here in urban Ohio, digging a grave for a large dog will earn you some strange looks or perhaps even a visit from law enforcement. So when we lost our two elderly hounds we chose cremation, and their ashes are in handsome wooden boxes on the bookcase, with a bronze of a hound, and photographs.
It’s different for cats. As I said, we’re dog people, but this doesn’t mean we hate cats. (I think my husband might secretly be a cat person, but he denies it.) We have had a house cat or two or three, and in Montana, a plurality of barn cats. And despite being Dog People, since we’ve been here we have somehow become custodians of a colony of semi-feral cats.
This clowder of cats is not discarded or stray. They are cats that have grown up essentially without human interference. Because they see people frequently, and because we are kind to them and provide kibble and water and shelter in the garage, some of the individuals have permitted us to speak to them, or scratch behind their ears.
Though it changes slowly, the colony does not grow. I think some of the younger males strike out to find their own way in the world, and the mortality rate for kittens is high. Raccoons can be hell on cats, and coyotes doubly so. (Yes, coyotes in downtown Dayton.) You’d think cars would be troublesome, but they seem to steer clear of those, hanging mostly in the alley that bisects our block. On the other side of the block is a large creek, a hunter’s paradise for cats.
We name them. We don’t think of them as “ours”, but naming them makes it easier to differentiate from cat to cat while talking with each other. Snippy, a cat in a Tuxedo, is the oldest. He was born in the garage about five years ago. There’s Eng who looks Siamese, her brother Chang long disappeared. Her gray tabby littermate Shadow remains and two of our own elderly spayed cats, Ariel and Jesminda like to kibbutz with the cats. Others come and stay for a year or two and simply disappear: Fat Boy and Willow, Chin, Fuzzy, GiGi, Satchmo.
We buried the calico cat “Cousin Betty” when we found her lifeless at the edge of the garage. We think probably it was anti-freeze or perhaps a poisoned mouse; there was not a mark on her. Then there was a litter born to GiGi, who we realized later must have had active toxoplasmosis. The kittens got to be about three weeks old and then each of them seized and died; first Clytemnestra, then Castor and his twin brother Pollux, and finally Helen, the tiniest and most fierce and the one that fought so hard to live. I sobbed when she died. We wrapped each one in a linen dinner napkin and buried the kindle of kittens together. Next to them is Mouse, a tiny grey kitten, doomed from the start.
Mouse’s brother, Tuukka, he of the white feet, lives in the house now.
Then came Eisbar. He was from the second litter his mother Eng had last spring. We placed the first two kittens with friends, and we’re glad to say that Yin and Yang are out of the colony and on someone’s couch. Eng looks Siamese and Eisbar did too. His name is German for Polar Bear. His littermate only lived a few days, and then Eisbar disappeared. Who knows what Eng thought– maybe she thought she could save him if she took him away. We searched and searched for him and were so pleased when Julian found him under rusty steel shelves where we stacked empty garden pots. But when Eng hid him she must have punctured his neck. The skin began to slough off there. I consulted with the vet. She was kind, but we both knew the score. Day by day, hour by hour, the kitten slipped away and then died cupped in my hands.
After burying a whole litter of kittens, and Mouse, I couldn’t bear to put this one in the earth. I just couldn’t do it. I’m not squeamish about these things, but I’d reached my limit. So he too was wrapped gently in a linen tea towel, placed in a ziploc bag and nestled carefully in the freezer. I know, it seems grotesque. I inquired about cremation for kittens who weigh only a few ounces. That much ash probably just floats away. Then, as time went on, I grew accustomed to the idea of laying him to rest under the maple tree, another in the little line of pavers. “They were here. They drew breath. They staggered around clumsy on kitten paws. Someone cared about them.” There’s nothing written on the pavers, but that’s what they stand for.
Of course, by then, it was the dead of winter and nobody was digging anything.
For three years we’ve watched a very careful, very handsome giant black and white cat watching us. We know that he would come to the garage to eat, but he would bolt if we surprised him at the dish. We called him Batman, but he was unlikely hero. It took him more than a year to linger at the bowl as we passed. Eventually, as we talked to him, he settled. We would say “Hello, Batman” and he would say, in a tiny voice, “Wenh.” By last summer, he had grown comfortable enough to greet us. “Wenh” said Batman.
“Hello, Batman,” we would say. The other cats made room for him at the dish. Sometimes we’d spot him sleeping on top of the toboggan in the rafters. When we say Batman was a big cat, picture a cat the size of a fox terrier. The black cape from his mask to his tail glistened with good health. A magnificent cat. Occasionally, he’d disappear for a few days and we’d say “I wonder where Batman is.”
And then we’d come home from someplace and he’d be sitting there waiting for us. “Wenh.”
One evening in February, he allowed me to rub his chin, and to run my hand along his neck. “Wenh-wenh,” he said. I commented to my husband that he’d let me pet him a little and my husband confessed that he’d snuck in a pat or two when Batman was eating.
The next afternoon on our way out to the meeting, the garage door wouldn’t swing open. Something was up against it. The something turned out to be the body of Batman. We were utterly shocked, and so very sad. How could it be that the splendid Batman was dead? He had not seemed sick. He was not injured. He had been the picture of health. And like Cousin Betty, we are left to think perhaps he was tempted by the sweetness of antifreeze, or maybe he’d dined on a rodent laced with d-con. At least he came home to a place he felt safe. We bundled up his glorious earthly form in a sturdy box and set it aside. Perhaps cremation, I thought, though it seemed that Batman belonged only to himself and to claim him that way presumptuous.
Weeks pass and my husband says “Soon it will warm up and we will have to do something about Batman”, and I agree.
The day arrives. A glorious spring day, after a long, long winter. The air is soft, the sun is warm, the earth can be dug.
With a pick axe and a shovel, we set about the task.
For Eisbar, a tidy pocket under the Maple tree, next to cousin kittens. I set the tiny bundle in blue linen in the grave. “Goodbye, Babushka,” says my son. I take the shovel and gently cover the kitten in earth. When I can no longer see the blue fabric, I hand the shovel to my son and he finishes the burial.
Batman is a different story. His favorite place to sit in the yard was under the rosebush, watching for whomever walked up the garden path to the house. We can’t plant him there exactly, there’s not enough room to dig. But just below that, where the lilies used to grow, there’s space there. It will take a sizable hole for such a large cat. My husband starts out with the shovel, and occasionally Julian spells him with the pick-axe, breaking up the dirt still frozen from the winter. When they take a break, I dig.
We open the box with trepidation, dreading what decomposition we might find. But it’s okay. He is diminished in death, but that’s all. We wrap him in an old and delicate white linen tablecloth. Each corner is cut away, and inset from the cut work is embroidery, each with one of the four cardinal directions, and the Chinese symbol for the same. In China, they mourn in white.
Julian and I hum the “Batman theme.” You know the one; a three-chord blues progression, punctuated with the exclamation “Batman!”. We gently fill up the grave with earth, and tamp it down as if we were tamping down a nest of eggs. It was the place where Batman liked to hang out. Now a concrete cat wearing concrete sunglasses will sit there in his stead. And I will think of Batman each time I see him, coming and going down the walk.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be : world with. out end. Amen.