Smokey, our old family cat, found his spot in the sun today, and went to sleep. He was twenty years old. And he didn’t wake up. He called it. He’d earned the right to pick a sunny spot in the driveway instead of a stainless table in the veterinary clinic. At twilight on April 10, in the gathering dark and the company of hundred-year old live oaks shrouded with Spanish moss, my sons John Luke and Dylan and I laid Smokey to rest here on the sloping grassy banks of Waterhhole Branch.
Old Deuteronomy, T.S. Eliot’s cat who lived many lives in succession, who buried nine wives or ninety-nine, whose village was proud of him in his decline…well, he had not a thing on Old Smokey. Except maybe those wives. Smokey never had much interest in girl cats. Even when he first came to work for us as a young cat, not much more than a kitten really, he had his eyes fixed on prey. Those eyes of his, crushed jade and powdered gold stirred in liquid flame, were like GREAT RUMPUSCAT’s fireballs fearfully blazing, raising terror in squirrels all ‘round the village.
When we moved to a place east of Fairhope with some acres and a barn, it came over-populated with what my grandpa called arborealis rodentia. Tree rats. Squirrels, furry-tailed rodents, a name derived from the Latin verb rodere which means to gnaw. And gnaw they did on our house in the country, with a particular love for electrical wiring in the attic. Although on one corner, they had a taste for cypress boards.
NatGeo asks me to “Discover the rodent species that makes its home on almost every continent on Earth…adaptive mammals that have evolved to climb, burrow, and even fly.” But all I really wanted to discover was how to get them out of my attic, how to keep them from raking their skittering and scratchy little claws through the pink insulation above my ceiling so they could dine on the delicious rubber covering on the wire that made lights come on and dishwashers work and all kinds of magical stuff.
So I called my writer friend Suzanne Hudson. When last I had visited her front porch there at Waterhole Branch, it was over-populated with cats.
“You got a cat that likes to hunt? With skill, I mean. Like, notches in his belt?”
“Yes,” she said, “a little gray tabby cat.” She allowed this young fellow had decorated her front steps many times with tiny carcasses. Mice. Moles. “Even a couple of squirrels,” she added.
Squirrel was all I needed to hear. His resume linked right in to my needs. “Can I have him?” She said yes, and told me to come for him any time. I told Suzanne I was on my way.
I liked Smokey from the get-go. Not only did he let me pick him up and carry him to my car, he settled onto the seat like he’d been just waiting for a road trip. None of that freaky cat stuff as we rolled either. And when I got home with Smokey, it occurred to me that maybe I should put him in a box or a crate for a day or two until the smells and sounds were imprinted on him.
But I had a feeling.
And I opened the car door and stood back. Smokey stepped out, ignoring me as if I’d been beamed to the clouds. He looked this way, and that way, and strolled over to a shrub and sniffed a leaf. Walked around the corner toward the back porch. When I caught up, this guy was parked in a wicker chair licking his paws.
The squirrel killing started the next day.
And continued. Not like a blood bath. But Smokey took out certain squirrels and the rest got the message and left the tail-switching, low-crouching Johnny-come-lately alone to do a lot of napping. He was really confident. He could drop everything and take a nap as easily as that cat in Jack Kerouac’s brilliant poem, The Scripture of the Golden Eternity. Kerourac presents a world in chaos, like bombs going off, but… “Everything’s alright, we’re not here, there, or anywhere. Everything’s alright, cats sleep.”
Smokey was the master of his domain. Even if a dog was in his space.
Like the Golden Retriever puppy who came to live on the place soon after Smokey. The pup, by name Cormac, taken from either a) an ancient Scottish king; or, b) my favorite author Cormac McCarthy, knew Smokey had certain inalienable rights around the yard and house. The dog never once offered a challenge to the cat. One of my favorite pictures of the pets is an upside-down sleeping Smokey in close proximity to an alert Cormac.
He was chill about most everything. When it seemed he’d had a stroke at eighteen years, my advice to my son, John Luke, who said we had to do something, was maybe it was time to let him go. After all, Cormac had passed two years earlier. No dice. John Luke said he’s gonna make it. I know it, he said. And Smokey did. Didn’t put up a fuss at the vet’s, just got some medicine and a diagnosis of an extreme allergy, and was, like, can we go home now? He walked a little crooked from then to the end. But he could still purr. And no squirrels teased him.
And now Smokey is resting in peace on a cloud. He’s not really here, there, or anywhere. He’s just thumbing through the scriptures in eternity.