Sometimes I wish I could remember what happened better than I do. Sometimes I wish I didn’t remember it at all. But it happened. I’m nearly sure it happened, but I don’t know. It must have, because you can’t dream a memory into being. You can’t dream an idea hard enough to make it solid.
It was the summer after my sophomore year in high school. There was an elderly lady who lived outside of town and owned a house with a small farm on it. There were goats and chickens and pigs and I can’t remember what all else. The lady was a widow and couldn’t take care of everything by herself anymore, so she hired different young men from her church to help her do odd jobs around her home and care for her animals. I can’t remember who started working there first, my friend or me. One of us helped to get the job for the other, though.
Every day was hot, sweaty, hard work, but it was fun. The hours went by pretty quick, and we got paid fairly well, too. Every couple of hours we’d take a break and run back into town for cokes—or in my friend’s case, cigarettes—and then come back and work some more. One of the funnest things we did we actually got paid to do: we would gather up trash or old hay and put them in a barrel to be burned off. Maybe we enjoyed it too much.
One day my friend and I were moving some scrap metal away from the house and hoeing weeds–he was moving junk while I was hoeing–and he found this cat under some of it. He reached down to try to get it out of the way but when he did, the cat clawed up his hand and arm pretty bad. I saw this and as the cat ran out, I swung my hoe at it. Was I actually intending to hit? I can’t really remember and I don’t suppose its really important what I meant to do. The important thing is that I did hit it and in doing so, broke/nearly-amputated one of its back legs.
After it was close to me and not moving as quickly, I was able to see it better. Mangy, half-starved, covered in ticks. I can’t imagine an animal being uglier, frankly.
Now, I tell you this so that you won’t imagine some cute fluffy house kitten or anything for the remainder of this story. It’s not an excuse and no reason for absolution, but we probably would have done things differently if it had been a cute fluffy house kitten. This wasn’t one of those at all, and we did do what we did, God help us.
My friend and I went over to the cat as it hissed and flopped on the ground, wondering what we were going to do about it. My friend was still pissed off at the scratch the cat gave him, and I was in no position to make any moral disapprovals at that point, nor, admittedly, would I have anyway. We decided it was about time to take a break then, and he got this idea. Or maybe I did. Maybe we came up with it together; I don’t know.
There was an ant bed that we had dug out in a previous break, oh, about two feet deep or so, a foot and a half across. We were supposed to poison the ants, but we figured that could wait. Smartly my friend put on his heavy, halfway-up-the-warm work gloves so he received no more scratches when he carried it over there.
He dropped it into the ant “pit” and we stood around and watched as the ants started crawling on it, but within a second or two the cat had already pulled itself out. We kicked it back in and once again it climbed back out. We didn’t stop at this point and give acknowledgment of the courage and determination of the wounded creature as it struggled through pain. Of course not. That’s not the kind of people we were, and it would have been almost impossible to take it to the vet and try to explain what had happened. Not with one leg hanging off it and not with ants crawling on it. Not to mention how much it would cost. So instead, we— I. So instead I broke its other three legs and put it back in the pit. When I felt the first one snap in my hand, my stomach rolled a little bit but by the last one I was laughing. It sounds horrible, and I can’t explain it, but it was just surreal. Whatever was going on wasn’t happening.
By this point we’d been away from our work too long and figured it was about time to get back to it. As we started walking away, the cat started shrieking and howling, making the most godawful noise in the world. To this day, I have never heard anything that sounded like that cat. I don’t know why it chose then to start because it had hardly made a sound when I broke its legs, but for whatever reason I guess the ants were too much. My friend and I tried to ignore it, and after a while it stopped, but then a minute or so later it would start up again. Thankfully, number one, this lady lived out where she had almost no neighbors around, and number two, this lady was away herself. Still, after a while my friend and I just couldn’t put up with it anymore.
So the two of us debated what to do and finally settled upon dousing the pit and the cat with gasoline and setting it to light. Which is ultimately what we did. I got the gas can out of the back of his truck and soaked the cat and surrounding area. I used way too much, maybe a half or two thirds of the gas can, but we made sure to leave a trail to light it from far back for safety. Good thing, too.
It’s amazing there was anything left at all after the gas first exploded, much less anything left alive.. The cat screamed even louder as soon as it caught on fire, but pretty soon it stopped making noise at all. A pillar of greasy black smoke went into the sky and it’s amazing no one tried to call the firemen. I guess they were used to seeing us burn stuff, though. Even after the fire had gone out (which it did relatively quickly) the smell from the smoke lingered for I don’t know how long, but we just covered up the hole with the dirt we’d dug out and put some fresh dirt over the burned ground. And that was the end of that.
My friend and I didn’t speak of it the rest of the day and we never did again. Sometimes I think I just made the whole thing up, but I shouldn’t be able to remember a fantasy this well. I couldn’t remember a fantasy this well.
I quit working there the next week, and I think he did the next month. Some new people started working there in our places. It just didn’t feel right to go back there. Like the scene of a crime or something. Maybe I should have stayed there to face it. Every now and again I see the cat, or one that looks like it. It’s always half hidden by shadows and never stays for very long, but it looks just like the other cat did. If it never happened, I wouldn’t see the cat. You can’t just dream a cat into existence.