the saddest thing in the world

At first it’s alarming and briefly terrifying. And then it’s just heartbreaking.

I’m getting ready for work, rummaging in the closet, talking softly to myself — wallet, keys, phone — thinking of the first things I have to do when I get to the office. I am totally lost in my own head, totally alone.

I back up with my jacket in my hand. I am about to close the door, and manoeuvre an arm up my sleeve, and—


Mukau with tail

She swipes her tail in my path as if she is baiting me. “I dare you,” she says. “Rrrrreow.”

It is the single most terrifying, electrifying, bone-chilling sound I have heard in my life. In half a second, I feel frozen, I feel hot. My heart stops, my pulse jumps. My skin prickles, every hair on my body flexes outward like quills poking through from the inside, darkness closes in from all sides and my field of vision narrows, and sparks and stars dance in front of me. The sound is a roar, an assault. Every sense is overwhelmed; every cell feels mortal danger. My mind is wiped clear, and my only thought is to hit something. To hit something and run.

Only then do I notice the soft mass under the heel of my shoe. I have accidentally stepped on the cat’s tail. And quicker than I can lift my foot, she is off like a shot. In that half a second, she has transformed from sleepy, lazy and obese to wild, alert and fast as lightning.

She stops halfway across the room, her back arched, her head turned toward me, ears pinned down, tail bushed out to three times its normal size. She has run away, but only halfway, stuck somewhere between retreat and attack. She looks up at me with enormous eyes, completely silent, as if searching for some kind of … I don’t know … reassurance that I’m not about to kill her.

And I am beside myself with anger, shock, embarrassment. I yell, “Well, get out of the fuck-ing way, goddammit!” I wave my arms wildly to scare her to keep running. I just want her to keep running. Just go. Just never come back. It’s a muffled yell, though. Jeff is still asleep upstairs. Well, he was. I think I can hear him stirring now. I wave my arms again.

So now the poor creature is doubly cursed. Not only have I just utterly betrayed her by inflicting swift, sudden and intense pain in a totally unexpected, quiet moment, but now I am also threatening her further with my yelling and flapping. She must be comprehensively terrified of me in this moment.

I see myself, a monster, and I stop what I’m doing. I take a moment to cool my blood. My skin stops buzzing, but my heart is racing. I slowly finish dressing. Hat. Jacket. Scarf. Breathe.

I walk over to her. I must apologize, give her some reassurance that she’s ok. I’m ok. She has crossed the room completely by now, and she is still very aware of exactly where I am in relation to her.

I approach slowly. Will she accept me? Will she run? Attack?

But she doesn’t move. She just keeps staring at me. Is it fear? Contrition for … whatever she’s done to deserve this? Is it just how a cat looks? My unassailable guilt imposes a dozen emotions on her.

“It’s ok, kitty,” I hear myself say. “It’s ok. I’m sorry.”

I slowly reach out to stroke her. She allows me to touch her gently under the chin. I can’t imagine what sense she is making of this, this combination of body-wrenching pain and tenderness.

I stroke her neck and work up to the back of her head. “It’s ok, kitty. I’m sorry,” I repeat. She doesn’t move. I wonder if she is about to swat back at me — or if maybe she is just desperate for me to love her again.

“I’m sorry, honey. I’m so sorry,” I say. She softens a little and begins to give in to my scratching. She seems to trust me again.

I really dig in to her fur and soft flesh now. She must understand my regret. She must feel it.

“I’m so sorry.”


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the untallied hours

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