This week, after one of the cats had been living in a blackberry thicket behind the house for over a month, the other one had taken to monitoring the gap in the fence where I took out a board so I could put out food for the runaway--that he's still taking, showing no signs of the illness I initially assumed was his reason for abandoning the house.
The runaway cat has always been skittish and odd, the opposite of the other, a black and white tabby friendly to strangers. Despite this they've gotten along well over the years, and I don't know that I've ever seen them get into a proper fight--despite the fact the older one, despite his pleasant disposition, is always ready to scrap with the random tomcats that come around.
"Give me one more summer" I've murmured to him a few times over the last couple of years, as he's started to show his age. We got him sometime around 9/11. Summer, for some reason, is a conceptual homestretch. This year he entered it showing his decline, growing thinner, stiffer. Nonetheless he remained active. A lifetime outdoor cat, coming and going at will, he was still scaling the fence out back, playing, begging for food.
He stood watch over the gap in the fence--worried about the other cat, I assumed--before crossing over and camping out there himself a couple of days ago. Then the creeping lethargy and stiffness of the past weeks, leaving him to stare off blankly, to curl up with difficulty, became total. He stopped eating, then he stopped coming inside. I brought him in--all skin and bones--one last time; he stared at his food and bolted outside, returning to the hole in the fence and making a bed in the dirt and ivy between it and the creek a few feet off.
For two days he slept there, occasionally lifting his head when I came to pet him, weakly, as if out of duty, before laying back down. A few days earlier I had lifted him onto the fence he couldn't scale anymore and sort of spotted him there so he wouldn't fall. A weak purring in his chest. This was the last time for that. I experienced the whitest sentiment: "have I given my cat enough attention?"
But what a blessed life it was for him. Seventeen summers of absolute freedom to hunt and explore, to play with his companions, to loll in someone's lap. The first night we brought him home he slept on my bed and at some point woke me by scratching my face--he was just trying to play. Last night I came home and checked on him, shining a light down upon him and cooing. He raised his head a little. What must this look like to him I wondered--the light overhead from my phone blinding him, my voice? Cats are too smart to be fooled into thinking they see God, probably.
This morning I found him stretched out, as if sliding down the incline toward the creek below. I carried him inside, still warm, not definitively dead. Put him down, pet him just in case he's still "there" a bit--imagine him having an out-of-body experience, watching all this.
I had envisioned an ideal death for him: he gently going to sleep in a favorite place with the sounds of the household around him. But he saw it coming. Bitter but absolutely right what he chose, to be outside, in the dirt and leaves, with the creek reflecting the moonlight, and the normal rhythms of this small patch of land, of which he's been a part, undisturbed and swallowing him up. He drained it to the dregs.
The other cat remains at large.
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