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Dazzle

by Patricia | 5.04.09

When we moved into our current house four years ago, we noticed a pretty, tortoise-shell cat crossing the yard frequently, always on her way to somewhere else.  Her usual route brought her in from fields to the north, from which she traversed our weedy plot then went under the fence on our south property line, across the grazed-down pasture, and into the pinyon-juniper forest that slopes into the head of the canyon.  Or we might see her on the return trip.  The cat’s small build suggested she wasn’t full-grown, and while she appeared to be wild, we wondered if this might be our cat.  You know—that cat that comes when you need a cat. 

Back then, we needed a cat.  The one we brought with us—another feral creature we adopted—had always been sickly and died soon after we moved.  The rodent population in this area is nearly as varied as the bird population, with species of mice completely new to me.  Like the grasshopper mouse, a large, noisy thing with a high-pitched cry.  We have wood rats and the deer mice, the latter famous for carrying hantavirus.  Your usual house mouse.  Others, yet to be determined.

It’s easy for rodents to gain entry to our house.  If the comparatively primitive salamanders can do it, then it must be a snap for the mice.  After summer thunderstorms, we go tiger salamander hunting in the basement, freeing those glistening lost souls who’ve wriggled themselves into corners.  Toads show up down there too but usually find their own ways back out.  So for the mice, breaching the rickety castle wall must be a piece of cheese.  A competent cat acting as sentry would come in mighty handy.

I asked around.  Nobody owned up to the tortoise-shell cat.  So one day, seeing the cat limping noticeably, I sent my daughter to see if she could cajole the wounded animal into letting her approach.  My daughter is a child of considerable animal magnetism.  If the creature was at all approachable, this kid would find out.

It only took a couple minutes and the cat was rolling on the ground, offering her belly to my daughter for petting.  “Bring her in,” I said.  We fed the cat and inspected her injured leg. Thereafter, whenever we saw her, we gave her food and let her in to explore the house.  Her beautiful coat was orange and black, changing constantly, sometimes more orange, sometimes more black.  She had a brindled, owlish face—an appearance heightened by a vertical orange stripe that made her nose look beak-ish.  Her rounded build overall reminded me of a river stone or loaf of homemade bread. The tortoise-shell pattern in her fur had a dark sparkle to it, so we named her Dazzle.

Indeed, Dazzle turned out to be the cat that we needed.  Besides being a superb mouser, fending for herself for however long had shaped her into one of the most careful, unassuming creatures I’ve ever met.  Yet she had an sharp edge to her that flashed knives when needed.  Unlike many cats that appropriate your lap without consent, Dazzle asked politely, approaching with timidity soft as her fur, searching your eyes carefully.  If she saw invitation in the meeting of glances, up she leapt, light as breath.  If no invitation, then she might lie beside you with just her paws draped tentatively over one of your legs or she might go lie down elsewhere.  I’m not much of a cat person, mostly because I rarely settle anywhere for long.  I don’t like felines anchoring me to the furniture if I come to rest for a moment.  Dazzle was so careful, so intelligent about her behavior in our rather difficult household that she won me over.  I appreciated her quiet, cautious ways.  She never got underfoot in that dangerous and annoying way some cats do.   In fact, she went out of her way to avoid collisions.  I came to depend upon her watchful ears and eyes to help me keep track of what was going on, just little indications she made that someone or something inside or outside the house was in motion.  Because she had more than a glint of the desert about her, I found her overwhelming to touch or hold.  It was like cradling in my arms a minor diety in benign and restful form.   I tried to show as much respect to her as she showed to me.

One day one of the kids accidently started a house fire.  I put it out before it did harm but it was a close call.  My anger flared while my body swamped with adrenaline.  The anger passed, but either the adrenaline or its effects lingered hours beyond what I’d expected, causing me to feel poisoned and ill.  As I sat on the couch trying to relax and rid myself of unpleasant sensations, which seemed most concentrated in my chest, Dazzle appeared.  Surprisingly, she jumped up without asking and climbed onto my sternum, where she applied herself to the area over my heart like a poultice.  She purred as I stroked her.  Closing my eyes, I was able to float on the comforting thrum that I could not only hear in my head but feel vibrating in my hands and through my chest cavity up into my throat.  I felt the poison dissipate.  After this, whenever I felt upset or disturbed, Dazzle knew.  She would follow and press up against me, hover near, sit with me while I wept, take special care. 

Dazzle had kittens two years ago, a colorful bundle of five live wires.  As soon as we let her back outside, she assumed full responsibility for feeding them.  That little cat brought back rabbits, chipmunks, wood rats, gophers, mice — all kinds of goodies.  Once I let her outside and witnessed her go on instant alert, seeing something I couldn’t.  She crept along the bottom edge of the house then made a gravity-defying five-foot leap straight up the side and snatched a chipmunk skittering across the wall.  I’m not a hunter myself, not in the sense of bringing down prey.  Yet I couldn’t help but admire her skills as a provider.  Her kittens were eating meat before they were weaned.  My husband joked we should stop buying groceries and live on what Dazzle brought in.

I like animals very much, I wonder at them, but usually, I don’t relate to them.  That is, I don’t look for myself in their beings.  Similarities between humans and many animals are obvious, but searching for ourselves — our sensibilities, our needs, our emotional constitutions — in creatures different in nature risks imposition and hazards the field whereon true meeting might occur.  It’s hard to avoid looking at something with two eyes, a nose, two ears, and thinking, “I see myself in you,” especially when it joins itself to you in companionship.  For me, the question “Who are you?” remains always alive, always breathing in any encounter or relationship.  Especially in my later years, I’ve tried to keep myself out of the way.

It was a little different with Dazzle.  I thought I recognized something in her.  Like me, she took her motherhood seriously, and her independence resonated strongly with my … whatever it is in me that looks and feels like independence.  Having lived so long, wild, on her own, she was often very restless in the house, summer or winter, day or night.  She might spend a night in then be gone for two, three, four days.  This urge she had to travel, to be out there covering ground, seeing what’s what—I admit to relating to that.  I have something like it, a non-feline version of that unsettling drive to go on the move that stirs at the deepest levels of my life. 

This area is rough on cats.  All kinds of predators, airborne and land-roving, prowl through.  Someone sets out coyote traps in the canyon behind us.  Sometimes, they catch neighborhood pets.  Illness, predation, other accidents, such as getting stuck in sheds left open for half a day then closed for a month or becoming tangled in pieces of junk and old farm equipment—always possibilities.  Cars driving by too fast on our country road.  Kids playing with guns.  Yet as much as I wanted her to live a long life with us, I could never convince myself I ought to protect her more than she wanted.  In spite of how odds were stacked against her, we let her out to touch noses with the wildness from which she had come to us.  To do otherwise seemed a betrayal of her terms for living with us.  I don’t think she would have stood for that.  So we took the risks with her, putting our hearts on the line and letting her out when she wanted.  Always, she returned, came in, sometimes limping, sometimes exhausted.  She ate food at her special place, slept for a while, cuddled with somebody.

Until this week.  The last time any of us saw her was Friday a week ago, when the coyotes were in close yipping it up on neighboring lots.  The first night they were around, when the commotion started, she came flowing up onto the porch with the others — her now-grown kittens, Carmella, Rocket Cat, Otter, and no account Ambris.  She went back out the next day.  We haven’t seen her since.

Knowing of her better-than-average survival skills, I hold out hope.  Still, I feel her absence as not-there-ness, lost-to-us-ness, rather than as be-back-soon-ness.   Feeling the days stretch beyond her usual periods of sojourn, I thought I’d better prepare the family for the worst.  A couple days ago, I said to my daughter, who first beguiled the fetching tortoise-shell into our lives, “I think we’ve lost Dazzle.” “Do you mean, you think she went to live with somebody else?” she asked.  “No,” I said.  “She wouldn’t do that.  If she was able to come back to us, she would have.”

How do I know?  Because, darn it, that’s how it would be with me.

14 Responses to Dazzle

  1. Th.

    .

    Beautiful account of the right sort of cat. I will probably never live with a cat again, but this is a pretty good summary of what I like about them.

  2. Laura Craner

    Dazzle sounds like a real individual! What a privilege for you and your family. And what a devastation if this is the last you see of her.

    *sending companionship and hope your way*

  3. Patricia

    I don’t yet know how to speak about her. Past tense or present? One of those “no body, so we don’t know” situations.

    A week after Dazzle disappeared, her daughter Carmella failed to come home in a timely manner. Carmella is a gorgeous calico, a grey and white tabby with caramel color drizzled over her. She has bands of colored fur around her legs that look like bracelets. She likes to sleep in my daughter’s bed and when I go in in the mornings to wake my daughter up, Carmella crawls up onto her chest and sticks her head under my daughter’s chin and holds her down. It’s cute. Outside, Carmella is most like her mom in her roving habits.

    Anyway, I was just beginning to think we’d lost her, too, which would have been another terrible blow, when I saw her coming in from the canyon, walking very slowly and looking stressed. I think she barely made it home. She’s been through something, we’re not sure what. She’s so weak we’re keeping her in for the next several days till she builds up strength, because there’s no way she could avoid predators in her condition. I’m wondering what’s going on.

    But no Dazzle so far.

    I never thought I’d say this about a cat, but the household feels wrong without her.

    Thanks for reading, Th. and Laura. Thanks, Laura, for the good thoughts.

  4. Th.

    .

    “One of those “no body, so we don’t know” situations. ”

    Sounds like you’ve been reading Batman…..

  5. Patricia

    Th.,

    Is that a total threadjack, or what?

    Since you raise the topic, and because I’m in need of some amusement this morning, I’ll say I haven’t read Batman since the 60s and still have in my possession some of those comic books, along with Superman comics, Green Lantern (my personal favorite) comics, and miscellaneous and assorted others, many of which I bought with my allowance, you know, back in the day.

    Back on topic, my husband said last night, “I just wish Dazzle would come home.”

    This is a need that will probably go unmet.

  6. Wm Morris

    Some of the best times of my life were napping on the couch after a day of classes with the cat perched on my chest waiting for my wife to come home from work. I don’t mind being cat furniture. It’s dog slobber that gets me.

  7. Th.

    .

    When I was a kid, our cat Butterscotch disappeared on Halloween. High school kids were caught dropping cats off the overpass onto the train tracks that night.

    Every other cat my family had disappear on us was old and likely went off to die in private.

  8. Patricia

    Some of the best times of my life were napping on the couch after a day of classes with the cat perched on my chest waiting for my wife to come home from work.

    Wm,

    Somehow I imagined you as being a bit more dynamic a personality than what you show here. ;-)

    I agree that dog drool makes for an unpleasant wake-up call.

  9. Patricia

    Th.

    The Halloween horror you describe above resonates with some of my worst-case scenarios. But on account of “No body, so we don’t know,” I can stave off that sort of nightmare.

    And … Dazzle was still quite young, but if she had made it to old age, that’s exactly how I would expect her to handle her own death.

    But you know, it’s still possible she’ll show up. When I was a kid I had a tomcat named Hot Rod who disappeared for months then suddenly showed up again one day, looking thin and traumatized. He didn’t recognize me and started to run away, but I made my characteristic kitty call and he turned and came running back and leaped up into my arms. A happy reunion.

    Such Incredible Journey stories do happen in the animal world.

  10. Wm Morris

    I’m only dynamic in my own mind. Besides, being brilliant at Cal was exhausting. ;-P

  11. Patricia

    Oh yes, of course it was. I’m amazed you’ve awakened this soon.

  12. Patricia

    Also, for anyone interested, Carmella, the calico mentioned above, seems to be recovering from whatever affliction she suffered that caused her to barely make it home to us. In three or four more days, she ought to be back to her young self.

    We’re happy we didn’t lose this one. That would have left us with just Rocket Cat, aka The Evil Kitten, and the two numbskulls Otter and Ambris.

  13. Lora

    Maybe she was out looking for Dazzle, too?

  14. Patricia

    Maybe, but I haven’t noticed that kind of companionship between the cats. I think Dazzle didn’t much enjoy having other cats—her own kittens—in the house, and the other cats tread lightly around her. The closest companionship I’ve seen is between Evil Kitten and Carmella. They get along together the best.

    One of Carmella’s littermates and near-twin, Tab, was another top-notch cat, but somebody driving too fast on our dead end road hit and killed him about a year ago. He’s another one I miss.

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