The Ninth Life
(or, I dreamed this entire story, and had to write it down immediately.)
She was holding the cat like a baby, which seemed impudent under the circumstances, but it was the only way it could be done.
Kneeling on cold legs, on a most inappropriate corner, it was dark and it had been raining. She knew she was here for the night, or perhaps it would take longer. It didn’t really matter, because the gravity of what had been the subject of mutual realisation less then half an hour ago had smacked aside any film-script gestures, and hurled a blanket of urgent closeness over the two species.
The cat was going to die. Of that they were both sure. Without injury and obvious illness, this was a wearing-out, a tired submission to extraordinary longevity, and only escaped being the elegant passing they had both hoped for because of a missed bus and a lost key. Outside, on this corner, incorrectly dressed for the weather, one would see out the other with dignity and gentleness. The door key that lurked ruefully somewhere in the town’s streets would not unlock the back door tonight, and backup would not be coming until morning, so this, they accepted, was to be their backdrop.
You are old but beautiful, said She, looking into neon green eyes, undimmed by tiredness. And you look so calm. I wouldn’t be. You want more of this, I know you do. She was supporting the weight of the cat’s body, which had never been slim, with both arms. She had known immediately that the animal was dying, because this was a most unnatural thing — the cat on her back, face up to her owner’s, legs folded in over exposed white fluff — like a small child, and improperly vulnerable. In full health this position — should you succeed in attaining it — would result in an opened human vein, maybe two, or at the very least, a furious thump with a claw-fanned paw. But not tonight, hmm? She thought. Too tired? Even you need the comfort perhaps, though it’s me who’ll need it later. What a revelation. In death you show yourself the needy creature you are, while we’ve spent our adult lives like proud distant neighbours. You listened to my muttering into the void, checking flower after flower as we walked The Grounds, watching the afternoon small-screen rubbish, sleeping, eating.
The cat looked up sharply as if two sea-green lenses were being pulled into focus. The pupils narrowed and a tinge of yellow appeared at the edges. Ha! thought She. I mention the stomach and you’re right back here! Welcome back. A lurch of pain went through her chest. Teatime meant pleading, bribery, a battle of wills, calorie counting, portion control, Boadicea declaring war on the Romans. But it also meant shared meals which would otherwise be taken in solitude, and the joy of unfairly-gained affection through distraction-feeding, overtly expressed by one, and tolerated with a dismissive tail by the other.
So needy, She thought — how many years have we tip-toed around each other, keeping a respectful distance and co-existing like the middle-aged stoics we are? If you could only have have known what was going on in my brain. Full, most of the time, bursting. We spoke the only cross-species language there is, that of keeper and kept, though one of us would surely shrug that description off like an annoying insect if it could be understood.
“That’s rather a simplistic way of interpreting the relationship between an animal and its owner. I’m surprised at you.”
A tiny voice, a little breathless, and certainly intoned with a modicum of annoyance, suddenly found its way into the space between them. They looked at each other. “Don’t you agree?”
There was a moment in which, all at the same time, the voice was heard, deleted, re-played, and dismissed again; then, almost immediately, to fail to respond seemed rude. Still the answer wasn’t spoken, just in case. What do you mean?
“You who have spent a lifetime studying the relationships between dysfunctional adults and their offspring; you who have made life’s work from repairing the damage done by dumbing-down and underestimating the investment required in parent-child relationships. The learning! The cognitive damage!” The voice was irritated now, but alert. And highly literate. And there was no doubt where it came from. Still the response that came was non-verbal.
I’m not going to be debated here on this rainy corner, by a voice I have just heard for the first time, She thought; but yes, you have a point. But you’re not a child; you’re a cat.
“I am. And I will die a cat.” The voice, female, strong, warm and elegant — and sharing a regional accent — rang out in the dark. For a very long time, it resonated against the woolly little raindrop-sounds as they patted down large summer-sized blobs on the paving. Now all the streetlights were on, and other, younger humans were on their way home. Then: “Do you think I have time to tell you about myself?”
Two pairs of eyes, green and awake, were suddenly aware of the horrendous passing of the minutes, locked onto each other in a super-charged succession of thoughts: this cannot be, but we don’t have time; she is my best friend, but she is dying, here and now. I can deal with my sanity later. For now, she has to tell me her story. “Then please introduce yourself to me,” She said. Out loud. “I would like to know all about you.”
The feline eyes softened and closed a tiny amount. Pupils smoothed off a little in acknowledgement of the relief her newfound platform would bring. “I’m glad we got that out of the way.” The cat gave an awkward little shift, as if to hiccup around a tiny pain, then closed her eyes. Under the anxious gaze of her fellow dieter, TV-watcher, weed-puller and scientist, the cat began to speak.