Thirteen years ago during the hottest of Southern summers, the finest companion a novelist could ever want emerged from the shadows of my jungled back yard. Wrenched from the jowls of a hound bent on a snack, an orange kitten with a bloodied ear tumbled into my life just when I needed him most. Beneath the deceptive puff of fur over mere bones, resided an old soul who had ridden his fate to his new home.
Henry, a.k.a. King Henry, Putterball, Pumpkin, or simply darling, grew to a seventeen pound Maine Coon with the wide green eyes of an innocent child—a thinker with the gentlest of spirits. He didn’t speak at first—he wouldn’t even look me in the eye—but when he finally learned to trust, he didn’t simply meow; he chirped, chortled, grumbled, turned his head and squinted his eyes with expression. He had much to discuss and question about the ways of the world and fully expected me to have the answers.
Rarely leaving my side, he followed me up to my office each morning where he would sit in his chair beside me or curl in his basket at my feet. A fellow ginger whose gums freckled in the sun, he purred with delight when I pulled the shades tight. And when I would stand and stare at my storyboard on the wall, he would join me, sitting patiently and inquisitively by.
He was a giant Little Lion with matching grace, who one day—and many days thereafter—managed to leap up and leverage his hind feet at the base of my pegboard, grasp upward to his desired pushpin with cupped paws and pluck it out. With precision, he could remove one single plot Post-it and leave me none the wiser until a character suddenly appeared too early or disappeared too late. I tried detachable cork boards I locked in the closet at night, and then a big empty wall and a roll of tape, but not even a giant curtain tacked over any of it could dissuade him. My kitty had caught my writer’s obsession—his passion the pushpins, mine the Post-its they anchored.
A sentimental magpie at heart, he also stole ribbons and bows and our old dog’s toys and stashed them behind the couch with the dust. His favorite pastime was to lounge in the herb garden on his back and stare up at the butterflies. Unlike his wild brother Hobbes, the protective and fiercely loyal Knight to the King, who patrolled our world to keep us all safe, Henry was adverse to exertion or confrontation. He was not the least bit reluctant to turn his back on an opponent, edge backward and sit on them. I don’t know where his delightful spirit came from, or why he sought me out, but he worked his way into every crevice of my heart. For 12 years and 276 days our world was complete.
With summer having lost her conviction and fall waiting bashfully back, I find myself at a bittersweet moment in time, not wanting to let go—to say good-bye to the last summer of Henry. How will I make it through winter’s cold, dark nights without my steadfast companion? Who will patiently listen as I read my scenes aloud, or thrum his tail in rhythm to the soundtracks that inspire me? Who will pad down to the kitchen alongside me for an afternoon snack or get up with me in the middle of the night when the voices of my characters wrench me awake? And when my hours of writing go too long and I get lost in the dark streets to be mapped, who will drop a shiny bauble before me to pull me back?
Perhaps in heaven my sweet Henry will forgive my writer weaknesses: for my delight in the Southern storms that smashed down, sending my fingers strumming in a fury across the keyboard while he scampered to the basement for cover; for the times I didn’t look away from the page, or when I stared through him, seeing another world with a fair little girl named “Henri” with lime green eyes suspiciously feline; for all those hours when my spirit slipped to another time and place while he patiently awaited my return.
In those startling moments I would “awaken” and see him staring at me from across the room, I often wondered from whence he came. An introspective little being who inspired me, comforted me, looked after me, a spirit who had appeared as unexpectedly as he was to depart.
No ordinary cat, Henry didn’t dance nine times with death. He spent lavishly on a few. He survived the appetite of a canine ten times his size. He ate hallucinogenic mushrooms from beneath the vast oak and teetered over sideways into four days of intensive care. He was the uncontested master of contraband. But for all my worry, it was not the pushpins, ribbons or mushrooms that got him. His earthly body simply said it was time.
I don’t want this summer to end…I don’t want to let go. Not of the crickets, my overgrown garden or the darling little being that graced so many of my days. As I sit at my table, Henry’s brother in from the wild to lie at my feet, both of us drawn closer in grief, I see moments of the summer past: the two of them wrestling through the house, both behemoth cats, utter opposites, yet perfectly matched; the cicada wing stuck in Henry’s whiskers; the reach of his downy paw against my skin; the tufts of his fur in the sunlight as he lay sprawled across my grandmother’s quilt; and in the end, his warm little body in my arms, no longer in pain, yet his spirit lingering, never failing.
He wanted nothing more than to be with me, and I am eternally grateful for the light he brought into my life; for the bittersweet night after he left, when a constellation of fireflies lit up the tunneled woods of my walk, his last magical and sparkly gift to guide me through.