Chloe crouched under a chest of drawers in the hallway of her owner’s house. She was a small, lilac Burmese cat. She meowed with a thin, high-pitched voice, while she trembled with nervous tension. When I held out my hand to her, she let me pet her, but continued to meow while she wandered restlessly about on the hairy floor.
“Do you have any Burmese cats that need a new home?” I had asked her owner, a cat and dog breeder, three weeks earlier. Twenty years ago, my family had gotten a brown Burmese from her. Now I wanted to welcome a new cat of the affectionate and loving breed into my life.
“I do have a Burmese, a lilac, that could use a new home,” Chloe’s owner said. “But she’s five years old.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “Five years is still young.” Burmese cats often reach sixteen years or more.
“But I also have another cat that needs a new home,” the breeder said. “The lilac’s daughter, a blue Burmese, she’s three years old.”
“Two cats,” I said. “I’ll think about it.”
I had considered getting two cats. They would be less lonely if I got a new job and no longer could work from home. Since the cats would eat the same food and use the same toilet, it would be a hundred percent more cat, for only fifty percent more work. A good deal, I thought. A few weeks later I went to visit Chloe’s owner to meet both cats.
In the hallway, Chloe kept meowing. She was the size of a four month old, not fully grown cat, visibly underweight, and her coat was dry and shedding. Had I known what she’d look like only a year later, I would have realized how badly she needed help.
I returned to the living room where Chloe’s daughter, Dotty, was begging pets from my parents, who had come with me to see the cats. After our brown Burmese died, all of us missed the presence of a feline in the family.
In addition to the cats, Chloe’s owner had eight pugs. They were confined like squashed-nosed children to a pen in the middle of the living room. Suddenly, all the dogs stood up, turned towards the hall and made loud hissing sounds one would not think dogs were capable of making. Chloe was in the doorway, stretching her neck to see what went on in the living room and sniffing the air. When the chorus of dogs saw her, they began to bark and threw themselves against the walls of the pen to get out. Chloe flinched and retreated back into the hallway. When she was no longer visible, the dogs calmed down as if nothing had happened. I began to understand why Chloe needed a new home.
Chloe and Dotty spent most of the time in their owner’s small bedroom, behind a baby gate the dogs couldn’t pass, but which the cats easily jumped over. Both cats were frightened of the pugs and the broad-chested black Rottweiler that patrolled the house. When I saw the small space Dotty and Chloe lived in, and how starved they were for affection, there was no way I could leave them behind.
“I’ll take both cats,” I told Chloe’s owner, who looked relieved as well as sad. I carried the cats to the car in a teal-colored carrier from the 1960s that Chloe and Dotty’s now former owner gave to me.
In my warm city apartment, I opened the door of the carrier so the cats could come out when they wanted to. I put a bowl of fresh water and food, and a newly bought cat den in soft brown velour, by the cage. Chloe was the first to venture out. She sniffed at the bowls and examined the cat den several times. Then she curled up inside it and slept for the rest of the day. At night I heard her use the cat toilet in the bathroom. The next morning she ate a little food and drank some water. It seemed she was adjusting well to her new home.
Dotty was more scared than Chloe. First, she hid inside a blanket I had put in the hallway, then she squeezed herself in behind the washing machine in the bathroom. However, my family’s brown Burmese had also been nervous, so I felt I knew the breed well enough to take in two anxious cats.
As frightened as Dotty was in the beginning, she nevertheless bonded quickly to me and spent as much time as she could in my lap, while she purred loudly. As her nervousness subsided, she turned out to have a loving and funny personality, which made me smile many times day. I expected Chloe to become similarly attached to me as well, but instead she remained in the hallway, where she scratched frantically at the front door, or ran along the walls of the living room, around and around, meowing once every five seconds, for hours at a time. At one point I sank down in the sofa, hiding my face in my hands. The cat was manic!
Chloe didn’t stop until I told her to. When she scratched at the front door, I calmly carried her away from it. Every time she tried to claw at the grey barrier, several times an hour, I took her away and into the living room with me. Whenever I did that, the small cat seemed relieved, as if she got a break from her scratching obsession. It worked. Chloe grew calmer and stopped going to the door. But she showed few signs of bonding with me. For that to happen, we needed a small “cat-astrophe”.
After a month, I decided to let the cats out on the veranda, so they could get some fresh air and explore a little. Even though they are indoor felines, Burmese cats do enjoy being outside for short stretches of time. It went well the first days, but then the cats snuck into the neighbor’s garden. I didn’t stop them and assumed they would be back soon. The day passed, as well as the evening. I went outside once per hour and called for Chloe and Dotty so they knew which direction to return to, but no cats appeared. Just as I was about to close the door for the night, I heard an insistent meow. It was Chloe. She came running along the veranda, tail high and body tense, meowing loudly as if she were saying: “No, don’t close the door! Here I am!”
I was very relieved to have Chloe back, but Dotty didn’t return. Not that night or the night after or the third night. I was outside and called for her several times a day, searched the neighbor’s garden and the rest of the neighborhood with mounting fear. I put up posters with pictures of Dotty and promises of solid monetary reward: “Have you seen this cat?” The days passed deeper into October. The first weekend Dotty was gone, it rained almost constantly and the wind was so cold it stung my fingers and cheeks when I was outside looking for her. It was winter in Norway. I despaired over the missing cat that I feared was starving and freezing to death somewhere. But with Dotty gone, Chloe got the calm and quiet she needed to really settle down. She spent as much time as she could in my lap, purring and blinking peacefully up at me. She revealed a gentle and very loving nature, and I developed a deep affection for the little cat.
When Dotty finally came home, after fourteen days at an unknown location, Chloe was the first to greet her at the door. I feared that Chloe would chase Dotty away, but Chloe recognized Dotty and licked her face until she was safely back inside and I could sit down and cry of relief.
It turned out that Chloe was twice as old as her former owner had told me. A check-up at the vet’s showed that she had several rotten teeth that needed to be pulled and which must have caused her a lot of pain. She also had digestive problems, everything went right through her, and that’s why she was so thin. But when the bad teeth were gone and she got the right food, Chloe gained weight and her coat turned as glossy and as smooth as it should be. With time she even began washing herself, which she was too anxious and hyper vigilant to do in the beginning.
Today, three years after I first met the trembling little cat, Chloe sleeps in my lap every evening and follows me around in the apartment, even when I’m just going to the next room to do laundry or make dinner. Whenever I turn around, Chloe and Dotty are sitting behind me, purring and blinking their eyes to signal friendliness and peace. To me, God can be found in everything and everyone, and in the love we have for each other. That includes animals as well as humans.
Berit Ellingsen is a Korean-Norwegian fiction writer whose stories have or will appear in Unstuck, Coffinmouth, SmokeLong, Metazen, decomP and other literary journals. Berit was a semi-finalist in the Rose Metal Press Chapbook Competition and a runner-up in Beate Sigriddaughter’s Ghost Story Competition in 2011. Her chapbook What Girls Really Think was published by Turtleneck Press in February 2012.