The Sunday before Labor Day, 2005.
The world reeled in the slowly diminishing wake of the water demon, Katrina. Refugees from the monster’s wrath still huddled in motels, libraries, college dorms, and even parks in the Fort Worth, Texas area. They had nowhere else to go. They also huddled in pet stores, at least those fortunate enough to have been found by someone and shoved with wet fur into the canine-feline pipeline of safety that hurried them from New Orleans and out to new homes. They called her Mardi Gras.
The 21st Century was heralded as a golden age, a time when science and reason combined to give humanity its best era. Instead, it saw war, famine, soaring heat, and general malaise. Mass murder and genuine anarchy plagued the United States. The most civilized nation on Earth sank in the mire of superstition as fearmongering manipulators turned the face of God into the mask of hatred, anger, and fear. It was as if the 21st Century reverted into a fossil fuel powered version of the 13th. Nowhere was this as acute as in the hearts of Texans who still feared the sight of a black cat. They called her Patience.
Like so many other ladies of the night in New Orleans, she had no parents, no pedigree, and no known name. She was a mongrel, half Maine Coon and half something else. She was a torbie, a tortoiseshell-tabby, representing all the colors of all the cats, with white feet. She weighed ten pounds, all of it muscle earned from hunting and fighting. The tip of her right ear was rounded from a fight, while a notch from another marked her left ear. She hunted with a ferocity that made mountain lions look like pets, anchoring her back feet to the ground and stretching her long body out to grab her prey, then forcing it to the ground. Hunting was not sport to her. It was survival. At some point, she spent time with a Vodun. At another, time in a bordello. An older man was kind to her. A woman beat her. They called her Mardi Gras.
With a pedigree and a known birth date (April 26, 2004), she should have been a perfect little princess, the kind to sit in a woman’s lap and purr. A solid black Maine Coon with eyes like emeralds, she begged to be picked up and cuddled. Yet, something went wrong. Perhaps it was her tiny weight, only six pounds. Perhaps it was as simple as her color. She was a black cat in a part of the world that still wanted to burn witches. Someone struck her in the face, drawing her pupil deep into the iris of her right eye. Someone else kicked her and broke her hip, leaving her with a limp. Then, she became pregnant, and like so many other pregnant teenagers in Texas, she was abandoned to fend for herself. Someone thought she belonged in prison, and tossed her into an animal shelter. They called her Patience.
Whoever she was, whoever she knew, whatever kindness had been afforded her, whatever abuse, all ended when Hurricane Katrina roared into New Orleans on August 28, 2005. At least, the humans were kind enough to grab her and shove her into a crate. They dumped her in a dog pound in Lafayette as they ran from the monster of wind and water. They never returned to get her. They called her Mardi Gras.
Plague swept through the cat side of the shelter in Texas. Because she was pregnant, they moved her to the dog side. She huddled down and gave birth in a cage, surrounded by growls and barks and howls. People fell in love with her kittens. They all found homes. She found neither love nor a home. She was a black cat, and a witch’s familiar. She was evil! Visitors took her children, thumped their Bibles, and left her alone in a sea of dogs. They called her Patience.
She lay on her side in a small cage. At least, it was an air conditioned room and no one hit her. All around her lay other cages with other cats from her home town. She did not know their names. She no longer knew her own. They called her Mardi Gras.
The cages all full with refugees from some storm she heard about on television, she hunkered down in the cat carrier in a shopping basket. No one would ever see her here. She was a black cat, in a dark box, in a shopping cart, in the back side of a pet store. She was alone. At least, the dogs stopped barking. They called her Patience.
Labor day weekend, 2005. It was time to bring a cat back into our home, a year after our seventeen year old Maine Coon tom, Flint, died of old age and diabetes. A home without a cat is a silent home. Instead of buying a purebred, we decided to adopt one from a shelter. We drove to the Petsmart in North Richland Hills, a kind store that offered floor space to the Kool Kats Feline Rescue Society. That day, they took up a third of the store with cats rescued from the wrath of Katrina.
We talked to the director of the society. Trish told her that we had recently lost Flint, and mentioned that he was a black Maine Coon. The director said, “Come with me. I have someone to show you.” While Trish walked away, I wandered down the aisle of Katrina kitties. They looked so lost, so forlorn. Their whole world had been turned upside down and inside out. Then, I saw her. The tag on her cage read Mardi Gras.
The director led Trish to the wall of the store. A carrier sat in a shopping basket. Trish looked down into the carrier. At first, she saw nothing. Then, she saw two green orbs. Then, she saw her. The tag on her carrier read Patience.
I didn’t want a torbie. I liked bold markings on a cat. Yet, I couldn’t step away from this one. She looked heartbroken, laying on her side. She looked abandoned. I opened the cage and set my hand on her side. At first, she didn’t do anything. Then, she purred. Her purring grew stronger, and louder, then it felt as if she shook the whole cage. She stood up, looked at me with the saddest, yet most hopeful, eyes I’ve ever seen. Then, she nipped my wedding ring, and refused to let go. I fell in love. They called her Mardi Gras.
Trish slipped her hands around the tiny ball of fur in the back of the carrier and pulled her out. She was so little! She was so light! Trish held her to her chest. She cuddled close and purred. She closed her eyes. Then, she grabbed Trish’s arm with her paws and held on. She looked up at Trish with an expression that said, take me home? Trish fell in love. They called her Patience.
I wanted Mardi Gras. Trish wanted Patience. We could only afford one. We reversed ourselves. I held Patience while Trish stroked Mardi Gras. I admitted that Patience was the sweetest cat I’d ever held. Trish admitted that Mardi Gras was almost aggressive in her affection and needed a good home. However, we could only afford one.
“If you take one, I’ll give you the other for free,” the director said.
They called her Mardi Gras. We named her Belladonna, for the wife of the X-Man, Gambit.
They called her Patience. We named her Raven, for the Teen Titan.
The wrath of nature and the superstitions of backwards people led two homeless cats to be in the same store at the same time. On that day, two people decided to open up their empty house after suffering the loss of their friend. Four lives intertwined in a suburban shopping center. Forces outside their control led those lives to be in that store on the Sunday before Labor Day. Yet, a force within their control, and outside the control of others, empowered them. The four chose each other, using love and acceptance to reduce the anger of a storm and the fear of the superstitious to mere footnotes on the emotional scale.
Love and acceptance are tangible. They walk on silent furred feet. We named them Belladonna and Raven.
Reposted from September 1, 2013.
Author’s footnote: How do we know about their pasts?
We know about Raven because the director of Kool Kats told us. She saw the pedigree, heard the stories from the animal shelter, and knew that people avoided her because she was a black cat. We can see her eye, and an xray revealed the broken hip.
We interpret Belladonna’s past from her actions. She loves me, and adored my white haired father. So, an older man must have been kind to her. Yet, it took her a long time to warm up to Trish, and still acts nervous around women. Someone beat her. She often wears an expression that screams “Please don’t hit me.” She rubs up against me, especially in bed, and cuddles with me for an hour until her thick hair gets too hot. Then, she sleeps at my feet. Whenever we pick her up, however, she freezes, screams, and has an asthmatic attack. As for the bordello, well … ever make love with a cat sleeping between your legs? She also watches us whenever we break out the candles and herbs, with a look that says “You amateurs!” A few years back, Anthony Bourdain visited New Orleans for his show No Reservations. Belladonna sat watching the entire episode. She knew the accents.