The girl and I grew up together. My first memories are of her wrapping me up in her small arms and bringing me home with her. She tried to call me Midnight, for my fur, but hers was not a family where such unimaginative names would stand. He began calling me Katanga — an extension of the word cat, I suppose — and it quickly stuck, as was the way of nicknames in that house.
My first several years with the girl and her family were quite peaceful. The mother had a sweet, grandmotherly dog named Gypsy, who had who had loved that same human since she was a puppy. Gypsy was loving, well behaved, and generally housed a very wise old soul. Together, we shared a peaceful, amiable rule for a time. I was young when she passed away, but Gypsy left the care and wisdom of the house to me.
Periodically, the father would bring home a dog, who would inevitably become the wild child to Gypsy’s sage grandmother. The first animal I shared their home with was named Sita, named for the heroine of the Ramayana — the Hindu epic that the tall humans told the girl before she went to sleep. It’s impolite to call dogs “bad” — they get very sensitive about it — but Sita maimed the furniture and everything else she could get her teeth on. The tall humans sent her away after losing a third of their belongings to her destructive force within a few weeks.
Following Sita the Evil Chew Dog, as the humans came to call her, came Violet, a big black lab with a surprisingly ordinary name. A strange man came over and tried to teach the humans how to interact with Violet, showing them obvious ways to make sure the dog knew you were in charge. I don’t know why they had so much trouble with it. Violet always knew that I was the master of the house, but perhaps such things come more naturally to me.
The mother strained to train her. “Never look at the dog from eye level, or it will never respect you,” she reminded the father and the girl. The father, though, couldn’t resist getting down on the floor and playing tug-of-war over chew toys. He would bonk her on the head as they wrestled, growling “You got a boney head!” as they rolled around on the ground. He was a human with truly inexplicable behaviors. The man sometimes put my whole face in his mouth, something I was too shocked to resist the first time and which then became a strange greeting ritual.
Violet quickly got the lay of the land. She knew where she should and should not go, and she knew who would let her go there anyway. She would lay with her doggy toes just at the boundary between the kitchen and the living room (where she was “not allowed”). From my throne atop the couch, I could see that whenever she thought the humans weren’t looking, she would scooch one paw forward, then the other. After a couple episodes of Xena or Friends, she would be comfortably fully on the living room carpet, squarely in front of the glowing box in the center of the living room wall. I was the final line of defense that kept her from being so bold as to come up on the couch. Like mine, her name was eventually subsumed by a nickname of the father’s; she came to be known as Inch Bone, due to a combination of this odd scooching behavior and her boney head.
When the father took her on walks to the open fields near our house, he would succumb to her begging to be let off the leash, to run free in the grass as dogs are wont to do. Inevitably he would return exasperated, followed hours later by the dog, who was happily slathered in cow pats. The whole house would always retain a bit of a… let us say, musk… each time this happened, and I would excuse myself to the outdoors for the remainder of the day until it dissipated.
Ebony was next, and she became Violet’s bad influence of a younger sister. Growing up with Violet, she quickly came to understand that the rules were feeble formalities at best. The humans tried futilely to constrain them. They would build fences, and the dogs would dig under them. They tied them to a running fence through the length of the yard, and the dogs would try to jump over it. More than once, I smirked from my perch near the glass front doors as they leapt over the running fence, only to catch their graceless bodies on the lead and get stuck. The humans tried an electric fence, and we soon came to hear yelps followed by the skittering of paws on gravel, once the dogs figured out the pain was brief and a small price to pay for a good roll in cow poop. Of course the humans would scurry around in distress whenever this happened. “If you had just done what the trainer told you, this wouldn’t keep happening,” the mother would scold the father. “Gypsy would never do anything like this,” she would say pointedly, grimacing as she tried to hold the dogs still and hose them down.
One day, instead of a new dog, he brought home another cat.
I liked the man as soon as I saw him, and trotted up to say hello. He must have liked me back, because he brought me with him in his car and into his house with the woman and the little girl. They talked about how I glowed. They were warm and friendly and so happy to see me. The man picked me up and squeezed me and put my face in his mouth. That was new, but they all laughed. I thought perhaps this was one of those “having a home” things that the other cats talked about, like having food at regular times and soft, warm places to sleep.
They didn’t name me for weeks. They kept talking about my shimmery silvery glow and trying to come up with names. The girl tried to call me Luna. It didn’t stick. After weeks of yelling different strange words at me, they named me Ishtar, after an ancient Mesopotamian goddess associated with the morning and evening star. She is also a goddess of sex, love, and war, and her consort is a lion. I don’t think they knew the latter pieces, but we cats know our goddesses.
Katanga, the black cat who already lived there, was standoffish at first. She ran the place, and the girl was hers. She wanted to make sure I knew that. She had first dibs on the snuggles and the best perches. She tolerated my presence, but she watched me with cool suspicion until it was clear I respected her as the matriarch of the family. Then she permitted me to sleep on the feet and heads of the humans, if she wasn’t already using them. I slept with the big humans, and she with the little one.
As the girl was just starting to grow from a human kitten towards a full-sized human, capable of participating as fully in conversations with the grown humans as she was with the animals, they all left. The humans and the dogs were gone, and another human came to live in their house. She understood how cats should be treated. It was an age of abundance. The food flowed without restraint, and there were no dogs with their noise and smell and attempts to stick their noses in your face uninvited while you were just trying to take a nap.
When they came back, the girl was much less kitten-like. She was much more recognizable as a full-sized human, though no one had told her that yet. The dogs did not come back, but a new one — Mustafa — unfortunately took their place. He continued to wreak havoc in much the same way, on a constant quest for poop to roll in. Dogs are such animals. Anyway, when they came home, there were suddenly more people in the house more often. Sometimes there were small sized men, which there had not been before. The girl and the small sized men continued to grow, and I watched warily. They would try to touch me or pick me up and I would run under the couch, never sure whether I could trust them.
Then one — this one much closer to a man than a small-sized human — kept showing up. He would sit on the floor in front of the fire and wait for me to approach. He never jumped at me or tried to grab me. He waited, over several visits, for me to come to him as he and the now-almost-woman sat on the couch watching a small glowing box in the dark. I perched on the arm of the couch and permitted him to pet me, which I could see he understood to be a great honor. I saw how happy it made the girl that I was close to them, and she was excited to pet me too. It was also the first time, I realized, I had let her get this close for long. The man came and went over time, but I softened to the girl and took it upon myself to sniff out any of the other boy-men who came around in her defense. When they passed my evaluation, I also received the benefit of napping on their laps, and so all were pleased with what they received from the exchange.
When the girl reached a full-sized human, she left. She still came back, but instead of the gone-in-the-day and home-in-the-night cycle we had sustained since they had returned, she was gone for long stretches and home in small bursts.
The mother found me. I was caring for my kittens in the grass behind a house. One day, as I emerged from the alcove where we lived, I smelled sadness and food. I warily paced through the grass towards the fenced-in space behind the house nearby. People were gathered eating and hugging each other, laughing and crying. One woman, with curls wild like my coat, spotted me. She was standing to the side, and she seemed to recognize me, to see me. She left food out for me, and I took it back to my kittens. I came closer to her next time, scurrying away as soon as she tried coming any closer. She kept leaving the food.
There were many humans coming and going from the house. Some came more than others, but she kept coming back. Each time, she would check on me. She saw me with my babies but left us alone, just leaving food out for us.
Eventually, the house got quiet. The smell of sadness deepened. Everyone who had been coming and going came back for a day. They wore dark colors and sat outside in silence together, listening to the birds. Then they all left. The woman came and put out the food, but this time it was inside a cage. I howled and screeched, but she closed the door and brought me and my kittens somewhere, and then she brought me home with her. There was a man there who I had seen among the humans at the house before. He wanted to touch me and pick me up and squish me. I ran. The woman kept leaving food for me. The food was inside, but she understood that I still need to hunt and would let me chase the birds that flocked to her back yard. When I returned, I would perch on top of a large tower and allow her to pat me, offering my thanks for the food, the freedom, and the soft things in her warm house. The woman called me Khaleesi, because she saw I was a queen.
The man and the young woman who came sometimes didn’t seem to understand that. A queen does what she wants. The man watched and saw that when I was on the perch, my throne, petting was allowed. They thought this rule applied to them as well, not understanding this was an exchange with the woman for her care. They always tried to take me from the perch to a couch or a chair, and I would run and hide outside with the squirrels and birds and hunt. They grew frustrated I wouldn’t permit them to pet me, when they had done nothing to earn it. They came seeking me out, would pick me up and move me around, then get distressed when I bolted. “You have to let her come to you,” the woman with the wild coat like mine would insist. She understood that my attentions were the reward for giving me the freedom I desired.
The girl, now grown, came home again and stayed for many days with long sun and short nights.
Our reunion, as always, was filled with cuddling. During her visits, it would feel like she had never left. I would curl up on her bed next to her like I had when she was small. I caught small pictures of what her life was like and watched the arcs of her relationships in snapshots. Some were easy, playful, and full of laughter. Sometimes there was anger or sadness. Sometimes there were friends. Sometime there were men who were the same almost-grown as the girl. This visit seemed longer than most. This time, she held me near her and cried into my fur almost every day, and I slept in her bed every night. She needed me, and I was there for her.
That same summer, while the girl was home, my sister Ishtar got sick. After nearly 20 years together, we had come to care for the humans together. We had frolicked in the new backyard and chased birds and napped on couches and finally reluctantly succumbed to the ridiculous diet the humans had tried to put us on for years (but only after they finally gave us wet food, after 15 years). I had softened towards her as she had softened toward the people, and we grew old together caring for our humans. She died with all three of our humans there to hold her. The humans and I mourned together.
I wouldn’t live long without Ishtar — by then our joy and our lives were entwined. I had guided the girl from kitten to full-sized human. My work was done. I said good-bye to the girl on one of the mini glowing boxes the humans always carried in their hands, and she knew I understood she was there.
This was my first Thanksgiving, as the people called it. I’d never seen so many humans at once before, and from what I could tell they like to play chase, eat, moan, and lie around. All activities I very much enjoy as well!
My humans also have two children who come to visit and live with us sometimes. This time, leading up to the big day, their son brought another human, a woman, to their house with him. She was excited to meet me and wanted to play all the time. She liked playing chase, but she seemed upset when I ran away. That’s how chase works, so I didn’t understand what was making her sad.
“Katanga was always nice to everyone,” the girl complained to my humans’ son. “Why is she so much friendlier with you than me?”
“I guess you just want it too much,” he laughed.
She humphed and stared at me with sad eyes.
On Thanksgiving day, the girl’s parents joined as part of the crowd. Her father also seemed to like chase, but once he caught me he would try to hold me and pet me so I wouldn’t leave. He even tried to put my face in his mouth! When I ran away, the girl and the father would pout on the couch, which I guess is a part of how they play the game. I would sit on my parents’ or siblings’ laps or chairs when I wasn’t playing chase, but I barely knew these people!
When they weren’t playing chase with me, the girl and her father would stare at me whenever I was close by. They mimed petting in the air and tried to speak cat to me, but with terrible human accents. Sometimes they would even pick me up from my lounging spot and bring me to theirs, which is just clearly outside the rules of how chase is played. As soon as I saw a window to bolt, I would make an exit and return to my perch or my toys.
“You’re freaking her out. If you just leave her alone, maybe she won’t run away from you,” observed the girl’s mother, who looked like the girl but with tight wild curls. After some whining in response, the man and daughter gave up on me and flopped on the couch, limbs draped across one another. They started watching the goofy dogs prance across the TV instead. Silly animals don’t understand they don’t have to do nearly so much work to get attention. The girl began lazily giving the father a foot rub. After a few minutes, the mother exclaimed “My turn!” and plopped her feet into the girl’s lap. The girl looked surprised but acquiesced. After a few moments, she excused herself — “I’m going to get some more wine,” — and went over to join the boy where he was standing. The mother got up and followed her, leaving the father on the couch. The games of chase continue.
The girl, now a woman, has found herself a home with its own backyard — a concrete, city thing, but a backyard nonetheless. She waters the plants each week and has filled the space with feeders. Like her grandfather and her mother taught her, she fills the feeders to nourish the birds and hopes we will join her. She waited patiently for months without any visitors, until one day she returned from traveling to find them empty. She excitedly refilled them and waited to see us gather. She knows now who likes to join for which meals, and she has positioned the feeders so she can see us snacking and singing on our perches from most of the spots where she likes to sit. She smiles with delight when she sees the big, skittish blue jays visit, and she moves with care to make sure not to scare off the finches when they flock in for lunch. As she wrote these words, a hummingbird came to visit, shimmering green and gold against her silly red feeder, keeping her quiet company. We bring our beautiful bodies and songs to her and her home because we know we will be cared for here, and that we are free to leave.