I don’t usually write short stories, but this one came to me after the death of the real life Fluffy (who was, at least in some ways, different from the narrator Fluffy in CATS IN CYBERSPACE and PKP FOR PRESIDENT). I hope readers will enjoy it.
The sun was warm on my back as I lay on the stone wall facing Fluffy. She had fallen asleep again, between one piece of advice and the next; but I didn’t mind waiting. She was ancient. The weight of her experience had pushed her skin down so that the spines of her backbone showed through her tired-looking coat. I had heard our Two-Feets fretting that she was so thin, and worrying that she didn’t seem very interested in food.
“It’s just too much trouble to eat, Sully,” she told me once. “Food used to be one of my principal pleasures, but now, it doesn’t seem worth the effort.”
“If you don’t want yours,” Ginger had said, moving in on the dish, “can I have it?” But then, Dana had swooped down, saying, “Ginger, you piggy!” and picked up Fluffy and her bowl and put them both in the room with the glass doors. Fluffy made an effort to eat, because Dana clearly expected her to; but even I could see her heart wasn’t in it.
She opened her eyes, then, and looked at me. “Sullivan,” she said, as though she were reminding herself who I was. “The Two-Feets always act like they have a plan and they’re in control, but most of the time, I think they’re just making it up as they go along.”
I thought about that. “But they have such constraints on their time,” I protested. “I mean, Dana knows before she even feeds us whether she has to go away in her smelly car, or not.”
“They have schedules,” Fluffy agreed, “but that’s not the same as a plan.”
She lapsed into silence as I pondered this. After several moments, when I saw her eyelids beginning to drift shut again, I said, “Would you like me to wash your ears?”
“That would be nice,” she purred. So I did. I had hoped it might keep her awake a little longer, but she fell asleep in spite of my efforts. I settled myself more comfortably to wait.
My brother, Gilbert, came along the wall, then: lanky, grey and white, and very interested in hunting. “What are you doing, Sully?”
“Talking with Fluffy.”
“She’s asleep,” Gilbert told me.
“I know. But in a few minutes, she’ll wake up again and tell me something interesting.”
“Oh. About hunting?”
“Probably not,” I admitted. “She’s spent a lot of time studying the Two-Feets, Gilbert. She’s very wise.”
Gilbert sat down beside me. He wasn’t very restful. He started to wash, but got distracted when a bug buzzed past. Then he noticed a bird in the old apple tree. “Too high to climb,” he said regretfully. “Sully, do you think if we worked together we could take down the woodchuck?”
It was not the first time he had asked this question. “No,” I responded. “But maybe you could enlist the neighbor’s Doberman. If you tried really hard, I bet you could figure out how to let it out of its kennel.”
Gilbert thought about that. “I’m sure I could,” he agreed. “But I’m not sure that, once it was loose, I could convince it that the woodchuck would make a better lunch than I would.”
“There is that,” I agreed.
Fluffy stirred again, yawned hugely — showing us her worn and broken teeth — and blinked. “Hello, Gilbert,” she greeted him. “I thought you’d be hunting.”
“Sullivan says you’re very wise. I wondered if you had some wisdom about hunting to share.”
“I tried to teach Dana to hunt, one summer,” Fluffy said. “I brought her chipmunks. They weren’t completely dead — just slowed down a bit — so she’d have a chance. I would bring them into the kitchen and put them on the mat by the door. But Dana never figured out that she had to keep a paw on them, so they would always run away into the house. Then, she’d go and get a big paper bag —”
Gilbert brightened up. “A paper cave?! For you to play in?”
“No, not for me. She would put it on the floor near where the chipmunk was hiding; then she would chase the chipmunk into it with the broom. Once she got the chipmunk inside, she’d close up the bag, carry it outside, and let it go. It was very frustrating. I could never make her understand that she was supposed to eat it.”
“I know,” Gilbert said. “They never eat the things I bring them, either — even when I leave them something good, and not just the innards.”
“Dana and I worked it out, though. She’d see me catch a chipmunk, and she’d come outside and say, ‘Do you want to trade that for some crunchies, Fluff?’ And I’d put the chipmunk down, and she’d take me in the house and give me crunchies.”
“But chipmunks are better than crunchies,” Gilbert said. “Aren’t they?”
“I don’t know,” Fluffy said. “They’re a lot of work. And I was never as good at killing them as PKP — or you.”
“Why did Dana give you crunchies?” I asked, “if she didn’t want the chipmunk?”
“I think she wanted the chipmunk to stay outside,” Fluffy said. “I think she didn’t like the idea of having it indoors, and by offering me crunchies, she was trying to teach me to leave my prey outside.”
“It’s too bad. If they’d let us bring rodents — or birds — inside, we could hunt while they’re off in the smelly cars,” Gilbert said. “It would make the days so much more interesting. What’s your favorite prey, Fluffy?”
Fluffy smiled. “I haven’t hunted outside of my dreams for a long time, Gilbert.” She yawned, then, and her eyes started to drift shut.
“Is that why you sleep so much?” Gilbert asked, sounding enlightened. “Because that’s where you hunt?”
“There’s more to life than hunting,” she said around another yawn; and her eyes closed.
Gilbert looked at me. “Of course there’s more to life than hunting, Sully. There’s wrang, and games, and sleeping, and even scritching and patting, I suppose. But hunting’s the most fun. I’m going after the rude red squirrel, today. Want to help?”
“No thanks. You’ll have more fun if I’m not in your way.”
Gilbert gave my ear a quick lick, jumped off the wall, and sauntered away toward the oak trees where the red squirrel hung out. I knew I had puzzled him. Gilbert wasn’t a terribly introspective cat. While I had spent some time figuring out how Dana’s computer worked, and what the point of books (and crossword puzzles) was, Gilbert’s idea of how best to utilize the New York Times was to curl up in the middle of the section Colin was trying to read. “It’s my job to be annoying,” he would say, “and so cute they can’t be mad at me. It takes real skill to get the balance just right.”
For Gilbert, things were simple: something was fun, or it wasn’t; it was good to eat, or not. The deeper questions — like how things worked, or why — simply weren’t important to him. I, on the other paw, wanted to understand the underlying structure, the reasons. For Gilbert, it was enough to know that Dana and Colin went off some days and left us shut indoors; I wanted to know why they did that some days and other days stayed home and let us out. I wanted to know what they did when they weren’t with us, and whether they enjoyed it. I wanted to know…everything.
I came out of my reverie to find Fluffy’s old eyes fixed on me quizzically. “You didn’t go hunting with Gilbert?”
I shook my head. “He’ll have more fun without me, and I was hoping we could talk some more.”
“What would you like to talk about?”
“What’s the most important thing you know, Fluffy?”
She was silent for a moment, thinking. Then she said, “I know that I am loved.”
“Loved?” I repeated. It was a Two-Feet concept. Dana and Colin said it to all of us — and to each other: I love you. It was more than simply caring for us; when Dana and Colin went away for longer than a day, the neighbor from across the street came over to feed us and clean our litter box; but she didn’t love us, even though she would pat us and even play with us from time to time. Sometimes, when Ginger is mean to me, Dana says, “Ginger, be nice. Sully loves you.” But I just want to be friends with her and wash her ears and make sure we’re part of the same cat tribe; I don’t know if it’s love the way Dana means.
“Do you mean loved by them?” I asked at last. “The Two-Feets?”
“Yes. No matter what happens, no matter how frail I get; even now that I’m not beautiful, anymore, I know that I am loved.”
“I think you’re beautiful, Fluffy,” I said, but she made a face.
“I’m skinny and my coat is in a terrible state—”
“You have a beautiful mind,” I insisted. “You’ll always be beautiful to me.”
“You’re doing it, too,” Fluffy said. “It’s what the Two-Feets have to give us — and to teach us: love. Not just a home and a comfortable life. Not even the computer, and language, and the Internet. Think about how it feels when they stroke you, or how you’ve gotten used to Dana picking you up and giving you a hug. It’s more than the touch, more than the sensations; it’s a kind of communication, a kind of acceptance, a kind of deep connection. They love us even when we’re bad, even when we make them sad or angry, even when we’re not very nice to them.”
“And it’s important?”
“It’s the most important thing, Sullivan,” she told me seriously.
“I don’t think I understand,” I admitted.
“No,” she agreed. “But you will.” And then, she closed her eyes and went back to sleep. She didn’t wake up, even when Gilbert came tearing across the road chasing the red squirrel. He didn’t catch him; the squirrel got up the old apple tree just in time. Gilbert flopped down in the grass, panting.
“Too bad,” I said. “That was pretty close.”
Gilbert just panted. I jumped off the wall to sniff his nose. “Are you all right?” I asked him.
“Ran too fast,” he said. “Damned squirrel.”
I washed his ears and whiskers. The squirrel swore at us in squirrel-language; his chattering got the blue jays riled up, too, but none of them swooped down on us, this time.
“Did Fluffy teach you things?” Gilbert asked at last.
“She gave me a lot to think about.”
“You think too much, Sully. You should hunt more. Fluffy thinks all the time and just look at her!”
“It’s not thinking that makes her so thin,” I said.
“What does, then?” he demanded.
“She doesn’t eat enough.”
“She ate enough before she started thinking all the time,” Gilbert insisted, and I gave up. After a while, I realized Gilbert had gone to sleep, too.
I was almost asleep, myself, when Ginger came into the yard. She was using her most insolent saunter, with her tail straight up with the end crooked to one side. “Hi, Ginger,” I greeted her.
She gave me a long, disdainful look. “I see even the great gray-and-white hunter has succumbed to indolence. It must be contagious.”
“It’s peaceful,” I said. “You could join us.”
“Only in your dreams, gray-boy,” she sneered, and started away.
“Ginger, why is Fluffy so thin?”
“She’s old, you little idiot,” Ginger said without slowing down.
I thought about that. Fluffy had been an adult when we had come as kittens. I had gotten confused, when we first arrived, and thought she might be our mother; but she had smacked me gently with one paw and said she wasn’t even our Substitute Mother, but that we could sit with her if we behaved. Since that was a much nicer reception than we got from either of the other cats, we spent a lot of time with Fluffy. Even then, she hadn’t wanted to play with us, and I don’t remember her hunting, either. I wondered how old she really was. I jumped back up on the wall, to see whether she was starting to wake up again, but her eyes were closed. I curled up nearby and waited.
Fluffy slept the afternoon away. She didn’t even wake when Dana came out on the porch and called us to come in. I had to nudge her until she opened her eyes. “Sorry,” I told her. “Dana is calling us. We have to go in.”
Fluffy got creakily to her feet. “We can’t worry Dana. Let’s go.”
“Fluffy,” I said as we walked. “Ginger says you’re old. Is that true?”
She nodded. “I don’t know how old. Two-Feets have something they call a calendar, which helps them keep track of long stretches of time. But when I was a kitten and a young cat, I didn’t pay any attention to the passage of time, so I don’t know exactly how old I am.”
“Are you older than Ginger?”
“Oh, yes. I remember when Ginger was a kitten.”
I thought about Ginger as a kitten. It was hard to imagine. We climbed the porch steps; Fluffy rubbed against Dana’s legs and she bent down and patted her. Gilbert came up onto the porch after us, went into the kitchen, and flopped down on the linoleum, and Ginger stalked in, took up an expectant position near the food bowls, and glared at Dana.
“The least she could do would be fix us a snack,” she grumped. But Dana distributed pats, not food, and Ginger went off in a huff.
That evening, I went looking for Fluffy. There were five places she liked to sleep, and I found her in the second one I checked: under the dining room table. She opened her eyes as I approached.
“I’ve been thinking about what you said,” I told her. “About love. But I still don’t understand.”
“No,” Fluffy said. “It took me a long time. Don’t worry about it.”
“I think I shouldn’t have asked for the most important thing you know. I’m not wise enough to understand it. But do you think, Fluffy, you could tell me something else? Something I might be able to understand, now, without waiting to get old?”
She stretched toward me so she could wash my ears. “Always remember, Sullivan: There is nothing wrong with being nice.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I think I understand that.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “You know, Sullivan: I’ll miss you.”
“Miss me? But I’m not going anywhere.”
She gave my ears another, gentle swipe. “I know,” she told me. “But I am.”
“Where?” I asked, perplexed.
But Fluffy didn’t answer. She just gave my ears a couple more licks, and went back to sleep.