On a winter night in 1988, I crossed a quiet street in Northampton, Massachusetts, just as a white cat stepped into the cone of light beneath a streetlight. It hesitated, then hurried across and disappeared into the dark. At the sight of it, my heart felt a shock, then sadness, and I was thrust back to the year I was twelve when I’d had a white cat I had betrayed. So many years later, I still felt guilt. On that cold street in Northampton, I didn’t know that I was not done with white cats—there would be another, a blue-eyed second chance, named Phoebe.
When the Northampton cat crossed that street, I was in graduate school, in my second year studying the writing of poetry. I was also two years post-divorce, navigating the strange terrain of being single again, the nether world of desire and inhibition.
In the aftermath of seeing that cat, I wrote a poem. It tells the story of my childhood cat, wronged so long ago back home in Michigan, with overtones of the complicated adult desires I was then living. The cat’s story begins when her mother, likely driven up the road and dumped by someone, showed up pregnant at my maternal grandparents’ farm and gave birth in the barn. I begged to have one of the kittens. From the moment I took her home, she was my joy. Snowball, the name I’d first given her, promptly gave way, in my ethnically Finnish family, to another name, a Finnish word that (with a rolled “r” and “double-i” diphthong) is unpronounceable to most non-Finns.
We essentially called her, in Finnish, Cat.
Cat felt completely at home with us. She had enormous front paws that she used like soft weapons. If you were sitting on the floor, Cat would run up suddenly, rear up on her haunches, and commence boxing with you. She wandered the house at night, spending time in each bed. My younger sister and I slept together. One morning, I woke to the sound of my sister wailing and the sight of her big toe, which had worked free of the blankets, under attack by Cat, the digit looking a bit battered. A toe would do for Cat, in her search for a faux adversary.
Back then pets rarely went to the vet, unless they were bodily injured or very sick. They were left to live as they’d been born. A day came when my mother, about to give birth to my youngest sister, set up the baby’s crib, and our stubborn Cat kept jumping in to sleep there. I couldn’t persuade her to stop. My mother—between visions of a suffocated infant, and Cat’s unfortunate fondness for getting herself in the family way—wouldn’t have it. I tried desperately to defend Cat, arguing from twelve-year-old emotion against my mother’s adult experience and practicality.
The poem tells you how that went:
The year I was ten, I wheedled my way
to getting a kitten.
Born that spring to a white-haired mother
passing through, she was the runt
of the litter, feisty
and white except for a few black hairs
above her ear.
Before she was weaned,
I took her from her bed of burlap and onion skin,
wrapped her in my shirt, fed her
from an eyedropper—
milk I’d warmed, then cooled.
I kept her box
beside my bed, so if an eyelid stirred,
I’d hear it.
Before long, she took to a brazen
winding through the railing on the stairs.
When she fell, I found her
in the dining room, whimpering.
Scared. All night, I feared
she was dead, the small body bleeding
She had thirteen toes
on her front paws—six, and seven—
and a fierce desire
to pass them on.
Her first heat, I locked her in the coal bin,
chunks of wood propped
against the door.
Her frenzy filtered up through the floorboards,
hoarse cries that unhinged me
to my bones. The tomcats came
on the run.
When the din stopped, she was
gone. Witch cat!
Humping us both to rack
She gave birth
on the back porch in a paper
bag. Two striped, one white, and a gray one
born dead. When it didn’t move,
she nosed it to the side and birthed
the next. Twice more,
she got by the coal bin door;
when she fell from grace,
Banished to the farm,
she met me graciously, rubbing against
my legs, sleeping in my arms.
The last time I held her, her middle again
large and hard, it hurt
to look at her. At the end,
she probably turned her intuitive
face to look straight
up the gun barrel. They killed her
thirteen toes—the six,
and seven. They smudged
the mark of Cain. They stopped
her senseless need to rut,
to breed. Insolent
puss. Cat on a cross.
We killed her.
The farm that Cat had been banished to was my grandparents’, the place where she’d been born. No one ever told me that Cat had been killed—but I had grown up around farms. I knew what could happen to unwanted animals. She disappeared, and when I asked, I was answered with vague suppositions that she had run away, followed by conversation between my mother and grandmother in Finnish, which I didn’t speak. My imagination did the rest. I was old enough to understand what had been done, and why. Life went on as it had before Cat, but I understood my complicity in having agreed to send her back to the farm, and I never spoke of what had happened to her again.
* * *
By 1998, I was living in Minnesota, remarried and beginning to write prose. It came into my mind one day that my husband, Bruce, and I should get a cat. I had wondered over the years, visiting friends with cats, if I were allergic, but I wouldn’t know unless I shared living space with one. The thought of a cat wouldn’t go away. My husband had shared his life with a number of cats, and I had so loved my unfortunate Cat. Bruce was more than willing, so I went with a friend to check out an animal shelter. I went with trepidation. Was it the right thing? Did I deserve another cat, a second chance, after what had happened to the first cat?
We walked into the cat room with its rows and rows of cages—and my heart did a flutter. There, in the midst of them, was a cage with a white cat! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. That cage might as well have been the only one. The cat rose and stretched as I approached, stepped to the front of the cage, and placed one paw calmly against the bars. She didn’t make a sound, just gazed into me with ethereal blue eyes. I placed my hand against hers. We both knew—she was the one.
Bruce and I named her Phoebe, meaning “the shining one.” Phoebe’s eyes were like blue clouds, mesmerizing beneath expressive pink ears. When she leaned against you or looked into your eyes, it felt otherworldly or spiritual somehow. Phoebe had the softest voice I have ever heard in a cat—a whispered mew, so gentle. Even Bruce, who is solidly grounded in the provable world, saw something unusual in our Phoebe. He thought she might be a returned soul, definitely female, in a cat’s form.
I wondered if she were somehow angelic, a flesh-and-blood comfort.
I was soon in need of comfort. Around Christmas, my mother came down with bronchitis, which led to the discovery of lung cancer. Surgery had to be delayed, because Mom had developed a severe skin reaction to bronchial antibiotics she’d taken. It was a hard wait for all of us—we lived in fear. For the next six weeks, I drove back and forth repeatedly from Minnesota to Michigan, my heart in two places. Fortunately, I was teaching only one class that semester, and Bruce was able to cover it for me.
When—finally—I returned home after my mother’s surgery, Phoebe met me with unmistakable joy, skittering and leaping across the living room carpet to jump into my arms. But second chances don’t always go as imagined. Through the remainder of the winter, Phoebe was content, but once spring came, there was trouble. Phoebe had been a stray living on the street before someone brought her to the animal shelter. With warm weather, she wanted to be outside, and she camped by the door, relentless in her attempts to go out. She was miserable as a house cat. Worse, I had developed an allergic cough. Blood tests gave the unhappy news. It was indeed a reaction to “cat.”
I couldn’t bear to give up Phoebe.
I took her to Michigan, to my grandparents’ farm, which now belonged to my parents. I knew the complexity of life there, its beauty and harshness. I’d seen deer killed by cars or hanging dead from various trees or rafters during hunting season—and had wondered if they were the quiet deer that came to feed in our orchard. I’d seen kittens dead on our road, abandoned and run over. When Phoebe had come to us, she was what she was—a huntress. I struggled over what that meant, but in the end I accepted that she wanted that hard world, not a soft bed and cat food. Loving Phoebe meant accepting the creature she was.
She lived happily at the farm, passing the summer in the same barn my beloved Cat had been born in.The picture of Phoebe at the top of this post was taken in the barn. Bruce was out shooting photos, and he found her there, regal in the old haymow.
I spent much of that summer at the farm, helping my mother—she was cancer-free but faced a hard recovery and felt the weight of it. I took care of Phoebe’s basic needs. When she had a run-in with a wasp, and her nose swelled up, I took her to the vet. Whenever I was at the farm, I followed her around, discouraging her from killing things, especially birds—and had as much luck as I’d had keeping Cat from sleeping in the crib. To reduce Phoebe’s desire to hunt, I kept her well supplied with cat food, which my father scooped out for her generously.
My mother adored Phoebe and took comfort from her. If you ask her today, she will say, unequivocally, that Phoebe was an angel, literally. Every evening, Phoebe would come to the house. She’d mew at the patio door, share a hug and kisses with my mother, and go off again. She couldn’t stand to be touched too long, and she never wanted to come inside. I didn’t expect she would, until winter forced her.
One evening, Mom and I were at the window above the kitchen sink, watching Phoebe romp across the yard. Phoebe was so happy, chasing something only she could see, that the world seemed suddenly right. I said, out loud, that I had always regretted what happened to Cat, that I had known she’d been killed. Mom did a visible double take. “Oh, Donna, no,” she said. “Mummu gave her away because the litters kept coming and coming.” She said everyone had thought it would be easier if I believed Cat had just run away.
I had spent so long thinking what I thought, feeling what I’d felt, that it was my turn to be suddenly off-kilter. It’s hard to say, looking back, if the truth would have been easier. I’m human, with our propensity for not letting things be easy. I’m sure I would have found some other way to feel melancholy, seeing the white cat on that street in Northampton.
Having the run of the farm, Phoebe walked a line between fulfillment and danger. Every morning, she’d appear for a bowl of cat food and a little affection. Towards fall, though, a morning came when she didn’t appear. I wasn’t there, but Mom told me over the phone that coyotes had been howling close to the house the night before. I pictured beautiful Phoebe, glowing like a beacon in the semi-dark. I waited for days to hear that she had come home—other cats my parents owned had disappeared, then come back—but she never did.
In my sorrow, I did what I always do—I wrote.
My poem for Phoebe follows, to complete the story. It pays homage to—and, in its mention of “the Lord’s watch,” borrows a line from—an 18th century poem, Jubilate Agno, by Christopher Smart. Smart wrote his poem while he was confined to a hospital for insanity. My favorite part describes his cat Jeoffry. Anyone who doesn’t know the poem should seek it out. You will laugh with glee at how perfectly Smart captures the essence of “catness.”
But now, go into the yard with Phoebe:
after Christopher Smart
Phoebe leaps at a thought,
twists herself into white question.
Mid-air, the tip of her claw
sizzles—a bronze-wing barely bobs
away. Before her feet touch ground, Phoebe finds
another object: land, tense,
spring. She comes up all eager iridescence,
a dragonfly in her teeth.
She will, and will not,
be loved. Pink-eared, she leans into her evening
caress, assures herself of devotion:
the immaculate face, gesture
of tail, robin’s-egg eye gazing from ether.
Then—she is done. Phoebe
leaps, apple bark and mother bird
flying, becomes an electrified arrow above the dark
of nestlings. The shining ones hear
no human call.
She is most she when she keeps
the Lord’s watch at night against the adversary.
Mice leap fat into her jaws,
skulls crunching; she walks straight
up the silver-sided barn
to the moon. When mist steals across
the fields on feet padded,
* * *
Why am I thinking of my white cats now?
It’s December again, with its long nights, always a time of deeper reflection. As the moments of my life have moved farther from center, like the rings in a tree, I’ve become more level, more accepting of life’s turns. When I think of Phoebe, I’m not filled with sadness, the way I was over what I’d imagined as a twelve-year-old about Cat. What happened to Phoebe, I don’t know—whether coyotes caught her, or, in running from them, she ended up at a neighbor’s place, where she decided to stay.
Or maybe she dematerialized back into the spirit realm, into a cloud crossing the moon. Phoebe lived a joyful life, and she gave joy. Despite her razor teeth and lightning quick claws, she radiated peace. I’d thought at first she was my angel, but I’ve long since concluded she was really my mother’s and was meant to be, all along. Phoebe gave Mom love and light at a time she needed both. Along the way, of course, Phoebe gave me something I needed, too—that second chance, release from what I thought about the past.