Zoes: A Fable

Part One: The Adoption

Just before Hannah’s 25th birthday, I got the wild idea to get her a cat as a gift. Was it my idea? We’ll never know.

Our good friend Silvia lives in Ashland, and this is where we were visiting for the birthday weekend. I also figured this would be a fine place to find a cat. Why not?

if you’ve never adopted a cat before — which I hadn’t — I should warn you, this is where the story gets a little heartbreaking. But first, the dream.

The night before Hannah’s birthday, Silvia had a dream. In the dream, she saw the cat we adopted. She was silver, with long flowing red hair. But Silvia didn’t tell me about the dream before we left for the shelter, for fear of biasing our decision.

At the shelter, all twenty-some cats are locked into kennels in a room the size of a standard bathroom. Standing in the middle, an orchestra of meows reaching our years, we have no idea where to start. How does one pick a companion for the next fifteen to twenty-one years?

Luckily, she picked us instantly. Her “MEWWW” pierced the air an octave or two above all the other cat cries. In unison, our head turned toward her cage. She was alone, all of six weeks big, arching her back against the wire. Her eyes said, “Get me out of here or I will cute you to death.”

I plucked her out, still under the illusion that we were the ones making the decision, and put her on the floor where her cat instincts took over in the pursuit of my camera strap. In accordance with her plan, it was the cutest thing I’d ever seen. Her fur puffed around her like a Victorian collar, her dignified strut interrupted by kitten clumsiness. Her coat was incredibly soft, silvery grey with white chest, belly and socks.

I checked her name tag. Silvia. Hannah was enamored. Done.

Glowing with new-mama pride, we walked up to the counter with Silvia and plopped her down. 
“We’ll take her,” I informed the woman behind the counter.
She almost laughed at me. They were just about to close, she said. We needed to come back on Tuesday, when they re-opened, and then the cat would need to be spayed.

We had planned on going home the next day, which was Sunday. Damn. We put Silvia back in her cage and went back to Silvia’s place (see how confusing this gets?).

We told our friend about what happened and she told us about her dream. The grey cat. The long red hair (clearly a name reference, for the human Silvia is a vibrant redhead). That night, Hannah cried. TEARS! She was in love with a cat and now we couldn’t have her.

I couldn’t handle it. I changed my schedule, sent Hannah home with the car and adopted the cat on Tuesday. Then I craigslisted a ride to get back to Eugene in time for work and talked the human Silvia into driving three hours to deliver our cat, post-op.

Later, when I would explain this scheme to other people, they would scratch their heads at me. “Weren’t there any cats in Eugene?” they would ask. I’m sure there were. They just weren’t our cat. Anyway, the plan worked.

Flash forward two years. We’ve suddenly decided to move to Ashland. Silvia’s fault? Hard to say. We do know she was tired of unsuccessfully hunting chickens at the farm we were living on. Also the unceasing rain made it difficult for her to display her coat in its finest, puffiest, state.

“Let’s go,” said someone, probably the cat.

Part Two: The House that Zoes Built

Over time the confusion became too much and we started calling our cat Zoes. The name seemed to fit.

Zoes was reasonably content with the place we rented in Ashland, but she wanted her own house. A place where she could scare dogs away with the self righteousness that only comes when you can freely scratch the cedar boards of the porch. (But not the furniture. She might be a deity, but she’s never a mischievous one.)

We were feeling the same urges. We’d been discussing building a tiny house on wheels. A strange thing kept happening, though. Anytime I would draw a picture of what I wanted the house to look like, Zoes would show up in it. Maybe as a grey smudge on the porch. Usually, I would draw her in the window. The window grew until it was a large bay window. With a bird feeder in front of it. And a squishy cat bed.

It was pretty clear what she wanted us to do.

Every day of the construction, Zoes supervised. She cat-walked the the two-by-fours. She sniffed out each used window and door we dragged home. She monitored the premises while we were away. When we fell asleep exhausted each night, she rewarded us by planting herself on our chests and purring heartily.

Some days, we couldn’t believe our progress. We’d go from having a box with no holes in it to five perfectly cut rough openings. The roofing snapped into place with lightening speed. On those days, we would see Zoes lounging in the grass nearby, lazily swatting at butterflies, and wonder what magic those paws were working.

Now it’s done and she is satisfied. At least, the naps she takes in front of the wood stove look pretty darn satisfactory. And the naps in the loft, the naps on the bathroom rug, the naps on the chair, and the naps in her bay window.

She moved from chicken prey to voles, with which she has had more success. Last winter, I found a perfectly dissected vole body, meat removed, organs piled near the bones, tail and head, which were arranged as they would have been in life. Somewhere in all that fur, Zoes may be stashing a very handy pair of thumbs.

Part Three: The Unknown

We’ve been together six years now, half in this house. The bond has only become stronger. For the past month, I’ve been holed up in our 140-square-foot cat palace, writing a book. Zoes has been patient, never disordering my notes or throwing dander on my keyboard. Only once or twice has she needed to walk across it out of sheer desperation, for my creative focus has meant I can only spend an hour or so each day giving her pure and undistracted attention.

I’m sitting across from Hannah on the bench near the bay window. Her body is hidden behind her guitar. The bay window is lined with art, a small dish of organized rocks, my spare keyboard, and Zoes’ cat bed.

I’d gotten her the bed as a potential comfort upon moving. So far, she hasn’t shown any interest, preferring the usual old blankets and rugs.

I’m twirling a glass of wine and thinking about this piece.

“Question,” I say. Hannah looks up. Zoes has gone out. It’s just the two of us, the fading warmth of the wood stove, and 140 square feet. The recycled-pine wall glows in the lamplight.

“If Zoes didn’t organize this move, who did?”
We decided to go for reasons not cat related. Not even tiny-house related, although from the first moment we considered living in a bigger space it suddenly felt like our minds and our dreams expanded preemptively.
Hannah goes quiet. It wasn’t exactly a playful question. In recent months we’ve elevated the cat-runs-our-lives story to mythological status. It really does seem like she has power beyond our understanding. It makes as much sense as an old man in the sky, so I will not be ridiculed on this.

Neither of us can come up with an answer. We stare at the empty rug on the floor, wondering. Will she be okay?

I want to believe that she picked the new house near the ocean because she loves fish, that there’s a catwalk running through the place for a reason. But there are obvious flaws with this tale. The first being, why would she want to leave the house she custom ordered?

Hannah leans forward, tears on her cheeks now visible in the overhead light.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “I didn’t mean to stir anything up.”
Hannah’s spent the last month at the new place. She loves it. I’ve been here, getting excited, and trying to read the cat. She has not weighed in on the issue. Other than, this summer, once we had decided to move, she got a hot spot, and this fall, she began eating song birds.

We sit for a long while in silence. There are things about this move that are exciting. There are things about it that scare us to death. Instead of thinking about those things, it’s easier to fret about Zoes: Will the raccoons gang up on her? Will she run away?

You can’t ask anyone about decisions like this, whether they are right or wrong. You can only reason, and depending on your mood, those reasons can sound completely sane or absolutely crazy.

The cat door makes its familiar creak. Zoes steps back in, tinkling the bell on the new collar I picked up for her, hoping the sound will alert the birds to her presence.

It’s been a week, there have been no new piles of tiny feathers, and the collar has not been ditched. I know she can ditch it at will because of what happened to the cone. We’d placed it snugly around her neck to keep her from chewing her hotspot this summer. One day I came home and she was in the loft with a sassy expression on her face. She hated the cone but had tolerated it for ten days or so. Looking me in the eye, she raised one paw dramatically, slipped it under the cone, and lobbed it neatly toward my head.

After that, there was no more cone, and no more chewing.

I get down on the floor with the fuzzy babe and ask, because we’ve just realized that we never bothered to, and how terrible it might be if we don’t.

“Zoes,” I say, “What do you think about this move?”

She shakes her head in a manner that defies interpretation, tinkling the bell again. A thought enters my mind. With the bell, she could be wearing a tag. With a tag, she could be identified should the raccoons or dogs or other threats cause her to run.

The next day I go to the pet store and pick up an engraved tag. While I’m there, a bag of treats.
At home, Zoes is appreciative of the treats. The collar appears reliable. As I watch her crunching away happily, it hits me: The new bird-eating habit. The necessity of the collar. The idea of the tag, which through all our years of pet “ownership” seemed absurd until now.

Was it her idea all along? I have to say yes. I have to admit, she’s going to be fine. My fears are my own. This girl survived the streets and then the shelter, for gawd’s sake. She taught two wild women how to care for something, how to pull out burrs and treat a wound and patiently receive purr-on-chest time. She may have even taught us how to build. Whatever we’ve done for each other, we’re going to continue to do. Silvia willing. Zoes willing. Amen.

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