Gutter Cat by Michelle Donahue
Feb 11 ● BY Michelle Donahue
Somewhere there is a cat, a mother readying the world for the arrival of her babies. The kittens—slick and blind creatures—slip from her body. They blink and blink, little voices crooning high-pitched cries of I’m ready.
Then they are in a cardboard box. It’s raining. The cardboard curling. With every passing minute the box threatens to dissolve, its thickness forever thinning. The kittens, plump and cuddled into momma’s too-thin warmth, are waiting for some rescue.
This is a story about cats and also anyone waiting for rescue.
Imagine it is dark. Winter in California isn’t the death sentence it is elsewhere, but by the time my father opens the garage door, sees those kittens. There is no longer much of a box. The momma is nearing death, has come close to feeding her children so much that she has almost gone the way of the cardboard.
My father takes them in, dries and feeds them. It must be near four a.m.—that sickly, too early time he leaves for work.
When I awake this morning my mother takes me into my father’s home office and shows me the cats—Momma and five kittens. We flea comb them for hours. Six new cats? It’s like Christmas.
I must have been five or six. My father’s office had not yet become my little sister’s room, which it would when I’m seven. I must have been young enough that I saw the arrival of new cats only as joy. I didn’t think about that person who had left them, young and alone in the rain. I didn’t know about this outside cruelty we’re capable of.
It is not raining, but I’m wishing it would before I find the gutter cat. Actually my partner sees him first. We’re walking, one of our new nightly rituals, because we need to escape the indoors, and our phones have apps that track steps. It’s easy to get obsessive, to feel the act of walking will confer unknown, fortuitous health effects. It’s a nice distraction from the chaotic and cruel bloom of the present.
It’s not raining because it’s summer, one of the driest and hottest on record. We’re in Salt Lake City, and the air sits smoky and inverted—ozone and wildfire smoke settling in the valley, no escape. It’s amazing how bad the air gets here—the so-close mountains vanishing behind gray-green particulate haze in the winter and smoky ozone in the summer. I grew up in southern California, the inland empire, home to the worst air quality in the US. It never felt like this. Salt Lake Valley, with only two million people, doesn’t seem to care enough to clean the air. I’ve heard locals say it’s inevitable, blame it on the geography. And yes, the mountains help trap bad air, but they don’t create it. This is a problem we could fix—not that I’ve done much to help. I own a car, my first in years. It’s fuel efficient but not a hybrid. I take public transit mostly when I can, but I often can’t. I’ve taught classes at the university about the air, have encouraged others to care. But what a small sphere I influence. I know there is more I could do—but isn’t there always?
But, the cat. My partner and I are walking on a popular path. There are two overflow storm drains meant to provide temporary flood relief from rain. The water can rush in, but there’s no exit, nowhere for it to flood out. The tunnel merely holds the water until it evaporates. It seems like an inelegant system. In the three years I’ve lived here I’ve witnessed two street floods. Cigarette butts washed from blocks away and littered our front yard. My cat wanted to investigate, was curious if he could eat those toxic stubs.
But, the gutter cat. My partner and I are walking, and it’s that dim, crepuscular, almost-dark light made even softer from pollution. We’re walking and my partner notices a cat, his face beneath a rusted, metal gutter that protects the temporary storm drain. We’re shocked. My partner and I expect to see cats on our walks. We have a nightly cat count. We hope to see three, maybe four cats luxuriating in driveways. Another fun activity for us: like counting steps, we count cats. These days, with these politics, we need the small distractions. Still, we don’t expect to see a cat’s face where we see this cat’s face.
He looks small, so much smaller than he actually is. When I first see him I think he is young, not a tiny kitten but maybe halfway grown. I say he, but I don’t really know; I never will know. But my friend who is a veterinarian said most orange tabbies are male, maybe 80 percent, and this cat is an orange tabby, so there’s a good chance.
He looks so small and scared down in that drain. I rush to lift the grate, and it’s heavier than I expect—good, heavy metal. The cat rushes deeper down the drain, but he still meows at us. He’s scared, but also desperate for help. He won’t reveal himself, but he wants us to know he’s still there, still needs us. The grate smells like cat piss, pungent and days old. It’s been over one hundred degrees here. Who knows how long this cat has been trapped.
At my Kindergarten graduation—which seems like such a silly ceremony that I’m not even sure the event existed—the teacher asks me, What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a thing children get asked a lot, and as children we pretend this isn’t an absurd question. We pretend we can imagine ourselves all grown up, what that would be like, and that we can know what it is we’d like to become. I’ve always been a certain and absolute person. If I set a goal, I’ll work until I meet it. Around 80% of U.S. college students change their majors at least once. I declared a double major in my first weeks as a freshman, and I stuck to them. My sharp focus is only important because of my answer. What do I want to be when I grow up? I say, a cat. I want to grow up to be a cat. I think I believed this to be possible. Or perhaps I didn’t know what it meant to grow up and become something more than a child, to be responsible for waging a war against certain darkness.
I don’t even know if this ever happened or if it’s just a story I’ve told myself enough times that I believe it. If it’s something I want to believe.
And here’s the thing: I think I still believe it’s possible to grow up and become a cat. I still want to grow up, still want to become a cat.
What does it mean to become a cat?
My partner stays with the un-trapped but still-in-the-gutter cat. I run home. My flip flops, years old and peeling at the soles, are not made for running. I am not a creature made for running. The gutter cat is stuck maybe three blocks from our house, but in my haste I get temporarily lost, take the long way home, to my home of three years—longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my adult life.
I pack wet food, dry food, a paper plate, a plastic tub, and a water bottle in a neon pink and yellow pack. I run back. The cat hasn’t moved but is still yowling.
We drop wet food down the grate to let him know we are friends, to let him know there is more food if he surfaces. I fill the water tub, leave that and more wet and dry food. I hide the grate in nearby bushes. I leave a voicemail for animal control. I will return in the morning, but for now the cat has food and water. He will survive the night.
I learn to read in Kindergarten and quickly become obsessed with this book called Cat Wings. It is only later I learn the author is Ursula K. Le Guin, famous for her words creating worlds beyond children books. Later I meet her, when she is old and I am grown (but maybe not grown up) and tell her that Cat Wings means the world to me, made me want to be a writer. She tells me, good luck.
Cat Wings goes like this: a momma gives birth to kittens. They are outside and alone, and doesn’t this sound like a familiar story? But here’s the difference—these are extraordinary kittens. These cats have wings. This is how you know Cat Wings is fiction. In real life there might be moments of bliss and whimsy (surprise kittens!), but in real life these kittens never have wings. Reality—how limiting even for the luckiest. Or phrased another way: reality is confined only by what we believe to be true.
The kitty momma only cares about her kittens. She tells them they have a chance—they have wings! They do not need to wait for rescue. They must leave her, must escape and live for her.
And so these beautifully young kittens-with-wings open those feathered limbs and take to the sky. Their claws clench the clouds, and they are saved.
I visit the gutter cat the next morning. The grate is back in place; the food and water container I left are all gone. At first I wonder if it was only a dream, but no—my calves ache from flip-flopped running. Perhaps I’m at the wrong grate, I think, but when I bend my head and make little cat cooing noises the cat yowls back. He’s trapped again.
There must be workers who maintain the path, who removed the hopefully empty food and water containers and threw them away. I wonder if they noticed the cat, thought about the food, if they cared.
I remove the grate, hide it better this time, farther away, deeper in the bushes. I call animal control, talk to a real person. They’re coming. I dart back to my house, grab more food, more water. I leave these small gifts and walk away, give the cat some space. He sneaks out, wolfs down the wet food. He isn’t a kitten at all but full grown and beautiful. Maybe young, a year or two, but it’s hard to tell from a distance.
When he finishes the food he darts back down the hole.
A woman from animal control comes with no food, no treats, no trap, only a stiff metal rod with what looks like a noose on its end. The rod won’t fit down the hole, which plummets downward for maybe a foot and then bends to run parallel to the ground. I stay out in that sticky one-hundred-degree sun with her until I have to leave for an appointment. Animal control gets my phone number, tells me they’ll call with any updates.
The summer I find the gutter cat, my cat stops eating.
I take him to the vet. His name is Bueno, and he is mostly good, and I love his goodness and his badness absolutely. He’s lost a pound since our last vet visit only two months prior. They take his blood, run some tests, tell me it will take twenty minutes to get the results.
We sit alone and wait in the gray vet room. I imagine the worst. Cancer. Something inoperable. Some vicious disease. I’m not one to pray, but I do believe in speaking to the universe, and so I do. Please don’t kill my cat. I think of cold stones and curling ocean foam and plead to these vibrant earthly entities. Please use your power and save him. I’d so like to believe that the earth can hear us speaking.
I hold Bueno to my chest and listen to our hearts beating. Perhaps I only imagine hearing his, but I feel mine like thunder. I thank the universe for even this time together. I think how small my fears and worries are when elsewhere there is talk of so much worse. Children stolen from parents, locked in unknown places of unknown safety. Drought and fire unfolding across the country. Fracking and some lives mattering more than others. Women dressed in red handmaid cloaks as signs of protest for fear of our necessary rights. This list is endless.
I have fretted over these disasters. I have written letters to my representatives, left phone messages. But then I stopped. I didn’t know what else to do. That’s the problem with the here and now—we know all about the multitudinous destructions, but it’s less clear how to eke out the power we need to address these crises. There are those in power and then us. Yes, I do believe we have power, but I also believe we don’t. In the vet room I am powerless to change the outcome of Bueno’s blood tests, and I feel similarly powerless to help. I live in a red state—my representatives don’t care about my opinions. What else is there to do?
In the vet room I can only speak to the universe and hope it listens. And it does, or else it is just luck, Le Guin’s good luck. It is only a urinary tract infection. With antibiotics he will be fine. Once again I have been one of the lucky ones. Universe: thank you. I hope we all have such luck, but I know we all won’t.
I hear nothing from animal control, so I hope the cat has been rescued. I swing by in the late afternoon to check. The grate is still gone, but the cat is still down there. I swing back, bring more food, more water. My partner and I walk by there late that night, and I bring a sign made from cardboard: Please don’t cover with a grate! You will trap a cat down here! I drew a little picture of a cat for effect. I duct taped the sign to the cement by the hole. I left more food.
My mother was raised by a single mother in East LA. One day she came across a group of boys who were crowded around something. She said it smelled like the ocean. She thought the boys were kicking around a skateboard or a tin can or something. There was a whole group of them, greasy and frantic with energy. When she walked closer she saw they were standing around a kitten. The kitten was drenched. The boys had matches.
The ocean smell was gasoline. The matches were meant to make fire.
I don’t know how my mother, one young person, rescued the cat from all of those boys. But I’ve seen my mother’s ferocity. She’s a mother bear with a don’t-mess-with-me snarl. Even then, so young, she would do anything to protect anyone she cares about. And already, at first glimpse, she knew she loved this cat, knew she needed to protect her.
My mother ran the gasoline-drenched cat home. She called poison control, asked them what to do. She stood in the shower with this poor, shuddering little creature and allowed the water to pour over them.
She called the cat Two Spot because it had two white spots on black fur. Two Spot was her forever-cat, a cat who will be the most special one forever. We love all of our cats, fiercely and absolutely, but we each have a forever cat.
For my dad it was Honey, an orange tomcat who didn’t like my mother when she moved in, who didn’t like me when I was born. He peed on all of our clothes because he loved my father that fiercely. For my mother it was Two Spot, who followed her to the bus stop every day for school and was there upon her return. For me it’s Bueno. We’ve faced falling ceilings, snowstorms, and tornadoes together.
The next morning, like some sick magic, the sign is gone, the grate re-covered, the cat re-trapped. The food is gone, again—not empty in the food bowl but the container and everything simply gone.
I try to imagine the person who has removed everything so completely, who seems intent to kill this cat. I try to imagine them kindly. Perhaps they couldn’t read the sign because they don’t speak English, or their eyesight is poor and they can’t afford glasses. Perhaps their job is so brutal, packed with so much work that they don’t have time to read signs, have to presume everything they see is refuse.
I am forced to face the realities of brutality so far beyond what I’ve personally faced. To be thankful again and again of my very good luck.
I have to face the facts. This is not a tenable situation. The cat will always get trapped. Even if I de-gutter him each morning, eventually it will rain during the night, the drain will fill, and he will drown.
In Kindergarten, when I said I wanted to grow up to become a cat, I think I meant this: I wanted to jump ten feet high, to extend my claws and climb trees higher than I could see, to show the sun my belly and never get sunburned.
To become a cat, now that I’m an adult, means to become a creature who can survive, trapped for days. A creature who seeks safety but also moves away from it in hopes of something better. To be a cat is to be open and vulnerable to this wonderful world’s hardships and to suffer without much power or agency. Cats are subject to our whims. To be a cat is to hope human whims stem from empathy, to hope that humans, overall, are trying to make this world what it is: beautiful.
We are all cats. Powerless and powerful. Just watch us climb trees. You can mistreat us, but one day—I promise—we won’t only be rescued, we’ll have the power to refuse to rescue you.
Only we won’t refuse because we know what it’s like to be stuck beneath a gutter grate.
Saving the gutter cat, when it comes down to it, is so easy. There’s a local nonprofit that rents out animal traps—only on Saturdays—and it is Saturday. I watch a video about trap and release programs and how to use the trap. All I have to do is sign my name; it doesn’t even cost me anything. The nonprofit happens to be mere minutes from my house.
I set up the trap. I put a little bit of wet food at its end. I put a little bit of wet food down the hole to let the cat know I come bearing gifts.
I hide far enough away that I hope he won’t realize I’m there, but close enough that I can see him. I hide in a bush. I crouch and peer into a little hole, and for a moment I imagine I’m in a tunnel, beneath a grate, trapped, and I press my face into the small slates of the opening, but I cannot escape.
The cat comes out from his hole, and for a moment he won’t go into the trap. He circles it. But he smells the food within, and I can’t know the hunger he’s feeling. He walks into it. He trips the lever and brings the door down. He traps himself, though really I have trapped him.
He panics. He yowls. I feel so strongly I have betrayed him. I rush to cover the trap with a towel, to bring him to my car where I can drive him to the nearest animal shelter. There they will give him a medical exam, will spay him. They tell me he’s friendly enough that they’ll try to adopt him. They are a no kill shelter. He will live.
And this is supposed to be the happy ending. It is happy, in its own way. He will live, only I don’t know how well he will live, if he will find his forever human and become a forever cat. We all deserve that.
Instead of this ending I imagine another one. When he surfaces from his hole he looks to the sky. He looks at me, and I see him eye to eye, in the tunneled pinhole clearing of my bush. He looks at me and I come to him. He allows me to pet him. Then he unfurls his wings and takes to the sky.