It isn't that I disliked cats. I just never had a dog who would let me have one. Dempsey-Tegeler, the miniature schnauzer we had when Doug and I lived in La Habra Heights, would quite lose control when he saw a cat, hurling himself against the window and making killer noises in his throat. Fortunately, he never caught one, but his rude comments were enough to send the intruding cat hurtling off our hill through the avocado grove and to a more peaceable kingdom.
It was after Dempsey had gone to his reward that a cat came into my life. I was sitting at the table in the kitchen, looking out over the Santa Ana plain when I heard a cry of despair through the summer air. When I found the source of the wail, it was a half-grown cat, long-haired and black and white and yelling at the top of his voice.
It was a Saturday morning and I went down the steps to the pool to enjoy the quiet and the sun. The cat followed me down, never stopping his caterwauling. He was as insistent as a magazine solicitor. But there was pain in his voice and something else. He seemed to be saying, "You're a person and you're supposed to be able to do something. Lady, I can't even dial a telephone. I'm just a young cat with a stomachache."
I gave up in a few minutes, so pitiful and piercing were his cries. I put him in the car and drove him to the office of Dr. Dick Macy, the excellent and resourceful veterinary doctor who had taken care of our animals since the day he came to Whittier, tall and kind, from Texas A&M.
It was Saturday, so Dick said he would have to keep the cat over the weekend to check him out. I said, "Dick, you know I don't like cats, but I couldn't have this poor thing dying at my door. Just give him basic first aid. Do not straighten his teeth or send him to a cat psychologist. Then on Monday, you can find a home for him."
Monday, he called and said, "You can come get your cat now, Zan."
"But, Dick, you know I don't like cats."
"You like this one $50 worth. That's what it took in antibiotics to clear up a stomach infection."
I went to get my cat. Dick knew that Dempsey was dead, that Doug had died the spring before and I was quite alone on the hill. Dick thought I should have an animal. He was right.
I named him Cuchulain, for the ancient Irish warrior hero. I thought such a name, thundering with battle triumph and clanging with great swords, would help him overcome his trouble-beset infancy.
He slid into his name like a royal cloak and wore it all his life with dignity and assurance.
After that first, crying encounter, Cuchulain never raised his voice. He had no need to. He had a purr like a three-legged pot on a hob, but he didn't meow except rarely, and then to impart information. When Patsy came to live with us in Pasadena, she claimed that Cuchulain could control human minds. At least when she came home and he was seated by his dish staring contemplatively at the wall, Patsy would run to open his can of food and serve him before she even put her purse down. He had not uttered a word.
Soon, I had a new schnauzer named Bixby, because I do not feel of a piece without a dog. He bothered Cuchulain not a whit. When the puppy ran at him joyously, Cuchulain just slapped him across the face, claws in. Once. He was, after all, senior man aboard. Cuchulain thought Bixby's lack of restraint unsuitable. They slept together, or at least close, on my bed, but they were never best friends, although Bixby didn't know it.
Cuchulain never slithered through anyone's ankles in an attempt to be ingratiating. He spurned such vulgar ploys. And I never saw him sneak. Crouch, maybe, when he was listening for a rat in a hedge, but not sneak. He walked like a 440 man, his forelegs flowing out of his shoulders, ball of the foot first, like an Indian.
He was, however, the only cat who could walk across a room in total silence and have it sound like the tread of the king's guard in full armor if he wanted a serving maid to spring to his needs.
One memorable day when Cuchulain and I were living in the Carmel Valley, I was in the bathtub and Cuchulain came down the hall, making that jungle noise deep within himself. He walked into the bathroom and, like a toreador flourishing his gold-embroidered cape, he tossed a live gopher into the tub. What did I do? I ran and hid in the garage and then I sold the house and moved to Pasadena.
The animals traveled by plane and I drove with the moving van. When I picked them up at the airport, Bixby was shrieking with terror in his crate and Cuchulain was sitting in totally displeased silence, mute and more expressive than Bixby's wails. I quailed at his eerily silent wrath.
He died the other day and I shall miss him sorely. He was his own animal and like the hero for whom he was named, he never bent the knee to man or woman.
I now like some cats, though not indiscriminately, but Cuchulain will be a tough act to follow. We exchanged respect and regard. Love, too, but not the slathery kind. He was a gentleman cat, courageous, sure of his place, tolerant of the small peccadilloes of Bixby.
In a book I cherish called "Legends of Valor," a Celtic priestess made this prophecy about the great Hound of Ulster, Cuchulain. That Cuchulain would triumph, one man over multitudes, that his greatness would live forever in the poets' songs, that his life would pass as quickly as the dew.
An overdramatic elegy for a stray cat on a hill? Oh, honey, you didn't meet him, with his easy, royal bearing and his disdain for connivery.
He was a creature apart, and like the morning dew, he was gone by noon.