The first dead mouse could have been an accident. You thought so; anyone would have thought so. Innocent mouse, dead on the deck: tiny and softly gray, white-tummied, no obvious sign of blood. You pick it up by its tail and throw it into the yard of the disgusting man across the street.
The pile of three mice—no, on closer inspection, two mice and something related but not quite, a vole?—is more suspicious. Three rodents do not simply decide to die together—all for one, one for all!—in a neat little pyramidal heap on your front deck. And you can’t just swing them by their little stiff tails, sailing them off across the street. For two reasons: Walt, the horrible old man, is home, out mowing his grass for the fourth time in one afternoon, never mind that it is mid-October and the grass is no longer growing. Walt is a drunk, a total nutcase, and you don’t want to draw his attention. Second, the not-quite-a-mouse has no tail, only a tiny stumpy thing you refuse to touch. So, this is work that requires a shovel. When you go to the garage to get the shovel, you meet the likely sculptor of dead-rodent cairns: a dark-striped, ragged, lynx-eared cat whose head is far too big for his scrawny body. He stares at you imperiously. You are expected, you know, to express gratitude. The mice he might have eaten have, instead, come to you in some sort of sacred kitty-ritual of gifting.
You lean on the shovel and gaze into the cat’s yellow eyes. You have resisted, all these years. You have vowed not to become a pathetic old woman with a hundred cats. You read the papers; you watch the news. Just last month it was two sisters up in Albany: Eighty cats taken from their two cars. Forty more from their house. You watched, hand over your mouth in horror, as one of the sisters—presumably the saner of the two, despite her wild white hair and twitching eye—explained that they love their cats, they feed them, they do their best. You watch her fall apart as the camera and reporters back away. She reaches out to them with empty, withered arms.
You live alone and you rarely speak to neighbors and you are, you know, the perfect candidate for this exact kind of craziness. But not quite: inside your tiny house sits your savior, your old dog, Alex. He is blind and he is deaf and he limps. And he will not, would not tolerate cats in his house. End of discussion. He’s been with you for fifteen years.
You bend and rub a line down the head and back of the striped cat, smoothing his rough fur, feeling the healed scars that pock his skin. “Phooey on you, buddy,” you tell him. “Can’t catch me.”
You go inside and feed the dog, who still enjoys his chow. As do you.
Leaves fall and days darken, and the striped cat leaves nightly offerings. Chipmunk, mouse, sparrow, bat. You can’t help but chuckle. You buy three cans of cat food, generic Price Chopper brand, and feed him on the deck. You name him, in what you consider a fit of brilliance, Oscar Wilde. Long ago, you read books by the dozens, before your eyes grew dim.
When the first real snow blows in, late in November, it covers the deck—and the latest tiny corpse—with white. You sit in your chair, looking out into the storm. On your lap, you hold Alex. Well, what remains. A coffee can of Alex’s ashes. He was, you know, the last dog you will own. To rescue another from the shelter, well, even that would be unfair at this stage of the game. Dogs mourn, too.
The houses trembles with winter—the wind outside, the rattle of the old furnace. You keep it set very low; the house never heats to more than 56 degrees. Oil is expensive and the house is full of drafts. The tin can—are cans still made of tin?—feels like ice in your hands.
That night, when the storm has piled drifts around the foundation of your house, Oscar comes to the window, yellow eyes circled in frost, whiskers stiff with rime. He is standing in the snow-packed window box, his mouth open in a silent mew.
You open the door. Bring him in. He settles, after rubbing his cheeks on every surface in the house, on the one heating vent in the living room. He curls there, soaking up all the warmth. The room grows even colder. When you pick him up and bring him into your lap, it is like holding onto heat itself. Your aching fingers grow supple when you plunge them deep inside his fur. Inside there, your hands feel young.
By December, you have two more cats. One, a small mist-colored female, you call Miss Kitty. The other, a brilliant orange, is Snazzle. The house comes alive with their running and leaping and pouncing. You laugh, quite often now. You smile at the man across the street, who may be just as lonely as yourself. As you used to be. You wave at him, speak a jaunty hello. There is, now, a place in your heart for pity.
February. There are the smallest signs of spring, just beyond the deck. (No more offerings are left. They have done their work.) The tiniest, the earliest of the crocuses you planted forty falls ago, are up, the yellow and the white, fragile as dragonfly wings. The big sturdy purples come later; you’re looking forward to that.
You open the front window, just a bit. You sniff the fresh air, damp and silky. It reminds you that the air inside your house is ripe with cat. The cardboard boxes you line with shredded newspapers, for litter—three such boxes at last count—tend to overflow. They grow soggy on the bottoms, sometimes, when you forget to empty them. The cat food in the six bowls sometimes hardens and remains there, a dark crust. But the house is so alive! Mr. Kitten and Bear and Moose and Max and Mousie and Honey and Bill and Lupine and Sadie and The Bambino—the biggest, bounciest, funniest cat of all—are so full of energy. Sometimes Oscar, the patriarch, hisses at them all and slides under the bed in a fit of pique. But you can always jolly him out with a special treat or a long rub. He is, you whisper in his ear, your favorite still. You’re kept awake nights by the flea bites on your ankles and the hissing of the occasional fight. You lie in the dark, scratch and listen. This watchful sleeplessness seems familiar—it is almost like having babies in the house again. No, not babies. Teenagers. Yes, quarreling, troublesome, late-night teenagers, back from dark doings of their own, sending waves of beer and hormones up and down the hall. You always liked those frantic, noisy nights. As you like these.
Honey and Mousie and Miss Kitty and Snazzle are growing wide and broody; things are afoot.
Snaz is the first to give birth, on the end of your bed, early March. You sit up all night with her—not touching, just watching. She needs no help; she has done this all before. By dawn, there are five damp blind kittens mewling and pushing at Snazzle’s teats. Her eyes are closed, labor over. You lean over the little nest she has kneaded in the covers. You breathe, deep, deep. The smell is indescribable—it catches in your throat, brings tears to your eyes. It is salt, it is blood, it is birth. It is life, at last, come into your house, once again. In your dry breasts, you feel again the tingling, the imminent flow, of your milk, letting down. You are perfectly sane; you know there is no milk. But you feel it, all the same.
You settle down to name the kittens, all beautiful five, according to their colors and your memories, from so far back they are like dreams, of growing up on the farm: Straw, Alfalfa, Timothy, Milky—one of the kittens a miraculous white!—and Cornsilk. Always, always there were nests of kittens in the hayloft; always the chance, at least, that your mother would let you bring one home. You chose very carefully, the one you would love and save.
By the second week of March, there are twenty-odd kittens and two more adults. You don’t remember where they all came from, cannot recall letting all of them in. You can’t keep up with the naming. You sometimes step in piles of cat shit, heaped in unexpected places. You often run out of cat food and when you walk to Stewarts for more, you see how people wrinkle their noses when you pass. If you stink of cat piss, you can’t smell it. But maybe others can. You find three dead kittens in a closet, all gray, all stiff and cold, eyes sealed shut, pink tongues protruding. You don’t know who they belong to but you mourn them anyway. You hold each tiny body tenderly in your palm before tucking it away in the garbage.
Once or twice the phone rings and its particular ring sounds official, sounds like someone barging in. You don’t answer.
A few peaceful days go by. The purple crocuses have come into bloom and they are lovely. Maybe things will remain as they are, if you stay very still and very watchful.
Then a woman with a clipboard comes to the front door and you don’t answer that, either. Backed against a wall, peeking out the window, you see her talking to the man across the street and he is waving his arms, pointing up into the branches of trees, where you imagine you can see a multitude of tails, curling down from the branches, streamers of multicolored fur. Festive. Utterly beautiful.
You wait. The house is full of warmth and energy. The kittens romp and play, batting and running and climbing. The elders sleep in squares of sunlight, their perfect paws twitching gently. The cats are dreaming elegant dreams. It is a house of joy.
How will you explain that, to people with clipboards? How can they understand this glorious gift that’s come to you, so late in life? So unexpected, so precious?
How will you survive, when they take it all away?
You hold Oscar on your lap. Will they leave you one? Please, please. Will they leave Oscar to purr and knead on your lap? Please God, let them leave just one.
You hear the knock again. Louder, more demanding. Voices, calling. Demanding to be let in. You know they will not go away, will never leave you in peace. You look at the calendar you’ve tacked to the wall. You will remember this date.
You have to laugh. The Ides. It is the Ides. You lean into the warmth of fur and whisper, “Et tu, Brute?”
Oscar leaps from your lap, heading for the door.