PEACEFUL DEATH AND REBIRTH
There were many more cats than before in Heliodora’s room: some of the old ones (among which, Long-whiskers’ mother) had had kittens; and there were a number of new ones — outsiders. Many were sick. Many had died, owing to a recent epidemic of “feline distemper,” soon to be replaced by the newcomers rescued from the streets.
Long-whiskers was soon a happy cat once more. His lip had entirely healed, thanks to some ointment that Heliodora had applied upon it, and he now ate without difficulty. And he was more than ever attached to the woman. She only needed to look at him for him to start purring, and to jump into her lap, if he was not already lying there. Then she would stroke his emaciated back, and he would purr louder. Something within him told him that wherever “she” was, there was safety, good food and gentle care; that all fear could not but disappear at her touch. He worshipped her, — without knowing and without caring who she was in that mysterious world of the Two-legged mammals, with its problems, its wars and its ideologies, all as far beyond his understanding as angels’ and gods’ affairs are beyond human speculation, if angels and gods there be.
And yet he was not destined to live long at her side. In spite of good food, his coat was not getting back its former shine. His body remained thin. Then his appetite decreased and his nose started running. And Heliodora recognised in him the well-known first symptoms of “feline distemper” — the incurable disease that had carried away already so many of her cats. Whether Long-whiskers had caught the germs of that disease during his wanderings or just now, from other sick cats to which she had given shelter, she did not know. But she knew what was the matter with him, and knew also that there was nothing to be done: the “vet” had told her so, on so many other occasions. The medicine he gave could at most postpone the animal’s end. And Long-whiskers did not like taking medicine. However — in order to feel that she had done “all she could” — Heliodora forced the prescribed dose down his throat at the prescribed intervals, until the little bottle was finished. Every time, the cat would struggle himself out of her grip
and run into some corner (generally under the book-case) until the taste of the potion had vanished from his mouth. But as, after a week or so, she gave him the last spoonful, he did not run away. Instead, he looked at her with entreating eyes, so as to say: “Why do you torment me with this stuff that I don’t like? Can’t you let me die in peace?” And Heliodora understood.
She gave him no more medicine. It could not have saved him, anyhow. But she gave him all her love, till the end. And this made his cat’s life worth living, even in its decline. And it bound him to her — as a spark of the One divine Life to another more brilliant spark of the same; a spark more aware of its divinity; more awake, but by no means more divine than he — forever.
Long-whiskers ate less and less, and soon lost the little weight he had, at first, put on. His nose and throat, continually stuffed, tormented him. And so did the loathsome digestive troubles that are another of the features of “feline distemper.” Yet he was happier, much happier than in the days of constant fear. He had become too weak to jump into Heliodora’s lap, but he only had to look up to her and faintly mew: she knew what it meant, and would at once take him up as gently as she could, and let him lie in her arms or upon her knees, and stroke him. A feeble purr, which often brought tears into the woman’s eyes, was the cat’s answer.
At last, one day, as the poor beast was lying as usual upon a cushion in a basket — and the other cats here and there, all about the room, — Heliodora thought she had heard a disquieting sound: something like a smothered groan. She got up and went to the basket. She lay her hands upon the once so sleek, now so emaciated creature, in whose body she had noticed a slight stir. Was it the beginning of the end? — Already? The soft, silky paws were already cold; and Long-whiskers was breathing heavily. With infinite care, fearing that the slightest jerk might hurt him, Heliodora picked him up, cushion and all, lay him upon her lap, and let one hand rest upon his head while she stroked him with the other. The head made an effort to turn itself towards her; the large, yellowish-green eyes gazed at her with a yearning that she had never seen in them before, and she felt the familiar purr — the answer to her love — under the neck that was already stretching itself in the struggle of coming death. Then the legs started moving, as the head kept turning from one side to the other. Tears welled up to the woman’s eyes: “My poor, dear cat,” she whispered, “you are at least dying in my arms: happy — loved till the end, and beyond the end!”
She thought of the millions of stray animals that die in the streets of towns and villages without ever having experienced the touch of human love; she thought of the hunted or trapped creatures, and of those that die in torture for the sake of man’s criminal lust of sacrilegious research, and of those that are slaughtered every day to become butcher’s meat. And that atrocious feeling of powerlessness beyond all hope that had oppressed her so many times in the course of her life, overwhelmed her once more. The one State in which vivisection was treated as a crime was now struggling for its life against the whole world. What could she, Heliodora, do besides helping that State in its war-effort, directly or indirectly, by any means she could think of, and . . . helping a few cats and dogs to live outside the hell of fear, and to end their lives in peace?
Her warm hands gently rested upon the furry body, gradually getting colder and colder in the throes of death. “My poor cat,” thought the Friend of animals, “if it be within my power to influence that Unknown which comes afterwards — if anything comes, — may you have, this time, a better incarnation!”
As for Long-whiskers, it is, without the experience of death, difficult to say what he felt, as life slowly ebbed out of him. It seemed to Heliodora as though his eyes, already dim, tried a last time to gaze at her through the cloud that was setting down upon them. His last yearning, his last expression of consciousness before all sense of “separate” existence — still outside the great Ocean of Sleep — left him, was: “Oh! to see” her”! To see “her” — and feel “her” touch once more!”
And thus he died, in the old peaceful home that had welcomed him as a helpless kitten; in the loving arms of the woman who had brought him there for the second time, out of the hell of hunger and fear. Heliodora buried him at night, at the foot of a tree, in Wellington Square.
* * *
He took birth again as a most lovely, stripy, ginger-coloured kitten, in London, near Waterloo Station, among kind and good English people: father, mother and four-year-old little girl. He had a ginger-and-white brother, and a tortoise-shell coloured sister. His mother lay in a large basket, upon an old pillow, purring as the human mother stroked her and as her three silky babies sucked her, their front paws moving regularly, as their tiny round heads hung at her paps.
“We can’t keep all three; — unfortunately we can’t, in such times as these,” the woman was saying. “But we shall keep one and try to find good homes for the other two. Aunty Rose told me she wants one, anyhow . . .”
“I want that one!” cried little Elsie, pointing out to the young stripy tom. I want him for my Christmas present. And I’ll call him Sandy.”
And so, Sandy remained, while his brother and sister were given, in course of time, to Aunty Rose and to another cat-loving friend of the Harrington family. Loved, well-fed in spite of the food restrictions (he was born in December 1943), pampered by everyone in the house, especially by little Elsie, who insisted upon his sleeping in (or at least upon) her bed, he grew into an enormous cat, as beautiful as Long-whiskers had ever been, and nearly twice as big. As the Harringtons had no garden, but lived on the ground floor, he was allowed to take a stroll once a day, in the late evening, when passersby were few. The rest of the time he spent upon a cushion in the drawing room, or in Mrs. Harrington’s lap, or in little Elsie’s arms — or in the kitchen when it was food time. He was as happy as a “doctored” cat can be.