Fatima Khalid is an Islamabad-based engineer.
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Cat in a Sack
Mother likes to tell the cat story to guests.
‘The kids, they adopted a stray cat once. Did I ever tell you?’ She usually begins, laughing a high-pitched laugh. ‘They were crazy about it – spoilt it thoroughly.’
She mostly brings it up when guests ask her about my sister’s marriage prospects. There isn’t much of a story, and she never holds anyone’s interest for long. The guests sometimes laugh politely, mostly uncomfortably, and Mother then changes the topic.
If anyone ever asks though, not one of us can say exactly when the cat went from being an irrelevant stray to a pampered pet. We all agree that this is the reason Mother can never develop a solid story – because there is no solid beginning – but we are probably wrong.
We cannot remember exactly when the cat decided to take up residence at our doorstep. We do vaguely recollect it wandering around the house for a couple of days before settling down on the doorstep. We can also recall an incident when Father had opened the door to go get the newspaper one day and found it curled up fast asleep at his feet – annoyed, he had stomped his good foot to scare it off, but the cat had not moved. Father had then gently poked it with his foot, and woken it up. Indolently, it had looked at Father’s foot, stretched and slunk a little further away from the door to curl up and go back to sleep. Sister believes this might have rankled Father a little bit. What we do remember quite clearly is that it was Mother, contrary to what she tells guests, who first started feeding the cat. She would save scraps of chicken fat and leave them out with some milk, poured into the cap of a used-up furniture polish bottle. Sometimes she would stand over and watch with a small amused smile as the cat ate.
‘That’s an entire life’s worth of affection that she’s saved on us,’ Sister jokingly said to me sometimes – though never in front of mother.
Attempting to finish the story that Mother has begun, we sometimes pitch in with accounts of the cat’s growing attachment. ‘It became so that whenever we opened the door, the cat would come running up to us,’ we say, ‘And lower its head and rub it against our shoes. Every time. It was always there when we opened the door.’
Guests usually lose interest by this time. The storyline begins to falter.
When the cat had begun to respond affectionately to Mother’s generosity, Mother had reeled. She would draw back when the cat tried to rub against her legs, and when the cat persisted, she would shove it off strongly with her foot.
We had welcomed it. When it rubbed against us, we would bend and stroke it. It liked being stroked – it would sprawl on its side and give in, purring contentedly all the while. Sometimes we would sit down on the porch cross-legged and it would crawl into the hollow space between our legs, curl up and close its eyes. My sister and I found ourselves out on the porch those summer afternoons more often than usual. Mother’s fondness for the cat began to subside. Her irritation at our attachment began to increase.
This is the part of the story no one bothers to talk about. Usually guests become bemused at why the story means so much to us.
There were days when there were no scraps of meat left over to feed the cat. It would spend hours mewling through the door, and we would linger close by uncomfortably – dashing to filch some milk to put out for her as soon as Mother left the kitchen. When Mother found a small sachet of white powder in Brother’s room, the cat spent the entire day wailing outside the door, while Mother ranted and raved and cursed and abused all of us. Sister and I strained to hear the sounds through all of it, listening for when it would give up and go looking for food elsewhere. It lasted a long while. We didn’t dare to go out. Later, when we did step out, sometime after midnight, we found the dregs of what seemed to be recently-poured milk in the bottle cap, and an apparently fulfilled cat curled up and fast asleep.
Sometimes, guests care enough to ask, ‘What happened to the cat?’ There is a pause where we pretend to not remember, and then Mother says, somewhat vaguely, ‘Ran away, I think.’
The cat had at one point taken to dashing into the house every chance it could get. It never really wanted anything – it would just run in as far as it could before we realized it was in the house and then it would sprint right back out as we started after it. We found this amusing, but it drove Mother up the wall.
‘This is all your fault!’ She would scream at us as we went after it, ‘Now drive it out before your father sees!’
When Father would see it, he would attempt to kick it if it was within his reach, and hurl things at it if it was not. He would then glare at us darkly while we held our breaths and silently prayed the cat would get out unhurt. The cat rarely stayed when father was at home.
A week after Sister turned 28, Father had to pick up a rather emaciated, barely conscious Brother from the local police station. The cat lay stretched out on the doorstep when they came home. When it saw Brother, it stood up to rub against brother’s legs. Brother, however, was weak on his legs then and while he struggled to stand up straight, he lost balance, tripped, hit the floor and threw up. He curled up and continued to lie in his own vomit.
This never features in the story but we remember what followed distinctly. Father had stood still – quiet, calm, slightly swaying in the doorway – and then stepping over brother, he had gone to the store room and come back with an old brown woolen sack. He had stooped to pick up the cat, thrown it into the sack, silently walked out to the car and driven away. Later he had returned without it. He never said a word. We knew better than to ask questions.
Guests shrug off the story at the end. Pets come and go all the time, they tell us. They say they can never figure out why people get attached anyway.
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