Cat coexistence

FREAK and Friskie never really got along. In fact, Freak and nobody ever got along. One night she chased a large German shepherd out of our house and into the street. And although she shared the house at different times with as many as nine other cats, ranging from kitten to old age, she never came close to any of them. Friskie was friendly, but wary. She fought like a svelte samurai when the need arose, all taut silence and then a sudden, ruthless strike. You could pet her, but often risked pulling your arm out of your socket trying to reach her receding form as she abruptly decided to keep her distance.

Freak practically picked your hand up and put it on her head whenever you sat down. She craved attention, lived for it.

Both cats - Freak, the black and white, longhaired tiger that looked so beautiful people almost gasped, and Friskie, the sleek, short-haired, brownish, average cat - traveled along separate boulevards in life. Occasionally, circumstances would throw them together, on a trip to the food dish, perhaps; and Freak would hiss darkly.

All of this began to change one day. Or maybe I should say, over many days, because the change was so gradual as to be almost unnoticeable. They didn't exactly become friends. But the hissing died down, like a radiator ceasing to spit out steam after the boiler cools.

Sometimes they curled up in sleep on distant ends of the same couch.

It was about this time we noticed that Freak and Friskie had simultaneously become pregnant. Their flanks began to bulge, showing those telltale tufts of fur on either side that betray new flesh underneath. And their tummies started to sway as they walked ... something they did ever so much more laconically, as time went by.

When you petted them, they rolled over, the way porpoises roll over, closing their eyes, and letting your hands run over the contours of new life in their bellies. Sometimes, one of these contours would wriggle under your hand, and you'd know that their time was soon to come.

Then, in remarkably close succession, Freak and Friskie had their litters. Five slithering figures in one box with pillows; six in the other. We kept them separate, respecting the fact that both cats still preserved a certain distance.

But two strange developments were to change all this.

The first was that Freak could not nurse. Her kittens tried, but it was clear that they were not getting any nourishment. So we prepared to feed them with an eyedropper. And that's when the second strange development came about. Freak took her kittens, one by one, gently in her mouth and carried them to Friskie's box, dropping them in the moiling throng around Friskie's belly. As each new kitten appeared, by now all fluffy and awake, Friskie pulled it in with her arm to her new-moon curved torso and began to lick it.

The new kittens pushed their way in, fighting for a teat to nurse on; and, by and large, the cohabitation was as perfect as it was impromptu. The overcrowded conditions caused some traffic jams, but feeding, cleaning, and sleeping gradually evolved a workable pattern.

Part of this pattern was that, two or three times a day, Friskie would get up, stretch herself, and head off for a break, while Freak would come in and spell her. Eventually things got worked out so smoothly between them that Freak did almost all the washing up, passing her pink tongue tirelessly over 11 kittens' bodies. She also kept general order, making sure that none of the kitties wandered off into mischief.

Friskie did all the feeding and much of the general loving; and sometimes Freak would crawl in the box with her, to lick her head gently as she cared for her litter.

None of us knew when it all began to change again. One by one, the kittens weaned themselves, or were weaned. Freak and Friskie spent progressively less time in the box. Feeding got to be more haphazard, with one of the kittens nabbing Friskie when she was in a lazy mood and prodding her into a submissive huddle. Friskie had nursed forever herself as a kitten and, to this day, will knead a blanket and suck on it sometimes in a dreamy remembrance. So she seemed understanding when one of the kittens urged her to nurse.

But there was little to draw the two mother cats together. They performed their separate chores separately. Occasionally they would nuzzle each other; sometimes they even slept together.

Eventually, though, all that stopped. The kittens left home by one avenue or another. Freak and Friskie settled back into the pattern of their separate lives. No one knows what happened to the Tom that had put them in this predicament. (Neither one of them ever had litters again.) And they seemed to forget it all, to the extent of becoming almost complete strangers.

Occasionally Freak would hiss at Friskie at the cat dish. But more often she would just leave if Friskie invaded her personal space. Which didn't happen too often, since Friskie basically kept her distance.

Later that year, we were out with a friend of ours in our backyard, which sat on a cliff overlooking the Hudson River and New York City. One of the little girls pulled a branch off a bush and, under a leaf, we found a strangely brilliant cocoon. Right beside it, on another leaf, was another cocoon. We took one cocoon and put it in a jar with some leaves, and our friend took another. The children watched as the cocoons became an iridescent black with several gold studs on one end. Until one sunny afternoon, the friend phoned to say that her cocoon was opening. We picked up our jar, and ours was opening at the same time.

In different parts of the city, two beautiful monarch butterflies emerged from their shells, puffed out their wings, dried them in the sun, and flew away.

We've long since moved from that house, taking our cats and our lives with us to New England; and, indeed, our lives began to diverge, almost immediately, like the fingers of a river at the delta, as it empties into deeper waters.

One morning, one of us found Freak curled up behind the washing machine. She died in her sleep 18 years after we first got her. Friskie is still around, though. Sleek and dark. And if you pet her long enough, she'll stretch out her front paws, grab a blanket, and close her eyes. Then, she'll start to nurse.

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