Cat’s Cradling

“She’s the only one the cat will even come close to.” The Rabbi told my mother in his gentle and slightly raspy voice that exuded wisdom. We were walking down the hallway of the synagogue. His long, white robes glistened with gold filigree. My mother stood in stark contrast, dressed all in black. She wore a tank top, against the rule that shoulders must not show in the holy house, which even reform jews were supposed to follow. This wasn’t a service, though, she would say.

“But whose cat is it? Where did it come from?” She replied, as she looked at the cat sitting outside the window, staring at us.

“We have no idea. But he’s been here for three weeks, not letting anyone but her pet him, hiding in the bushes, barely drinking the milk we set out for him. He’s chosen her.” This assertion seemed to hold greater truth for her, in this red and brown corridor that carried the weight of the holiest of holies. The comfort of the carpet we walked on and the rabbi’s voice were working in my favor. She also trusted the Rabbi implicitly. 

“She’s great with animals, that doesn’t surprise me.” My mother was accustomed to complimenting me. But she rarely took advice from others.

“She’s the only one he lets pet him.” The Rabbi repeated. “He’s a blessing for you. That’s why he’s appeared here and singled her out. Look, he’s following her as we walk.” Thankfully, he seemed to believe wholeheartedly that I was meant to have this cat. 

For years, anytime I saw cats in shows and movies with witches and magic, I had wished, no, prayed, for a black cat. I was frequently called a witch on the playground. Having this cat would give me a sense of comfort and empowerment in that self-definition. Rather than the alienating feeling of being unrecognized by anyone my own age. My sense of distance from my peers was so great that I found it difficult to see benevolence in them, even when they wanted to be my friends. As my mother walked behind me in school one day, she noticed that when I would walk down the halls of my school, I wouldn’t even see other kids waving and nodding to me.

“I understand that, but we have little dogs, what if they don’t get along?” She replied.

“The cat can get away from the dogs, and if it’s too much, you can return him to the temple yard.” The Rabbi asserted.

“It’s a lot of work to take care of a cat. Will you feed him, brush him, and clean his litter box?” She asked, as her eyebrows arched upward at the center, her eyelids widened and her pupils pinched tighter—a look of worry I had grown accustomed to. 

“Yes, all of that. Every day! Please!”

“Fine… How do we catch him?”

“I would use a pet carrier. Just let her invite him into her arms, and she can place him into the carrier. If not, our building manager will be able to do it. He does everything around here.” He explained. I felt trusted and responsible.

“Yes, of course.” Then she turned to me and said, “We’ll go home and get a carrier. If he gets into it, you can keep him.”

“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” I screamed with glee. I jumped up and down so my floral dress puffed up with air, showing my black leggings underneath.

We drove to our house ten blocks away and picked up one of the carriers we used for the little dogs we already had—a Maltese and a Yorkshire terrier. They were too small to cause this big black cat any trouble. He could probably kill them if he needed to. But I hoped he wouldn’t. As we collected the carrier, I thought about how brave the cat was, walking up to me at the temple, living on his own in the wild hills of suburbia filled with forests and raccoons and all sorts of dangers.

We returned to the temple with a small pink carrier that was just big enough to hold Ares. I knew that’s what I wanted to name him, because I had always thought of the jewish god as a god of war. My new cat seemed so serious, too. Some cats seem like they’re smiling, with their eyes soft and playful. Ares, on the other hand, had a piercing stare and used very precise motion with every step he took. 

I brought a small cup of milk, just in case. I placed it by the edge of the hedges where he usually hid out. I made a light clicking sound, with the tip of my tongue pressed against the inside of my two front teeth as I pulled in my breath. I used my soft, soothing, gentle voice. I called to him, “come here boy, we’re gonna take you home, and feed you good food, and give you a warm bed…”

Slowly, Ares crept out of the hedges. With every step he took, his shoulders rolled upwards, backwards and down. He placed his feet in front of each other with such lightness, it was as if he was floating. His head was tucked down a little bit—a predatorial stance he took in self defense. His tail floated behind him. His all-black coat shined in the shady sunlight of the afternoon. He was darker than night, and softer than silk. I welcomed him like fluffy clouds on a day too bright to see.

First, I pet him on the top of his head and the sides of his face, making him purr. Then I offered him the milk. As he drank it, I began petting along his spine in slow, long, smooth motions. When he looked up, I carefully put the milk in the carrier and told him, “Come home with us boy, it’s getting really cold out here, come home to your warm bed and yummy food.” He must have trusted me, after spending weeks jumping into my arms, letting me pet him and being free to roam once again. He was about to get in the carrier. Then, the door to the temple swung open as a couple of secretaries walked through. Areas scurried away and hid in the hedge again. 

We decided to let the building manager try his luck at it. We left the carrier and the cup of milk overnight. The next afternoon, we got a call from one of the temple secretaries, “We’ve caught your cat. Can you come by and pick him up now?” My mother repeated this to me, then answered with those precious words, “Yes. We’ll be there as soon as possible.”

When we got to the temple, he was waiting in the office, sitting in his carrier quietly, on top of a fabric-lined open-back chair. I ran up to him and put my face against the carrier mesh. I told him, “I’m here Ares. We came to take you home. You won’t be in there long.” I lifted him up carefully and held the carrier with both arms underneath. I glided back to the car, with slow, small, careful steps. I handed him to my mother, sat down in the front seat, and my mom gently placed him into my lap. 

As we drove, I wondered why he had chosen me. Was it the way I smelled? The way my voice welcomed him? My gentle touch? Did he sense that I felt like an outsider at temple, just like him? He must have been a house-cat before he was wild. Because as we drove home, and I tried to pet him through the mesh of the carrier, he purred loudly, unafraid of anything. The small space didn’t make him feel trapped—it made him feel the enclosing comfort of home.