Had she better breeding and fresher food, I could perhaps have called her a tortoiseshell. But she was an undernourished, neglected garbage-bin cat, a member of the local feral tribe that lives off the huge green dumpster that stands in front of our 38-unit apartment building in Jerusalem. She first caught my eye one morning when I descended to the office I’ve made out of our basement storeroom. She was curled up in the crib on wheels that we keep at the bottom of the stairwell. My wife, Ilana, runs a small preschool in our fourth-floor walkup, and the contraption is what the toddlers hold on to when she takes them out to the park. The cat gave me a mean look, scrambled out of the crib, and was gone.
At the bottom of the stairwell, with its bars and its sheeted mattress, the crib-on-wheels felt soft, dark, reasonably warm, and protected. I kept a cat when I was a kid, so I knew that pregnant cats seek out such cozy places when placental hormones get into their bloodstreams. I made it clear to the faux-tortoiseshell street queen that she was unwelcome, and then made her birthing room uncomfortable by rumpling up a piece of plastic sheeting I happened to have handy.
Few cats in Jerusalem are pets, but the feral cat population is huge. Dumpsters and garbage bins are located on the street, and never close properly. So each one becomes the property of a feline community. The cats generally avoid human contact, but there’s a long-established symbiosis. The human population produces plentiful refuse for the cats and the cats return the favor by hunting down any rats so brave as to try to compete for the scavenging rights. At the time, our tribe consisted of six or seven cats, led by a muscular, gray alpha male with white paws and a scar on his nose.
He wasn’t doing much to help his pregnant concubine, certainly not getting her the prime pickings from the dumpster. She was scrawny and had the desperate, sideways gaze that I sometimes see among the borderline mentally-ill indigents that occupy some of the apartments in the dilapidated public housing project just up the street. Still, her choice of the crib-on-wheels certainly showed a kind of inspiration that no other pregnant cat had ever displayed before. I don’t know where the other dumpster’s other expectant mothers went to whelp, but presumably they found themselves crawlspaces or crevices of some sort or another. But it was March, and this cat was looking for something dry and warm. In my mind, I began calling her Hagar, after the maidservant whom Abraham sent off to the desert to fend for herself, nearly killing her and their son.
The neighbors got into the habit of leaving the outside door open. The apartment closest to the entrance had been occupied for many years by an ancient great-grandfather who was disturbed by the noise of the door opening and closing. So the stairwell was generally accessible. Over the next three or four weeks I frequently ran into Hagar prowling the stairs, especially when it was raining or windy outside. She’d eye me suspiciously, but stand her ground if I pretended not to see her. But the movement of an arm or a direct look in the eye would send her running outside.
About a month later, I returned from synagogue on Saturday morning and found a mess on my doorstep. Ilana keeps a large cardboard box on the landing, filled with old juice containers, plastic cosmetic jars, and yoghurt cups. Every so often she brings it inside and the preschool kids have a ball for an hour emptying the box, making up games with the discards, and putting them all back again. The box had been knocked down and its contents dispersed. I started tossing the discards back in the box when I noticed Hagar sprawled inside, barely conscious, with five still-bloody newborn kittens at her teats.
The birth must have been within the last half hour; Ilana confirmed she’d heard strange noises outside the door just a short time before. My initial instinct was to bring the box inside, but Ilana objected. She also pointed out that we couldn’t possibly leave the cat family on our doorstep. It would hardly be sanitary, or even safe, to have an untamed feral cat mother protecting her kittens against the curious two-year olds who came to our house five mornings a week.
I felt awful—Hagar was ugly and mean, but I couldn’t help admire her determination. Nevertheless, I gingerly picked up the box and started carrying it down the stairs. I had in mind a spot around back, a small, secluded alcove under a first-floor porch. But halfway down, Hagar woke up, stared at me in alarm, and leaped out of the box—sending two of the kittens flying onto the floor. I picked them up, but by the time I reached the entrance I couldn’t see the mother. I was afraid if I took the box around back she’d never find them. So I put it in the garden near the door. Some of the neighbor kids caught sight of me and wanted to see the kittens, but I explained the situation and told them to keep their distance until the mother returned.
An hour later the kittens were gone, but I was uneasy. Maybe they’d been nabbed by ravens, or by other cats?
Hagar disappeared for a day. On Monday morning I found her. Not in the crib-on-wheels, but right next to it. She’d taken over an old, dilapidated stroller that had been sitting under the stairs for many months, apparently without an owner. She was curled up in its tiny seat with two of the kittens. One was carrot-colored. The other was gray with white paws.
She didn’t leave the kittens for a moment. Her body, wiry to begin with, became emaciated. I couldn’t imagine how she could keep producing milk without drinking. On Wednesday morning I put a saucer of milk on the floor near the stroller, but as far as I could tell she didn’t touch it. I brought a piece of leftover turkey breast and placed it next to her in the stroller. She devoured it in three bites, gave me a dirty look, and stayed put. The stroller was beginning to stink and the neighbors were complaining. She wasn’t going to be able to raise her kittens under the stairs.
On Friday morning I found the kittens alone. Half an hour later I saw her prowling outside, but she soon returned to the stroller. In the afternoon she left them again, and I took the stroller out and placed it next to the dumpster. I waited until I saw Hagar heading back to the entrance and followed her. She paid no attention to me as she trotted down the stairs and made the turn. She froze in her tracks when she encountered empty space where the stroller once had been. She looked at me in alarm and meowed—the saddest, most desperate meow I’d ever heard. I walked slowly up the stairs and outside and she followed. But she wouldn’t follow me far from the doorway. So I went and got the kittens and let her see and hear them, and then walked with them slowly back to the stroller.
My cruelty had reason behind it. The spot next to the dumpster was so unsuitable for raising kittens, I figured, that she’d immediately have to move them somewhere safe. And having been twice ejected from our entrance, she would certainly not risk taking them back there.
But the kittens remained in the stroller for the rest of the day and the next day, their mewing growing steadily weaker. Sunday they, and the stroller, were gone.
During the months that followed, Hagar continued to prowl the grounds, often in the shadow of her alpha male. In early April, one of my downstairs neighbors went down to his storeroom to get a suitcase and found Hagar inside, with a new litter of kittens, perhaps a week or two old. She’d clawed a hole in the storeroom’s window screen to get in. I helped him lift the suitcase up gently and place it in the garden. Soon the cats disappeared.
A couple months later, I noticed that a new population of cats had taken over our dumpster. Hagar and her slipshod consort were gone, as was the rest of their tribe. One of the new cats, a sleek feline with an orange coat, began prowling our stairwell. Was he Hagar’s son? He looks well-fed and strong, and holds his ground almost until I touch him. I fear that he knows who I am.
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