Seven Lives and Counting Down

Seven Lives and Counting Down

One morning not long ago, I glanced toward my kitchen window to see my cat, Hezekiah, standing on the wrong side. Could it be? Maybe I was mistaken. I wasn’t. There he was. On the other side of the glass, balancing on the blanket I’d flung across the clotheslines strung high above the ground.

A kitten weighing less than two pounds, four floors up, while I stood frozen a few feet away.

The window slides open in both directions. The crack he’d squeezed through wasn’t wide enough for my arm. Opening the window further might startle him and cause him to fall. Coaxing him back through the narrow crack didn’t seem likely. I had no choice. I’d have to open the window. I’d have to reach for him. I’d have to be quick. But the moment I stepped forward, he spotted me and leaped off into space. I reached the sill in time to see him crash through the branches of the tree in the garden of the building next door. White tufts of fur floated down after him.

Here’s the clothesline and the tree:

I was shaken. And mortified that I’d somehow let this happen. What now? Call the police? Did they rescue cats in Portugal? Pretend I didn’t know anything about any cat in any garden? Wake the neighbors? Pound on strangers’ doors?

I’d have to pound on strangers’ doors.

I’d never seen the people who live in the building next door, one with huge wooden doors and an old-fashioned knocker. No buzzer. No intercom. And perhaps no one who spoke English.

The door stood open a few inches. I pushed it open a few inches more. Inside were three more formidable doors, these without even knockers. One was street-level, one four steps up to the left, the other two steps up to the right. Which one? I tried them all. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. I went back to the street, looked up at the building’s shuttered windows, went back up to my apartment, and peered down into the garden as though Hezekiah would magically appear. I paced.

Determined, I went back to try knocking again. Finally, I heard steps on stairs behind the street-level door. A woman peered out at a distraught woman sputtering mangled Portuguese. Meu gato. Seu jardim. She shook her head, no, no. She knew about the same number of words in English that I knew in Portuguese. Armed with Google Translate, I was able to explain my cat had fallen out of my window into her garden. She was doubtful, but after a few charades and much frowning, she let me in and led me down six steep steps and through a labyrinthine apartment to her garden door. When she opened that door, I fully expected to see my dead kitten splayed on the paving stones beneath her orange tree. I realized I should have brought something with which to scoop him up. (And then what? A dumpster? Dig a hole in the nearest park with a spoon? After dark?)

But no cat.

She had by now indicated that she feeds ten cats – I’d seen them lounging on the roofs below – so at least I’d found myself a cat lady who’d have some sympathy – if she believed my story, about which she was still clearly doubtful.

I called. “Hezekiah. Here kitty, kitty.” No answer. Of course. There wouldn’t be a solution as simple as this. He was too scared, or too hurt, or too dead. The cat lady – Marianna – promised to keep an eye out for him. I showed her a photo. I told her I’d be back. I managed to wait until the afternoon before bothering her again, this time with his carrier in hand. I was a nuisance, but she led me back through her labyrinth. I spent several minutes in her garden, poking among boxes, chairs, pots and planters. No Hezekiah. Just two or three of her huge curious cats. Perhaps one had lunched on mine. The woman indicated there was no way out of the back alley, so if he was there, he was safe from cars. But, what if . . . he’d squeezed through a barely open window. Perhaps he could open doors. So I wandered up and down neighborhood streets.

Nothing. Only a poster for someone else’s missing gato.

Badly injured, he’d probably crawled into some corner to die. I hoped he wouldn’t suffer too long. Or, if he’d miraculously survived, he’d likely prefer the company of Marianna’s cats to a solitary human’s and decide to stay. One way or the other, I was resigned. He was never coming home. I went back to my apartment. I threw out his food, his dishes, his toys. I emptied his litter box. Wondered if I could donate the unopened bags of food and litter to the local pound. It was best, I decided, to cut ties, put him out of my mind, move on.

At five a.m. the following morning, his distinctive and piercing yowl woke me up.

I found him looking up at me from the ledge of the third-floor balcony of the apartment next door. The THIRD FLOOR! It took a few moments to register. I wasn’t seeing things. Or dreaming. He was there. Looking up at me. Complaining. Imploring. Loudly. What was wrong with me leaving him out all night?

Astonishing. He not only knew where he lived, he’d scaled the wall in an attempt to get back. No, he hadn’t somehow clung to the balcony on his way down. It’s recessed, and I’d witnessed his fall. And, no, he hadn’t climbed the tree. The tree’s crown stops a full floor below the balcony and its nearest branches are several feet away.

You can see the ledge in the tree photo above. It’s that white bit in the middle of the right hand edge.

Five a.m. was much too early to knock on doors. I considered completely crazy things – lowering a sheet fashioned into a ladder, for one. Thankfully I realized that moves like that were likely to make the situation worse. I was afraid he’d wake someone up with his yowling and that the someone would put him out in the street. Or that he’d try to make it up on his own, and fail while scaling the final floor and attempting to cross horizontally to my window. I backed away so he couldn’t see me and begged him to shut up.

By 8 a.m. I could wait no longer. Once more, I stood before those three doors. Should I try Marianna? Try to guess which of the other two led to the balcony? I knocked on them all. No one answered. Not even Marianna. I trooped back to my apartment. I was writing notes to leave on the doors when I heard the motorcycle often parked next door start up. I raced to my window overlooking the street. Opened it wide. Waved frantically to the driver, called out, “Stop stop!” Over his motor I yelled, “Meu gato sua veranda.” He frowned, but said, “My mother, my mother is home. Knock on her door.” Which door? But he sped away. Again, I knocked on them all.

Finally, finally, Marianna. If possible, even more dubious now. Nevertheless, I convinced her to let me inside so I could point to where I’d seen Hezekiah. All the way through her labyrinth, she said no, no, not possible. From her garden, I pointed up. She said impossible.

“Sim, sim,” I said, “I saw him, I heard him.”

“No, no,” she said.

And then, he saved himself: He yowled.

Marianna’s jaw dropped. Her eyes lit up. “Ah, um gato!”

Together we pounded on the other apartment doors. When there was no answer, she went out into the street and called up to the windows. As if in a movie, a woman appeared, put her elbows on the sill, and looked down at us standing in the street. It took Marianna several minutes to convince the woman there was a cat on her veranda. She kept saying, no cat, no cat, there’s no cat on my veranda.

“Please. Just look. Por favor.”

With a shrug, she disappeared, and was gone so long I thought she’d either given up or chosen to ignore us. But then, there she was, in her doorway, carrying Hezekiah. He was cold, but not nearly as scared as I thought he should be. As I settled him into his carrier, Marianna cooed over him and told me to feed him and get him warm. The two women laughed about seven lives. Seven lives? It’s nine in the States. No, here it’s only seven.

Together we decided he’d already used six.

The moment he was home, he went to the window to look down to where he’d been. With wonder, or perhaps longing.