1993 was a big year in my life. A Grave Talent was published, and didn’t disappear entirely. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice was prepared for publication, and I went to New York to meet that mysterious and all-powerful individual, an editor. The publishers made it clear that they wanted more books, and would give me money for them: this writing hobby had a future. And in the autumn of that year, I bought a cat.
My first advances, many of which were foreign, I spent in three ways: first I’d take my family out to dinner. Then I would buy things we’d been putting off for the house (It seemed appropriate to use a check from Denmark to replace the Jotul wood stove with central heating—and God, it was nice not to have to cut, haul, stack, and fetch wood, then fuss with burning it, and then have to clear the ashes, just to keep the kids from turning blue.) After that, the money would go into the family account, my first financial contribution in fifteen years of marriage.
Except for one sum. When I got back from New York that fall, I decided to splurge on myself, to get myself something truly frivolous: unnecessary, expensive, and beautiful.
I spent $300 on a young Abyssinian cat, and bought myself a friend.
Haile has been my buddy for fifteen years. All cats, but especially the desert breeds (Abyssinnia is the old name for Ethiopia and Haile Selassie was the king of said country—originality is not a requirement for naming cats.) are seekers of warmth, and Haile took early on to settling on my feet as I slept or while I was writing. This habit of finding him on my lower extremities during the night eased a trying hospital visit, when my drugged mind interpreted the pressure cuffs on my legs as the reassuring familiarity of a shifting cat.
When he was young—once he had adjusted to the trauma of moving from a one-room artists’ flat into a farmhouse, which caused him to skulk under the furniture for days—he became an inveterate explorer, and the officer in charge of the estate. Workmen would arrive and within two minutes, Haile would show up to investigate, which meant we’d have to make sure they checked their tool boxes before they drove away, left the crawl space of the house open, and were aware that he would be sitting at their feet as they sprayed sawdust all over with the Skil saw.
As he grew older, he grew less likely to face down the local bobcat or find a way onto the roof, which was something of a relief. Still, he never went grey, never lost his boyish good looks or charm.
Haile died last weekend, of a rare neurological auto-immune disease called myasthenia gravis, which interfered with the use of his muscles and turned him into a liquid cat, needing to have his head held to eat, his body lifted to use the cat box. And which eventually locked up the muscles in his throat and chest. The veterinarian returned him to us in a neat cardboard coffin with—a touch both funny and unbearably poignant—a white daisy taped to the top.
I buried him in the garden last night, my friend of fifteen years. I will buy a red-twigged Japanese maple and plant it over him, a reminder of his supple exoticism and beauty.
The simple nature of the relationship—warmth, tactile comfort, food, companionship—makes for a simple reaction to his death. I am so very sad.