The Third Kitten

By Tom Recht

  An ironic friend while drunk on mead once narrated me the following succint history.

  It was a tortoisebreath past three in the morning; a postlunar presolar unparcelled time, a cricket-ruled interregnum. In a silk basket under the walnut tree in my backyard three kittens were asleep. I had been awakened by their symphony of purrs. The same story every morning, and always just before I reached the kiss-under-the-sunset scene in the dream romance novel I was reading in those days. (I spend my time asleep more profitably today, catching up on my classics and even learning some French - a language of world culture in which is written some of the most insightful literature in our Western heritage.) It was too much for one man's bearing. I resolved to turn them out.

  You must understand I had not had more than three hours of sleep a night in the preceding month. I have read recently in a science magazine that prolonged insomnia has an adverse effect on the decision making faculty. This may not justify my action in your eyes. But rather than attempt to exculpate myself I will relate in as unembellished a manner as possible what I proceeded to do: rising from my bed in nothing but my nightgown, I unlatched the back door, went out into the tingling predawn chill, knelt beneath the walnut tree and overturned roughly the silk basket.

  The kittens tumbled out in a tangled heap of overlong tails and disproportionate ears. One by one they extricated themselves from under the basket and wobbled to their soft yet brittle feet. The first kitten to rise was the eldest, black-and-ginger-furred, with bright warlike eyes and a lightning temper. Before I could back away he leapt at my face and I heard the screech of his ivory claw against my unshaven cheek. He left me staggering from the shock, with a hot red stripe roughly parallel to my noseridge and some two inches to the left of my left nostril, and scurried unpursued into the night.

  The second kitten, black as a ghoul but for his white paws yet surprisingly levelheaded for his age, now rose. To my relief he did not resort to violence but regarded me calmly and proceeded to explain to me in painstaking detail the circumstances of his and his brothers' sojourn in my silk basket. Their mother had abandoned them, I learned, and was living immorally in a rubbish bin on the other side of town. The youngest of the three was sickly from birth and had to be protected, fed and pampered. Sometimes for lack of proper nourishment they had been reduced to suckling each other reciprocally. This, in fact, had been their occupation when I had so brutally overturned the basket; which he only related to prevent my suspecting anything indecent in the embarrassing position I had found them in. In short, he prayed me to suffer their presence for just a few nights longer, at least until they could make arrangements for an alternative residence. But I was adamant: they must leave. There is no pity in a man who yearns for his pillow.

  As the second brother padded dejectedly away the youngest tottered to his feet. His fur was silvery blue and gleamed in the starlight, but bald patches covered his hind parts. He was so thin that I could count his ribs, which I did, and was relieved to find them all there. The runt of the litter, he had not yet learned to speak. Instead he regarded me with eyes like portents from the other world - a long poignant gaze of no anger which yet tore at the very membrane of my heart. His gaze was a beam of lithelanguid feline light drawing me into the feral cosmos of his eyes, his pupils my dark suns as I swam a wild orbit through heaving tides of vitreous humor, his retina my celestial sphere. A molecule of melancholy I knew I was, in a universe without pity or terror, where mute Pandemon haunts, hidden in hollow atoms, while at the other end of space a hooded Godhead grins.

  Suddenly the world gave a spasm and cracked. The dim nebulas spun out of focus, lost color and flavor and burst silently into nothing. Strands of shivering light hung like fading filaments on the black air of my back yard. The kitten had turned his eyes and was staggering into the shadows in search of his two elders.

  I retreated, unsteady myself, to the open back door, which I latched behind me, and climbed the stairs to my bedroom. I need not tell you that I did not get any more sleep that night. I have never since seen, or at least never recognized, any of the three cats. But though the scar on my left cheek has long ago healed, and the rational arguments of the second brother now sound to me like a passage from an old book, yet that ethereal gaze of the youngest kitten pursues me day and night, appearing to my deluded fancy whenever I catch the gleam of a silver spoon or eat a spare rib, and invading even my dreams to trouble my studies of Tolstoy, Schiller, and the mellifluous Christian prose poet, Thomas Traherne.


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(c) 1998 Tom Recht