Black Patches was a cat, of that there is little doubt; beyond this though, there are…well not mysteries exactly, more like uncertainties. Where she came from, for instance, is not recorded in any record, even the informal census of pet births and deaths that is kept in the fragments of our childhood memory. My mom loved this mongrel cat, perhaps she remembered how and when she came into our lives, but if she did, she took that bit of trivia, as well as all so much of the family lore, with her to the grave.
Mom’s love for this particular cat — this one, solitary cat, when cats came and went from our lives with the same frequency of a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk — was rooted in my mom’s love of motherhood. You see, what impressed my mother about Black Patches was that Black Patches was a good mother. My mom named this decidedly homely cat, Black Patches, admittedly a name bereft of any sort of poetry, or quaintness, or any of the esoteric qualities typical of a pet name. It wasn’t a name she always wanted to give a child that she never bore, nor was it a name of a famous person or place that she read about as a child and longed to meet or visit. Mom and Dad were farm-folk, in a real sense, none of this “one-day I’m gonna leave this little town behind and BE SOMEONE, Nebraska-horse shit” you see on television.
My mom was practical, realistic and gritty. It was a cat. It was black; well, not all black it had black patches. I’m not sure it was a name as much as an appellation, a description to distinguish this durable cat, from the throw-aways that ate at our house while they awaited their inevitable, horrible deaths. When a cat got ground to bits in a motor, killed by a speeding motorist, disemboweled by a neighbor’s dog, we learned to just go get the shovel and move on. There would be other cats, other horrible deaths, more graves to dig. Cats came and went so suddenly (our dirt road ranch, a quarter mile up the road from my grandmother’s farm house, and was THE drop off spot for unwanted strays, and puppies and kittens too old to give away and too much work to keep) that naming the cats seemed superfluous and certainly not worthy of the attention of an adult.
I’m genuinely surprised we didn’t number them, and actually, since I am the sixth of seven children, I’m damned lucky to get a name myself.
Not that we didn’t care for and love our cats, me in particular, it’s just that we came to realize that their time with us would be very short. “Black Patches was a good cat” my mom would remark. By a good cat, my mom meant that she was a good mouser, could be trusted to come in the house for very brief visits (no box of cat crap in our basement!) and was amenable to a rough child petting it, or dressing it up in doll’s clothes. But for my mom, the true test of an animal’s character was its ability to parent, and Black Patches did that in spades.
Black Patches always secreted the births of her kittens until they were weaned and able to survive the gruff handling by children’s “pee-up fingers” as my mom was fond of saying. Black Patches would come down the path from her secret hiding place, proudly leading a cat parade; it was really a site. And don’t think for a second that we didn’t look for her hiding place. Many hours were spent by my sisters and I hungrily ferreting out a kitten-cache, always in vain, or at least when it came to Black Patches.
Mom’s friendship with Black Patches was undaunted, until one summer day, as Black Patches was across the road, on the edge of the field, when a newer-looking metallic green Chevy approached. I my mind’s eye I can still see it’s approach, slowing as it neared our driveway. We lived in the sticks and if there was a car on our road we generally knew who it was from a glance. As my mom and I watched, the passenger rolled down the window, and fired three quick shots from a rifle with a silencer, and Black Patches slumped over dead as the car then sped away. I just stood there mouth agape struggling to make sense of things — to understand what had happened — as my mother, tears streaming down her face, This was big; I don’t think I had ever seen my mother cry before that day. She ran to the car and chased after the speeding car, leaving me there alone to wonder, if these strangers would kill her too.
I waited for what seemed like an eternity. Nothing that day made sense. Questions throbbed in my head and beat at my temples. What would someone who would do that? What would happen if my mom caught up the them (clearly a polite apology for shooting your cat was not likely)? What kind of person does that? Would I ever see my mom again, alive or dead?
Mom never caught Black Patches’s killers. I guess Black Patches’ past finally caught up with her. I’ve speculated over the years, why anyone would go to such elaborate extremes to kill our pet? Maybe, as my mom speculated, it was a criminal practicing a hit, or a criminal who was trying out a gun he was buying, or maybe it was just an asshole who enjoyed killing cats.
My mom came home safe and collected. As hard as she tried she couldn’t catch up to the car. “And what if she had? I” wondered silently. “I just wanted to get their licence plates so I could call and report them to the police.” In retrospect, I doubt she even knew what she would do if she caught up to them. It didn’t matter.
My life, in fact, my whole universe changed that day. I don’t know who these fetid, evil, sons of bitches were but the lessons they taught me were ugly. I learned to hate, not for what they did but for who they are, and that is not a skill that can be unlearned. But I do know that I pray a very specific prayer each day that God smites them and everyone they love, with bladder cancer, or torture, or things so horrible that I cannot even imagine them. Karma, payback, whatever you call is a bitch.
In the larger sense, whoever they were doesn’t matter. What matters is that they taught an easy-going four-year old, that the world is full of bad people. People who harm others for fun. Who victimize others for their own gratification, but mostly that there are people who kill without reason and hurt creatures who don’t deserve to be hurt, even good cats and maybe even good little boys.