Midnight … two o’clock … four o’clock. The old girl was still alive, curled into her basket–a mere skeleton of a cat coated thinly in fur. She’s as tiny now as the kitten she once was, abandoned at the front door of my floral shop twenty years ago. Back then she had been nestled in another basket, a collar around her neck, her tummy ballooning with kittens. All the world knew I kept shop cats, so someone must have presumed: what’s one more?

For years she slept dutifully in a basket on the front counter, purring at customers when they patted her head. Big, waif eyes–short, gray fur mottled with amber … a muted tortoise-shell cat. We called her Peaches.

She ran through eight of her nine lives.

One: left on my doorstep that bitter cold night in midwinter.

Two: her kittens were born, prolapsing her uterus. I found her half dead in the morning when I opened my shop, surrounded by mewing kittens that we bottle fed.

Three: emergency surgery to save her life.

Four: back to the vet for antibiotics to fight an infection.

Five: our resident tortie cat, Kitty Monster, tried to drive her off and shredded her ear.

Six: venturing outside, she ran into a family of baby skunks in the alleyway.

Seven: another cat rescued from the pound infected her with kennel cough.

Eight: she wandered away, disoriented after I moved her into my house. I eventually found her.

Nine …

Her body stiffens with rigor mortis. It has been riddled with arthritis these last five years and she walked gingerly, as if tiptoeing on eggshells. Her eyes were so dilated they were saucer round and still she couldn’t see. She bumped into walls. Her whiskers seemed too fragile to guide her.

Mewing, she turned her head from side to side to find her way around the kitchen. I had to hold her food dish under her nose so she could recognize the aroma.

Watching her gobble ravenously, I wondered if she even tasted her food. Maybe it was mere fodder to fill her cavernous belly, knotted with scars from past operations. Sometimes I tapped her dish with the edge of a spoon to let her know it was suppertime. She seemed to be able to hear until the very end.

Quite often, on her way back to her basket, she stopped and howled piteously. Was she lost and using sonar to reorient herself? We cried back, imitating her yowl. She quieted. Perhaps she needed to be reassured that she was not alone in this vast, gray world bordering on darkness.

She hasn’t been able to find her way downstairs to the litter box for a very long time. We spread newspapers around her bed. She invariably gravitated to the edge of the paper and often missed.

Sometimes I grumped as I cleaned up after her, feeling that she had overstayed her welcome. But now that she is gone her absence hollows out my heart.

I take her body out to the prairie where clumps of prickly pear cactus are spiked with yellow blooms and hidden birds call from gnarled cliffs cradling a gully. The river that had swept through this wilderness with spring rains has trickled into dust. Shadows creep close as a lizard scurries under a flat stone and a grasshopper flits across my path in a jack-o-lantern burst of orange.

Time to live out your last life, little cat. I give you back to the world so you can be recycled to see through new eyes, no longer fumbling in twilight.

May you once again feel the sold, sun-baked ground beneath the pads of your feet and smell the myriad fragrances that frame the world in nuances too subtle for human noses to imagine. May you taste sweet, raw meat again, and hear the prickle of delicate sounds.

Live again, little waif, claim your ninth life. Continue your great adventure.

Published in Stories