When I place my key into the lock I can hear my cat screaming. She will yell until I unlock the deadbolt, the doorknob, open the security door and the old wooden door with the knob that’s so fragile. She will yell as I kick off my shoes, place my keys and hat on the catch-all, and set down whatever else I’m carrying—a satchel or groceries, say—and will not stop screaming until I lean over, and she reaches tall—so tall she begins to tumble backwards—and I pick her up, and she climbs and perches, nail deep in my shoulder, and replaces her panic with purring.
Iris is a tortoiseshell cat. Because so much of my house is mismatched patterns, it is difficult to photograph her. In most she will exist as a blur, a momentary interruption of a couch or rug. It is only in plainness that she can be fully seen. I imagine her coat served her well when she was feral, hunting in the scattered copses of trees or industrial yards, an interruption of pattern with two furious eyes staring out, looking to kill something small and soft and bring it home to her kittens.
Iris is a smaller cat. I am told this is likely from being a mother so young, which affects the hormones and stunts growth. Because of this stunting, her age is an approximation. We cannot count the rings of her teeth with any accuracy, or see how many vertebrae she is missing. Until the day she dies, she will exist in a span of three years, which is of no concern to her. She is not concerned with keeping reservations. She does not want candles or a cake, or to leave presents pristine in their wrappings for any period of time.
When I hear Iris yell, I usually respond with humor. I say she sounds like a person trying to sound like a cat, or a cat whose engine has not fully warmed up. I do not say, I am sorry, child, for leaving you alone. I do not say, I am sorry, mother, for giving you reason to think I have disappeared forever. When my mother cries when I am leaving, I can know why it is she cries because she tells me. To make a mother of a cat is to give to the cat all the anxiety, depression, and apathy of motherhood, and it is not my right to give those away. It is not my right to say what is enough to make a mother.
When Iris plays, I call her Devil or Little Demon. My friend calls her Sharp Baby. I know that her claws will be out when I look at her and see that her pupils have become dilated, as if she were trying to open them wide enough for the whole world to tumble in. Sometimes she announces her devilishness by throwing all her weight—it’s not much, eight-pounds—into a floral loveseat with an inclined back, making the whole thing rock once before she disappears into the garish pattern. Or she’ll reach out from under the bed to catch an ankle with a claw before making a sound like some amphibious bird, swimming away into the mess of my house. For this behavior, I am careful in dresses, as the draped fabric is enough to make the eyes widen and the tail to twitch with anticipation. She loves soft things. She loves socks, or her stuffed lizard—a handmade, teddy bear version of those bright things that scurry over our windows, where the moths collect—or my good wool gloves. It is pleasing to throw these things high in the air so that she might stretch tall or leap, and pull it close to her, and curl around it until she is a purring knot, and kick at it with all her fury.
I do not know what is enough. Is it enough to carry kittens in one’s belly for nine weeks, the duration of a cat’s cycle? Is it enough to leave one’s tail vulnerable in order to protect the belly from larger claws, let it be broken and heal permanently bent? To find a space where the cold is not more than of the pain of birth? To lick the fresh kittens clean? To check their breathing? Is it enough to go hunting and be spotted and followed back to that little space? Is it enough to be caught, the kittens caught and sent to foster? To be given a hard washing and fed medicine to kill anything left in the belly? To yell from a cage until someone opens the door and picks her up and lets her perch, nails deep in a shoulder?
It is wrong of me to say “belly” as often as I do. Babies are not carried in bellies, no matter how often a mother might say, You’re cute enough to eat. I am told by a friend that this is a psychological response to the unknown. The brain cannot process something so intensely appealing and so it short circuits. It turns destructive. A mother does not eat but feeds to her young her old body. In its place, a new body forms, with newly bent bones and tissue now able to withstand a great trauma, and, in this body, another body, hungry and thoughtless.
My mother does not like to have her picture taken. She will move, and blur, and become a momentary interruption of a pattern. This makes birthdays especially challenging, when she already does not want to celebrate hers and must be tricked into celebration with food and children. Then, when she is happy and distracted, she will laugh, which looks like yelling but is not, and then one might take a picture with all her teeth baring bright.
My mother tells me she always wanted to be a mother. She became a mother young and had her kittens taken away but she became a mother again later, and then again. I do not know if she became a mother the first time and stayed one or if it was a process of unmaking, the nurses coming in and asking for the child’s name before they’d let her hold her and then not letting her be held because the child was up for adoption. Another person was waiting to become mother. Now, decades later, my mother tells me she does not know what to do. To be a good parent is to one day not be needed. She tells me she does not want to grow old, especially not old enough to when she cannot help herself. She tells me to smother her then. However, she would like to become a grandmother, she tells me; to hold a baby in her arms and say, You’re cute enough to eat.
When I pick Iris up, she likes to rub her teeth across my chin. When I am bearded, it is a comb to her, and when I shave my beard so that I might look more motherly then I can feel all the sharpness of my little huntress. I am told cats rub themselves on other objects in order to leave their scent, to mark that object as theirs. How does my devil smell on my skin, my clothes? She bites at the buttons, a form of grooming, and hides all my thread, so my clothes are always wanting of repair. When I was young, I would leave tattered clothing over the furniture and it would reappear whole again, perhaps with an added strip of pattern, a kind of magic. I know better now, though. All magic is just a kind of stitching.
Cats, like other animals, will sometimes eat their young. This intensity of love is rare but it happens. Typically, it is that a kitten has died, or is sick and will likely die, and so the mother will eat her as a means of separating the illness from the litter—she contains. Sometimes, too, cats and other animals will eat their young due to stress or for feeling unsafe. To come back to the den and sense that something large has followed. To turn to her young and say, like Silken’s rabbits, I know where you can hide.
When I adopted Iris, she was named April, because she was taken to the shelter in April, and her two kittens were named May and June. I renamed her Iris after the tenacious flowers my mother grew in the backyard, tall enough to disappear within, with fierce petals and roots that could survive even the wildest neglect. Once, I drove by an iris farm and brought bulbs back to my mother, long after we had lost that backyard and dirt to grow things in, and my mother cupped the bulbs in her hands, even though they must have died already during the ungodly long drive back home, and she thanked me, and welled with all the sadness of the world, a tiny space made with burnt fingers.
When Iris came home, she hid under the bed for two days. I set food and water by the edges but she was having a rough time—someone had unstitched and restitched her belly, and she was unsteady on anesthetics. I set my head under the bed, and found her in a box, curled, and fed her small pieces of food, one at a time, and cupped my hands for water, and she did not die. Two weeks later, when I betrayed her trust and took her in to have the stitches removed, the vet noticed her breasts were still large for kittens. He told me that it was nothing strange and that she’d recover in a week, which she did. Her body ate away the motherly body.
Iris does not like to take her medicine, so I have to hide it. I cover her food in it, refuse to give her anything else, let her grow hungry until, with all hate, she is forced to bend her neck, to take in that which will make her better. Because she will only eat enough to cut off hunger, she won’t get a full dose, so I worry that the little creatures that she carries so well in her belly will be there another life cycle. I am told to check for little white lies, so I do. I kneel by the litter box and, with a plastic bag, I break apart the many pellets, turn them over in my hand. I check for mother.
Reilly Cox is a MFA candidate and book artist at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Born in Baltimore, they attended Washington College and the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets. They have work available or forthcoming by the Academy of American Poets, Always Crashing, Cigar City Journal, Adirondack Review, and by Iron Horse Literary Review.