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Fearful Symmetry

ISSUE:  Winter 1983

Mister crouched tensile, low and waited for the hovering cabbage moth to settle until he could wait no more and sprang, boxing at the flitting moth until he fell back and the moth flew off. But even in failure there was no failure. The grace of the cat was a victory: the liquidity of muscle, the synapse through all its cells, the abandonment to the pressure of its intensity—as if it must leap at motion to join with it. Murchison sat at his desk watching his marvelous cat through the opened window. The cat, Mister, was a strikingly marked tortoise-shell with a thicker than usual coat, strongly contrasted striping, a puff of yellow throughout. Now he flicked his tail up and down the line of his back, cracking the tail like a whip as if to shake off from the end of it the remaining energy that had just propelled him after the moth, the discharging of a vital battery. The ionized air was brittle around him. At last the young cat walked away out of Murchison’s sight, listening to the possibilities of late spring, in search of them.

The cat would circle about within the spacious two-acre plot in which the house was nearly centrally set. He went about his perimeters on a patrol, alert to rabbits, moles, sparrows, weeds. He would be gone nearly all day if Murchison was home, either in the house writing or at work in the sizable gardens. But if Murchison went into the village or drove off to the city, if for any reason he left, when he returned, Mister would come running to him like a dog. Then the cat would come into the house and stay. But mostly he remained somewhere within the two acres, hardly ever farther, and he never stayed out all night.

Soon after Murchison had gotten him, about a year and a half ago, soon after his divorce, when the cat was hardly more than a large kitten, he had had him neutered. It keeps them at home, the veterinarian had advised, keeps them out of fights with other males. Makes for a cleaner and a healthier animal as well. If you want a good pet, have him neutered. His friends who owned cats agreed. When he had been married, there had been no pets, no children, only each other, but that had not been enough. Now, after the divorce, after six months of privacy, silence, and retreat, he had ventured forth. A cat, friends had recommended, a neutered cat. And they had been right. Mister had become a companion, a pulse of beauty in Murchison’s day, bold as he was not, swift as he was slow, a creature able to leap before it looked.

It had all worked out quite well and pretty much as predicted but not entirely. He had had the cat altered, but maybe he had altered more.

Toward evening, later than Mister’s usual return, right at the front door, Murchison heard the cat scream, a low, rising guttural mix of a howling and a snarl, a nightmare blossom of sound, a siren of pain and anger. He rushed to the door and opened it.

Mister was on the wide gray slate doorstep, his whole body flattened down but turned in a curve to face the large shabby black and white splotched cat that poised between flight and the suddenly opened door not ten feet away. The black and white cat waited as if considering a new attack even in the presence of the man. But in a long step Murchison was half way upon the black and white cat and, still moving, swooped up a fistful of driveway gravel and flung it like grapeshot, but the cat was already beyond his effective range. All Murchison could do now was heave at the cat the spears of his curse, rough, fiery brands sputtering harmlessly in the darkening air. At the end of his driveway, the black and white cat stopped and turned the way marauding bands sometimes attack but do not run far, as if they sense the possibility of a weakness unexpected, the chance for possession, for taking at will. Only when Murchison ran at it with more stones did it finally dodge into the boundary thicket of large lilacs and untrimmed privet and honeysuckle.

By the time Murchison returned to Mister, only moments later, the cat had crawled into the house. It seemed unable to use its hind legs. When he went to pick the cat up, gently, the cat moaned. He let it down. On his hand there was blood. Quickly he prepared a cardboard box. He cut down one side of it and lined the box with a remnant of an old rug. He put the box in the corner of the kitchen that was Mister’s, near his bowls of water and Little Friskies, his plastic tub of Kitty Litter. The cat crawled there and into the box and curled around himself, crying as he coiled, until he settled.

After that he seemed to rest, content to wait for whatever there was that could occur to a cat to be a form of waiting. Murchison sat nearby to observe what he could. Not living in time, cats lived in each moment but not connectedly; rather, they lived now and now and now in a series of discrete monads of existence but not in a continuum. The cat waited with the pain in the least painful position. In a day or three or ten the pain would in one instant not be. It either was or it was not. The cat would mend and live or it would not and die. The cat did not know the difference.

But Murchison, who did live in time, did know the difference, had a preference and the possibility of choice. He called Doctor Robertson, the small animal veterinarian his friends had recommended, the doctor who had previously operated on Mister. He charged enormously but was said to be very good, and you could call him anytime, even at eight o’clock at night as Murchison now did.

“How bad is the bleeding?” Doctor Robertson asked.

“Not bad. Drops but continuous.”

“Is he crying all the time?”

“No. Only if he moves or if I touch him on the belly.”

“Then don’t touch him. Is he awake?”

“Yes. He just rests in the box looking out.”

“Bring him in tomorrow. I’ll give him an antibiotic and check the wound. It sounds like a puncture more than a deep rip”

“Tomorrow ?”

“The cat’s not badly hurt. Tomorrow is O.K.”

“But he can’t walk. He drags his hind legs. Maybe. . . .”

“Tomorrow. The main danger is infection. The bleeding is good. So is the rest. Tomorrow. Eleven o’clock. O.K.?”


But it was not really O.K. as far as Murchison was concerned. Even though the doctor’s position was sensible and his diagnosis plausible, Murchison wanted to do something now, something more. To act. If it had been a child, he would not have waited until the following morning, late in the following morning. He would have driven off immediately to a hospital, to care and attention. And to release.

Murchison tripped on the idea. If he wanted his cat saved, strong and dancing and glossy again, he also wanted to be free of his sudden dread and caring, this weight of affection, and now the slow suffusion in him of the tincture of guilt.

Had he made Mister vulnerable to this attack, robbed him of some hormonic power that might have prevented this? Had the vicious black and white cat followed the neutral air to this indefensible garden? Was Mister doomed? But if Murchison was suddenly susceptible to some ideas, he was not without his own defenses. His trade was complicated thought. Perspective—proportion—was, for him, both a tool and an anodyne. He slept well enough despite his disturbances.

But in the morning, as Murchison opened the door to his house to carry Mister in his box to the car, the black and white cat waited in unbearable contempt in the very middle of the primroses, right in front of the house. It sat upon them no more than if the garden were a wild field. Murchison could not now delay to chase the black and white cat, but he stopped long enough to see it clearly—its cut left ear, a squinted eye, scars upon which hair would not grow again, rips, tatters, a tail partly gone. The effrontery. The cat looked back, and Murchison, at the edge of an adrenal thrust, made a bitter covenant with the animal.

“Vengeance is mine, you son of a bitch,” he shouted. “I will repay.”

Murchison brought Mister home and nursed him, not that there was much that he could do. Doctor Robertson had shaved the cat’s belly to see the wound better. It did not need to be stitched. And there were other slash-cuts as well but not as deep. He gave the cat a shot of penicillin and some medicine that Murchison would have to squirt into the cat’s mouth about twice a day for a week.

“He’s hurting, that’s why he drags his hind legs. He’ll be walking in a couple, three days. But he’ll be stiff for a while. All in all, though, it’s nothing too much. Barring infection, he should be fine in a week or so. He’s a healthy cat.”

But in three days he was not walking. Murchison tended him dutifully, but the cat did not walk. Instead, it grew heavier, more leaden than ever. He brought the cat back to Dr. Robertson. The cat was constipated. Not an uncommon reaction to this type of injury. Murchsion had to give the cat Halley’s MO, apparently the best laxative for animals. And as a resort (a last resort? Murchison wondered), the veterinarian provided him with suppositories. At that Murchison blanched.

“How do you give a cat a suppository?”

“The same way as to a human. Hold it in your hand till it softens just a little, then gently insert the narrower end into the anal opening.”

The specter of the black and white cat blazed through Murchison like a spasm, like a shock of grief and indignity and disruption. Hatred. A pure acidic distillation. He felt his own bowels clench upon the helplessness of his cat and of his own life before the malignancy of the black and white cat, this bolt of viciousness that had blasted them both. Suppositories!

He considered leaving Mister with the veterinarian, boarding him until and when he was well, but that was a disloyalty that Murchison could not countenance. He was not, he felt, without some responsibility in this matter, and he was not without the resources of an intelligent and reasonably affective man. He would tend his cat, his companion, and give it back something of the pleasure it had afforded him, though it would be a negative pleasure to be sure. Quite simply, Murchison felt an unquestionable duty to make his cat as comfortable as possible through this ordeal, and he believed that the cat would be more comfortable in his own home.

The days and Mister dragged on. The cat could pass water but nothing else. Sometimes he would pull himself to the door and whine to go out. The Halley’s MO had no apparent effect. Nor the suppositories. Perhaps, as he had read, animals knew best how to cure themselves. Perhaps Mister would find in the fields the proper grass, the select herb that a hundred million years of cats had come instinctively to know. But when he carried Mister outside, all the heavy cat did was lie down on the grass and crawl about in it a short way, happy in the damp and coolness and the smell.

Through the hedgerow, even now in the broadest time of the sunny day, brazenly the black and white cat flashed just as he would from time to time streak through Murchison’s mind. And as relentless as the animal itself was the surge of Murchison’s seeping fury. What, indeed, was he to do? Assuming that eventually (or after an operation upon the impacted cat) Mister recovered, how could Murchison allow him his old freedom with so much violence waiting? But how could he possibly confine the cat forever to the house? Did a prison equal protection? Did not even the beasts have rights?

The black and white cat flashed again, nearly a blur. Or maybe not, maybe it had appeared now only in the tensed and keyed imagination, but whether in his mind or in the bordering fields and woods, it made no difference: the black and white cat had come upon him as much, as surely, as it had once dropped upon his helpless pet. Now he must consider and determine how to reclaim his own life, his own spirit and time, how to bring back the Edenic peace that he and Mister had shared—his own long, undiverted and luminous verbal constructions; and the brilliant cat reflecting, as upon a foil, the gem of its once free and abundant life.

Murchison considered killing the black and white cat but rejected that, for he was a civilized man and—even in his anger, his rage—a balanced man. The black and white cat was compelled, not diabolical. If it was a malignancy, yet it was motiveless and without volition. Even human murderers can plead degrees. He ruled out killing the cat on moral grounds, notwithstanding the difficulties—poison, a trap, a rifle. He thought to find the cat’s owner and state a position, if necessary threaten a lawsuit. But after a survey of the neighborhood and beyond, he found no owner. The cat was feral.

He decided on a slingshot. He purchased one at a sporting goods shop in the city, not a boy’s branched twig with a stretch of old inner tube, but a sleekly machined artifact of aluminum rod with a curved and fitted padded wrist brace. The power came from a rubber-like substance that stretched like thick sinews. The material of the catapult that held the missile was a neoprene insert with ridged surfaces for a better grip. His ammunition was quarter inch steel ball bearings.

His plan was this. He would practice until he was proficient, and then he would stalk the black and white cat and punish it with the steel shot until it was conditioned and thus deterred. He would hurt the cat enough to turn it away. Drive it off. It was a humane and intelligent response to provocation.

And one day in Mister’s Kitty Litter there lay a clear and unmistakable cat turd. The crisis had passed. Murchison giggled with relief and with an appreciation for the roughly faceted ironies of the meteorite that had tumbled upon his life.

Both Murchison and the cat got better quickly, he with his slingshot, Mister with his constitution. Within ten days the cat gleamed with his accustomed health, and if cats had attitudes—memories and attitudes toward them—they were not apparent. Mister bounded through the world as sure of it as ever, seemingly as willing as ever to accept it upon its terms: the cat was in the world, the world in the cat. Incapable of dichotomies, the cat pursued sunbeams and its own tail. But Murchison, who was capable of dichotomies, whose life, in fact, was dedicated to the discovering and charting of them, prepared.

First he shot at a standard bull’s-eye target used for rifle practice. He started at ten feet and moved back in five foot increments as his accuracy increased. At 30 feet he could always hit at least somewhere in the target. He learned to do what was called instinctive shooting in which you develop an overall sense or feel for the target and shoot out of some kind of motor response rather than by aiming carefully at the target and calculating the release. Instinctive shooting was what you needed for hunting, the man in the sporting-goods store had told him, and he had given him the basic pointers.

Then Murchison set up an approximation of a field range. In the area to the south of the house beyond the heavyheaded peonies, he arranged small white plastic bags of hay about the size of a large cat. He placed ten of them randomly about, and then he would walk slowly through his field loading and firing quickly and more quickly and with greater and greater accuracy. Sometimes rabbits would start across his path, groundhogs rustle further out in the alfalfa, but he would not shoot at them. And not at birds. For this was Holy War, and he rejoiced in the precise belligerency, the thrill of Just Cause.

In a month he had become quite good, and all this time the black and white cat had circled them, him and Mister, watching them, working forward toward them or away. Sometimes at night Murchison would look out from a window and see the large cat come up to the door of the house and listen, or it would walk slowly in the gardens as if it were taking inventory.

Murchison was careful to keep Mister near the house. He could always get him back if he was out of sight simply by driving the car out of one entrance of the driveway and around and into the other entrance. Mister would come to the sound of the car. When Murchison did actually leave the house, he would always lock Mister in. But all around them— the man and the cat, the house, the garden—the black and white cat wove itself, insinuating itself into the very integuments of his dreams. Until one day they met, Murchison and Nemesis, under the fully leafed plum trees in the alley between the trees and the grape arbor, already filling with fruit. And Murchison was armed.

At 20 feet it still would not be an easy shot. He placed the pellet carefully and took a deep steadying breath, expelled half of it, held the rest, moved his arms and shot in one motion. The black and white cat, though it had arched slightly at the sudden meeting with the man, had not fled. In 20 feet it felt safe enough. But the steel pellet took it on the bone just below the left shoulder. The cat rolled over at the shock and then was up even as Murchison fired again. The second ball glanced off the bone over the cat’s better eye and then down into the eye socket squeezing the eye out. For an instant the light sparked from the silvery ball bearing now embedded momentarily in the cat’s head. Then the cat ran, slowly and badly. The left leg was broken.

In that evening and through the next day the fires of his exhilaration banked down into coals and at last into only sharp splinters that would flare and quickly go out as he brought his triumph into equilibrium with some little grief, a small sadness. He was sorry to have hurt the cat as badly as he had, but life had its terms, even for cats: there was conduct or there was chaos. The entire adventure had been emblematic, like the explicit, complicated title pages or frontispieces to Elizabethan books that chronicled Fortune as we all knew her to be, as kind as she was cruel. And blind. The entire adventure with the black and white cat was nearly a morality play, or rather the dumb show that precedes one. The Good had been victorious over the Evil, or in his case merely the Bad. Yes, Murchison concluded, no more than that: an annoying problem disposed of. He was sorry for the black and white cat, now more roughly scarred than ever. Would it continue to survive in its condition? And now, too, with a victor’s magnanimity, he could grant a certain admiration to the black and white cat—the tough swagger of it, the rogue daring, the sinister guile by which it must have for so long survived. Tiger, tiger burning bright. And then, turning at last back to his larger affairs, Murchison thought no more about it at all.

Full summer finally came with a slap of rain, a towering thunderstorm after which the air did not cool and clear but instead lingered and settled down everywhere. Murchison waited two days for the earth to dry, and then he did some major cultivation of his beans. He tied his cucumbers to a higher rung on the trellis. Already the cantaloupe were setting fruit—they would be early this year. The tomatoes were prodigal as ever. The apples and plums swelling and unblemished. The early broccoli was ready to be cut. Lettuce of many kinds grew dense beyond possible harvest and use. And in and out and all around were the flowers—snapdragons and low marigolds, zinnias and petunias, early gaillardia and more and more—the flowers now and the buds to come linking everything else together in a serpentine revel of growth.

Three days before, just before the storm, he had mailed off the completed manuscript of the book. And even this morning, only an hour ago, his agent had called to tell him that the article about American mountains and rivers had been richly placed. He might also be brought in to edit a collection of essays about the environment—not technical, number-y things but rather more general studies and genial appreciations. He began to think about driving up to Lake George in a few weeks to sail with Frank and Sally through the islands and into coves. Life, he had no doubt, was bounded by a sleep, but now he felt, as he had not felt for a long time, substantial, whole, and wide—widely—awake.

The hot luxuriant sweaty day of garden work ended. He sat with a vodka and tonic in the shade of the southeast edge of the house. Tomorrow he would cut the lawn down for the last time until autumn. Tomorrow night he would go to the opening of the summer ballet with friends who were coming up from the city just for the event. They would all eat supper at Chez Sophie, his guests. When he finished his drink, he would shower and telephone to make the reservations. Then he heard the screaming cats.

He jumped up and ran around to the west side of the house, still bright with sun. The black and white cat had returned. Mister was walking around him, stiff-legged, ears flattened, his mouth scowled open and spitting, all his fine hair at ends. He circled the black and white cat and the black and white cat pivoted to face him, like a moon around the earth. Like a victim.

The black and white cat was clearly without one eye and limited as before in the other, and his broken leg had healed stiff from the shoulder as if it were permanently splinted. Then Mister charged in, rolling the black and white cat over and down. In a turmoil of screaming the cats boiled and then separated. The black and white cat swung itself off into the field like a peg-legged sailor away from a brawl. Mister had won.

Why had the cat returned? Did it have no way of estimating its disadvantage? He went to Mister and picked him up and cuddled him and stroked him calm. The cat purred. To Murchison it sounded like a roaring.

The next day the black and white cat returned again. Mister drove it high into the upper, swaying branches of a box elder near the house. He took Mister into the house against his will and kept him there until, after an hour, the black and white cat worked himself down and away.

Now hardly a day but that the black and white cat would return, often in daylight although sometimes at night. Mister would sense the intruder and go to the door, stretch up to the doorknob as if he would open it and go out against the black and white cat.

He could no longer contain Mister. He tried to drive off the black and white cat, but he refused to use the slingshot again. He threw stones, shouted, ran at the cat. Sometimes when the hose was ready by, he would squirt the cat. But nothing prevailed. The black and white cat would return, and he and Mister would fight unless Murchison were there to prevent it. Sometimes Mister would take wounds, though nothing nearly as severe as before.

And one evening he did not come home. Three times Murchison drove the car noisily into the driveway, but Mister did not appear. Had he come to grief? Murchison slept badly, listening below his rest for the call, the scratching, the thump of return. By morning he decided he must search, visit neighbors to ask if they had seen his cat, place an ad in the weekly WiseShopper offering a reward. But even at his breakfast, Mister returned, made ragged by the night, black and white hairs in his claws, and stinking.

Thereafter Murchison could not count on Mister returning either at night or to the sound of the car. Often enough he would come home, but there was no certainty. Mister went out to find the black and white cat. The black and white cat came, against his odds, to find Mister. They came to fight, to claw and kill each other if they could, to fling themselves at each other in disastrous battle, though the black and white cat was dwindling from Mister’s unquartered onslaught. The black and white cat could not flee and could, less and less, protect itself. Mister had become a ravaging corsair, the avatar. Through the summer Murchison lived in a choking musk, in a thickening fume of malevolence.

But there was nothing that Murchison could do, no further that he could enter into what he had done. He had miscalculated. And now he despaired. He came at last to tremble at his thoughts. But by what different equations might he have managed otherwise? Had he been Fortune spinning the massive wheel? Or was he merely one more figure strapped to a spoke? He and the cats? Did we all, all of us—man and cat, flower and fumbling bee—live in an outer darkness condemned to see only by the occasional light of violent enormities?

But if not Murchison, then what or whose hand had set the eats amok?


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