A real-life story from the autumn of 2016.
The car headlights swept over a small body as I turned left into the unpaved cul-de-sac where I lived. A dark, flattish lump streaked with white lay just short of the center double line. A skunk?
I completed the turn, and then stopped. It might be alive. I reversed and manoeuvred back and forth until the lights once again illuminated the main road and the thing that had been trying to cross it. Whatever it was, it wasn’t moving.
Probably dead. I sat, one foot on the clutch, the other on the brake. If it’s alive, maybe I can save it. If it’s dead, it’ll get squished by more cars. I wasn’t sure which would be worse: dead or alive.
I shifted into neutral, switched off the ignition and yanked the emergency brake. It might be messy. I reached for my gloves on the passenger’s seat and stepped into the sub-zero night. The car door thunked shut behind me.
It was a cat. A grey cat with white on its belly and paws. A female.
She wasn’t dirty, mangy or thin; she wasn’t feral. She was somebody’s cat. Whoever had struck her kept going. Maybe they didn’t realize. I’ve heard the sickening thud of an animal hitting the underside of a car. No, they would have known.
Mom’s cat, Pia Roma, had been grey too, not a speck of white. She had long hair, and big golden eyes. Pia was an indoor cat; she sat next to the laptop when I wrote, and snuggled beside me in bed. Sometimes, when I opened my eyes in the morning, there she would be. Sitting on my chest front paws folded, staring at me. She made me smile.
“She’s my best friend,” Mom always said about Pia, whom she had named after our trip to Rome.
I hadn’t really wanted a pet, but what could I do? When Mom moved into the nursing home, I gave Pia to a kind man. But he was a chain smoker and she hid under the couch, coming out only at night to eat and use the litter box. The man saw nothing of her for eight weeks save a pair of glistening orbs from the safety of her hiding place when he looked under the sofa.
I had to rescue her and bring her back to my place to live with me.
The dead cat on the road appeared intact. No guts on the ground. But I noticed some black patches on the pavement around her. Blood? I shivered. What the hell am I doing on a country road in the middle of winter with a tiny corpse for company?
It was quiet. The air was crisp. I could see my breath. I looked up. No moon. Millions of stars winked at me. I stood as still as the night. Keep your wits about you. I checked in both directions for lights on the telephone wires. No cars. She hadn’t known the warning signs, but I did. The lack of traffic gave me time to think.
I knew what was required. But I didn’t want to do it. I have to pick her up. Warm tears rolled down my cold cheeks. Maybe her insides are outside underneath her. That thought brought on more tears and a sour taste in my mouth.
“What do you want now you crazy cat?” Mom would tease Pia when she meowed underfoot. Then she’d take her in her arms, and share a cuddle before she gave her a treat.
“You’re my special baby,” she’d say.
I grabbed the dead cat by the scruff of her neck, like a mother cat would a kitten. I was thankful for my thick gloves. Her skin folded into my fist. I put my left hand under her haunches to cradle her. Her body was limp and light. She’s soft. It hasn’t been long.
There was blood around her mouth. Her left eye, which was hidden until I picked her up, hung out of its socket. Otherwise she was whole. The sour taste returned. Why is the right thing always so fucking hard to do? Why can’t it be easy ? Even just once? I carried her to the side of the road; the side she’d been coming from. Not in the ditch. On the shoulder.
I put her down gently in the tall grass. I thought about the time, twenty-five years before, when Mom had called me about Frosty, one of Pia’s predecessors.
“Poor Frosty got run over, Punkie,” Mom choked long-distance. “Jack Burnett found her at the bottom of the hill, and he came to the door with her. We both felt awful. She was such a dear little thing. I can’t believe she’s gone. We buried her in the backyard.”
Of all the cats Mom had over the years, Frosty had been my favourite. She was someone’s unwanted Christmas gift. Mom found her in the cedar hedge in front of the house with a red bow around her neck; she named her Frosty after the snowman.
“Awwww, Mom,” I said, and I started to cry too.
Frosty had been jet-black with whiter-than-white markings. She must have looked even more like a dead skunk after she was hit than did the victim at my feet.
There were five houses in my cul-de-sac. I tried the one across from mine first. The new owners had just moved in. It was 10 p.m., but there was a light on.
“Bonsoir,” I said to the man who answered my knock. “I’m your neighbour. Do you have a cat?
“Bonsoir Madame,” he replied as we shook hands. “Non, pas de chat ici.”
“I found a dead cat on the street,” I said, thankful it wasn’t his.
Luke and Sally lived in the next house; they had three cats and two dogs. Luke had been at the curling club with me less than half an hour before. I rang the bell. The porch light came on; the front door opened.
“Do you let your cats out Luke?” I said without preamble.
“No, they’re indoor cats.”
“I found a cat on the road.”
“Yeah, I saw it when I drove in. I thought it was a skunk.”
“Me too. But it’s not. It’s a little cat.”
“Nope. Not ours.”
There was no sign of life at the other houses. I went home. As soon as I walked in, Pia quit the chair in which she had been recuperating from a hard day’s nap, stretched all fours, and sauntered over to greet me. I scooped her up, and held her close in the crook of my left arm while I poured myself a glass of wine. When it was done, I poured another.
The next morning I had a clementine, some cottage cheese and a cup of tea with milk and honey for breakfast. I thought about Mom and Frosty. Pia jumped up and settled on my lap. I should bury the dead cat. I stroked Pia’s velvety fur. Her motor roared. Where? The ground’s too hard to dig.
I decided against a burial. But it didn’t seem right to leave her on the edge of the ditch. There was a field across the road; beyond it a forest with a ravine and a stream. I snowshoed there in winter. I didn’t know if that’s where the grey and white cat had been headed, but that’s where I thought I should take her. Better to rot by a stream than on a roadside. Maybe a hungry coyote will find her. At least her death will have purpose then. The decision felt right.
I got dressed; fetched an empty box from the garage. It said ‘Chablis’ on the side. I walked the hundred feet or so to the corner. She was frozen in the position in which I had left her the night before. Rigor mortis. Her exploded eye hadn’t miraculously retracted into its socket. My stomach turned. The sweet acid of clementines rose in my throat. I was acutely aware of how unaccustomed I was to death.
I picked her up again. She was stiff. She didn’t fit well into the box. Her tail was too long; I didn’t want to stuff it in. I folded the box top flaps over her as best I could to avoid seeing inside her temporary coffin. Her tail stuck out of a crack between the flaps.
We trekked across the field together.
The winter had been relatively snowless, at least until then, and the short, steep slope into the ravine was orangey-red and slippery with fallen maple leaves. The air felt damp and smelled earthy. The stream snaked over rocks and around corners. Ice had begun to form along some of the edges. Still, the water sang a lullaby.
I chose a clearing among some bushes and tipped her out. She slid stiffly onto a bed of broken twigs – a foreign presence on the forest floor. Oh God. She doesn’t belong here. Her left front leg was bent as if she was about to take a step. It’s okay. She’s on her way to a better place. I rationalized abandoning her once again.
I wondered later if I should have said some prayers. And then I thought perhaps it was enough to have carried her across the road to a spot by a stream where she could rest in peace.
I had to have little Pia put down two springs later. The vet and an assistant came to the house to do it. They injected her with a needle. She died in my arms. I cried then too.
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