When I was 22, I got my own apartment, and I desperately wanted to mark this maturity with a meaningful acquisition.
I would get a kitten.
Like any dedicated Women’s Studies major, I planned to get a girl kitten. She would have long, gray hair, and be gentle, and have soft paws that never showed their claws. I would call her Serena or Gaia or something similarly vaginally-inspired. And I would be her mother.
A week later, I got her, but because she kind of fell into my life, she had her imperfections: she was orange instead of gray, and she had short-hair instead of long. And two days after living together, her balls dropped.
And with that, Persephone became Merlin.
The gender adjustment was short, and I fell completely in love with him. I had never lived with a cat before, but I knew he was special. He made real eye contact with me. He listened when I talked. He slept with me every night, his nose against my cheek. We watched the movie Babe together from opening to end credits, four eyes glued to our 19-inch TV. It was all very romantic.
Merlin and I had been living together for 1 year when I bought him a mouse to kill. I had weighed the pros and cons heavily because I was a strict vegetarian, but I didn’t think he’d ever caught anything on his own, so I figured giving him a mouse would boost his self-esteem. That, I felt, was my responsibility as his mother.
This turned out to be a very bad idea.
Merlin tortured that mouse mercilessly. The little rodent was tossed in the air and batted to the ground over and over, his poor soul punishingly wrung out of him bit by bit. After three hours of terror, the mouse finally died, at which point Merlin continued to play with his lifeless body for another two hours. And then he ate him.
Self-esteem was obviously not a problem.
This was the first of many animals that Merlin would torture, kill, and eat. Mice, squirrels, rats — he loved them all, but his favorite was birds. I’m not sure if this was because of the challenge of catching them (I mean, seriously, how do you catch something that flies?), or because they were delicious (think of very small free-range chickens). To me, he was a sweet, loving boy, but there was no question, Merlin was a carnivorous beast.
Merlin and I had been living together for 5 years when I got married. Throughout our relationship (“our” meaning mine and Merlin’s, of course) we had several others come in and out of our lives — a boyfriend or two, other cats, a dog, a husband — but no matter who the others were, it was clear to everyone that shared our roof which was the primary relationship of the household. I was his mother, and he was my boy, and that was that.
Merlin and I had been living together for 15 years when he was eaten by a coyote on my 38th birthday. At the end of a two-day search, I found his tail and tufts of his hair in the yard of a house across the street. Later the neighbor found more of him: a paw, his collar, some other parts. “He was licked pretty clean,” my neighbor said. “I buried what was left, which wasn’t much.”
I didn’t know that coyotes lived in the creek across the way, but I figure Merlin did. With all the critters he’d hunted, killed, and eaten, my boy was an integrated part of the local animal community. Merlin knew the risks, and he chose to roam among them, but I still really, truly, deeply hate those fucking coyotes.
Merlin’s death was a blow. It came 3 months after my second failed IVF, and it threw me into a depth of darkness I could never have expected. I wept for hours and days and weeks on end, not just for him, but also for my fertility that I only then started to realize was as lost as he was.
It was apt, I suppose. My time with Merlin marked the chapter of my life that should have seen me become a parent but didn’t. He was there for every swallowed birth control pill that kept me from ovulating. He was the water bottle on my belly during my periods that came every 28 days without embryonic interruption. And although I’ll never know exactly when it was that my fertility ended (at 34? 32?), I do know that he was with me, sleeping with his nose against my cheek.
And I miss them both every day.
[Merlin ~ April 1995-April 2010]