M. and I had joked for a long time that Yersinia, as in Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for the Black Death, would be a fine name for a black cat. So when we moved into a larger apartment that had room for two cats, she went up to Animal Control and came home with a six-year-old black cat.
His papers said that his name was Hemsley, but cats don’t care what you call them, so we named him Yersinia, quickly abbreviated to Sin. Other names that he mostly failed to answer to included Mr. B (short for Mr. Baby, to distinguish him from Flinch, also known as Miss Baby), Mr. Silky, Mr. Beast, Monster, and Mr. Kitten.
M. already had “her” cat, Flinch; Sin was supposed to be “my” cat. Here, we made a tactical error: shelter cats bond with the person who frees them from prison, so M. was very definitely Sin’s preferred monkey and he was devoted to her. This might have happened anyway: M. is the Kitty Whisperer, charming every cat she meets. But he was an affectionate creature and liked to be around people. When M. went away for a few days, he would quickly transfer his affections to me, so that my work Zoom meetings were often interrupted by a lithe black shape leaping into my lap and demanding to be petted.
We made a second tactical error right at the start by not confining him in one room when we brought him from the shelter to the new apartment. For a cat that has been accustomed to a cage, being suddenly released into a new and larger territory can be overwhelming. Flinch responded to her new environment the same way she responded to any stress: she curled up in a ball and went catatonic. But Sin roamed from room to room, wide-eyed, howling nervously. M. put in earplugs and went to bed. I stayed up until 2:00AM, trying to soothe him with only mixed success.
About 04:00AM he suddenly fell silent. When we woke in the morning, the apartment was quiet as the grave, and only one cat was visible. Sin was nowhere to be seen. M. was almost convinced that it had all been a dream, that she had only imagined going to Animal Control and coming home with a cat. I showed her pictures I had posted to Facebook and pointed out that, logically, there had to be a cat, and that logically, he had to be somewhere in the apartment. Except he wasn’t anywhere to be seen. The apartment – although bigger than the studio we’d been living in – is not that large. The number of cat-sized hiding places it contains is not infinite. We searched everywhere, and came up empty-handed.
A cat can always fit into a smaller space than you think. After something like twelve hours, I finally found him hunkered down behind the dishwasher. An hour or two after that, he calmed down enough to come out to eat. At some point during that time he must have concluded that this was his new home and that he was safe here, because he never went behind the dishwasher again.
For the next eight years, he was a continual source of pleasure and amusement to us. He would lie down in absurd positions, belly up, paws tucked under his chin. He begged for food at the table, very politely and tentatively, reaching out one hesitant, trembling paw toward whatever he thought he wanted to eat. When we started the robot vacuum, he would run over and lie down on its base station, as if he too wanted to charge up. He made strange throaty growls ("demon noises", as M. called them) and raced around the apartment, bouncing off the walls ("kitty parkour"). He meditated on the sofa, pressing his paws into the fabric with tremendously slow, measured movements. He sang songs to his favorite toys, the fuzzy pipe-cleaners that Animal Control had given him.
One Christmas, my sister gave him a catnip-filled crab which became his new best toy. He would pick Drug Crab up in his mouth and carry it around the apartment, meowing. At bedtime, he would bring his toy into my office and drop it just inside the threshold. Then he would leave. A minute or two later, he would come back, pick the toy up again, and carry it back to the living room. After that, he might repeat the process a second time, or take the toy to the bedroom, or just leave it in the living room. I have no idea what this repeated ritual meant to him, but it was clearly an important part of his day.
And he was an equally important part of ours. He was an elegant, goofy, affectionate, needy, amusing, absurd, beautiful little being, and we miss him very much.