There’s a reason they call it caterwaul (a simple English word combining cat and wrawl, to cry out or howl). It means only one thing: Kitty is mousing again.
I climb out of bed, turn on the light, and sure enough, there she is in the middle of the living room, making the sound that wakes the dead, all while dangling a mouse from her jaws. When she sees me she drops him with a tiny thud onto the living room carpet. She’s done her job – presented me with the evidence of her hunting prowess.
There’s only one problem: the mouse is still alive, although barely.
I formulate a vague plan to get him outside, and make for the kitchen for tools. Kitty, watching me head in that direction (and her bag of Friskies), turns on her paws and follows. “Here, eat this,” I say, after filling up her bowl and wetting it under the faucet, the way she likes it.
She tucks into the food like an alley-cat who has been living on fish bones, although this is probably the tenth time she’s eaten today.
In the recycling bin I find a cereal carton and a small paper bag. When I return to the living room, the mouse is lying on his side. He has one back leg stretched out farther than the other, and I think of myself lying on the chiropractor’s table just before she rolls me over and snaps my spine back into place.
He’s still twitching. He regards me with two lidless black eyes that glitter like the buttons on a doll’s coat.
For a moment I imagine myself into his tiny brain. He has just escaped from the jaws of a giant furry monster whose incisors have bloodied his fur. Now an even larger behemoth is looming over him, ready to pounce.
When I teach Oedipus the King, I tell my students about cosmic irony, the idea that the gods are playing with us, “amused to manipulate human beings as a puppeteer manipulates his puppets,” as my Dictionary of Literary Terms puts it. Mousie has had a brush with cosmic irony, but only a brush. Right now the god in question has her nose stuck in a bowl of Friskies.
If I could, I would pick up Mousie, gently pet his coarse fur, and tell him everything is going to be all right. I would nestle him against my chest, where my beating heart would sound to him like the ticking of an enormous clock, or the roarings of some dark and mythical machine. At last, perhaps, he would be comforted, his breathing would slow, and the blood on his fur would begin to coagulate.
Sometimes I force Kitty into this position, but she is not a cuddler. The most she will sometimes manage is to lie on my legs, head facing away, a posture from which she can bolt at any moment. She was a stray, lost on the streets of Hartford, Conn., and despite years of living first with my mother and then with us, she has not warmed to being held. My son Colby sometimes manages to get her to freeze in his arms, where she makes little peeps of protest as he pets her.
For three years, an even more terrifying beast roamed these halls: my daughter’s Maine Coon cat, Rufus, who is the size of a small dog and likes to bite pieces off his victims and then regurgitate them all over the house.
But of course none of this means anything to this terrified mouse. I prepare to nudge the paper bag under him like a spatula, so I can slip him into the cereal box and out the door to freedom.
Suddenly he jumps up, bolts across the room, and zips under the cellar door.
I can’t help giving a little laugh, although I’m the only one up at this hour. Mousie has lived to see another day, to go back to his cozy nest and, one would hope, stay away from the jaws of Fate upstairs.
He won’t soon forget the feline god’s rancid breath or her sharp incisors. I imagine him trembling even after safety is gained, reliving the horror of being captured and flung and toyed with.
Kitty, however, is reliving nothing. She has forgotten completely about her adventure earlier in the evening. Now it’s time to lick her whiskers and clean between her toes and, of course, take a long god-like nap.