THE PRECARIOUS LIFE OF ANIMALS
I smiled as I looked out my kitchen door onto the back stoop. Five young kittens, two black, two black and white, one spotted with a black face, graced the steps to my doorway. Their food bowl was empty and they begged with pathetic meows.
The young feral kitten’s mother has disappeared. I had fed her all winter while they slept in the warm ocean in her belly. I filled her stomach with nourishment, for her, and for them. Now they are here and she is nowhere to be found. Just like that she is gone, here one morning brimming with life and its incumbent hunger, and now just a wisp of thought, nowhere to be seen, as invisible as yesterday.
“Are you going to feed every stray cat in the world, Arline?” John asked.
“Just the hungry ones.”
“Are there any other kind?”
John is a good husband, his concern is one of practicality, not cruelty. My concern for the cats is unknown, I have no agenda, no motive or boundaries. I simply see them, they look at me, and I know I’m going to feed them. I have always been fascinated by the creatures of our planet, our commonality with them. The basic truth of intelligent design isn’t palatable to most people’s delicate sensibilities. The reality of life on this planet is pretty elementary, we are tribes of carbon based creatures running around killing and eating one another. This is difficult for us to accept, we prefer a fictionalized existence of fairytale bliss as opposed to actuality.
“Cats are not all the same, once their hunger is satisfied they each have personalities as distinct as ours. But when they are hungry, they have one dimension, hunger,” I answered.
“How much cat food are we going through? How many cans every day?”
“Why does it matter?”
“Because we have to pay for them.”
Sometimes the best answer to a question is a question. “I’d like to know where their mother is, I haven’t seen her in weeks.”
“Is that a matter of importance?” John asked.
“The first law of thermodynamics says energy can’t be created or destroyed. She has to be somewhere. I’d like to know where.”
“How does the first law of thermodynamics explain death?”
“That’s what I’m getting at. Why it’s significant to know where she is.”
John’s mood turned grave. “You’re not back on dope again, are you?”
“Why would you ask me that?”
“Because this is beginning to sound like a marijuana conversation.”
“You think I smoked a fat one just because I’d like to know what happened to the kitten’s mother.”
“She probably got run over by a car, not lost in a vortex.”
“Until I see the body I’m opting for the vortex theory,” I said.
“Don’t humor me, Arline. I’m being serious.”
“This is serious. We’re talking death.”
“We’re talking about a cat.”
“We’re talking about a cat I fed all winter.”
John was beginning to sputter. “Yes, that’s the point. You’re buying cat food by the case.”
“It’s cheaper that way.”
“It’d be cheaper if you didn’t buy any.”
“I can’t do that. If I open the door and they’re hungry, I’m going to feed them.”
“What about me?”
“Are you hungry?”
John shut up and stormed out of the kitchen. I went back to opening a can of ocean whitefish pate. This wasn’t over with John. I would like to diffuse the acrimony between us, but I am also aware of my limitations. I know that I will feed the cats no matter what. I just will. This is not just about hunger, it’s a matter of ethics. I’ve done enough bad things in my life to fill a drum with remorse. What I won’t do is put a lid on the drum and pretend it isn’t full. I can live with my mistakes. I can’t live with regret. If the cats are hungry. I will feed them.
This is a hungry world. It’s not a manufacturing problem, there’s plenty of food to go around. It’s a distribution problem. God must be a capitalist, if he were a socialist everyone would get fed. But it’s a common problem that a lot of his creatures go underfed while others are overfed. There is nothing intelligent about the design. The big consume the small, larger gets larger, smaller disappears. That’s the system, and why I feed the cats. Because it corrects God’s inequality.
I had some good news this morning. My neighbor Nancy told me the mother cat was doing fine. She was living over in the alley behind the Arthur Apartments on the next block and looked well fed. This was encouraging news on an otherwise bleak morning.
One of the black kittens got run over on Greenup Street. I walked over and saw it lying in the northbound lane, its head crushed, brain pulp squeezed out onto the blacktop like jam on toast. Unlike her mother, she has gone to that unknown place where energy that cannot be created or destroyed vanishes and is never seen again. I have come to realize life is lived in this dichotomy between here and not here.
I live next to an alley and a parking lot in the urban core. Across from the alley, adjacent to the parking lot, is a homeless shelter. The homeless create a paradox. I live in a comfortable old townhouse with television and indoor plumbing, while a hundred yards across the asphalt men live with nothing but a cot and a bowl of soup. I am not better than any of them, not more deserving. But I live warm and safe in my townhouse, while they stand outdoors cold and unsafe waiting for the shelter to open. This is the universe we inhabit. It’s not a fair place. It’s not an equal place. George Orwell said: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
The only equality is that everything in this great expanse is made out of the same ninety-two elements. The universe is not diverse, the intelligence and awareness of its creatures may have enormous diversity, but our physical bodies are all composites of the same fundamental elements, with the same elementary needs to survive.
It was cold the next morning. The little cats were ravished, mewing as they sat on the stoop in front of my screen door looking up at me expressing their hunger. They are so beautifully pathetic, have the capacity to kindle the fires of kindness in me. I grab an extra can of cat food and generously fill their bowls. As I set them on the porch I stroke the head of the one with a mostly black face, just a tiny blotch of white here and there, he is the smallest of the now three surviving kittens. The other solid black one has disappeared into the nowhere. Life as an orphan in the wild is precarious, life in the alley is a twenty-four hour a day gang fight.
In spite of the harshness of their lives, in their own way, with caution, the cats are affectionate. I so admire this in them. Their ability to remain sentient vital beings within the turbulence of their environment.
As I stand at the door I hear a groan coming from the alley. It’s not a cat, it’s a human sound, distinctly the voice of one of us. My little courtyard has a seven foot stockade fence around it, there’s no seeing what’s in the alley on the other side without going around to the front door and walking down the alley. I really want to know, but I don’t want to go. The alley is on the outside of the comfortable little protectorate I have carved out of the city, a patch of safety, a thick door and high fences sequester me from any danger in the unknown world beyond my walls.
But I have no tolerance for a mystery. It was Friday and I needed to get the trash out anyway. As I carried the bag down the alley, in front of our garbage cans, a man lay on his side, a dribble of puke trailed out of the corner of his mouth. A few inaudible groans arose from deep in his gut. He was not comatose, but not coherent, either, existing in some primitive state between this world and another.
I looked down at him and considered trying to get him up. He was drunk, not injured. His entropy came by choice, not just a random occurrence as the kittens orphaned in my courtyard, abandoned by their mother not by her choosing, but perhaps of necessity. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the man, he has choices, he chose his demise, and who am I to question his choosing. But I can’t just leave him paralyzed by design, lying in the alley. I decided to call 911.
As I dialed the phone I can’t help but wonder why this man has retreated from life while the kittens fight to survive. Why do the cats care so much about living while he cares so little? Perhaps we are not the chosen ones after all.
“911, what is the nature of your emergency?”
“I don’t have one.”
“Ma’am, you called me,” the officer said.
In the end, nothing matters. Everything vanishes. This enormous and interesting universe we’ve inhabited will be permanently absent, it’s former worth imaginary and unknown. “There’s a stoner passed out in the alley behind the homeless shelter on Scott.”
“Is he breathing?”
“Yes. Puking, actually.”
“Is he conscious?”
“He’s kind of squirming.”
“Can you keep him from choking on his vomit?”
“I’m not touching him.”
“Okay. Stay on the line with me? In case the medical techs have trouble locating him.”
I didn’t answer. But I didn’t hang up. As I wait I think about what I read in the morning paper. The past winter was unusually cold and has devastated the deer population. When it gets very cold the deer have to keep moving, their fur doesn’t insulate their bodies enough to keep them from freezing if they remain still. But continuous movement burns up precious fat reserves they gained from feeding all summer. The fawns die first. Last spring the DNR counted a lot of fawns, the survival rate of the fawns this past winter was zero.
The 911 operator called for an ambulance. A few minutes later I heard the sirens approach. “I hear the ambulance.”
“Is he still breathing?”
Yes. I think he’s passed out. He’s on his side.”
“Good. Thank you.”
I stand in the shadows of the stockade fence of my yard and watch as they load him carefully into the ambulance. I think about the uncertainty of everything, even the subatomic. How everything exists because of the precise location of the electron on the atom, which is unknown.
David Swykert is a former 911 operator living in the Cincinnati area. His work has appeared in The Tampa Review,
Detroit News, Coe Review, Monarch Review, the Newer York, Lunch Ticket, Gravel, Zodiac Review, Sand Canyon
Review, Barbaric Yawp, and Bull. His books include Children of the Enemy, Maggie Elizabeth Harrington, Alpha
Wolves, Sweat Street, Three-fingered Jack Davis, The Pool Boy’s Beatitude, and The Death of Anyone.