, , , , , , ,

It was no use. My longhaired outdoor cats’ fur had gone from dreadlocks to solid mat. Despite the promises of various grooming tools and tricks, I couldn’t brush them out. The pet groomers on our little island explained that a cat’s skin is so fragile, they couldn’t take care of the mats. So my wonderful vet offered to take on the job. A few hours later, I collected two naked, still slightly sedated cats.

About halfway back home, they gave voice to their outrage, and continued the song of their people from their little kennels strapped in below window level. The dog sat up, ears perked. People we passed flinched, clearly seeing her as the source of the cacophony and probably hoping the exorcism in our near future would be successful.

When we arrived home, the naked cats refused to have anything to do with me. They went on a killing spree instead. So far, a day later, the body count is five birds (two rescued alive, luckily) and a rodent. But I’m not too worried. They are lovely cats who will eventually forgive me (after much groveling and tuna of course.) But it did remind me of my long-ago encounter with the scariest cat ever…

When cats go bad…

I was sitting in the hospital emergency room in Urbana Illinois on a Sunday afternoon, carefully not doing things. For example, I was not noticing that the gentleman sitting across from me was having an argument with an empty chair. Or that the chair appeared to be winning.

I was not listening to the lady waiting to hear whether her boyfriend, who had just wrecked her car, was going to live. Because if he did live, she planned to kill him. Lots.

And I was especially not doing anything like moving or breathing, which might aggravate my sinus infection. (Having a sinus infection puts a lot of things into perspective. I had one when I was in labor with Child #2, and I don’t recall ever having any contractions. Just someone beating on my sinuses with clubs, and my overwhelming gratitude when I heard, “Congratulations! It’s a girl. Now you can have some sinus meds.”)

A new patient came into the emergency room. One swollen hand was the size of a football, with angry red lines shooting out from the puncture wound. I looked at that hand and I knew right away what had attacked him. Once you’ve been on the receiving end of a cat gone bad, you never forget.

It happened when I was pregnant with my first child. We were living in a small town in the South (something I’d ranked fairly high on a list my guidance counselor once had me make of Top-Ten-Things-Not-To-Do-In-This-or-Any-Future-Lifetime). But to my surprise, I absolutely loved living in Virginia. I learned the name of Robert E Lee’s horse. (“Traveler”) I learned that grown women could be called Muffy or Missy and still be contributing members of society. I learned how to make cider beetles and sock-babies for the church bazaar. I even learned to speak the local dialect.

Cider beetles… soooo good!
[image credit and recipe: chaosinthekitchen.com]

INCORRECT: “You saw those Yankees fixin to pitch a hissy fit?”

CORRECT: “Y’all saw those damn Yankees fixin to pitch a hissy fit?”

Most of all, I learned what happens when cats go bad. We, like most of our neighbors, were used to felines of the kitty persuasion—fluffy, purring, little neutered furballs who kept the local rodent population under control in return for clean litter boxes and the occasional catnip mouse.

And then we moved into our little neighborhood of townhouses. The first warm night, we heard what sounded like babies being ripped apart. This was followed by regular thumps of things being thrown and yells of “Shifles shut up!” from new neighbors up and down the street. By daylight, our neighbors pointed out a massive cat. He was ugly. He was mean. He was seriously BIG. And he was all tomcat.

Shifles owned our local streets, terrorizing small children and beating the tar out of neighborhood cats and dogs. Nobody seemed to know where he lived, but everyone called him Shifles. To understand what that means, you have to know a bit of local history. In centuries past, pioneer Shifles* ancestors had settled in the valley.

*NOTE FROM BARB: NOT their real name, although ironically close to it. So for all my readers named Shifles who are even now dialing their lawyer’s number: before you sue me you should know the only things we have that we paid lots of money for are the dog and the 10-year-old’s braces. The dog’s teeth are nice, but she drools. The 10-year-old doesn’t drool, but those braces have been in there a while now. It’s your call. [image credit: imgflip]

By the time we arrived in town, the Shifles clan occupied an established social niche in valley life. Their daughters (usually named “Dreama”) and their sons (“Bubba”) filled the ARRESTS and COURTS sections of the paper. The number of letters and spelling in their name varied according to social position. Those who spelled it “Schiffloesse” were even known to possess high school diplomas and not speak to relatives with more economical spellings. But everyone knew this cat’s name was spelled with the absolute minimum number of letters. Shifles spent his days swaggering through the neighborhood, and his nights screaming his challenge to any potential rivals, sex partners, hallucinations, or for the sheer hell of it.

One day when I was about eight months pregnant, I made the mistake of going out to collect the mail without first doing a perimeter Shifles-check. (I blame the baby hormones, which also accounted for my inability to watch a puppy-chow commercial without dissolving into tears, or to remember if I was wearing matching shoes, or to explain my sudden conviction that I should or ever could knit baby stuff.)

I don’t know why Shifles chose me for his victim. Maybe his hunting instincts were aroused by my resemblance to Herbie the Love Bug. But one moment I was stepping out my door, and the next I was wearing a 15-pound tomcat.

I looked down. With teeth and claws buried in my hand, Shifles closed his eyes and locked his jaws. He was in his happy place.

“Nothing to worry about.” The young emergency room intern told me as he examined my rapidly swelling hand. “You did bring the cat with you for testing didn’t you?”

Since I’d had to beat Shifles upside the head with a board to convince him to part company with my hand, I had to admit that his whereabouts were currently a mystery.

“Well, we’ll just deliver your baby by emergency C-Section and start you on rabies shots,” was his response. “Unless you can find the cat by this afternoon.”

There are miracles. Getting the entire neighborhood to turn out and find Shifles was not one of them. People in the South are pretty fabulous about stuff like that, and everyone wanted to help. But finding that Shifles had actual owners—with many more letters in their names—who could prove he’d had rabies shots? Realizing this meant I would be able to continue the pregnancy until my due date, and that my baby would be born healthy and full-term? That was the kind of miracle for which—I gratefully assured a benevolent deity—I would give up smoking, swearing, and voting Republican for the rest of my life*.

*[Well, damn, two out of three wasn’t bad.]

Shifles’ remorseful and/or litigation-averse owners agreed to put their cat on tranquilizers to curb his antisocial tendencies. I don’t know if it was his new drug regime or the fact that there were so many other pregnant women drivers in our neighborhood. I like cats in general myself, but I’ve always regretted that I wasn’t able to congratulate the unknown driver of the car that ended Shifles’ reign of terror only a few days later.