After the Fall – This Version of The Story
Ostensibly nothing has changed – Wednesday might just be bad dream, a crazy memory, or a lesson learned. That’s how lucky we were.
I look at Siena, my dainty 11-month old calico, moving in her cat ways around the house with absolutely no difficulty, and THAT is what seems like a dream. I still have to make myself remember she is NOT a ghost, not just a memory moving through the space, but flesh and blood and consciousness, still utterly herself, still very much here, still very much alive.
While holding her, feeling the warmth of her body, the strength of her affection and the deep bond between pet and owner, I also feel how very thin the boundary is between what IS right now at this moment and what might have been, the short distance between one eventuality and another, between having her here in my arms, safe and miraculously healthy, and having her somewhere else, or maybe not anywhere at all any more.
I had come back from the market on Wednesday afternoon and the cats, Siena and Napoli, were restless. It was a beautiful day so I let them out on the balcony to get some fresh air. They eventually fell asleep in the shade and I went back inside briefly to get my computer and a few notebooks. A minute or two later Napoli came in to find me. I knew in that moment something was wrong; I could tell from his face, his body language. I had the strange contradictory feeling of immediately sensing what had happened, while not believing it could be possible.
Siena, Napoli’s sister, was no longer asleep on the balcony. After a thorough search it became clear she was no longer in the apartment at all.
I could only conclude my cat must have fallen from our 6th story balcony. I felt quietly hysterical. After seven months of paranoid watchfulness, I had grown more relaxed and trustful about them being on the balcony. I think this sort of thing commonly occurs with cat owners; we see their grace and agility, their intelligence, their capacity for balance, and begin to have too much faith that they will know how to keep themselves safe. After all, cats are the stuff of urban legend, mythologized as having nine lives, as being almost magically impervious to danger. But cats DO get run over by cars, cats DO get eaten by larger predators, and cats DO fall off balconies and out windows.
Apart from the fear that is instinctive, primal, gut-deep, fear comes to us mostly through what we can imagine. For example we often fear being in dark parking lots or alleys because we have seen over and over again in film and book what can happen in places like that. Rational or not, the prickle of fear creeps over our bodies and we replay all those gory, horrific possibilities every time we find ourselves alone in dark places.
Cats do not imagine danger this way. In fact we often have too much trust in their instinct for self-preservation, forgetting that sometimes other parts of their instinct – like the hunter in them or their notoriously curious side – can override their capacity to be cautious. They fear physical harm and try to avoid it but they do not actually conceptualize the possibility of death, or the repercussions of bad actions. They know they don’t want to fall from a great height, but they don’t really know why, and they can’t imagine the consequences.
We however can. In fact I had imagined many times over how it would be if one of the cats somehow managed to fall. And yet, even with that idea in my head, and the fear of that happening in my heart, I still wasn’t able to prevent it.
When it actually happened in real life, in a horrible way it wasn’t surprising. But it also didn’t quite seem real, and I had a hard time grasping that THIS time I wasn’t imagining it, that the thing had actually come to pass, that this was the new reality.
In my worst imaginings I would look down and see one of our cat’s bodies spread out on the terrace three stories below, inert. In the real version however, Siena was nowhere to be found.
I knew she was alive; I imagined I could almost sense her out there somewhere. I knew that in a small radius both she and I existed and I thought, if only I had a brain power like radar to sense her position, to connect to her or to bounce signals off of her and use them to guide me.
As I wandered around our neighborhood, I wished so much that I could expand beyond myself, beyond the limitations of the basic sensory faculties, beyond the individual ego, to a broader discernment of the way things really WERE around me. I wished I could see with more than my eyes, to feel beyond my body, to perceive everything in a more complete way. I felt the frustration of imagining what my brain could be capable of, but wasn’t.
I was also thinking about Indra.
Indra, a native of Trinidad, was a street artist in Caracas, both earthy and otherworldy. She was the one who found Maria.
When I lived in Venezuela, my roommate and I had a cat, Maria, that snuck out of our apartment one evening through a small crack in the window, and ran across the rooftop and into the stairwell. She climbed to the 10th floor of the building and then, according to some neighbors, was frightened and fell when someone tried to catch her. According to others, she was actually tossed off the building by a cat-hating security guard.
Seven days passed and then Indra found her – pelvis broken but alive – hidden in a bush. In the twisting maze of cement that is Parque Central, a neighborhood of Caracas that is home to thousands of people as well hundreds of feral cats, a strange combination of skyscrapers and labyrinthine alleys, bizarre contemporary sculpture, secret passages, stairwells, and hidden niches, Indra found her. A miracle, we said. I just knew how to hear her, Indra responded.
I often think she must have known how to get beyond herself somehow, and connect to something larger in order to find what she was looking for.
Sometimes I get a sense of how that might be, but then it runs away leaving me feeling very young.
Everything on Wednesday after the fall took on a surreal tone, atmospheric yet overly loud in detail. I felt waves of grief and fear, and at other moments I was brought into a strange state of hyper-awareness. I felt the idea of “fate” weighing on me, but fate placed in a kaleidoscope, fate constantly multiplying and changing color with all the different choices that all of us are making at every moment, squared by all the changing external factors, stretching further and further into infinite directions, expanding as the universe expands. I saw cause and effect not as linear but as a multilayered, multidimensional web. And here we are in the middle of it all, only experiencing one version of the infinite possibilities of how our lives could be.
And I wondered, which of the myriad possible storylines would I find myself in? Would we ever find her? Would she be alive? Would she be hurt badly? I could only hope that the not-knowing was more horrible than the knowing.
At 11:00 PM I called her name from our balcony and she answered.
After we found her soiled and terrified, after we carried her home in a box the neighbors gave us, after we woke up the kind old on-call French vet at 11:30 PM and he agreed to meet us at the clinic, he looked her over a bit groggily shaking his head again and again in disbelief at how unscathed she was.
In moments of extreme good or bad fortune we often look back in awe or incredulity at the coincidences – by which I mean the coinciding of events, the delicate causal relationships, each bound in necessity to the other – that brought us to that point.
In those few minutes she was alone on the balcony, there were thousands of choices Siena could have made that wouldn’t have led to her falling. But instead, she woke at the wrong moment, got too curious, ventured too far, had to back up, made one misstep, slipped and could not save herself.
The initial event had been a nightmare come true, but everything that followed was the best that could have been hoped for. Of all the places on the balcony she might have fallen from she fell in the direction of the garden, and she didn’t fall straight down onto the rock wall beneath, but several feet over, into some plants. I felt the urge to call for her one more time before sleeping, and in that moment she felt brave enough to answer. Once we heard her voice in the middle of the night we rushed downstairs, but there was a 10-foot wall between us and her. Then suddenly, a calming voice reached out from the other side of the wall and asked us what we were looking for. It was a neighbor who had come to let us on to his property, where he helped us search until we found her.
The vet looked her over from head to tail, and one by one he ascertained she had no hemorrhaging, no broken jaw, no concussion, no broken feet, no ruptured organs, nothing wrong with her at all apart from a bit of shock, fear and fatigue. A miracle, he said.
I stare at our cat in wonder at her body in front of me, safe in the apartment, confined between the comforting walls. She is probably a bit bruised sore and shaken, but healing and oh so happy to be home. After falling six stories through the air, she is practically unharmed.
I look at her and I see Her, but I also see Not-her: I see what the space without her in it would have looked like. I feel a combination of gratitude for what actually happened, and bemusement as I catch a glimpse through the filmy boundary between what IS and what might have been. A very thin line sits between good and bad luck, between a reality that we hope for and a reality that we wish we could wake up from, between an outcome that is like a nightmare and an outcome that is like a miracle.