I was born under a porch. A boy took me home. I kept clean enough. I had no words for this life until the night I met an angel. With wings, I mean. Outside, in the back. No stars that night; if there were, he’d harnessed them to his own ends, so he could shine like them. His name was Raguel—is Raguel, he lives separately in time and space from us. He wore immaculate leather sandals and frayed, filthy white clothing as he floated above. That night he decided to boost my IQ to the level of the average human genius with the soft snap of his tiny fingers. This is something he did sometimes, for fun. To humans and other mammals. Once to a fish. After a day the fish drowned itself in reverse, surfacing, he told me with rue. In our first meeting, Raguel taught me to read. We weren’t together long, perhaps ten minutes, but it was outside the space-time continuum and so I gained the knowledge a skilled American pupil might receive at a well-appointed public school. The boy Zeke who took me home kept many books, hundreds. They lined the walls of his bedroom, two more in the kitchen. I read whatever he left out whenever he went out. I didn’t want him catching on, not yet. He called me Hans and had been calling me Hans, I realized. So that was my name. Mostly I read novels—Life: a User’s Manual; The Blue Flowers by Raymond Queneau; by Doris Lessing, Memoirs of a Survivor and Shikasta; and books of stories by Mary Gaitskill, too, whose work I most admired. I learned to turn pages with my tail, not leaving a single hint behind that I did. A woman called Katrina moved in. I liked her because she paid me less mind. (Funny how that works!) Once, she looked at me and said, He looks like a little cow. She said this because dairy cattle have black spots blotched over white hair like I do. She had less interest in novels and left around for me some Elias Canetti books and The Great Cat Massacre by Robert Darnton, which in particular led to my shredding up of many rolls of paper towel. One night Raguel returned to me. In my thoughts I asked him for the gift of speech, as he could read thoughts. He declined. “The world needs less voices, not more,” he said in his soothing tone with little conviction. He scratched my behind-the-ears for hours (in actuality: minutes) before he left, to make it up to me.
Angeli tecum ingrediantur, pendejo.
Hans is the best little baby on Earth (my baby), but one day he will die, as all cats and babies do: I can’t be having that. He is not all cats! Sometimes he tries to eat my phone, he must enjoy the mouthfeel of its liquid silicone case.
I wake up one morning and decide he will not die, an act of resistance, not of denial. I’d do anything for Little Hans, up to and including embarking upon a Grail Quest for him.
I decide to embark upon a Grail Quest for Little Hans. Or the next best thing.
Katrina leaves me—we were kidding ourselves. She moves out, takes my copy of Pnin.
Soon she calls me from her dad’s houseboat, the River Rhonda, named for his departed wife, Katrina’s mother. Katrina tells me she’s seen Hans reading my books, if I can hear her correctly.
I don’t think that’s what he’s doing, I say. I think he’s just looking, smelling.
No, she says, he turns the pages. I see him following along. I saw him turn the pages with his tail, like an octopus might.
Dude, what are you saying?
I thought I was losing it, so I waited on telling you. It wasn’t a good time, anyway. But that’s what I saw. I don’t think he likes me very much.
He’s a cat, I think he just wants more cuddle-time. You know?
Don’t believe me?
I tell her I’d call her back, that I had a flight to catch.
I land in Jacksonville. I know the airport, my mother was born here. I rent a Camry. I barrel down I-95 straight to St. Augustine. Haven’t been here for years. Last time I ate at a gaudy Cuban emporium, the sort of place with many different rooms in which to eat, accompanying my mother and her healer.
Free parking at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park—least they could do.
In my dream, Hans—Zeke’s little cat—and I go on a double date to Musso’s with Paul and Linda McCartney. Over a table full of the kidneys—the menu says they were Chaplin’s favorite dish, so Paul and Linda decide they’ll make an exception to their vegetarianism—Hans reads aloud from his manuscript, and we listen, enraptured. I cannot recall any of it, for the life of me, only the full, solemn voice the cat read to us in.
A woman with Zeke’s long nose came to watch me, his mother, I realized. She paid me little mind—don’t think she was too used to being around cats. She didn’t seem allergic when she’d approach me and squeeze me, when she remembered to (I didn’t despise it). But mostly she let me be, which I didn’t mind, either. One day—counting days was new to me, I was just getting into the habit—I let my guard down; she could see me reading, blatantly, from The Golden Notebook, for minutes maybe. The woman trembled, dropped to her knees, began to weep. She spoke rapidly under her breath. She was praying, I think—Raguel introduced me to the custom, he had little regard for it. I jumped off the table and rubbed against her leg, as if to say: Nothing to see here!
Z.H. Gill lives with his cat and his roommate’s dog.