first place winner in nonfiction in the Alabama Writers’ Conclave writing contest, July 2017.
He was not our cat, and so far as I knew he didn’t belong to anyone on our block. My mother warned me not to play with him. “It’s a stray,” she said.” We don’t need it hanging around here.” But she had no idea the impact he would make on me. Am I the only person in the world whose character was altered by a stray cat?
In my earliest memories, we lived in a white two-story house on 23rd Street, then a dirt road near downtown Birmingham, which faced 11th Avenue North. Whenever I went outside into the yard, the cat would come to me. We became friends, the cat and I, though I don’t recall if I ever gave him a name. Or maybe I don’t recall after all these years, more than seventy of them, the name that I did give him. But I do remember his color. He was brindled gray, almost black, with streaks of lighter gray. I say “he”, but I had no idea the gender of the cat. Because I was a boy, I suppose I assigned to him the male category on the theory I would not have been playing with a girl at that stage of my life.
Somehow, in lugging the cat around the yard like a baby, his feet pointed skyward, I dropped him, and watched in puzzlement as he flipped in mid-air, landing on his feet. I thought he had performed an amazing trick and wondered if he could do it again. I lifted him up, thinking of all the times I had fallen in all kinds of awkward moves, yet the cat fell gracefully the second time, just as he had done the first.
The wheels in my little brain began to turn, like perhaps that of a scientist as he begins to formulate a new procedure to test an idea. I knew I was onto something important and wanted to test it, to check it out. They say that curiosity killed the cat, but in this case it was my curiosity and not the cat’s that came close to doing the job.
I carried the cat to the small landing on the rear wooden stairwell that led up to the first and second floors of the house. My family occupied the first level of the house and another family lived upstairs. I looked down from the landing perhaps five feet to the ground. Holding the cat at arms’ length upside down, I extended my arms beyond the bannister and dropped him. Amazingly, he twisted in mid-air and landed on his feet. I was spell-bound. That was not something boys could do. Although I had never heard the term “scientific experiment,” that was the method that quickly went through my mind as I considered the possibilities.
I scrambled down the stairs and out into the back yard. He was a little reluctant to let me pick him up, but after a short time of running around in the yard, I guess he tired of the game and plopped down, which allowed me to scoop him up, and this time I took him up to the porch on the first level, approximately fifteen feet high. He was not happy as I extended my arms over the bannister, holding him out in mid-air, belly high, struggling to prevent his flipping over, but I held tight the wrestling cat as he clawed me, and then I let him go. I watched in fascination as he once again twisted in mid-air and landed on his feet. I was completely mystified that he could do such a thing. And then I looked up at the porch above, another ten feet higher, wondering if I should try that. Hmm. Yes, I should!
I dashed down the stairs into the fenced yard and, after a few minutes of chasing, it became quite clear I would not take the cat to the higher level. He would not let me touch him, and each time I got too close to him, he moved away and out of reach. I wondered why he was now so wary of me. He had never acted that way before. But after a little while of coaxing him and whispering to him, he finally let me come close again but was too wary to allow me to pick him up. Finally, after a long time of being really nice to him, he relaxed and let me come close again, and when he seemed to trust me, I grabbed him up and trooped up those steps, all the way to the second level which must have been at least twenty-five feet high. As I carried him up the steps, he became testy with me, twisting in my arms and struggling to get loose. But I held on, determined to complete my experiment. When I got into position, I looked down. It was a long way, I could see that, and the cat, who was essentially upside down, could sense it too. Somehow, I was so curious about the cat’s unique ability to land on its feet that I was willing to suffer the pain he was inflicting on me as he scrambled in my arms, clawing me like a demon, as I held him over the void. And then I dropped him, or attempted to drop him, as he clawed my sleeves struggling to hold on to me before I shook him off and he fell free.
In the same instant he fell, he twisted in mid-air for a landing on his feet as I watched from the porch to see exactly how he did it. He landed hard and crouched on his belly. My curiosity was still not satisfied, but then something happened that overcame my curiosity, and that is probably the reason I have remembered this event so vividly and for so long.
I watched the cat from the upper porch as he crouched in the place he landed, as if he were stunned. I worried then that he might have been hurt. And then, still in that crouching position, he slowly turned his head and looked up to me with an unblinking gaze. There in his gaze, in his eyes, was a message of reproof, and in that instant both he and I knew I had done wrong, that I had intentionally hurt him. He slowly rose onto his legs, slowly turned his head away from me and toward the wooden fence, and then with a running jump, he leaped atop the fence and paused, his body turned away from me. He then looked back over his shoulder and up at me still standing there high on the porch, and he locked his eyes on mine in a gaze that carried silent meaning, that spoke of his disappointment in me for breaching the trust he had given me, that reproached me for hurting him. I felt helpless in that moment, wanted to run down to the fence and hold him in my arms, to make amends, to make him love me again. And then, just as I was about to scramble down the stairs and run to him, he broke the gaze and looked back to the front. I watched as he leaped from the fence down to the roadway on the other side. I ran down the stairs to the fence and between the slats I saw him slink down the road, down toward the railroad a block to the south. I waited for him in the yard for days to come back and play with me. I wondered where he had gone, and after a week it became clear to me that he would never come back. I never saw my friend again.
I’ve wondered all these years how I could have been so cruel to a small animal. Curiosity I think is the answer, and the inability at my young age to appreciate the consequences of my own acts, yet once I saw the aftermath of what I had done, how he looked at me as if to say I trusted you and you hurt me, I was heart-sick.
When and how does a child begin to feel pain for someone else when always before he felt pain only for himself? Was that the event that made me become the kind of person I have become? I believe the lesson I learned that day, that personal encounter with my own cruelty that I turned on the cat I loved, was more effective in teaching me the importance of feeling empathy for others than years of abstract lessons in church and Sunday School. Not a single word passed between the cat and me, yet the cat managed with a searing gaze, to make me feel the injustice I had done, the injury I had caused, the trust I had breached. It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten.