Years ago, when art classes were mandatory and I had time to appreciate them, I molded a terra cotta cat statuette for the clay/kiln unit. Possessing no real understanding of cat anatomy because my mom was superstitiously allergic to cats, I used my pet shih-tzu as a model. The resulting cat had a well-defined spinal ridge and haunches, but the face ended up rather blunt and the tail was a whimsical serpentine addition from my sixth grade imagination. Mom appreciated that cat statue, but not recognizing what it was after a few weeks of weather-beaten solitude on the backyard porch, she misplaced it in the garden trash bin.
I’ll admit: the deformed brown-orange cat was a bit aesthetically displeasing. The eye understands imperfection better than the brain, but nostalgia has a way of dismissing what the eyes see. I relocated the statue to the sidewalk steps of our front lawn. The bare concrete needed color, and my deformed cat needed a better roof with open access to natural sunlight.
Over time, a curious pattern arose; feline strays began to flock to our front yard, but only one at a time. It was as if they were each on some sort of pilgrimage to see the cat idol, but out of respect for each other’s spiritual journey, the cats knew to keep their distance until the temple steps were free and clear of the scent of their predecessors.
The first cat was a muscular grey bob-tail with thick limbs that made him seem more like a miniature bear. He slept curled around the cat idol at the start of summer until the Texas rains came. He brought us no food nor freshly-hunted offerings and we obliged in kind. I saw him on my afternoon bike rides, dashing in and out of the rain gutter on the corner. It was a wonder he could fit through the cement gap. On a particularly dry day, I decided to follow him in.
At eleven years old, I had no hips or chest to guard, so sliding through the gap was relatively easy with my flat contour. My flashlight key-chain illuminated such a small distance in the gutter that the tunnel stretched on to an imperceptible darkness even with light pointed directly in its maw. I carefully climbed back onto the street and vowed never to follow cats again.
The next cat was a lithe, orange creature. He complemented the statue, sitting erect at guard while the statue lounged in a sphinx-like pose. She was a clean, well-kempt lady with endless capacity for cat conversation. My dog never noticed her or growled at the door like with the previous cat. I remember stumbling downstairs on a morning after springtime daylight savings. The orange cat nodded next to the statuette and briskly decided that her pilgrimage was over. She leapt from the upper perch into the bushes and was never seen again.
I don’t know how many cats visited while I was in college. It is a five year gap of knowledge that nobody in my household decided to track. The statuette receded in my memory as well as all the cat visitors.
The next cat materialized the week that my dog died. My dog had struggled blindly through the last of her 17 years and eventually curled into a sleeping ball. Finding her in the doghouse was particularly unusual because she never really considered it home. It had become a shelter for so many other creatures: an opera house of belligerent crickets, a few wizened toads and frogs, the occasional rodent, and even once to a skunk. Maybe if I had kept the doghouse, I could’ve repainted it with an homage to Redwall and the Abbey.
Speaking of Redwall, the cat had a strange Phantom of the Opera quality with a large patch of black on half his face, much like the wildcat warlord, Riggu Felis. The rest of his body was white, except for his tail. He limped a bit, like a retired fighter, a battle-worn soldier. I tried to entice him with treats, but despite his handicap, he still maintained a sense of pride. If not for the year spent with my roommate’s two cats, I would’ve assumed all cats had this haughty, nobleman’s pride. In reality, some cats will do anything for a treat and the sound of a plastic container snapping open or a rustling canvas bag has the power to muddle their natural reflexes into YouTube fodder.
A few months ago, at the eve of my unemployment, a striped grey cat began to frequent our property. He was much older than the others and obviously had experience with humans. He slept against our door several times and even peeked in the low windows on occasion. The weather was cold, and I left him a bed of rags, but the human scent must’ve evoked unpleasant memories. He was gone soon after.
The latest pilgrim arrived last week. His coat was of pantherine black, but his eyes were a tranquil and vibrant peridot. I realized that each cat wasn’t really just visiting the idol. They had come to delineate my post-adolescent life into a sort of cat calendar I won’t go into specifics describing what each cat represents, but the latest one, the darkest hue with the brightest eyes, this one symbolized how my future was in a state of mystery to everyone else but only my eyes could see my future with any clarity.
I am fighting my way back into a natural state, nurturing a dormant talent that I’ve wanted to hone for so many years. Writing is my passion and I want to excel at it, for the rest of my life, if I dare. I’m not searching for myself; I am defining myself. Re-defining.
I never saw myself as a cat person, but I guess in their world, there must exist people-cats. Bless them all, every one.