In the tradition of J. R. Ackerley”s My Dog Tulip and Christopher Smart’s “My Cat Jeoffry,” Patrick Keane’s “Rintrah” is a gorgeously jubilant, poignant, mysterious paean to the lifelong companionship of a pet. Patrick Keane is a great friend, a brilliant raconteur, an eminent scholar, and, yes, a lover of cats. This is his second contribution to the pages of Numéro Cinq; see his essay on the “lost” Waste Land manuscript here. But first, read “Rintrah.”
By Patrick J. Keane
In researching a book I recently wrote on Emily Dickinson, I came across a letter, written in the autumn of 1858, which has become controversial. Overwhelmed by the world of mutability in which she found herself, she seemed to equate the death-by-frost of flowers in her garden with the death of a servant’s “little girl through scarlet fever.” I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, who imagines people saying of her, “she cared much more for her roses” than for human “victims of cruelty and injustice.” But the comparison was unfair. Emily wasn’t being insensitive or callous. In addressing “Democratic Death,” she was really expressing the communion and equality of all living things that come to dust.
The life and death memorialized here span a near quarter-century that began with the end of my marriage and includes the pain-filled final years and death of my mother. Along with the ending of another long relationship, these losses affected me deeply and, though they are not front-and-center in what follows, they are an implicit part of my recounting of the adventures of Rintrah. Since Rintrah was “just a cat,” the love, admiration, and sense of loss expressed may seem excessive. But love is not restricted to our human relationships. Emily Dickinson herself, who anguished over the loss of so many close to her, was devastated by the death in January 1866 of Carlo, her beloved dog and constant companion. Anyone who has had a similar experience with a cherished animal will understand both her love and her mourning for what can never return.
I didn’t know then, and never found out afterward, where he came from. And, though I wish I could take the credit, I didn’t give him his wonderful name. One of my students did. We had just begun William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell when the kitten walked into the classroom. I almost said “strode” because, from the first instant, he displayed complete self-assurance. For all his confidence, he was small, not much beyond weaning. But his front paws seemed large (I later discovered he had six claws on each); and he already possessed a kind of majesty and grace. He even seemed aware that he was beautifully colored: a white mask and underbelly, tawny coat and ears, with that same soft amber surrounding a white star-shape between his gold-green eyes.
He took the measure of the room, then proceeded to stroll among the desks. At the end of his tour, he returned to the front, looked me over, leapt effortlessly to the chair, then to the desk. A student filled a paper saucer with water and placed it near him. The kitten nosed it, then took a few diffident sips. I petted him and he permitted me, despite the affront to his dignity, to pick him up and display him, tummy exposed, to an appreciative audience. The work we had been reading prior to this mysterious visitation opens with a poem that begins, “Rintrah roars and shakes his fires in the burdened air.” The kitten’s boldness and color inspired one of the students to propose Rintrah for a name.
It stuck because little Rintrah would go on to prove himself worthy of it. In both senses of the word, he became his name. The poet himself would have approved. Though we hear no more of this character in the Marriage, in this introductory poem and elsewhere in Blake’s elaborate mythology, Rintrah is the fiery prophet of justified wrath, and so a precursor of Blake’s most celebrated creation: that famous “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright” in English literature’s most sublime embodiment of terrible beauty.
During the next twenty-one years, Rintrah would—through innumerable acts of courage, agility, audacity, and intelligence—demonstrate that he deserved the heroic Blakean name so serendipitously or uncannily bestowed on him by that student. But, for the moment, he took a final sip of water, curled up on the desk, and promptly fell asleep.
I took him home that evening. He patrolled his new surroundings, as comfortable here as he had been in the classroom. He ate some canned tuna, drank most of a bowl of water, and put the crumpled paper I provided to its proper use. At first aloof, he quickly showed signs of affection. The next day, I made up a sign to photocopy and post on every floor of the main college building: “LOST KITTEN, phone 445-1598.”
Two days passed with no response. Early on the morning of the third day, when no one was likely to be around, I went to the college and took down all the signs. That afternoon, I visited a pet store and purchased litter, a litter box, a case of kitten food, and a fairly expensive fur-lined basket. That evening, Rintrah ate with gusto his first can of non-human food, shifted effortlessly from crumpled newspaper to an actual litter box, and made clear his opinion of effete luxuries by peeing copiously in the furred basket. For the next twenty-one years, Rintrah slept in my bed with me, alone or accompanied.
I never considered Rintrah my “pet.” Nor was he quite my “companion,” since he was both an affectionate housecat and an animal who not only could not be confined to the house, but who was fearlessly at home in nature. Once he reached the age of six months or so, he wandered the neighborhood, even venturing into the nearby woods. He never lost his way; and, though he got in some scrapes, suffered nothing worse than the occasional scratched nose, and even that was rare.
Since he weighed less than eight pounds, this essentially unscathed record never ceased to amaze me. Reluctant to intrude on his “other” life, but driven by curiosity, I occasionally followed him, surreptitiously of course, on his regular route, about a half-mile in range. I tracked him on several early evening patrols, during which Rintrah confronted and faced down several cats and dogs, in addition to two groundhogs and one raccoon. It was all attitude, chutzpah. I should add that for all his courage, he wasn’t a bully, an actively aggressive role being apparently beneath his dignity. He would merely stop and stare. Faced by an Alpha-male, no matter how unimposing in size, the potential opponent would almost invariably back down and slink, or even run, away.
It would be easy enough to attribute Rintrah’s behavior to street smarts, reinforcing the instinctive knowledge that the way to trigger aggression, especially in a dog, would be to back down or start to run away. But it was more than that. Not only brave, he seemed to me both valiant and measured in his responses to danger or intrusion. Over time I concluded that he was, in his world, everything most of us would like to be in ours—or, at least, I in mine.
Once, a neighborhood Great Dane, not much more than a puppy but already fully-grown, broke his leash and was running wild. I recognized him, and he came when I called. I took him by the collar and was leading him through the house to the phone to call his owner. At the time, I had two other cats—Norton and Aoife, of whom more in a moment—who both took off like stampeding longhorns at the sight of this beast. Rintrah, in splendid isolation, stood in the middle of the room, and, anchored there, compelled the Great Dane to circumnavigate him.
Did he know that I had the dog by the collar? It didn’t seem to matter. Far from becoming combative, the Great Dane, who had been pulling, stopped. I noticed that Rintrah’s tail was not even bushed up in the usual instinctual attempt, faced with a larger opponent, to appear bigger. He didn’t seem to think such a vulgar display worth the effort. He simply stood his ground and stared that stare. He would not be moved. It was, after all, his house.
On one occasion, Rintrah did behave aggressively, though, again, in defense of his terrain. He had accompanied me outside, where I was awaiting the arrival of a friend with whom I was headed out for a day of boating on Oneida Lake. After a few satisfying nibbles of grass, Rintrah sat down beside me on the front steps. Across the street, a woman was walking her unleashed dog. Rintrah was unperturbed. Until the dog crossed the street, sniffed out a few promising spots on the lawn, and, satisfied with one, prepared to take a dump. It was a duty he never completed. Rintrah, who had his own duty to attend to, looked at me, then leaped off the steps right at the dog, who took off, trailing something other than a cloud of glory.
“That cat should be on a leash!” the woman screamed, as she comforted her frightened pet. Now it was my turn, and I knew I had to come up with something worthy of Rintrah. I informed her that she was the one who should have had her animal leashed, that it was her dog who had chosen to attempt to crap on our lawn, and that her dog was not only out of order but, given that he was about ten times the weight of my cat, a damned coward to boot.
When she left, without a rejoinder, I felt a twinge of remorse. I sheepishly glanced at Rintrah, whose admonishing countenance confirmed my instinct. He had done strictly what needed to be done, without the flourish of rhetorical overkill. As he went back to calmly nibbling the untainted grass, I realized that, in my effort to be worthy of him, I had gone over the mark, failing to meet his highest criterion, a dignified and measured response. I vowed to do better in the future, but Rintrah, I knew, would always be a tough act to follow.
He’d proven that a few years earlier and far from his home turf. In saying that Rintrah was brave though not aggressive, I was forgetting the site of perhaps his single most impressive performance. That wasn’t in his native Syracuse, but in my mother’s home in the Bronx. Fond of all animals, my mother took the love of cats to an extreme, at once maddening and endearing. An otherwise notably sane woman, she had, at various times in her later years, between 13 and 37 cats. And this while living in a four-room apartment! Having heard much about Rintrah, and seen photos, she was naturally keen to meet him. It was impossible for her to travel. Even if her legs had permitted it, she could, of course, hardly leave her menagerie in anyone’s charge. So down to the Big Apple went Rintrah and, almost incidentally, his staff. That would be me.
At the time, Rintrah was about two years old, and, aside from Norton and Aoife, had no experience of other housecats, of which, at this particular juncture, my mother had (even she was unsure of the precise number) 18, 19, or 20. How would Rintrah behave in such circumstances and in unfamiliar territory? I would soon find out, and I wouldn’t be alone in the discovery.
Sherpa cat-carrier in tow, I rang the bell. It took my mother a few minutes to get to the door, but less than one minute of ooh-ing and ah-ing over how pretty he was for her to insist that “little” Rintrah be “let out.” I suggested that, since at least a dozen cats of assorted breeds and sizes were arrayed around the cloth carrier and its occupant, it might be better to ease into things. But my mother was sure that her cats, even the most formidable, an eighteen-pound black Burmese named Pong, would be gentle with the newcomer. I wasn’t sure that was the principal concern.
Before I had it fully unzipped, Rintrah, cooped up in the airport and during his JetBlue flight, exploded out of his traveling bag. Any normal cat, finding himself in such a situation, would bolt for the nearest hiding place. (I once had a cat, released in a new apartment, not only hide behind a refrigerator, but somehow wriggle himself into its back compartment.) Rintrah, predictably, took a different tack. Once he hit the kitchen linoleum, he stopped and gazed around, taking in the bizarre scene with his usual cool poise. Surveillance complete, he began his tour of the premises proper, paying next to no attention to the cats surrounding him, some up close, others on tables, two peering down from atop a bookcase.
Moving with all deliberate speed, he checked out the hallway, the bathroom, the guest room, and my mother’s bedroom. In each venue, the resident cats gave him wary leeway. Then he strolled into the living room. Near the window next to the fire-escape was a cat motel I had bought my mother some years earlier. And on the top level, the literal cat-bird seat since my mother had turned the fire-escape into a pigeon-feeding platform, sat the king of the hill. Pong was one of the few actually muscular cats I’ve ever seen, and he was more than twice Rintrah’s size.
Watching Pong bristle as he stared down in contempt at the stranger, my mother suddenly was concerned about “little” Rintrah. She needn’t have worried. Pong was just going into his full warning yowl when he suddenly found himself, instead, whining in pain. Rintrah, putting all twelve of his front talons to good use, had mounted the tiered structure in two quicksilver leaps, given poor Pong three Zorro-like cuts to the snout, and driven the surprised animal from his hitherto uncontested perch.
For the three days we stayed in the apartment, Rintrah caused no further trouble, but he ascended the cat-bird seat whenever he chose. After that, including during the phone call I made to her the night before she suddenly died, my mother invariably referred, more in awe than accusation, to “that bold Rinth-rah.” She could never quite get Rintrah’s name right; but my mother, despite her affection and sympathy for the dethroned Pong, always admired courage and audacity, and on one now long-ago afternoon she’d seen both in that bold Rinth-rah.
Bold as he was, and despite the earlier-mentioned defilement of the fur-lined basket, Rintrah was not immune to the allure of creature comforts. A few months after his bravura performance in her apartment, when I was once again visiting my mother, I left Rintrah at home in the capable hands of my girlfriend. Beth liked, in fact admired, Rintrah. She once said that mere words could not capture him; and even those she suggested—“unique,” “magnificent,” “without peer”—seemed to her inadequate clichés. As an actress, she especially appreciated his bearing: the sense of “presence” he projected. And she respected his survival skills enough not to be afraid to let him out, even for extended periods, during the day and early evening.
Near the end of my week-long visit to the Bronx, I received a phone call from Beth. Her first word was “Rintrah…” I immediately conjured up the worst. “Is he lost? Was he hit by a car?” My mother also became anxious, her hands forming the silent question, “What’s happened?’ Beth had her own question: “May I finish my sentence?”
It turned out that Rintrah, though he returned each evening, had been staying away for longer periods than usual. That afternoon, Beth had gotten a phone call from a woman. It began:
“Do you have a white and kind of beige cat?” Like me, Beth had leapt to the worst conceivable scenario:
“Oh, my God, is he dead?”
“No, no, he’s fine. He’s over at our pool.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I’ll come right over and get him.”
“Well, actually, he’s been coming over most afternoons, ever since we had the pool put in a week ago.”
“I apologize. I had no idea. Has he been making a nuisance of himself?”
“No indeed. He’s more than welcome, so well behaved and so good looking. We’ve become quite fond of him. He lolls next to the pool and we’ve been giving him dry food and water. I hope that’s okay.”
“Sure,” said Beth. While she was musing on the truth of Buffon’s adage that “the cat is the only animal that accepts the comfort but rejects the bondage of domesticity,” she was also trying to puzzle out what if anything she was supposed to do in response to this call; and wondering why it had taken the woman a week to get around to it.
“He’s always eaten the food and looked as if he’d like to interact more, but up till now he hasn’t let us get too close. Finally, this afternoon, he let our daughter pet him. So we were able at last to read his collar, with his name and your phone number. ”
“We just wanted to let you know that he’s safe, and that he’s been here most afternoons this week, relaxing at the pool and enjoying a few snacks.”
“And, while I have you on the phone, we were also wondering how you pronounce his name.”
Beth was tempted to say, “Rin-thrah,” but didn’t, one of the social burdens she bears being an inability to tell a fib, even the most inconsequential.
“It’s RIN-tra,” she said. “Named after Rintrah, a character in a work of William Blake…you know, the man who wrote the tiger-tiger poem.”
“Uh-huh. Well, anyway, he’s a wonderful cat. I’m watching him right now, and it looks like he’s getting up, so he’ll probably be headed back your way shortly. Nice talking to you.”
“Thank you,” said Beth, amused and anticipating. “Thank you very much.”
A few minutes later, Rintrah showed up, announcing his presence in his own inimitable fashion: leaping up and hanging suspended from the screen door as if he were a flying squirrel. Once admitted, his weary manner, affectionate rubbing, and plaintive meow for food seemed deliberately calculated to convey the impression that he was returning from a long and particularly rough day in the woods. Beth picked him up and looked him straight in the eye.
“You,” she said, “are so busted!”
Sensing from her direct gaze and tone of voice that, somehow, he’d been found out, Rintrah, for once, had the good grace to look appropriately embarrassed. At least Beth thought so, and that was what she reported to me in what had begun as a potentially ominous phone call. When I repeated the story to my mother, she laughed until she had me going. She only wished, she added, that Pong, who was sitting in her lap, could have shared in the fun we and Beth were having at the expense of bold, independent Rintrah, now exposed as a poolside pussycat.
Of course, poolside lounger was only one of Rintrah’s many roles. Along with being a formidable hunter, he was an incredibly adept climber and roof-walker. A born daredevil, courageous and blessed with six toes on each of his front paws, there was no climbing challenge to which he did not seem equal. I’d taken pride in many of his accomplishments; but there were feats of which I was unaware until a major night storm hit Syracuse on Labor Day weekend, 1998. The meteorologists designated it a “wind-shear,” a “microburst,” a derecho. Whatever it was in name, it was as close to a tornado as Syracusans are ever likely to come. It changed the tree-scape of what I had thought of as my neighborhood—until I discovered that it was less mine than Rintrah’s.
At the time I had three cats, the other two being the aforementioned Norton, an affable Russian Blue, and Aoife, an amazingly affectionate little silver tabby. Aoife loved everyone, except Beth, of whom she was jealous. Her love extended to Rintrah, on whom she had a hopeless crush. A confirmed solitary, Rintrah was having none of it, rebuffing every approach. Only when he was asleep would poor, smitten Aoife dare to get close to him, sometimes snuggling up to his back, risking a sweep of those talons.
On the night of the storm, he relented, allowing both Norton and Aoife to cluster with him on the bed as the wind shook the house and threatened to shatter the sliding glass doors leading to the deck off the bedroom. I took the cats down to the basement for safety. Norton and Aoife were more than happy to stay there, but I was too curious. I went back to the first floor and peered through the bay window into the fury of the storm. I could see, strobe-lit by lightning, snapped tree limbs being swept along in a chaotic rush of green. Something jumped up to the ledge of the bay-window. It was Rintrah. He had slipped up with me when I’d re-mounted the basement stairs and was now, more curious than frightened, taking in the spectacle of the storm.
At dawn, along with a friend who had a chain saw, I walked through the neighborhood, surveying the extensive damage. Dozens of trees had been felled. One heavy bough, ripped from an oak and hurled some twelve feet across the road, lodged high and perilously in another tree, until we lassoed it and pulled it down. It took three cuts for us to manage to lift the sections one at a time. That was the most striking single example of the storm’s power, but the ferocious wind had left plenty of less dramatic debris in its wake. We went street by street, helping where we could.
During all this, Rintrah was a fully-engaged spectator—following me around like a dog, but taking it all in—like Rintrah. And then the questions and comments started.
“Is that your cat? Do you know that that cat can….” And whatever adventures the particular neighbor had witnessed would follow: “…climb that telephone pole,…jump from that roof to the other,…chase squirrels almost to the ends of branches….” There was also, along with admiration of his agility and daring, praise of his good looks and “personality.” Ours was not the sort of neighborhood where one knew many more people than those in the immediately adjoining houses. Still, it was a little embarrassing to be less well known than my cat, or, now, known only because of my cat. But I also took quiet pride in his renown, even if I was relegated to the penumbra of his fame.
Of course, I was, from my own observations, aware of his climbing prowess and audacity. In addition to his speed and agility climbing normal trees, I’d seen him scale the neighborhood pinnacles: two enormously tall spruces, rising up almost 100 feet apiece. Rintrah would climb three-quarters of the way up for fun, which took the primary form of tormenting crows. I observed them one particularly boisterous morning through binoculars. The crows, some of them as big as he, were clustered around him like so many black turkeys. While these otherwise intelligent birds cawed and squawked in a maddened frenzy, Rintrah sat, enjoying himself immensely, swaying on a cone-laden branch some sixty feet above the ground—imperturbable, and rubbing it in by pretending to ignore the crows while he blandly devoted himself to the ritual of licking his paws.
He loved not only to climb trees, but to walk on the roof of the house. The closer he was to the edge, some twenty feet above the ground, the better, and it was best of all when he had an audience, whether appreciative or panicked, or both. One afternoon, when my friends and I were playing poker on the back deck, Rintrah put on a roof-walking show that had six grown men either laughing nervously or urging him to “be careful,” or, better yet, to “come down.”
Another time, obviously performing for a group of us having summer drinks on the deck, he outdid himself, climaxing his standard tight-rope act by nonchalantly plopping down in a position in which he seemed to balance more than half his weight over the roof-edge. How he pulled off this gravity-defying illusion I have no idea, but he seemed to enjoy the result: cries of “O, my God!” and repeated pleading and cajoling, by name and especially by the women, to stop this madness at once, to take up a less precarious method of amusing himself. Amid this din, as in the case of the cacophony of the crows, Rintrah displayed his usual sang-froid, remaining serenely composed even when he appeared on the very verge of toppling into the abyss.
He actually did fall once. I was having the roof reshingled and, simultaneously, the lawn chemically treated. Rintrah had to be kept in and, naturally, was dying to get out. But I couldn’t even allow him on the upstairs deck, since from there he was accustomed to climbing up the angled eave onto the roof, and from there, down a tree, and out into the wide world. When he persisted in meowing to be let out on the deck, I decided it would be safe if I put a chaise longue on the deck rail, blocking his access to the slanted angle of the roof.
I set up what appeared to be a foolproof obstacle and opened the sliding glass door to the deck. Rintrah shot out and immediately jumped up on the rail. Only momentarily perplexed by the unexpected positioning of the chaise, he took it less as an obstacle than a challenge. Before I realized what he was up to, he had gauged the distance, about eight feet, and was in mid-leap, an amber and white arc. He actually succeeded in making the jump, only to lose his footing on the steeply pitched roof. He somersaulted to the ground, about 22 feet below, hit the grass, and started to take off. Fearful that he’d been injured, and, even if he hadn’t, that he’d poison himself by sampling the freshly sprayed grass, I yelled at the top of my lungs:
“Rintrah, you STOP!!
He’d never heard that volume and tone of voice from me, but he must have recognized something he did know about: command. When he froze, one paw suspended in mid-air, the two roofers, who had been startled by my yell, took in the scene. The one with the best view, astonished and amused, cried out to his partner:
“Hey, Jack! Did you see that? A cat that obeys!”
I raced down, and found Rintrah still frozen in place, all that vital energy enchanted to a stone. I gently picked him up in my arms. He seemed fine, a status confirmed by the vet, whose thorough examination revealed no internal injuries.
It was a record that couldn’t last. One rainy July evening, he failed to return from his post-prandial stroll. No matter how loudly I clapped and called, no Rintrah. I searched the neighborhood in vain, and even got up several times during the night, hoping I’d find him at the door or hanging on the screen. When he failed to appear the next morning, I typed up a Missing Cat Reward flyer and made over two hundred photocopies, enough for every mailbox, mail-slot, and telephone pole in the area.
For three days and three nights, nothing. With Beth at Cornell Law School, Norton euthanized after an illness, and Aoife on an extended visit with my mother, the house was all the more empty. In the pre-dawn hours of the fourth day, on a hunch, I decided to make an extensive search, covering several blocks, probing the darkness with a flashlight. It was a humid, partially moonlit night. Near a somewhat rundown house about a quarter-mile from mine, I spotted a bedraggled cat about Rintrah’s size. I approached, shone the light, and saw that it was not him.
As I was petting the poor thing, I was startled by a voice booming out of the darkness behind me: someone demanding to know what the hell I was doing nosing around his house. Glancing at the house (paint peeling, front steps crumbling), then, over my shoulder, at my inquisitor, I tried to explain about my lost cat, maybe he’d seen my flyer, etc. But the baseball-capped, shirtless character holding a can of beer was not really all that into rational dialogue. Less a home protector—a noble category that included Rintrah—than an irritable drunk spoiling for a fight, he continued to challenge me. I had more important matters to deal with, so I informed him—giving him my best imitation of a Rintrah stare—that if I were planning to rob a house in this neighborhood I wouldn’t choose a shit-pile like his. That caught him off guard, and I took advantage of his befuddlement to end the encounter and continue my search for Rintrah.
I didn’t find him that night. But the next afternoon, I received a phone call from a woman who lived about a block from me. A few minutes earlier, she told me, while she and her husband were entertaining Fourth of July guests on their back deck, she’d heard a single meow, just one, but unmistakable. They’d all tried repeatedly, she told me, to induce an encore in order to pinpoint the cat’s location, but the rest was silence. She remembered seeing my flyer, which included my phone number. Fortunately, she hadn’t thrown it out. I raced down the block.
When I got there, I called Rintrah’s name, and was overjoyed to be greeted by a medley of excited meows. He was under the house, and the only way to reach him was to pull up several boards of the deck. I asked permission, promised to pay for any damage, and pried up three boards. When I crawled under, there he was. I was relieved to see that he looked fine, even serene. Apparently, he had survived for four days on rainwater alone. He didn’t appear to be pinned down, but, clearly, he wasn’t able to move. I crawled to him, gathered him up in my arms, and returned to the upper world.
“Oh! We’ve seen this cat in the neighborhood,” exclaimed the woman who’d phoned me. “He’s beautiful. By the way, do you know that he can jump from one tree to another, almost like a squirrel.”
“I know, I know,” I said, smiling. After heartfelt expressions of gratitude and offers (which were refused) to pay the reward I’d advertised or at least remunerate them for any damage to the deck, I returned with the prodigal hero in my arms. When I laid out his food- and water-bowls and set him down near them, the problem was obvious. He was starving, but his hindquarters weren’t functioning. Off to the vet, where the problem was instantly diagnosed: a broken pelvis.
We speculated that Rintrah had been struck by a car that original rainy night. He always looked and calculated before crossing, so he’d probably slipped in the middle of the rain-slick road and taken a glancing hit. He’d then had the intelligence, strength, and willpower to crawl to safety under that deck.
They kept him overnight at the Emergency Hospital. The remainder of his healing was at home. In such cases, cats do their own mending. Following the doctor’s instructions, I first kept Rintrah in a closet in a basket (not the fur-lined one, long since discarded); then in my bedroom. Gradually, his range was extended to the whole of the second floor; then to the entire house. Though a good patient, Rintrah was not a cat to be cooped up longer than was strictly necessary. He longed to be outdoors, and was thrilled when I finally permitted him out on the back deck.
But the green world was beckoning. Within a week, he had made it up to the roof, then, a day or so later, managed to clamber down the tree and reenter his natural habitat. For several days, he restricted himself to the back yard. About three weeks into the healing regimen, I looked in the back and couldn’t see him. Not again, I thought. But when I called his name, he appeared atop the embankment separating my yard from that of a neighbor. I called again, and, jumping off the bank, he came bounding at fairly good speed, even with one hind leg splayed out to the side like a flying buttress. I was as happy as he was. Within a week he was running and climbing as if nothing had happened. My bold Rintrah was back.
Rintrah was back, and so was Aoife. The plan had been for my silver tabby to stay with my mother while I was in Ireland and England for two weeks the previous summer. But the hostess became so enamored of her little guest that the stay in the Bronx stretched out for months. The attachment was understandable. Not even my mother, knee-deep in felines, had ever encountered a cat as affectionate and giving as Aoife. But of course I missed her as well. And so, one day, Beth and I finally drove down to New York to retrieve the absentee. The day began with a long and pleasant lunch and ended with my mother’s face melting as if it were wax at the inevitable moment of separation. The fact that she had a dozen or two other cats to tide her over did not matter.
Aoife seemed to exist to give love, and, with one exception, she received it in equal measure—rebuffed only by Rintrah, who remained impervious to her obvious adoration. Once, when she had tentatively snuggled near him, thinking he was fully asleep, he lashed out at her, tearing the milky film that forms a cat’s third eye. It was the only time I was ever truly angry at him, and he knew it. Though Aoife seemed to forgive and forget, Rintrah still refused to let her get too close. But he never again struck her. And, as it happened, he would not have to endure her unrequited love much longer.
I was visiting friends in Massapequa, Long Island, when the young woman who was cat-sitting for me phoned. She was in tears. Aoife, she reported, was unresponsive, almost comatose. I told her to bring her to the Emergency Hospital, and took the first flight I could from JFK back to Syracuse.
When I arrived at the Hospital, it was near 9pm, closing time. Aoife was in a cage and had been, the vet told me, completely unresponsive for several hours. He explained the complicated medical problem. I drew close to the cage and repeated her name over and over. Finally, when I pressed my face to the cage and again called her name, she meowed weakly and crawled toward me. The doctor told me there was no hope whatever of saving her, but I couldn’t bring myself to have her put to sleep then and there, and I certainly couldn’t leave her alone in a cage in what would soon be a darkened building. When I said I wanted to take her home, the doctor agreed, but warned me what to expect.
He was astonishingly accurate. Everything he predicted would happen did happen. Back home, when I took Aoife out of the carrier, Rintrah seemed for once to behave gently around her. I carried her upstairs and laid her on the bed, where she promptly voided herself. After cleaning up, I nestled her on a soft towel and laid down with her. It would be a long night.
Several hours into the vigil, Aiofe suddenly struggled to her feet, gagging up blood. I wiped her mouth and carefully placed her on the floor. She began to wander in a disoriented circle. Once she was exhausted, I returned her to the towel next to me, and sat up stroking her and reading while she slept. Toward dawn, I felt a movement. She was trying to touch my face, a familiar gesture. Then she fell back to sleep. When, a few hours later, I took her to be euthanized, she just drifted from one sleep to another, but I still sobbed like a child.
Rintrah’s own first crisis came not long after. He was seventeen but as active as ever. The trouble was that, though he was eating ravenously, he was rapidly losing weight. Since he never exceeded eight pounds, the weight loss was dramatic. When I took him to the vet, she saw at once, despite the fact that the blood-work results were surprisingly good, that the problem involved the thyroid and was life-threatening. Rintrah’s condition was sufficiently perilous that she generously offered me her own cat’s appointment at Cornell’s renowned veterinarian center.
When I got him down to Beth’s apartment in Ithaca two days later he was continuing to drop several ounces a day. At little more than five pounds, he appeared close to death. The team at Cornell confirmed that it was a case of hyperthyroidism, and at first tried to dissuade me from wasting money on the expensive treatment required. The cat, after all, was seventeen and emaciated. I told them about his recent blood work and insisted that they run their own tests.
I was sitting in Beth’s apartment when, several hours later, the phone call came. It was from the lead vet, a beautiful young woman who could have been a runway model. They were all, she said, astonished at the positive results.
“This must be a very active animal. He may be seventeen, but he has the internal organs of a five or six-year old.” Active animal, indeed! I told her that they were dealing with a “champion athlete.” She laughed and said that, given their findings, if I was still willing to make the financial investment, they were prepared to go ahead with the required treatment. The treatment consisted of an injection of radioactive iodine directly into the thyroid, followed by a recuperation period of about ten days; cost: somewhere between $1,500 and $2,000. I gave them the green light.
All seemed to be going well. About four days into Rintrah’s stay at Cornell, I got a phone call from his lovely vet. She wanted to know if I had a special fondness for Dusty Springfield, in particular her recording of “I Only Want to Be with You.” My mind raced, ranging through a gamut of intriguing possibilities. I told her that I loved Dusty Springfield and especially that song, which was her first big hit. I’d just gotten a Dusty CD and often played, and immediately replayed, “I Only Want to Be with You.”
“Well, that explains it,” she said, “though it’s still pretty remarkable.” It turned out that they played looped music in the recuperation area, and that every time that particular song came up, Rintrah, still drowsy from the anesthesia, would perk up and look around—for me. I’m not claiming that, however smart and attached to me he may have been, Rintrah understood the lyrics of “I Only Want to Be with You,” but the song did seem to play a part in his speedy recovery, hastening his return home. In fact, that homecoming was so ahead of schedule that for a week or so afterward, I had to use rubber gloves to empty his litter pan; his feces were still emitting radiation. There’s nothing quite like a resilient cat, especially one—as in Rintrah’s case—able to combine the production of radioactive excrement with a discerning taste in popular music.
Shortly thereafter, whether because of his medical treatment or not, Rintrah’s attitude toward other animals changed radically. Though still lightning-quick and intrigued by the craft involved in hunting, he lost all desire to kill. Despite being belled, he could still catch birds. But now he would bring them to me on the deck, holding them so gently in his mouth that he rarely punctured the flesh. I would hold the traumatized bird in my hand for several minutes, stroking it until it would suddenly take off. Rintrah seemed to approve of the entire process.
Nor, unless pressed, was he interested any longer in staring down dogs and raccoons, or, thankfully, in chasing groundhogs in the back yard, even though they invariably fled. Why these formidable animals had never stood up to him remains, like so much about Rintrah, a mystery. Now, equally mysteriously, he had changed, his new attitude especially notable when it came to squirrels and mice.
He had always been a terror to squirrels, not only on the ground but at times even in their own domain, the trees. I had a feeding bin for them attached to my deck rail, but when Rintrah was out there with me, few dared to jump from the shade tree to the rail. Now, they became less cautious, until, finally, they were willing to feed from the bin even when he was sprawled on the glass table no more than two feet away. He would lie, head on paw, and watch as they ate. After awhile, some squirrels were audacious enough to actually turn their backs on him and burrow headfirst into the bin, their upraised bushy tails quivering with pleasure rather than fear. Somehow, they instinctively sensed that, by choice, he no longer presented a threat.
This new live-and-let-live philosophy reached its zenith, or its reductio ad absurdum, the night I came downstairs, turned on the kitchen light, and discovered Rintrah formally dining with a mouse. While he ate the wet food, the mouse was working the adjoining bowl of dry. Feeling almost apologetic for my intrusion on this tender moment between pals, I quietly retreated. The message could hardly be clearer. Not only had Rintrah officially retired from his mousing duties; he had become a collaborator. The next day I went to the store and bought two “humane” traps, hoping Rintrah would not be offended by what, however mercifully quick, remained an instrument of violence.
That he still retained the potential for ferocity was painfully demonstrated just days after his repast with the mouse. The fiancée of the young man mowing my lawn was raking up the cuttings when she spotted Rintrah relaxing in the sun. The only sign of advancing age—for he still looked as if he was in his early prime—was his diminished hearing. Unaware of this, the young woman approached him from the rear and petted him. Startled, Rintrah lashed out, slicing so deeply into her leather glove that he cut her hand fairly severely. I cleaned and bandaged it, apologizing profusely. “Oh, it’s alright,” she kept saying. But she never again showed up when Rintrah’s lawn was to be mowed.
Rintrah had just turned twenty-one and, though now nearly completely deaf, was as active as ever—still climbing trees vigorously and walking the very edge of the roof with the same acrobatic skill. Though his aristocratic bearing became even more pronounced with age, he was still playful and affectionate in his kittenish moods, still sleeping at night, when it was available, on the pillow next to mine. Only his hearing was impaired; otherwise he remained superbly fit. I had lost more than the metaphorical step or two over the two decades we had been together, but Rintrah still seemed largely untouched by time.
What I first noticed was that he was having some minor difficulty swallowing. Within a few days, it worsened and, palpating his throat, I discovered a small lump. It proved, as I feared, cancerous and, far worse, inoperable. He was soon unable to eat anything solid at all and the vet told me that, in a matter of days, his discomfort would turn to increasingly intense pain. My own pain in coming to a decision was only slightly lessened by the realization that, in fact, I had no choice.
When the appointed day arrived, a close friend accompanied me to the vet’s. Rintrah was somewhat weakened from lack of solid food, but otherwise very much his old self, alternately playful and serious. At one point, he stared at me with such intensity and affection that I considered taking him back home. That might have been best for me, not for him. The moment was approaching, and the vet, another of Rintrah’s admirers, gave us our final minutes alone. It is far too late in this history to suddenly become wary of anthropomorphizing. So I will state that everything in his demeanor suggested to me that, whether because of instinct or intelligence or his registration of growing discomfort, Rintrah was aware of what was about to happen, and was facing it with his characteristic mixture of concentration and stoic calm.
The vet returned and, after confirming that I was ready, inserted the needle. Rintrah’s last movement was to stretch the paw I was holding and gently touch me with his talons. For an instant, his eyes fixed on me with their old focused energy. Then their luminous green-gold glazed over and he just slipped away, his flesh slackening into stillness. And yet, at the moment of his transition into death, I felt more than a peaceful passing. I experienced a last surge of a passionately intense life-force—that portion of untamed wildness that had always animated Rintrah. Whether that uncanny feeling was real or imagined, I was reminded of the poem in which Robinson Jeffers gives a hawk, whose broken wing he had tried in vain to heal, “the lead gift in the twilight.”
What fell was relaxed,
Owl downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.
I phoned Beth, but aside from the friend who’d driven me to the vet’s, I didn’t want to share Rintrah’s passing with anyone else, at least not yet. She said she’d call me later to see how I was doing. I told her I’d certainly be home. But that evening I got a call from one of my friends, wanting to go out and have a beer. I tried to beg off, but he insisted. When we got to the bar, I discovered that a dozen others were already there, gathered around a large round table. Informed of what had happened by the friend who’d accompanied me to the vet’s, they had hastily organized a memorial to Rintrah. When I returned home a few hours later, Beth called, wondering where I’d been. I told her that my friends had surprised me and that we had “hoisted a few pints in tribute to Rintrah.”
“You know, Pat,” she said. “It might have something to do with you, too.” I suppose so. But at the time it seemed to me, and seems even today when I think about it, to have been mostly about Rintrah. I was of course closest to him, but they had all felt something of the impact of his personality, and been impressed by at least a few of the many things that made this brave and beautiful little cat so remarkable. In our coming together to commemorate Rintrah’s death and, even more, to honor his life and spirit, I felt less alone, just one of the mourners and celebrants at that table.
Even now, five years later, when I think of Rintrah, I feel a hollow in the heart. But in contrast to my mourning for Aoife, I’ve tried to resist filling that void with tears. Beth, who believes in fate or providence, always insisted that Rintrah and I were destined for each other. It may be so. Certainly, I feel gratitude for his mysterious coming to me, pride and joy in having been privileged to share with him a portion of our sojourn on earth. I think of him often, and at times vividly feel his presence. Such moments can be poignant. But there are, as Wordsworth has said, some thoughts that lie “too deep for tears.” I cried for Aoife in her final agony, and even now can get moist-eyed when I think of her little space on earth cancelled, her tender, doting heart distilled to dust. But to weep for Rintrah would be somehow, it’s always seemed to me, unworthy of him, a betrayal of his valiant spirit, at once gentle and stern, affectionate and fierce.
Housemate and pillow-sharer, tree-climber and ledge-dancer, little tiger fearless of crows, squirrels, dogs, and groundhogs; and, latterly, peacemaker rather than warrior-hunter….where is your spirit now? All that’s left of him physically is in the small tin canister next to Aoife’s on my mantel, containing the floury silt and crumbled bone to which all that once-irrepressible vitality and valor have been reduced, consumed away. The official “Certificate of Cremation”—dated Friday, January 30, 2004—assures me that he was cremated “individually.” Of that, Rintrah, nothing if not unique, would surely approve.
The tin that holds his fiery dust, long since tamed by death, has affixed to it a photograph of him as a kitten. Ears pricked, eyes alert and staring directly at the camera, he is lying on his tiny back, his oversized front paws held up like a boxer’s gloves. The picture was taken just days after he wandered into my classroom and into my life—a life he altered and, in some strange way, ennobled. His urn is necklaced by his green collar and the silver tag that bears his name—a name I revisit every day since it’s the password to most of my accounts. That was one way, however inadequately, to daily remind myself of the affection I was proud to receive from Rintrah for two decades, and to honor his own indomitable independence, his courage and daring.
Nothing else of him remains on earth; and though there have been other companions along the way, human and animal, there will never again be that particular, cherished incarnation, that self-same excellence. The tragedy of the unique is that, by definition, it occurs once, and once only. That crematory container is a cold and comfortless memento. But in my living memory, risen from that dust, he climbs and pounces and snuggles still, forever young and lithe in his lovely coat of white and amber—my bold Rintrah, preserved in the tabernacle of the heart.
—Patrick J. Keane
Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007). He is currently trying to puzzle out the pervasive presence of Wordsworth in almost everything he writes, and recording personal and literary reminiscences, one part of which is “Rintrah.”