Another Cat Story
Because ferocious felines can make you crazy too
Soon after I moved into the house on Cottam Road, my second rental in Taos, UPS delivered a package for a woman named Barbara, who lived next door (“next door” in these parts being about a quarter-mile away). Since this seemed a fine opportunity to get to know the neighbors, I carried the parcel to her house and was greeted by a small woman with spiky dark hair and round granny glasses, a fashion statement that gave her the look of an angry horned owl. She introduced herself as Vivienne and had a pronounced French accent.
Barbara was not home, and because Vivienne did not invite me inside, we stood and chitchatted on the porch for a few minutes. I told her I had moved to Taos from New York a little more than a year earlier and wrote for The Wall Street Journal and ARTnews.
She looked at me sharply, suddenly interested. “Oh, I’m a writer too! I work there”—she pointed at a small casita next to the carport—“and I’ve just published my first book. It’s about my mom, who was an aviator in World War II. I’ll get it.”
Vivienne vanished briefly inside the little adobe house and reappeared with the book in hand. I took the copy from her and admired the photo on the front, of a dark-haired woman in an open cockpit, smiling roguishly as she adjusted her goggles. I ventured a sentence in French. “Elle était très jolie, votre mère.” But that was about as far as I could go. I turned to look for the publisher and blurb on the back, checking to see if it was an imprint I recognized. I did not. But I smiled appreciatively. “That’s so kind of you. I will certainly have a look.”
“That will be twenty dollars.”
I looked at her carefully to see if she was joking, but the owl eyes stared, unblinking.
“Um, uh, I don’t have a purse with me, but I will certainly pay you next time I see you.”
“Okey dokey,” said Vivienne, as though I were severely trying her patience.
With that, I felt dismissed and headed back toward the road.
The next time I saw Vivienne and met her partner, Barbara, was at the house of yet another new acquaintance, the head of the local arts center, who had told me my neighbors would be on hand for a dinner party. In the kitchen, I handed Vivienne her book, trying not to sound churlish, but I didn’t want to spend twenty bucks to read a self-published book on anyone’s mother. “I’m sorry, but I’m really not all that interested in aviation during World War II. And you would no doubt rather have the copy to sell.”
Those were probably the last civil words we exchanged.
The big cat started coming around later that summer, after I had fixed up a corner for a feral cat on the small front porch, a lovely place to sit and admire the mountains because it was sheltered from the winds that tend to whipsaw this town in June and July. I set a couple of Adirondack chairs side by side and installed hanging baskets of petunias from the roofline. Piglet, as I named her later for the copious amounts of food she would consume, came to the screen door one day, probably sensing another cat in the house. My sweet Sylvia, a rescue cat adopted only a few months earlier, answered the summons, and the two communicated via furious yowling, which brought me instantly to my feet. Piglet ran off as soon as she saw me, and I caught a glimpse of a stumpy tail and scruffy black coat. After she came around again (I had for whatever reasons decided she was female, though oddly I never got close enough to find out), I began leaving out bowls of chow and water. Then a basket lined with an old blanket. She took up residence and soon allowed me within four or five feet, where I could see her pale-green eyes and battered ear, possibly notched as a sign from the local feral felines association that she’d been neutered. Again, we never really got close enough to share those kinds of intimacies.
It all worked out easily between Piglet and Sylvia, who commandeered the larger porch and garden at the side of the house, off the kitchen, while Piglet called the back porch home. Both took off on periodic rambles down the steep ravine that separated my house from Vivienne and Barbara’s, but they were comfort-loving creatures who never stayed away for too long.
And then one day there came a terrible high-pitched squealing from Piglet, and when I looked out, I noticed a long fur-covered animal, vaguely feline, perched on the porch railing. On seeing me, the animal bared its teeth and let out a venomous hissing sound. Yes, it appeared to be a cat, all covered in patchy rust and black fur, but it was about the size of a large raccoon or possibly a small mountain lion. Piglet was cowering in her basket, mewling like an injured calf. The most sensible thing I could think to do was fill a glass of water and then pitch it at the big cat, which promptly scooted off the rail and fled down the ravine.
But the cat returned repeatedly, terrorizing both Piglet and Sylvia. If I approached, the animal held its ground, ears pinned back, fangs bared, seeming to signal that it was capable of a full frontal attack whatever the size of the opponent. I threw water. I threw rocks. I turned on the hose. No matter what, the cat came back.
“You need to get some bear spray,” advised my ex, a veteran of camping and fishing trips in remote reaches of the great outdoors. “It’s the same thing as pepper spray, and it’s perfectly legal to use it on wild animals.”
And so I ordered a can from Amazon. Soon after its arrival, when the monster cat appeared on the railing of Piglet’s domain, I released a plume of russet-colored spray at its face from a distance of about 10 feet. The beast took off, howling down the ravine.
Later that afternoon there was a hysterical call on my voicemail from Barbara next door. “What have you done to our cat?! She’s in shock, she can’t breathe. I’ve had to leave her overnight at the vet’s. How could you do such a terrible thing….” And on and on, punctuated by sobbing.
I sat at my desk chair, staring unhappily at Piglet in her basket, placidly licking her paws, oblivious to any suffering, human or feline. Well, shit, I had no way of knowing the cat belonged to anyone, and I was surprised to learn it was female….my two girls were, well, girlish. All along I’d simply assumed this was a feral tomcat, born and abandoned in some scrubby patch of desert, possibly suckled by wolves.
And that was pretty much what I told Barbara when I returned her call. I apologized profusely but explained that nothing seemed to deter the cat from preying on my animals, not stones, not water. “You threw stones at Jeudi?” she wailed. So the cat was named after the word for Thursday in French. I wasn’t about to ask why.
“Look, this is one very vicious animal and you’ve got to keep her inside.”
“It’s your fault for sheltering a feral cat on your porch,” she said. “That’s a magnet for other cats.”
“You’re blaming me for your cat’s nasty behavior?” I took a deep breath. “I feel absolutely terrible about this. Please call and let me know that she’s okay.” I pointedly did not offer to assume any part of the vet bills.
I didn’t hear from Barbara or Vivienne again that weekend, but on Monday, a cop car rolled into my driveway. Holy crap, I thought. Could they have called the police? Could pepper-spraying a cat, someone’s pet, be illegal?
When I answered the door, a short sturdy-looking guy introduced himself as Officer Sanchez and very politely explained that he was from animal control and that, yes, the neighbors had complained. I laid out my case, taking him on a brief tour of the house to point out Sylvia’s domain and then Piglet’s. I described the big cat’s aggressive behavior and my fear for my pets’ safety. I realized I was probably morphing into one of those old ladies who are dotty for cats, but I was also feeling a mother’s defensive indignation.
And totally flabbergasted that the ladies would haul in the law instead of convening to talk the situation through like civilized adults. Bitches.
“Well, you’re perfectly in your rights to blast the cat with bear spray,” he said. “I would do the same thing if a wild animal came after my little dogs.”
We shook hands. I smiled, enjoying the shameless, pleasurable thrill of self-righteous vindication. I watched Officer Sanchez back out the drive, hoping his car was headed for Barbara and Vivienne’s house, though I couldn’t see if that was his ultimate destination.
I didn’t hear from them again, but that was not the end of Jeudi, who survived the pepper spray with no obvious ill effects and had the audacity to appear on my porch a few more times. But merely shaking the can and spraying it several feet wide of the mark was enough to send her scampering down the ravine.
About a month later I noticed Barbara and Vivienne’s house was for sale. Soon after that they moved out entirely. I would wonder from time to time if the incident with Jeudi was the deciding factor in their relocation. But I will probably never know.
A year later there was a flyer posted on the library bulletin board advertising Vivienne’s workshops in the “healing memoir.” So they did not leave town. A few more times we have run into each other and exchanged stiffly cordial waves and smiles. I’ve moved on, she’s moved on, and it is my sincere hope that something larger than either of us took care of Jeudi.