Cat arose from his nap and stretched. The marble and sandstone sarcophagi were cool at best, cold at worst, but they provided an elevated sleeping platform for Cat to doze upon. They held the warmth of the Alexandria sun into the evening and the cool of the morning well into the heat of the day.
Cat always awoke overlooking the entrance to the catacombs, and his small territory of ancient graves. This pleased him. Leaping from his perch, he set about the day’s routine of inspection, extermination, communication and reflection. Trotting lithely, he began a weaving pathway through the crypts.
Cat passed the crypt of Ahmed of Lycus. Ahmed had been a healer in life. His cartouche now worn and smoothed. A string of glyphs defined the highpoints of his life and his family. Cat remembered him as a kind man who once gave him a bowl of goat’s milk. Ahmed scratched Cat’s ears as he slowly lapped the milk and discovered the scars of long forgotten battles with mice and snakes. Chuckling, Ahmed complimented Cat on his longevity.
“Ah, my friend Cat, you have had many adventures I see. How many lives have you already used I wonder?”
Cat remembered hunting around Ahmed’s house for the years after, until Ahmed died and was brought to the catacomb. The mice were tender and bountiful, and he remembered Ahmed with fondness for the milk and the caress. One of Cat’s favorite things was to have his ears scratched and rubbed. The answer to Ahmed’s question was two lives, but Cat worried not about that.
A small field mouse appeared from his nest beneath Alexander of Dennis’ crypt. The mouse was young, barely weaned from its mother. Tender though it would be, Cat was not interested in an early morning snack. Marking the spot in his mind, he knew that the mouse would become a meal soon. Waiting too long would let the mouse grow tough. Tough mice were unsatisfying to Cat. After centuries of eating mice, he preferred to eat only the tenderest and freshest of mice. He learned from long experience that not only did they taste better; they were easier to capture. Old mice bit and scratched and they were tough and stringy. Younger mice were less wary, more complacent and easier to capture. Occasionally, Cat would play with one for a time. He would hold it down, let it up, give it hope and repeat the process for long minutes. At the end, he would often let the mouse escape. He felt it was a reward for the entertainment, a thank you for the amusement. Cat knew that eventually the mouse would be his. There was no rush.
He passed the tomb of Marcus Augustus the warrior. He came ashore in Egypt with the first Roman legions. The fighting was brief and listless. Marcus settled in Alexandria and kept the peace for twelve years before completing his term of enlistment. Afterwards, Marcus became a baker, supplying bread to the people. Marcus met Cat in the alley behind his oven. Cat was licking his front paws of the blood from the latest mouse.
“Well Cat, I see that the war goes on without me. Your hunting is good? Did the mouse fight well? Did he test your mettle? “Marcus laughed softly as he hefted Cat. “Maybe I can offer you a bit of bread to go with your meat.” Cat purred contentedly as Marcus carried him into the warm bakery. “Mr. Cat, I thank you for eating the mice that try to get my flour and bread.” Reaching onto the counter, Marcus held out a piece of freshly baked bread for Cat. Cat took it tentatively and chewed reflexively. “So, you like my bread, do you? Well, you catch the mice and I will bake the bread. I foresee a long and happy relationship for the two of us. But not too much bread for you, now, or you won’t keep the mice away!” Cat remembered the cholera epidemic two years later that killed Marcus and his family. That ended the bread for Cat, but not the mice.
A bus pulled into the parking lot of the Catacomb. Cat jumped up onto the headstone of Abdul the Turk. Abdul died in a bombing several years ago. Although Abdul was a recent addition to the neighborhood, Cat felt close to Abdul. Abdul was caught out of time on a business trip and would spend eternity far from home. Cat was caught out of time and would spend eternity with the dead. They were brothers of a sort.
Noisy people spilled from the metal monster. Cat did not like the buses that came daily. They smelled bad, they were loud, and the vibrations upset the sleeping dead. Cat did like the people, though. Often, they would pet him, give him little bits of food left over from their snacks and take his picture posed on a tombstone or crypt. Cat always liked people, which was mainly why he stayed here in the cemetery.
Cat was born in the thirtieth year of the reign of Ramses the second. Cat never met the Pharaoh. He was intimately connected to the great King. Cat’s mother and father met deep within the bowels of the Great Pyramid. They accompanied workers who were painting the inner most chamber, the one where the sarcophagus would reside for eternity. The two mated in the center of the room. Cat became the only offspring of this joining. That was odd. The unique properties of the pyramid influenced the genes, imbuing Cat with a uniquely limitless lifetime. His parents separated and long since turned to dust. Cat continued with his long, fruitful life.
Cat had many mates through the centuries and sired many offspring. None of his offspring retained the longevity with which Cat was blessed. He long since forgot most of his sons and daughters in the depths of history. All he truly remembered were the mice.
Cat saw the realms of hundreds of rulers come and go. He watched the steady progression of mankind from the Early Kingdom until the present day. Along the way, he met living people from every country and continent. Here at the catacomb lay those who could not return home, or for whom Egypt was home. It made little difference to Cat, as all were welcome here. The main difference to Cat was that the living made more noise than the dead. Of course, the living would offer him a tidbit now and then, but that hardly counted any more. Cat had enough food sources that, unless the offering was particularly succulent, he would often refuse it. People would offer him bread or meat from their sandwiches. Cat would sniff it expectantly only to reject most as being too mundane for his sophisticated palate. However, if someone offered him a sweet, he accepted it eagerly. Mice were not sweet, and the occasional sugary morsel was welcome. Children were the most likely to offer him such delicacies. Adults were far too practical.
The group of people from the noisy bus clustered at the entrance to the catacomb. They listened patiently as one of them told the story of the site, the people whose bones were stacked within and the significance of the many crypts above. Several small children ran throughout the cemetery dodging around headstones and hiding behind crypts. Their weary parents were happy for the respite from supervising them. Cat was moderately annoyed, as the ruckus frightened the mice. But he knew they would emerge again at dusk to forage for their suppers. Besides, maybe one of the little ones would offer him a sweet treat.
The group entered the catacomb. Cat followed them as they meandered slowly through the aisles. Centuries of bones were stacked neatly in alcoves of all shapes and sizes. Graffiti and epitaphs adorned the walls. “Here lies Farouk. May he rest eternally.” “Pierre Gaston, 1842.” “Roger Bourke-White, 1941.” Dozens of other statements from dozens of times were chiseled into the rock and painted on boards. The people would stop and stare. Some would touch the carvings, and a few would touch the bones. Cat took the opportunity to visit his friends in the crypt and make certain they were comfortable. The other visitors spoke little as they walked, ignoring the many spirits and memories hanging redolent in the air. Cat ran ahead out of the catacomb to take up his usual place on the bench by the exit. He found this vantage place to be the best for gathering pats and treats from the visitors.
Today, there were two men sitting on his favorite bench. One was large, gray haired and older. The other was slim, brown haired and younger. The two were engrossed in conversation as Cat approached. Cat did not see any food, but often the pockets contained sweet treats. He put on his friendly, hungry face and approached the men.
“Thanks for bringing me along on your trip, son. It’s nice to get out and see the world a little.”
“Happy to pay a little back, Dad. You spend far too much time locked up in that house since mom died. I’m glad you agreed to get out.”
“Honestly, it’s not something I was looking forward to, son. I find that I just feel better at home with all your mother’s things and her presence. The world is a much scarier place when you’re old and alone.”
“Well, dad, you aren’t alone. You have Sharon and me, and your friends in the neighborhood. You’ve been there, what, thirty years now?”
“Thirty-three in September. Well hello there! You look like a nice ole cat. I wonder if you would like some of my breakfast coffee cake?”
As Cat expected, the older man held out a small bit of something that smelled sweet. Cat sniffed it once and then took it gently from the man’s hand. Every other man would have reached out to pet Cat, but this man left his hand where it was. Curious, Cat nudged his hand. The man then reached out and scratched behind Cat’s ear. Cat purred softly and leaned into the fingers.
“Looks like you found a friend, dad.” The younger man reached into his pocket. Cat eyed him warily from his peripheral vision, unwilling to surrender the joy of the ear massage. He relaxed when he saw the younger man slowly hand over more sweets to the older man. It would be a good day for Cat.
“Yeah, it’s a shame that your mother was always allergic to cats. You know we had a lot of dogs when you two were growing up. We never had cats because she broke out in a rash. I never missed cats as companions, but it’s still a shame.”
“You could adopt a cat now,” said the younger man. “It would do you good to have someone to take care of, to worry about. You should think about it when you get home.”
“Yeah, and then you’ll end up reading about the crazy old man that had a hundred and twenty cats living in his house.”
“Why not just start with one?”
“You have to get back into life a bit, dad. You’ve got at least ten or fifteen years left before you even need to think about the end. If you don’t get out and enjoy life, it’s like you decided to sentence yourself to an undeserved prison term. Let yourself out of this self-imposed jail.”
“You don’t understand John, I was married to your mother for almost forty years. I don’t want to get out in the world again. It’s too scary, too different. Without your mother around it’s like I lost my strength and purpose. There’s nothing that I want to see without her, nowhere I want to go without her.”
Cat understood the problem. Early in his life, he’d had several mates that he missed when they died. He did not understand that he would continue to live far beyond their memory, but he did. Cat crawled up in the man’s lap and purred loudly and continuously.
“Look at that, dad. A strange cat in a cemetery in Egypt can see that you have a lot left to give.”
“Yeah, coffee cake” snorted the older man. He handed over another piece of the sweet and Cat accepted the treat with a loud purr.
“The cat is in your lap, letting you pet him. I don’t think the crumb cake has anything to do with it. You always taught me that animals are good judges of people. Why not accept this cat’s judgment of you as a caring giving person worthy of his companionship? Are you suddenly going to tell me that animals aren’t good judges of people? Clearly you’re exuding an aura that the cat picked up.”
The two men sat silently for a while. Cat continued to purr and to accept the ear scratches and rubs. He could sense the older man’s internal battle. He wanted to live in life again, but he couldn’t get past the feeling that he was betraying his mate by going on. The guilt for living longer than his mate was familiar to Cat. Centuries ago, he came to understand that all beings live longer than other beings, but not as long as still other beings. Cat had outlived armies of cats, nations of mice and still he continued. His days were full of the thrill of the hunt and the satisfaction of a good meal. He met people and watched the cemetery. He was a consistent presence that the man could not match, but the man could find other meaning in his days.
“I don’t know John,” said the older man. “your mother and I had a long love affair. I put everything into it, and so did your mother. I don’t know that I can do that again.”
“You can’t.” said John directly. “But you can do something different. The love and relationship you had with Mom will never be duplicated. But you can create a new one. A different one. Just like we have different buildings, different clothing, different everything from the people who built the monuments we’ve been seeing the last couple of days. Leave your monument with Mom and build something new.”
Cat listened to the conversation. He knew that humans were more complicated than he was; never-the-less some things transcend species. Through slitted eyes Cat caught a movement in front of him. A small green lizard stepped from behind the wall and was sunning himself on the walkway. In a flash, he knew what he should do. Cat eyed the distance, sniffed and leapt from the man’s lap. In one smooth move, practiced for centuries, he landed on the lizard, crushing its spine. With a quick flick of his paw the lizard was dead.
“Whoa, cat” exclaimed the old man.
“Looks like he likes lizard better than coffee cake” laughed John. “Life goes on for the Cat, even here in the cemetery.”
The old man brushed off his lap and shook his head. “Yeah, I guess life does go on. Maybe this is an omen or a sign or something. We’ve spent the last four days looking at the death rituals of the Egyptians, the pyramids, the sarcophagi and some of the rites they practiced. But at the end of the day, they went on.”
“You need to go on too, Dad. Mom would understand, and she’ll always be there when you want her to be there. But you need to rejoin life.”
Cat picked up the lizard and shook it gently. Turning he returned to the two men and jumped up in the old man’s lap again. He placed the lizard on the man’s leg and looked up.
“Why thank you, Mr. Cat” said the old man. “I don’t eat lizard, but I thank you for your kindness. May I offer you this fine lizard as a snack?”
Cat understood. He knew from the start that he would get the lizard one way or another. But the ceremony was important. He had taken from the man, had given to the man, and shared with the man. Cat hoped that the simple actions here in cemetery would convince the man to find his meaning in this interaction with another being. The man would never know Cat’s life story, nor would Cat know the man’s story. But they shared a meal together. From such simple building blocks the complications of life could begin.
“Maybe you’re right, John. If this cat can see enough value in me and in life to share his meal with me, maybe there’s hope for me, yet.” He reached out to scratch the cat’s ear again. Cat accepted the attention for a moment, then hearing the rest of the group returning, he jumped down and trotted away to the headstone for Yousef Alid. Yousef was a new tenant, having arrived a year ago. He died in town in a demonstration against the latest government. Cat couldn’t care less about the government, but he was happy to welcome Yousef to the cemetery. From atop the headstone, Cat swallowed the lizard in three small bites and stretched out in the sun.
“There you are!” said a perky brunette woman. “The catacombs were amazing! I’m sorry you couldn’t join us.”
The younger man stood up and put his arm around the woman. “Dad made a friend,” he said. “See that cat over there? He jumped up in Dad’s lap for pets. Then he jumped down and grabbed a lizard just as neat as you could want. The lizard never even saw him coming. Instead of eating the lizard, the cat brought it over to dad and laid it on his lap. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
“Really Tom?” she asked the older man.
“Yep, the cat and I shared some quality time together. He kind of made me see things a little differently. Maybe it is time for me to get back into life. We’ll see.”
Cat watched as the leader of the group rounded everyone up and headed them toward the bus. All the people got into the noisy, smelly machine. The last one to board was Tom, Cat’s new friend. As Tom stepped onto the first step, he turned and looked towards Cat. The two looked into each other’s eyes across the cemetery. The man realized that he was looking across a chasm separating his past from his future. Cat realized that he was getting hungry again. The door closed behind the man and the bus drove away.
Cat was alone in the cemetery again. Alone with his friends and the mice and lizards. He remembered the young mouse of this morning and checked the sun. It would be a while before the mice would be out to look for their dinners. Cat could wait. He had all the time in the world.