“A cat is all essence. Essence remembers.”
— Jane Heap
I was living in Baltimore and I had just moved to a large row house. It was next door to an old barn. In the backyard, along one side of the yard the wall of the barn ran back to a fence and beyond the fence there was a narrow aley. In the wall you could see the openings where the horses used to cran their long necks to be fed.
In his autobiography, Frederick Douglas described visiting the livery stable that had been there and I would, from time to time, look out the big kitchen window to the yard and imagine him standing there watching the horses.
Beyond the alley were other row houses and in one of them Billie Holiday had lived as a young girl, and all along the street were murals of her, with a flower in her hair or standing in front of a microphone.
The first weekend I was there, after the manic rush of moving, and making sure my cat Duffy was alright, I went and sat in the yard. It was September and warm. It was very quiet. Duffy was at the window watching me. I had found her seventeen years before in a park in San Francisco. She was black and small and liked everyone. I didn’t hold that against her. There is, after all, no accounting for taste, and she was, by being a cat, smarter than I am.
I was sitting there thinking about who knows what when a very thin, orange cat, appeared at the top of the fence, looked at me, jumped down to the ground and, with the air of a gentleman with reservations at a nice restaurant, walked to me, jumped into my lap, curled up and went to sleep.
I didn’t move, but laughed a little at the pure and brazen assurance; the sublime sense of trust he displayed and we sat there he and I, for about an hour and then then I picked him up, put him down and went inside and explained to Duffy she was about to have company.
I put out food for him and worked on developing enough trust to get him into a carrier to bring him to a vet to make sure he had the requisite shots and wasn’t going to give anything to Duffy that we would all regret.
One of his ears had been cut so that the rounded tip was gone and the vet said it looked as if he had been caught, neutered and tagged then released.
Estimates run as high as 60,000 feral and stray cats in Baltimore and there’s a rumor that the city, in its depravity and decadence, in its bespoke sadism, in the cycles of endless poverty, uses the cats to keep the equally massive rat population under control.
On any given night you can see dozens of rats running from one dark corner to another and it’s common to pass a row house with a cat colony of a dozen or thirty cats. Some people are kind to them and you can see shelters and bowls of clean water and food and you can see the cats being themselves within the world as it is.
A few months after the orange one came inside, Duffy died. She had been with me from one side of the country to another and in her gentleness, in her endless calm and empathy, she had been a pure soul and when she died I knew that some part of me was dead as well.
It seemed too obvious to say that there was a connection between the arrival of one and the departure of the other and yet, who am I to tell the world what it is or what it is not. I named him Duke by which I mean he told me his name was Duke, and it took a while for us to adjust to each other as he had been out on the street for a while and someone had not been kind to him, so when ever he saw a broom he would run and hide in the basement.
He did not take quickly to people and whenever anyone visited he would retreat and wait for them to go before returning and rubbing against me as if to say, as you were.
A few months after he had moved in he began to cough – a kind of hairball in the throat cough but deeper and with more crack to it, as if dry leaves were being broken.
A visit to the vet and I was told he had a heart murmur. The options were heart surgery or medication. The surgery was beyond my means and the medication, a blood pressure pill, worked. He still coughed from time to time but otherwise he was Duke and he was who he was.
I said to someone once that cats are here to teach us to be kind. You can retreat from that, reduce it to the bleached out, dull details of evolutionary theory, scientific facts, the passionless and correct points that define the symbiosis between humans and mice and grain and cats but they are here to teach us to be kind.
Duke died today.
He had a seizure and all of a sudden his back legs became stiff and he fell down and couldn’t move. I brought him to the vet and they did everything they thought was right and then they said there was nothing else to do.
I have known some decent people. I have known sadistic people and I have known good people with crippling problems and people who, I have no doubt, are proof that evil exists.
But of all the people I have known, of all the souls I have ever touched or been touched by, there is not one who has been more pure, more gentle in spirit, more basic and sublime in his being than Duke who, without hesitation, said, I’m here to be your friend and to teach you to be kind.
I have known other cats, and several dogs and each of them in their way have graced me with their absurd dignity, their noble silliness and their pure souls.
I am looking at his food dish, and his bowl of water, and his litter box that I will never again have to complain about changing. I am looking at someone else’s cat, who has been sniffing around looking for his companion, whiskers out, nose shifting, eyes locked on to shadows searching for a scent that should be attached to a body but, there is only a small empty space where a giant soul used to live.
From time to time I wonder at the visits this blog receives – from countries next door and those that might as well be on another planet. I see your streets and your ideas, your secrets and your dreams, and I hear you in the ocean of infinite zeros and ones and I wonder, if you know a soul with four legs and a tail, who is here to guide you towards being a better soul among all the wayward souls.
A beautiful light has gone out the world. A ridiculous and noble soul has vanished and taken part of me with him.
I did the best I could for him and if I fell short the fault was entirely my own. And I know that he never once fell short in his efforts to make me a better person or to teach me to not give up, and to find a way to be more kind, more resolute, and more like him.
I have no doubt that he saved me that day he came over the fence and said, I’ve been waiting for you. I did not know that I had an appointment to keep or that the universe, in its infinite dimensions, could disguise itself as an orange cat, who knew so many true things, but he knew, and he shared them with me and now he’s gone and there is a hole in the world, by which I mean there is a hole inside me and I will miss him.