A magician’s disappearing act will wow spectators only if it’s followed, after tense and teasing minutes, by an appearing act. It’s a trick after all, and tricks can go wrong.
Three years ago, two feral kittens came to us, leaving behind three squirming siblings and their anxious mother, Mimi. They were two months old. We’d wished to wait longer, for them to be weaned, for them to stumble less, but their foster parents were in a take-them-now-or-never hurry. My family discussed it, and we decided to pick them up without further thought.
We’d already visited the kittens when they were a few weeks old and made a selection – Momi. But an afterthought – the result of a two-kittens-should-have-each-other-as-they-grow-up sort of impulse as we were putting Momi in her basket – made us pick up one more kitten, Momi’s brother, Moma too. His owners were only happy to give him to us, and we soon discovered why. As the goofiest and most restless of the litter, Moma was also an accomplished scratcher. As we left with the wobbling basket that night, the owner reminded us she wouldn’t take them back in case we changed our minds. She continued pleasantly, as if to soften a blow, that despite our best intentions, we’d most likely be free of them in a few months; that as was their wont, they’d venture into the big world to fulfill their urges to mate or mark territory, and most likely would never return. That was how all of Mimi’s kittens had disappeared over the years, though she returned unfailingly to birth a new litter in their house. We nodded but hoped ours would be exceptions too, like their mother.
Back home, as we settled in our Momas – the preferred plural for the kittens – into their cloth-lined carton and brand-new litter box, we wondered if their ancestors were from the forest nearby. With long ears and eyes too huge for the thin faces, they looked both perpetually startled and extra-terrestrial. Would boredom draw them back into the wild? We prepared to thwart any sign of enterprise in this direction. Netting was fixed to cover all gaps, all possible escape routes were boarded up, and we locked Momas indoors at night – fetters for the little magicians. There’s something fluid in the bones of a cat that obeys calls for adventure. If the scents and sounds of a night tug really hard, a cat can discover or invent loopholes in any fortification.
The Momas spent an initial insecure month falling asleep sucking each other’s fur, probably missing their mother and an education we were ill-equipped to provide. A visit to the vet for their vaccination informed us that spaying and neutering would prevent them from being lost to us – a tamping down of hormonal urges. We weighed our responsibilities and worried we were meddling with nature to increase their longevity but fell in line with the vet’s advice a year later.
It wasn’t long before the Momas decided to survey their territory and launched a conquest with simian mischief and overconfidence. Nothing was off-limits: cupboards, curtains, shelves, books, guitars and especially locked rooms. Nothing was boring: dried leaves, unlucky dragonflies, upside-down beetles, birds, paper on string, footwear and food. They made no fuss over the limited repertoire of the cat food company. Their upright ears with the fine lining of hair and tiny pink noses helped process the world around them, treating it like a minefield of hidden dangers before exploration. Visitors, strangers, mixer grinders and cooker whistles startled them.
They were everywhere, soft-pawing their way up and down the stairs at magical speeds. Their figure eights and zigzags at our feet made us unsteady in the force of their growing attachment. They presumed everyone was headed to their food cupboard and unfailingly led the way to it. If we hesitated, Moma would stretch up and touch the key of the cupboard.
How curious that they understood each other without the need to be vocal but had a huge vocabulary for us. We all noticed how they mewed to communicate with us but never saw them mew to each other even once. Most disconcerting was their shehnai-mew— a strident, urgent and long cry, to announce their presence, demand food or attention. The mewing tone and pitch varied as they grew older but remained a bewildering language we always misunderstood.
Their catnaps were high-speed energy recharges. On cool days, they slept in either of two baskets alone or together. Most days, they found sunny or shady corners around the house. We once discovered them entwined to resemble a heart. They had a favorite conjoined twin pose where they slept with their heads against each other. It’s calming to watch a cat sleep. Sometimes, their paws and jaws would twitch in the middle of an action-packed dream. They’d wake up easily, yawn, do a few yoga stretches and inspect the world again.
While they strode the house with a fearless and infallible gait, there was a big chink in their armor – Blackie – the muscular black stray cat with a reproachful green-eyed gaze and a sweet voice. The very sight of Blackie caused panic and a scramble to the highest point on the balcony grills. He donned the role of a stalker and watched the Momas from various vantage points in the neighborhood. He plotted and inched his way into their spaces determinately. The interloper wanted to share their leftovers and tried to overthrow the Momas by marking our stairs with urine. He sat on all their favorite spots and drank from their water bowl. Sometimes a ginger cat added to the Momas’ woes. We threw water at the unwanted suitors, but there’s a dogged streak in every stalker.
As the Momas filled out into their black and white fur, they claimed the storage space in our phones. We pored over the numerous photos and videos, laughing and loving the memories. We’d never owned pets before except for the brief period we had fostered five kittens for three months. That was only because the distraught stray delivered her five kittens one monsoon night inside my car and then, overwhelmed by her responsibilities, resigned from motherhood without notice. We were sure the Momas loved us back and would grow old with us.
When the Momas developed a taste for fresh kill we couldn’t restrain them indoors at night anymore. The wonderful scampering of prey and the scents of the night drove them crazy. They scratched at doors, raided their food cupboard, used the area around the litter box to relieve themselves, mewed nonstop, or simply chased each other around in a noisy game of tag.
Just as we were considering their adolescent rebellion, a virus punched the pause button on Earth. With each lockdown restriction, with no vehicles or humans to deter them in an already quiet locality, forays during the daytime began. First, on a cautious note, and then, on a rather reckless note. They ventured further away from home each time but came hurrying back for meals. Climbing trees and jumping between rooftops became easier. Distressed squirrels, mynahs, bulbuls and babblers shrieked with consternation when the Momas visited them. If we were nearby, unmindful of their bruised egos, we spoiled sport by dousing both prey and predator with water – our only ammunition – allowing the visibly shaken prey to escape. Emboldened by their power, the Momas began foraying outdoors at night and staying with us during the day. They called the shots on their routine by reversing the one we’d made for them.
The siblings returned from their gourmet excursions every morning with choice gifts for us. They plated it extensively in corridors and stairs and watched our distaste and screams of disgust with zen-like equanimity. Sometimes, their dissections had lab precision, but most times it was tear-open-and-spill sort of offering. There were always highly generous periods when we’d dread mornings, their doorstep deliveries impossible to ignore and unsurpassable.
Much to our dismay, they learned to kill parakeets, pigeons, mynahs, squirrels and rodents. They smacked the life out of chameleons, butterflies and dragonflies, as if punishing them for having dared to move in their presence. Frogs sat facing the wall in corners, like punished children, even as the Momas walked past, pink noses turned up.
A worried neighbor once called to report that Moma – identified by his blue collar – had been staring down a snake and had later followed it into the undergrowth. He had ignored her when she’d tried to call him. I was worried. In our lightly populated area, snakes of all kinds are common. Outdoors, our Momas never responded to their names and struggled if we caught them, scratching us. That day, at noontime, he was back after the adventure. He obviously hadn’t heard the adage about curiosity and the cat.
The big scare needs mention here. Moma was a little over a year old and for the first time didn’t turn up for the morning meal. We roamed the streets for two days, wearing masks as per Covid protocol, rustling a bag of cat food and holding a cloth he usually slept on. We showed his pictures around and called out his name. A neighbor said she’d heard dogs fight and a cat mew piteously the morning he’d gone missing. We feared the worst, but posted his picture on the local WA group. A week later, a stranger called. We drove two blocks to the house of a kind doctor to find Moma pacing their balcony. Moma’s nails were broken, and he looked thin and scared. He accompanied us without any display of joy or recognition.
Factually, that had been the second scare. The first disappearing act was when he was less than a year old, he had fallen from the terrace, picked himself up, found a cupboard in the house open, and sat in the corner till the wind shut the door. I found it unbelievable that he wasn’t anywhere in the house. Hours later, frantic with worry, and just in passing, I’d opened the cupboard and found him in meditative quiet. He didn’t eat or utter a mew on our way to and from the vet. He had a tiny cut on his bottom, and returned to his vocal best over the next few days.
Our cats looked grubby from their nightly adventures and resisted our attempts at bathing them. Though they haughtily licked themselves clean, their coats looked muddy. Till they were a year old, we would dress like beekeepers and attempt to wash them with baby shampoo. After the bath, they’d escape the thick towel and scamper away. Finally, we gave up and left it to the vet’s assistants to give them a medicated bath. The boys were scratched despite their gloves and firm grip on the scruffs of the Momas’ necks.
The Momas loved the treats that we squeezed out from thin tubes and stood on hind legs like meerkats to slurp the bits. They loved that time of the day when chattering parakeets returned home. At sunset, I would water plants on the terrace while the Momas took last naps before the night beckoned them. They’d blink slowly at me or roll on their backs, exposing tummies to be tickled.
Moma had many interests beyond disappearing acts and baby rodents. Music drew him like a lasso. He settled beside my daughter while she sang and played the guitar. Of course, only after checking it out by sniffing the guitar frets and pressing the side of his face against the arm. So many times, he’d interject with a mew that was in perfect pitch to the song. Often, during video recordings, he’d sit sedately and then suddenly decide to break the spell by scratching his hind quarters or standing up to inspect an insect that had wandered in. There’s a video of him falling asleep gradually to the song of a prayer bowl.
There had been a couple of shorter disappearances, where he’d returned by the end of the day. This year, he disappeared twice and returned after two days. Once he looked like he’d fallen into black water, and the other time he’d squeezed into a neighbor’s open music studio window and had found it impossible to squeeze out again. He reappeared after I’d posted his absence in the WA group, and a neighbor reported mewing on his second floor. Maybe, his musical ambitions were growing.
Moma also conversed the most. He replied even when he was asleep. Though he grew out of the habit, as a young kitten, he’d follow me upstairs every time I went to hang the day’s wash on the terrace. I only had to place the empty bucket before him, and he’d jump in and look at me. I’d carry him downstairs, swinging the bucket like a cable car coming down the mountains. He’d hop out as soon as I set the bucket on the ground.
That Saturday, when he didn’t appear for his morning meal, I wasn’t worried. He had eaten at 10 o’clock the night before. At 9 a.m., someone enquired for municipality services to remove a dead cat near their house in our WA group. I messaged the person separately and asked him to share a picture of the cat. A hazy pic shot from the first floor landed in my message box. It’s of a feral tabby. I picked up my phone and a soft dupatta. I took my purse and car key and walked to the street behind ours. Let it not have a blue collar. Let it not have a blue collar. Please. I crossed the dug-up gutter. There, in the middle of an empty plot, lay a tabby on his left side. The blue collar, frayed from his numerous past adventures and long overdue for a new one, was around the neck. It seems like a mistake that I could not un-see. Flies and insects buzzed excitedly over him. His right cheek was blood stained. The beautiful lower jaw with its needle-sharp incisors was smashed in. The right hind fur was matted, as if it had been wet before the sun dried it.
I pressed my palm against the rib cage, praying for even the faintest of heartbeats. I imagine speeding to the vet with Moma and pulling him out of danger. The soft sinewy ribcage that purred at my very touch was hard and silent. The tears would not stop.
Later that morning, after selecting a plot at the pet cemetery and throwing in a fistful of mud, we watched him, wrapped in my soft dupatta, disappearing under shovelfuls of mud. His frayed collar was in my purse, a reminder of his neck-jerking escapades. I felt the weight of his absence. If alive, the cemetery was not exactly his kind of happy place on earth: a lone black dog running free and lording over the graves, rescue monkeys chattering in cages nearby, a resting spot sandwiched between two beautiful dogs and the constant cry of birds all around.
Unfair. Too early. He was to have returned, muddy and tired after his adventure, mewing excuses. I was to give him the dry meal, which he’d eat and then fall asleep in the basket with Momi. Grooming each other, playing together, they were to grow old with us.
We don’t find him leaping on the bonnet of the car, striding the roof to check out bird poop stuck on it. We don’t see him daintily shaking off droplets of rainwater. I don’t see him chewing blades of grass and lapping water. I don’t see him curled up in either basket over expensive toys he treated with disdain. I don’t hear him call me. When I stand in the corridor, he isn’t there begging for head rubs, never getting enough of them.
Momi is bewildered. She ate poorly for a while and still cannot bring herself to sleep in their baskets. She goes on her adventures alone. There’s no brother to spring on her when the day gets boring. There’s nobody to groom her or hide with her when Blackie is on the prowl. From being his unquestioning follower, she’s grown more vocal. Her ears perk up when she hears his voice on our phones. Her eyes look wisely at us as she blinks slowly – he cannot return.
I often pull his frayed blue collar out of the envelope handed over by the pet cemetery that day. It’s cottony with being snagged and caught in daily escapades. The only new mark is a bloodstain on the buckle. We haven’t chosen a picture or wordings for his little tomb. There’s time for all that.
The trick of crossing a road a split second before a two-wheeler speeds past can go horribly wrong. The hair breath’s gap between life and death can be miscalculated. It is not a magician’s trick that can be attempted again. This disappearance is forever.
Image by Author