Some of us, though, are cat people. My mother was a cat person, so I grew up around a few cats. We went through rather a lot of them, I'm afraid. We lost them to accidents, usually involving a car. We lost them in long, cross-country moves. They disappeared mysteriously, because of an evil-minded neighbor or because my father took them on a "one-way ride." My father - you guessed right - was not a cat person.
One memory stands out from all the rest. It happened before I was in school. My folks were getting ready to move. Since my father was in the Army, we moved rather a lot. When all the boxes were packed and the movers had arrived, we couldn't find the cat. We called her and looked everywhere. One of the movers found her inside my mother's empty wardrobe - with a litter of newborn kittens. We had to leave and there was no way we could take the cat and her litter with us. So my father took them, all five of them, into the bathroom, locked the door behind him and drowned them in the tub, despite my screams outside the door. I resented what he did for years.
My latest cat arrived in my life in June 2014. My girlfriend called me from outside and I went out the front door to the terrace where she held out to me two tiny kittens that our neighbor's cat had given birth to a week before and told me to choose one. One was a gray tabby and other was red. I chose the red one. He was male. We had to wait awhile until the mother weaned him before my girlfriend brought him home.
Since I wanted him to be a house cat, we had to improvise a litter box. I live on a remote provincial island in the Philippines, so pet supplies weren't available anywhere. My girlfriend had never owned a cat before. Over the years, I had owned several. I preferred them to dogs because they were smaller, cleaner, and easily house-trained. But also because they were smarter and more independent. I had learned that you never earned a cat's devotion easily. You had to work at it. Ultimately, I found them to be inscrutable, which was, I think, a large part of their fascination for me.
My girlfriend and I had trouble getting him to eat. He went days without eating and, having tried our best, I resigned myself to his imminent death. Then, hearing a fishmonger outside our house one day, my girlfriend bought some small fish and offered them to the kitten. He gobbled them up so quickly that he threw up. But at least we found something he would eat. Our neighbors, some of whom couldn't afford to feed fish to their own children, were amazed that we were feeding fish to our cat. They were also surprised that my girlfriend spoke to him and how, eventually, he would reply. She named him "Kichie" and when she called his name, he would reply "Ma! Ma!"
We tried to keep him in our house but it became impossible. As soon as he was strong enough to jump from the floor to the top of our refrigerator, and from the refrigerator to the top of the wall beneath the eaves of our house, he was routinely outdoors. It was our intention to have him spayed, but when my girlfriend reminded her relative, who was supposed to perform the operation, he reneged. This turned out to have serious consequences for the cat and for us.
When he was 16 months old, we moved a short distance down the road to another house and brought Kichie with us. Within a few months he established himself as the alpha male, with his own territory and a harem of females to defend. He would come home with fearsome injuries, some of which were obviously inflicted by a dog. There were several dogs in the area around my house. As I have pointed out elsewhere, these dogs don't belong to anyone. They are "adopted" by people in the same way the ,dogs "adopt" their fleas. They stake out a selection of houses from which they eat discarded scraps of food and the people utilize them as watch dogs. Unrestrained, the dogs are a nuisance, causing accidents on the road, scattering garbage everywhere, and engaging in loud and bloody territorial. fights with other dogs. When a female is on heat, male dogs from all directions arrive to have a go at her. It is a terrible sight when the dogs, sometimes more than ten at a time, swirl around through yards, with the female at the center, savaging one another for their turn.
These dogs are also a menace to cats, and when I discovered the wounds that they had inflicted on Kichie, I planned to poison them with engine coolant. I never went through with it. Kichie recovered and returned to his place as the alpha male.
My girlfriend learned to live Kichie deeply, just how deeply I discovered when she came to me and thanked me for persuading her to adopt a cat. Kichie was like her child, she said. Unfortunately, two years after we moved, we had to move again. Like the first move, it was only a short distance down the road to our new apartment. After we were finished moving, my girlfriend brought the cat to our new apartment in a rice sack. Unlike our old house, there were no spaces between the walls and the roof to escape through. We expected it would take some time for Kichie to adjust to his new territory, but we were surprised when he got out the door and, after a brief inspection of the area, disappeared. He didn't come back, and the following day my girlfriend returned to our old house and called his name. "Ma!" he cried as he emerged from behind the house. My girlfriend then brought him back a second time, and then a third time, to our new apartment before we realized that we would never be able to keep him there. His hard-won territory was back at our old house. He had made his choice.
Now, three months after we moved, my girlfriend sometimes returns to the old house, which has been transformed by renovation. Kichie always answers my girlfriend's call. He gives her a sad look. He has grown thin, despite the promises of the house's new residents to save their leftovers for him. He is 3½ now. My last photograph of him shows him poised in a living room chair, glancing nervously at our open door. That was September 15, the last time he was with us. We have spoken of getting another kitten, but my girlfriend is no longer interested. She hasn't learned what I learned so long ago - that pets can never be replaced, that they somehow cross the distance between the animal and human worlds to become our familiars, companions, to occupy that special middle ground, less than human but more than animal. But the love we had for one can sometimes be bestowed on another, however grudgingly, until they, too, are, as Rilke put it so beautifully, helped "up into a soul for which there is no heaven."*
*Letter to N.N., February 8, 1912.