Saturday, June 01, 2013

New fiction: The Lamentation of Cats

Here's my latest piece of fiction for my writing group. It still needs some work, but it was well-received. More notes follow the story.

The fluffy gray kitten played with the ball of yarn. She rolled in ecstasy, purring away with the pure joy of being a cat. She planned to play with her ball of yarn for a long time, and then maybe take a nap. Maybe two naps.

"Princess," said a voice. "We need to talk."

Princess stopped playing and looked up. It was Sugar, the Senior Cat. She had a very serious look on her face.

"Am I in trouble?" Princess asked.

Princess wasn't a kitten, not anymore. But at nearly fifteen months she was the youngest cat in the house, and she had chosen to hold onto her kittenhood as long as she could.

"No, you're not in trouble," Sugar said. "Though I do want you to stop pooping so much by the front door. You need to use the litter box."

"But I like pooping there," Princess protested. "And besides, Mom doesn't mind."

"Yes, she does. And you're making a lot of extra work for her, work she shouldn't be doing. But let's wait for Slinky before we discuss more."

"Here I am," came a muffled voice from the hallway. A young tabby padded out of the dark with the stealth that had inspired his name. He held something in his mouth, but set it down before he approached the other cats. "I was just checking on Mom," he said. "She's taking a nap."

"She sure takes a lot of naps lately," Princess said.

"Yes, she does," Sugar said.  "That's something I wanted to talk about today."

Princess cocked her head and looked at Sugar. Why would she want to have a meeting about Mom taking naps?

"Princess," said Sugar, "Mom is getting old and tired. She's taken real care good care of all of us, but someday - maybe soon, maybe not for a while - she won't be around anymore. We have to talk about what we're going to do when that happens."

Princess looked back and forth between the two other cats, confused. Sugar sat there, dignified as always, while Slinky chose that moment to start licking at his leg.

"What do you mean, 'won't be around anymore?'" Princess asked. "Where would she go? Maybe out to the country to visit Tommy and the kids?"

Slinky stopped licking and shook his head as if he had a bug in his ear.

"No, Princess," Sugar said. "I mean Mom's getting old and tired and is eventually going to die. Then she won't be around anymore to take care of us."

Princess tucked back her ears and put her chin on the carpet. She began to meow plaintively. "But...if Mom's not around, what are we going to do? Who's going to feed us, and change our water bowls, and clean up our poop?"

"There'd be a lot less poop to clean up if you used the damn litter boxes," Slinky said.

"But if Mom's not there to feed us, we'll starve!" Princess howled softly. "Unless...wait! I have an idea! We'll find a bag of food, and tear it open, and eat it!" She brightened up. "We've done it before, we can do it again!"

Sugar shook her head slowly. "It doesn't work that way, Princess. Somebody needs to buy those bags of food from the store and bring them into the house. Without Mom, there won't be any new bags of food."

"Then we're doomed," Princess cried. "Mom's gonna die and we're gonna starve."

Slinky chewed at his back foot for a little bit, then looked at Princess. "Maybe, maybe not. Sugar and I talked about some scenarios here. We figure there's three ways things can go, with variations of each."

Sugar nodded. "The first possibility is that after Mom dies, Tommy will take us to live with him in the country."

Slinky scratched at his ear and let this statement settle in. "Now, we'd like to think that this is the most likely scenario. But we've got reasons to think it's not gonna happen."

"Why?" asked Princess.

"  Tommy found you when you were a newborn kitten, abandoned in his barn. From what I hear, you were darned cute as a kitten."

"I still am," replied Princess.

"The point is, he didn't keep you then. What makes us think he would take you in now? Plus an old cat like Sugar and a part-feral like me. It would be nice, but we've gotta consider that it might not happen."

"I like Tommy and the kids," said Princess.

Sugar and Slinky exchanged a glance. Sugar began again. "Scenario two is less pleasant to consider: After mom dies, we get sent away to the pound."

"What's a pound?" Princess asked.

Sugar thought a moment and responded "It's a place where unwanted dogs and cats get sent so other people can see them and adopt them."

"Well, that sounds nice," Princess said.

Slinky scoffed. "Sure, it sounds nice. Truth is, there's too many unwanted dogs and cats for them to handle. They need to free up space. If you don't get adopted in a few days, maybe a week, they put you to sleep."

"I like to sleep," said Princess.

Slinky hissed and spit. He was about to say something but Sugar interrupted. "'Put to sleep' doesn't mean what it sounds like," she said. "It means...well..."

"Dammit, it means they kill you," Slinky said. "Jab you with a needle or gas you in a box, then toss your body in a furnace with all the other cats and dogs they 'put to sleep.' And there's no waking up, not ever."

Princess began to whimper and cry. "First Mom dies, then we die? But I love Mom! I just want to take a nap and forget about all this."

"Slinky, you've frightened her."

"Dammit, Sugar, this is frightening stuff. It scares the hell out of me. I don't want to end up stuffed in a furnace either. So that brings us to scenario three."

"Is it worse than being put to sleep?" Princess asked.

"No," Sugar said. "If Tommy isn't going to take us, we wait until people are coming and going through the doors. They'll do that when Mom...when Mom is gone. And we wait for our chance, when maybe someone has a door open a little longer than usual, and we run away."

"Run away? Where?"

"There's a stable colony of ferals in this neighborhood," Slinky said. "I used to be a part of it. There's a lot fewer left than there were before, thanks to the poisoner who lives next door. We'll take our chances with them accepting us into the colony. If not, we move on."

"What do you think our chances are of being accepted?" Sugar asked.

"I...don't know." Slinky grew somber. "I was sick and dying when I left them last year. Mom took me in, made me better. But...I think they resent me for having left them and come in here. They might be more willing to accept the two of you. Or maybe none of us. Still, it's a better option than the pound."

The three cats sat in silence for a while. Finally Sugar spoke.

"That's a lot to think about, I know. And it might not happen for months, or even years. But we have to start thinking about it now. And there's more we need to discuss."

She looked at a reflected sunbeam on the ceiling for a moment, then continued. "If Tommy comes, he might want to take just you, Princess. He might decide to send me and Slinky off to the pound."

Slinky looked at her. "Well, we'd just run away then. Let Tommy take her, but the two of us can stick together."

Sugar shook her head. "I've been with Mom for fourteen years now, but I was already a grownup cat when she took me in. See, I was a pet who belonged to the people across the street. They let me wander the neighborhood. I got knocked up. I was almost ready to have my kittens when I found out my owners had moved away and left me behind."

Princess forgot about her problems for the moment. "But, why?" she asked.

Sugar shook her head. "They weren't good pet owners, and weren't ready to deal with a litter of kittens. I had my kittens next door, in the Bad Man's garden. That didn't turn out very well."

Slinky looked at her. "I didn't know. I had no idea."

"Most of them died, either from sickness or from drinking the bowls of antifreeze he put out for us. One or two got to grow up, at least survive long enough to strike out on their own. I don't know what became of them. Maybe one of them is your great-great-great-great-grandfather, Slinky."

She closed her eyes as the first traces of the afternoon sunbeam began to poke through the curtains. "My point is, I'm old. I've lived outside, until Mom took me in, and I'm not ready to live like that again. I'm too old for that sort of thing. Heck, maybe I'll die before Mom does." She looked at Princess with a steely gaze. "The thing is - if I die, or if I get taken off to the pound, you're the Senior Cat, Princess."

Princess looked shocked. "Me? But...but Slinky in older! At least nine months older, maybe more!"

"Seniority is based on years in the house, not age," said Sugar. "You've been in the house longer. Nearly a year longer. That makes you senior to Slinky. He understands this."

Slinky nodded somberly. "So the upshot is, after Sugar dies, I'm going to be looking to you for leadership and guidance."

"But...but if we have to go outside..."

"Then I'll give you whatever support and assistance I can," Slinky said. "But you'll still be the Senior Cat."

Princess meowed sadly and rested her head on her paws.

"Mom dying...all of us getting killed and burned up in a furnace, or running away and living in the wild..."

"This is all a bit much to take in all at once," said Sugar. "Let's adjourn this meeting for now. We can continue our discussion later. The sunbeam is about ready to show up. Why don't we all lay in it for the afternoon?"

Slinky turned away from the other cats and padded over to the thing he had dropped. He picked it up in his mouth and brought it back to where he he had been sitting.

"Lookee what I found in Mom's room," he said. "The catnip pillow we thought we lost last month. I thought we might need it after discussing all this heavy stuff. It's still good." He chewed and batted at it for a minute, then looked at the other two cats. "Want some?"

"No, thank you," said Sugar. "I quit that a while ago."

Princess looked at it sadly. "No, thanks," she said.

"Suit yourselves," Slinky replied, his eyes dilating.  He carried the catnip over to the spot on the floor where the sunbeam was already stretching out.

"Will you join us, Princess?" Sugar asked.

Princess stood up. "Maybe later," she said. "I think for now I'm going to go and check in on Mom. Maybe see if she needs some help taking a nap."

I was happy with my last story, involving a conversation - imagined or real - with a cat in a supermarket parking lot. I wanted to do more stuff with cats. Lovecraft had stories about cats meeting outdoors in the night, and flying off to secret places on the Moon. I had an idea that cats might communicate with each other over the Internet, and that's what they're doing every time they walk on your keyboard. But then I decided to do something simpler: what do housecats talk about while we're asleep? Here I decided that these cats would talk about mortality - both that of their "Mom" and their own mortality - and the consequences of death.

The seniority system in cats (and all housepets) is something I've observed over and over. Animals generally respect it, and recognize which animal has the highest seniority. I have sometimes seen a cat transform from a stunted adolescent into an adult within days of the death of the previous senior animal, much like a bull chimpanzee will develop different physical traits when it takes over its tribe. Some animals fail to respect the chain of seniority and get smacked down and put back in line by their fellow animals.

Sugar was a real cat, and a real sweetheart who would come up to me and nuzzle my legs as I was doing yard work. I knew her name because it was on a tag on her collar. I'm not sure if she was abandoned while she was pregnant, but her owners did move away. She eventually vanished from the neighborhood, as many feral cats do, but she had a daughter we named Socks, possibly with the black cat we called SpookyBear. Socks had Rachel (later Ray) and Gretchen, and then vanished. We took in Rachel and Gretchen after we realized that a neighbor was almost certainly poisoning the neighborhood ferals. Gretchen died as a kitten, but Ray is still with us.

Slinky is a less-lovable version of Homer. Princess is cut from whole cloth, but is based on a lot of cats I know who try to maintain their kittenhood throughout their lives.

Someone remarked that this upends the notion that cats can take us or leave us. But I have known many cats who have shown real concern for their human companions. Perhaps it all depends on the humans involved.

The title is based on something I remember from my childhood. My grandmother on my father's side had worked with children with severe birth defects, and there was one group that had a specific condition that caused them to cry constantly like howling cats. I believe the condition was referred to by a French phrase that translated into "the lamentation of cats.". I haven't been able to get any Google hits for that phrase, but now there will be at least one.

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