When we moved into our current house four years ago, weÂ noticed a pretty, tortoise-shell cat crossing the yard frequently, alwaysÂ on her way to somewhere else.Â 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.Â Or we might see her on the return trip.Â The catâ€™s small build suggested she wasnâ€™t full-grown, and while she appeared to be wild, we wondered if this might be our cat.Â You know—that catÂ that comesÂ when you need a cat.Â
Back then, we needed a cat.Â The one we brought with us—another feral creature we adopted—had always been sickly and died soon after we moved.Â The rodent population in this area is nearly as varied as the bird population, with species of mice completely new to me.Â Like the grasshopper mouse, a large, noisy thing with a high-pitched cry.Â We have wood rats and the deer mice, the latter famous for carrying hantavirus.Â Your usual house mouse.Â Others, yet to be determined.
Itâ€™s easy for rodents to gain entry to our house.Â If the comparatively primitive salamanders can do it, then it must be a snap for the mice.Â After summer thunderstorms, we go tiger salamander hunting in the basement, freeing those glistening lost souls whoâ€™ve wriggled themselves into corners.Â Toads show up down there too but usually find their own ways back out.Â So for the mice, breaching the rickety castle wall must be a piece of cheese.Â A competent catÂ acting asÂ sentry would come inÂ mighty handy.
I asked around.Â Nobody owned up to the tortoise-shell cat.Â So one day, seeingÂ the catÂ limping noticeably, IÂ sent my daughter to see if she could cajole the wounded animal into letting her approach.Â My daughter is a child of considerable animal magnetism.Â 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.Â â€œBring her in,â€ I said.Â 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.Â HerÂ beautiful coat was orange and black, changing constantly, sometimes more orange, sometimes more black.Â Â She had a brindled, owlish face—anÂ appearanceÂ heightened by a vertical orange stripe that made her nose look beak-ish.Â 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, DazzleÂ turned out to beÂ the cat that we needed.Â Besides being a superb mouser, fending for herself for however long had shaped her into one of the most careful, unassuming creatures Iâ€™ve ever met.Â Yet she had an sharp edge to her that flashed knives when needed.Â Unlike many cats that appropriate your lap without consent, Dazzle asked politely, approaching with timidity soft as her fur, searching your eyes carefully.Â If she saw invitation in the meeting of glances, up she leapt, light as breath.Â 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.Â Iâ€™m not much of a cat person, mostly because I rarelyÂ settle anywhere for long.Â I donâ€™t like felines anchoring me toÂ the furniture if IÂ come to restÂ for a moment.Â Dazzle was so careful, so intelligent about her behavior in our rather difficult household that she won me over.Â I appreciated her quiet, cautious ways.Â She never got underfoot in thatÂ dangerous and annoying way some cats do.Â Â In fact, she went out of her way to avoid collisions.Â I came to depend upon her watchful ears and eyes to help meÂ keep track of what was going on, just little indications she made that someone or something inside or outsideÂ the house was in motion.Â Because she had more than aÂ glint of the desert about her, I found her overwhelming to touch or hold.Â It was likeÂ cradling in my armsÂ aÂ minor dietyÂ in benign and restful form.Â Â I tried to show as much respectÂ to her as she showedÂ to me.
One day one ofÂ the kids accidently started a house fire.Â I put it out before it did harmÂ but it was a close call.Â My anger flared while my body swamped with adrenaline.Â The anger passed, but either the adrenaline or its effects lingered hours beyond what Iâ€™d expected, causing me to feel poisoned and ill.Â As I sat on the couch trying to relax and rid myself ofÂ unpleasant sensations, which seemed most concentrated in my chest, Dazzle appeared.Â Surprisingly, she jumped up without asking and climbed onto my sternum, where she applied herself to the area over my heart like a poultice.Â She purred as I stroked her.Â 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.Â I felt the poison dissipate.Â After this, whenever I felt upset or disturbed, Dazzle knew.Â She would follow and press up against me, hover near, sit with me while I wept, take special care.Â
Dazzle had kittens two years ago, a colorful bundle of five live wires.Â As soon as we let her back outside, she assumed full responsibility for feeding them.Â Â That little catÂ brought back rabbits, chipmunks, wood rats, gophers, mice — all kinds of goodies.Â Once I let her outside and witnessed her go on instant alert, seeing something I couldnâ€™t.Â 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.Â Iâ€™m not a hunter myself, not in the sense of bringing down prey.Â Yet I couldnâ€™t help but admire her skills as a provider.Â Her kittens were eating meat before they were weaned.Â My husband joked we should stop buying groceries andÂ live on what Dazzle brought in.
I like animals very much, I wonder at them, but usually, I donâ€™t relate to them.Â That is, I donâ€™t look for myself in their beings.Â Similarities betweenÂ humans and many animalsÂ are obvious, but searching for ourselves — our sensibilities, our needs, our emotional constitutions — in creatures different in nature risks imposition andÂ hazards the field whereon true meeting might occur.Â Itâ€™s hard to avoid looking at something with two eyes, a nose, two ears, and thinking, â€œI see myself in you,â€ especially when it joins itself to you in companionship.Â For me, the question â€œWho are you?â€ remains always alive, always breathing in any encounter or relationship.Â Especially in my later years, Iâ€™ve tried to keep myself out of the way.
It was a little different with Dazzle.Â I thought I recognized something in her.Â Like me, she took her motherhood seriously, and her independence resonated strongly with my …Â whatever it is in me that looks andÂ feelsÂ like independence.Â Having lived so long, wild, on her own, she wasÂ often very restless in the house, summer or winter, day or night.Â She might spend a night in then be gone for two, three, four days.Â This urge she had to travel, to be out there covering ground, seeing whatâ€™s what—IÂ admit to relatingÂ to that.Â I have something like it, aÂ non-feline version of thatÂ unsettlingÂ drive to go on the moveÂ thatÂ stirsÂ at the deepest levels of my life.Â
This area is rough on cats.Â All kinds of predators, airborne and land-roving, prowl through.Â Someone sets out coyote traps in the canyon behind us.Â Sometimes, they catch neighborhood pets.Â Illness, predation, other accidents, such as getting stuck in sheds left open for half a dayÂ then closed for a month or becoming tangled inÂ pieces of junk and old farm equipment—always possibilities.Â Cars drivingÂ by too fast on ourÂ country road.Â Kids playing with guns.Â Yet as much as I wanted her to live a long life with us, I could never convinceÂ myselfÂ I ought toÂ protect her more than she wanted.Â 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.Â To do otherwise seemed a betrayal of her terms for living with us.Â I don’t think she would have stood for that.Â So we took the risks with her, putting our hearts on the line and letting her out when she wanted.Â Always, she returned, came in, sometimes limping, sometimes exhausted.Â She ate food at her special place, slept for a while, cuddled with somebody.
Until this week.Â 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.Â The first night they were around, when the commotion started, she came flowing up onto the porch with the others — herÂ now-grown kittens,Â Carmella, Rocket Cat, Otter, and no account Ambris.Â She went back out the next day.Â We havenâ€™t seen her since.
Knowing of her better-than-average survival skills, I hold out hope.Â Still, I feel her absence as not-there-ness, lost-to-us-ness, rather than as be-back-soon-ness.Â Â Feeling the days stretchÂ beyond her usual periods of sojourn, I thought I’d better prepare the family for the worst.Â A couple days ago, I said to my daughter, who first beguiled the fetching tortoise-shell into our lives, â€œI think weâ€™ve lost Dazzle.â€ â€œDo you mean, you think she went to live with somebody else?â€ she asked.Â â€œNo,â€ I said.Â â€œShe wouldnâ€™t do that.Â If sheÂ was able toÂ come back to us, she would have.â€
How do I know?Â Because, darn it,Â thatâ€™s how it would be with me.