Born of rebel blood, he emerged mewling and messy in the darkened recesses of a magnolia-scented alleyway, licked clean by a mother whose face he would never remember but whose spirit he carried with him always. The fledgling family plucked from the alley weeks later by horrible helping hands and shuffled off to a new reality, the pungent laissez-faire of the side streets replaced by four sterile walls and a tiny window deemed well out of reach of anyone but his captors. His mother impossibly, indefatigably scaling the bare wall with his squalling sister in her jaws, driven by self-preservation and the call of the streets, dropping her charge gingerly from the sill and climbing down to repeat the unthinkable ascent three more times until at last the family was reunited in the swelter of their natural habitat. The escape would be short-lived, the kidnappers tracking them down the next morning and cornering the progeny. His mother dancing, hissing just beyond their reach, the barbed ultimatums of fight or flight ricocheting around her skull until she finally saw the futility of the situation and was forced to choose freedom over family. His frightened squeaks serving as his uncomprehending goodbye as he watched her tail melt away into the shadows of a sultry New Orleans evening.
Entering the home of the new abductors frightened and defiant, a defensive ball of angry striped fur. These new people, these sweaty, shaggy, uptight outlanders, one soft and one hairy, not at all like the few other people he’d had the misfortune to encounter. Liking them even less. Being carried to the bathroom, the indignity of captivity now magnified by an actual cage, one with a handle lest he forget what a portable piece of property he really was. Stashed in the bathroom, the door closing behind him, tossed again into a four-walled prison, not that the size of the cell mattered much. Passing the first day with his bristled back pressed against the rear of the cage, resisting the new people’s pitiful cajoling to come out and play. Eventually overtaken by the proverbial curiosity that was the curse and the cliché of his kind, venturing out long enough to snatch a few morsels and a lap of water from the bowls that the soft one and hairy one had left as offerings. Miraculously returning to the cage safe from harm.
Finally earning their trust enough to be freed from the bathroom prison, biding his time, waiting for their inevitable exit. Once left alone, darting for the tightest, safest space in his purview, a tiny hole at the back of the oven. Hearing their frantic search echoing through his metal cavern hours later, their timorous calls tinged with fear at their memory of his escape artist mother. The soft one finally making a last-ditch check of the oven’s underbonnet, her voice flooding with joy at the sight of two luminescent eyes twinkling out of the darkness. Both the soft one and the hairy one cooing with joy at his return from a daring escape that never was. Deciding this living arrangement might not be the ordeal he’d presumed.
Gradually acquiescing to their advances, gaining confidence, finally willing himself to accept a life of comparative luxury within the walls. Taking advantage of the long, unobstructed runway, indulging his frequent caprices for racing and hiding and stalking those big brown insects that crunched when he pounced on them and devoured them shell and all, invariably vomiting up his chitinous snack minutes later until he discovered the trick of flipping them onto their backsides and slitting their bellies with a single, surgical claw so he might feast on only the fatty, digestible goo inside. Not even lonely for the streets once an appropriate period of mourning had passed, discovering that he preferred the outdoors from a spectator’s seat. Spending hours crouched by the sturdy screen door, his wide, round eyes giving him an appearance of perpetual astonishment, studying the endless parade of neighborhood ferals, hardscrabble, half-tame grifters and brawlers who took food where they found it and likely would not see more than a handful of summers. Any envy in his gaze tempered by the knowledge of the ever-present dishes of food and fresh water waiting in the bathroom. Even befriending one of these outcasts, a scruffy grey longhair who came to the door most days and sat silently by his side, the screen separating them like a penitentiary visiting room although they may not have agreed about which was the inmate and which the visitor.
And then an adopted sister, a tiny grey kitten oozing affection, often literally, snuggling unabashedly into the people’s laps and purring until their shirts were wet with her contented drool. Any threat he felt from this interlocutor quickly fading away in the face of her innocuous obsequiousness. If anything her presence proving a boon, she flinging herself headlong into aspects of pet-hood that never came quite naturally to him. Settling smoothly into their roles, she the doughy ball of love, he skittish and feisty, still clinging to a hint of his near-forgotten wild beginnings. Becoming a team, scampering after each other, tumbling across the hardwood, knocking knick-knacks from shelves that should have been beyond their reach. Curling up together in a furry, grey-brown yin-yang when the clinging cold of a Deep South winter settled over the city.
Jostling about in carriers and open cabs as their curious little family headed north, first to a sprawling, creaky Chicago flat. Passing long days bickering with birds and watching the world pass through the sheer curtains of a second-story window. Then a mid-winter move to Minnesota and a cramped apartment, the smaller quarters making him anxious with confinement and cold. That stopover proving mercifully short-lived, the soft one soon enough loading he and his sister into the box-bulging car, the terminus a full-fledged house with stairs and sunbeams and endless nooks and crannies for hiding away. In the warmer seasons even a screened porch, he and his sister basking daily in blissful sloth until the sun faded away. If this was the reward for his years of mildly grudging domesticity, he was happy to have it.
Settling into old age as a cranky curmudgeon, stalking the darkened rooms at night meowing at nothing in particular, simply savoring the echo of his voice in the cavernous space, indulging every now and then in a throwback to kittenhood, pouncing on his sister – she now fat and slow and more indolent than ever – and nipping at her nape until she yowled and the hairy one shouted at him from the bedroom. Pacing the bedframe slow and persistent, nuzzling and cajoling the soft one into lifting the bedsheets so he might slither under, then twitching and flopping in an orgy of warmth until the hairy one inevitably had enough and ejected him.
Peering tentatively at the mysterious bundle of cloth and flesh that appeared in the house one frigid afternoon, a squirming, guileless thing that was undoubtedly a living creature, but of what kind? The new thing eventually proving itself not a threat but not the same kind of partner that his sister had proven to be either. Keeping his distance from grabbing hands and unchecked slavering, learning to dread the shrieks and squeals the small one emitted at unpredictable intervals. Finally coming to understand the too-rough petting and startling exclamations as a new kind of love, savage and unchecked, summoning a deep memory of the ragged side-street fraternity of his own infancy. The two finally bonding in a friendly rivalry, jockeying nightly for plum position on the soft one’s lap with the hairy one droning and turning pages in storybooks. Curling beside the small one as he slept, savoring the flutter of tiny breaths against the fur of his neck.
Becoming slowly aware of the thing growing in his insides, knowing not what it was but understanding somehow what it meant. Slowing down as his comfortable accumulation of fat and muscle melted away, shrinking him to skeletal in what the people said seemed like days but to him felt like agonizing eons. A visit to those dreadfully soothing other people in white, they peering at his ochred ears and exchanging grim glances. The strange faces a queasy whirl broken only by the soft one’s tears confirming what his insides had told him already.
The coming weeks a bacchanal of tuna fish and canned foods, the one-time delicacies tasting less rarified than they once did but still palatable, and palatability now seeming more than enough. Gravitating in those final days again to the bathroom, retreating to birthplace of his domestication. Spending hours sprawled on the bathmat, saturnine, leonine, staring into an unknowable void that intrigued as much as it frightened. Venturing downstairs only for occasional attempts at eating, the wet food and even the tuna fish soon losing their appeal until only the aromatic tuna water provided him any solace. Submitting wearily but gladly to the hairy one’s tearful attempts to reunite the family on the couch, relishing the scratching and caressing until it inevitably became intolerable, he shambling back up the stairs to his adopted womb.
Rousing himself from his bathroom trance one morning to follow a movement barely glanced in the corner of his eye. His cloudy eyes focusing on a yellow wisp of a spider wobbling along the tiled floor, a peculiar sight so deep in the mire of winter but a welcome one just the same. A sudden stirring inside him, an awakening of an impulse so long dormant that he scarcely recognized it, gathering the remnants of his strength, retracting his torso and pouncing on the doomed spider with all the ferocity of his youth. Pain and confusion rolling aside for a few blissful seconds of noisy gobbling, the spider’s feathery limbs flittering down his throat, offering nothing by way of sustenance but tasting for all the world like one of the clumsy, squirming insects he had taught himself to vivisect on the splintered floor of that long-ago home. The thrill of the hunt fading rapidly, settling back onto the bathmat exhausted but somehow glowing, flush with an understated ecstasy, his awestruck eyes awash in images of hardwood floors and dingy carpets, of streets and strays and siblings lost and found, of sunsoaked afternoons and blanket-swaddled mornings, of lizards and birds and squirrels roaming aimlessly behind glass, of nibbled leaves and dancing toys, of licked ears and fuzzy embraces and intertwined tails, of little hands and soft laps and hairy faces and of home and of life and of love of love of love of love.