This is an excerpt from my novel, Caroline. See previous chapter here.
I had finished going to the library and plopped on the couch to rest when suddenly Rachael hopped onto my lap and started rubbing her head against my arms. Rachael was our family pet, it had been a shelter animal because mom was too cheap to buy an animal from an experienced breeder. Rachael was technically a mutt, if the term can be applied to cats as well, but we didn’t pick Rachael for her breed as much as for her docility and timidity. Generally it’s not good to name pets after a person in the family; Rachael was named after our grandmother who had, at the time, recently passed away.
Because Rachael was in reality Emily’s cat, she was fed by Emily and hangs around her almost exclusively; in the middle of the night she would only creep into Emily’s room, then jump up on her bed and sleep with her. I had no problems with Emily sleeping with Rachael, although initially when I tell that to some of her friends they’d get confused, especially if they know our grandmother had the same name. That aside, it’s a rare event that Rachael would jump on my lap and let me pet her. I took the liberty of taking my right hand and stroking the cat’s back from the top of its shiny head to the base of its frisky tail. I found it a little strange that the cat should arch its back each time my hand neared the base of its tail; not that I think this is improper animal behavior, but feeling its muscles suddenly tense as it merely felt my touch made the animal seem unnerved by my presence.
As I stroked the cat’s shiny coat, Caroline walked past and briefly glanced at me. I was distracted and Rachael took the opportunity to jump off my lap and onto the hardwood floor, arching its back and raising its tail in a defiant manner as it trotted away. Trying to capture Caroline’s attention, I picked Rachael off the floor, smiled at Caroline and asked, “Here, would you like to hold Rachael?”
For a second she did not respond, then she turned around and stared at me with the same look of hostility as she did when we were riding in the car back home from the YMCA. Cold and piercing were her eyes as she walked towards me; I could not stand to look at her directly when she was within an arm’s length reach. I was about to turn around and run because the expression on Caroline’s face was so intense it could melt steel doors. But as I was starting to shirk away Caroline asked, “Aren’t you giving me Rachael to play with?”
I regained the courage to open my eyes again, but did not stare into Caroline’s face directly. She held out her hands to accept the cat into her arms, but before I handed the cat to her I showed her proper way to cradle a cat before putting it in her hands.
“Is that too heavy for you?” I asked.
“No, I’ve been asked to carry heavier things before,” Caroline responded.
For about half a minute the cat tried to wriggle out from Caroline’s arms, but with a grip firmer than you’d expect from hands as small as hers Caroline held onto Rachael tightly and did not let her go even as Rachael was hissing and scratching Caroline with her claws. A remarkable transformation took place as Caroline looked into Rachael’s face; the expression on Caroline’s face soften and became more gentle. Then something completely unexpected, Caroline started “baby-talking” to Rachael, using an artificially high-pitched voice, exaggerated intonation, simplified grammar and repetition.
“Aren’t you a pretty kitty? Aren’t you a pretty kitty? Yes you are! Yes you are! Oh, where is she going? Where is she going?”
It was fascinating because my sister showed the same behavior towards Rachael as Caroline did, confirming an intuition I had for a while that females have an innate mothering instinct. Despite Rachael acting hostile towards Caroline, she treated the cat as though it welcomed her attention. When Rachael scratched Caroline with its claws so hard that she started bleeding, she was unfazed and said jokingly in a very playful voice, ‘Oh, my little kitty is a little Rrrrrrrrr! Isn’t she?’ (I can vouch that I have correctly spelled exactly what Caroline said, she could trill as well as a singer in a mariachi band.)
Caroline’s legs must have been feeling a little tired and she sat down besides me while holding Rachael in her lap. After a while Rachael wasn’t struggling as much, she appeared quite content on Caroline’s lap and allowed her to stroke it without being restrained. With a cat on her lap Caroline seemed very happy, it was hard to imagine that only moments ago she had a grim look on her face as though she’s been condemned to death row, but now she looked like she was pardon by the governor. Innocently, without being cognizant that I was speaking aloud, I remarked, “I believe that this is the first time I’ve ever seen you smile.”
Caroline was surprised and said, “That’s not true, I’ve smiled many times since I’ve been with you.”
“‘Since I’ve been with you,'” I thought to myself, this time careful to avoid saying my thoughts aloud, “I’ve never been purposefully with you, so far we’ve only encountered one another when we accidentally bump into each other in the house.”
“If you’ve ever smiled in front of me then my eyes must have been shut at the moment, because after scanning every memory of the times I’ve look at you, you appeared grim, like the Angel of Death or a scary kid from a horror film,” I said.
Caroline smiled and jokingly whispered, “I see dead people.”
“Yes, when you take LSD you see a lot of things,” I thought silently to myself.
“Have you ever had a cat before?” I asked.
With a glowing smile Caroline said, “Never, I didn’t even have a gerbil or mouse. I had a goldfish once but it died a few weeks after I got it. Goldfish are no fun, you could never pet a one; they’re so sensitive and swift that they’d swim away before you could touch them, and who wants to touch a slimy goldfish anyway? I can’t understand why some people enjoy keeping cold-blooded animals as pets, especially lizards and other reptiles. I can understand why people keep turtles as pets because baby turtles are cute, but once they grow up they’re nothing but a cold lizard in a shell. I especially can’t understand people who keep snakes as pets, what’s so appealing about a slithering animal who frequently sticks out its forked tongue and swallows animals whole? It sounds more like an extraterrestrial being than an earthly creature. I think mice are cute, especially if they have a fluffy coat and cute, large ears. But I hate albino ‘lab mice,’ I find their bloodshot eyes very disconcerting. The white color of their coat is too intense, it reminds me of the white coats doctors wear, which I’m still trying to rid my memories of. I hate rats, except the ones with multi-colored coats which I do like to some degree.”
I asked Caroline only a simple question but never expected such a complex answer where she enumerates what animals she likes and for what reason. But she wasn’t finished yet, “But since I’ve spent so much time in a hospital I never had a chance to have a real pet, once they got me one of them trendy electronic pets from Japan but it couldn’t replace the warmth and fuzziness of a living, flesh and blood pet.”
“You seem to have a lot of preferences on what types of animals will make good pets for a person who hasn’t have had any real pets in her life.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked, this time her smile turning a little sour and back to a hostile look.
“Well, since you never had an opportunity to try out many different types of pets, you really don’t know which animals make good pets or not. I found many types of animals indeed make good pets, even ones no one thought can be domesticated. I once had a pet snail, I kept it in a large glass jar and enjoyed watching it crawl up the sides of the glass with its undulating belly and probing its environment with its long eyestalks and two tentacles that surrounded its mouth. The problem was that I kept feeding it lettuce, which contains too much water. After a while the snail became bloated, plus the jar was also collecting unsightly snail feces and slime trails. I felt sorry for the snail’s living conditions and appearance so I released it into the garden from where it came.
“I also kept another unusual pet, I once swatted flies and fed them to my goldfish, because I’ve heard that feeding goldfish live food provides them with more nutrition than regular pellets. I once caught a very large fly, it was unlike the small green-bottles that are more numerous in our area; it looked more like a large horsefly. I kept this unusual find in a small glass jar so I could carry it carefully to the fish tank when I suddenly notice tiny, short, white filaments no thicker than a thread wriggling out of its crushed abdomen. They were maggots that have hatched inside the body of the fly. It was planning to lay the maggots on a suitable substrate for feeding until I cut short its plans by crushing it to death. Fascinated by these almost microscopic creatures I tried raising them, first on banana peel and then on pieces of apple and cantaloupe. Despite their otherworldly and some would say disgusting appearance, I took care of them as well as my knowledge of maggot husbandry allowed, even giving them a habitat inside a used makeup container my mother threw away. Even so, out of the half-dozen maggots I collected only one survived to the stage where it was as big as a grain of rice. Unfortunately it then escaped from the makeup box I gave it as its home. I could only hope that mom accidentally threw away the maggot into a pile of trash where it continued its development, then turned into a chrysalis, from which an adult fly emerge and is now blissfully buzzing around in a garbage dump somewhere, enjoying sucking juice from a spoiled peach.”
Caroline looked quite repulsed, and said, “I don’t know whether to compliment you on your ability to describe with such beautiful language something as ugly as maggots, or to be completely disgusted at the fact that you enjoyed having maggots as pets.”
I smiled and said, “Why can’t you do both at the same time? My point is that there are many animals that most people have never even considered that actually make good pets. In fact maggots make excellent pets, they take up very little space, eat very little and don’t seem to excrete much waste (at least that’s my experience). It doesn’t matter if a few of them die because people are less emotionally attached to insects than mammals, they have a very short lifespan and therefore go through their entire life-cycles in a matter of weeks and are plentiful and easy to obtain. Now, many consider flies to be dirty creatures because they spread diseases, but consider the fact that more normal pets such as dogs and cats are also quite dirty themselves, especially dogs because they cannot be trained to use a litter box. Dogs and cats also spread diseases such as rabies, tapeworms, fleas, where would these things be without cats and dogs as intermediates for their transmission? In fact, the household cat is a reservoir of a parasite so dangerous to unborn fetuses that pregnant women are advised not to handle cats. On the contrary, maggots do not carry any diseases that are transmissible to human beings unless you eat them raw, which is unlikely. So there is quite a case to be made that maggots make the perfect pet, despite our instinctive, visceral reaction towards things that look like grains of rice that can wriggle. And besides, when Rachael comes back from the yard carrying the bloody remains of a bird he’s caught outside, that’s quite disgusting also.”
“Ew! Rachael has caught a bird once?” Caroline said with a look of disgust on her face. She released her grip on Rachael and even tried shooing her away from her lap, but Rachael enjoyed lying on Caroline’s lap too much to jump off.
I smiled and said, “I believe Rachael likes you.”
Continue to next chapter.