The climbing sorrow of death

Death waits, in no particular hurry most of the time, since every living soul must go with Death in the end.   Some beings get to live the full wink of an eye, eighty, ninety years.   Many delightful winks are far briefer.  It helps to think of the quality of a short life in these cases.  

A tiny colony of feral cats coexist in Sekhnet’s garden, along with a couple of large, gingery raccoons and the occasional giant possum, who come by after dark to finish off whatever food the cats leave over.   We get to witness the brutality of nature up close, its brutal cuteness and its seemingly random viciousness. 

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These two brothers, Whitefoot and Turtleback (foreground) were photographed hanging out in a flower pot on July 17, 2018.   They were three months old at the time.  I am lucky to have this photo, one of very few pictures I’ve shot in the last year or so that I’m still able to view on my phone. [1]   

Their mother, the beautiful Mama Kitten, had her first litter two or three years ago, at six months old.   Talk about babies giving birth to babies.   Six months old and Mama Kitten.  When they were big enough she dragged them from their hiding place and marched the adorable mice in front of Sekhnet.  

“You see,” she told her kittens, “soon, when I stop giving you milk, you will come to her, act cute, and do just what I’m doing now, see?”.  Mama Kitten would fix Sekhnet with a winsome look, make a quick cat move toward her and rub her head and her side along the human’s leg, using the tail to give a gentle caress as she makes her circle.

Sekhnet and I became familiar with the exquisitely gentle touch of a cat’s tail from my original cat Oinsketta, an affectionate cat who practiced the art delightfully.   The late A.W. Skaynes was also a master of the tail caress.   A few of these feral cats get pretty adept with their tails too, they’re generally the ones who like to be petted.  Mama Kitten did not let a human touch her until she was several months old.  She took to human affection cautiously, but she is now a very tactile cat who sometimes loves to have her sideburns scratched.  And she uses her head and her tail very tenderly.

We had many great photos of those adorable kittens interacting with mom, playing with each other, eating food off of spoons.   Suddenly it seemed Mama Kitten was in a hurry to wean her kittens and turn them over to Sekhnet for feeding.  We didn’t understand the urgency.  We soon realized she was pregnant again.  Chemicals coursing through her body telling her to protect her turf, make it safe for her offspring who were about to be born.

Mama Kitten had her most recent litter, four beautiful kittens, two male, two female, in April.  These four made the number of good-looking little cats Mama Kitten had given live birth to around twenty.   She has been pregnant or taking care of a litter continuously since before she was  six months old.   When she is about to give birth to the next brood she drives her young kittens out to fend for themselves.  Of course, they only know how to hunt by being cute to the humans who feed them, and there is only one other house on the block where feral cats are welcomed (see this here for that).

We once trapped three of her kittens who had lived to be five or six months old.  We took them to a vet and had them all neutered.   Each of them was dead within a very short time.   There was no connection to the minor surgery, they were all fine after they got back from the vet’s.   They simply disappeared, one after another, in the space of a couple of weeks.

Their lives tend to be short.  The oldest so far was probably Grey Guy, who lived almost two years.  There are hawks around that love a nice one or two pound kitten for lunch.   We assume the hawks get most of them.   A few have died from some kind of poisoning, we think they may have drank anti-freeze on a hot day.  All four of those kittens died within a few hot early summer days one awful summer before Mama Kitten was born.  A feral cat in this area that lives to be a year old is a survivor, an outlier.

It is a cruel thing to grow attached to these beautiful little creatures who have little hope of surviving more than a season or two.   We try not to give them names, remembering the fate of oddly cute Dobbie, or Cathead (a playful, affectionate kitten I would have made a pet, if it was up to me, and we’d had her spayed, too) since the attachment makes their disappearance more painful.

Still, it turns out that just for reference you need to call each one something.  Sekhnet takes care of that, keeping it simple.  Whitefoot advances on a white foot, both of his front feet are white.  Turtleback, mostly white but with nice markings, including a large beautifully painted section on his back that looks like a tortoise shell.    Here is a picture of Turtleback taken two days ago.   We were a little worried since we hadn’t seen the adventurous young male when his siblings were having dinner.  I later found him relaxing on their favorite box, and snapped this to send Sekhnet to reassure her that Turtleback was alive and well.

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Sekhnet has been furious at Mama Kitten since seeing how viciously she keeps attacking her almost year-old daughter, Paintjob (talk about a beautiful coat, that little cat was painted by a genius).   Mama drove that poor soul Paintjob out of the yard two or three litters ago and somehow the timid Paintjob is still alive and, until recently, managing to get fed by me or Sekhnet every second or third day.  

She eats fast, warily, wolfing her food and then stopping, tensing every muscle, marshaling all of her senses for threats.  Then she will eat another can of food, using the same procedures.   Paintjob is skinny but appears otherwise quite healthy.

Lately, even though she has lost her last pregnancy through some kind of natural miscarriage, Mama Kitten has been particularly vigilant and ruthless in violently chasing Paintjob off.

Sekhnet has seen this many times, how Mama Kitten discovers each secret place where Sekhnet has arranged with Paintjob to throw her a quick feed.   Paintjob was quite adept at making Sekhnet know where she’d be for a fast secret feed.  Mama keeps guard, watches Sekhnet like a hawk, peeks around every corner, pops out of nowhere and viciously attacks Paintjob who runs off at an amazing speed.   Their screams are heart-rending.  

I keep telling Sekhnet not to make such human judgments against Mama Kitten.  I point out that Mama is, and has always been, in pure survival mode, plus she’s crazed with chemicals produced by her constant pregnancies.  I point out that she’s  programmed to survive and is by far the longest lived feral cat to live season after season in Sekhnet’s garden in the back.   Sekhnet points out that Mama is a complete psycho bitch who savagely attacks her own daughter when there is plenty of food for everybody.

Yesterday as I fed the kittens, Mama Kitten came around to see what was on the menu.  She was not impressed with the first offering, which her kids all ate quite happily.   She tasted a bit of the tuna and found it not to her liking that day, though her kittens were quite pleased with that one too.   As everyone seemed interested in having a bit more dinner, I opened a third can, and this one Mama Kitten found to her liking.  I fed her some slime from the spoon, to test it before dividing it among her kittens, and this one she wanted.   She ate a bit.  

Then I saw, suddenly standing less than two feet away, an emaciated, haunted, desperate looking Paintjob, staring at the food, almost hypnotized.  I was aware that as soon as Mama saw her the savage attack would occur and that there was nothing I could do to get any food to Paintjob, or to stop what was about to happen.  A few seconds later Mama Kitten took off screaming in savage pursuit of a wailing Paintjob.  The kittens scattered in terror.

This scene was truly heartbreaking.  I understood why Sekhnet finds it so hard to forgive Mama Kitten for this seemingly heartless, irrational and murderous rage against her own kitten.  True they’re now both adult females, we get that, but, it’s hard to understand why it has to be this way.   Only a cruel god would design nature to feature this kind of nonchalant, horrible savagery.  

After I told Sekhnet this story of witnessing the vicious attack on Paintjob she became morose.  I had a text from her at 3:20 a.m. (we stay together half the week) and I called her right away.   She was tearful, couldn’t stop thinking about the doomed Paintjob.   “As she gets weaker and weaker from lack of food it will become impossible for her to escape her psycho mother,” she said, her voice cracking, and it planted an image in my mind I did not want to see either.

Sekhnet reported a bad night’s sleep.  She dreamed of Paintjob, lying on her side, her paws cut off, crying for food.  In the dream Sekhnet was unable to get any food to the helpless cat.  I tried to reassure her that she had not made the world, that nature was cruel, we’d seen it first hand over and over, the short, brutal lives these beautiful little animals live in the extremely limited, ruthlessly competitive wild in that part of Queens.  Then she got a call, there was a dead white kitten near the area where the backyard animals eat dinner.

It was one time when, being a man, all I could say is what a man should say at such a time.  I told Sekhnet I’d go to the house, carry away the body, that I would take care of it.  We arranged to go together.  There was a real-feel of 99 degrees in New York City again today.   We had images of the little cadaver getting ripe, covered with flies, possibly bloated.  

Halfway to the house, the sky got dark and a deluge fell from the sky in a massive electrical storm.  It rained as hard as I have ever seen rain fall, the traffic began to crawl along cautiously, and it continued to pour down in sheets for a long while.  The windshield wipers, on their fastest speed, had a hard time keeping the windshield clear.  There was flooding in places.

We killed some time, gassed up the car, sat in front of the house until the rain stopped.  I went to the back of the house.  It was Turtleback, on his side, feet stretched in a slightly grotesque final pose.  His timid little white-faced sister, who looks like him but without the turtleback, looked sad.  All of the kittens, and Mama Kitten, seemed determined to make sure I knew that their fellow was dead, was just lying there   Before I fed them dinner they all made sure I noticed the dead Turtleback lying there on his side, skinny and soaked.   Each one passed close to him as I went to get their food.

Sekhnet brought a sturdy box, just the right size, and handed me a shovel.  It took a moment, but it was an easy operation once I got the shovel positioned the right way.  He fit in the box perfectly.  “Watch his tail,” said Sekhnet and I tucked it into the box before I closed the flaps.  

I carried him a short distance, to a wooded place by the highway.  The area was filthy, littered with plastic bags and plastic take-out containers and probably much worse.  I did not venture far in the dark, placing his coffin behind the closest trees.  I got back and Sekhnet and I agreed that Turtleback himself was not there in that squalid place, just an empty vessel that had been, briefly, the beautiful little cat.

I am aware that nature is cruel, even as it can be so generous.  That severe thunderstorm struck me as a gratuitous, a mocking touch for a gentle God to interpose in the path of two people heading somewhere to try to do a decent thing.   I had several thoughts about God as that rain pissed down, as we killed an hour in the car before I could go back and lay whichever poor devil had died so young to his or her rest.  

Afterwards we hung around a bit hoping Paintjob would show up for a feed while I was there to distract Mama in the back, but no sign of her anywhere.  It is hard to shake the thought that yesterday’s desperate move by Paintjob may have been her final one on this earth.   I got back home and began writing this, my attempt to, as they say, process all these thoughts and feelings.  Then a notification beep, a WhatsApp from Sekhnet.  

Sekhnet, among her many talents, apparently also has the power the make me sob in loud, honking notes, my nose drowning in snot, alone in my apartment.   My emotions all night had betrayed nothing but manly resolve, stoically placing the tiny cadaver in its carboard coffin, stilly carrying the dead kitten to his eternal resting place, manfully reassuring Sekhnet at every turn.   I don’t know what my neighbors must have been thinking to hear me weeping that way, it is rare to hear a grown man sobbing, especially a grown man prone to angrily cursing.

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[1]  Naturally, of course, the format has been randomly dicked with, it is not displaying full frame as I shot it, it’s messed up.   I never inserted those moronic blocks of black at the top and the bottom.   I am not even sure how to edit those out with the programs and apps I have.  

Background:   I took dozens of photos of these beautiful cats.  Yesterday my phone spontaneously deleted  over 2,400 photographs.   The girl at the T-Mobile store said there is no way T-Mobile can recover the photos and that they were probably deleted because I accidentally hit something.  I told her I had hit “restart” after several days of being unable to move or delete photos.   When the phone restarted, 3,000 photos were wiped out.  She was a pretty girl, and friendly enough, but there was something about her reply “you must have accidentally hit something that deleted the photos:  that made me want to ask her to come around the counter to take a nice, quick knee to the stomach.

“A Samsung problem,” she told me.   She showed me how to find the randomly saved photos in something called Google photos that I never signed up for.   Apparently Google randomly collects images from your phone, to show you how they provide this great cloud backup for all your data.   If you pay them, they will save everything.  If you take their free version, which you might not ever know you even are using, they will choose what to save and what to delete, probably by some brilliantly calibrated algorithm.

This was the only photo  remaining of perhaps 100 shots of these great looking feral kittens and their beautiful mother.

 

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