I was getting dressed for a funeral when the cat bolted into the bathroom through the cat door. Monkey is a self-possessed and elegant creature, even among cats. She almost never chirps or meows. And she’s a deft hunter, feared by the furred, feathered, or scaled things of a certain size who risk being dropped on our kitchen floor dead, or nearly so, after encountering her. When she banged into the bathroom, she met my eyes and yowled twice. Her tail was bottlebrushed, and she shook her head as though to rid herself of cobwebs between her ears. Then she took off for the closet.
We have other cats: a barn cat who doesn’t venture up to the house and a congenial, fat orange male who sets his tail at a jaunty angle and ambles through life like the party guest everyone’s happy to see. But Monkey is my cat. She’s fond of others in the family, but I’m the one whose lap she seeks out most. One afternoon, when my husband, Michael, still taught prekindergarten at Marfa Elementary, he took me to a large, dense bush on the school playground. “The kids found this today,” he said, and he pulled the branches apart. Three wee kittens stared back at me, eye-level. “Take one.” I reached for the closest kitten, the feral stripy baby who, unlike the others, regarded me without flattened ears or hisses. Such a tiny beast. Her heart thumped so boldly in my hands.
I had that moment in mind when I reached for her in the closet. This time, I parted hanging shirts to find her hunched on a stack of sweaters, winking one eye rapidly. I felt her all over. She looked fine. In every other animal emergency we’ve had, the signs were obvious: a horse down and thrashing, a gaping wound needing stitches, an old dog’s failing hind legs. With Monkey, nothing was amiss. No blood, no gash, no torn ear. Yet I knew, on some immediate and instinctive level, that something was terribly wrong. I dumped old sneakers out of a Rubbermaid tub, swaddled the cat in a towel, placed her inside, and set off on the twenty-mile drive to the vet. Once I arrived, the vet staff listened politely. No, nothing’s visibly wrong with her, I told them. But something’s wrong.
Only when I got home did I realize that I was still half dressed for the funeral, half in pajamas. In the afternoon the vet called to say the cat’s cheek had swelled, but that was all. They’d keep her overnight just in case. The phone rang early the next day. “Monkey’s paralyzed. She can only move the tip of her tail.”
It was the work of a rattlesnake, the vet said, though which kind she couldn’t say. Mojave rattler bites can result in paralysis but little swelling. Western diamondback bites can produce swelling but no paralysis. Or it could be one of the lesser seen rattlers, like a black-tailed rattler, a rock rattler, or a prairie rattler. Who knows?
Lots of people here have rattler stories. Friends of ours who ranch south of Marfa have lost eleven horses in three years to rattlesnakes. My farrier’s promising rope horse died last summer from a bite, despite several days of veterinary care. Horses are particularly vulnerable, typically bitten on the muzzle while grazing. Horses only breathe through their nose, so when a snake bite causes their nostrils to swell shut, they are unable to breathe at all. It is not an easy way to go.
When I returned to the vet’s office after her call, my little cat was atop a heating pad and covered with towels. An IV dripping saline fluid snaked from a front leg. Her eyes were glassy and smeared with medicated goo to keep them moist. Her mouth was slightly open, and her head tipped gently off the side of the towel. She could neither blink nor swallow. “Shouldn’t we put her down?” I asked the vet. “Not yet,” she said. “I think she has a chance.”
But Monkey, that climber of trees and fierce taker of life, whose mouth has known what it is to crush feather and bone, turned after a few minutes and nosed her way back inside.
This was hard to believe. It seemed to take Monkey a supreme effort to lift and lower her diaphragm to breathe. “Can she see?” I asked. “Yes,” said the vet. I touched Monkey’s head. Very faintly, she began to purr. The tip of her tail twitched furiously. “See, she’s in there,” said the vet. “She has a chance.”
The snake had bitten Monkey on the right cheek, and the resultant swelling made her petite head large and misshapen. She drooled onto the towel. Always, her tail twitched. She received saline fluid, potassium, and other medicine, but no antivenin; antivenin exists, but it’s most effective if the type of snake is known. And so she lay there, immobile but for her jerky tail, as helpless a thing as I have ever seen.
We visited her at the vet’s office daily, sometimes twice a day. We rubbed her head, and when it seemed as if she’d had enough petting, we talked to her. I don’t often talk to my animals, but during these visits, I crooned to Monkey as if she were an infant child. “My sweet cat,” I told her again and again. Since she was unable to close her eyes, I asked her if she slept. And if she slept, did she dream? I wondered, too, about the content of those dreams. Did she dream of a serpent’s strike? Was the snake a known nemesis? Did she dream about home? And I wondered about the event itself. Had she tried to hunt the snake and it struck? Or did they surprise each other while wending through the fall’s tall, dry grama grass?
One morning, a few days in, the vet called. On her own, Monkey had moved to the back of her cage. At my arrival that day, she lifted her head a few degrees, then set it down again. Progress came quickly thereafter. The vet staff discovered her sitting, using the cage wall to keep propped up. At some point, when no one was looking, she used her litter box. Michael and I and our son, Huck, visited and we adjusted her IV line and sat in a row on the tile floor. She staggered across our laps like a kitten learning to walk, and then collapsed so part of her touched each of us. Relief at seeing the three of us coursed almost palpably from her body.
The bite on her cheek had ulcerated the interior of her mouth. The staff left different soft foods in her cage, trying to entice her to eat. Five days went by without eating, then six. Finally, again when no one was looking, she downed an entire can of tuna. On the seventh day, the vet found Monkey standing in her cage, pulling at the bars with a front foot. “Come get your cat,” the vet sang happily into the phone. “She wants to go home.”
At home, she suffered enthusiastic greetings from the dogs and gimped stiffly from room to room, inspecting the place. She was very, very thin. Her hind legs did not always cooperate, and she appeared to have to think about blinking before she actually blinked. But in a remarkably short period of time, Monkey’s ability to gauge jumps improved. We’d leave the house and return to find her on progressively higher surfaces: the fluffy dog bed, the comfy chair, our bed. She stopped drooling. After her two-week convalescence inside the house, per the vet’s recommendation, we showed her the open cat door. She ventured outside and sunned herself. But Monkey, that climber of trees and fierce taker of life, whose mouth has known what it is to crush feather and bone, turned after a few minutes and nosed her way back inside.
And inside is where she has pretty much stayed. All her life Monkey has been the most independent creature we’ve owned, pleased to share our space but driven to seek adventure on terms beyond us, intimate with our yard and its inhabitants in ways we’ll never be. The snakebite changed her, altered her desires. Six months ago, she would’ve crouched, lion-like, stalking the covey of blue quail dumbly pecking out lunch in our yard. Today, though, she settles on the windowsill near where I write, content to watch them through the glass and purr, her mighty claws concealed.