Cleopatra in Cat Skin
By Don Beaudreau
Thousands of years ago, cats were worshipped as gods. Cats have never forgotten this. Especially in Baghdad by the Bay, Puerto Vallarta. Mexico.
Cat worshipping began in that city around the time Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton blew into town 60 years ago, drank up all the booze, and started popping eyeballs internationally. The paparazzi and smut writers provided incessant updates on their tomfoolery. Yes, there is certainly nothing like a bit of scandal to turn a sleepy fishing village into Boom-Boom Town — thereby providing a perfect place for people who are breathless to have a good time. As part of all that booming, trees were planted on a previously barren island in the Zona Romantica, creating a very lush habitat and a home for hundreds of feral cats. A place known as Cuale Park.
It seems that cats and cat lovers from around the world started arriving at the same time. In other words, as to which came first is anyone’s guess: the cat or the expat. This symbiotic cat-expat relationship continues to this day. Kittens are dropped off, expats discover them, nurture them with food and water, a cuddle, a vaccination, and sometimes an adoption.
Near the entrance to the island, there is a life-size statue of John Huston, the director of The Night of the Iguana, the film that brought Burton and the Mistress Burton to Puerto Vallarta, although Liz never had a part in that mediocre film about debauchery. Why would she have wanted it? She was having her own upscale life of debauchery with her Dicky. Boom-boom! Huston’s statue depicts him sitting in a director’s chair but without holding what he usually held when he directed films: a bottle of whiskey. Burton and Taylor have their own statue outside a little restaurant near the park’s entrance. This rather odd bit of cement looks to me more like Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon dressed in U.S. Civil War garb.
So one morning, while my mate Juan and our Lacy, a recued 75-pound Rhodesian Ridgeback with Pitbull highlights were walking near the Huston statue, they heard a weak cry. Looking under a bush near the walkway, they saw what appeared to be a distressed mouse, not more than a handful — for a small hand.
Twenty minutes later, when I was just coming out of the bedroom and heading for the refrigerator, I heard this wee-bit of meowing, and looking in a corner of our pathetically miniscule “kitchen,” I saw the mouse.
“What’s that?” I asked, still half asleep and wondering if I was at that very moment being filmed for some kind of stream-of-consciousness movie about hung-over, retired ministers.
“What do you think it is?” Juan asked me, his eyebrows raised.
Having seen those particular eyebrows raised before, I knew they were representative of eyebrows filled with hope and supplication. In other words, he wanted something. And he wanted it from me.
“A rat!” I answered, becoming more awake with each passing instant.
“Look again!” he told me.
And so, I did. Indeed, the thing that was barely breathing but was still able to give a squeak now and then, was a little kitty with here and there a bit of much-matted fur; fur that had colorings of grey, brown and white all swirling.
“Oh,” I merely responded.
“Lacy and I found it.”
And so, the conversation continued with Juan informing me that he only brought her home so that we could get her healthy by feeding her and washing her with the intention of finding her a “good home.” Lacy reacted in a more committed manner. She couldn’t get enough of sniffing the new arrival, from ears to butt. In effect, she seemed to be protecting the baby, as if she were its mother. At this point I felt that I was not only in a movie that was currently being filmed, but also observing it at the same time. Here they were: a cat and a dog, with the former about seventy-five times smaller than the latter, and totally defenseless. I kept thinking:
Oh, my God! What if Lacy decides that this dirty, little rat-cat is trying to usurp her place in the family hierarchy, that is to say, the rat-cat is trying to take her place as the Queen? To show who the real boss is, Lacy dispatches it with one snap of her big jaws?
Fearing this as a very real possibility because Lacy did have a tendency to snap at small, moving objects, I said to Juan, “You think maybe Lacy doesn’t like the cat?”
“Oh, but she loves it. She is the one who first discovered her.”
Like a vulture hovers over one of god’s suffering creatures waiting for it to die, I thought.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” I asked. “I noticed that you referred to it as her.”
“I think it’s too early to tell…but I guess a vet can. Anyhow, I know she’s a girl. I feel it.”
Juan decided to give her a bath in the bathroom sink. Not much of a task, really, because she was just skin and bones. I took a picture of the event. A few minutes later, Juan was holding her as she lay all bunched up in a towel, while Lacy continued to sniff at her. I took another photo.
Within the hour after bathing, she was examined by the vet who proclaimed, “It’s a girl – maybe!” Our next task was to feed her and name her. Because she looked like a rat to me, I thought Ratona would be perfect. When I asked Lacy if she liked the name, she wagged her tail. Juan did not wag his tail: “That’s not a nice name,” he said. “She’s a kitty, not a rat!”
“So?” I asked. “What difference does her name make if we aren’t going to keep her?”
“Well…” he started to say something but couldn’t finish. I could tell that he already was emotionally attached to her.
“But I like her,” I said.
The effect of saying this had its intended result: Juan beamed. “So you want to keep her?”
“Welcome to the family,” I said to the new arrival, “whatever your name is.”
“Maggie,” he said. Years before, the name “Maggie” had been the name we had chosen for a yet-to-be-known rescue dog we had planned on welcoming into our family one day. When that day eventually arrived, the dog that came with it came with her own name: Lacy. And we saw no reason to change it.
“Maggie the Cat,” I echoed without thinking much about what I was saying. Then I realized that the character “Maggie the Cat” was Liz Taylor’s “pet” name in the play by Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. “Perfect,” I said, without telling Juan about the Liz Taylor connection, but thinking it was fate that had put our Maggie in the weeds near John Huston’s statue, with only a short walk from where Dick and Liz used to cross that now historic bridge that linked their separate but equal houses in order to go at each other like cats. And, of course, when Liz played Cleopatra in the movie of the same name, her eyes were made up to look like cat’s eyes. After all, thousands of years ago Egyptians worshipped cats, didn’t they? Then I suggested to Juan that since Maggie was born in May, her name should be Maggie May.
As the days went by, Lacy continued to hover over Maggie May as if she were, indeed, her protective mother. It was a sweet image, although every time we left the house I was afraid we would come back to “the scene of a murder.” But that never happened.
And Maggie got stronger. Visits to the vet helped her regain her strength. The hair she had lost because of fleas eating into her skin, started to grow back. And with her strength came feistiness: scratching, biting, frolicking (chasing balls and feathers; climbing on everything; pouncing on anything or anyone). In other words, she became a cat.
This meant as well that she would state her demands when it came to food. She quickly picked up the habit of going to the refrigerator whenever I did and sitting at its open door, staring up at me and meowing until I fed her. Just like Lacy did, minus the meowing.
All this is by way of saying that new life came into this old guy’s existence. Here I had dealt with a heart condition that had necessitated a pace maker implant and had produced a score of incessant thoughts about my getting older and dying. And my attempt to adjust to retirement and a new culture complete with humidity had caused many anxious moments.
But Maggie May’s story of surviving against great odds, of stating her demands as she lay in the weeds hoping that somebody would hear her pleas and adopt her instead of letting her die, was a lesson for me and everyone else: to maintain the will to live. To not give up. To fight the odds. Truly, she gave me a further reason to keep active and positive. She still does to this day, eight years later. And somehow, I am sure that Lacy, angel that she now is, is still watching over her baby.
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com