The veterinarian didn't give her long to live. With his slow, diffident responses to our questions about treatment he seemed to indicate that he didn't know why we were planning to keep her alive in the first place, but if the two of us were willing to throw good money at him in exchange for inoculating, spaying, and prescribing daily Prednisone for a skinny, ferocious stray cat with one under-developed eye and the other one streaming goo, then we may do such, and live to regret it. That was four years ago. Ne riens pas.
Now that she is gone, the only thing I regret is having become far too attached to her, what we used to joke about when I worked at the SPCA years ago as "over-bonding."
I first saw her out the window of my study when she was possibly three or four months old, making her way along our chain link fence in the rain. Homeless cats and dogs are a common sight in Traveler's Joy*, where people lack sentiment for animals that aren't useful to them. I've seen neglect so horrible I won't describe it here at the risk of depressing animal-lovers, but it seems to be a symptom of lives lived without stability, something in which Tomahawk County* specializes.
This is when you can be sent off to jail suddenly or fired from a job or you have to light out of town in the middle of the night leaving the rent unpaid on your falling-down mobile home, a place so squalid and filthy -- glass knocked out of the windows and torn blinds banging in the wind -- that people driving by don't wonder how anyone can bear to live in such a place so much as they wonder, more importantly, how anyone who is human can accept MONEY from fellow humans desperate enough to rent this pig-sty in order to put a roof over their heads and, God forbid, their childrens' heads. And when you're jailed or hospitalized or fleeing ahead of warrant-serving deputies, collection agents or Child Welfare investigators, the dogs and cats and chickens all left sitting in the yard of the place where you don't live anymore are immobilized by bewilderment and despair, facing unluckier times than you, even.
Billie guards the veggies
Anyway, there was no way to know if this little black and white cat had been abandoned or if she had ever belonged to anyone, although she seemed to be moving forward through the rain with a destination in mind. I moved to the bedroom window to see where she would go and watched her pause on the cement pad of our heat pump, protected by the eaves, taking cover from the weather. Our old cat Toby had died of heart disease months before and I hadn't yet been able to throw away his bowl or his kibble. I poured some and set it on the front porch, telling myself that if she doesn't find the food, there's no harm done. I'd barely stepped back in the house before the cat was on the porch, eating as if it were her last meal. As far as she knew, it might have been. That bowl was her destination, then. Miss Billie's roaming days were over, until the morning in March when I opened the door to greet her and she wasn't on the porch.
Into the woods
When she first came to stay, my husband and I theorized that she was most likely born in the woods bordering the meadow on our eastern property line. Although we've lived in our cottage for nearly six years I had never explored those woods until the morning she vanished. They turned out to be much denser and deeper than I'd supposed; my heart was in my throat as I stepped gingerly over rusting metal car parts and thorny vines, discarded pieces of clothing, an old mattress, tractor tires, a large stuffed animal, and hundreds of discarded bottles. I was trying to avoid tetanus, a severed artery or a social disease while simultaneously looking out for what I most dreaded finding: signs of a savage struggle between animals, traces of fur or claws. I found none.
At the center of the woods the trees were enormous, meaning they were also very old. Blooming spottily beneath them were clumps of daffodils marking the vanished perimeter of a house that now consisted of a pile of weathered bricks, like an archaeological site titled, "Better Times, Long Gone." It was a wildcat's paradise back there, which may explain why I perpetually see neighborhood pets and strays slinking in and out of the vinca and thorn vine that rings its ragged confines, Miss Billie among them. But there was no sign of her that morning, dead or alive.
The remains of a house
C. W., the neighbor who lives at the bottom of Byars Street*, walks her two dogs on lengths of rope several times during the day. She once walked as far as our corner, but hollered at us to 'Call 'im back' when Billie charged her dogs. In that respect, our cat embodied the spirit of this place in every atom of her mind and body, being brash, loud, territorial, and always itching for a good fight. She wasn't subtle and she wasn't pretty: she was southern cat-trash to the core. I've seen her chase other cats up trees and intimidate dogs so large they could have swallowed her whole without a hiccup. Our neighbor's little boy was playing across the street one day but suddenly dropped his toy and ran inside, telling his parents there was a wild animal in the yard. His dad came outside to take a look at the creature Carson* had seen leering up at him from the drain in their patio, then hailed my husband to tell him our cat was trapped in the storm drain. But she wasn't trapped. She often dove into the culvert under our street and occasionally traveled up the long pipe from that ditch to spy on the kids across the street through the drain, flashing her teeth and her one good eye up at them to get a reaction.
I often told my husband that Billie's fearlessness worried me: what she didn't seem to understand is that she was still just a cat, not much bigger than a large loaf of bread. I knew she wouldn't stand a chance against a pack of dogs let loose to roam the town at night (that's how our neighbor Miss D.'s cat died). And she wouldn't have been able to halt a monster truck speeding on Limestone Street, if she'd been careless enough to cross the street as the high school students were getting out of class in the afternoon (I scraped up a kitten killed that way soon after we moved in). As for dangerous wild animals, I didn't know what to watch out for, and I couldn't have taught Billie to steer clear, in any case. I certainly wasn't thinking I had to be worried about foxes, or, even more outlandish: coyotes.
Northern edge of the woods
When C. W. isn't walking the dogs, she's sitting on her porch with them, day in and day out, watching life go past in the neighborhood. When my husband called on her the day Billie went missing, she surprised him by telling him that she knew Billie well because our cat sometimes crossed Limestone despite the traffic and came up on the woman's porch to sit and visit with her, ignoring the dogs. C. W. was sorry to hear that she'd gone missing, and said it was strange because she knew of several other cats who'd disappeared in the last couple of weeks. How so?, asked my husband. Apparently one of the owners of a shuttered business on the Thicketty Highway*, up the hill behind our neighbor's tiny house, had taken to installing cats at the building because of a rat problem. One by one, the three cats vanished. She put another cat there, and it vanished too. (When I heard this story, I wanted to know: where was this woman obtaining her supply of expendable cats?) C. W. added that her son had heard of a couple more cats going missing on the east end of Limestone where he lived. As C. W. said to my husband, "Nothing lasts in this town! Nothing lasts!"
In telling this story, our neighbor realized that she'd seen something on the day Billie disappeared that had struck her as very much out of the ordinary: she says a red fox emerged from the woods and crossed the street, vanishing into the scrub borders that run along the hill behind her house and up to the closed business that was now cat-less.
Typically, foxes in the southern Piedmont (
) hunt for small mammals like voles and rabbits, although they have long been the bane of farmers, as they also kill young livestock and regularly prey on chickens.
But as habitat declines and hunting territories, along with farms, shrink all over the world, foxes and other woodland mammals have adapted to living covertly in the midst of human settlements in order to survive.
This can lead to killing and eating an occasional cat or small dog, especially if there are kits to feed.
Foxes have become such a problem in London, for instance, preying on pets, getting into garbage, and occasionally amazing riders of the tube by appearing on subway cars or trotting up the escalators at busy stations, that a specialized trade of urban fox-trappers has sprung up to kill or remove the animals.
Rabbit in the meadow bordering the woods
Despite what Londoners may be experiencing, however, most Carolinians tell me that they have never heard of a verified killing of a cat by a fox.
My most recent conversation on this topic was with a woman raised in the Blue Ridge who has worked as a forest ranger at parks all over North Carolina.
She does not think an American red fox would risk attacking anything that could fight back as aggressively as a full-grown cat, but believes that coyotes, once established, can wipe out an area's small pet population, as a group of them have done in her rural Cabarrus County neighborhood.
Changes in our country's ecosystems over the last 150 years and competition for shrinking habitat forced coyotes to migrate east from the plains and desert states, mating with Northern wolves along the way to create the 'eastern coyote' (
Canis latrans var.
), a bigger version of the western scavenger, with more efficient jaws. In South Carolina, migrating coyotes were first sighted in 1978, but the problem was exacerbated by hunters illegally importing them for the purposes of hound-running.
The animal has become such a problem in the state that the S.C. Department of Natural Resources permits state residents to shoot them without any license so long as they're on your property, and are actively urging hunters to target them and save the white-tail deer population, which has been decimated by coyote-killings of fawns.
Interestingly, some naturalists and wildlife biologists in S. C. have noted that the invasion of coyotes in the Piedmont has pushed red foxes out of their natural habitats, forcing them to live surreptitious, hungry lives under decks and houses in suburban areas.
I have seen live coyotes in the Carolinas as well as coyote and red fox roadkill, so it's possible that either or both of the wily varmints have moved into Traveler's Joy.
On my exploration of the woods behind our house I saw countless places in vine-choked gullies, in hollows under fallen trees, and deep within blackberry thickets, where a hungry mammal could dig out a snug den and be completely hidden from the world. Animal or human -- whoever or whatever her attacker was, I know Miss Billie must have given that predator the fight of his life. It's horrible to contemplate.
View from the woods, our house in the distance
In my rational moments, when I lean on my education and powers of reasoning, I understand that bad things don't happen because of the position of the planets, or the dispositions of the gods, any more than good things happen because of them. Disaster, good fortune and everything in between happens as the result of a set of factors acting in concert, some of which humans control and some of which we don't. But maybe because as I grow older I have more wins and losses to compare, or because I was born with a 'literary' nature that can't resist seeking connections between seemingly random elements in order to create a narrative, I often feel as if there is some kind of system at work that determines the courses of our lives. Some cosmic stylus that writes our story.
The ancient Greeks believed this system consisted of three immortal sisters called, collectively, the
, or Fates. Clotho, The Spinner, sits winding wool from her distaff on to a spindle, creating the thread of life. The Allotter, Lachesis, measures the thread with her ruler, deciding how long it will be (or how short), and binding knots in it if she's decided to give this individual a troubled life. The last sister, Atropos, is The Cutter. She wields a pair of powerful shears, which she uses to cut the thread when the allotted measure is reached. Atropos not only determines when death will occur for each person, but she decides the manner of death as well.
There has always been debate in academic circles about the specific powers of the
, (academic circles being the only ones where anyone gives two hoots in hell about such arcane subjects), with some Classics scholars insisting that the Fates were considered all-powerful by the ancients and others arguing that human destinies (or deaths) could be altered by the intercession of a particular god or the influence of a dead kinsman's spirit. Homer seemed to be part of the "all-in" camp, judging from the role played by the
in the Iliad. A typical reference is the one made by Hecuba as she argues with Priam over his decision to go to their enemy, Achilles, and ask him nicely to return the body of their son and Troy's hero, Hector. She tells him that he can't change what's happened:
He'll not respect you. No, let's mourn here,
in our home, sitting far away from Hector.
That's what mighty Fate spun out for him
when he was born, when I gave birth to him --
that swift-running dogs would devour him
far from his parents beside that powerful man.
How I wish I could rip out that man's heart,
then eat it. That would be some satisfaction.
Hecuba's last two lines are strangely relatable. I think if I ever discover who or what took down my cat, be it swift-running pit bulls, coyotes or adolescent serial-killers in training, it will be time to set the table.
I confess to feeling the nimble fingers of Lachesis on my own thread at times. In October last year I received the best news a longtime writer can expect. I hardly dared to celebrate for fear that such a dream-come-true could vanish in a puff of smoke if I focused too overtly on it. A few weeks later I was hit with very bad news, the kind your spirit can't absorb all at once but must adjust to gradually. In a situation like that one can't help but see the Allotter measuring out one's thread, determining that what Fate hands out, Fate can also taketh away.
I think about the
in Billie's case, seeing the poetic balance in the Fates giving a four-year extension to a doomed kitten, an ugly, one-eyed throwaway tossed into a ditch from a moving car or starving with her litter-mates in a trashy woodland. I can imagine the pitch as Lachesis might have delivered it:
Here's the catch, Miss Billie: you will live a charmed life in the blue cottage on the corner, with a weird but well-meaning couple who will see beyond your flawed physical self to the wholly individual spirit that resides there. These people will love you well and care for you, and will provide you with a warm bed in winter and a protected garden to play in through the long days of summer.
About two years into your stay, on a rainy day like the one when you arrived, I will send you another abandoned animal to mentor, a traumatized red-hound who wets herself when men tower over her and who howls obsessively like cattle being castrated, a battered soul who needs someone flinty and practical, like you, to settle her down and teach her to appreciate what she has. Flinty you may be, but what most people don't realize is that you've also been endowed with the gift of boundless compassion, of the sort the Dalai Lama would envy. When this compassion is extended, as it will be when you not only welcome the stray dog on to your fiercely defended porch, but sit with her on her pile of wet towels until she is calmed and comforted enough to be fed by your People, it will amaze those who thought they had you figured out.
Billie & Alice in the garden
Every day in this family's circle will be an enchanted one for you: an idyll. An arm of the couch that catches the afternoon sun will be your perch when you nap, food will appear on the plate whether you require it or not, and you and the red-hound will devise rough games for the garden and a suitable pecking-order for indoors. A woman who is old enough to know better will carry you around on her shoulder most mornings petting and praising you as she raises the blinds to the sun. If you can believe it, she will also habitually toss plastic balls around the living room for you well past midnight, when you are just waking up and she is worn-out and needs to get some sleep because she has an eight o'clock class. This will be your amazing life.
Do you remember me saying there's a catch? This life of yours will be cut off abruptly, perhaps violently, Billie, a little more than four years after it begins. (I'll put in a word for you with Atropos, The Cutter -- ask her to be merciful and make the severing quick.) There will be no lingering illness, no good-byes, no last looks at the hound or the humans who will grieve for you, who will blame themselves for your disappearance and will ache for your presence in their lives, no matter what the veterinarian thinks. That's the kind of hard bargain we drive up here on Mt. Olympus.
Take it or leave it, Miss Billie.
Take it? I thought so.
Get down there, then. The thread is already winding off the spindle; my sister is sharpening her shears. Every slender inch of life is priceless. But you already know that.
For more entries involving Billie, see the postings "Trampling Out the Vintage," Oct. 7, 2014; "Salad Days," July 18, 2013; "Knock, Knock. Who's There?" July 11, 2013; "Of Bogs, Beardless Iris, and the Boyds of Kilmarnock," April 2, 2013; and "Traveler's Joy: Where the Catbird Sings," January 2, 2013.
Lines from Book 24 of the Iliad are from an online translation by Ian Johnston, Vancouver Island University, Nanaimo, BC, Canada.