To Romeo, From God

By Denise Pace

blaze-orange thick-haired tomA few years ago I witnessed the death of a cat. He was a beautiful blaze-orange thick-haired tom. I don’t know if he belonged to anyone, inasmuch as a cat can belong, but he was a frequent visitor to my home.

The first time I saw him was the grey day one of my cats went into heat. He courted her through the screen windows and slept on my welcome mat. Finally, Ilana, my angry midget cat, could stand it no longer and escaped to be with her Romeo. I recaptured her shortly after, but it was too late—she had already submitted to the male with his roguish good looks and aura of mystery. She was easy to scoop up as she rolled about in post-coital ecstasy, and I got her back inside with no problem.

My heart sank. I was hoping it didn’t “take”, but I knew that with cats in heat, it usually did. She was too young and little to give birth. I hadn’t gotten her spayed because I couldn’t afford it—what cat would I do if any problems should arise? And I already had three cats—what would I do with six or eight more? Also, we had a strange habit—she ovulated and I menstruated at about the same time. I would miss that. I decided to get a good look at the father, and perhaps have a talk on paternal responsibility, how he should see her through it and all, even if he were a cat. I opened my door for our heart to heart, and caught a glimpse of his glorious fiery tail as it followed a streak of orange into the bushes.

So I lectured Ilana, showing her I wasn’t happy with her choice, but that I would love her and see her through it, what’s done is done and all that. She didn’t seem to care what I thought of her, being a cat and all, but also didn’t seem too interested in returning to the Great Outdoors.

Until the cat came back.

Romeo sat on my porch, calling to his Juliet for four days. Sometimes Ilana sat on the window seat and crooned to her love, and other times she hissed through the door at him. Angry, I suppose, at his getting her into trouble.

Periodically Frehd, my neutered male, ran an errand outside and returned with more orange cats. This was interesting, this klatch of Saxon cats, because felines are colorblind. It was also highly curious because Frehd, who was Ilana’s very best friend, was also orange. Perhaps he harbored some impure thoughts of his own deep in his impotent heart. Earlier in Ilana’s heat, as she rolled and called on the floor and low furniture, Frehd had gone over to her and licked her twice on an ear. He paused and looked at her, as if to explain, “Sorry, but that’s all I can do for you.”

So she had sought release in the paws of a stranger.

Ilana came out of heat a few days later, but Romeo still hung about. Why? I wondered. Perhaps he, too, wanted to lend his support and do the right thing. Perhaps he thought my other (spayed) female would go into heat soon. Whatever the reason, he and my three cats became a tight clowder, making noises through the windows, tussling about or sitting together when one of mine broke out. I started leaving food outside, in case Romeo got hungry and didn’t want to go home for lunch.

Home. I thought at first he shared himself with a human—maybe down the street or around the corner. His thick fur shone and he looked well fed. But later I noticed his ragged edges, and the fear he had of my tame presence. His lone, wild life was the spirit of his existence. He slept on my porch some days, and disappeared on others. I continued to leave food, but added water and a softer tone to my voice.

One beautiful spring day I went outside to read a book, and brought all the cats. It was a special treat for them, and some kind of misguided and masochistic act for me. Romeo appeared shortly after I’d settled in, and the cats did the predictable things cats do: ignored each other, climbed a tree, ambushed each other, ignored me. Any movement of mine was an intrusion to their world, and brought the games to a halt, unless they were engaged in parallel play, in which case they started up the games. They did their damnedest to show me I was not welcome, and that anything I did would have only negative effects and be construed as oppression. So I humbly settled down with my book.

Suddenly, the world exploded. The cats scattered—one up a tree, two into bushes, the fourth I didn’t see, for a large loud dog was rushing at me. My brave little Ilana puffed herself up, ferocious in her ridiculousness. The dog ran off, caught sight of Romeo pausing in the street, and headed towards him. I watched Romeo watching the dog come bounding toward him, and then I watched a blue Chevrolet Celebrity run Romeo down.

No brake lights, no honk, only an Illinois plate proclaiming IY something.

I ran to the fallen Romeo, far too true to his name, and saw personally what I’d always seen impersonally at the side of the road.

He was on his right side, his blaze orange still blaze orange, his body still warm but empty of all that made Romeo. His face, I noted objectively and seemingly from a distance, showed only that his lower jaw had impacted over his nose, and that his upper canines were shoved down through his chin. His rough, unopened head lay on a liver-sized pillow of blood or tissue. In my objectivity, I wondered what it was, listing and discarding various organs I knew about from dissecting less warm creatures.

I picked him up, for some reason using care to support his flopsy neck, and placed him on the grass by the curb. I looked at him for a long, long time. I thought about his mysterious life and his still-unsure paternity. I thought perhaps he would live, somehow, through Ilana’s children. I thought about what I should be feeling and compared it to what I was feeling. I ran through the seven stages of mourning and decided I was in the denial stage.

But I had accepted this death. I had witnessed the slaying of someone I knew. I had seen his wildness tamed. I was probably the only person in the world to care about this passing.

I felt very alone. I felt sadness. Far, far away, I felt pain. I felt nothing, and I did not cry.

Eight weeks later, Ilana gave birth to five healthy kittens—two grey, like her, and three blaze orange. I did not witness the birth. I witnessed the death, the end, the loss of a piece to a grand puzzle. And still it shakes me. I want to give meaning to Romeo’s life. I want not to be alone in having noted his presence, having appreciated the brief bright spot of his blaze orange self. I think of the futility of Salieri who alone saw the beauty of Mozart’s music. And God, who loved his sparrows as much as his humans. I want to be like them—the one who notices and appreciates the bright spots of life and the living, perhaps not attaining such a grandiose position for myself, but always living on and on and on to give worth to the unobserved or the observed too late. That no life may be missed because it is not immediately valued. But that is a lofty aspiration, and a burden too large for my conceited shoulders.

Perhaps my place lies with the Salieris, perhaps with the sparrows. But let me not miss the beauty in knowing either.

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Copyright© 2003 by Denise Pace.

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