Guardian Kitty

Coco in her natural habitat

[This was originally sent to the My Favorite Murder podcast as a hometown story.]

This one goes out to the MFM menagerie and the spirit of Elvis.

I have a light-hearted missing pet story I’ve been meaning to share for years, and I hope I’m not unfashionably late to the hometown pet party. Even if I am, you can enjoy this anecdote privately, and read it aloud to the kitties as a cautionary tale, if nothing else.

In 2010, my boyfriend (now husband) and I adopted our first cat together: a 2-month-old torbie we named Coco. Primarily an outdoor cat, she enjoyed gallivanting around the neighborhood, ingratiating herself to our human neighbors, and leaving the occasional rodent offering on our welcome mat.

She also had a penchant for climbing trees, some of them so tall they required an extension ladder for regular retrieval. I bought one the first time she clawed her way to the highest branches of a birch tree in our yard, planning to return the 36-foot-tall ladder to Home Depot afterward. Within a week, Coco required rescuing from our neighbor’s mighty oak, so I decided to keep the equipment, which proved to be a wise investment.

An only child, Coco did not play particularly well with other animals, and she occasionally engaged in vocal late-night kitty paw-to-paw combat with the neighborhood cats. Sometimes she returned home scuffed and scratched up, but seldom with any serious injuries. We assumed that her anti-social behavior was part feline in nature and part early-kittenhood trauma. (As a baby, Coco had been left for dead in a cardboard box with a dozen other kittens, more than half of whom had perished. She’s a survivor!)

She did have one playmate of sorts–an aloof black-and-white fellow I called Phil. Coco and Phil parallel played around our yard and neighborhood, within each other’s orb but with minimal close contact. They were social distancing years before the rest of us were required to do so, which may have been the secret to their successful relationship.

Phil was more skittish than Coco around people–she enjoyed humans, just not other animals–and never ventured too close to the house or my husband and me. We respected his space and kept an eye on him and Coco through a window in the kitchen. Phil would camp out under one of our cars or beside the garage door, a safe distance from most human activity.

If only Coco could descend trees as easily as she could vehicles.

Sometime in the spring, when Coco was nearly two years old, she disappeared overnight, which was odd. Assuming she had climbed yet another tree, I canvassed the immediate neighborhood and checked her favorite spots. She rarely ventured beyond a two-block radius from our house, and I made sure to double-check those boundaries, looking up and listening for any distant mews. She knew to cry out when in distress, especially if she heard someone call her name.

No dice.

This went on for three days, by far the longest Coco had been away from home, and I had retraced my steps and checked her regular stomping grounds a dozen times.

I called my mother, usually a source of compassion and comfort–and a cat-owner herself–to tell her the tale of Coco’s absence. She responded with a matter-of-fact, “Honey, I’m sorry to say this, but I think your cat is dead.”

What the fuck, Mom?!

I refused to accept that without proof–specifically, a Coco cadaver. No body, no way. There was still hope.

So, I went back outside, marched around the block while calling her name and stopping to listen for stranded-kitty cries.

Again, I came up empty handed. So, I sat down at the dining room table and distracted myself with work. A couple hours later, while typing away at my laptop with my back to the window, I heard a faint cry. Abruptly, I stopped typing and whirled around. At the window was Phil’s black and white face peering in, meowing directly at me. I had never seen him so close to the house, and here he was, trying to…what, get my attention? Could it be?

I stared at him for several moments, stunned by the unexpected scene, then said aloud, “Sorry, buddy, but Coco isn’t here. She might actually be dead.”

He didn’t budge. Instead, Phil doubled down on the crying. I couldn’t believe it. What shenanigans was this furry little introvert up to?

With an annoyed sigh, I went to the back door, which opened out to the patio and the window where Phil was perched. I said sternly, “I told you, Coco isn’t home. I’ve been looking for her for three days. Go away.”

Again, this usually cagey cat stared me down, unwavering. Then, when he saw he had my undivided attention, Phil scampered across the patio to the edge of our lawn, stopped, looked back at me, and then continued down the small embankment into our neighbor’s yard.

I shrugged, and then followed him through our bushes, and past someone’s garden, across one street. Every twenty feet or so, Phil stopped, turned his head back and made eye contact with me. I interpreted this as his attempt to ensure I stayed close behind him.

We cut through yet another neighbor’s yard, this one with an empty kiddie swimming pool, and another with garden gnomes. We crossed one more street. With each step, I grew increasingly baffled and amused by the ordeal. I’m following a strange cat through strangers’ yards, I thought. This can’t end well.

Coco, nearly a decade after the tree incident, hanging onto her last life.

Then, as suddenly as he had started, Phil stopped. He sat by the massive trunk of a tree behind a triple-decker apartment building and shot me a glance. I was confused…until I heard a faint cry directly above us. I looked straight up and saw none other than Coco the climber at least 25 feet up, cradled in between two penthouse branches of this tree.

When I looked back down at Phil, I swear he had a smug expression, as if to say, “See, I fucking told you!”

Coco must have ventured just beyond her usual route, one more block beyond my search party radius. For three days, I had stopped short mere yards from this particular tree-climbing adventure gone awry, unaware of how close I had come to finding her on my own.

I busted ass home–along the sidewalk, not the back yard shortcut way I came in–and dragged the ladder and my husband back to ground zero. Coco at the top, and Phil by the trunk, both remained in their respective spots.

I secured the base of the ladder as Coco’s daddy climbed up and fetched our scared and hungry cat. Phil oversaw the operation and seemed to approve. (At this point I was attributing thoughts, emotions, and analyses to him as though he were a fully functional human.)

We got Coco home, where we fed, bathed, and swaddled her in a blanket. Within hours her usual quasi-social and playful demeanor returned. Within days, her extra weight did too.

I called my mother to prove her wrong and insisted that Coco had eight of her nine lives still intact.

Since that fateful day during which Phil was more of a Lassie, I have not seen Coco’s black-and-white guardian kitty ever again.

My mathematically inclined husband calls these situations “interesting coincidences,” and I deem them “magical” and “serendipitous.” Whatever it was, I think back on this auspicious, kitty-saving event fondly and with awe. It was special, and I am grateful.

Phil, wherever you are, thank you for having Coco’s back. We owe you one.

Stay sexy and follow cats when they insist on it. You never know where they might lead you.

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