Back in Buffalo for a brief visit, having lived in Berkeley for more than a decade, I visited with my sister. I had started reading a book on speaking to animals using mental images. My sister had a young cat. It had continents of calico in seas of white, with black eye liner that mimicked Egyptian eyes. It also seemed trapped in the house. On a few occasions I suggested that she let the cat out into the large, fenced-in back yard. She explained that it was Lisa’s cat, her daughter, and that she was only cat-sitting it for a few weeks while they worked on their new home in Buffalo.
The next morning, when the cat was more anxious about being inside than the day before, I encouraged her to let the cat out and assured her than the yard was well fenced in and that I would be out there with it. Finally, my sister agreed and the young cat and I went out into the back yard.
As soon as we reached the grass lawn of the back yard, the animal ran across the yard to the only place in the fencing that had a space under it, and he was gone. The hole led to the other side of the block and into the neighbor’s back yard. I hurried after it but by the time I reached the fence he was no longer visible to me. I walked as quickly as I could around the vast suburban block, trying to see which house was the match for my sister’s back yard. The block was large and made it difficult to spot which was the yard that the kitten had fled to. I called out his name and gave the trill sound that people make when their cat is lost.
It was my fault that this had happened. Some drive inside me that insisted that all things be set free, no matter how stupid an idea it was, had prompted me to liberate this cat. The cat had no idea of the dangers and I had no idea that he would find some way to locate that danger as soon as his legs would take him there. I spent half an hour calling up and down the block and going into people’s back yards, careful to call for the kitten loudly so as not to get shot. Every house on the block – large, expensive – flew an American flag; I was not in Berkeley anymore. Here, it was not thinkable that America could do any wrong.
Defeated, I went back to my sister’s house. Having been raised in a brew of guilt soup, as an Italian-American Catholic boy, I just felt like myself again, and I swore in a tone that no neighbors could hear. I had had a reprieve from guilt for some time in California, but it didn’t take too long, being backed home, to have it all pour back into my stomach. I had lost my niece’s cat, and my sister would feel the guilt of having agreed to let the kitten out.
Unwilling to face my sister, I went straight around the house and into the back yard. A small concrete patio was large enough for four outdoor chairs and a frosty glass table. I looked out over the flat grass and focused on the great willow tree in my sister’s yard. I remembered the book that I was reading. It explained with great confidence that all one needed to do in order to communicate with animals was send mental pictures of what you wanted to say to the animal. Animals understood mental images, the author insisted. Desperate, I closed my eyes and formulated mental images of the other side of the fence and the pathway that the kitten would take to find her way back through the fence and home again.
I spent the next half-hour envisioning the cat’s return to the yard. Periodically I would open my eyes to see if she had received the message and returned to the yard. Each time I looked, there was no cat. When I became too depressed to continue sending out my mental recall, I stood from the chair and went back into the house.
My sister looked at me, and I shook my head once. “The cat went through the fence. She’s gone,” I confessed. There was nothing more to say. Spoken words would have sounded the way we both felt, no matter what they pretended to be saying.
My sister tried to smooth it over, out of compassion for me. But there was no erasing the feeling of being a fool for having to tell my niece that her cat was gone. I sat down in the living room and pretended to watch TV, some program where overly excited people won amounts of money by spinning a wheel. My mind couldn’t understand what the people were doing. I was watching myself watching TV.
I watched for half an hour. The news came on. I watched the Buffalo news. I watched until, from the yard, I heard a terrible uproar. It sounded like a thousand cars screeching out doughnuts on the street, a term for driving in a tight circle around and around, burning rubber into smoke as some form of vehicular exhibitionism. I stood and went to the back door, opened it and went out into the yard to see what this astounding noise was. In the back neighbor’s yard, it seemed one hundred black crows were madly crying, screeching, swearing in their raucous way, insanely flying from tree to tree, bush to bush, coming closer and closer to the backyard fence. Through the fence a terrified kitten tore its way through the space under the fence that it had left through. The cat ran in terror across the yard.
The battalion of black birds then, laughing like drunken Russian revolutionaries, all flew away, having gotten my message, and rallied to the game.