First of all, she wasn’t a kitten …
In early May, I received a text from a close friend who lives several blocks away: “Do you want a kitten?”
At that point, hours and days and weeks were drifting by in a fog of restless ennui. I was home, all the time. The tense silence was pierced by ambulance sirens every three to five minutes. My then-4-year-old daughter was attending virtual preschool, and each minute felt more tenuous and bizarre than the last.
Did I want a kitten? Of course I wanted a kitten.
First of all, she wasn’t a kitten. After an intense battle of wills with a group of my friend’s neighbors, who all attempted to lay claim to what turned out to be a partially feral adult cat, I found myself on my hands and knees, speaking soothingly to my new, slim tabby. She had huge, luminous eyes and refused to come out from beneath the living room couch.
My daughter and I decided on a name together, Jinora, in honor of one of our favorite characters from “The Legend of Korra.” And we did everything we could to make our new housemate feel comfortable and secure. My daughter sang to Jinora and asked her questions, attempted to engage her with the many toys I bought, and wrinkled her nose good-naturedly when I dished out the cat’s wet food and changed her litter box.
After about two weeks of living with us, Jinora began to get fat. There isn’t a more delicate word for it. I watched her belly slowly distend as the weeks passed and wondered what I was doing wrong. Was she sick? Did I somehow screw up the transition from partially outdoor cat to fully indoor? Should I take her back to the vet?
My daughter shared my concerns, bending low to peer into Jinora’s face and ask her, again and again, if she was all right. She would forget her worries in the next minute; the sweet, solipsistic luxury of childhood. I began measuring out each meal serving and monitoring Jinora’s waste, gently touching her belly every so often to ensure that it wasn’t hard. If that were the case, the websites warned, my cat would need to be seen by a vet right away. It was only ever vaguely squishy. Jinora would blink at me when I did this, nonplussed and vaguely judgmental.
It was the second to last weekend in May, a weekend that my daughter was at her dad’s. I got into bed and Jinora followed me, which wasn’t unusual: Since she’d arrived she became adorably clingy, her constant purring a dull roar as she sought my attention. But this night, she kept trying to burrow beneath my covers, which she didn’t tend to do. She seemed insistent; I drove her out of my room and firmly closed the door, citing “Boundaries, Jinora!” She stalked off with nary a meow.
She failed to yowl and scratch beseechingly at my door for breakfast the next morning, which was irregular to the point of frightening. When I entered the kitchen, she finally trotted out to greet me, her steps sure, her gaze somewhat wary. Before I opened my mouth to greet her I heard it: tiny, smacking mews.
I froze, and she met my startled glance, ominous in her silence. Then I summoned the courage to follow the sound to the couch, instinct pulling me down to inspect the space she had occupied weeks before, crouching in her primitive fear of the unknown. And there, in the darkness, was a small mass of furry, moving bodies, tiny mouths opening and closing.
I gaped and gaped, wondering if I was still dreaming. The longer I looked, the more hilariously terrible sense it made. Jinora hadn’t been sick, or obese, or dying. She was pregnant, and she had given birth, multiple times, because now there were real live kittens here. In my apartment. Where I was trapped for the foreseeable future.
The rest of the day passed in a blur of hysterical phone calls and emails (I fired her vet immediately), tabs upon tabs of research and a panicked trip to my nearby pet store. I paced and fretted and cleaned as quietly as I possibly could, stopping every so often to stare at my newest charges, to joyfully scold Jinora for withholding such an explosive secret.
Finally, I moved the couch away from the wall, inch by careful inch, so I could understand what was actually happening here. And I counted. Six. There were six kittens, all alive, all latched and eating well. Six new animals inhabiting my apartment in the midst of a pandemic that seemed to have no end. I’d been scraping at my yellow wallpaper for weeks, but I suddenly felt the walls closing in around me in a wholly new and fascinating way.
I watched Jinora nurse and stroked behind her ears, feeling foolish and sentimental as tears sprang to my eyes, caught in the grips of overwhelming nostalgia. “It’s sweet, but a little agonizing, isn’t it?” I murmured to her, as the kittens held her hostage, keeping her still, beholden only to their need for sustenance and sleep. I remembered being sprawled across the very couch they took refuge beneath, gazing listlessly at the ceiling, the walls, the quietly droning television, holding my tiny daughter to my chest as she drank and drank and drank and slept and woke up and drank again.
Aside from the process of giving birth, I’ve never felt more like an animal, stripped down to my basest biological parts, sweating and aching and grotesquely mammalian. I resented the midsummer heat, I resented my partner’s freedom to sit and stand and walk around as he pleased, I resented my own resentment; feeling monstrous for begrudging my darling daughter anything at all, with her so small, fragile and helpless. I felt elemental, powerful. I felt weak and scared.
My daughter returned the following day, led inside and roundly hushed by her dad, who warned her that the surprise waiting for her demanded silence, and a very gentle touch. I couldn’t help but marvel at her as she encountered the newborns. My beautiful daughter, whose baby fat solidifies into lankiness a bit more each day, her smile as blazing and sharp as her wit.
ImageThe author’s daughter communing with surprise kittens.
“They’re kittens,” she exclaimed softly, padding across the wooden floor in her socks, dropping to her knees to watch them. Her dad snapped photos as she cooed, petting them cautiously, each passing moment a greater exponent of precocious wonder. I smiled at her and wondered how she was ever small enough to fit within the crook of my arm. “Can we keep them, Mommy?”
We kept only one, in addition to Jinora, who will be spayed before the year is out. We named him Azula. And after the protracted scatological horror of litter box training six raucous kittens and their mother, two were enough.
It feels just right, as we enter a whole new season of cold isolation. Two battle-worn, lovingly exhausted mothers; two sprightly, endlessly curious offspring — sharing space, seeking companionship, privately gestating our strange little lives within these warm, ever-shrinking walls.