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Oh, when I think of the cats at sea on a night like this! The mousers and the captain's companions. The innocent stowaways huddled belowdecks, looking for a little warmth and a small dry niche—in a corner of the cargo hold or under the simple bed of a sailor—to rest their weary paws. Seeking free passage in the tradition of seafaring cats for hundreds of years, and bound on who-knows-what errands of infelicitous desperation. Tossed back and forth upon a tumultuous sea, as if the sea were a metaphor for everything a cat must endure in this life. I, for one, am glad to be safely home, by the fire, on a night such as this. And yet, I cannot help envying them a little—they who will spend this or any other night at sea. For being at sea is like being in love: There is little peace to it, but one is never more alive.
Call me Mrs. Moore—though why you should call me that I am not certain; the name was given to me long before I could add my counsel or consent. I certainly was not a kitten bride. Indeed, I have never been betrothed to anyone. So why I should be burdened all my life with a name denoting matrimony is a mystery to me.
I am an old cat now. I am thirty-one years old—an obscene age for a cat. An unconscionable, maddening age. What was God thinking? After all, it is His will that decides these things; I can claim no credit for my age. I have heard it suggested I may be the oldest living cat on the planet. Such a distinction! As if longevity—like intelligence or comeliness—were in itself desirable, or represented somethingbeyond the mere capriciousness of Nature.
I sleep a great deal now, too much sleep—an appalling development for one who was once so spirited and meddlesome. There was a time I could hardly sleep at all for fear of missing one more tree to climb, one more bug to chase, or a set of draperies in need of removal from their rod. I was once too agitated, too charmed by the sheer variety of life's pleasures to sleep.
Now I sit. Alone. With my memories. Like the great Sphinx at Giza. Or I lie in the grass, too weary even to swat at dragonflies that dance around my nose. How many times have I been lying in the grass this way, only to have some human come upon me—fearfully, worriedly—and remark when I suddenly opened my eyes, "Oh! I was afraid you were dead."
No, not yet. Not quite.
Sometimes I sit cozily among the garden flowers and listen to the songs of the sea wind, or to the soothing rumble of distant thunder. And I think of Fafner. And Señorita. The first mate. And the crew of the Estella Gomez. I am often haunted by the voices of those I have left behind. Sometimes I wander through the garden and imagine that I hear a distant meow, and think, "Oh, there's Mr. Peach come to call. Oh, there's Schooner with some bright, witty observation about the folly of the islanders," until I realize, with a pinch to my heart, that they are gone, really and truly.
But then, this is a haunted island. I knew it even when I was a kitten, that ghosts were drawn to this place and that those who have died here, in the middle of the emerald ocean, find it difficult to leave.
It is the vulgar habit of modern memoirs to begin by flaunting one's ancestry in the reader's face, thereby proving that the current fruit of the family tree is not only worth attention but represents an exciting climax to generations of enviable mating.
We have been, for as long as anyone can remember, a family of seafaring cats.
A celebrated aunt of mine sailed with the pirate Jean Lafitte aboard the frigate Barataria Bay in the early 1800s. She was Lafitte's constant companion, and seems to have had only one duty aboard ship: to chase the pirate's toes through his bedcovers at night and make him laugh when a long day of looting left him melancholy. Whether or not she, too, was a brigand at heart, I cannot say, but she obviously loved her life on earth. To this day, her ghost haunts vessels approaching the port of New Orleans. I have sometimes considered a trip to Louisiana with the ambition of encountering her. However, given my own proximity to the hereafter, I am sure we shall meet soon enough.
Another member of our family traveled with Darwin on the H.M.S. Beagle, but impetuously devoured one of the naturalist's prize specimens, and was forced to decamp at Cape Foulwind, New Zealand. And a distant cousin (twice removed) is reputed to have sat at Shakespeare's side as the playwright sailed down the Thames and conceived the opening lines of Henry IV. My cousin is universally credited with having inspired the immortal line, "I am as melancholy as a gib cat."
But the majority of my antecedents were simple creatures. That they managed to survive hurricanes, wars, and pestilence for thousands of years is quite enough.
I think that too much emphasis is placed on the admiration of one's ancestors—as if they were a silver pot, or a diamond broach. If one claims kinship with the best of one's lineage, one must also be tied to the worst: the bores, the ones with bad breath. A family tree would have more use if one could actually climb it. Alas, too many creatures doze in its shadow.
I was born on the schooner Estella Gomez as it sailed the straits of Florida in the year 1899. The current and wind were with Estella when she broke anchor off the coast of Cuba that day, bound for Key Largo.
My mother was a ship's mouser, which is to say she had no hearth or berth to call her own, no generous hand to feed her table scraps at the end of a day or stroke her ears at night. Cargo holds of copra were her bedchamber; aromatic crates of spice and linen were her hideaways.
She lived her entire life aboard ship, amid the riggings and coconut rats and swaying hammocks of the crew. When she grew too loud in her pursuit of prey or had a rollicking encounter with the captain's dog, the crew threw an empty rum bottle at her and cursed the day she was born. Otherwise, she was answerable to no one. She had no name—and what in the end is more a symbol of exile from all that is tender in the world than to be nameless?
She was not a pretty cat. Indeed, she was quite skinny—emaciated—and very plain in the face; indistinguishable from the thousands of overworked cats kept on cargo ships in those days. It was almost certainly for the sake of expedience, not admiration, that any tom possessed her.
Of my father, I know nothing. Cats never do. It is part of our mystique and our tragedy. We are a fatherless species.
Oh, but the passage to Key Largo! What should have taken barely more than a day dragged on to two and then three. Halfway across the Straits, the crew encountered foul weather. The morning of my birth began with a reposing sea the color of pale blue opals, and Estella its serene mistress; by twilight, grim slate churned beneath the schooner's hull, and she began to spin and convulse like a hapless sampan. Great, foamy swells tormented her progress, and mountainous waves tumbled over her decks. The felon wind pilfered everything that was not lashed down—including one member of the crew (miraculously rescued two days later, clinging to a cask of beer).
It is said any creature born aboard ship during a violent storm is fated to have ill fortune in life. I can speak here only of my mother's misfortune in having gone into labor on turbulent seas. As the ship lurched forward on furied waves, my mother caterwauled with the burden of her maternal duty. Back and forth, the ship rolled, back and forth, until it seemed a certainty the vessel would overturn completely and be forced to sail upside down evermore, with its masts plunged in the murky deep and its keel pointed skyward. My mother sweated. She panted. She clawed at the timbers in anguish and confusion. All around her, crates and cartons tumbled in the darkness or were tossed through the air above her head. When, at last, we—her kittens—came into the world, it was at the peak of the disturbance. Expelled from her body, we tumbled like loose fittings across the bilge, and rolled halfway up the bulkhead.
Oh, those cats who whine and whimper over the privations of their pampered existence ashore! Dinner is late tonight, my pillows aren't properly fluffed, I'm bored—let them try a voyage at sea to cure their boredom and ease their indignation!
The shriek of the wind, the boom of thunder, the violence of giant waves, these attended my first blind feelings at my mother's nipples.
And when, some ten days later, I opened my eyes for the first time and examined my new home, it was to discover that I had been born not into a life of comfort and predictability, of soft couch cushions and sunny windows, but rather a world of—limes.