A Horse, A Cat, and a Man (or, the initial inspiration for my novel, The Blessings of the Animals)
I had a horse, a cat, and a man in my life for the same fifteen years.
And, then, within a year, I lost them all.
The horse and the cat died. The man simply decided he didn’t want to be married anymore.
The horse and the cat helped me deal with the loss of the man.
The man was brooding and moody, essentially unhappy. Why that is so appealing to a young woman is beyond me, but I fell for it. He also loved books, was an intrepid traveler, and made a mean mocha. He attended every single performance in the run of a show I was in when we met.
The cat —Montgomery—was no bigger than a fist when I stopped at a red light and saw him nearly drowning in a rain-filled gutter. He had the gumption to hiss at me when I opened my car door and plucked him out of the storm. Within seconds of being wrapped in a fresh-from-the-dryer saddle pad, he was unconscious. When he woke, hours later, we fell in love.
He grew into one of those giant yellow toms with boxing glove paws—complete with the extra toes. He understood the concept of tag. He sat on my chest for nine hours when I returned from surgery for a broken nose, dashing away to eat or use his litter box only when the man was with me. When I wrote, he had an unsettling habit of watching my face as I typed as if he were listening to the story being told.
The horse—Degas—belonged to my friend Judy. A leggy elegant bay thoroughbred like the racehorses in Degas paintings, he’d been abused at the track and had an unpredictable, jittery edge. Always seething, he once took another horse by the throat and tried to kill it.
Many a time I sat atop a more seasoned horse watching Judy and Degas whirl around on a muddy trail, hashing out a disagreement about whether we were going forward or back to the trailer.
I didn’t question Judy’s devotion to him, though. I’d ridden him. The fluid gliding walk, the floating trot, the forward momentum—riding any other horse felt like a dull chore after being on Degas. Plus, his resentful wariness was a challenge. I had a sullen man, after all.
One day, after grooming him, I turned to leave his stall and he grabbed my fleece jacket in his teeth. After my pulse stopped racing, as he held the fleece and tugged, I realized he wasn’t trying to bite me—he was saying, “don’t go.” When he did it again the next day, my jacket was unzipped and I shrugged out of it, to see what he’d do. He held the jacket out of my reach for several minutes, playing “keep away,” then dropped it…only to snatch it up again just as I got close.
Between the playful interactions, he’d return to his ears-laid-back, teeth-bared fury. He continued his tantrums on the trail, insisting on being the lead horse, treating every ride like a race, unable to relax.
Then, one day, for reasons known only to him, Degas released the anger of his past. I rode him, a periwinkle sky above us, the woods spicy with the tea-like odor of moist decay, the confetti of saffron and crimson leaves falling down all around us. At a narrow place in the trail, we fell behind Judy and the horse she rode. I expected Degas to fume. He’d been known to bite the butts of horses who blocked him from the lead.
But he sighed. His staccato jerkiness smoothed and slowed. I scratched his withers, the reins long. His hooves crunched an even cadence through the fallen leaves. When Judy called, “You okay?” I was startled to see we’d falled nearly twenty yards behind. Degas’ ears were floppy and sideways. He didn’t hurry to catch up. He was just ambling.
Judy and I worried that he must be ill. We felt apologetic about our assumptions later when it became apparent that he was simply…happy. After years of fretting and fussing and being enraged, he just let it all go.
Degas became as reliable as any other horse in the barn. He loved to have his tail scratched and would stretch his neck giraffe-like and snap his teeth together, the equine equivalent of a dog thumping his leg when you scratch just the right spot. Like an impish kid, he loved to pull my jacket from a hook and toss it on the ground, then crane his neck and look away, feigning innocence.
I took great solace in Degas when Montgomery grew ill. The cat became aggressive and foreign—jumping on me in my sleep, snarling, seeming not to recognize me, even biting me. He began to have seizures that left him bewildered. Once, sprawled in my lap, he experienced a seizure that lasted a full, tortured minute, during which he urinated all over me and the couch. Another seizure sent him tumbling down a flight of stairs.
The vet discovered an inoperable brain tumor. I lost something palpable as I watched all evidence of Montgomery’s presence slide away—the cat’s euthanized corpse immediately looked nothing like him. Some part of my heart left the room that day as clearly as his being did.
No sooner had I planted impatiens on Montgomery’s grave but Degas went lame. The horse had Cushing’s Disease and was prone to founder—inflammation in his legs. He had to be kept on a dry lot and denied sugary treats like apples or carrots. He developed laminitis, which caused the bottoms of his hooves to swell. He walked in a small, cramped shuffle. His coat, unable to shed, curled into sickly-sweet smelling, sweaty cowlicks.
When he could no longer walk, he’d let me sit crosslegged in his stall, with his head in my lap.
When he had to be put down, I felt as if I’d had a limb amputated.
I experienced that feeling again a month later when my husband told me he didn’t want to be married anymore, packed his car, and left.
I was unraveled with sorrow. Flattened. Leveled. But once I put myself back together, like Degas, I was pissed. I carried my anger and betrayal like a pack on my back. I had been done wrong, and it colored everything I did—every interaction I had, every action I took, every word I said.
Months later, exhausted, unhappy, too thin and haggard, I heard someone (not referring to me) speak of a “bitter divorced woman” and felt my limbs fill with ice water. Had I become one? That pack on my back was heavy.
And I thought of dear Degas and that moment on the autumn trail.
I could be the angry victim…or I could be happy. Dragging that damn pack around kept me connected to my ex, kept a direct line open to the heartache.
I dumped the pack. Abandoned it right there on the trail.
Oh, occasionally it would catch up and find me again, secure itself to my back, but each time it did, it weighed less, and each time it became easier to shrug off.
I didn’t reduce Montgomery’s memory to the final act of peeing and convulsing in my lap—I could remember him for the time he fell into the bathtub with me, for the way he wiggled his way cocoon-like under the fitted sheet to nap, for his junkie-thief ability to locate and retrieve catnip no matter how thoroughly I’d hidden it in the house. I didn’t reduce Degas’ memory to being unable to stand for three days—I could remember Degas for lifting my ginger ale can and tipping it back, drinking it like a person. Or for the way he loved the blue chicory that grew in late summer and could “get” me every time, jerking his head down to snatch a snack as we strolled in a field. Or for the silly way he liked to paddle in the creek with a front leg, soaking me with his splashing.
So why had I reduced my history with my ex to one cowardly act on a snowy day?
I eventually came to remember the gifts of my marriage, those times we cherished each other. It was easier to remember our awe as we stood watching a grizzly walk away from our tent in Alaska than to be angry. Or the way, when camping, we’d forget every time and give each other bug-sprayed kisses that made us spit. I could remember my ex for the way he curled his toes inward, monkey-like, when he sat reading, or the way he loved to nap in hammocks, or the filet he could grill to perfection. I could remember him following on foot over a mile to take my favorite photo of me and Degas in the creek. I could remember the flowers he bought me the day we buried Montgomery.
Remembering helped. You never forget the pain, but it helps also not to forget the love.
Katrina is the author of Traveling Light, Two Truths and a Lie, and The Kindness
of Strangers, and the newly released The Blessings of the Animals (August 2010).
The Kindness of Strangers was a BookSense pick and the winner of the 2006 Great
Lakes Book Award for Fiction. Early chapters from that novel earned her grants
from both the Ohio Arts Council and Culture Works. The Blessings of the Animals
was an Indie Next pick (August 2010), a Midwest Connections pick (September
2010), and chosen by the Women’s National Book Association as one of ten Great
Group Reads for National Book Group Month (October 2010). Katrina is thrilled to
announce that her first "tween" novel, Reasons to Be Happy, will be published by
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky in Fall 2011.
She has taught high school and middle school English and theatre. She has also
worked as a house cleaner, a veterinary assistant, a children’s theatre
director, a costumer, and as case management support for an AIDS Resource
When not writing, Katrina enjoys gardening, cooking, traveling, acting, and time
spent in the presence of animals (especially horses). She lives in Dayton, Ohio
with her fat cat and a kickass garden.