For most of the late 80s, we had a sign in our living room that said, "Warning! An Attack Cat Lives Here." I found it in a drug store one day with other signs meant to be displayed as jokes. In our house, though, it was not a joke. It was a warning to all who entered that the green-eyed creature with the pretty white fur, who ruled over all from the back of the recliner, was not to be tampered with. Unless you happened to not enjoy having both of your eyes.
Katie, aka Snowflake, aka Bitchcat, was the meanest thing I've ever seen anybody keep as a pet. And we kept her, inexplicably, for 11 years.
"Why do we keep her?" I asked my mom once, while she was bandaging up my leg after a particularly gruesome tangle with the battle cat. "She doesn't use the litter box, she attacks us, and she won't even let me pet her."
"Well," Mom said, "She's mean, but she can't help it. I can't just turn her loose on the street."
"Would you keep me if I peed all over the family room, bit you, and puked hairballs in the hallway?"
She said she would, but there was a longer pause than there should have been.
Katie wasn't always mean. When she first showed up on our doorstep, a scrawny, bedraggled stray, she was quite the sweetheart. Her seemingly gentle personality, along with the fact that she walked right into our house when we opened the door to get a better view of her, convinced us to make her our very first indoor cat. Our last cat, a misplaced Siamese named Pood-Pood, lived his 9th life with us exclusively outside, and with Interstate 75 right over the fence, it didn't end well. Katie seemed like a poor little rich cat down on her luck. Like Scarlett O'Hara, starving on the inside but holding on to her dignity and wearing a dress made of velvet curtains. Once bathed, fed, declawed, and spayed, her dark green eyes stood out from her long, white fur and made me think she was aristocratic and so very hoity-toity. Like the cat from the Fancy Feast commercials.
The first time she stalked me, I changed my opinion. I could see her at the end of the hallway, crouched, pupils dilated and huge, her rear end wiggling to better ready her pounce.
"Don't you dare!" I ran past her in fear, which she could smell like day-old tuna salad. She leapt, and I felt clawless front paws wrap around my leg, and definitively un-declawed rear paws digging into my calf for balance. She bit, and it wasn't kitten teeth. Three of her fangs dug into my leg, and when she let go and cowered under the bed, I was left scratched, welted, bruised, and bleeding.
Hydrogen peroxide was poured into my wounds, Band-Aids applied, and Mom did not believe that I had done nothing to provoke the cat (who we called Snowflake at the time). Cats don't just attack people, she said. Was I playing with her, was I teasing her, was I being mean to her?
No, I swore. I was just, you know, walking.
It wasn't long after that when Mom got attacked while walking past the cat with a basket of laundry. A sock had been dangling over the edge of the basket, and as we learned, nothing quite got Katie going like a waving or walking sock. "Snowflake" was in a chair, and when she leaped to get Mom, she got her good, right below the hip. Mom cussed for five solid minutes. And then chased the cat around the house with a rolled up Dixie News for emphasis.
It took little time for us to realize that the newest member of the family was no Snowflake. We avoided calling her anything, lest we draw attention to ourselves and have her hunt us down like the Terminator. One night Dad, while listening to our stories about the various ways we'd been stalked, chased, bitten, clawed, clamped, and nibbled that day, looked at our tormentor and called out, "Kat--eeee! Katie ol' cat!" And so she became. We found "Katie" to roll off our tongues so much nicer in the heat of anger.
Her namer was the one person she did not bite. Ever. She and Dad had a grudging respect and love for each other that Katie did not share with the rest of us. When Mom and Dad separated for one year, Katie and Dad were the sole occupants of my house. We heard from my sister and granny, who visited during that time, that Dad would go out and get Katie food and make sure she had water when he was barely physically able to do the same for himself. He's also the one who realized that, in spite of her being declawed, Katie was meant to be an outdoor cat. She preferred the carport-turned-family-room shag over her litter box, so Dad started letting her out, dog-like, whenever she pawed the door to go do her business. We were certain she'd get eaten by something; sure, she had great teeth and a strong bite, but how could a declawed, snow-white cat possibly fend for herself in the big outdoors? Very well, actually. And over the years we had quite the collection of dead birds and vermin left on our front stoop to prove it.
My wounds from Katie attacks were numerous and epic. She favored the fleshy upper leg, but I was also bitten in my back and head. The back bite was the worst; I had come in from swimming with a bare back and a ponytail, and it was too much for Kaite to resist. While I was sitting in the floor on my towel watching TV, she came up behind me, wrapped her front paws around my neck, and took a hunk out of my upper back. I thought that was the worst, until a few years later when she decided she and only she should ever be able to sit in the recliner, and jumped up to the back of it and sicced my head. Scalp wounds bleed a lot.
I didn't realize the hold Katie had over us all until I went away from home the first time to be a Governor's Scholar. In the dorm, I found myself looking over my shoulder every time my feet hit the floor, looking for a flash of white bounding out from nowhere. It took a week to realize I could get all the way down the hallway to the communal bathroom without getting bitten by something. Ah, bliss.
By the time I got out of high-school, I had taken to calling Katie "Bitchcat" and wanted nothing to do with her. There's only so much stalking one can take.
"How's Bitchcat?" I would say when I called home from college.
"Oh, she's not a bitchcat. She's mellowing out. She hasn't bitten me in months."
But we both bore the scars from pounces past.
Christmas break of my sophomore year, I noticed that Katie looked frail. She was bony, and her beautiful fur wasn't as well-kept as it usually was. She snuggled next to me on the couch, which was unusual, and didn't bite my toes under the aghan, which was even more so. I snapped a picture of her with my camera, not sure why I wanted to get it, but nagged by the notion that it might be the last time I saw her. Sadly, I was right.
A call came in January that Katie had a cancerous tumor on her spine.
"We're trying chemo," Mom told me over the phone. "And she's on valium to help calm her down, and it's made her really sweet."
"Are you crazy?" I asked, because I was 19 and had all the answers. "Chemo? Valium? For THAT cat?"
"THAT cat," Mom said, her voice breaking, "has been all I've had since you went away. With your Dad working so much and drinking when he's not, and you gone, she's been company to me. I love that cat." And she hung up on me.
A month later, my roomate entered the common room of my dorm where we had just gathered to spend a cold, snowy Wednesday night watching the beautiful people of Melrose Place and 9021-Ho.
"Your mom's on the phone."
Weeknight phone calls from home were almost always bad news. It had been snowing terrifically all over Kentucky that February, leaving roads icy and dangerous. I feared the worst. But I didn't expect the news I received.
Mom was upset, not so much that Katie was gone, but the way it happened. Just after the heavy snow started falling the night before, Katie suddenly became paralyzed. She was in pain, crying out, unable to move. Despite the weather, our vet agreed to meet my parents at his office to put her down. Six inches of snow covered the ground as Mom and Dad set out with our family pet. At midnight, she was put to sleep. They waited to tell me mostly because they had spent the day too exhausted to talk about it. The drive home had been long and awful; the snow mixed with ice, and their drive home from the vet had taken over an hour, Mom crying most of that time. Phone lines had also been down, leaving my parents cut off and grieving their loss alone.
"Are you okay?" Mom asked.
"Yeah, I'm okay. I know you loved her, but she never was really my cat."
But when my dorm mates asked me if everything was okay when I came back downstairs, I lost it.
"Our family cat died." And for no reason I could think of, I wept.
Katie made my life miserable sometimes, what with making the whole house smell like cat urine (sorry, college roommates; I know when I rolled back to Centre from a trip home that I smelled like I had been marinated in cat-sprayed tobacco fields), attacking, biting, and being generally terrifying. But she was the closest thing to a younger sibling I had, and I felt better about leaving home knowing that Mom had her there. In her last years, she slept on Mom's bed (occasionally biting her feet through the covers), took care of the house's mouse problems, and gave my mother, who has to be caring for something or someone at all times, a warm, living creature to dote on in my absence. I would barely miss her, but I knew my mother would. And my father, too. Before hanging up, Mom had whispered into the phone that she had caught Dad with red eyes amd a runny nose the morning after Katie had been put to sleep.
"Chuck, you okay?"
"Yeah. Allergies." But then he gave a weak smile that admitted the truth: he would miss his Katie more than anyone else would. They were cut from the same cloth: sometimes mean, but mellowing with age. And kind when it counted.
She was the meanest cat in the world. But she was our mean cat. And, for better or for worse, there would never be another quite like her.