My first wife had always wanted a black and white cat. It was to be named Atticus, after Atticus Finch, the father of Scout and Jem in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The movie with Gregory Peck was a childhood favorite of hers. Perhaps growing up without a father engendered her affection for Atticus, as she lost her father at 3 years old. She picked him as an ideal, and what an ideal! The consummate father figure of impeccable morality: both the novel and the movie nail his character dead-on. His morality just is, as a child would see it, for both the novel and movie are spoken and viewed from his daughter’s Scout’s point of view.
We got the cat in 2008. He was a frightfully small figure—less than a pound. A mere fist in size. We wondered if we had procured him from his litter too soon, he was so small. It wasn’t long before we noticed his habitual kneading of pillows: he would become glazy-eyed, nose forward, his eyes squinting in some sort of feline psycho-oral catatonia, as his paws kneaded the pillow surface, left, right, as though preparing a rack of teats from the mother he had too soon parted from for healthy development. Though this behavior waned, it never disappeared completely until we had to have Atticus destroyed.
Immersed in a home of several cats, he appeared to develop normally and healthily. He became large, but not heavy. He was not de-clawed. He had gotten all his kitten’s shots. He became a talker, booping, beeping, trilling, like some sort of feline R2-D2. He was much loved among the family and other cats.
In 2011, another cat of the house named Inigo, a gorgeous, orange short-haired male, snuck into the internal garage off the furnace room. I shouted him back inside. In moments I heard a terrific cat fight and chase. Atticus had gone feral. He unrelentingly pursued and attacked Inigo with a ferocity that shocked us all. Inigo was stunned and never recovered. Neither could be allowed in the same room again. I’ve wondered whether Inigo had picked up some foreign scent that triggered Atticus’s viciousness; that and my shout were enough somehow to single out Inigo as an enemy of the family that was to be relentlessly terrorized. Poor Inigo, gentle to the end, hid under our bed and would not emerge unless the door was shut. Even then he preferred the security of the under-bed’s darkness. Soon he became a regular defecator in the room. In a matter of a few weeks all hope of reconciliation was lost. He had to be destroyed for his own peace of mind and for the sanitary maintenance of our bedroom. I wept heavily for him; it seemed so unfair to go this way, he in the peak of health and little over ten years old. Atticus seemed to return to a sense of normality. But the sudden and intense hatred of this perceived enemy on Atticus’s part remained an enigmatic disturbance in an otherwise normal cathood.
Atticus’s arrival overlapped the dissolution of my first marriage. Yet as I moved in and out of the home trying to sort out my feelings for the doomed marriage, he remained a stolid figure of friendliness and welcome. Eventually, my marriage divorced and annulled, my new bride and I bought the house from my ex-wife and moved in. Atticus took to her seamlessly. But my new wife’s stay was short-lived. In less than three weeks she returned to South Africa to wait out the long visa and green card process necessary for her to be allowed permanent American residence. Atticus was a great comfort to me in the long months that stretched out ahead, summer, fall, into December. He slept with me night and day, nap times, bed time—and computer lap time.
When my new bride returned we seemed to pick up the pieces seamlessly again. When I worked, he was her constant companion. She re-introduced him to playing with pet toys and spent many hours of joy with his R2D2-like chirps and tones accompanying their games. He slept at our feet each night.
In the second weekend of February, 2013, Atticus on my lap, my bride at my side, she and I cuddled and laughed. And laughed! We each got into one of those hysterical, breath-catching laugh attacks that silly lovers enjoy. The mirth abated and she stood. To our amazement, Atticus sprung down from my lap and seemed terrified. His tail was puffed and engorged. He seemed frightened and confused, pacing around and inconsolable for several puzzling minutes. Usually a frightened cat’s puff-tail is quickly recompressed after a few strokes of assurance. This did not happen for Atticus; he maintained alarm for several minutes, perhaps shocked by our loud laughing (screeching, even) that he interpreted as danger, as trouble.
The next day was Monday. While I was at work, my bride vacuumed a portion of the carpet seldom reached. He had been kneading a pillow again. Did she kick up an old Inigo pheromone dormant for almost two years? She had sat. When she stood, he attacked her legs with the same feral intensity he had done to Inigo. He did this on three successive occasions. When I came home, my bride was confused, very frightened, and in occasional tears of confused shock. Below you see the results, one week later. Those are two fang-hole punctures, center right. The darkened skin is from the grip of his jaws on her calf. Other front and rear scratches and more subtle bruising indicate the intensity of his intent to annihilate my bride, his irrationally perceived enemy.
For the remainder of the evening Atticus either beeped apologetically, or he switched into feral-mode. Twice more that evening he tried to attack my bride. I had to keep a plastic clothes hanger on me at all times for fear of his sudden turn-arounds.
Yet Atticus’s lucid moments, even the apologetic meowing he sometimes issued, gave us a semblance of hope. Hoping for a passing of the feral snap, we went to bed with Atticus at his usual spot near my feet. As we neared slumber in our arms, I felt the eerie prowling of Atticus at my feet. He carefully treaded across my legs. Then he sprang: he lunged at my bride’s head, screeching in wild frenzy. I knocked him away. He lunged again! I knocked him away again. He spent the rest of the night locked away in our basement.
And so it was that we agreed that his periodic madness was beyond redemption. I recall once, the morning of his last day, how he looked into our bedroom. He stood erect and was trying to see past my shoulder to where my bride lie covered under the bed sheets in fear. His eyes were narrowed and yellow. His head jerked slightly side to side as he tried to detect her movement: he was in predatory mode.
Both reluctantly for his sake and yet with determination to protect my bride, I booked an appointment with our local vet. Too large for our pet carrier, we boxed and sealed him in a shipping cardboard box with a few air holes we had rigged, and an old towel. Our vet told us that he has seen this before, rarely with dogs and more commonly with cats. He called it cat schizophrenia. By the time we left at 11 AM after consultations and explanations to our vet, he was gone. We got a call a few days later to say he had not had rabies.
I wept in the car lot of the vet’s clinic copiously, then left. The shock and mystery of the sudden feral ferocity of Atticus—almost against his own will, his own affection and sense of love for his masters—still haunted us for days. We are over the worst now and adjusting to a catless, petless house.