Sunday, January 13, 2013

Elvira Keening for Her Kittens


  In our house are two cats, Elvira and Bunny. Harmony is buried in the ditch outside the window, but she is in the house too, and I'll prove it. Elvira looks like Harmony. But she does not act like Harmony. If you want to compare the two, you can bring up lots of subjects. For instance, Elvira had kittens; Bunny had kittens too. But Bunny has a white face and white front paws.There can be no question about how real their kittens are. But Bunny doesn't remind me of Harmony. Elvira does.
   Harmony was fixed before we got her. Cats have a personality peculiar to themselves. Harmony was friendly more than average. For many years she got along with Peaches, our dog. When Peaches decided to slip in bed with us, so did Harmony. Then not too long after Peaches died, Harmony died. I don't know what she died of. I found her lying in her favorite spot in the yard. I thought she might be dead, she was so still. Harmony never had kittens. We did not have any cats for a long time after Harmony died, then my wife got two tiny black kittens from a neighbor's barn. She named them Elvira and Bunny. 
  Elvira looks more like Harmony, who was all black, but she does not act like Harmony. Harmony was laid back, a kitten of the world; Elvira is more innocent and nervous. Not being quite as domesticated a cat as Harmony was, Elvira is wilder and more self sufficient. She likes my wife more than she likes me. When my wife is tired or not feeling well and she goes early to bed, Elvira comes round to be her friend.
  Everyone would agree that Elvira is real. She's alive. But would you say that Harmony was real too? 
  I remember perfectly well where I buried Harmony. I buried her at the base of the electric pole a few feet from our bedroom window. The electric pole used to be circled by a bush. It was a cool and well protected spot, and often you could find her there. That's where I dug a hole to bury her in. Then I raked up a little mound of stones. But though out of sight, she was never out of mind. I don't think she is less real now she is dead than Elvira is who is alive in front of me. Which is real and which is unreal is not a subject that comes up when I compare the two.
  Elvira had two litters before she was fixed. Don, a vet in nearby Norway, fixed her. He does them on certain days of the week a dozen at a time. Don is a family friend. He was kind to us when Peaches died. He spent several hours sitting up with us the night she died. Peaches, our dog for many years, was very dear to us.
  One day I talked to him about kittens. He agreed with me that a litter of kittens is fun for a family to get involved in. It teaches something about caring. But come to a certain point kittens are no longer fun. Persistence is often in short supply, and kittens have to be taught where to do it. Rugs are often their first choice, and the urine has a very showy smell. Harmony never had a litter because she was fixed early on, but Elvira had numerous kittens. That is a statement as clear as I can make it, and we can forge on with it. 
  Elvira had two litters before she got fixed, but that doesn't make her more real. These two words, real and unreal, are just game words. People play games with lots of words. Elvira is hovering around me right under my chair. But Harmony I imagine, for she is dead, and yet she is hovering around me too. Kathleen even a few minutes ago called Elvira Harmony! She thinks about her too, and that makes her real. So if you want to play that game, go ahead, but I don't see much sense to it. The problem is the word unreal must represent something, even if not my kitties, else why would there be a word at all? But what?
  Though there is nothing left of Harmony—how much clearer do I have to be? Don't tell me you're confused about that statement, too!—except how I remember her, she still bats about the house purring, and I can even hear the soft thuds of her paws on the floor.
   Now, Elvira was a very good mother. At first kittens start out as little fuzz balls; you wouldn't think them big enough to be alive. In my opinion they are little miracles of nature. So tiny! Elvira was always hovering over those kittens. They started out in a little space between the boxes under our bed. Then they worked themselves into the bottom drawer of the file cabinet my computer is on. I kick that drawer open to use as a footstool, so I must have left it open, and Elvira hauled them into the empty space behind the folders. She was always in there nursing and licking. None of Elvira's kittens died. But you take Bunny. I think she forgot where she put them. Two of them survived, but they are very handsome long haired flaming tabbies. My wife feeds them still, when they are around. They are outdoors cats and very hard to catch. I caught one of them in my have-a-heart, but my wife insisted I let him go.
  There is a memory now of Elvira keening for her kittens who are no more. It is a specific, true memory which is no less real though a memory. I personally can attest to the truth of it. This is what happened.
  Once Elvira weaned her kittens, she had, of course, less to do with them. But she did not abandon them. She checked on them, she seemed amused by them. She'd sit by the woodstove and purr softly, and they would gather around. They were house broken by then, and we tried to keep them indoors because we were trying to "sell" them (for $0). Sometimes she might lie down, and they'd buss her teats. On rare occasions she'd take a snooze, and the six of them would snooze beside her, making a dark, slowly breathing little hump in a cardboard box we left for them. After awhile, her nap passed, and all well with the kittens, Elvira jumped up, stretched and waited at the door for someone to let her out.
  During the good weather, I can expect to see her covering the nearby woods and pastures. One time I caught her sneaking around the logging road almost a mile away from the house. When Sunshine, our dog, who is a Shepherd mix, is outside, they will wander together down the driveway and turn onto Kittridge Brook road and amble sniffing as far as the Rocky Hill. Sunshine thinks she is a cat, and often Bunny will join the menage. But usually they are content to loiter around the end of the driveway, and after a short time they'll return to lie down in the sun in the dooryard. 
  These kittens of Elvira's are healthy, lively little buggers. Time to get rid of them and time to fix Elvira, too. They are precious, cute little fur balls. Trusting souls, they flop and fall asleep in the middle of things. Even should a sprawled out tail be stepped on, though they will jump up squalling, in a minute they will drop wearily in the same spot. Only later does the idea of a hideout develop.
  Some of these people who show up wanting a kitten shouldn't have ANYTHING that needs taking care of. The kids fall out of a broken down SUV; they are smiling ragamuffins, but unfed, unwashed, and already gone askew. Goats are the worst. Oh, do they want goats! But goats are needy critters; come the first sign of adversity, they'll mope around through the fall, and come winter they will surely die. My wife often refuses them goats; she'll even refuse them a breeding. There are in this world many well educated, glib, proud owners of half dead goats. But you can't kill a cat, right? They have seven lives, and I'm not kidding. I see them often on my way to work at night, eyes glittering in the headlights, a mangy mother leading a trail of little shadows.
  Usually within a day or two after the sign has been put out, somebody will come to our door. And then the kittens are all gone. I don't know what they do with them. Maybe it is some weird religious cult. It seems mysterious. I never ask. On this particular occasion a Ford pick up with Harley-Davidson stickers all over it rolled up to our door. Three people dumped themselves out. A snapshot of them together would have made an excellent Harley-Davidson sticker. My wife, by now having had enough of kittens, let them in. Within seconds the two women, one of them looking every day of her middle age, were each purring at the kitten in their hands. Then they announced, "We have to go to the bathroom." So they disappeared with kittens into the bathroom. Then a plump, long haired, ear ring sporting young man appeared. "Oh, they're in the bathroom," says my wife. So the next thing I know he's prancing into the bathroom, too. Finally they came out and the middle aged woman said, "We want all of them." I should have chased them away. 
  No sooner had the dust settled from the pick up driving away that Elvira came back from hunting. She looked up and down for her kittens. She looked inside, then she looked all around outside. Then she was keening, calling for her kittens, which were no more. For two days she about drove me crazy. Finally, she stopped.
  All of that is real. I'm not bullshitting you! Though Harmony is no more she is real because I remember her, how she used to curl up on the floor beside my desk. And there is Elvira, sitting up beside the wood stove, where she once gathered her kittens. Her head nods briefly, surveying her brood.
  


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