Tiberius in a hat
[ fiction - december 05 ]
Only a month had passed since Lucrezia’s death. Nineteen years is a long time for a human-and-cat life. But Lucrezia had had a good life; and so had her two-legged pet. He had a purring comfort whenever he felt hurt by the world. The sun always rose from the East and set in the West by an old reliable rule. Worries piled up like ungathered dust and deposited like seasons over a woman’s passport. Meanwhile, Lucrezia was invariably on his shoulder or at his feet, purring or wisely holding her peace, mewing or simply filling the existence with more sense and more of the cat hairs which gave his sons allergies and his wife severe asthmatic attacks. Still, he would have cut off his left hand with his right hand (or vice versa, because he was left-handed) rather than lift his hand against the domestic god. Meanwhile, the domestic god had plumped out and gone from being a small, spry rolling ball to a big, hard-to-lift rolling ball, lazy and inclined to permanent dozing. Then she seemed to grow wise with age and lost flesh; her little belly sagged and shriveled. The big rolling ball shrunk almost to its childhood size, but the baby agility and the inclination to doze in the sun never returned. In her last months, Lucrezia replaced sweet purring dreams with an almost philosophical half-awake half-meditation. An observer would have taken her for a cat yogi, so concentrated in her cat’s thought that she could having been fixed on a mouse, a sparrow or a piece of fish. Nobody could tell, but perhaps she had peered through her visions into the cat’s paradise to check the future was worth following. Her pet never noticed the changes; to him, Lucrezia had always been the same - the same warm and fateful presence, more important even than his wife and the two boys, already grown men with their own tiresome, somewhat nervous lives. When she died, he couldn’t believe it, because he had not foreseen it. It is logical to expect that a 19-year-old cat will die and he had, by inference, concluded it would happen one day, but he had always hoped that day would come after an eternity.
When she stopped breathing, it was as if everyone had come home for the occasion. All four of them were near the animal at the moment it gasped out its life in a long convulsion. His wife barged into the kitchen, stony faced. His sons shed not a tear, said not a word. He alone started wailing; he felt that if he did not bare his horror, global catastrophe would follow. As he wailed, he suddenly saw his wife’s astounded face in the door. She had a kitchen towel and a dish in her hands. She was drying a dish! She was drying that dish and looking at him reproachfully. He could have endured seeing anything else (or - better - nothing) in her hands, but there she stood, drying that dish with the stubbornness of someone who knows her duty. She was dutiful. She hadn’t given him a kind word since the birth of their second son. As was as if the entire stock of love had declared: I’m through with this! He had suffered for two years without getting to the bottom of life’s injustice: you are dear and necessary until you give the world an offspring; then they strike you from the record, throw you out, and abandon you like a worn-out nightgown. One day the elder boy came back from play and brought in his hat the mouse, which later they named Lucrezia, and his life changed. The sun rose again; life lit up again; the gloomy life soared with the wind again. Lucrezia understood him without words. She never looked daggers at him, never contradicted him, never flew at him, never asked him for money, never reproached him for not earning enough. She even tolerated his musty socks, which no one at home could put up with, not even those lads with their permanently stinking trainers. Of course, he realised that the cat’s advantage was its muteness: man comes up with a lot of nonsense by exercising his tongue. His wife exercised a lot, and her exercises were not just clumsy but at times also offensive. In the early years he had tried to defend himself, to return the attack with a counterattack; but he soon understood that it was completely useless and gave up. He became absorbed in silence and stroking the cat. His wife changed too. Instead of talking flamboyantly, energetically, languorously, she lapsed into quiet hissing hints, semi-sentence-semi-words, rehashed somehow between her teeth; he was sure she even swore at him. She was a fine, delicate looking woman, but her soul had coarsened and her tongue forked like a snake’s.
Now and then he thought the only reason they had not separated - apart from habit - was Lucrezia. He had once thrown in that he was going to put her in a bag and move to his mother’s place, but his wife had flown into a rage: Lucrezia was as much hers as his; he could take anything else from the house (including his precious, arrogant sons, who showed not the slightest gratitude), but Lucrezia was going to stay exactly where she was.
“Why - what have you got to do with Lucrezia?” he had taken the liberty of saying. “You don’t buy her fish, or feed her, or take her to the vet, or pet her, or sleep with her, or anything else. Nothing. She runs away when she sees you.”
“Of course she runs away. I am always in a rush to get everything done! Do you have anything to do apart from cosseting her?” And his wife began to rage as she used to in the good old days when his dignified family’s good dinner and tea sets had gone down the drain thanks to her destructive rage.
Now at his mother’s one-room flat, there were only plastic cups and one or two pieces of cheap glass.
Whatever the case, though, they had not gone as far to rip Lucrezia apart, one at the front, the other by the hind legs. Truth to tell, in certain rare moments, Lucrezia cuddled on his wife’s belly and even purred at her. He found the betrayal painful, and wondered if his asthmatic wife used witchcraft to entice the cat. A woman like her could do anything.
The funeral was silent. He dug the hole and laid down the tiny little body wrapped in a new towel and a small sheet of cloth, with a blanket on top. His wife was about to fling into the little grave the hat in which the baby Lucrezia had arrived, but he stopped her. He wouldn’t let it be buried. The family left dry-eyed after the cat’s burial; he stayed to give way to his tears. Were those heartless boys really his own sons? Was he the only person who had lived with Lucrezia? Where had they been, his wife and his sons, who seemed to had have grown up pulling the poor little animal’s tail and mustaches?
Only a month had passed since Lucrezia’s death. It was his birthday. Like every year, the celebration struck him as being like a memorial service. Another useless, screwed-up year had to be made into an occasion. The silent family sat at a table laden with oven-ready food - his wife had been tired to do something special. The difference: there was no fish. Lucrezia adored fish, but Lucrezia was not on the table. She liked to walk proudly over the festive tablecloth and to smell every meal as if to approve it. When the time came for gifts, the elder son stood and went to the children’s room. He returned with the hat in his hands. Who‘d allowed him to touch it? The elder son opened the dark blue hat, and something grey crept out of it. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He took the fluff with his strong left hand and it started purring. He did not thank them, did not say anything. He stood up from the table and went to his room. He immediately knew that the kitten was male. Never mind - Lucrezia would not feel she had been betrayed, forgotten, replaced, given up. He would name him Tiberius. Some Rome, some imperial festivity, would enter this house of rough life and quiet boredom. He kissed Tiberius on the oblong muzzle, but the little one boxed him on the mouth, a curved claw digging into the ridge under his nose. He felt a sharp pain but was not angry. He was rather surprised - Lucrezia’s last scratches had been anemic, like touches with a hair.