I have owned three cats in my life and my favorite by far was Barnabus, and he was my best friend. He was big, furry, and black, with emerald-blue-green eyes, more like a small bear than a large cat. My spirit animal if I had ever had one. But a cat you could never say you owned.
I named him after a television rerun vampire, “Barnabus Collins,” from the original daytime soap opera, Dark Shadows. (I still can’t understand why housewives of the time would watch the show, but I guess they did, as it was quite long-running at 1200 episodes and five years.) Or maybe I named him after the black-clad messenger character in Kafka’s The Castle (?).
Anyway, Barnabus, known as “Barn” to our close circle of cat-loving college friends, was the kind of cat who would steal everyone’s hearts at parties, not only because of his eyes, furriness, and proportions, but for his habit of walking around, looking up at everyone, rubbing legs til they sparked with static electricity, posturing and meowing for attention. More like a dog than a cat, he was a real ham. Even draping him around your neck like a faux mink stole or letting him perch atop your head like a Russian ushanaka seemed to give him great, languid pleasure, like he was feline royalty, and he basked in the attention. (I once knew a bulldog, a star of some commercial, who would make a grand kitchen entrance of his own volition at parties.)
Barnabus had a huge appetite for tuna, and the first spinning crack of a can of such would drop him from his perch and he’d be instantly there for the ensuing feeding frenzy, already wobbly on his feet drunk off the aroma as he dug in. He was a rare cat in that he could not only scale trees, but was unafraid to claw his way down (usually with a goose-bump raising and ear-piercing slide, yeowch!, but nonetheless, he did it on his own).
Yes he was a pet, but he was also an animal with a wild soul. Every year when winter melted into spring, he would try to sneak out and express his tomdom, or some might say, his tom-foolery. I’d catch him perched on the window sill, staring longingly at the wild and free world outside—birds, beasts, rodents, other cats, and the Nature his species had been domesticated from. Hoping by some miracle the window would open. Or he’d wait by the door for it to crack open and try to rush between your legs back to whence his species had come. At the time, the idea of keeping him in a cage when I wasn’t home seemed cruel, and due to his expressed, free-ranging temperament, at least one eventual escape, always seemed inevitable. I still regret the day it finally happened.
I ran out after him and frantically searched the area, but he was nowhere to be found. I fell into a manic-depression for the next days, as I plastered my neighborhood with “lost cat” posters, prominently featuring his image, his name, and my phone number.
I though I had lost him forever to his nine lives, when the phone rang a few long weeks later and a gruff, wizened, voice spoke between what sounded like tokes off a joint. “You lost a cat? Big black one, green eyes?”
“I did in fact. Barnabus.”
“Forget it, where do you live? Coming right away.”
“Nicollet Island, the back half of the island. I’ve seen your cat coming in and out of the woods. I tried to fish him in with tuna, but nada—my name’s Bruce. Bruce Lee.”
Hmm. Anyway, the back half of Nicollet Island then was hippie-punk bordering on anarchist, and was known to be infested not only with Deadheads, but with raccoons. Thank God I refused to have Barnabus declawed. I imagined—hope, prayed, cursed—he had been holding his own.
I jumped on my bike and road the few miles from my neighborhood across the river over a bridge and onto the wooded island. Barnabus had traveled far.
I reached the address, a dilapidated house overgrown with sunflowers and jimson weed, and immediately saw Bruce. His face bespectacled ala John Lennon and, like his house, overgrown with an unruly, matted beard. He was wearing overalls, a tie-dyed shirt, and had his hair in a ponytail any prancing show pony would be proud of. Blaring from a boombox on the uneven porch came “Terrapin Station.”
Bruce stood with his back to the woods and was waving his hands in the air, trying to lord over puffed-up, screeching Barnabus high, large, and intimidating enough so he would freeze long enough for us to corral and, hopefully, capture/rescue him. From the look of his eyes, he may have been on acid.
“He just come out of the woods! He’s been scrapping with the raccoons. They got part of his tail!”
Fear, revulsion, sympathy, and terrible guilt.
“I got him thinkin’ I’m a damn grizzly! Cujo! Hurry up!” Bruce said. “Take up his rear flank, then we can get him back for ya!”
As I took up a position at Barnabus’ rear flank and mimicked Bruce, I took one look, and it was easy to see my beloved pet had gone feral, wildly feral in only a couple weeks, puffing his fur out so he looked twice his size (he was already big) and not so much meowing as growling at me and arching his back, his poor injured tail stabbing at the air and his fur moving around like there were snakes underneath it. Imagine Jack Nicholson’s transformation in The Shining. No longer the cute and cuddly and charismatic beast I had once known. Warring against the Nicollet Island raccoons, something in him had changed. Why he went there, I’ll never know.
I kept up my waving gesture grizzly on steroids act, lording over Barnabus, then lowered myself and dove forward to lasso my boy back into the fold of my arms, where he first spasmed out of paranoia and fear, maintaining his blood-curdling screech. Sad and awful to witness.
Like I said, something in him had changed.
Bruce let out a sigh. “Thank Jerry Garcia, we got ‘im. Don’t know how long he would have lasted out in the woods. You like the Dead?”
“Not particularly,” I said, stroking Barnabus all over while cooing at him to calm him, and me, down, until he became a baby bear again.
Soon his borderline-rabid growl (he didn’t contract the disease, thankfully) eased back into a purr that vibrated not only my arms, but my being.
I held Barnabus across one of my arms as I pedaled home. Over the bridge and with each passing block, he seemed to relax and calm down, squinting his green eyes out of pleasure against the cool evening wind. When we got home, he fell immediately to sleep.
Whenever he crossed my path after his foray into the wild, I felt lucky to have him back. Nurturing him out of what seemed to be his nature. I felt equally guilty about imposing more restrictions on his household movements, and no more parties, but for the rest of his years, I never let Barnabus out of my sight again. He lived a long life, and I miss him.
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