“The Names of Dead Cats” was originally published in Local Knowledge, edited by Sanjay Agnihotri, in April, 2008. The website will be relaunched some time in 2013.

Other hard to find web stories by Martha King:

“WAR” in Construction magazine, 2011.  See   http://www.constructionlitmag.com/author/martha-king/

“Three Months in 1955” in Jacket 40, 2010.  See  http://jacketmagazine.com/40/king-martha-black-mountain.shtml


The names of dead cats

return to my tongue at the sound of claws being sharpened on the back of the sofa.  July – Venus – Edwinna!

I can find myself shouting all the names of dead cats, all the way back to “Boots” and “Bubastis” from years and years ago, before reaching, finally, the one I need now: “Maggie! Not on the VCR. No!”

Mehitabelle, Round Robin, Cynara, Mephistopheles. These cat names say things about the family I grew up in. My own cats show some connections too:  Archie (prizefighter, not cockroach),  Persephone,  Zeke technically Ezekiel but always Zekey, His Nibs, Nibburs,  or the Dignified Duke. Followed by Venus, Edwinna the Tragic, Emily Carr, who turned out to be Thomas, and J.M.W. Turner, who turned out to be Kathleen. July was driven away by Venus—and wasn’t there another cat?  The less said about Sully-Bill the better. Paul Blackburn took him from us when we were killer-angry at his hatefulness—and then Paul, cat-loving cat-savior Paul, threw Sully-Bill out on Seventh Street.  “Sorry for Seventh Street,” he told us.  Finally cat Maggie. Maggie-the-last. Tri-colored alley babe, definitely not dead yet, our Mag, Mags, Bag ‘o Rags.

There were some cats without names:
The dumpster cat at Holden’s Beach, giant and sleek from fish heads and crab guts, who patrolled our summer-vacation shack at dusk when I was eleven, twelve, thirteen, not for food or affection, but out of ownership. I always wondered what he did in winter when everyone left the beachfront.

The cat who came to our door when I was ten, in Chappaqua, an elegant long-haired white, with extraordinary pale yellow eyes, hugely pregnant and half-starved.  A tragic Dickensian heroine, she suffered horribly in her brief time with us. Two days after a long howling delivery of three undersized kittens, her tits split open from infection–and my father took her away to be put down.

Turner and Carr died too, after they had been rescued by my cousin Pete (wearing thick leather welder’s gloves). They were two of a clan of maybe twenty feral cats living in an abandoned barn in Bridgehampton. Pete’s wife had faithfully carried cat food to them all summer long, but now winter was coming. We agreed to take two kittens. They were gorgeous classic striped cat-cats and totally wild.

Alone in the cold kitchen I coaxed them into sociability by lying on the floor and offering yogurt in my palm. When they were finally tame enough to be handled, we found we’d sexed them wrong. Then Tom Carr fell off the couch while romping with me, and the next day had a hugely bloodshot eye. Like the kids at Sloan-Kettering, was my first thought. Two weeks later they both tested positive for feline leukemia.

The names of dead cats return at the sound of claws being sharpened on the back of the sofa. Bubastis. You bitch cat!

She was not a cat I ever petted. She was my grandmother’s cat when my mother was ten. Long lived and mystic as the great Bastet, the cat goddess.  Bubastis was as fertile as the goddess, but her name city would have been genderless, as any big city is.

Herodotus said it like this:

When the Egyptians travel to Bubastis they do so in the following manner. Men and women sail together, and in each boat there are many persons of both sexes. Some of the women make a noise with rattles, and some of the men play pipes during the whole journey, while the other men and women sing and clap their hands. When they come to a town on the way, they lay to, and some of the women land and shout and mock the women of the place, while others dance and get up to mischief. They do this at every town lying on the Nile; but when they come to Bubastis they begin the festival with great offerings and sacrifices, during which more wine is consumed than during the whole of the rest of the year. The Egyptians say that some 700,000 men and women make this pilgrimage every year.

For a photo of the cat cemetary, see    http://www.thegreatcatblog.com/

Did the translator get that number right, or was it cooked by the Egyptians?  Herodotus said they said many extravagant things about that city Bubastis, where dead cats rule. Bubastis was destroyed by the Persians before the modern era, but the cat cemetery is there today, 3,500 years old, with human graves wedged on flat ground in between thick mud walls pocked with thousands of holes stuffed with thousands of mummified cats and mummified rats as well.  Herodotus described the great red granite temple to Bastet, which is not there any more, and the major lot of fucking that went along with all that wine, “as the Egyptians say.”  Herodotus was always passing a story along, as any dedicated gossip will. He’d mostly avoid claiming a story as his own.

Me too:

My mother’s cat was Marcus Aurelius. Rare among Bubastis’s many kittens Marcus Aurelius wasn’t given away, and my mother and her big brother quarreled bitterly about whose cat he was. During one argument, Jimmy threatened if Marcus wasn’t his cat, he’d throw him out of the window. My mother wouldn’t relent, and Jimmy did it. The window was on the third floor.  The cat wasn’t killed but turned hostile and untrusting and soon left to live in a neighbor’s barn.

No one seemed upset about Jimmy’s cruelty. There was much more fuss in that house over Jimmy’s ability to curse and evade his father’s demands that he excel in school. It has always been hard to get much out of my mother. Just saying “my brother Jimmy” and her eyes would stray over our heads, my sister and mine, on out the window on their own, were they swimming, just a little? But her dead brother did this haunting without any accompanying personality we kids could get a handle on.

Was he what?  Daffy Duck? Little Lord Fauntleroy? Nothing resonates.

Was he smart? Well yes. We got that one. He should have/could have been…a journalist our mother would say, someone who travels and writes.  Was he handsome? In photographs we saw a beautiful blue-eyed boy, as sweet as any six-year-old mass murderer. ‘Oh I loved him dearly,’ my mother would write in a letter but never said to us.

Marcus Aurelius came back to the house the following spring, grown huge from the mice in the barn but still so distrustful he lived under the porch mostly, and visited the kitchen door for chow. Jimmy shot him dead with his bee-bee gun, while my mother watched, screaming.

Jimmy was eleven months older than she. My mother’s birth was a huge social embarrassment. Everyone could count. Her presence acknowledged that her father hadn’t respected his wife’s postpartum delicacy. Her presence acknowledged that her father put his need for sex ahead of the welfare of his newborn son. Whatever need my grandmother had in this was not considered.

Who were the boys who bragged they’d pushed a lighted firecracker up the asshole of a cat? Do you remember that gang, their destitute qualities, the horror we all felt? Do you remember the boy who spent long evenings down at the dump, who boasted about the rats he shot, and the horror we all felt? Do you remember the poet who chased down an alley cat, and beat it dead with a two by four? He wasn’t a boy, but drunken man, protected by other poets despite or because of his mental unbalance. These victims were all strays, wild life, despised creatures.  Jimmy attacked a cat he had petted and held, claimed to own.

“Told you I would,” he told my mother.

What else did Jimmie do?

He was murdered by an automobile salesman named Henry Hiden Chewning, in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1928. He was a student at the university. The coroner and eyewitnesses agreed that the shooting was deliberate. As a result, bail was $10,000. Enough to keep a small-town car dealer firmly locked down. But ultimately, when the case came to trial, the shooter was exonerated.

I was told the jury, fueled by town-gown hostility, took refuge in unwritten law. The dead man was the pampered son of a wealthy New York City lawyer (never mind the family’s local Southern roots). The shooter was local, hardworking, understood by all to be protecting the honor of – was there really a wife?  I was told the prosecution’s case was wrecked when my great-grandmother sent a check for $1,000 to the wife. I was told the check was presented, uncashed, in court, along with a letter in which Jimmie’s grandmother, my great-grandmother, apologized to the wife for her financial distress and the cruelty of being separated from her husband over Christmastime. I’m distrustful of this story because my great-grandmother lived on small handouts from various family members. Not that she couldn’t have been angry enough to do it but it’s hard to believe she had $1,000 in the bank.

Jimmy was a second-year student at the university; he’d previously attended both Washington & Lee and Harvard. The newspapers said he was 22. Sophomores are usually 19 or maybe 20. Is some information missing?

As missing as the names of dead cats return at the sound of claws being sharpened on the back of the new sofa.  The un-names of not-love that return when the baby knocks the wine glass over, wails during supper, smears shit from his diaper on the teddy bear and crib bumpers. Marilyn? Grandma? Dickie-I’ll-kill-you!   Like Herodotus, my mother left short stories unfinished. She saw light reflect from Marcus’s eyes as Jimmy took aim. He was under the porch. She saw a flash pass from cat to boy. She saw that Jimmy would not survive. She believed in cat curse.


There were no cats in the stories of rural Canada that I ever heard, but my husband’s grandmother Annie — who had been housekeeper, cook, laundress, bedmaker, and plate saver for her father and big brother from the age of 13 in London — was doing the same for her Russian husband somewhere in Canada. They’d left England after Basil’s mother Esther was born, unknown now why. The little family stopped in South America, unknown now why, for how long or where. It is known they were on a farm (or was it a farm?) somewhere in Canada the year their second child, another daughter, was safely born, seven years after their first.  Six weeks after that, Herschel was shot dead.

If it was a farm, whatever was he doing on it?  Our single photograph shows a dapper guy, only a few inches taller than his wife, with a wing color, a watch chain, and very small white hands.

There is no documentation of his murder in Basil’s family things. No one has ever searched newspaper morgues, as my sister and my cousin Divya have done for our Uncle Jimmy. No one is even quite sure where in huge Canada this happened.  It is more sure  that after this death Annie took her two daughters and went back to London.

Basil’s grandmother Annie had been taken from Russia to London when she was 13 and she lived the rest of her long life in English-speaking countries, except for those undocumented years in “South America.” Nevertheless, Annie never learned more than a few words of English. She spoke, read, and wrote only Yiddish, lived in cloistered communities, used her children and other family members as translators, priding herself on a beautiful blankness masquerading as innocence. The men’s world, let alone the world of Goyim, might as well have been the domain of large hind-leg walking cats. She was beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed, and safer being dumb.

There is only one cat in Basil’s family stories. A pregnant cat who arrived on Alpha Road in London to have her kittens on the foot of Basil’s bed when he was nine or ten. Unlike my nameless victim, this cat was healthy and capable, and one of her kittens was a Persian throwback. It had all the points: square head, stubby body, clear yellow eyes, long extravagant red-orange fur.  When it came time to send the kittens elsewhere, Basil’s dad took this one to a West End pet shop, where he was paid £25 for it, a workingman’s week’s wages, becoming a family legend. Even without papers!  A quirk of genetics, Basil’s father said. All cats are one cat.

In Canada, long before, Herschel had been in hiding, Basil’s father said. But this was not his family story any more than it is mine. It was his wife’s. Still, he told it: Herschel had done something in Russia that made someone angry enough to track him down, he said.  In Canada had two men arrived. Who saw? Who knew? When they left, Annie was a widow. The blank still-sweet blonde smile.  Basil’s mother, child of Herschel and Annie, had been born in England in 1901. So Herschel would not have left Russia earlier than 1900 one guesses. He was killed in 1909 when Basil’s mother was eight.

Was it really revenge out of Russia, already ten years before? Or was it none of that but something local? Money? Politics? Anti-Semitism?  Did Canada have a Ku Klux Klan in 1909? What would you know if you knew that? Dead cats pass in and out, and their names arrive unbidden on the tongue, while getting away with murder seems uncannily common.