Ode to the Queen of Strays
I am in the emergency vet – the pricey one based in a university, where the not-yet-vets get to earn their chops. I’m thinking about chops because at my feet is a cat carrier with a wildling of a cat in it. Last night, I found her in my kitchen under a chair with her mouth hanging open above a pool of drool and a blinked-back look of pain on her face. It was 1 a.m. I was ready for bed. My children were at their father’s, sleeping in a house I’ve never seen. I had once again fallen asleep watching TV and was preparing for the usual light switching and door locking. But then there was a cat that did not look at all right in my kitchen. I put out a saucer of milk. It lapped. I tried some cheese, thinking, hoping, an appetite might mean it was not dying a painful, poisoned death. She let me rub her forehead. Now I really have to worry about this cat. But she managed to gum the cheese.
I went to bed, but couldn’t sleep picturing her down there, possibly with her insides being gnawed out. So, come dawn and the discovery of her sorry shape still under the chair, I quickly shut the door and window. Which was followed by the cat’s darting panic as her chance to leave was lost. A few tries to get a towel over her and much struggling and, finally, the cage. Then, the drive in grey light with no other cars and the deepest, saddest wails from the cat. Such terrified lonesome sounds that when we stopped at a light, I joined in. So scared and sore and sad. And all that was familiar to her has been upended.
We are the only ones in the large waiting area which looks like a hotel lobby. A very loud TV is on with a recorded show about making frittatas. Which makes the cat howl louder. I text my daughter. She loves cats. In fact, she loves this very cat who has ambled in and out of our yard for years. My daughter christened her Trixie. She will share my concern. I will not feel alone in the burden of care. But the text says ‘not delivered.’
We wait for the trainee vet to usher us in. I stare at a poster of smiling golden retrievers. At the bottom of the poster is a line-up of godawful parasites which can snuff the life right out of the dogs if you’re not paying attention.
Last October, I travelled to Brooklyn to be in the same room as Amy Hempel, the writer of short stories, who is famously kind to dogs and who writes with such tenderness, that I believed seeing and receiving her workshop wisdom might ease my lingering tremors from a broken marriage. Two years since he left, and still I was shoreless. The workshop description: ‘How does a story begin? In this one-day generation master class, we will consider questions that lead to a story.’
Meeting heroes, of course, is risky business. I had already breathlessly told her where I’d come from. ‘All the way from Ireland? … Just for today?’ I sat in the front row and beamed at Amy so ardently, she couldn’t help a slight backward shift of her desk. She asked, ‘Might anyone have a watch I could borrow? I forgot mine.’ I wriggled mine off, slapped it on her desk and sat up straight, like I was waiting for her to toss a treat.
Amy had asked us to bring a written list of ‘questions for the day – small and large.’
She kicked things off, ‘To start, you might ask, ‘How much loyalty does anyone owe anybody else? … Is your loyalty to a stranger parallel to that?’’
Which is of course a question we are all asking in these distanced days. How separate can I feel now that I know everyone is frightened? We pull masks from pockets. And once on, the breath is a visible thing – the suck and release of mask, like sailcloth.
Amy shared her own questions ‘…What is keeping me up at night? What is my worst secret – that dismantles my sense of self? What is enough? What am I asking of the books I read? Raisin or poppyseed? What tattoo will I get next?’ And she listened with tilted head as we each shared ours. ‘Will she even recognize me now? What if I hadn’t texted?…’
I sweated while waiting my turn. ‘Why couldn’t he keep his eyes in his own head?’ I asked. Amy looked at me with her famously kind look, her white hair emanating light. The moment was still. Here it is, the gap-filling feeling. The one that comes when you read stories like Hempel’s and you are in the hands of someone who can articulate and sluice things which might have felt like hot static and rendered you feebleminded.
I reached for my bag and pretended I was looking for something. She repeated my question for the group to hear. The feeling of being handed a towel after a long swim.
The veterinary clinic’s front door opens with a swish and a couple come in, leading a skittish labradoodle. I smile at them but they don’t see. What Amy said, ‘I suppose there are many things one should try not to take personally. An absence of convenient parking, inclement weather, a husband who finds that he loves someone else.’
I catch a glance of the hem of greenery circling the clinic. I now look at trees the way I used to look at church statues.
After the workshop, a few of us lingered and Amy stayed on. While glimpsing etched letters on her forearm, I asked, ‘What does your tattoo say?’ She recited three Latin words and I scrambled to remember my school Latin, so I could meet her with the knowing, but being starstruck, I immediately forgot what she said. What I do remember – that the tattoo looked like handwriting. And that, on a roll, she lifted her trouser leg to reveal Arabic script next to a vicious, deep, rectangular scar. She said, ‘It says Sing to It – from the Sanskrit saying when life deals you xxxx, sing to it. I got it next to my scar – from a motorcycle accident – to remind myself.’
The cat wails another lonesome wail. Waiting rooms and their non-place-ness always bring on the Sunday-night-uncertainty feeling. There are so many things we think we know, but we don’t and then there are things we ebb into knowing, without realizing it. Amy asked, ‘In the absence of things I know, what questions come up?’
Was it all a lie?
Someone I can’t see calls the name ‘Trixie,’ which takes me a moment to connect to the woebegone creature at my feet. The not-yet-vet is not young, as expected. He is round and warm and he takes the weight of the carrier from me. As he unhitches the door, I say, ‘Careful, she’s a stray. She might bite.’ But he already has her in an easy grip. My mouth is blotting-paper dry. ‘Is it poison?’ He’s lifting back the skin around her wild mouth. ‘No, no, not at all. She just has a bad tooth – well quite a few bad teeth. They’ll have to come out, but I want her to be stronger first.’ In fluid movements, he gives her a shot to ease the pain and quieten the infection. ‘Give her a week to gain weight, then your own vet can do the extractions. She’ll be fine. Food and rest, that will help.’ He glances at my wet eyes, ‘You might get some rest yourself, while you’re at it.’ This sudden kindness and seeing-ness unhitches something that was binding my chest. ‘Yes, yes. Thank you. That’s great. She’s ok. Ok.’
Before she left, Amy added, ‘When you are going back over it, ask What do I have that’s already enough?’
It is early morning. The cat and I drive back home. The streets still ours, alone. When I lift her from the car, she fiddles with the carrier door and escapes. Gone down the terrace. Please don’t be too frightened to come back.
Come nightfall, she is on the kitchen windowsill, and is filled.
Beth O‘Halloran is a writer and visual artist, originally from Maine, but based in Dublin, Ireland. Short story publications include New Irish Writing Hennessy Prize, Irish Times First Fiction Award 2019, Ogham Stone Literary Journal 2020 and Bloom Literary Journal 2020. Ode to the Queen of Strays is an extract from a memoir in progress.
Photo: Lloyd Henneman/Unsplash