My mother was never the same after we buried Phillip. When he died soon after turning thirteen, she wept that it was too soon. Wept he was too young. Wept that no parent should have to bury their child. It was torture for us to watch him waste away, to know he would never again find peace in life. The cancer was in his bones. His legs barely moved at the end. My father’s emotions were also conflicted, but for other reasons—Phillip’s extended suffering had taken a toll on our finances. “That’s $3,000 this month alone!” A man’s cold clumsy grieving, yes. But perhaps he was right—$3,000 a month for chemo is probably too much to spend on a thirteen-year-old cat.
Phillip entered our lives as a stray named Whitey. Reports of a feral white cat made the rounds of our tree-lined cul-de-sac, and soon enough we saw his glowing green eyes at night, seemingly floating five feet up in our yard. He had taken to our trees for his night stalking. Then, he showed himself in the light. No cat—before or since—have I seen sprint, leap, bat, pin, and rip like Whitey. A born hunter. Our backyard was a boneyard of squirrels, robins, moles, mice, an occasional rat, and even once a possum. My father hated running the mower over the carcasses scattered like sprinkles on a cake. Weeks would pass without mowing. He would wait as the grass grew, gradually hiding the festering bodies. My sisters and I complained that our space was unfit for play. “Just wait,” he said, “the next storm will wash it out.” He was a history professor, unaccustomed to biological degeneration and lacking a basic understanding of drainage. The grass grew, the body count increased, and Whitey began his reign as pale Death himself—not with a scythe but ten sharp little claws.
He eventually made our backyard home because of the steady supply of cheese, milk, and tuna my mother left out. She would see no creature suffer, and occasionally even applied this principle to her own children. The beast of our yard gladly took our offerings, but he loathed our affection. Only my mother would he approach. She would kneel down, cooing softly, and Whitey would allow himself to be pet for a few moments before hissing and sprinting into the bushes.
My father made no attempt to befriend the stray, but he did give him his first name. “Damn it, Whitey!” he would snap as he watched Whitey devouring birds through his bedroom window. But his voice betrayed himself. His life was devoted to papers and names on those papers. It was a life of skimming information and redistributing facts to a roomful of disengaged and hungover children. He lived to retell the lives of people who had actually lived. When he barked at Whitey, that voice was enthusiasm posing as exasperation. He liked that he had to bark, that he had before him a creature with bite. Did he desire such unrepentant pure instinct—forbidden to a gentleman and yet so deeply craved? His jaw clenched and flexed like he was chewing a quarry.
“Why do we have so many rodents in our yard,” I asked my father as we watched my mother’s food-giving ritual, my chin stretched up to the windowsill. Rodents. I was young enough to be proud I knew the word, but not old enough to understand its weight.
“Don’t like them? You clean up their bodies,” he said. I slowly backed away, tiptoeing my exit.
Only once did Whitey allow me to touch him. Returning from school one spring day, Whitey lay still on the step of our backdoor. I prayed he was dead. My little sister worried it was a trap and buried her head in my back. “It’s gonna kill us!” she yelped.
Cathy was a delicate child. Years later, I spied her cradling a fallen leaf in her palms, whispering, “Don’t you know you’re so beautiful.”
Whitey’s side barely raised with his breathing. But there was yet a rise and fall. Whitey wasn’t dead. Even he didn’t seem capable of this deep a deception. That, naturally, gave me the greatest moment of doubt. If he is capable though, well, my God. I took the noble path: I grabbed a stick and poked him. Twice.
Whitey didn’t react, which just made gentle Cathy snap, “Harder!” So harder I poked, and this time Whitey reacted. He simply made a sound.
“Did he say ‘mom?’”
“Ermmmm,” he cried.
Our mother threw the door open and leapt three steps to land on all fours next to the dying stray cat. She was panting, and her eyes darted about at the scene—a slack sack of fur, children standing, a stick poking. She swatted the stick from my hand and leaned close to Whitey’s whiskers. She brushed her face against his. Soothingly she whispered words strange and uncomfortable to hear. She caressed Whitey’s side, stopping only when she reached his hip and he croaked his “ermm” again.
“I’m here,” my mother pledged to the cat.
“It’s tricking us!” Cathy hissed behind me.
So she swept her arms around the limp animal which hadn’t the strength to resist. Whitey’s shoulders pinched back, the claws grew, but then all was a shudder and collapse into itself.
My mother brought him to the animal hospital, and when they explained—despite her insistence—that there were no beds available for family members, she booked a room in a neighboring hotel. For three days the creatures of our yard could collect their dead in their own ways. Our home was quiet.
Then she returned with a cast-legged, cone-necked cat.
“You’ll have to be gentle with him,” my mother told us.
We stared dumbly at her.
“He’s got a pin in his hip.” An image of war presented itself to me. I, huddled in a bunker against an invasion, clutching a cat in one hand and pulling a pin-tail from it with the other. Tossing the cat hissing and flailing, the quiet suspense, the explosion. I looked at him with awe and fear.
“And he’s been declawed,” my father said, sadly. Indeed, his paws were bandaged tight. “He can never go outside again. Imagine the enemies he’s made. And them lining up to take their shots now.” I noticed my father’s hair had streaks of silver on the sides. For the first time, I thought of him as tired, old.
“He needs a name,” my mother said.
“He’s got a name. What’s wrong with Whitey?” My father said.
“He needs a real name. He is one of us now.”
“He’s a cat.”
“How could you say that?”
My mother named him Phillip. She placed the cat on our sofa, and until his death, that sofa would never be clean of fur and the smell of litter and canned fish. We knew not to sit in his spot, which he rarely left.
And so Whitey became Phillip, and for ten years lived under a house arrest that saved and tortured him. My mother and Phillip would lay on the couch for hours, Phillip asleep on her belly and her hands absently petting his back. For ten years he watched TV—mostly talk shows and my mother’s stories—until he couldn’t stand it, then he’d escape outside and tried to climb trees. Tried. His paws, clawless, didn’t have grip anymore, and he would just slide desperately down the trunks. I didn’t like watching him like that.
And he lived like that until he didn’t anymore. He degraded in the way cats degrade. I wasn’t around to see the worst of it. I was in a college safely distant from home. My father visited and shared the tale of Phillip’s decline. That was when he mentioned the piling costs. Before he left he mentioned he “loved that cat.” He rushed to the bathroom and came back with vein red eyes. Phillip died later that month, buried before I returned. But my mother chronicled the details over the phone.
My mother swore Phillip died smiling as they sat on a blanket basking in breezy sunshine. I did not want to listen. The breath failing. The gentle wheeze that could have been a purr, but wasn’t. The lazy eyelids slipping shut without the promise of opening again. His impotent paws clenching and unclenching, weakly digging into his blanket, the blanket that he had stolen from me. A squirrel immodestly observing from a few feet away. Phillip’s cloudy eyes trying to focus on it, but losing it. The squirrel stepped closer, almost a paw strike away. Instinct won, and Phillip died with his paw stretched out. But the squirrel was safe.
He was buried on the spot he died, under the oak in our backyard. She had no shovel. My mother dug a hole two feet deep with her hands and a beach toy trowel.
Six years later the tree became a stump when a blight condemned it and the town demanded its destruction. But the blight wasn’t content with just the trees. While the yard went, so too did the neighborhood. The violence of beasts became the violence of humans, and when the second murder occurred—this time only three streets over—my father moved the family beyond the suburbs to escape it all.
My mother spent moving day staring at the backyard. It had gone to weed, then to dirt, and finally a moldy mud. Nobody really seemed to mind. She stared out the window as the rest of us, now all grown, came back to get boxes from old bedrooms and debate whether to just throw them into dumpsters now rather than later. The trucks were packed but she was still staring out the kitchen window over the dead yard. I had given her a cheap silver cat pendant necklace years before which she absently pressed between her fingers. She told us to go—she would follow behind on her own.
The new home took us an hour to reach. But it took my mother hours. Night was falling and we were eating pizza on the floor when the unfamiliar doorbell rang.
We thought she had fallen in mud. Dark wet dirt was drying on her knees, her elbows, her forearms, her wrists, her palms, her fingers. She smelled of old, wet earth. Her face was garish in caked clay. It was her face that delayed our realizing. For we should’ve known far sooner than we realized.
She walked into the house like she was under threat or suspicion, her eyes darting left and right and her shoulders hunched low and tight. She was walking on her toes—silently and dirtily over the carpet. Her body seemed folded up on itself, smothering something.
She walked through the hall and straight to the back door. In the lowering darkness she stepped down the deck stairs and walked to a far corner of the nicely tailored lawn. She bent down and it seemed to us that a piece of her had fallen and lay on the grass. The night shade was blooming and all was becoming one in darkness. But her darkness was a little darker and that spot too a little darker than night.
She walked to the shed and disappeared inside. All was dark, and we could only hear her shuffling across the grass. Then the sound of shoveling. Then her crying. When she reached the deck steps we fled to the bathrooms, the hallways, the bedrooms. I was waiting on the stairs like a child.
Turning the corner, she saw me.
“Tell me you didn’t,” I said.
She looked me dead in the eyes.
“He’s one of us.” Then she explained the details—the goddamn exhumation of a cat’s corpse. She smiled at the end, looking at and past my eyes. “He looked peaceful,” she said. “And now he’s home.”
I moved to the side to allow her to go up the stairs. When the others returned from hiding and found me with my head in my hands, they asked me, “Did she really?” The door to her new room slammed shut, silencing our whispers, and we stared up the steps into the darkness of her hall.
A stone winged cat statue sits upon Phillip’s current grave. I visit his spot when I visit their home. Not to pay respects to Phillip—I have cats of my own dead and buried now—but to study the way the grass rises round the statue’s base, to see how much it has sunken into the earth. I check to see if the statue has shifted, to see if the grass is still intact, undisturbed.
Sometimes there are items at the statue’s base. Open cans of tuna—left in an offering or pleading or whatever the hell it is. At night you can see the shadowy forms of rodents nosing the cans. And you can see my mother at the kitchen window, her fingers twisting the cat pendant hanging over her heart, staring deep into the dark.
Brendan Shea is the chair of the English department at Saint John’s College High School, Washington, DC. This is his first published work. He resides in Hyattsville, Maryland. Follow him on Twitter: @BeeShea