A cat named Poe

It was International Cat Day on August 8, an occasion to celebrate the quiet, unreserved love that felines bring

This is a love story.

Or rather, a story about love. Allow me to explain.

Like most love stories, this one too begins with an unexpected visitor. Last August, my partner R received a call about a newborn kitten found on a sidewalk in one of Delhi’s neighbourhoods. Such calls are routine since we volunteer at a local veterinary hospital. We — R and I as well as our three cats — are used to a steady caravan of felines passing through our home in various shades of health and friendliness. We’re lucky the landlord lives in another state.

In response to the call, we rushed to the person who had found the kitten. R was handed a cardboard box that seemed to be empty except for a tiny black smudge wiggling about in a corner. Back home, we peered into the box to examine the kitten. Covered with lustrous fur, his eyes were still closed and the scab of his umbilical cord was still fresh on his little belly, so it was evident he was all of a few days old. He had severe-looking needlepoints at the ends of his paws though he could barely crawl, much less walk. The overall effect was both sweet and sinister — a raven-black, blind, roly-poly furball waving about tiny claws, eager for warmth, emitting high-pitched shrieks when touched. We named him Poe.

When his eyes finally opened after about a week, R and I huddled in front of him to introduce ourselves. “Welcome to the world, Poe,” R said.

Over the next few months, Poe grew rapidly, shedding his initial feral, waif-like appearance to become a lithe, active kitten with a gleaming coat and endless reserves of mischief. He gave the older cats hell, chasing their tails, nipping their ears and sportingly tumbling about. With R and me, he was better behaved; he’d just glare politely at us until we pulled him into a cuddle. At night, without fail, he would slide under the covers and settle into the crook of my armpit, not moving until I left the bed. There should be a word for the warmth of a purring kitten who is routinely beside himself with joy at being out and about in the world.

Poe died that winter.

Towards the end of the year, we noticed his hind legs swaying unsteadily as he walked, which began to worsen each day. His appetite suffered, he stopped playing, his coat lost its sheen. We took him from vet to vet and received no clearer diagnosis than vague descriptions of neurodegenerative symptoms. Poe still clambered into bed with me each night, despite how hard it was for him to move about. And one horrible, unforgettable, overcast day, he was no more.

We were shattered. Though in the past we have had cats in our care pass away from illness, Poe’s death pulled the rug from under our feet. Elaborate grieving rituals finally made sense. It made sense to have whole communities gather to witness death, its terrible, mundane savagery — just to give it some meaning, some significance in the face of cosmic indifference.

After the shock wore off, grief speared through us with every reminder. I’d find R holding Poe’s little bowl, tears streaming from his eyes. I couldn’t bear to throw out the syringe filled with water, with which I was trying to coax him to drink on his last day. R held out a crumpled vet’s receipt where the receptionist had misspelled Poe’s name. She’d written ‘Po’, which — ominously — means ‘go’ in Malayalam. Before we knew it, there was something of a shrine in a cupboard shelf, filled with his things. I’d lean against the shelf and ask him to come back, in any form, in any life.

This March, R got a call. Abandoned newborn kitten. R showed me the picture of a little black smudge in a basket. “Ready?” he asked me. Ready, I replied.

We named him Ulf.

Jet black with a splash of white under his chin, Ulf grew past the age where Poe couldn’t, and was wholeheartedly devoted to bird-watching, tail-stalking and ankle-nipping. When we were sure his health was robust, we began to post on social media for forever homes for him. We received a request from someone who worked in the Russian embassy. His profile picture, we noticed, was that of a large black cat with a white streak under the chin staring sullenly at the camera. “My cat in Russia. His name is Vanya,” he told us.

He sent us a picture last week. Ulf is sleeping peacefully belly up on his lap. “Judas,” R hissed at the photo. But we both know that with cats headed to their adoptive homes, the best thing one can hope for as foster parents is to be forgotten. It means they’re well adjusted to their new surroundings, content with their new humans. It means that love moves only in one direction: It is always given — freely, unconditionally, without hope of equal affection — never taken. And if you have the great privilege of receiving love, especially from a cat, take pride in it. It is not a common gift.

If you can, share the love you receive, make it bigger and the world smaller.

At the very least, you’ll have a love story.

Published on August 09, 2019

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