Author's Note: Last week, I posted a story about Homer, the youngest of my three cats, who I adopted when he was three weeks old. He'd been abandoned at my vet's office; a severe eye infection had resulted in the surgical removal of both of his eyes, and nobody wanted to give him a home.
Homer is now a three-pound, (hyper) active 12-year-old. I am currently writing a book about him entitled, Homer's Odyssey: Tales of an Eyeless Wondercat. The following is a chapter-in-progress from the manuscript.
Ill deeds do not prosper, and the weak confound the strong.
--The Odyssey, Homer
It was an uncomfortably hot night in mid-July, about two months after I had moved into my new apartment, when I awakened, startled, at 4:00 in the morning to a sound I’d never heard before.
It sounded like a cat growling, but the only one of my cats I’d ever heard growl was Scarlett. I knew it wasn’t her, though. And it couldn’t possibly be Vashti—Vashti who was so polite and unassertive that her meows came out as tiny squeaks; Vashti didn’t have it in her to growl at anyone.
That could only leave Homer.
The mere fact of Homer’s growling—Homer who was friendly as a puppy, who was always so happy-go-lucky that I’d never known him to be so much as grumpy—already had me frightened. I squinted and struggled to see him in the darkness.
There was some faint light streaming in through the blinds from the streetlights outside, but Homer was all black and eyeless, rendering him completely invisible. I could tell, though, that he was close by, somewhere on the bed. I sat up and reached over to flip on my bedside lamp.
The first thing I saw was Homer, standing in the middle of the bed, puffed up to about three times his normal size. His back was completely arched, and every hair on his body stood straight up, his tail bristled and stiff as a pipe cleaner. His legs were set wide apart, and although his head was tucked down low, his ears were at full attention. He moved his head and ears evenly from side to side with the precision of a sonar dish. His front claws were extended farther than I’d ever seen them, farther than I would have thought physically possible. His growl continued, low and unbroken—not completely aggressive yet, but a definite warning.
Beyond Homer, standing at the foot of my bed, was a man I’d never seen before in my life.
In the disoriented way you think when woken out of a sound sleep, my mind rapidly considered and discarded all innocent explanations for this man’s presence. Visiting friend? No. New boyfriend? No. Drunken neighbor who’d somehow stumbled into my apartment instead of his own?
No, no, and no.
I felt every muscle in my body stiffen and tense, my very eyelids snapping open so wide and so fast that the muscles twinged in pain.
All I could think was that the buried nightmare of every woman living alone—the doomsday scenario that had spawned a thousand horror movies—was playing out right here, right now, in my bedroom. I also realized that, having never truly believed it could ever happen to me, I had done nothing in the way of arming myself against such an encounter. My eyes plunged wildly around the room, considering what value each object I saw might have as a potential weapon.
The intruder looked as startled as I felt and, for a crazy moment, this struck me as highly ridiculous. Surely, among the three of us, he must have been the most prepared for whatever was about to happen. I mean, who had broken into whose apartment?
But then I realized he wasn’t looking at me. He hadn’t taken his eyes off Homer.
Like me, he had obviously heard Homer growling but, also like me, been unable to distinguish any visual evidence of Homer’s presence. Unlike me, however, it was taking him a second to figure out why this cat—who gave every indication he was preparing an attack—had been so completely invisible. There was something weird going on here, something off about this cat, something wrong with this cat’s face…
Under more benign circumstances, I would have been either amused or mildly insulted by the look of horror that broke over the burglar’s own face when he realized what it was.
Homer may have been alarmed at how rigid my body had become, or perhaps by the fact that I was awake, yet not speaking to him in my usual reassuring tones. His growl rose drastically in both volume and pitch.
Some cats growl and bristle as a way of avoiding a fight, slowly backing up while maintaining an intimidating posture in the hopes that their adversary will back down first. But Homer wasn’t backing up. With a slow precision that I instantly recognized from all those failed attempts at stalking Scarlett, Homer was inching forward, towards the intruder.
It’s going to sound foolish (keep in mind that, about fifteen seconds earlier, I’d been deeply asleep), but for a split second I was worried for the burglar’s safety. If anybody had asked me a half-hour ago, I would have told them that Homer would never attack anybody in my presence, that—even if for some impossible-to-imagine reason, Homer took it into his head to depart from his general friendliness toward everybody he met—the sound of my command, “No!” would have stopped him instantly. Homer was a troublemaker and a daredevil, but he never disobeyed me outright. I knew this for an absolute, positive fact, the way that I knew my own name. It was one of the cornerstones of the relationship I had with him, one of the fundamental things, aside from his blindness, that set Homer apart from other cats.
In that moment, though, I knew—knew—that if Homer indeed decided to attack this man, I wouldn’t be able to stop him. The snarling, furious animal on my bed was a cat I’d never seen, didn’t know, had absolutely no control over. The only question was how clawed up and bloodied the burglar, or I, or both of us, would get in the process of my subduing him.
It had been only a matter of seconds since I’d first switched on the lamp, and now my next move seemed so painfully obvious, I couldn’t believe I wasn’t already doing it.
I picked up the phone next to my bed to dial 911.
“Don’t do that,” the man said, speaking for the first time.
I hesitated for the briefest instant, and then I looked over at Homer. Do what he’s doing, a voice in my head urged. Act bigger than you really are.
“Fuck off,” I said to the man, and I made the call.
Then a lot of things seemed to happen at once. The 911 operator answered and I told her, “There’s somebody in my apartment!”
“There’s somebody in your apartment?” she repeated.
“Yes, there’s somebody in my apartment!”
Homer, meantime, had finally galvanized into action. He might not have understood relative size, he might not have realized how very much smaller he was than this man standing menacingly over the bed, but if there was one thing Homer did understand it was pinpointing a location based on sound.
The intruder, in speaking, had let Homer know precisely where he was.
With a loud hiss that bared his fangs (prior to this, I’d always thought of them as “teeth”), Homer thrust the whole weight of his body forward and brought his right front leg into the air, stretching it up and out so far that it looked, bizarrely, as if the bone connecting his leg to his shoulder had come out of its socket, held in place only by muscle and tendons. His claws extended even further (good God—how long were those claws?). Glinting like scythes in the lamplight, they slashed viciously at the man’s face.
Homer missed only by the merest fraction of an inch—and only because the man had reflexively snapped his head back.
“Okay, ma’am, I’m dispatching officers now,” the 911 operator said. “Stay on the phone…”
I never heard the rest of her instructions, however, because at that point the intruder turned and ran. Homer, his tail still bolt upright, leapt from the bed and raced after him.
Oh my God oh my God oh my God, I thought desperately. Who does he think he is, Old Yeller?
“HOMER!” I shrieked. My voice was so unlike anything I’d ever heard coming out of my own mouth, I couldn’t blame Homer for not understanding what I wanted him to do. “HOMER, NO!”
I threw down the phone and ran after them.
Like two competing runners panting toward a finish line, two separate and distinct fears vied for prominence in my head. The first, naturally, was that Homer might actually catch up to the intruder. Who knew what that man would do if he saw Homer’s talons coming at him a second time?
I was also terrified that Homer might chase the burglar out the front door and into the long, labyrinthine corridors of my apartment complex—and, unable to see his way back home, be lost to me forever. As this picture played vividly in my imagination, I was shocked to realize how deep-seated it was, how a fear of Homer’s getting lost had always lain in the background of my thoughts, coiled and silent but ready to spring up and bite me at a moment’s notice.
Homer had made it out the front door and about six feet into the hallway before I caught up with him. Looking around—to make sure neither of the other cats had gotten out as much as to confirm that the burglar was gone—I saw the emergency exit door at the far end of the corridor swinging closed.
I scooped Homer up in one hand and the staccato pounding of his heart alarmed me, although my own chest cavity felt molten, as if it were full of liquid fire. Homer resisted mightily, flailing out his front claws at random and catching the skin inside my forearm with his back ones, raising a trail of angry red welts. It wasn’t until I’d reentered the apartment, slamming the locks shut behind me and throwing Homer roughly to the ground, that he seemed to come back to himself.
“When I say no I mean no, god dammit!!” I screamed. “You’re a bad cat, Homer! A bad, bad cat!”
Homer was breathing heavily, his rib cage expanding and shrinking in rapid succession. I saw him take a deep breath, and he cocked his head slightly to one side.
One of the things about Homer that always clutched at my heart was the way it seemed like he really tried to understand me when I talked to him. Like right now, as he tilted his face up toward the sound of my voice, struggling to make sense of my yelling. On the one hand, every instinct in his body told him he had just done the exact right thing: There had been a threat, and he had defended his territory and chased the threat off. What could be wrong about that?
But here was Mommy, yelling at him as he’d never been yelled at before, obviously of the opinion that what he’d just done was very, very wrong. So which of us was right?
Homer didn’t creep towards me apologetically the way he usually did when I yelled at him. He just sat there on his haunches, his tail curled lightly around his front paws like ancient Egyptian statues I’d seen of the cats who guarded temples.
Apropos of nothing, I found myself remembering a scene from the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. A ragged group of peasants had just done battle with Fascist soldiers in a Spanish Civil War skirmish, and had suffered grievous losses. Among the dead was the loyal horse of an elderly farmer who’d joined in the fight. Kneeling over the body of the fallen horse, the farmer whispered in his ear, “Eras mucho caballo,” which Hemmingway had translated as: Thou wert plenty of horse.
It was a line that always stuck with me, because it was a single sentence that had seemed, to me, to contain multitudes. What the farmer was saying was that this horse had been a horse beyond all other horses, a horse who had fought like a man and died like a hero. For sheer valor, he was worth an entire herd of horses, so much horse that the body of a single horse had been barely sufficient to contain him.
Homer looked even smaller than usual as he sat there, his head still bent to one side as his fur sank quietly back into its normal patterns.
Such a little boy, I thought. He’s such a tiny boy!
“Oh, Homer,” I said, and my voice was ragged. I knelt down and rubbed him behind the ears. He purred softly in response. “I’m sorry I yelled at you. I’m so sorry, little guy.”
There was a sharp rap at the door, followed by an extremely welcome: “Police!”
“I’m okay!” I called back. “I’m coming.”
I picked Homer up again. Homer loved to cuddle, but he generally hated to be picked up and would squirm and wriggle in a desperate attempt to regain the ground. Now, though, he rested quietly in my arms. I buried my face in the fur of his neck.
“Eres mucho gato, Homer,” I whispered. Thou art plenty of cat.
I placed him gently back on his own legs.