The needle is less than a quarter of an inch long and laser
thin, its point disappears to almost nothing. I gather Cleo’s skin between the
thumb and fingers of my left hand and push the needle into her fur, I expect
some resistance when it reaches her skin and I expect a reaction from Cleo. But
there is none, no pulling away or twitching or growling or hissing, and there
is no resistance, no definite moment when the thin point of the needle contacts
anything but air.
Cleo is happily eating her evening meal as I pull at her
skin and poke the needle into the gray fur at the back of her neck. She is even
purring, I realize, and I am sure I am doing it wrong, so I pull back and try
again. I am skeptical that the needle has even found her skin, but it must
have, so I push the plunger, remove the needle, check her fur for dampness. It
is dry, but the amount of insulin is so small, just two units on the tiny
syringe that I think perhaps I wouldn’t even notice it in her fur.
The vet was 99% sure it was diabetes when we took Cleo in to
figure out why she was walking funny. Her back legs thumped loudly on the floor
when she walked, putting her weight on her hocks instead of on her feet where
it should be. She became wobbly at times and plodded slowly up and down the
stairs, seeming to put a lot of thought in to her next move when she used to
run with reckless abandon, and when she tried to jump on to the couch she only
made it half way before sliding back to the floor.
This sort of nerve damage is common in diabetic cats, we are
told, glucose toxicity and cell starvation. We feel terrible. How long has this
been going on? We ask each other. But we can’t remember. It’s not like we
haven’t been paying attention, but Cleo has always lived on the periphery of
things, her personality, though very distinct and intermittently loud, is
constantly overshadowed by the neediness and egocentricities of everyone else
in this house.
Cleo has always been somewhat elusive, which is why it took
me being away for a couple of weeks to notice what turned out to be the first
sign that something was wrong. “What happened to Cleo?” I said when I walked in
the door mid-September, after my absence. She had dropped a bunch of weight.
The cat who had always taken the shape of a well-inflated balloon, was suddenly
half her “normal” size. When she sat down her back feet no longer disappeared
beneath her overflowing belly.
But as I stared at this newly slimmed-down cat with concern,
Chestnut appeared beside her, huge and round and just about bursting out of his
skin. If Cleo hadn’t been right there I would have thought perhaps he’d eaten
Oh, I thought, mystery solved. Clearly Chestnut had been
eating all the food, pushing Cleo out of the way to stuff his face with not
just his own meals, but hers too. I had seen him do it before which is one of
the reasons the cats are separated during meal times, though we had become lax
about enforcing that over the summer.
I decided to look on the bright side, Cleo needed to lose
weight anyway and with her new size as a starting point I began separating the
cats again. Cleo ate in the bathroom with the door closed, giving her ample
time to eat at her own pace while Chestnut bolted his food in the kitchen then
wandered around meowing for more.
Cleo didn’t bulk up again, but I noticed a patch of hair
missing from one of her front legs. That, I chalked up to a stress reaction to
being starved because the fur seemed to be growing back in again now that she
was actually getting something to eat. But I kept a closer eye on her, seeking
her out in the house and paying her more attention. I wasn’t completely
And then the leg thing started and we knew there was
definitely something wrong.
“Is she walking funny?” Morgan said one day.
“Maybe,” I said, though I think I was initially in denial.
“She seems awkward on the stairs,” he said another day.
“Yes,” I agreed. “But she’s not losing any more weight and
her eyes are bright and she seems like herself.”
I really didn’t want something to be wrong with this cat who
has been hardly any trouble her entire life with us. Except for occasionally
letting her frustrations be known by peeing on random things, Cleo could mostly
be counted on to be low-maintenance.
But, there it is. Diabetes. Insulin shots twice a day and
special food, which Cleo eats behind the closed door of the bathroom. I kneel
beside her dish and slip the barely there needle in amongst her fur, aim for
her skin, hoping for the best, and Cleo just lets me do it.
I wake up early to stalk the litter box. The cats blink
sleepily at me when I turn on the kitchen light and then wrap themselves around
my legs even though their official breakfast time is still a couple of hours
away. I put down food for Chestnut in the kitchen and take Cleo into the
bathroom. I sit on the closed lid of the toilet seat and watch her eat. When
she’s done she will use the litter box, that’s her routine, though the day
before she did things backwards which is why I am up before the sky begins to
lighten, sitting in the cold bathroom half asleep, waiting for my cat to pee.
The sterilized collection cup with the orange lid sits on
the countertop beside me; I have taken the top off the covered litter box in
the corner. If this goes smoothly, I may be able to sneak back to bed for a few
Cleo finishes eating, eyes the wooden laundry box with
Morgan’s clothes from the day before piled on top, then turns and sits by the
“You should pee Cleo,” I say and she looks at me with her
round green eyes. We stare at each other for a moment and I know it is futile
so I open the door and we leave the bathroom together.
I dish myself some yoghurt with blackberries, put the kettle
on for tea because it is cold, and eat quietly at the table. Chestnut sits on
the chair next to mine, his chin just an inch above the tabletop, and watches
me eat by the lonely yellow light of the kitchen. When I’m done, he gets the
bowl and I wander over to the railing that overlooks the entryway.
I stand looking down into the darkness with the kitchen
light at my back. I am wrapped in a blanket, the hood of my sweatshirt pulled
up over my head, as I lean against the wall.
I can just make out Cleo’s lighter coloured shape stretched
out beside Murdoch’s dark one. I know it is Murdoch even though it is Molly’s
bed because he is curled into a ball the way he does when the house is cold,
which it was when I stumbled down the stairs at 5:30 in the morning, the fire
burned out so that only the tiniest coals winked weakly when I opened the door
of the woodstove, reached in with the metal prod and stirred them up, raked
them forward and opened the damper wide, then selected the smallest bits of
wood from the cart, peeled some birchbark and tossed it in.
There is a faint orange glow visible through the glass of
the stove door indicating heat to come, but my eyes are trained on Cleo, trying
to decide if she is settling down for the long haul. She spent the entire day
before on that bed while I hovered about waiting for her to do something; lid
off the litter box in the bathroom, collection cup standing by.
Behind me the kettle is starting to boil and I make myself a
cup of tea instead of a pot, still convinced I may be returning to bed before
the day really starts.
I sit at the table and I read, my feet up on the chair where
Chestnut sits waiting for something interesting to happen. I sip my tea as the
minutes tick by and the blackness at the windows fades to indigo and still Cleo
does not pee. “This is insane,” I say to the room.
And then Molly’s face appears at the baby gate at the top of
the kitchen stairs and there is no denying the lightening sky and the snowy
white woods outside the window emerging from the black. I can hear Morgan
upstairs getting out of bed and the day officially starts.
The dogs go out, come in, get breakfast and the cats get
second breakfast. I carry Cleo into the bathroom and set her down in front of
her dish and then I am sitting in the bathroom for the second time this morning
waiting for my cat to pee. And then she does and I catch it in the cup and for
a moment I am so excited I forget to be tired.
There is a straight line of footprints down the center of
the road, a story tapped out on the first thin layer of snow. A story of a dog
who has wandered off at bedtime. I shine the dimming beam of my flashlight
along the pattern in the perfect white.
“Molly!” I call into the darkness ahead, shine the light on
the ground, white and smooth and perfect, like icing on a cake. It looks good
enough to eat.
This is a familiar sight, I think: pyjamas, boots, winter
coat, flashlight, me looking for a dog. Snowflakes like delicate shards of
glass glint in the light as they fall through the beam, tick gently off the
hood of my coat.
Molly’s tracks pace out a perfect line from our driveway
down the middle of the road, disappearing into the darkness at the farthest
reaches of the flashlight. Each step has churned up the unblemished snow into a
swirl of a footprint. The even spacing of the prints describes the rhythm of
her pace as she snuck away under the cover of night. I imagine the bounce in her
step, the happy smile on her face as she bopped along thinking she was being so
sneaky. “I am black like the shadows and light of foot, they will not be able
to find me.”
She didn’t think about footprints. I am pleased with this
first snowfall, this blank canvas that betrays plainly Molly’s secret
I follow her tracks across the road to the neighbours’
driveway and shine the light ahead to see them disappear in a muddle of
snow-covered leaves. I stop at the edge of where the smooth snow on the
driveway gives way to the uneven patterns made by leaves strewn on grass and I
call Molly quietly, imagining my neighbours looking out to see a flashlight
scanning across the front of their house.
I listen and hear nothing but the quiet kiss of the tiniest
snowflakes pattering on my coat and on the ground. The longer I stand without
moving, without saying a word, the more abrasive my voice sounds when I call
again, louder this time.
When I listen again, I hear the faint jingle of her collar
and the gentle swish of her feet in new fallen snow and shine the flashlight
toward the opposite corner of the house from where I stand. Just beyond the
fading beam I see a shadow move and I stare at it until I can make out Molly’s
shape, those big ears and sure stride. “Come on,” I say, in a stage whisper.
She hesitates and I wonder if she is trying to decide if I have actually seen
her or if she is still undercover, and if she has been spotted, how much
trouble is she in.
I keep it light and airy. “Good girl Molls, let’s go,” I say
turning towards home and waving my arm in a hurry-up fashion. She joins me at a
trot and then pulls ahead on the road. “Let’s go home Molly,” I call, keeping
my flashlight trained on her diminishing figure as it slowly seeps back into
When she sails right past our driveway as though my being
there means this is an authorized adventure and therefore not yet over, I
yell,“Molly!” short and crisp. She
stops in her tracks, swings sideways on the road and looks back in my direction
and I imagine an innocent yet incredulous expression on her face. “Home!” I say
pointing with my whole arm up the driveway.“Fine,” she seems to say as she turns and joins me and we crunch over
the snow together up the path to the door.