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Facts & Arguments 20th Anniversary

A cat tale with one wrong turn Add to ...

This essay caused a stir when it was published Dec. 8, 1998, by the third Facts & Arguments editor Katherine Ashenburg: "Oh, what a tumult this piece provoked. So many animal lovers wrote in outrage that I had to write a piece explaining why I chose it. With its arc of resolution, failure, repentance and a new, tempered resolution, Claudia Gahlinger's shapely telling of bungling a cat's death struck me then, and strikes me now, like a story by Raymond Carver. Although many readers accused it of condoning cruelty to animals, it does the opposite. In any case, as I wrote in my defence of it, the Facts & Arguments essays did not come with a Globe and Mail Seal of Approval: they are 'eyewitness accounts from one life, one sensibility.' "

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Virginia Woolf wrote her sister at least once a week. Even when Vanessa lived a bicycle ride away. Even when Virginia didn't have much to say: "Well, can't you send me a little news? Do the cat and dog go out as much as ever?"



My husband and I are forever playing doorman to our animals too. They repay us with warmth and witty remarks. Crucially, they keep squirrels and mice out of our old farmhouse.



The two orange kittens we got last summer have grown into a burly pair: long-haired Fatso and his short-haired brother Earl. Having reached puberty, Fatso and Earl have begun to embark on their days-long Hormone Crusades, one of their favourite roads being the river bank a stone's throw from the house.



We may spoil our cats a little, but we can't afford to be sentimental about them. For one thing, the vet is over an hour's drive away. For another, coyotes roam the river banks too. Fixed or not, cats live short lives in this country.



One morning in May, our teenaged neighbour Angel appeared at the front door, an orange cat in her arms.



"He's been hanging around our place again," said Angel. "Something's the matter with him. He's been meowing all night, driving Mom crazy. Dad says if he comes back he'll shoot him."



In the three days since I last saw Earl, some terrible malady had struck. Rack of bones. Lustreless fur. The cat trembled and stared. As if he'd been run over by some careering disease. Feline leukemia? Rabies?



But was this really Earl? The colour, the markings were right. I was trying to get behind him to check his big trademark testicles, and not seeing any (although he kept turning away) when Doug came in and settled the question.



"That's not Earl," he said. "I saw Earl outside last night. He looked fine."

Back in the eighties, my sister Marta and I fished together out of a small boat. Drape the heavy, elegant cod over the gunwale. Its eye stares up at you in fear, or is it pity? Cutting its throat, I felt both pity and gratitude.



To while away the time, Marta expounded her thesis: Many of our problems as a culture, possibly as a world community, result from women expecting men to do our killing for us. We should either do the killing ourselves or forgo it, along with its fruits. And of course we should take a vehement stand against killing we believe to be wrong.



This elastic notion could be applied to codfish, to cows, to war, to abortion. It had interesting metaphorical applications as well. I was bound to agree with Marta then, and still do.



The cat in our kitchen clearly had no future. With unintended harshness I told Doug, "I'll take care of it." Reluctantly he went back to the garden.



Pouring milk into the empty cat-food dish, I took it out onto the porch. The cat followed. It drank a little, interrupted itself to rub in gratitude against my shin, drank more. It was tame. An adolescent. A female. Probably a kitten no one wanted; when it grew too big, its owner ditched it in the woods.



The cat sat down, tucked its paws under and closed its eyes as if it hadn't rested in weeks. Its orange fur glowed in the brilliant spring sunshine.



I gathered a heavy stone, an old pillowcase and a long bootlace. I put the pillowcase flat on the porch, put in the stone, lifted the cat into the opening, slipped the sides up, gathered them and tied the mouth shut. The cat complained. I carried it down to the riverbank, swung it out over the water -- deep and icy now with spring runoff -- and lowered it.



The air in the pillowcase rose. The cat's head surged into the air pocket. It struggled. And struggled. Looking over, up the bank, I saw Doug standing there.



"I did it wrong," I said.



"I would have used an onion sack," he said.



Doug found a long branch and pushed the cat down with its tip. Ten seconds is about what it took. We hauled it out. Doug buried the cat. (I should have buried the cat.)



I visited Marta, who has two daughters now and runs a campground. Hearing my Cat Tale she began to laugh -- in horror, about the air pocket -- and held me while I cried. "You only made one mistake," she said.



Then why did I feel this way? As if I'd driven too fast, missed a hairpin turn and crashed badly. As if I'd discarded a fetish. Or desecrated a totem.



"We couldn't have kept it, could we?" I've asked Doug more than once.



"Of course not," he replies.



Still, for days the grief and the questions kept coming. Was the cat only starving, not diseased? Should that quiet morning have broken into cacophony just to spare me those sounds: the thin, high snarl of terror, the three soft, evenly spaced gulps that followed?



I played a lament for the cat on my flute. But amends would not be made. And if I had to do it over I probably would, only I'd do it right.

What's your favourite Facts & Arguments essay? As the section celebrates its 20th year, share your memories of great F&A submissions in the comment field below.

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