The Ballad of Linwood of Wake
My 16 1/2-year-old black cat Clarissa died, five months after my wife died. The cat had slept on my legs her whole life. Now I would do without a cat, maybe travel, have a rest. I bonded with a kitten, another black female, at an "adoptathon," and the women there, watching it nap in my lap, said: "There had better be a ring at the end of this romance." But I hadn't decided and had to give her back.
Then this big orange tabby showed up on the Internet, the SPCA "cat of the week," which meant he'd been at the shelter too long. He was verging on an uncertain future. I could adopt him for $10 less. But what got me up that Saturday morning was the photo of him looking directly at the world upside down. Just that.
Some animal rights philosophers say I can't have a cat, and the cat can't have me. It isn't right. A corruption of nature. An enslaving tyranny. A wrong.
I'd been making a list of names, female and male, preparing for a match. If you have enough names on a list, a particular cat will just call up one of them like a magnet. I arrived at the shelter early, visualizing a tug of war, the poor tabby's body being stretched between some other prospective "owner" and myself. No one else seemed interested in him. Some kid reached into his cat condo/cage and he hissed. He seemed a little distant. Didn't like being held for long. He stood up rangy and tall, cougar-like, muted stripes and buff, orange with yellow eyes, rattlesnake stripes on the end of his tail and broad nose leather like a wild cat, a microchipped and neutered but macho male, 14 pounds.
"I don't suppose you've named him yet," said the woman at the desk as they registered his microchip and his new address. "Linwood," I said. "His name is Linwood." They tucked him in the carrier and I headed out the door, and the whole lobby of about 15 people, staff and the public chimed in, in chorus: "Goodbye, Linwood! Linwood, goodbye!"
Like one of those paper flowers that unfolds underwater from a pill, he unfolded when I got him home as he explored around the new premises comparing them to his recent shelter cage. He liked it so well that for months when I opened the door to go out, he fled toward the inside of the house. He'd been out there, a "Wake County stray."
When I first flopped down to nap after the exhaustion of taking on a cat, he leapt up beside me arriving with a gusty explosive whap and curled up. "Well, here I am." Professional he was and knew what he was doing. He knew the litter box, the food, the treats. He didn't talk much except to request the tiny portions of skimmed milk. He carefully hid his new toys.
He would silently come and go at night, sleeping on the bed for a while within reach then retreating to a recliner two levels down or to another bed in another room. Only in the morning just before the alarm would he walk up and reach his nose toward my dozing head and softly meow. Was he adopted? Or was he ... sent?
He likes to snooze in front of the TV. He likes televised sports more than I do. He likes to listen to long phone conversations. He'll come from distant parts of the house to hear those. He likes when I read so he can sleep a few feet away. He's jealous when I'm on the computer and will jump up and nip my arm. He likes to play fishing pole, chasing the denim bow on the end of the string. He keeps an eye on insects and squirrels out the window, and especially other cats.
I'll close the driveway gate and let him out. He roamed off once or twice but mostly stays inside the fence, and often just sits on a chair on the carport watching his yard, day or night. The one time I had to go out searching and found him in the ravine across the street, he disappeared from view and beat me home, waiting at the back door. "Of course, you understand, I know what I'm doing."
As for me, I felt horrible when I couldn't get medicine in his eye. I finally somewhat figured it out, and he decided it was all right after all. I'd put it on his eyelid then smooth it with my thumb. He lets me kiss him on either tall orange-pink ear and right on top of his head, just over that active imponderable brain, that cat mind. Sometimes I rest my head on his ribs and listen to his digestion and his heart. Then he jumps up and walks off.
I appreciate that he knows exactly what he is doing, knows more than I do about how this works, what he's leading me through. It's not Pavlov's dog (or cat)--unless that's me. He's woven himself into my day and night and mind and psyche and life. After five years, he knows me better than some members of my family ever did. And I wonder about his mom carrying him by his scruff. She must have loved her sturdy orange boy.
Philosophically, a person shouldn't keep a cat, or let a cat keep him. It's wrong. Linwood and I are living in philosophical sin. Sometimes I phone him and holler through the answering machine. I tell him it won't be long until I'm home. It's nuts. It may be wrong. It's so.
I couldn't name her for the longest time. I'd sneak her upstairs to the office under my denim jacket; sneak her out for walks between cook shifts at the cafe. During my shift I'd mull the spice shelves, thinking how she was a spicy pup, with wild black and white hair spritzed out over her eyes, muzzle and paws, and snappy, humorous black eyes. I called her "Puppy," knowing that was lame, and then tried "Coriander Pepper," and actually saw her laugh at my pretension.
Then one night a singer was picking out a tune on the stage in front of my bar. He let out a high wail of a song about revenooers and deep wells and busting stills:
"Wake up, wake up, darlin' Corey ... what makes you sleep so sound?"
It was a song about death and sticking to your ground, and burying someone deep, and it had a wild country twang to it. This pup had been rescued from a trash heap in the woods outside the city. This song fit. She became Corey--darlin' when she was good.
A boyfriend had brought her home from a hunting trip, claimed she'd been living in an old refrigerator, said he was going to give her to a friend. "Mine," I said.
I took her into the bathroom, put her in the tub and scrubbed out the briars and ticks. Borrowed a collar and leash from a friend. I went out for drinks to celebrate, set her inside the fenced yard of the bar. When I walked in, everyone was looking at me and laughing. Darlin' Corey, all 5 pounds of her, had pulled out of her collar, leaped the fence and was right behind me.
I had to ditch the boyfriend. He made me choose.
She went everywhere with me after that. I thought about getting a sidecar for my motorcycle, but I just sold it and got a car so she could hang her head out the window. We went camping together, we moved to house after house, boyfriend after boyfriend. She chased burglars away. She chased rednecks away in the woods. She surfed waves in the bow of my whitewater canoe. She warned of invading raccoons in my apartment. She saved my life.
Corey was well trained, with one exception--she would get a wild look in her eye and chase anything that was trying to run fast, any chance she got. I was standing on the sidewalk next to Connecticut Avenue, Corey in a sit-stay, when a friend said, "She'll never really learn unless you take her off the leash." I did it. The light changed. All the traffic that had been standing still began to move up the hill.
Corey looked at me, looked at the cars, and took off. For the next four minutes, she herded four lanes of rush hour taxis and buses up the hill, biting their tires, darting in and out, brakes squealing around her, while I stood there, leash in hand, unable to move. When she got to the top of the hill, she turned around and herded the four lanes coming the other way. She met me in the median. She sat. She stayed. Job done.
I moved to North Carolina so she could retire.
When I met my husband he wasn't much of a dog person. He thought Corey was a sissy city dog. He sicced her on a possum one day just for fun and watched her work. She broke his neck and chomped his spine all up and down five or six times. That possum was dead. After that, he got her to herd cows, kill copperheads and dig the voles out of the garden.
That old refrigerator story became part of the legend of Corey, told year after year and finally turned into a kind of nativity play-cum-Grimm's fairy tale one Christmas by my stepdaughter. "Corey was born in an old refrigerator..." she intoned from behind a sheet curtain. The part of the refrigerator/manger was played by our clothes dryer, filled with towels, and Corey patiently in a sit-stay, backlit by a dryer-light halo, baby Jesus as a small dog.
After 17 years she finally died in my arms.
I washed her body and laid her out on a footstool with daylilies, feeling like a crazed Southern widow at a wake. Sam dug a grave so deep and square in the meadow under the pecan trees. He rolled the sod, and piled the loose dirt on a tarp. It was the heat of summer, and the garden was in bloom, I picked rosemary and lavender, thyme and daylilies, flowers in profusion. We laid her in a bed of blossom, blended a load of peach daiquiris, invited friends and told stories of the legendary Corey: Snake-Killer, Cattle-Herder, Terror to Squirrels and Possums. Ice-Cream Eater. Booski, Fuzz Bucket, Itch Witch. She had many names by then.
Dig a hole dig a hole in the meadow
Dig a hole in the cold damp ground
Dig a hole dig a hole in the meadow
We're gonna lay darling Corey down.
Dweezil the Wonder Monkey
Dweezil was a capuchin monkey and was one of the many animals that have blessed my life of 52 years on this earth. We lived in Chapel Hill together for many years, and there are still many people who remember Dweezil.
In 1970 when I was 17, I rescued him from the most unpleasant circumstances at a gas station in South Carolina, where he was being kept in a small cage littered with cigarette butts and candy bar wrappers, and where he was being tormented by teenage boys who delighted in giving him lit cigarettes and got off on his fits when he burned himself. This abuse and torment made him angry and wild. I, too, had been abused, and therefore left home at the age of 15; I was also angry and wild.
Patience and love tamed him into my constant companion and loving friend, and we became family for each other. He showed his affection by being fiercely protective of me. He was not afraid of anything.
Before I returned to Chapel Hill from South Carolina, I worked for nearly a year at a zoo in Greenville, S.C. It was a great arrangement, as I was able to keep Dweezil there, and he had monks to play with. He was the alpha male, and he got really perturbed by an African lion kept in a cage next to him that would stage mock attacks on the monkeys. Dweezil would meet him head-on to protect his group. They were separated only by a chain-link fence.
One day, the lion snapped at Dweezil's hand and took off one of his fingernails. About a month later, Dweezil managed to work a lock open and escape. He immediately went to the lion's sleeping quarters, made of cinderblock with bars on the windows that were wide enough for Dweezil to squeeze through. We heard a terrible commotion and ran quickly to the scene, where Dweezil was chasing that huge lion around the cage.
Dweezil was just too fast for him. I'll never forget seeing that huge lion climbing the sides of his cage, with Dweezil, who was the size of a house cat, biting his tail. I quickly got Dweezil out before the lion had time to rethink the situation.
One of our favorite pastimes was to go walking in overgrown fields together. He would hang by his tail from my neck with his feet on my stomach, and his hands would be free to snatch the grasshoppers we would rustle up.
I have adopted and rescued quite a few monkeys, and I am in the process of establishing a nature preserve for monkeys in the jungles of Costa Rica, largely due to the love I shared with Dweezil. I also intend to write a book about Dweezil in the near future, for of all the animals I've known--and there have been hundreds, including dozens of capuchin monkeys--he was unique.
Roo and the Whale
I used to have a little three-legged dog named Roo. She was your typical "Heinz 57" mix--tan, short in stature, but with a terrier's tenacity when it came to things she cared about (people, toys, food, etc.). She and I lived in Durham for a number of years before she passed away at the age of 16.
Once, a few winters back, Roo and I were living near the coast, just in from the Outer Banks. A friend told me of a dead humpback whale that had washed ashore not too far from Kitty Hawk. I am the sort of person who thinks a dead whale is entertainment, so Roo and I took a drive over to check it out.
Since it was January, the beach that afternoon was deserted with the exception of a few hard-core walkers. When we first arrived, we had the dead whale to ourselves, so we were free to walk around and investigate. The whale had been recently killed by colliding with a ship's propeller offshore; it was partially decapitated, and not too smelly by human standards.
Roo was quite pleased with the find. She had clearly never encountered such a large, odiferous and potentially chewy object. She romped around the whale, sniffing and wagging her tail, reveling in the joy of the discovery.
Within a few minutes, a guy and his dog strolled over to look, too. Roo would have none of it, running circles all around the dead whale in an attempt to fend off her potential rival, a friendly and fairly docile golden retriever with a drool-covered tennis ball in his mouth. She was enormously relieved when they made their way down the beach and away from her prize.
Once I had satisfied my curiosity, I called Roo to head back to the car, but she ran back and forth, clearly torn. Finally, in one last attempt to reclaim her prize, she ran back, sunk her teeth into the big pectoral fin, and tried a three-legged backpedal, as if she could somehow drag the whale home and keep it.
Needless to say, we left the whale on the beach that day, but I am sure Roo dreamt of it often.
"You just set him up there? Like luggage?" I asked. The attendant working the counter stopped what she was doing and scowled at me. She didn't appreciate having to repeat herself. There was a long line. People were waiting.
I looked down at the large animal carrier, then over at the luggage conveyor. My father stood nearby. Moments before he had tears in his eyes for much the same reason as what bothered me now. We thought we'd have some time. A moment or two more to talk and share in each other's presence. How we felt about my leaving.
I looked up. The lady raised an eyebrow and nodded toward the carrier.
I leaned over and looked through the wire door. Two big brown eyes stared back, backed by 60 pounds of playful Labrador puppy and all the love in the world. "All right, Digger, you be a good boy. I'll see you in a few hours."
I hefted the cage onto the conveyor and in a matter of seconds he was gone, rolling through the tiny door and into the airport oblivion where thousands upon thousands of pieces of luggage became lost to their owners every day.
I saw him again later, as I was sitting on the plane. He was riding the luggage train, then being loaded into the hold. I wondered what he thought about this, leaving. It wasn't just for another country; it was a separation from a comfortable life, a good but dangerous job in the Army, a hopeless, empty marriage. I had countless opinions from others about it, most of them negative, but at the moment all that mattered were his and mine. That I knew my father understood, even without his saying it.
Our departure was delayed, then after a bumpy transatlantic flight we got diverted from Milan to the coastal town of Genoa, of which I'd never heard. "Is that still in Italy?" I wanted to ask.
I passed through customs and hurried to the baggage area in search of Digger, needing proof of his well-being after such a long and lonely ordeal. I found him on the conveyor, confined still to his cage. When I pulled him down and freed him from impoundment, his gentle and loving soul greeted me, his heart bursting with joy.
I collected our things and found the stranded passengers from my flight. An airport official explained that a bus had been commissioned to carry us to Milan. I looked down at Digger, who wagged his tail. He strained against his leash. We went outside in search of some unattended real estate.
We were the last to board. The only open seats were in the back of the bus. I navigated down the narrow aisle, past the awkward looks and children's giggles, and sat down. Digger stood in the aisle looking up at me.
"Lay down," I commanded, motioning toward the floor.
He jumped into my lap.
The way a reunion should be.
After eight years of deflecting bird brinkmanship, Rakie-the-Bird, my African gray parrot, can still stun me with his machinations. Not long ago, Rakie sat in his favorite nook on my shoulder watching me tap out an article at my computer. Kira, my elderly Shih Tzu, was on a nearby cushion snoring the afternoon away. My guard was down, as I was dedicated to finishing up some work for a client. To Rakie, the situation spelled a perfect opportunity to introduce some drama into an otherwise boring day. Have I mentioned that birds thrive on drama?
Ninja-like, he edged down my arm and positioned himself invisibly at just the right angle to my trusty glass of diet soda. Then, ever so carefully, he extended two of his four toes to its lip and pulled it over at exactly the right pitch to soak my keyboard in fizzy bubbles. He had done this before with satisfying effect; he knew it was capable of producing the spectacle of me racing around like an idiot trying to sop up the mess.
This time, instead of jumping up and down and cussing him out--thereby compounding the problem by teaching him vocabulary that would create even more drama later--I scooped him up, dumped him into his cage and locked the door. But this was Rakie-the Bird, after all, and he did declare that clearly, despite my stony silence. It took him only a moment to recover from initial disappointment and figure out a new tack.
"Kira did it," he proclaimed loudly in my voice. "Bad dog, Kira! Go on in the kitchen, Kira, go on in the kitchen!" he ordered at the top of my lungs. After many years of false alarms, the dog had learned to distinguish between my voice and Rakie's eerily good imitation, but this time she, too, was caught off guard. She jumped up, out of rapid eye movement, and slunk noisily into the kitchen.
For Rakie it was mission accomplished, and he cackled in my laugh to mark his victory.