This is a vignette from my novel Songs of Galilee, slated to be published in my upcoming short story collection The Library of Babel.
It had started raining before we got home from the hospital and, since mother was avoiding my dad, we parked further from the house than usual, because the truck ran out of gas, and had to run to the house with phonebooks over our head. Because we parked further down the driveway, to both sides thick shrubbery lined the roads. Mother forgot her sewing purse, where she had picked up one of the soapstone angels her father had carved, and told me to go and fetch it. I slung it over my shoulder, slammed the door, and went to turn back toward the house. And that’s when I heard her.
The faint meow came from under the truck. I ran in the house to get my mother. She had told the doctor that I sometimes saw things and heard things that weren’t there, visions, hallucinations, and he said it was a good idea for me to get confirmation on things I saw which could be ambiguous. Mother followed me to the truck with a black umbrella over her shoulder.
“Do you hear it?” I asked. She nodded, twirling the black umbrella over on her shoulder. I got on my hands and knees, crawling in the soft mud under the truck. Mud and dirt gathered on the knees of my jeans. A tiny shadow figure bobbed beside my father’s tire. Her little tail curled around her legs and she sat there shaking. Rib bones jutted outward from her stomach. Her little eyes, a bright yellow-green color, seemed frightened when I reached for her. It seemed like she might’ve been hit by a car.
Whenever I see a cat that’s been hit by a car, I try to get them out of the road to find somewhere to bury them. I always have, and the backyard of every home I’ve lived in is full of dead cats I’ve picked up off the highways. Then, under the edge of that truck, I felt the sad feeling that I’d have to bury her. It’d be indecent to let her spoil in the road until the flies came for her, until cars had ravaged her completely. This is disrespectful to me and always has been.
And there, under my father’s truck, sat a tiny little calico cat. She had a white belly, orange and white stripes on her back, and spots of beige and black on her face. Black and white stripes circled her tail and the end of her tail was white.
Had my mother not insisted I go to the doctor, we might have never found her and she certainly would have died, just like the thousands of other cats we often seen dead on the dirt roads which led to town. She was hungry, shivering, huddled in fear under a strange truck, not knowing where she was or if she’d live to see another bowl of food.
She was a wee baby cat. I kept saying, “Come on kitty. Come on baby. I’m not going to hurt you. Who’s a pretty kitty? You’re going to be fine now. I’ll take care of you.”
After coaxing her for a little while, still in the slanting rain, she crawled into a towel and we took her into the house to find some food. There was left over peppered chicken in the microwave, so we put it on a paper plate and stood there to watch her eat. Herman was gone when we got there, but we knew he’d show up soon; he never fished in the rain. But he always sat on the porch and listened to old Hank Williams when it did. By the time the rain slacked, she was eating quickly, and when she finished her second bowl, I scooped her into my arms, rubbed her wee little head, and said, “It’s going to be alright. I have you now.”
My mother encouraged keeping her. My father, completely out of character, even supported keeping the frightened kitten—as long as we didn’t let her come inside. When she came near my father, he always shied away from her. He was never mean to her, but it seemed as though he didn’t like being around her. So we fed her on the patio and brought her in when father was out. He didn’t spend much time at home at that point, anyway. Mother was sure he had shacked up with some woman in either Israel or Syria.
She started to come around more often and we fed her every time we heard her little feet tinkling across our wooden porch. Mother spent one afternoon looking through the couch cushions in the living room for change to buy her a little collar in town with a bell on it.
“We’ll be able to hear her when she comes,” mother explained.
After a couple of weeks, we named her Bell and she became our cat.
She was timid, though prissy and sometimes hyper, but we knew she loved us. There was no question about it. I tried to teach her how to use the toilet, how to speak, and how to color. She never learned, but I figured if I kept at it, she would learn sooner or later. She spent most of her time prowling around under the deck behind the house or looking for rats in the boat shed. My mother and I loved her.
There were very few moments when she didn’t follow us when we made our morning rounds. We loved her with the real type of love, the type not based on convenience or profit, but with the real kind. Love comes in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes it’s a towel to wrap a starving cat in. Sometimes it’s a brand new television for Christmas. Real love exists when there is no advantage, no convenience or profit, just the feeling. That’s the kind of love we had for our Bell. And that’s the love we had for her daughter, the runt of the litter, Entae.
We had Bell for a year before she had her first and only litter of kittens. Five of them: two yellow tabbies, a black and white one with yellow feet, a solid black one with white feet, and the runt: a tiny black kitty with one little white spot beside her nose and a pale white belly.
We named her Entae.
My mother loved her at first sight and picked her to be the one of the litter to keep inside. The others we took to town in a big wicker basket to give them to anyone willing to provide a good home. Most of them eventually made their way through the hills and back to our front porch.
The kitty never showed hostility, never bit or scratched or hissed at anyone. She was forever impassive; a stranger, whom she had never met, could scoop her up and pet her and she’d never try to run away. She’d just recline her head, arch her little black lips into what I always thought was a smile, and purr. She never meowed or whined as a baby. For a while we even thought she was mute, but we loved our Entae. We loved her ridiculously.
I remember the first time I saw her jump from the ground to our porch, bypassing all five steps. It had to have been five feet or so. It amazed me. When did she go from a runt with scrunched together eyes to an animal so alive, so agile? What made her walk?
The scariest dream I’ve ever had involved Entae. I remember waking up with my pajamas clinging to my sweating chest, and my hair was damp against my face.
In the dream, Entae followed behind me as we walked the shore. We were collecting seashells, something I did all the time, and she was helping me collect them. She would sniff them out, so to speak, and I’d toss them in my jar. One of the seashells wouldn’t come up. Entae pawed at it, scratched, even tried to dig. It wouldn’t come up. I put down my jar, squatted, and pulled as hard as I could. When it finally came up, the sea drained like a bathtub and a giant jar swooped out of the sky. We were trapped inside a giant jar with nothing but a little bit of sand. Strange creatures shook the glass, pressed their strange faces against it. We couldn’t breathe. We slammed our fists against the glass walls, but they made no sound. A blurred figure approached the jar, with a muffled gray light swarming behind it, and peered into it through the side. It said something, and then pulled up a chair in front of us. It stayed there long enough to draw a picture. The shadow showed us the picture, wrote our names under it, and walked away.
I woke up screaming when Entae keeled over in the sand. Her little legs went limp. She collapsed onto her stomach and slid down the hill. I tried to scream but there was no use. Nothing could hear us. I was trapped inside a jar.
Nothing had ever, or has ever since, scared me as much as that useless feeling, that futile screaming while suffocating.
When I woke, I ran down stairs to see if Entae was still there. Mother must’ve let her out during the night, since her bedroom was downstairs, because she was asleep on an old parasol on our front porch. I walked over to her and knelt beside her. She meowed. I stroked her head and she rolled onto her back, mumbling, “brrrow.” I smiled. My cat was still alive.
Every morning, the first thought on my mind was finding Entae. I’d bring her into the house every morning, take her upstairs to my room, and we’d go back to sleep together. It got to the point where I couldn’t sleep unless I had my face pressed against her furry back. It calmed me. Having Entae made me smile.
By the time her mother disappeared, and all of the other cats had been killed or had left, we were left with just her. Father rarely ever spent time at home other than to eat and leave back out. He claimed to be saving money to move us to America. It’d show grandmother he had made something of himself, he said. And the look on her face when she realized she’d turned her back on the winning ticket would make it all worthwhile. Entae was all we really had.
When she still stayed outside, she got lost in a storm one night and found her way to town. A neighbor brought her back to us. Her back was torn in half, blood was caught in the little white spot beside her nose, and she looked like she was dying. My entire body went numb. My chest pounded and my heart palpitated. Adrenaline flooded my blood as panic closed in around me. I imagined the cloth I kept over the jars to try to catch the life before it left, and wondered what I’d do when Entae died.
The man who brought her to us said he’d been hanging clothes behind his house when she got into his dog pen. Probably looking for some water, he said. His dog, a hunting dog used to track deer, attacked her when she got in the pen. He ripped her stomach open in the process and damn near killed her.
The kind old man saw her being swung back and forth in the dogs jaws, jumped the fence, opened the cage, and pulled her out of the dog’s mouth. She never tried to scratch him, never hissed, but went into his arms in the same passive manner she always went.
We were always grateful to that man. We invited him to dinner. Mother made him cholent, peppered steak, and cabbage soup. He gave us four more years to spend with her. Four years I’ve cherished more than anything in my life.
We wrapped her in a towel. Mother called a veterinarian across the way, on the other side of the village. He told us to come on and he’d have a look at her. Herman was away at sea, had been for days, so we took his truck into town with Entae wrapped in a towel, draped across my lap. Blood seeped from her stomach onto the towel, dark red blood that made my stomach sink. This was probably the first time I had ever felt true despair. Mother had to give me a pill to stop that horrible heart-attack panicked feeling that became increasingly frequent. Anxiety became severe.
The ride seemed to take forever. When we arrived, the vet told my mother Entae would probably die. It’d be best just to put her to sleep—a term I didn’t understand at the time. Mother refused. The man said it would cost nearly a thousand dollars if we put her in the hospital for the weekend. Mother said she would petition Uncle Oren for the money if she had to. The vet recommended several things, but mother said: “Do whatever you have to do. I don’t care what it costs. We want our cat alive.”
My mother was always stressed over the price of things. She made most of my clothes herself to save money, made our blankets, quilts, and grew what vegetables she could in our garden. But this was one time when mother didn’t seem to care about money. She believed what I believed then, and I believe now: a living thing is more important than money.
We waited in the parking the entire weekend. The vets came in on Monday, after checking in only a few times during the weekend, and told us she was still alive. Miraculously, she was alive. She’d never be able to have kittens. She’d always walk with a limp, like a jaguar stalking prey, but she was alive. For better or for worse, she was alive.
I’ve always thought the most telling thing about Entae’s character was she didn’t claw or bite or scratch the man who saved her. She never clawed or scratched anybody. If any of the sailors or fisherman who docked near our home saw her behind me as I walked the shore, they’d pet her and play with her, and she never ran away. She rolled over on her back, now exposing a scarred stomach, so they could rub her tummy. Even after the accident, anyone could pick her up and play with her. She was Gandhi trapped in a cat’s body.
Other than her belly, she was almost unchanged by the attack. The only other change took place in the way in which she meowed. They came out in broken spurts of “brow, brow, and brrrrrrow” and sounded like a little squirrel.
We spoiled her as much as a cat could be spoiled. It was ridiculous. If you wanted to feed her a piece of ham, you couldn’t just place it on the floor. She wouldn’t touch it. She’d look at the ham, back at you, to the ham, then to you again. You’d actually have to pick it up, tear off tiny pieces for her, and hold it while she ate. If you wouldn’t hold it for her, she wouldn’t eat it. Other than that, we were convinced she was Italian.
She loved spicy food. Hot wings, lasagna, and spaghetti were her favorites. She wouldn’t eat anything else mother cooked. She hated plain potato chips and would flatly refuse them if my mother offered, or if I offered, but she would accept them if a stranger did. She liked ham and turkey, but only the thin sliced kind. She wouldn’t eat baloney.
We spent every night together in my room, sprawled out on my bed. She purred beside me as I rubbed her head. I would read and she would watch the tiny television I’d brought from the attic. She liked nature programs. Even though I never liked television (I liked westerns) I’d watch with her. And this is how we spent our time together. When she got tired, she’d crawl onto my chest and go to sleep. At seven in the morning, she’d go to the door and wait for me to let her out. She’d go to the bathroom, never in our yard, but in a neighbor’s yard over the hill, and then she’d come back in to go back to sleep.
The funniest thing about her, which no one ever really believes, is her choice in bathrooms. I’ve always told my friends about this. She never used a litter box. Not once. When she had to go to the bathroom, she would go to the front door and wait. We’d let her out, and she’d disappear over the hill. Later we found out that, all that time, she’d been going to the bathroom in the yard where the dog had once attacked her. Never in our backyard, but about twenty feet away from where the dog once was. He never cared, and when he came to dinner he laughed about it with us. He had even taken the time to buy an umbrella for her to sleep on whenever she got tired near his home.
I never just walked passed her. If I saw her, I had to stop and pet her and kiss her on the forehead and tell her I loved her. I really believe I did. She was my friend, a real friend, a real friend who could feel and love. It’s pathetic isn’t it? It’s pathetic to think of a grown man who still cries about a cat, isn’t it?
But I loved her, and I still love her. I guess I miss my friend.
More than anything, she was fond of long hikes in the woods behind our house. She’d spend all morning in the high grass behind our deck, chasing grasshoppers in the fields, or fishing moles out from under the boathouse. Her favorite place had to be the porch where she slept on an old umbrella, a tiny black parasol with broken wires, or under an old pear tree she would one day be buried under, any place with a good amount of shade. That’s what she always went looking for. Four years together at last came to its end—as all great things do.
I remember the last time I saw her alive. I’d stayed up all night with her in my room upstairs. I worked on a drawing of her, sleeping in a cowboy hat, and she explored the nooks and crannies of my room. Seven rolled around and, as usual, she was at the door, waiting on someone to let her out. I knelt in front of her at the door, patted her on the head, and said, “Be good.” I kissed her forehead. She ran onto the porch, stopped for a moment to clean herself, and then pranced down the steps.
And I never saw her alive again.
When I awoke in the evening, my mother told me she was gone. She had tears in her coal colored eyes. My father had returned. Together they had walked through every street in town and shouted her name. Even friends of my father began to help us look through the woods. When night came a small group of fishermen came to help look for her. All had flashlights, and we all walked, crying out, “Entae! Here kitty, kitty, kitty!”
I walked down every street in town. No sign of her. We couldn’t find her. I had that sick feeling in my throat, the kind of feeling that tells you that something is wrong. And no matter how hard you try, you can’t swallow.
At three in the morning, I slid out the sliding glass patio door, sneaked out the screen door on the patio, and down the back steps that led into the tomato garden. I called her for thirty minutes or so, rattling her food bowl and throwing pieces of ham around the porch and walkway. No sign of her. At five my mother and I went out again. She had her sleeping gown on, tied around the front, and held it closed as she walked. It was obvious that something was wrong; even when she wouldn’t come to me, Entae always came to mother. No matter what the situation, Entae always came to mother. I must admit a certain jealousy over this, because I certainly spent more time with her and showed her more affection.
I called again at seven. My father had exhausted himself and was asleep on the swing in front of our house with his cap pulled over his face. Sunlight had just started to ripple across the water, and the early birds were hovering in the air and singing, but there was no sign of our cat, no sign of her sly little gimp or strange meow, no sign of our friend.
For the next hour I sat in my room with a nervous numbness in my chest. I rocked back and forth on the edge of my bed. Just as I started out the front door again, mother grabbed me by the arm, emerging from the living room. She told me she had found her. Tears stained her face. Her eyes were bloodshot and her hair was frayed at the ends. Mascara ran under her eyes. Her bottom lip was twitching.
She had found her dead behind the house, behind the deck, in the high grass, where she often went for shade.
It’s the saddest thing I can remember feeling. To picture such a beautiful thing, alive and moving, vital, animate—now so hard and cold, lifeless. The dream of Entae in the jar came back to me, played out in my head, and the thump of my heart beat savage against my chest. It was as though someone was thumping the jar again when my heart started skipping on beats. I had never cried so hard in my life, and have yet to cry that hard again. Mother stood beside me with a towel at the front door. It was Entae’s towel, unwashed and stained, her favorite slip of fabric to sleep on in the bathroom when the hampers were full.
Mother took her time to be extra gentle with her as she hoisted her lifeless little body from the ground. Together we dug a hole in front of a small stump, under a pear tree—a place she often slept when it got hot. My face was buried in my mother’s morning gown when she sat the towel in the hole. I went to my room to find the soapstone angel my mother gave to me the day we found Bell, Entae’s mother. I put the ivory colored hand carved angel on the stump above Entae’s grave.
When I walked by the recliner in the living room, and saw she wasn’t there, it hit me again. A sick feeling, empty and surreal, came over me again. Entae was gone. Everything felt wrong. She was supposed to be curled up in her little ball, asleep and hurting no one. Thinking about this as I write, I can remember that sick feeling I got in my chest.
I spent the next three hours sobbing uncontrollably. Mother made no effort to console me, as she herself sat in the kitchen over a steaming cup of coffee with a vacant look in her eyes. She was just a cat, after all. Right?
I cleaned her water bowl and took it into my room. Every time I look at it, I see my little girl with dirt caked under her little nose, those little eyes, and her tail no longer bobs above the grass as it did when she went exploring. And then I hear those strange meows. It hits me again, and I feel the absence of her. It’s only grown larger over the years. That was an entire life ago, it seems, but it hits me, and it still hurts.
It hurts because it’s my fault. Had I not let her out, and kept her as I often did, she wouldn’t be cold and alone in a little hole right now with just a soapstone angel to look over her grave. Sometimes I put pieces of bread on her grave just so the birds would come, so she wouldn’t be alone. There’s nothing I wouldn’t give just to pet her under her little chin again like she enjoyed so much, or kiss her little forehead and tell her I love her. And I did love her. I do love her. I loved her as much as anything I’ve ever loved.
Every single day I woke with nothing but my kitty on my mind. I went to the front door every day to find her. Every single day for all those years I had the chance to share a little bit of my life with her. Had I only cherished it then as I do now. Now she’s gone. She’s gone and all my tears won’t bring her from the ground.
I’ve always believed every human has done something in his or her life to make them guilty of a crime. I’ve done things to deserve to die. I’ve done ill-natured, spiteful, cruel, and ill-intentioned things. Maybe I’ve done things that make me deserve to be buried behind our deck. But Entae didn’t deserve to die. She didn’t deserve it.
I remembered what my mother told me of Heaven. I spent a long time wondering if Entae went—and if I’d see her when I got to go. But human beings are the only animals who think they’re going to heaven and the only animals that don’t deserve it.
You can say she was just a cat, or that I should probably stop whining about it. But she wasn’t just a cat to me. She filled the gap in our family left by my father and we loved her. And we missed her then as much as I miss her now.
Before I left Golan Beach, and the Sea of Galilee, I remember standing there in the shade we buried her in, under a long row of dead apple trees. I looked at the little cross I made her, the little soapstone angel, and I wanted to pull my teeth out. She was in the ground, cold and in a dark place, wet and in a wet ground where I could never dry her off. She was alone down there and hungry. Maybe she’d like some lasagna, or some hot fries. If I would’ve had one wish, it would’ve been a bowl of lasagna for her as I stood above her grave.
We loved that cat. We always will.
If I could talk to her now, what would I say? I’d say this:
Rest, Entae, like you did on the umbrella on our porch, in my closet, or at the foot of my bed. Rest like you did under the pear tree when the summer heat came in full force. Rest like you did at the foot of mother’s bed when father was out at sea. On the day I sat the toy boat out to see, on which a candle burned, I wrote a small poem for her. I called it Entae’s Song, and I buried it. I didn’t know where to mail it.
Wherever she is, in the ground or in the sky, I hope she found some shade.