Mittens and I talked as we strolled toward our next destination, Trouble’s lair, a halfway home for ferals in V’Chat, the feline district of old Montréal.1
“Qu’est-ce-que vous pensez?”2 Mittens asked, referring to our recent meeting with Euphemia.
I replied, “I was struck by how unmoved Euphemia was. Her sister, her litter-mate, her twin has just died. I expected more grief”.
“Do not make the mistake my friend of thinking she was not sad enough”, the feline replied. “Certainly there are cats who suffer from remorse, but no one would call remorse ‘cat-like’ behaviour.”
“She had lots of remorse for Trouble”, I noted.
“Bien sûr. A crying cat.” Mittens replied, meditatively. This uncommon image caused both of us to lapse into thought.
The halfway home where Trouble lived had no rooms. Instead, its feline tenants occupied portions of a large open space. Trouble’s territory was on the south-west corner of the building, which meant that when we arrived it was flooded with afternoon light. His core turf was perhaps 100 square metres. He shared a space twice as large with his neighbours.
A pile of middens was strewn across a welcome mat at the point where his personal territory blended into that of the colony.3 Underneath the middens I could see a cartoonish picture of a home emitting a cheerful cloud of white smoke from a slanted chimney.
Mittens made a point of sniffing each fecal lump in turn. He did this with surprising dignity. When done, he hopped to the centre of the entrance and meowed once. My knowledge of the cat language is not nuanced, but I believe he was announcing his presence. He entered Trouble’s territory uninvited; I followed closely behind with my nose close to the ground.
The space before us was large and empty, except for a dark shadow with slits for eyes sitting in a box-like depression in the floor. Although you will periodically read about a mass murderer named Buttercup or a ballerina named Butch, I have always been struck by how most animals become their names. I assume that expectations mould behaviour, [which then alters looks]. One glance at the black cat in front of me left no doubt in my mind that he was trouble, the only question was what kind.
While I took a seat in the corner, Trouble raised himself, arched his back, and then sat upright. Mittens, who was seated in the middle of the room, blinked slowly and methodically. He approached Trouble at an angle, being careful to remain perpendicular to the feral’s line of site. At intervals Mittens repeated an odd sound, like a meow without the m. Sometimes he appended a rraarw, which I assume was because of Trouble’s Latin roots.
Trouble watched these antics with unblinking eyes. He entire body remained still, except for his ears, which tracked Mittens’ movements. This continued for perhaps thirty seconds, and then Trouble began to groom himself as if we did not exist, indeed as if nothing existed but his testicles and his tongue.
There wasn’t much for me to do while the cat introductions lingered on, so my eyes wandered. I noticed a public service announcement poster on the wall behind Trouble. It had a picture of a kitten poking its nose into a blender, the baby cat’s right foot just touching the blender’s purée button, its left paw reaching toward a cluster of razor sharp blades. The tag-line, Curiosity: the innocent killer/Curiosité, la tueur des innocents framed Trouble’s head. I know that it is politically incorrect to laugh at the ridiculous ways kittens kill themselves, but that is not what I’m doing when I say the poster made me smile. It was the word innocent that got to me. I had just met Trouble for the first time, and my mind was made up that he was not only trouble but guilty of murder. The poster reminded me to think twice.
Trouble jumped from the cement box he had been crouching in, up into the nook of one of the low lying metal branches that adorned the ceiling. His new perch had good feline feng shui: he was equidistant from the most important points in the room, Mittens, myself, the fire escape, and the main entrance.
Our introductions finally complete, Mittens spoke, “Bonjour, Monsieur Trouble. My name is Detective Mittens. This is Inspector Barks. We would like to ask you some questions.”
Trouble looked at us with the alien manner that feral – and wild – cats have. He faced us at an angle, with all of his superb senses slyly focused, and then acted like we were nothing more than cardboard cut-outs that could speak.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you that Tulip is dead” Mittens said, with genuine grief in his voice.
“What?! Tulip is dead?”
I remember as a Cadet being quizzed on the cat language’s fifteen core words. The diphthong that Trouble spoke next was certainly an instance of the core word yowl, although he uttered it with an energy I had not encountered in school.
While Trouble mourned, I examined what he had been doing when we arrived. I noticed a piece of paper beside the box where he had been sitting. I sniffed it. It was a letter. On one side was an artistic rendition of Tulip’s name, on the other side was written these words,
“What can ail thee cat-with-claws, alone and darkly stalking? The sedge has withered from the lake, And no birds sing.”
It was the first stanza from the Keat’s poem we had found in Tulip’s apartment. On the facing page was a paw imprint – Trouble’s signature. I was leaning over to investigate it more closely, when Trouble suddenly stopped his histrionics. All cats are like that – they have switches. One moment they’ll be calm, the next moment they’ll be crazy. Two breaths later they’re back to calm. Switch off, switch on, switch off.
Mittens resumed the interrogation. He said, “Monsieur Trouble, when did you last see Tulip?”
“Did anything remarkable happen at this meeting?”
“I called her names.”
“What kind of names?”
“Button kins, dipsy doodle, perky-snips, flouncy-wouncy …”
“I see. What did you do next?”
“I sat in a tree and watched bugs.”
“For how long?”
“I have no idea.”
“Did anyone else see you?”
“No. Not that I know of. Actually, there was a mouse who saw me, but I eviscerated him.”
“Where was Tulip?”
“When you say you called her names, were these friendly names?”
“When I called her names I was aroused. Can you be friendly when aroused?”
“Touché. We found fang marks on Tulip’s neck. Were they yours?”
“Maybe. She liked it rough. And I am a feral.” He shrugged.
“Let me rephrase that” Mittens said politely, “We found your teeth marks near Tulip’s carotid artery and she was dead.”
“I’m rough, not murderous” the feral cat replied, with a distant voice.
“Even when aroused?”
Trouble arched his back. I prepared for the worst.
“There were also dog claw marks.” Mittens spoke an instant before Trouble uncoiled. “From a big dog, like a Rottweiler or German Shepherd.”
“Tulip didn’t have any dog enemies”, Trouble hissed as he settled down.
“The claw that killed her was not necessarily attached to a dog.”
“You mean the murderer used a weapon?” There was disdain in his voice.
Mitten didn’t respond.
“Was someone trying to make it look like a dog killed her?” Trouble asked.
“Peut-être4. All of the wounds were caused by a left back leg of a right facing dog. But who knows? There were traces of rat and mouse at the crime scene. Perhaps Tulip’s was killed by mice?”, Mittens mused.
The thought of a handful of mice fumbling with a half-metre long dog’s claw club while Tulip – the cat with lioness ears – waited to be murdered, was too much for me.
“Tulip was not killed by mice!”, I barked.
“Then by whom was she killed… ?” Trouble asked with a soft purr.
It was a good question.
A dog barked loudly. Trouble leaped to the darkest, most remote part of the room, a mesh of rebar branches just above the fire escape. Watching Trouble’s instantaneous reaction, I reflected on how domestication had attenuated my senses.
The dog barked again.
Trouble was gone.