I woke up and the cat was gone. Since I worked nights, when I eventually woke up in the late mornings I was usually the only one in the house. I’d gotten used to the cat hanging out in the living room to greet me. But this morning she was nowhere to be found.
The Mission District, San Francisco, 1992. Eleven in the morning on a sunny autumn day. After I made coffee and had a bite to eat, I started searching in earnest for the cat. We’d indirectly adopted her from the neighbors, who had simply stopped feeding her.
Through channels unknown to me even today, the members of my household had learned that before disowning her, the neighbors had named her Kiki.
Kiki was a light-brown and white tiger cat: small, dirty, lumpy, reasonably healthy looking and often affectionate. Recently, however, she had gained a lot of weight and had become claws-out antisocial.
It will therefore come as no surprise to many cat owners that after a lengthy housewide search, I finally located Kiki the cat. She was huddled on top of the Yellow Pages, tucked away in the couch-facing hutch of the living room coffee table, and she was giving birth.
The second I came into her field of view, she hissed like she’d never hissed before. I got the message. Stay away from my CHILDREN!
I’d only gotten a short glimpse into the dark space, but I’d seen a big mess hanging out of her hindquarters and a few squirming pink critters. They didn’t look ready yet.
I retreated into my bedroom to strategize.
I was a late bloomer. I’d just dropped out of college, and in my new life outside of academia I felt like a newborn, experiencing everything for the very first time. Even small events like running out of toilet paper or dealing with a half-hearted invasion of kitchen ants demanded my full attention. And so understanding Kiki’s sudden motherhood and the potential role humans might play in it represented a milestone of unprecedented size; and today, with all my housemates gone, it was mine alone.
Back in the quiet, sun-dappled living room, I checked on Kiki again. Now she was lying still in the dark hutch, panting quietly, sprawled across the stack of Yellow Pages. She was taking a much-needed break. There were more squirming pink kitties than before. Not all of them were moving.
The phone books were ruined.
I needed help.
“San Francisco SPCA. This is Crystal. How can I help you?”
“Hi, uh, my name’s Dan, and I need some help. Our cat’s giving birth… on our phone books.”
“Uh, thanks. I think she’s done now, but… what should I do for her?”
“You really don’t need to do anything. Cat moms will take care of it all. It’s probably messy right now, but don’t worry, she’ll clean herself and her kittens right up. You’re probably seeing a placenta… on top of the phone books, and she’ll take care of that too.”
“Just leave her alone until she’s ready. When she’s all done, she’ll want a cozy place somewhere out of the way where she can nurse her babies. Maybe put out a little extra fresh water for her.”
“Oh. Okay, thanks. I have one more question, though. I counted five kittens, but only four of them are moving.”
“Well, Dan, I know this might sound gross, but… she’ll take care of that too.”
I hung up and decided to go out for some more coffee. After all, I wasn’t needed. And I had a lot to process, especially that last part. I put out some fresh water and tucked the red blanket from the couch, which Kiki sometimes slept on, into the lid of a sizable cardboard box that had been waiting in the laundry room to be recycled. I placed the cat family’s future home on the opposite side of the living room and left them to it.
When I got home, I found Kiki and her kittens sound asleep in the blanket box. I breathed a sigh of relief, proud to have done what I could for her. Then I counted the kittens. One, two, three, four.
The top half-inch of the Yellow-Pages phone book in the hutch was wet through with afterbirth, and some strands of it still hung down from the book’s edge, marking forever the white pages stacked below it. Crystal was right, though – there was no sign of placenta. I guess Kiki had eaten them all to replenish her strength after the obviously difficult birth. And so I was forced to conclude she’d done the same with the kitten who didn’t make it.
I imagined Kiki lying there exhausted, soothed by the smell of her new kitten children. In her instinctual thoughts, she knew she had to nourish her body so she could produce enough milk for them. And leaving behind the redolent evidence of her birth could draw predators and endanger her new pride while she was still weak.
So one by one, Kiki ate the soft, nutrient-filled placentas that had helped nourish her kittens in the womb. Once all five had been born, once she had broken open each amniotic sac and bitten through all the umbilicals… and once she had licked them all clean, she found herself still trembling, still exhausted, still hungry.
Kiki wanted so badly to pass into sleep, but another instinct held her awake. Slowly she realized the last kitten had a different smell. It didn’t move as its blind siblings writhed around inside the half-circle of her hind legs and tail. As the moments passed, the still kitten became all she could think about.
All at once, with the last of her strength, she stretched out her neck and took the still kitten into her jaws, just as she would a mouse. It did not protest. In the darkness, surrounded by blind pink things, she knew there was no other to witness the deed, the thing she needed so urgently to do.
This was not a soft placenta. This was a creature with fur, with a skull… with bones.
She needed bones.