Micio the alley cat only had one eye.
He had lost the other one years before. It would be more romantic perhaps, if he had lost it in a fight with his brother, or if a boy had hit him with a stone and he had only just escaped with his life. But he lost it in a very ordinary way, through an infection when he was a kitten. There weren’t many veterinarians in Jerash and anyway, even if there were, he wouldn’t have let his people catch him. He curled up in his hole beneath the garden wall and shook with fever as the sight in his right eye gradually dimmed into a world of shadows.
Micio the alley cat didn’t die
All cat-lovers know that even quite ordinary cats can see more than people can. All the cats on my street in England would sit in a particular spot in the road and stare at the fence opposite. They used to take turns. The neighbours would honk their horns to get the cats to move but we all knew better than to try to stop them.Micio the alley cat didn’t live in England. He lived in a dusty hot village in the mountains, where people would hit cats with their cars rather than honking at them. The village was teeming with cats. They would gang around the rubbish heaps and fight out a living for scraps, while the villagers cursed them for spreading disease. All the cats were very thin and their fur stuck up in tufts around their ribs. All the cats, that is, except Micio.
Oh, he was still thin, compared to our pampered cats back home. The first day I saw him miaowing at the screen door, my heart broke. He wasn’t allowed in the house but we fed him pieces of sausage in the garden. He miaowed and cried for more but when I reached to pet him he shied away and then fled along the top of the wall. ‘Wash your hands’, my friend told me. ‘His poor eye’ I replied.
Micio’s eye was dead and not dead. He didn’t have an empty socket, there was something in there, black and wet, like the infection had eaten away the colour, but left everything else. He didn’t notice his dead-and-not-dead eye. The way he moved, jumping from a standstill to the top of the wall, it was as though he could see perfectly well as the other cats, thank you very much. Anyway, in his world, weakness meant death.
One night, I woke to the sound of the minaret. I lay in darkness and sweaty confusion thinking it was the over-active imagination of my English mind clutching at stereotypes. But the song was real. I padded into the kitchen, to find some water for my dry throat. The adhan drifted in on a soft breeze and I tilted my head towards it. The nights here, if not cool, were at least kinder than the days.
Sundown would fall so fast in Jordan, as though having made up its mind to set, the sun thought it really ought to just get on with it. The people, however, would linger on. The sun would set but guests would stay, talking and drinking coffee into the night. Young men would sit on their porches until the small hours, smoking shisha. Old men could be seen shuffling down the road to the Mosque, heeding the siren song. I didn’t know what to say to any of them and I hadn’t the Arabic to say it anyway.
A shadow moved along the top of the wall.
I moved closer to the window and looked out. All around the square house was a high stone wall, well-shaded by palm trees by day, and backlit by the streetlights at night. The top of that wall was a cat superhighway and Micio the alley cat was there now, watching me. His dead-and-not-dead eye reflected the fluorescent light of the kitchen, twinkling. He miaowed.
'Shh,’ I hushed him, under my breath ‘I don’t have any sausage for you. Wait until morning.’ As I drew closer, my shadow passed out through the kitchen window and fell against the wall. A white paw shot out and Micio hooked something hidden in the shadow. As he pulled I felt a tugging in my heart.
Micio the alley cat looked up, something soft and black and velvety in his mouth. He shook it like a terrier, then dropped it. It scurried back into my shadow and I felt it return to my chest. It was fear. It was the embarrassment of being British in a former protectorate, the wall of guilt I had built around my heart. It was the paranoia that had prompted me to grow my hair out, and the assumption that I would need a wardrobe of flowy blouses, to go unremarked here in this country. This country of people so kind, so welcoming, so unlike the people back home.
‘Oh no Micio,’ I said, ‘You can eat that. I don’t want it.’
Micio closed his mouth around my fear and then swallowed it down without chewing. I smiled up at him, the noises of the night becoming soothing instead of strange, the sound of the singing more beautiful than the peal of any church bell.
No, they don’t know about cats in Jerash. But Micio the alley cat has a dead-and-not-dead eye that can see into the darkness and as long as his people feed him, he will never go hungry.