Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Circus in a box
Within a week, they were already changing, becoming more like tiny cats rather than barely kittens. They moved faster, grew stronger, and started to climb things. It was much harder to keep track of where everyone was.
One night as I rounded them up for bed, I found only four. Dr. Evil and the exotic calico were missing. I looked under the chair, the couch and the bed. I looked in closets and I checked the cupboards under the sinks in the kitchen and the bathroom. I told myself to stay calm as I repeated my search again and again, each time a little more frenzied. Then panic gripped my heart and I knew they had escaped out the door when we opened it for Bear and Quincy.
I ran out into the darkness with a flashlight in hand and Morgan at my heels and launched myself into the trees where they clamboured at the edge of the driveway then marched straight down a steep incline towards the river. I was sure that’s where they’d headed and I could picture them at that moment tumbling down the hill, lost and confused. They’d drown, I thought, or be eaten, if they didn’t freeze to death first during the frosty Fall night.
Our neighbours came to help search and I wondered how any of us giant, awkward humans could find such tiny, shape-shifting creatures in the dark.
They couldn’t have got far, I thought, and walked past the front of the house to search in another patch of trees. As the orange glow from our living room picture window hit my face, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look inside and stopped in my tracks as I saw the missing calico, luxuriating in a stretch as she took long, slow strides across the living room floor. Behind her Dr. Evil emerged, yawning, from inside Morgan’s battered old chair.
As cats do, the six kittens assumed everything in our home was put there expressly for their amusement. When they weren’t disappearing inside the furniture or wrestling shoes, they were climbing things with their tiny, tearing claws.
The couch became a favourite. They could turn somersaults in the gap between its smooth back and the wall, they could hide behind the valance that hung down to the floor and leap out at anything that passed, they could play secret, tumbling games of tag in the darkened space beneath, but best of all, they could climb it. Morgan and I both cringed to hear the pick, pick of their claws in the fabric and were forever removing kittens, mid-expedition and scolding them, but it made no difference.
One day I was cleaning my teeth when I heard the unmistakable scrabble of a climbing cat. I bolted into the living room, with my toothbrush clamped between my teeth, and plucked the orangey-beige boy from mid-way up the back of the couch. I couldn’t say anything with my mouth full of water and toothpaste, so I hung him upside down, holding him by the waist. I thought it would annoy him. He casually batted at his back feet then stretched out long and thin towards the floor, like pulled taffy, and slipped gracefully from my hands.
We tried to teach them to feed themselves, mixing formula, water and soft cat food into a type of gruel. We put it in a tin pie plate in the kitchen sink and placed the kittens in beside it two at a time. They ate, but they also sat in it, crawled through it, revelled in it, and came out looking like mud-soaked rats.
We filled the other sink with water and created a new assembly line where the kittens started in the first sink where they ate, got dipped and rinsed in the second sink, then toweled off until their hair stood straight up from their skin in frazzled sharp spikes. In the bathroom I sat on the floor and used the hair dryer to turn each damp little body into a soft ball of fluff, before setting them free to scamper across the floor.
After that, we returned to feeding them with the syringe, but I was never sure we were doing it right. Then one morning my fears were confirmed.
We were up early, before the sun, with plans to go back to bed. I opened the box to check on the kittens and the pile of furry bodies sprang to life with the first slants of light. Amidst the flurry of tiny ears, busy legs and fuzzy tails, I saw one motionless body left lying at the bottom of the box.
I picked her up gently in my hands, the little black and brown calico. She was breathing, but her eyes were closed. It was strange to feel her small, warm weight in my hand, different from the usual wriggling energy, the constant motion even in stillness, that defined a kitten’s body.
I thought, in their desire to be in contact with one another, to sleep in a heap like they always did, the group didn’t notice their sister had begun to suffocate where she lay, stuck at the bottom of the pile.
The other kittens faded into the background of our living room as I curled myself into a corner of the couch, cradling her tiny body carefully in my hands. I stroked her head with the tip of my finger and whispered to her, please don’t die.
We decided she must have aspirated some of the formula we fed them. Morgan shook his head sadly, not wanting to voice the thought that I read clearly in his face, that she wasn’t going to make it.
Slowly, over the next hour, she seemed to recover. Her eyes opened to slits at first, then she held up her head, looking around as though she’d just awaken from a faint.
Later that day she announced her recovery by scaling Morgan’s brown recliner. Her barely-there needle-point claws propelled her to the top where she stood triumphantly, looking way down to where her siblings cavorted on the floor, and we named her Joan, after the warrior spirit of Joan of Arc.