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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Sympathy for the Chirping Hellbeast, Part 1

I've been putting this posting off for a while, waiting for a better time that'll never come... for bite-sized memories that deserve more scope.

Thus begins the story of Lilith. Not the mythological figure, any of them. Or the uptight, but strangely cuddly psychiatrist from Cheers. Those things figure into the story, but the dark, warm enigmatic presence at the heart of it eclipses them all.

Lilith was a cat.

Let's set the Tardis flight computer for May 1998. My wife Jamie had been haunting a local animal shelter, pining away at the various cats in lock-up.

"Haunting?" Does that sounds bad? To be fair, we were both coping with a slight case of empty nest syndrome. We'd just given away a litter of kittens which we'd had for months. But we'd just moved into some new digs. A whole litter of bouncy, wacky kittens was more than we could manage, even in a two-bedroom apartment. So we found homes for them. But going from five kittens to one with one mom cat, sometimes the place felt empty. Most of the time, it felt like peace and quiet, but I understood the other feeling too.

Like I said, Jamie had taken to visiting the neighborhood animal shelter. One day, she came home with great things to say about a particular cat she found there. I tried talking her out of it. And if I had succeeded, we'd have never met Lilith.

We went down to the pet shelter to check out the other cat, but he'd already been adopted. Amused at the irony, we figured we might as well look around. The shelter had a lot of kittens that day.

One of them was a loud, squeaky-voiced black domestic shorthair. She couldn't have been more than five or six months old. I checked her out, reminded how I'd always thought black cats were cool, feeling sorry for the little one in the cage in front of me. I wanted to make that one feel better.

In cat body language, the right blink can be a friendly gesture. It could mean anything from "don't hurt me" to "lemme be yer pal." I met the kitten's gold-green eyes and gave it a careful blink.

The kitten freaked out. She started yowling, screaming bloody murder. Locked in a wall of cages full of noisy kittens, that kitten managed to outcry the rest. Jamie came over. I pointed the loud one out, telling her what happened. And I felt like a jerk. Duh, I thought I was helping.

Curious, Jamie got the story from the folks at the shelter. Apparently someone had skipped out on their rent weeks or even months earlier. The landlord went to the abandoned apartment and found the apartment full of cats -- an entire litter of over fifteen starved, half-feral, sickly kittens. By the time the shelter picked them up, five were DOA. The shelter took the surviving ten, who were now caged up in the wall before us, including the dark-haired little screamer.

We really felt for them. And Jamie could tell I was interested. We decided to take the screaming kitten into a visiting room. (Some room. It was a transparent walk-in closet made of Plexiglas.)

Anyway, the shelter folks sat us down in the visiting room. Then they put the kitten in with us. She scanned the room, gaping. The little thing crawled to Jamie's feet, sniffed with deliberation, and rubbed herself about her ankles. When the kitten was done, she turned around and looked at me.

Hm, pretty friendly reception. Maybe she wasn't so feral, I thought to my SHIT!!!!

I wasn't sure I still had a face. The kitten suddenly launched herself, running up my outstretched legs, bounding onto my left shoulder, and started kneading her paws -- hard like fuel-injected pistons -- into my upper chest. Purring. Loud. I tried not to move.

Jamie watched, clearly amused. "So what do you think?" she said.

Out of the corner of my eye, I peered at the black kitten loving me to death. "Well, I don't know about the cat. But I've been adopted."

When a pet shelter person came to check on us, she found the drowsy black kitten purring and resting inside the crook of my arm. She was about as stunned as I was. This cat was feral? Maybe someone said "furry" and misheard? Either way, the only damage I'd gotten from the kitten's attentions were minor perforations.

Gladly we filled out the forms and paid the fees. Then we took her home... before she could drag us there.

On the drive home, Jamie and I are asking each other what to call our new kitten. We were at a loss. Scary names didn't really fit her any more than cutesy names did. This little black cat was a mystery. Finally I suggested Lilith.

I was aware of the various mythological permutations. And the Lilith Fair concert tours were in high gear at the time, of course. But more than anything, I was struck by the figure in Jewish folklore.

Adam's apocryphal first wife wouldn't submit to him. Truth be told, she wasn't "bad" until she declared herself his equal. Well, that and she wanted to be on top once in a while. Uh oh. Suddenly she was storm demon, baby strangler, and part-time crank caller. I'd always felt that she wouldn't have been so bad in that legend if someone had given her a chance.

Now that fit our new cat. Fiercely independent. Loving, but clearly on her terms. Down on her luck, in need of a friend.

I addressed the silent black cat behind us, in a pet carrier nestled in the backseat of our car. "What do you think, Lilith?"

Instantly she let out a telltale squeak.

So her name was Lilith.

Ten years ago. And so help me, she's got a big piece of my heart even now. Even though she's gone.

More on that later.

1 comment:

Ayeshalan said...

The story brings a tear to my eye even now. And I was there.

Can't wait to see the rest of this.