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first person

Illustration by Adam De Souza

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It sounds dramatic to say “my cat wants me dead,” but dramatic or not, it’s true. My cat is out for blood. And specifically, he is out for mine. Most people, when I mention that I live in fear of a domesticated animal, nonchalantly suggest I “get rid of him.” I don’t blame them for the recommendation. After all, why would I, a grown woman, choose to live with an animal that purposefully and deliberately inflicts pain on me? The answer isn’t complicated: I need him.

Thirteen years ago, my then-boyfriend and I decided to get a cat. We left the SPCA with an orange Tabby who we named Arthur. Arthur was so sweet, but it didn’t last.

Arthur was free to roam around the house at night. Very quickly, he took up a terrifying habit. As I fall asleep, I hover in sort of a preslumber zone, a light state of confusion almost. It would be right at that moment that Arthur would pounce from the floor directly to my pillow, sending me from the sweet moment of slumber to panic. He wouldn’t bite, his goal was to scare me. This happened a few times before I realized he was creating a routine and the bedroom door needed to be closed. Over the years I would occasionally test him, curious if he would still try this bedtime scare, and he did without fail each and every time. I would like to point out the “jump and scare” was only ever directed at me and no one else. No matter what side of the bed I was on, Arthur knew where to find me.

With the nighttime attacks minimized, I thought I was safe. No, Arthur simply shifted his plan. He would wait outside the bathroom or around a corner and lunge at me. Having been declawed he only had his teeth to do damage, and he did not hesitate to do so, almost always picking the moments where I was bare-legged. He would latch on to me and not let go. I would scream as he drew blood. Why was he doing this to me? I wondered, why was I, and not my husband, the one under attack? Was it because I, too, am a ginger and he was asserting himself? I couldn’t figure it out.

Before having kids, I had numerous photo albums dedicated to just Arthur (I know) and when I would arrive home from work, he would immediately appear for a stomach rub. We had a bond, despite those times where, well … he wanted me dead. It was seeming slightly dysfunctional.

When the kids came along, Arthur was no longer priority No. 1 and he knew it. He scratched his head so badly he gave himself welts and bleeding scabs. I took him to a veterinarian, who suggested the new additions to the family were giving Arthur anxiety. My husband and I agreed from the start that if Arthur ever bit one of the kids, that would spell the end of his time with us. We needn’t worry: There is video after video of the babies pulling Arthur’s tail while he lay there, still. To this day, the boys pick him up and he begrudgingly freezes in their arms like a sack of potatoes.

When the boys grew to an age where they would be rambunctiously chatting in their rooms at bedtime, I would call up from the living room for them to settle down and go to sleep. This is when Arthur would appear silently next to me with saucer black eyes, ears flattened. He trapped me on the couch where I was vulnerable and pinned. Maybe it was the anger in my voice calling up to the kids, but something had incited him. He was feral. He would lunge at me again and again. He was vicious and violent. I would grab throw pillows and attempt to fight him off, but like a character in The Matrix, Arthur would somehow be already on his way back to me, mid-air, ready to attack. These attacks were the most painful, the bites were deep. It sounds silly, but I wondered why he was doing that to me, the one who cared for him the most. I was the one giving him attention when he wanted it. I was the one giving him treats, feeding him and scooping the litter. Why was I being subjected to this?

I tried to videotape him multiple times as he initiated these attacks, to no avail. He always stopped once I hit record.

When family and friends would see a new wound, they asked: ”How can you keep this cat?” I didn’t have any real answer. “He’s a part of the family?” I responded weakly.

In June, my husband and I separated. I was relieved when he suggested I take Arthur when I moved out. I had hoped to bring him, despite our tumultuous relationship because he would be a source of comfort in a new place, in particular for the kids.

I was so happy to have his company through those first few nights alone.

As Arthur was adjusting to his new life, so was I. For me, he provided something only a pet can: a constant presence with no judgment. He provided safety and security in a time of newness and great change in my life.

For about a week after the move, Arthur was extremely distressed and nervous in the new place. He was so riddled with anxiety that he scratched up his face and ears again until they bled. To help him feel comfortable, I would let him roam around at night, to get used to the place. In the middle of the night, I could hear him wandering around, nervously exploring his new home.

And then, one night, just as I was falling asleep, I felt the unmistakable sensation of a cat leaping onto my pillow and biting down hard into my arm. And just like that, everything was right again in the world.

Becca Atkinson lives in Gatineau, Que.