This softness, this tenderness. This space between smiles, this laughter. This lightness in my chest, where the ribs expand, now holding more than room between heaving sobs. Where this mirror reflects more than darkness at the edges, where four pairs of eyes do not follow each two.
This is how you have known me – and it feels a little like insanity. Who is this person, who is she?
I haven’t known her this way. I do not know her at all. She laughs, her teeth flash in her mirth. She bares them, sure, but when, it is mock anger, not rage. They are no longer needles of frustrations, dulling their edges biting pillows in the night. They are no longer the inflicters of anger turned inward on her knuckles, her arms. They just… are. And they smile at you, they nibble at nails, they show in photographs. Where did she learn this? And how?
It shows, how it tears at me inside, that it shows, the rest, too. When did she become this soft, when did she learn, that it was permitted to be? That there was a world beyond guarding and defending, beyong being caged, beyond hiding. Who is this, who is this woman, she loves unabashedly, she loves with some perverse certainty, some confidence that I am secretly sure is born of folly- surely, it must be? Who told her that it’s okay to love this freely? Doesn’t she know, hasn’t she learned? She’s going to get her hands burnt- hasn’t she been warned?
These trappings, these trappings of normalcy, these colors, these hours, these are lies she’s stealing from someone else. She is someone else, someone I have not known, someone I dared not know. And now she is here, and she is loud, and she is loved, and I am terrified. I am terrified of her, and of you, and of all these people milling about in this dream. Because this has to be a dream, one that I will wake up from, one that you might wake up from, and then, and then, where will that girl who has learned softness be? She will have to go, and then there will just be… me.
Once upon a time, an unusually tiny kitten walked into a yard. My yard.
Few of you are aware of the flag-bearing, card-carrying toxic relationship I have with my father. I’m so quiet about it, it’s hard to spot (cue eye roll). If I ever need a reason to give up humanity altogether, I can just look back to anything he’s done for affirmation. There are few things the man does that even surprise me anymore. But, as it turns out, he’s still got it. and by it, I mean the cruel, vicious, merciless, sadistic streak that is the most of his entire personality – at home, of course.
Four years ago, on a very rainy night, my father had to catch a flight to the airport, and the driver had to take the car out of the driveway. The itinerary was being discussed when suddenly, the tiniest imaginable of kittens stuck his head into our yard from under the looming black gate. The head and huge bat ears were followed by a skinny body and impossibly small paws. This furball essentially let himself into our courtyard, waltzed up to where four full grown humans and two adult cats were sitting, parked his butt in the middle, and MEOWED. Insistently at that, at the people staring incredulously at him, because we had two litters at home at the moment, but this wasn’t one of ours.
He was so covered in dirt that you couldn’t make out an actual color. He tried sitting with the adult cats, and they hissed at him and scooted up the stairs closer to us. The kitten was not the slightest bit affected by the snub and kept meowing at us, unfazed by the fact that he was in a strange place, standing between complete strangers. And he was hungry. Loudly.
We gave him a little wet food, and after he’d eaten, let himself onto the sofa, and gone immediately to sleep, decided that he must have been abandoned by some disappointed owner, or over-enthusiastic adopter. It wasn’t unusual for people to abandon animals in our yard. And we had nine cats at this point, what was one more mouth to feed. Especially such a tiny, tiny one at that. And so, Tiny became a member of the family.
The next few days went by with a series of discoveries. Tiny was a girl, apparently, and grey, white, and golden tabby under all the dirt. Which she didn’t allow us to wash off before a lot of coaxing. She had an attitude on her, walking up to all the other grown cats and batting them and hissing at them from the first day. If you sprayed her with water, she’d get down from the table, but scratch you before she walked away, because how dare you. My father’s smacks with the newspaper or his shoes were also returned in kind, sometimes immediately, sometimes hours later. Tiny could hold a grudge like no cat we’d known.
She also had epilepsy. She was maybe two months old when the seizures started. And then she stopped gaining weight, like the other kittens.
We didn’t know just quite what to make of her. I took her to the vet, naturally, and the vet advised a lot of tests, none of which the shabby, covered in animal piss government hospital had to offer. A private vet clinic was out of the question- even I wasn’t permitted to visit a doctor officially, and I literally worked as one. The vet suggested that we take care of her general health and hope for the best, but not hope too much from her either. So we did. We took care of her, we hoped, and we watched her grow.
Tiny grew from a stunted, ratty little tabby to a skinny, bony faced adult with twice the temper and half the situational awareness her kitten self had – but she grew. She survived whatever spectrum of neurological deficits she had, because she had a few. She was always falling into open barrels, down holes, getting lost in tunnels around the house, jumping onto the road or under moving cars, hyperactive to a point of mania, and then exhausted – and then running again. It was a joke, that the cat was practically suicidal – except she never made the same mistake twice. Her intelligence and unpredictability led her to actually get some grudging respect from my father, who found the fact that she tried to hit back surprisingly entertaining. We didn’t give a shit about why he liked her as long as he did, because she was outgrowing her seizures, and we were scared that he’d toss her out before she fully did.
Tiny Cat got older, and got pregnant. Her first pregnancy was completely confusing to her, but she managed it through, with us. The days leading up to her delivery, we showed her how to nest in a box, helped her get used to lying there. She kept trying to walk off even during her delivery, and was utterly baffled by the fact that a kitten had already come out, and more were there. At some point some instinct kicked in, but our next few nights were spent sleepless, taking shifts with the mewling furballs and there pretty frazzled mother. Luckily, luckily, the kittens pulled through. I saw them before I left home.
I heard stories of their misadventures, of these kittens that basically thought that my mother was their actual mother. It was ludicrous and hilarious. Tiny never taught her kittens how to cover up after they’d done their business, so they’d leave little smelly piles in the sand. At some point the other cats got so exasperated. they started covering up after them. And then they gave up and started just teaching the kittens how to cat themselves. They were actually learning pretty quick, and even started babysitting the other kittens, as they grew older. At least they did, till when we left home, My father took advantage of our absence, and had the kittens abandoned far away from home.
The thing is, with the decreasing number of helpless humans to torture over the last few months, my father has been turning to the cats. At first, he had the older kittens abandoned at our construction site, from where they naturally ran away scared. Then, the ‘training’ of the cats stuck at home began.
First, the cats were being trained to remain in one yard and not step into the other. A normal person would argue that cats can’t be trained that way. But when a cat is trapped in one place, the doors shut on it, and then hosed down with a power hose till she’s fleeing, digging her claws into cement to somehow scale the wall vertically to flee with slamming water, yes- according to my father, now that’s how cats are trained.
It doesn’t matter if one of them falls off the wall into the street and breaks her hind leg, because of this. It doesn’t matter if this cat walks three-legged, dragging her twisted leg and mangled hip behind her. She’s been trained now, and if she tries to come into the yard from the other side, where she doesn’t have to climb, she gets hosed again. And again. And again. Till she goes feral and stops coming, because the household help has more mercy in their hearts than my father, and they started feeding her outside on the sly.
And then the other cats are taught lessons. Till even the cook, the meekest, most soft-spoken woman I know, couldn’t bear to watch anymore and stoutly protested that at least the cats be allowed to run through one door when the hosing begins. Obviously, her opinion doesn’t mean shit. When my father gets his manic attacks, even the help working in the yard got hosed. Why the heck would he care? They’re his servants, after all. It’s not like they’re real people or something.
Just like the cats aren’t actual livings beings. Or anything more than a temporary fixation for his cruelty. I’m not at home, he can’t make sure I’m waking up at 4 am anymore, or make me do sit ups at his whim, or monitor my food, or lash out as and when he wants at me. He tried with the watchman, but after two days of being forced to get up at 4 am, the watchman bluntly made it clear that he was going to quit under these conditions. The other household help scurry and tiptoe around his always-impending rage and righteousness, which is exactly the way he likes it. Besides, it’s Corona times. If they quit, he isn’t going to find anyone else to do the housework for him. They’re staying on out of desperation too, because it’s unlikely that they find another job with the way things are. He knows that, and he stops pushing them just before their breaking point. With the cats, he doesn’t need to stop.
The last puppy he brought home died about a month after I left. There’s another dog now, but she’s being taken care of, because even he’s starting to get a reputation among his friends who supply the dogs. And then there’s Tiny. Tiny Cat who got pregnant again, and isn’t allowed to stay at home this time. Who wasn’t even allowed to be in the yard- but she didn’t know that. She spent the last few weeks trying repeatedly to come home, and got slammed and hosed down with punishingly hard water jets each time she tried. She snuck in at night, and ate and slept in the other yard. She didn’t understand why she was suddenly cast out, and scratched at the doors and windows, asking my crying mother to let her in. The cook hid her under her arm and smuggled her out each time she could, before my dad could notice that she’d come in again. My mom stopped walking in the yard at all, for fear of attracting the cats, who’d flock to her if they saw her at all. My father would come running in, bolt the doors, and hose them down till they were scrambling around desperately in the mud. Till he was satisfied that they’d had enough of a lesson for today. But that stopped being enough, too.
My father decided last week that Tiny had to go. It didn’t matter that she was due any day. It didn’t matter that she was spending more time wet than dry. She was surviving his currently favorite method of torture, and persisting- and he doesn’t like that. Bear in mind that this is a man who used to trap rats to kill and pour boiling water over them, till my mother gave him proof that was Islamically forbidden. And nothing is more important than a pretense of holiness. But that pretense is still wafer thin. A heavily pregnant cat who had started digging holes in the dirt… wasn’t in any place to fight what was behind that. But help came from the unlikeliest place.
Our watchman caved and decided to take her away. He took her to that construction site, where he knows the family of caretakers, where he knew she’d be safe. It broke him, having to coax her away and leave her there, but she found a hidey hole right away. He went to visit her twice, and she seemed settled in. They leave food out for the cats, and there’s enough space for her to roam. My father was delighted to see her gone. Everyone else is relieved for different reasons.
I’m sitting here wondering who’ll be next, and what will happen when he runs out of animals. I keep thinking of her earnest little face and stubborn, stubborn refusal to give up, and am trying to reassure myself that this truly is the best that could have happened for her. But Survivor’s guilt is a potent beast. And I can’t help but feel, at least a little bit, that in choosing what’s best for me and leaving, I failed my Tiny cat, at least a little.
I feel as though I am frequently guilty of this. Of simply rolling over and falling asleep, and ignoring some nagging unwellness that has been pestering me. But it scratches at you, making you increasingly restless, till it starts spilling over into the part of your life that you only ‘portray’. When the person you are is unwell, it’s only a matter or time before it starts leaking into the person you’re supposed to be.
For the sake of metaphor and stunted humor, let me say: we’re nothing more than giant bathtubs. If you don’t deal with how much is swirling in there, pretty soon it’ll be sweeping out from under the door and reaching the guests in the living room.
But it’s not about the guests at all. People who visit you don’t live with you- you live with you. We none of us take the time to recognize our existence as a little, self-contained biome that needs a little tending to flourish- and a little pruning. If the diseased parts and chipping fingernails don’t get trimmed regularly, you’re not going to be growing.
And that’s already too many house- and body part analogies, but I’m going to leave you (and myself) with one last one: this body and mind house each other. And in levels of intensity, each one of them needs your care.
Open those floodgates now and then, okay? I promise you, there will be a rainbow over all that you’ve bottled in, flowing out. ♥️