I first saw him one late afternoon. He was in a field, perhaps twenty yards from me. He tucked into the tall grass and watched as I walked along the path below him.
This is the second time. Beside the same path, he sits on a fence post at nightfall. He is between the path and the woods. I am making my way home before dark:
I expect him to leap and disappear into the undergrowth as I proceed towards him. But he remains still. It is as though he expects me. He watches my approach, watches as I cautiously raise my phone because I am seized by a desire to photograph him. He turns his gaze away from me at the moment the photo occurs.
If you look closely at the photo and into his night, you can see his eyes no longer looking at me. I cannot ‘take’ him with my camera. He acquiesces; gifts and withholds. I receive. What might he receive of me?
In an early essay on photography, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph” (1859), Oliver Wendell Holmes “encourages us to look at the images we ‘shed’ as well as those we receive from others — to view ourselves from the outside, as others see us, as well as from the inside, where we see them: ‘these evanescent films may be seen in… any clear, calm sheet of water, in a mirror, in the eye of an animal…’” (Kaja Silverman, The Miracle of Analogy, 2015)
I take a quiet step. He turns to look at me again. We remain there a moment, eye to eye, opposite one another in darkening space/time, shared and unshared. He tells me he is not leaving. I am grateful.
It crosses my mind that this could be Vico: a ghost, a revenant. The toughest animal I ever knew, Vico came before the other animals in our young family and outlasted them all. He weathered the arrival of a dog, that dog’s lumbering affection, fights with other cats, going missing after house moves, and becoming trapped under the floor boards of one house in a last-ditch attempt to avoid moving altogether. Vico went missing so long and so often, only to return emaciated and injured, that he wore out our desire to have a cat. It was too painful. How he found his way home each time, how he managed to purr at the sight of us, even while bleeding, limping, and starving after some misadventure, we could not know.
I carry guilt about Vico that never leaves me. The source of this guilt is my attachment to our dog, Maisie. From the moment she arrived, even in her exasperating puppy days, my affections shifted from cat to dog. For years, I mostly ignored him, yet Vico never gave up on me. I was his person. He favoured me, rubbed his arched body against my legs, climbed onto my lap, and purred heavily. It’s hard to explain to an animal, but we humans go through life feeling shame about particular episodes. There are things we try not to think about that, nonetheless, remain in our hearts until we die. That neglect of Vico is one of mine.
It was not until the last year of his life that I returned to Vico. As a grizzled old black cat, he developed two health problems. The first was chronic conjunctivitis which meant that he required daily eye drops until he died. The second was a brain tumour which mainly affected his movement. He walked with a tilt to one side, often twisting his head and pressing it against the wall or sides of furniture. He drank water in large quantities but did not eat much, losing weight until he reminded me of an old man. I was his nurse. We sat together in the sun on warm afternoons. Twice a day, I cleansed his eyes, and administered drops, prednisone, and painkillers. He put up no resistance to my ministrations. Vico had always liked the sound of my voice, purring loudly when I talked to him. So I talked to him again. Told him what I was doing. What I was thinking. He purred. At the end, when the vet gave him the injection, I spoke to him and damn if he didn’t surprise us all by getting to his feet one last time. He stood facing me and purring. Then he dropped back down and died.
Vico, who fought death so long and so hard. Who for one last summer, cruised down the waters from Amsterdam to Paris, carrying his brain tumour, taking medication from me, calling me back, resting in the sun on a canal boat. More than ten years later, the memory of Vico still haunts.
So now, to this black cat on a fence post, I think of saying aloud, “Vico? Is it you?”
But I decide against it. Vico does not have to be you, I think. You don’t have to be Vico. I find I can thank you for bringing him to mind. I find I can love you both.
I see him/Vico/him in our private nightfall, then move past him to make my way home. Before I exit the path, I look back and he’s still there.
A vast similitude interlocks all...
All distances of place however wide, All distances of time, all inanimate forms,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different, or in different worlds,
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes, the fishes, the brutes...
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future... Walt Whitman,On the Beach at Night Alone, 1871 (extract)
Originally published at http://thelightedfield.wordpress.com on September 14, 2020.