[There’s the old tale about the man walking on the beach where countless starfish have been pitched up by a wave to dehydrate and die at low tide. He spends his day pitching them back one by one into the water. “You can never save them all,” someone said as he reared back for another toss. “What does it matter?”
The old lad finishes his motion and watches the little creature splash back into safety. “It mattered to that one,” he says, and keeps at his business.
And none of us can do any better for the world than to be kind to what is in our domain.]
I am one of the few people you will ever meet who grieves for roadkill. It may seem silly to be so softhearted, but I will admit it about myself. When I see a poor victim of a technology it doesn’t understand, I nod it blessing and breathe it a little prayer. I wish nothing had to die an ill death. I get many occasions to notice it running, biking, or roller-skiing about our rural roads.
I remember first noticing this feature of myself in my hitchhiking days, college and post-college. Hitchhikers spend a lot of time hoofing it between rides and see a lot of what most of us in vehicles breeze by. I remember being bitterly aggrieved – to the point of troubled dreams – by the little corpses on the shoulder, frozen in their immensely varied poses and attitudes. The ones that were wholest – the ones that looked like they were sleeping and could have been saved by a puff of well-timed breath – gripped me the most. I’ll never forget an image from the British Lake District, of a groundhog, sprawled at the shoulder, covering his eyes with his paws like a child playing peek-a-boo, as if blindness to what had killed him could have prevented it finding its way to him. I still see in my mind’s eye a squint-eyed raccoon in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, turning into the pavement with his paws above him like a little man drawing the macadam coverlet over his head as if tucking under it for a sleep could let him dream of his rebirth and wake into life again.
I realize that this fate or any other ill one could have been forecast for my two creatures, the cats so many of you know, now three and six, elfin Fortnight and Disko the imp. As for the former, well, it would have shocked fate to see how treasured a life lives this skunk-colored barn-baby. And smoke-and-white Disko – shorthand for “Trickster” – turned up on the back porch of my former cottage as a squat one-pound foundling. She had to fend for herself at way too young an age, and she was lucky to have made it as long as she did at the edge of a coon-and-coyote-infested park. She was just as likely to have ended up a pile of pelt in a wood as to have made it so far into my life.
I hold them when they beg for it and listen to their purring. A couple times in the average week, Disko grows overwhelmed with emotion from some source that must be in the kitty spirit-world. At those times she has to crawl or leap up on my lap as I sit, sink her claws into the outer layer of my clothing, and haul herself up to rest, always over my heart. There she hangs until she’s had her fill or I have to rise to tend to something. Anyone who takes a hard look at the fleecy vests and workout tops that are my inveterate daytime garb will see the little curls of dangling thread this habit leaves, always over my left breast.
Fortnight is shyer, but her moods are more predictable. She likes to sleep by me, at least some part of the night, at least on the nights that we don’t have a scary guest – either another cat or a guest of mine. I’ve even timed her. It’s generally no more than twenty breaths from the moment the light goes off and I turn in that she hops onto the bed and creeps toward me. She loves finding the warm crannies in my sleeping positions, especially on those cool nights. When I turn onto my belly, she perches on the covers between my knees and waits for them to sag her downward like a hot dog in its roll. Otherwise she stretches out against my side. I fall asleep with her that way. I seldom see her when I wake up, and I am sure I know why. I don’t toss and turn as I sleep, but I change position often. The slightest movement is all it takes to spook Fortnight and drive one of her mad dashes, claws clacking on the wood floors, to wherever it is she goes.
She comes back later, of course. The second appearance is always between four and five. She squeaks pitifully, three and three only times, to wake me, as if announcing the password before a gate. This calls a hand to rear like a cobra from the covers and hold there long enough for her to butt under it and rub her neck and head against it for herself. Then she subsides against my form again, sheltering like a soldier in a trench. To a cat, I guess, I’m a warm berm, almost a geological feature, against the chill of the night. If I don’t rally in time – by the third bleat – and put the arm out, she runs mournfully off to, doubtless, her earlier lair.
Fortnight dies to get under the covers and nestle next to me, head often facing my feet. She rapidly overheats this way – all but the night we lost our heat – and bursts out gasping in five or so minutes. This could go on all night if I didn’t ration her to one sub-covers visit, and that near dawn. So far she has not figured out how to part the covers and enter by herself, which is actually good.
They both hate it when I leave the house, as I do every morning and usually every early evening. Their sole pleasures in life seem to be when I am home with just them. Fortnight gazes with a stoic dejection when the realization comes over her that I am on my way out, then runs and hides so she doesn’t have to see the exit. Disko puts on this put-out, slightly, cockeyed expression that is comical only when I reflect on how soon I will return.
Disko is also the one who greets me when I come back, sometimes crawling up for a cuddle as I sit on the stairs and sometimes for a got-you-back break into the garage. She loves pulling one over on me, my Trickster.
Fortnight reacts to my re-arrivals by running to something and scratching it hyperactively. Sometimes when she is especially delighted to see me home she takes over a rug near me as I take off my shoes, rocks on her back, shows her snowy belly, and does a little floor dance, almost like a child showing its parents a new trick learned at school.
Winter nights – and chill falls and springs – seem to be their favorites. The fire cheers us, the wok sizzles, and music, sport, or drama is on the tube. When I take my usual seat for viewing, dining or resting, the compact, smoke-and-white Disko cuddles herself in blankets and cushions on the couch ten feet away, looking, not always staring, administratively to my position. She almost never sleeps; she nods, holding to perch like a statue guarding Pharaoh’s tomb.
Orca-toned, weasel-bodied Fortnight sits on a chair just behind me, making the third point of a stubby triangle and keeping an eye on us both. She crouches, braced for a leap in any direction or a sudden move from anything. We all know life has its surprises, and all of them are scamper-worthy to Fortnight. But she stays, snoozing and purring, as long as everyone holds in place.
I know how silly it is for a grown man to love a couple of fur-covered slinkies like these. They could disappear and the world would never miss them. How easy it would have been for me never to have known them. How easy it would have been for them to have ended up by a road or stripped of life and flesh in a grove. Disko dares them both, bolting for the outside, any chance she gets.
I know there may be nothing individual about their love for me. They would love any human who was kind to them. Their apparent “love” may be only appeasement behavior to the being they have recognized as the giver of their food, or at least some of the Behaviorists would have it so. I consider all this.
As I do, it’s one of those forbidding nights that gives the Niagara its character. The wind shivers my tall house, drives the trees to applaud like clapping, skeletal giants, wails at the top of the chimney like fateful voices, and draws a sigh out of my fire. Sturdy Disko hangs like a papoose on the left side of my chest, the gentle rattling in her throat that passes for purring escalating to a steady throb. Begging for a nestle, weasel-bodied Fortnight has reared herself onto a seat next to me and tucked her head under my left hand. And as long as blood runs in it, I will shelter them.