The Littlest and the Last

Several years ago, shortly after I graduated college, I returned home, broke and jobless, to live with my mother and my younger sister.

I was not jobless long, and therefore not broke long, but I did continue to live with my mother and sister for a while as I gathered my financial strength and prepared to leave home for the last time.

On a rare weekday off — young journalists don’t come by many — my quiet reading time alone on a spring afternoon at home was interrupted by the doorbell. Our next-door neighbor was there, and she asked me to follow her outside because there was a problem in our backyard.

Out back, near the fence beside our neighbor’s yard, was a tree, or, more precisely, a stump. Quite a stump, though — roughly 30 inches in diameter and about 12 feet tall to the jagged, broken top from which the rest had been lost to a storm just before we bought the house. The sellers refused to have it removed, and it wasn’t hurting anything, so we left it.

I really hadn’t given the stump much thought until that day, when the neighbor brought to my attention that it was mewling.

I fetched a scaling ladder a bit shorter than the tree and climbed to investigate. The splintery top of the tree was open enough that I could see down into a hollow crevice within, where lay three tiny tabby kittens, all orange.

I affected a rescue, passing the kittens one by one down to the neighbor, who placed them in a box.

As soon as I was down the ladder, the neighbor said something along the lines of “Congratulations, new father,” and left.

Since I found them, since kittens need names, since I thought (incorrectly) that orange tabby cats were always male, and since I was reading Feist’s Riftwar novels at the time, I named them after the three noble sons from those books: Martin, Liam, and Arutha.

Over the weeks that followed, we kept the barely weaned kittens in a bathroom before eventually having them checked out by our vet, who corrected my misunderstanding about orange tabby gender. Turns out, only most orange tabby cats are male, not all. The orange coloration is recessive in females, so they are less common, but it is not unheard of, for example, to find a litter of orange tabby kittens two-thirds of which are female.

Martin stayed Martin and soon found a home with a friend of my younger sister’s, who, for reasons inexplicable, renamed him Sparky Chicken. Sparky grew to be a large (not fat) cat of great vigor and zest for life.

Liam became Lia, at least until she found a home with another friend of my sister’s, who, for reasons inexplicable, renamed her Osiris, though that old Egyptian deity is male.

Arutha, the littlest and the shyest and the quickest, who suckled milk from my finger before her siblings, whose first reaction to cat litter was to try and eat it, we decided to keep.

Well, mostly I decided.

I officially dubbed the little kitten Arutha D. Cat, keeping in place a family cat-naming convention, but we always called her Ruth.

She joined Boo, our beloved aging large orange tabby, and Sullivan, the young stray grey tabby Boo and my sister had found on the porch of our old house one summer day two years earlier.

She would always be on the small side, and she was ever a bit shy, but she was a great cat from the moment I pulled her from pitiful abandonment atop a storm-broken tree — my good, quiet friend, a reading buddy, a comforting presence at all times, and the gentlest cat I have ever known.

When I left home, I contemplated taking Ruth with me, but by then she was an inseparable part of our cat family, the little sister who completed a kitty trinity, who brought the smiles and kept the peace and grew the love.

I still saw her often for a few years as I lived nearby, but I have lately lived farther away and so my visits with her have been as infrequent with the rest of my family.

I would, however, usually say hello to her whenever my mother called.

A couple of hours ago, my mother called … Ruth did not wake up today.

I have spent the time since thinking and writing and neglecting house guests because I am an absolute wreck, but doing this is all that helps, though it helps very little: the last cat of my childhood is gone … no matter the words, there are no words.

I am told when the rain stops, if the rain stops, my family will bury Ruth alongside Boo and Sullivan, the inseparable kitty trinity together again beneath the red clay earth of my hometown.

RIP, Arutha D. Cat, 2000-2013