Cosa

1 Jul

I'll be over here. Sulking.

I was so sure that I’d documented her origins here at some point that I was genuinely shocked when I went back through the archives and couldn’t find it.

It makes sense. By 2000, when this site started, Cosa was fully integrated into my life as a guy living alone in Austin with a cat. She curled up on my bed often at night, she greeted visitors (even visitors who came over all the time) with a swipe of the claw and a long hiss. She earned a reputation among everyone who met her as a mean little fierce black cat, a creepy little “thing,” which is exactly what her name means in Spanish.

But before that, on a hot August day, she was a tiny little puff of fur I found abandoned in a cardboard box. She was on the curb in front of a friend’s house, the sun beating down on her little mewling body. The person who left her had left a tiny bowl of milk-gone-rancid and there were ants in the box.

We took her to a pet store and had her examined, fed her with a bottle, got her cleaned up and just like that, I was a first-time cat owner. When the vet was examining her, she clawed and resisted and was called “feisty,” which would stick. Even then, overheated and bitty and left for dead, she was a fighter who didn’t suffer fools.

Cosa in the late ’90s. Alternacat.

She mellowed a tiny bit when she got fixed, then she mellowed out a lot more when I got married, moved to New Braunfels and we adopted two sibling cats, Diego and Rico. We expected fights and turf wars and if I remember correctly, there was a little bit of that, but to our surprise, as she was entering cat middle age, Cosa accepted these little guys into her home. She wasn’t a snuggly mother, but she at least tolerated these new cats and over time, even followed them on their rounds on occasion. She got used to our kids, too, and in the last few years, enjoyed being petted by Lilly and Carolina.

She was never their favorite. Even at 13 and 14 years old, she was still a bit crusty and unfriendly to anyone but me. It never changed that she hated being touched anywhere on her belly or tail. Her purrs of contentment when she was being petted on the head or ears could easily turn into a bite. She and the boys often scared away dogs that wandered into our front yard by standing their ground and hissing like monsters.

It was a good little cat family of indoor/outdoor cats who pretty much came and went as they pleased. But they never left the short radius around our house, wandering further than one or two houses down only when we went for our own walks and Cosa or the other cats tagged along behind us.

She didn’t whine or demand to be let in or our all the time like Diego. She wasn’t active and adorable and tiger-like the way Rico was. But she was my cat, the only cat I ever owned on my own, and over the years I’d ignored all suggestions to get rid of her, give her away, find a nicer cat.

The morning it happened didn’t seem unusual. Except. The night before, I’d heard some dog yapping over Carolina’s baby monitor before I went to bed, way too late as usual. Around 1 a.m., there was barking I mistook for Carolina waking up crying at first. When I realized it was dogs, I ignored it and went to sleep. All our neighbors have dogs. Barking is a given.

The note

As I collected the girls for daycare the next morning, we opened the front door and I found an orange door sign lying on the entryway. As I loaded Lilly and Carolina into the car and tried to get them strapped in, I read the note. It was from Animal Control. It said, “Deceased cat” with a description of an “OSH” with black fur. “PLEASE CALL IMMEDIATELY,” it read. They had picked up a dead cat in our yard. I needed to call.

“It finally happened,” I thought. “She keeled over of old age and a neighbor spotted her lying dead in the yard.”

It didn’t occur to me that if this were true, a neighbor would have rung our doorbell to have us take care of the body ourselves. I just thought, “Oh no, Cosa died. She’s gone.”

Then I found a note with more detailed information under the wiper of my car’s windshield. It said:

The other side of the paper just said that animal control had knocked on my door and that nobody had answered. I had no idea what time that was; I felt a jolt in my stomach wondering if this had gone down the night before, when I’d heard the dogs barking and ignored it.

I looked at this paper and the orange animal control form, back and forth, trying to resolve them, wondering if there might be some kind of mistake. And the girls. They were waiting patiently in their car seats for me to take them to school as this horrible thing was unfolding.

I ran in quickly to check the garage and see if the other cats were inside.  I found Rico near the door and put him inside, but Diego wasn’t around.

That was all the time I had. I got in the car and headed to the daycare before we were late.  As soon as the girls were there, I called Animal Control on my way to work to try to get an idea of what had happened.

They were very sympathetic, but the news they get was not encouraging. They’d picked up a black cat that had been mauled by two dogs right in our yard. I asked several times if they were sure that was the only cat was killed and they thought it was just the one. They went into some detail about the dogs, saying they believed it was the same dogs that had been wandering around earlier in the week and which had been picked up, then claimed by their owner a day or two before Cosa was attacked. Cosa’s body had been picked up and taken before I’d even opened the front door.

The woman on the phone asked if wanted Cosa destroyed or if I wanted to pick her up. I knew I wasn’t going to be home early enough from work to pick up Cosa on the way home and I was already running late for work.  I asked if I could pick her up the next day and they said that was fine. I hung up the phone and went to work, my day turned suddenly weird and horrible.

 The burial

I was sad and shocked, but I didn’t cry, not all day. Even as I shared some brief details online about what had happened (and the weird, accusatory note that had truly disturbed me), I was too surprised to feel any grief yet.  I had filled in my wife on what had happened and even though she had never really been a fan of Cosa’s she was sorry for me and has had a lot more experience in her life dealing with pets that died.  (Cosa wasn’t my first pet, but she was my first cat and she lasted 14 years. Kind of amazing given she was a feral, fierce little thing when I found her.)

That night, I came home late from a social event (where people I knew from online offered truly nice sympathies after seeing my shellshocked Tweets) and were able to find Diego.  He and Rico were both safe, but we noticed over the next few days that Diego didn’t want to go outside and seemed spooked, which would make a lot more sense once we knew the whole story.

The next morning, I took the girls to school, ran some errands, then prepared myself for the task I was dreading.  I drove to the Animal Shelter to pick up Cosa. The Animal Shelter is in town and not far from where we live, but it’s on a dirt back road that makes it seem much further out and more isolated than anything near it.  It was already getting hot outside when I arrived.  As I waited in the cramped entrance area, I saw a tiny cat wandering around.  The cat came to me and meowed, looking up expectantly.  I scratched the kitten’s ears and it purred.  I suddenly felt much, much sadder as memories of Cosa that young overwhelmed me.

They didn’t have any more details on the dogs, but after a lengthy wait, they brought out Cosa.  She was in a plastic bag, frozen, they said.  The bag was in a large cardboard box.  I didn’t stop to look inside and see if it was the right cat.  I knew.

I asked if there was anything I needed to know about burying a cat.  Was it legal? Could I do it in my yard?  They told me it was fine and to bury her in the plastic bag. It would all decompose and it would be fine.

I got a hoe and a shovel from the garage, went to the outer edge of the backyard and started digging.  Our soil is hard and rocky; it’s hard to dig very far down or plant anything, but I tried.  I sweated and dug and dug and only managed two or three feet, if that.

That was when I forced myself to open the box, which I’d set down gently in the shade of one of our trees.  I pulled out the black plastic trash bag.  Inside it was a white kitchen trash bag and inside that was the body.

She was frozen still, stiff, curled into a U.  Her teeth were bared, but her eyes were milky and indistinct.  I was thankful that she was in one piece.  I had expected pieces of cat, a dismembered mess.  But she was intact.  I didn’t find wounds on her, just a reddish abrasion on her belly. No pools of blood, no mess.  Maybe they washed her before they froze her.  I had no idea.  Later, my wife would wonder if the dogs had flung her around, snapping her neck rather than gutting her.

I tried to avoid touching her with my hands, but in the end I wanted to know what her fur felt like.  I put a finger on her head and felt it was wet and cold.  Her once thick black coat seemed thin and sparse, her whole body appearing wet and the fur bunched together in places.

I put her back in the plastic bag and placed her gentle into the hole.  I covered it in dirty and patted the rapidly drying dirt down in the hot sun.  I said goodbye to her as I put a large stone from our yard on top of the small grave, something the Animal Shelter worker had also suggested to keep the area from being disturbed by dogs, other cats or raccoons.

I went inside, still not believing what was happening.

The neighbor

Later that day, after my wife got home, we went and spoke to the neighbor who’d left the note on our car.  The note had really rattled me and filled me with guilt and I had been dreading the encounter all day.  I was prepared to throw down and get angry and I waited for Rebecca to come with me because I knew she’d be much calmer than me should the conversation go south.

She invited us into her house and was not at all what I expected.  She was kind and was truly shaken up and upset about what happened to Cosa.  She has cats of her own that she keeps indoors and she had to witness the whole mauling with no one to help.  She’d called 911 and Animal Control and had waited helplessly with nobody responding.  She told us she kept asking herself why we couldn’t hear what was going on and was beside herself when Animal Control finally arrived, too late to save Cosa.  Of course, she didn’t venture outside to try to stop it and I didn’t blame her. There was no way she could know whether the dogs would attack her, too.

She told us a few other things we didn’t know.  The mauling happened at around 6 a.m., not late the night before like I thought.  That was a relief, in a way.  It meant it didn’t happen when I heard dogs outside and ignored them.  She also told us that Cosa put up a fight for at least 15 or 20 minute and that the dogs also went after Diego, who was outside and hiding under my car.  They apparently couldn’t reach Diego there and that was what saved him. For the next few days, Diego was completely spooked and didn’t want to leave the garage or go outside.

We exchanged numbers and, under bizarre circumstances, made a new friend.  She expressed complete commitment to helping us do something about the dogs and warned us to keep an eye on our surviving cats. She also said the thing that we’d been worried about ourselves; that next time it could be one of our daughters playing outside in the yard who could get attacked by these loose dogs.

She described the dogs to us in more detail so we’d know what to look for. We passed the descriptions on to Animal Control, but they told us that given our cats were also off a leash, it wasn’t exactly something we could to take to court. They just told us to watch out and to call the moment we saw the dogs return.

Which, of course, they did.

The dogs

 Friday night a week later.  I was in the living room with Carolina while Lilly was getting a bath.  My phone buzzed and I saw it was a local number. I almost didn’t pick up.  It was our neighbor.  She told me the dogs were back and that they were poking around my yard.

We did the parenting thing where there was total confusion for about 30 seconds while I tried to explain to my wife what was happening while we wrangled the kids (one of whom was just-out-of-the-tub-naked and headed straight for the front door).

I was able to squeeze past her and go outside and… there they were. Right at our front door, exactly as our neighbor had described them. A larger dog with a thick long coat and his smaller, sleek brown companion. As soon as they saw me, they backed out of our entryway and started poking around our front yard. As I followed them, I tried to fumble with my phone and call Animal Control, but I wasn’t sure which number was the right one in my cell phone history and as I Googled it, my phone died. I had to run back inside and grab my wife’s phone and while I was doing that, the dogs started heading back around our back yard (we don’t have a fence, a whole other issue that probably wouldn’t prevent our cats from getting out if we did).

I let Animal Control know the situation, but they said they had no staff to come pick up the dogs at the moment. I hung up and focused on trying to get some decent photos of the dogs in case they suddenly took off. Not easy given it was quickly getting dark.

Then it happened. They came around to the front yard, the two dogs, having made a complete circuit around our home. They saw Diego sitting near our neighbor’s side of the lawn and ran at him immediately. In two seconds, both dogs were on Diego and he was thrashing against them as they all but covered him with their much larger bodies.

I ran.

“NO! NOOOO! NOOOOOO!” I screamed like an insane person as I ran at them. Even as I got closer, the dogs showed no sign of letting Diego away. I ran for the collection of river rocks that line our house and grabbed the two biggest rocks I could find. “NOOOO!” I kept yelling as I threw a rock and missed completely. The dogs let Diego away and he darted off to the street.

The dogs, meanwhile, nonchalantly walked off as I breathed heavily, holding one large rock in my hand, scared, fully prepared to bash one of the dogs in the skull if it came at me.

My adrenaline was pumping and I had this horrible sensation knowing that at any moment, I could be killing a dog with a heavy rock I was holding. The feeling made me queasy. I tried to calm down as I followed the dogs out of our yard and down the street.

I wondered how long I should follow. I wanted to see if the dogs went back home to try to find their owners, but something even better happened. The dogs continued to poke around the neighborhood as I followed. I took photos of the dogs and tried to get closer and closer. As I calmed down, I saw that the dogs seemed well-fed and healthy, not ragged stray dogs. They even were friendly to me, coming up and seeking attention and affection. I was still holding the rock, still cautious, but they didn’t appear to want to hurt me and they didn’t even bark.

I was able to get close enough to the smaller dog to pet him and reach for his collar, taking a few blurry photos of his tags in the dark. There was a scrawled tag with a name and phone number. I called it.

The woman who answered was shocked that her dogs were out and even more surprised and shocked when I told her I thought these were the dogs who had just killed our cat. “NO!” she said. She sounded credible. I wondered if she was lying and had already been told by Animal Control that her dogs were suspects. She told me that because of some fence construction, her dogs kept getting out and that she was at work. She asked me if there was anything she could do (apart from just picking them). I told her I didn’t know. I told her we were watching out for our cats and our kids and that we were all very upset.

A while later, I had to stop following the dogs and just hope she was on the way as they traveled far away from our neighborhood. Animal Control called me back and I gave them an update. The woman called me back and said she was definitely on her way to get the dogs and that this wouldn’t happen again.

And a week later, it hasn’t. We haven’t seen the dogs and our cats have been staying indoors much more often.

It’s been such a weird few weeks of surprises and disruption. I haven’t been able to tell Lilly what happened yet, but I intend to. I don’t intend to tell her where Cosa now lies, but I do feel it’s important for her to know that he’s not coming back. I lost a pet around that age and for years wondered if the lost dog would come back home. I don’t want her pining for a cat that won’t ever be back.

The place where I buried Cosa still had the large rock on it, but when I went to check it a few days later, I found the ground where I buried her spongy and unsettled. The bag or the body or both were probably gassy and expanding. I tried to pat the dirt down with my foot, but the loose, rubbery sensation of the ground that held her made me sad and horrified me a little and I’ve tried not to think about it much, letting time and the weather do their thing.

But my eye goes back there now every time I see the backyard. I wonder if I made a mistake putting her there, if maybe I should have chosen a spot I wouldn’t see so often.

On the other hand, I didn’t want her far away from us. I feel like we pushed her away for the last few years as we raised kids and tried to keep them safe from a mean cat. Even when they got old enough to play with Cosa, they never really did and my fantasy that one day the cats would return indoors and re-integrate to their old life of leisure never materialized. Cosa never got to come back and be a cat that slept in our bed and cuddled up against me as I watched TV or just hung out underfoot at my desk as I wrote late at night.

And I think that’s what makes me the saddest of the whole situation. That I wasn’t there to protect her when she was literally fighting for her life. That I was the only person who really ever had any affection for her, and in the end, I didn’t even give her that often enough.

Cosa’s gone and I never got to say goodbye or give her one last pat that she could feel. She didn’t get to finish her life peacefully, on a vet table, being told she was loved and being comforted to a final sleep. Instead, she fought alone, violently, and lost.

She was abandoned when I found her and I can’t help feeling that in the end, too, she died abandoned.