Christmas Smoke

Don’t forget to show hospitality

to strangers, for some who have

done this have entertained angels

without realizing it! (Heb. 13:2)

There! I heard it again. It was so tiny and so soft that I couldn’t be certain I’d heard it at all. I crossed one foot over the other so I could turn my body on the ladder, facing away from the nearly 10-foot tall, prickly Christmas tree that was being festooned with every imaginable decoration. I glanced down from my viewing vantage point, shaking my head and thinking the living room was a perfect tableau for a Norman Rockwell painting.

There were cardboard boxes of every size, with brightly colored satin ribbons flowing from the corners. Some of the boxes bore the obvious scars of age and all of them were open with various “stuff” spilling out. Two of the six cats were wrapped in multiple strands of lights like fish caught in a net. I felt a nearly uncontrollable urge to plug in the tiny twinklelers. I’d never seen lighted, decorated cats and this could be my only chance. I refrained.

I saw one broken ornament, and a guilty-looking cocker Spaniel sitting next to it. I was certain her repentance wouldn’t be long-lasting, however, since she was already eyeing Skipper, the black and white fox hound terrier, and his mountain of tinsel. I could see trips to the vet in my near future if I didn’t pick up and clean up some of the irresistible, shiny playthings.

I looked back at the tree. It was huge, the biggest I’d ever had; and the odd conglomeration of decorations seemed somewhat symbolic. Chaotic. Turbulent. Close to rudderless.

There! The sound. I had no idea what it was. I knew it wasn’t a bark, but neither did it sound like a cat. That was scary. What was it if it was neither dog nor cat?

Being respectful of my intrinsic fear of ladders, I carefully picked my way down step-by-careful-step. Safely on the floor, I walked to the hall closet and pulled out a heavy coat, hat and gloves. Texas weather is usually quite temperate, but we were experiencing one of our rare cold spells….as in really, really cold. Add a 30 degree temperature to 40 mile-per-hour winds and you discover the definition of not just cold but miserably cold. I tried to rationalize the situation by saying, “Well, after all, Christmas is only five days away so it should be cold.”

The bundling process completed, I turned on the front lights and went out the door with head lowered to combat the brutal wind. I stood still, trying desperately to hear over the groaning and whistling gusts. Nothing. “I can’t stand here very long,” I muttered to myself. On the heels of those words came my next thought which went something like, “But I know any creature that might be out here is definitely in trouble.”

I wrestled a flashlight from my narrow pocket and directed its beam behind the row of low-growing cedars that hemmed the front side of the house. I leaned over to push some of them back, trying to ignore the itchy pricks on my wrists where the coat sleeves parted company with the tops of my gloves. I stooped forward and there they were! Two huge, glowing, yellow-green eyes centered in what appeared to be an overly large head. And there was the sound again….the weakest, most pitiful imitation of a meow I’d ever heard. I never stopped to wonder if the cat might be unfriendly. I just said a soft “Kitty, kitty” and reached down for him. I knew extricating him from the cedars would be tricky, so I moved slowly.

I couldn’t believe what I felt when my right hand closed around the cat. He was, literally, skin and bones. I could actually place my fingers on his side and pinch around each, individual rib. I slid my left hand underneath him as I raised him higher and, again, I was shocked when I felt the opening of his rib cage. He was finally out of the cedars and in full view.

I looked at the cat under the orange/yellow bath of the porch light and, suddenly, all the Christmas tree ornaments just one room away lost their glitter. “Oh, God,” I said softly, “how could this happen?” My reaction was always the same when I faced situations such as this one. I felt suffocated by pain and, on top of that pain, was a consuming anger at our throw-away society. We throw away razors and contact lenses and TV dinners heated in instant microwaves. We throw away just about everything, including relationships. Why not animals? Just toss them out when we’re tired of them or when they change from cuddly babies to somewhat less cute adults. Sure. That’ll work.

The cat’s hipbones strained against his skin, looking as if they were trying ever-so-hard to escape their thin prison walls. I couldn’t stroke him down his back because my fingers hung on the knobs of his spine. And the head that I thought was overly large? It wasn’t. It just had that appearance because the rest of his body was so emaciated. His feet, too, appeared large….like big pads glued to the bottoms of boney sticks.

His fur was gray….a smokey gray….the color of fireplace smoke drifting skyward on crisp October afternoons. It felt dull beneath my fingers. Some people may not realize it, but “dull” is a feeling as well as an appearance.

I cradled the cat in my arms, afraid I’d snap one of his nearly exposed bones if I placed the least pressure on them. He didn’t struggle. He probably didn’t have the strength for a great deal of movement. I wondered how he’d managed to wedge himself behind the cedars. Then, as I tried to stroke him, I saw him push against the warmth of my coat. For what must have been the millionth time in my years of loving animals, I felt my heart crack as I looked at the pitiful creature.

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s get you inside where it’s warm.” The big yellow-green eyes blinked at me. “We’ll need to put you in your own room,” I continued. “I have no idea whether or not you might have anything contagious, even though everyone in the house is vaccinated against all imaginable germs and bacteria. Besides, you’re in no condition to meet anyone right now. Even a gentle swat would send you tumbling.” He seemed to pay attention to my running, one-sided conversation.

Dogs and cats alike rushed at me when I opened the front door and walked in, acting as if my absence spanned weeks rather than minutes. The gray cat never stirred. Some special feline sense seemed to tell him he was okay as long as he had me in his corner.

“Okay, guys,” I said to everyone. “Let me through. It seems we received an early Christmas present.” Dogs jumped. Cats rubbed. There are times when I know exactly how Moses felt when he parted the Red Sea. “Let me through,” I repeated. Noses lifted upward, straining for a whiff of the newcomer. Had they been able to verbalize, I’m quite certain I would have heard, “Let us see. Let us see.”

I took the thin, scruffy cat into the guest bedroom, and promptly plunked him in the middle of the bed. He looked at me and blinked, appearing totally at home on the yellow comforter with its mauve roses. “Look,” I said, “everyone needs a name so, at least for now, yours will be Smokey.” He filed no protest so I assumed he was comfortable with it.

Okay. The next step was food. Not too much and not too rich. All my cats stayed fat on dry food, but the canned variety might be better for Smokey’s condition. Leaving him in the bedroom, I foraged in the kitchen cupboards and came up with Ocean Whitefish. I put not more than two, level tablespoons in a bowl. Taking two more small bowls from the cabinet, I put milk in one and water in the other. I returned to the bedroom, finding Smokey curled into a tight ball and sleeping between two pillows. I decided to arrange a litter box for him before awakening him to eat.

Everything was ready. His three bowls were on a metal tray which I put on the bed. The cat was just too weak to jump up and down. I brought him out of his warm slumber by stroking the head that looked too large for his shrunken body. Blink! The yellow-green eyes burst open.

“Come on, Smokey, guy,” I crooned. “How ’bout some dinner?” I picked him up and took him to the food. He smelled, turned his head and covered me in a yellow-green stare. “Go ahead,” I encouraged. “It’s yours.” He lapped at the milk three or four times, sniffed the food and took the smallest possible bite. “Go on, Smoke,” I encouraged again. “You need to eat. Not a lot, but more than that.” He looked at me as if he understood. He took another small bite, but he was doing it more for me than for himself. He returned to the spot between the pillows, wobbling from weakness and the soft mattress. He looked at me before he returned to his warm nest.

“It’s okay, Smokey,” I said. “Maybe you need rest as much as you do food; but you really must eat.” The gray cat had been sinking to the bed but, when I told him he really must eat, he stopped his downward motion and looked at me. I rushed to him, putting my hand on him and pushing him gently to the mattress.

“It’s fine, Smoke. There’s no need to get up right now,” I told him.

There was something very strange about this cat. He seemed to have this all consuming desire to please me, and I was nothing more than a total stranger who happened to pull him out of the cedars. He kept looking at me and I kept looking at him. I had a feeling we were connected by some invisible thread, and another feeling that said he understood everything that was happening to both of us. It was highly peculiar but, at the same time, I felt suffused with a spreading warmth and sense of well-being. I could almost feel him absorbing every negative vibration from the house, sucking it all into himself and leaving clean, clear, positive air to fill the rooms and hallways. I closed the door gently, leaving him to his rest while I returned to the Christmas tree. Somehow, the scene I’d left less than 45-minutes earlier had changed. It was quieter….more serene. I felt like an idiot saying it, but the entire atmosphere of the house seemed altered. I certainly didn’t intend to say I thought it was because of Smokey’s presence.

I took Smokey to the vet the following day. The diagnosis was straightforward and basic. He was emaciated. On a scale of one to 10, his overall system was functioning somewhere between a two and a three. He was probably wormy so they administered a very gentle med since they were afraid he was too weak to sustain even a normal dosage. He didn’t appear to have anything contagious. Would he live? They weren’t willing to offer a prognosis.

As I spoke with the vet, I couldn’t help but notice one of the techs from the corner of my eye. She stood next to the examining table, bending over slightly, stroking Smokey. The gray cat rested his head on her right hand while she used her left hand to caress repeatedly from his neck to his flank. Her movements seemed almost hypnotic.

“Lisa,” I said. She didn’t respond. I raised my voice. “Lisa.” She turned and looked at me, but her hand continued its ministering kindness. “This is the most wonderful cat,” she said. “There’s something so special about him.”

I looked at her and then at Smokey. “Yes, I know,” I answered.

I wrapped Smokey in his towel, holding him as tenderly as a baby, and placed him on the passenger seat of my car. I talked with him on the short drive home.

“Well, Smoke, at least we know there’s nothing contagious. The Christmas tree is all finished and, even if I do say so myself, it’s probably one of the most beautiful ones we’ve ever done. If you’ll eat just a little bit for me today and tomorrow, you can come out and admire the tree with the rest of us. We’ll leave the door to your room open when we get home and see how that goes. Okay?”

I reached over to stroke the gray cat. He purred and rubbed his head against my hand. Funny thing. He was still as emaciated as ever but, for some reason, his head no longer seemed out of proportion to his body. His bones still strained against his skin. I could still imprison his ribs between two fingers. But, somehow, I was no longer aware of all those things. All I saw was….well….beauty. That must be what Lisa witnessed when she stood there stroking him at the clinic.

I unwrapped Smokey and put him on his yellow comforter, leaving the door open and sitting in a rocker near his bed. The cocker Spaniel was the first to venture in. She sniffed the gray cat. He purred and rubbed his head against her neck. The other two dogs trooped in. Sniff. Purr. Rub. It became a ritual. The six cats came in, usually in twos or threes. They hopped on the bed and approached the gray stranger. No hisses. No swatting. Just quiet. It was the strangest thing I’d ever seen.

The days until Christmas passed with Smokey becoming no better and no worse. Somehow, in my heart, I knew he wouldn’t live; and I couldn’t help wondering why I was so instantaneously in love with this gray cat.

It was finally Christmas Eve, a day we usually approach with fever pitch excitement since the mountains of presents are opened Christmas Eve night. This year, though, it was different. It was quiet. Peaceful. More reverent. The way everything had been since Smokey came from the cedars. The lights were plugged in on the tree, hundreds of dainty, white flickerings among the branches of the towering spruce. It seemed to dance with fireflies. Satin bows graced the boughs and a lace-clad angel perched on top. Underneath was the stable with the Christ Child’s manger.

Everyone was there, watching the tree as if it might disappear at any moment. Yet, there was a magic something in the air. I glanced down and there, curled up next to the stable, was Smokey. He’d come from the bedroom on his own. All I saw was his beauty, and I felt so blessed to have him.

Somehow, as soon as I opened my eyes Christmas morning, I knew what waited for me. I walked into the living room and there, still curled next to the stable, was Smokey. I’d left him there the night before because I felt that’s where he wanted to be. He’d died during the night. I cried as I stroked him but, at the same time, I knew he’d been a special gift; and I also knew it might be years before I knew his true meaning….if ever. For the first few moments, I felt the crack that had come to my heart when I first met him begin to widen. Then, just as quickly, it was stopped by the mortar of his magic and mystery.

It was three, maybe four, years later when I stood in the checkout line at the grocery store. I glanced at the rack where all the little pocket books are displayed and saw one on cats. I picked it up and laid it on the counter. Later that night, I read a piece titled “The Gospel Of The Holy Twelve” by Gideon Ousley. In 17 lines, it revealed the story of the birth of Jesus. The last three lines told of an ox, a horse, an ass and a sheep, who were in the cave with Mary, Joseph and the Child. And, it said, beneath the manager was a cat.

Ah, Smokey. Were you that cat?

Now, I make a fire every year on the first, crisp, October afternoon. Then I go outside and watch as the gray smoke floats heavenward, looking for all the world like a gently curling cat’s tail – a gray cat’s tail . My heart grows full, tears gather in my eyes but I smile through them. And I think….

Ah, Smokey. Thank you. Thank you for purring peaceful meaning into Christmas.