In the first canto of The Divine Comedy, having lost his way “midway in life’s journey,” Dante’s path is beset by a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. He turns back, temporarily defeated.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden: “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail.”

Allegorical beasts aren’t always so elusive, nor do they always come in threes. I should know, because I live with one.

Maggie, who was three years old when she first came to live with me, is an elegant and sweet-natured Persian mix with black and white tuxedo markings. She is a small cat—she seems to be of medium size, but it’s mostly fur. She wears a luxurious white ruff around her shoulders and chest, like an expensive woman in a fur coat. Cats are graceful creatures as a rule, but Maggie has something more than mere poise: she has Glamour. When she bathes herself or selects a spot for a nap, it’s like Ingrid Bergman lighting a cigarette: trivial but fascinating.

Friends sometimes suggest that I enter Maggie in a cat show. I have a vague notion of how cat shows work, and I sometimes wonder if her fine points are the same as the ones the judges look for.

They should, I think, look for a very long and very bushy tail. They should favor a cat with a retiring and independent nature: a philosophical quietist who prefers to whittle away at her desires rather than wish for something that requires unseemly striving. They should not expect a truly superior cat to become inured to the discomfort and boredom of the cat show circuit. No: she would avoid the limelight, a feline Greta Garbo. The judges must look for her at her home, like paparazzi in tree stands and rooftop perches, their telephoto lenses trained on the door or window where she sometimes appears.

In addition to her own feelings on the matter, I worry that when her qualities are more widely known, strangers may try to take her from me. But keeping her at home is also fraught with danger. I don’t know where she spends most of the daylight hours—she often disappears for hours at a time. Her whereabouts at these times were a small mystery; until one day as I was walking about a quarter mile from our home, I saw her standing near the torn cover of an access hatch for the crawl-space under a drab little church. When I called to her, she turned and disappeared under the building.

Her wanderings are a gnawing worry to me, and they soon took on legendary proportions. She is ubiquitous as well as wide-ranging. Once I saw a dead animal in the road a few miles from home, its fur the same black and white as Maggie’s. I panicked and turned the car around, even though I had just seen her in our yard a few minutes before. Approaching the corpse from the other direction, I found it had the markings of a skunk. By such incidents the legend of her wanderings grows.

When there’s a special cat in your life, you always wonder how long it’s going to last. Speaking for myself, all kinds of nutty ideas run through my head:

No one has noticed her yet; but soon, secret admirers will send her valentines and bouquets of catnip. It’s time to think of her debut (she must speak to her mother about her wardrobe), time for cotillions, chaperoned evenings at the club, the weekend parties at the Biltmore. Gentleman callers will appear at the door with carnations in their buttonholes. The scent of jonquils and after-shave, the undercurrent of desire; conversing late into the night. The hip flask, the sweet loss of innocence. Will she still remember old friends then? Who knows what a taste of the wide world will do to a cat? If she has faith in her destiny, and strides ahead with her tail held high, she will lead a charmed life. As she moves easily from one triumph to the next, our brief time together will be nothing to her but a fond memory.

But to think of Maggie as my daughter isn’t quite right. When you raise a cat from a kitten, she will always be your baby; but when you acquire an adult cat, it’s more like getting a lover. She seems to hold something in reserve, no matter how trusting and affectionate she may be.

She has an aura of reminiscing about better days: her first happy home, her first love. Am I, as the song goes, her sweet substitute? Does she still have hopes connected with her mysterious past? Or is it fear that seals her lips? Like the doomed heroine in a Sherlock Holmes story, she is as mute about her past as though it could reach out and crush her at the merest slip of her tongue. Perhaps one day the gardener will bring me a slip of paper, a coded message found on the sundial, and she will faint dead away at the sight of it. When she recovers, she will beg me never to speak of it. A nameless dread will hang over the house.

At the moment, thank goodness, all these possibilities seem remote. Maggie is curled up on a folded piece of fabric on top of the sewing machine, asleep. The wind is blowing outside, pushing the spindly branch of a rose bush against the window pane.

Tap-tap-tap, it goes. She seems to pay no attention.





Tim Walker read, for pleasure, the complete novels of Charles Dickens while earning a BA in Environmental Studies, and the complete novels of Anthony Trollope while earning a PhD in Geological Sciences. He has since worked as a computer programmer, healthcare data analyst, used book seller, and pet sitter. He lives in Santa Barbara with his wife, their son, and two cats. His essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Entropy Magazine, Ragazine, and DIAGRAM.