On Beatrice


When the russet hues of the setting sun stream through our western window, as happened today, it is quite possible to imagine Beatrice in the distorted, filtered light, contemplative and hovering as if she were still there, peering into the distance, longing for something to take her away. The first time we saw her, however, was not on the window ledge but in a small cage next to the front desk of the vet, where we had taken Dante to be treated for ringworm. Like him, she was small and gray, with bottle-green eyes — a “Russian Blue,” according to the receptionist — perhaps a year old, or slightly less than that. We learned that she had been rescued from a dumpster in Brooklyn a few months earlier, and had subsequently given birth to a litter of kittens, all of whom had already been adopted.

We sat down next to an older woman in a disheveled trench coat; there were four carriers in front of her, all of which contained a single cat, a silent chorus that seemed to give her every word weight and affirmation: “You really should have more than one,” she pronounced as she pushed her sunglasses up to the top of her head, where her silver hair was pulled back from a rather long face, remarkable only for the slate color of her intense, watery eyes.

We were taken aback by how much this woman resembled our mother, as if she had not died but in fact had moved to New York to take care of cats. “How many do you have?”

“Seven — they’re my children now,” she laughed softly, and again we thought of our mother with a mix of sadness and, to be honest, some annoyance that she would say such a thing to us of all people. “You know why you’re here, right?”

“Well — initially it was to get Dante treated, but things have become a little more complicated now.”

“You should absolutely adopt her — they really do like company. You said his name is Dante?”

“Yes, Dante — like the writer.”

“Then he quite obviously needs a Beatrice,” she now declared, using the Italian pronunciation. “Not that I’m telling you what to do,” she added as she picked at what appeared to be an imaginary piece of lint from a large navy-blue scarf draped over her shoulders.

“Beatrice,” we repeated and returned to the cage, where she cowered in the corner and looked up with wet eyes, much more fearful than Dante had ever appeared. Her face was heart-shaped like his but smaller — except for some very long and prominent nose whiskers that in the reflection of the light gave her the appearance of a walrus — and more angular. She really was quite tiny and bedraggled, with some of her fur matted down on the sides of her face and along her belly. Her tail was only five or six inches long — perhaps half the length of Dante’s — with a little knob on the end, as if it had been cut off at some point in what we had to imagine had not so far been an easy life. She covered her face with a paw, and we noticed that this too was misshapen; it looked more like a mitten than a foot. We counted at least seven toes, including one that had an impressive looking nail in the shape of a lobster claw.

We turned back to the woman (with some reluctance, given her uncanny resemblance to our mother) and were relieved to find that she had pushed the sunglasses back down over her eyes. “Have you seen her paws?”

She waved her hand dismissively. “She’s polydactyl, dear, which is good luck.” She sighed before she continued: “You’re going to love her — I can just tell.”

At home, Beatrice proved to be extremely skittish, even after we made clear our intention to rescue her from the cruel life she had thus far endured. Picking her up was out of the question; she spent most of her time under the bed while Dante roamed the perimeter of the bedroom and whined, obsessed with his new twin sister. When she emerged to eat or to use the litter box, he always stayed two inches behind her, as if he had never seen anything quite so extraordinary. Eventually, Beatrice — clearly ambivalent about the attention — lost patience and gave him a quick swat with one of her big paws.

“You kind of deserved that,” we remarked without too much sympathy as Dante sulked past.

Over time, however, Beatrice began to exert her presence, and it became difficult to be critical of Dante’s infatuation with her, given that we were only slightly less taken, and certainly no more successful in our attempts to approach her; not once did she allow us to touch her, nor did she like to even eat if we remained in the kitchen. The closest we could get in these first few months was to offer her a piece of cocktail shrimp or turkey breast — preferably from Zabar’s, and no more than one day old — which she would deign to receive after emitting a demure, plaintive meow, no louder than the creak of the softest door. If we were surprised to note the existence of such rarefied tastes in one whose life had to this point allowed such little opportunity for indulgence, we in no way discouraged her, as if to do so would have been to deny our own awakened appreciation of the same.

Whereas Dante was a cohort who liked to remain by our side during the day and night, Beatrice was a fleeting inspiration, a mysterious and ethereal aura who, we were soon convinced — after seeing her glowing eyes in three different places (including the bathtub) on one of our many semi-lucid trips to the bathroom — had the ability to walk through walls. Perhaps because of this permeable quality, she was a better hunter than Dante, and it was not long before she was trapping the occasional misguided fly who happened to come through the windows, and which, depending on her mood, she sometimes popped into her mouth like an amuse-bouche. She was most active in the dead of night, but as time passed, she sometimes emerged during the day from under the bed to nap among the orchids, or to sit on the window ledge and chatter at the pigeons on the ledge outside. Of course she also liked watch the sunset.

She was also more mischievous than Dante, and regularly rearranged — though never damaged — our reading glasses, pens and watches, which we would place on one shelf and find the next morning on another, or buried under piles of papers or the corners of rugs. But what she took with one paw, so to speak, she gave with another, such as the time she found an old ring (and one that had belonged to our mother) we thought lost but which one morning showed up on the middle of the living room rug, where Dante — who as usual had spent most of the night asleep at the foot of our bed — circled it with great excitement.

We liked to watch Beatrice yawn, a slow but fluid motion in which her mouth opened to its widest and most gaping point before easily closing shut in a most satisfactory manner. We were always astonished by how relaxed and seriously unproductive both she and Dante were, how ambivalent they felt about work of any kind, such as when we asked them to pick up their collection of strings and bottle caps before the cleaning service arrived. Yet while this and any similar request was met with a show of apathy that did not even rise to disdain, we never felt angry or irritated, when even their most tentative movements were marked by a subtle grace that was inspirational in light of the encroaching stiffness in our own joints. Sometimes when they galloped after one another down a hallway, they recalled the grandeur of a pair of wild horses on the open plain, but it was an action — given the shortness of its duration — that seemed marked by both a recollection of and ambivalence toward their hereditary past; in short, it reminded us of our own past, and a certain disbelief that we had ever lived it, and only a ghostly stab of pain across our hands or in the back of our eyelids would tell us that our life had not been a dream.

That Beatrice seemed to love the Cannanes more than any other band in our collection was something we learned one evening by accident, when we knocked over a stack of LPs to expose the eponymous Cannanes and A Love Affair with Nature. We too had always loved certain songs by the Australian band (and in almost every case, those sung by Frances Gibson) for an unwavering plaintiveness and sincerity that nevertheless contained absolutely no self-pity or pretense. Frances offered a sense of resignation — that of being stuck in small towns or a bad relationship, or of being lost in big cities — that was remarkably pure, diluted only by an occasional sense of indignation at the poor cards life had dealt to her, but even in such cases the music always provided a countervailing resilience — no matter how primitive the playing or the production values were, for some of their songs truly did sound as if they had been recorded in a garage — whether in the high ringing strums of a guitar or an unexpectedly haunting bass line. It was for this reason that we always hated to see the band described by unthinking critics as “twee” or “lo-fi,” terms more aptly applied to bands who wrapped themselves in a cloak of coy insincerity; no, to listen to the Cannanes was to be transported to a place made all the more beautiful by the unlikely manner in which you were delivered there.

When we put the first record on, we were pleasantly surprised to find Beatrice ever so fleetingly brush past our ankle; a shadow of a motion, to be sure, but one that definitely qualified as a touch. We looked down at her as Frances sang: “I can see us in a car, taking speed, it was the last day of June, through the windscreen I see, the frost is on the ground, the sun is shining…” and as Beatrice returned our gaze, as if perplexed by the reference to a winter frost in June, we addressed her: “Yes, Beatrice,” we confirmed, “it snows in June in the southern hemisphere. Maybe some day we’ll get to see that.” We remained like this until a lone trumpet ended the song, at which point we tentatively kneeled down with a thought to really pet Beatrice for the first time; nor did our efforts go completely unrewarded, for she allowed us to brush our fingertips along the outermost fringes of her silver coat as she hovered at arm’s length like a mirage. Her coat, it is safe to say, was softer than a cloud.

On another night, we put another Cannanes record on and soon enough Beatrice reappeared on the distant corner of the bed; together we listened to “Vivienne” — “there’s something about Australia, you want to kick it when it’s down/Just because it is a failure, doesn’t mean I’m leaving Newtown” — during which, as if hypnotized by this spirit of resignation, Beatrice moved close enough so that we were able to reach out and gently grab her tail. Again she pulled away, but less in alarm than as if teasing us, and we felt the knobby end pass through our closed fist like a rope thrown to a drowning victim. Still, we were not disappointed when she paused and turned to look back, allowing us to stare into these green pools where — like Baudelaire’s urchin of the Celestial Empire — we did not fail to find the expected trace of eternity.

This became a routine; each night before going to sleep, she appeared on the edge of our bed, materializing silently out of nowhere while we played music for a few minutes and stared into her eyes. If we reached for her, she would delicately place herself just beyond our grasp, moving back and forth like a sandpiper, though one time — finally rewarding our patience — she allowed us to wrap one of our hands around her flank and to guide her close for a few seconds, so that we could feel the frantic beat of her small heart against our leg. She remained gently trapped like this for only a few seconds before she grew claustrophobic and in her characteristic low crouch slipped away to jump off the bed and into the dark. Later that night, we woke up and rolled over just in time to see her disappear over the hilly terrain of pillows and blankets, while a slight coolness on our face led us to suspect that she had just placed a single delicate lick to the tip of our large nose.

It was one night not long after this, when she appeared as usual, that we noticed how thin she looked. “You know, you could stand to eat more,” we commented, and wondered if she had always been like this — and it was hard to know for sure, given that we had never really held her — or if she were in fact losing weight.

In response, she stared back with feline intensity, curious but dismissive, as if whatever we were saying, she couldn’t quite imagine the stupidity of it. Then she began to knead the fleece blanket, her green eyes demure and playful.

“Well, you don’t seem sick,” we commented, and felt reassured when she did not disagree.

But over the next few days, we became more concerned. Though she appeared for meals, she rarely spent more than a few seconds at the plate — which she and Dante had always shared — before she walked away uninterested. A few more days passed like this, until on Sunday she retreated under the bed, ignoring all of our attempts to draw her out with her favorite food or toys; now more alarmed, we called the vet, who suggested that we immediately take her to the emergency room at the Animal Medical Center.

We hung up and went to the bedroom, where we sat down on the floor to address her: “Beatrice, we need to go to the hospital — do you think you could come out?”

She did not move, and her eyes were now dull and metallic like the heads of nails. Although she gave us no reason to think that she was at all amenable to the idea, we retrieved the carrier from the closet and brought it back to the bedroom, where where Beatrice continued to sit under the bed in the dark, a silhouette with silver eyes. “Beatrice — please — you’re sick. Will you come out?”

She would not, at which point we relinquished control of our body and so became less a participant than a spectator in the impending series of events. We went to the stereo and put on “Drug-Induced Delirium” by the Cannanes, the driving bass line of which in combination with the frantic but expressive vocals of Frances Gibson propelled us forward; we pulled down the cover from the bed and sat on top of the mattress. “Beatrice,” we called softly above the music and tapped on the bed three times, the signal we had used these past few months to entice her up. We held our breath and she appeared; somewhat clumsily, she staggered out from under the bed and took a few tentative steps in her growth-stunted waddle before she jumped up to her usual spot. To our dismay she seemed even smaller and now trembled slightly, just like the first time we had seen her, trapped in the corner of her cage at the vet.

Still, her eyes were brighter now that she was out in the light, and we tried to reassure her. “Beatrice, this is going to feel like a betrayal, but you need to see a doctor. It’s probably nothing — maybe you have a virus or a summer cold.”

As we finished saying this, we lunged with our left hand and managed to scoop her up against our body as we placed our other hand on the scruff of her neck to hold her steady. Weak as she was, she could not escape, although she fought and screamed as we managed to slowly stand and place her, one leg at a time, into the crate. Though upset by her crying, we were thankful to note that she possessed enough strength for her scratches to have left three long rivulets of blood running down our left arm.

After setting her down by the front door, we ran to the garage to pick up the car. When we returned a few minutes later, Dante was sitting in front of her carrier, licking her paws, and we were relieved to see that Beatrice seemed calmer. After saying goodbye to Dante, we drove down to Broadway and then crossed east on 155th, which led past the public housing projects at the Polo Grounds, long considered one of the most forlorn examples of post-war architecture in the city. “We don’t like Robert Moses, do we?” we asked Beatrice in an attempt to distract her, but she remained quiet as we entered the Harlem River Drive and started south. “You picked a very good time to get sick,” we further pointed out in a vain attempt to cheer her up. “It’s Sunday night, so there’s no traffic.”

In less than ten minutes, we arrived at the Animal Medical Center, which — we could not fail to note with a mix of trepidation and relief — was right across the street from Sloan-Kettering. “You’re going to get the best doctors in the world,” we assured her, an assessment bolstered by the high-tech swoosh of the automatic doors and the small army of staff who greeted us inside. Nevertheless, it was hard to remain optimistic as we stepped into the inalterably dreary scene of a Sunday night at the emergency room; the waiting area was filled with sad-looking families and their even sadder-looking pets, along with an assortment of chairs, pay phones and vending machines.

We stepped up to the reception desk to explain the situation, and were soon provided with the necessary intake forms, which we filled out among the ranks of the downtrodden. Now and again we placed one of our fingers through the metal grate of her carrier, where Beatrice sat quietly petrified and shivering. From behind the reception counter, we heard people sobbing as vets delivered bad news.

Someone walked by on a cell phone, weeping. “Don’t worry,” we whispered to Beatrice. “You’re going to be fine.”

After fifteen minutes or so, we were led to an examination room for a preliminary consultation with a doctor, who shook Beatrice out of the cage and quickly grabbed her by the scruff of the neck as she fought to get away. “She’s very yellow,” he said as he folded back the inside of her ear. “When’s the last time she ate?”

“A few days ago.”

“It looks like hepatic lipidosis,” the vet explained. “If a cat stops eating for any reason, the fatty cells of their tissue can basically overrun the liver and shut it down.”

We dug our fingernails into our palms. “Why would she stop eating?”

“It could be anything — a cold, a change in food, depression.”

“A cold? Depression?” We took a second to digest this, restraining the urge to reason away such a ridiculous premise for liver failure. “Can you help her?”

“We can try,” the vet said in an efficient but superficial tone we found somewhat more comforting. “How old is she?”

“One and a half or so — we don’t exactly know because she was a stray.”

“That’s good, she should be strong. But just so you know,” he continued as he did some quick calculations, “to get her liver functioning will probably require at least a week of intravenous feeding and possibly intensive care, which will most likely put treatment in the range of $_____ thousand.”

What choice did we have? The vet left to complete the paperwork and gave us a few minutes alone with Beatrice, who now cowered under a small sink. “Beatrice, they’re going to fix you up,” we promised as we bent down beside her; as we spoke, we tentatively reached out our hand but withdrew it when she shrank away.

The following day, we returned for visiting hours and met with her “team” of doctors, who agreed that while the case was severe, the official stance was one of guarded optimism. The plan was to reverse the lipodosis by tube-feeding her until her liver kicked back in and began to function normally, which they claimed was by no means an unprecedented prognosis, particularly given her age. They had already placed her in intensive care, where we found her in an oxygenated chamber with a feeding-tube running through her nose, various IVs attached through each of her hind legs, and her head in one of those plastic cones that looks like an Elizabethan collar.

“Beatrice? Are you ok?” we whispered through the cage, and in response, she moaned a little bit and moved her eyes, which despite her obvious weakness the doctor said was a good sign.

But the next morning we received a call from one of the doctors, who told us that overnight things had taken a turn for the worse, and for no reason that anybody could figure out, Beatrice’s sodium levels — her “electrolytes” — had dropped to precarious levels. We immediately went in to find her completely unresponsive, even when we called her name.

We asked one of the doctors what had happened. “Well, she was even weaker than we thought,” he shrugged. “But we had a specialist in this morning and she made some adjustments. Our most recent readings actually show her electrolytes heading back into the normal range, which is good.”

And by Wednesday to our great relief, her situation had stabilized; we were encouraged to find that she appeared a little stronger, and even stood up like a newborn foal when we greeted her.

“Dante misses you,” we managed to add, fending off any lurking doubt we felt behind this show of conviction, as if anything we could say to her could ever reverse the course of her sickness. “He would have come, but you know how carsick he gets.”

On Thursday morning, a doctor called to give the report. “She’s not out of the woods yet,” she said, “but she looks better. Her sodium has definitely stabilized and her blood work looks good, too, so I think we can remain positive.”

We drove down to see her filled with hope, but when we arrived — as if in a rebuke to this display of optimism — she looked worse than ever. In a panic, we tried to find someone from her team, but because we had arrived during the transition from the day to night shift, the only doctor to be found was an oncologist not familiar with her case. “Her blood work does look better,” she noted as she examined the charts. “Maybe she’s just tired.”

We sat with her until visiting hours ended at nine and then went home. “She was just tired,” we repeated to Dante. “It’s just going to take a little longer than we expected.”

Then — the following morning — we received a call from the doctor, who relayed the news that things had in fact taken a turn for the worse; she was not just tired, after all; the new theory was that some sort of primary condition — cancer perhaps — had brought on the lipidosis, but they could only confirm this with a liver biopsy, a process itself that greatly lowered the prognosis for recovery.

“So what should we do?”

“I think you should come in if you can.”

At the hospital, Beatrice was crumpled and dirty in the corner of her intensive-care unit. Her rib cage heaved in and out with each breath and her eyes had grown foggy and distant. There was no question about what to do: we instructed the team to stop treatment; there would be no biopsy. We asked them to remove the feeding tube from her nose and take off her collar before they brought her into an examination room to say goodbye. When she was delivered to us, she looked destroyed, worse than drowned, even worse than the day before; her coat was greasy and covered with flecks of dander, her mouth and eyes were coated by thick gobs of something white and unidentifiable; her nose bled from where they had removed the feeding tubes and her skin hung off her ribcage and spine. She still had IVs in each of her legs, one wrapped in blue gauze and one in red. We felt the pads of her feet and they were cold and we wondered why they had wrapped the IVs so tightly.

“Beatrice,” we managed between deep breaths. “You’re covered in snow.”

She tried to stand, but could only totter a step or two before she collapsed against the wall; her eyes remained open but were dull and motionless, even when we showed her a golden bauble we had brought to remind her of home. “Dante thought I should bring this one,” we said, pointing to plastic flower, “and even though I know you never really liked it, we wanted you to know that he was thinking of you.”

We told her about everything that had happened during the past week; how Dante kept looking for her under the bed, and how none of the games they played would ever be as fun without her. We told her that we hadn’t been able to sleep without her saying goodnight to us. Beatrice raised her head a little bit as we continued, and we tried to sound less dire as we remembered our favorite photograph of Candy Darling, the one taken in the hospital just before she died. We placed a finger under her chin, and she shivered. “You don’t want to suffer anymore.”

Awash in helplessness, all we could think to do now was to restore some semblance of dignity to the most undignified thing in the world, death in a modern hospital. We took a small cloth brought from home and began to groom her; we started with her face, and as best we could we gently wiped away the thick saliva from her cheeks, the blood that trickled from her nose and the gunk from around her eyes; from there we moved down to her neck, chafed from the collar, and then progressed over her shoulders and down her side, where each one of her raspy and labored breaths continued to make her stomach rise and fall with a slight shudder. We cleaned each of her polydactyl paws and remembered how the old woman (who by this point we were officially conflating with our mother) had told us that they were supposed to be good luck, and for a second we hated her. But then we reconsidered; maybe she had been right about Beatrice, after all, which was why it was so difficult to think of losing her.

There was a tap against the window and we nodded before we turned back to her. “Beatrice — Little Bea,” we whispered, “it’s time to call the doctor in, ok?”

The vet came armed with a hypodermic full of barbiturate, which he inserted into the IV of one her hind legs as we kneeled down and placed a hand over her tiny stomach and a finger under her head. “You’re going to sleep now, Little Beatrice,” we managed to say as the vet plunged the syringe and we looked into her dark green eyes for the last time, where a flicker of the aurora borealis appeared and then disappeared, and we knew that Beatrice was dead.

The vet left, and we felt baffled by her lifeless form. We picked her up and held her for the first and last time as great drops splashed out of our eyes against the floor. We considered her mitten-paws and cursed the cold and arbitrary side of nature, its complete disregard for fairness or worth in the choice of life or death, and we were reminded of 9/11, and how we had arrived at much the same conclusion, albeit by way of a cold analytical process that had nothing to do with the more intimate understanding we now felt compelled to acknowledge. Along with this came a rush of hatred for life, if it meant having to die in a clinical hell so far from anything of comfort you had ever known, nor did we hesitate to acknowledge an even deeper hatred for those we felt confident would have belittled this display of grief from a very large man for a very small cat, probably just one of thousands that were dying all over the world at this exact second; we recalled a piece in The Times lamenting the money spent on pets with so many disasters in the world, as if one were the cause of the other. Nor did we forget to hate Chairman Mao and all of his communist brethren who claimed that love for animals was bourgeois and non-utilitarian; we also hated the animal-rights activists just for being alive when Beatrice was not. And finally we hated the logical part of ourself that agreed with all of them, and the accompanying sense of shame we felt at our incapacity to love anyone more than Beatrice. But a few minutes passed and as the crippled truth of this washed over us, it felt as pure as anything we had ever known, and we swore that as long as Beatrice was dead — and her tiny limp body, literally fifty times smaller than our own, proved it — we would not in million years forget her; this ability to remember, we knew, was the only faith in which we would ever believe.

We tenderly placed her back onto the stainless steel table and covered her with a hospital-blue plastic padded blanket, so that only her head poked out from underneath. We thought of the many nights over the past year when she, in effect, had done the same for us, watching over us as we drifted off to sleep. She had been so small, so fragile, and so ephemeral, really a most insignificant piece of the universe and in this regard — as we considered the futility we had experienced trying to save her — no different than us! Yet she had been aware and unstinting in her awareness, for was it not true, we next realized, that as much as we had provided for her — in the most obvious and practical of ways — that she had also cared for us? Had she not also taught us patience? We suddenly thought of our mother and felt no anger or remorse; our grief for Beatrice, it seemed, was melting together with a previously unacknowledged one, which before this moment had always been qualified by some sort of condition or regret. Our eyes felt like raisins and our head pounded with each thump of our heart, as if our body were now an empty box. We touched Beatrice one last time and tried to close her eyelids. We felt her mitten paws for the last time before we opened the door and took one last look back.

Requiescat in Pace little Beatrice,” we whispered, and in the reflection of the window we saw our mother; and it was really her, not just the old woman. She smiled at us sadly, benignly; it was an expression we had forgotten about, one she used to wear while sitting on the edge of the bed, when we were already tucked in; even now we could feel her hand brush lightly against our cheek, a final touch to send us off into the world of sleep.


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