Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Hair's Breadth

I washed my hands quickly before taking my first bite of dinner; the stink of unknown garbage bins and dung piles still clung to my fingers, but I didn't have the heart to wash it off completely. Our dog Yuri paced near our front door, his tongue hanging out. His eyes were bright and eager. I took him by his chain; my hand went for a portion of the chain near his collar, so that he almost choked. In my mind I could remember the tightness of my fingers around his throat just minutes before; they were not nearly so tight as his teeth had been around the kitten's body.

Yuri had been making a fuss in the garage. When I looked out of the sala's high window I saw a cat rooting in the drainage hole in front of our gate; I assumed that it was the source of his agitation, and would have dismissed it if not for my curiosity. I stepped out of the house and found him scrabbling and barking in a corner of the garage, far from where the cat was trying to get at the fish bones my mother had thrown out. As I got closer to him I finally saw what he was getting worked up about: a little white-and-gray-striped kitten, barely a month old, toeing the narrow space beneath our gate. It moved slowly, blithely unaware of Yuri's excited barking. I wanted to catch it up and play with it; I imagined how its fur would feel on my skin, if it would scratch or bite me, if it would purr. Briefly I began to imagine what would happen if Yuri got to it. It was small enough to fit under the gate with a little effort, and it seemed to be trying to do just that. The thought didn't continue into my mind, however; instead, it transcended the hair's breadth from possibility into reality as the kitten became a gray blur that Yuri was savagely trying to crush in his jaws.

It took me a full two seconds before I could grab onto Yuri and try to prevent him from killing the kitten. Yuri growled at me - it was the kind of growl he used when he was enjoying a meal or a favorite bone and didn't want any interference. The sight of his exposed teeth kept me from forcing his mouth open. The kitten's struggles grew weaker, until I was certain that it was no longer moving. There was a stink, a terribly familiar stink that reminded me of the cats that pillaged the garbage cans of my dormitory years ago. Another thought, this time born from cold fact, thudded forcefully into my head. I dug my fingers into Yuri's throat, cried "No!" and "Ma!". My mother's arrival and the successful attempt to remove the kitten from Yuri's grip were like a grim ritual that simply needed to be completed. The kitten's limp body had a puncture wound the size of a baby's fingertip near its neck, and its underbelly was streaked with bright red. It was the kind of red I was used to seeing in movies, the kind that I immediately thought of as fake. It looked garishly real as the kitten's lifeless head and limbs lolled in my mother's hand. A part of me was still trying to will it to move, that small part that had realized ahead of the rest of me how much danger the kitten had been in, and how much I could have done if I had been quicker. For several seconds I felt utterly useless.

Mild anger gave me thoughts of kicking and slapping Yuri to ease my disappointment; I was surprised at how I couldn't feel my old affection for the dog who had been with my family for over seven years. It took some time for me to acknowledge the power of Yuri's instincts, which awakened whenever a cat happened to come within 10 meters of our house. He couldn't help himself.

Possibilities, however, continued to play in my mind - my skin allergies acting up due to the nearly invisible ticks that inhabit a cat's fur, the feeling of eight tiny claws tentatively digging into my palm, the opaque blue of a young kitten's unfocused eyes trying to see my own. I had thought of reaching through the gate's steel bars to take the kitten; the moment of indecision that stalled the movement from thought to action had sealed its fate. I could only hope that, should another event requiring quick thinking arise, my thoughts will not be so sluggish in crossing the hair's breadth between possibility and reality.