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A Real-life Mystery Cat

by Sandy Reay



Apartment 1















McCavity the Mystery Cat under the bed
sneaking out from his safe place

McCavity the Mystery Cat under the table and chair
to another safe place




See more Times I Didn't Die


During the last semester of my senior year in college, I adopted a mellow gray tabby cat from a shelter and took him to a vet appointment, courtesy of the shelter. The veterinarian said the old guy had something incurable, and I should take him back.

I cried when I gave him back to the shelter as a trade-in. There were a few cats in cages. I'd seen one the week before, a sleek black and white tuxedo cat. This cat wanted nothing to do with people. He wasn't vicious; he didn't bite, scratch, or make noise. He just leaned against the back of the cage and recoiled when I tried to pet him.

A worker hauled him out of the cage.

"Where are you taking him?"

"To be euthanized. He's been here too long."

"I'll take him. Wow, he's heavier than he looks."

The veterinarian said the cat was healthy, weighed eighteen pounds, and was about a year and a half old. In the car, to and from the vet, he hid on the floor behind my seat and cried.

I spent the first few weeks looking for him in my two-room apartment. He hid under and behind furniture. If I wanted to pet him, I had to find him and pull him out. Each time, I blocked access to his newest hidey-hole.

My fiance named him McCavity, from T.S. Elliot's Book of Cats. Every time I looked for him, I said, "McCavity's not there."

McCavity managed to squeeze behind the ancient refrigerator and crawl into the vegetable bin. The only place my fiance and I hadn't looked was in the refrigerator. Thinking I was just going through the motions, feeling more sarcastic than investigative, I opened the refrigerator. "Not here." I closed the door.

"You didn't check the vegetable bin."

Just to prove him wrong, I pulled the bin open and let it go. McCavity mewed as the bin slammed shut. We crammed cardboard boxes behind the refrigerator to keep him out.

His last refuge was under a twin bed in the front room. I'd shoved it into the corner and used it as a couch. I crawled under the bed and pulled him out by his tail to pet him.

I had to hold him down. Each time I lifted my hand to pet him again, he flinched. His upper lip was split, probably from someone hitting him. My fiance said, “He meows with a lisp.”

After a few weeks, he'd sneak out at night and climb on my bed. If I moved any part of my body a fraction of an inch, he disappeared for the rest of the night.

My fiance helped me move out of my apartment. We loaded up both cars and hauled everything I owned to his apartment. After dinner, we went back for McCavity and one last check of the apartment. A helicopter was circling the area, and I heard some popping noises. A police officer said, "This area is closed off."

I couldn't leave my cat alone in the apartment; he needed to be fed. I needed to take my last few belongings and turn in my key. I parked a few blocks away, because several streets were blocked off, and we cut through spaces between buildings and down alleys to reach the back of my building. I found a few things I'd missed, which I stuffed in my purse, and picked up McCavity. My fiance grabbed the litter box and gave the key to my landlord. We walked up the street toward the police officer who had turned us away.

He pointed down the street. “Get out of sight. Now! That helicopter is searching for a sniper on the roof of one of the buildings. Someone's up there, shooting at people walking by.”

I was more concerned about losing my grip on McCavity.


Apartment 2

McCavity the Mystery Cat begging for food
feeling at home

McCavity the Mystery Cat on the cool kitchen floor
linoleum is cooler than a rug


When I went home to get married, I boarded McCavity in a kennel and picked him up a few days later. He leapt out of the cage into my arms and rode home with me, sitting up in my lap with his paws on the steering wheel, purring. I think he told me, "You came back for me. I love you."

When I sat to read or watch TV, I'd dangle my hand over the side of the couch, and he'd put his tail in my hand. If I grabbed it, he lifted his back legs and hung by his tail. Was that because I used to pull him out by his tail to pet him?

Our first apartment was stifling, hot, with noisy neighbors, on a busy street. I couldn't let him outside, and inside was an oven in the afternoon.

The coolest place in the apartment was the kitchen floor. McCavity used to run through the living room and dining room to throw himself down on the linoleum and slide on his stomach.

He led me to the kitchen and showed me his slide. Lying on his stomach, tail waving in the air, he mewed at me until I dragged him by his tail on the cool linoleum.

I took cool baths in the afternoon. He sat on the side of the tub and watched. After I got out, he patted the water and watched it drain. When it got down to two or three inches, he slid in and splashed around.

One day, he got in the bathtub with me. I never cut his claws, so I froze when he walked on my chest in the water. He never scratched me.



House 1


McCavity the Mystery Cat outside for the first time
his first taste of freedom
Note: thin yellow window ledge above lawn chair


McCavity the Mystery Cat learing about trees
climbing up was the easy part


We moved to a house on a quiet alley. McCavity had never been loose outside. He had a world to discover, starting with a huge tree in our front yard. He scrambled up. No problem. Coming down was another story. He cried to be rescued. My husband and I didn't have a ladder tall enough to reach him. We tried to talk him down, but he freaked out. We went back in the house, thinking he'd find his own way down, but he didn't. As a last resort, we stood under the tree, pointed, and laughed at him.

McCavity let go of the branch and dropped. About half way down, he grabbed for branches; he missed some and some broke, but they slowed him down. He lunged at the last branch, caught it, and hung on. He was still too high for us to reach him. My husband tried to get him to drop, thinking he could catch him, but McCavity made his way down the branch to the trunk and clawed his way down. Backward. He never got stuck up a tree again.

Once, he chased a squirrel up a tree and out onto the telephone line. He got three paws on the line before it started swinging in large arcs. The squirrel hung upside down, chattering at McCavity who was more concerned about backing off the wire into the tree.

McCavity learned how to be a loving pet. We learned how to raise a cat and nicknamed him “Cavy” (a Guinea pig).

McCavity also learned to fight. He came home with bite marks on his rear end. One swelled up. I carried him two blocks to a vet who'd probably opened his office when my mother was a toddler. The vet had me hold McCavity while he examined him. McCavity whimpered and mewed, but didn't try to escape. The vet decided that McCavity wouldn't hurt me if I held him while the vet cut the abscess open, drained it, and sterilized the wound. He didn't believe in using anesthesia, but he put in a stitch or two.

The vet was right: McCavity cried but didn't bite or scratch either of us. The vet was right about one more thing. Once McCavity started winning fights, the abscesses showed up on his shoulders and face instead of his butt.

We didn't know cats shouldn't eat chocolate. My husband and I usually ate a Sunday breakfast of chocolate donuts and milk. The first warm day of Spring, my husband put the milk in the fridge, I closed the box with the remaining ten donuts on the TV tray by a chair, and we went for a ride, leaving McCavity sleeping on the bed.

We ate lunch out and decided to have chocolate donuts and milk for dessert. McCavity was still sleeping on the bed when we returned. I opened the box which was on the TV tray where I'd left it. Every donut was lined up, the same way I'd left them, but no donut has as much of a molecule of chocolate on it. Cavy had licked them clean, lined them up, and shut the lid.

My husband and I used to walk to the Dairy Queen, two blocks down the alley, and carry home cheeseburgers and chocolate shakes. Cavy loved to lick the lids from the shakes. When he heard the noise the bags made when we walked down the alley, he ran to meet us and escorted us home, mewing his approval.

One day, when my husband was at work, I came down the alley with the DQ bags, but McCavity didn't meet me. I heard dogs barking and growling, and I raced home.

Two German Shepherds had cornered Cavy on the window ledge on the front porch. The dogs leapt, growled, and snapped at him. Cavy hissed and clawed at their faces. Before I reached the porch, he leapt on one dog's head and hooked his claws in the other dog's face. They raced toward a field where Queen Anne's lace had grown for years. Every fall, the tall stalks had bent over and dried, leaving a false floor. McCavity and the two Shepherds disappeared down a tunnel under the false floor. Animal screams filled the air.

I stood by the hole and called his name. I'd taught Cavy a come-home-for-dinner whistle. I used it that day.

The screams died. McCavity didn't appear.

I dragged my feet back to the alley and found the bags I'd dropped. My cheeseburger was cool, and most of the milkshake had run into the dirt. I cleaned up the mess and headed into the house, crying for my lost cat.

Many long minutes later, McCavity mewed at the door.

I let him in. He was covered with blood and gore: half of an eye, clumps of fur, and chunks of stringy tissue. I picked him up carefully and lowered him into warm water in the kitchen sink. He purred. I dried him off and examined him. He didn't have a scratch on him. No one ever saw either of the dogs again.


McCavity the Mystery Cat's rescued kitten
Little Bit found a place to hide


McCavity the Mystery Cat's adopted puppy
Savoir Faire, shorter than a normal-sized step


Cavy brought home kittens and cats for me to rescue. He would stand on his back legs to check their food bowls before he allowed me to take bowls outside to the strays. He brought home a kitten that could lie down in the palm of my hand. We called her Little Bit and fed her. Cavy raised her. When she grew big enough, we let her outside. She wandered off and got into trouble. As soon as Cavy heard her cries, he raced to the rescue, chased off her abusers and taught her to climb up and down trees. She never learned to avoid trouble, and Cavy never failed to rescue her.

He adopted a litter of puppies and babysat them while the mother roamed around the neighborhood. She was an English Setter; the pups' father was Husky and German Shepherd. Every afternoon, McCavity climbed in the box in the yard with nine pups and licked every one, his nose crinkled up as if he hated the way they smelled.

I took the runt, a black and white female. After she fell off a step and landed on her head in her water dish, we said, "Savoir Faire." (We liked sarcasm.) The name stuck. Cavy raised the pup with me. At eight weeks old, she was as big as Cavy, and she wanted to play. She danced around him, poked him with her nose, snapped her teeth, and nipped him. He tapped her on her nose. Once. She yelped and sat down. Four tiny red dots decorated the top of her nose. They stared at each other. Cavy never had to discipline her again.

Each time I brought home a new piece of furniture for the apartment, he stood next to it and mewed, his way of asking permission to jump on it. When he wanted to go out, he'd stand by the screen door and mew. If I didn't open the door fast enough, he'd stand on his back legs and smack the handle. The door would crash open and slam shut. He could have gone out, but waited for me to open the door for him.

One day, I found him in my neighbor's yard, staring up at a red-tailed hawk. The hawk was tied to a crossbar with leather straps. They both had the same expression, as if they were thinking, "Lunch." I whistled Cavy home and confined him in the house. When my neighbor got home from work, we arranged a schedule. McCavity could be out in the morning, and the hawk could be out in the afternoon.

Apparently, tying wild predatory birds to a perch was illegal in our small town. Police appeared, and the various game birds disappeared. McCavity had run of the alley again.

One day, a police officer showed up on my front porch. "Is this your cat?"

"Yes. Is he under arrest?"

"No, ma'am. But could you keep him home in the afternoon?" He waved toward the west end of the alley. "We stock the pond in the park, so the kids can fish. When it gets hot, the fish come up into the shade near the trees, and your cat goes in the water and kills them. The kids can't fish anymore."

"I'll whistle him home at noon."


McCavity the Mystery Cat sitting on the hood of a pickup truck

McCavity the Mystery Cat sitting on the door of a pickup truck

McCavity the Mystery Cat on the dash of the truck
sitting on the dash in the truck, curved tail in the air


Cavy liked to ride with us, and never tried to jump out of the car. My husband drove and Cavy sat in my lap, paws on the dash, looking out the windshield.

My next door neighbor complained about cat hair in his truck. One day, I spotted Cavy sitting on the hood of my neighbor's truck, watching the neighbor's front door. He eased around the outside rearview mirror into the cab through the open window and settled down on the dash.

I whistled him home.

After that, I started listening for delivery trucks in our driveway and behind the apartment building across the alley. If I heard one, I whistled for Cavy. One day, I heard a big truck and whistled for Cavy. He didn't come home. The sliding door on the back of the truck slammed down and the truck started down the alley.

I ran after it. "Wait! Wait!"

The driver stopped. I caught up, panting. "Sorry to bother you, but I think my cat is in the back of your truck."

He shook his head. "No. I didn't see a cat."

"Would you check, just to be sure?"

He sighed, climbed out of the cab, and pushed the door up. "See, no cat."

I whistled. Cavy's head popped up from behind some boxes, and he sauntered toward me, mewing. He jumped down to my shoulder.

"Thank you."

The driver looked at Cavy and at the packed cargo area and shook his head. "Glad you got your cat back."


House 2

McCavity the Mystery Cat the neighbors' grape arbor
Savoir Faire grown up, watching for drunk birds or cats


We moved again, to a ranch house with a big yard, where I fed a squirrel slivered almonds on the back porch roof. I was late coming home one day, and found the squirrel dead in the back yard at the foot of a tree. A chewed up and bloody McCavity sat next to it.

My backyard neighbors had a grape arbor which shaded their car. In the fall, when the grapes ripened and fell off the vines, the birds ate the fermenting grapes and got so drunk they couldn't fly. They staggered around on the driveway.

I had to keep our cats in the house. They'd watch the birds through the back yard screen, flicking their tails and mewing about the birds.


Two more moves. I bought a townhouse and took McCavity. The dog and a Siamese cat went to a house with my ex-husband. McCavity found himself locked in a tiny two-story house, forced to use a litter box, while I went to work during the day, attended classes at night, and partied on the weekends. He punished me by ripping up the carpet and screaming at me when I tried to sleep.

He won. I spent more time at home with him. He went outside during the day, when the weather was good.


Our last house


McCavity the Mystery Cat and two dogs
Dove, McCavity, and Savoir Faire


Savoir Faire let the Husky in her override her training at five years old. She learned to unlatch the yard gate, listen for my car, and con the neighbor across the street into putting her and Dove into the back yard before I came in from the garage. She also learned to untie knots, con an Airedale into digging a hole for her under the fence, and convince any visitor that she wouldn't run off if the front storm door was open. She died two days short of her sixteenth birthday.

Dove, a pure-bred collies, was part of a breeder's agreement. When she went into heat, she chewed on record album cardboard covers: only ones by Tom Rush. After she gave the breeder a litter of six puppies, I had her spayed. Even when she was asleep, I could think her name. She'd jump up and look around for me. She died fourteen months after Faire.


We moved out of the condo and into another old house on a quiet street. Cavy could go out when he wanted, and I whistled him in when it got dark. I brought Savoir Faire back from my ex-husband, and was given an eighteen-month-old female Collie, Dove.

All four of us slept on my king-size water bed. It had no baffles; any time any one of us got on or off the bed, we made waves. The dogs and I used to go to bed first. After we settled and I turned out the light, Cavy jumped on the foot of the bed, purring and making waves as he elephant-walked down the middle to his pillow.

When I got strep, Cavy wouldn't leave my side. He even used the litter box in the basement, which he hated. He was about fourteen years old and getting thinner. Three weeks later, when I finally beat the bug, we were both much thinner. I took him to the vet. He weighed six pounds.

"I had strep. He stayed with me. Could he have strep?"

"Cats don't get strep."

A few days later, Sunday morning, I found him in the basement, covered in feces and urine, paralyzed. All he could do was flop his head and cry. I cleaned him up (which he seemed to appreciate) and took him to an emergency vet.

That vet couldn't cure him. We put him down. The next day, the regular vet called. "I did more research. Can you bring McCavity in for antibiotics?"

"No. He died yesterday."

That night, Cavy came back. He jumped on the bed purring and made waves as he tromped to his pillow. The dogs and I freaked out. I turned on the light—no cat.

Cavy came back the next night, making waves and purring, and we jumped up again. The third night, we accepted our visitor.

McCavity the Ghost Cat came back, purring and making waves, every night for two weeks.

Each morning, I found a cat-size impression in his pillow.