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My epiphany

Sometimes I could take hatchet to myself

May 1st, 2016

BY ROSEMARY MCLEISH

When my brother died unexpectedly from a stroke, I was living in a cottage on a farm in the Trossachs. It was famous for several things in the neighborhood and for one thing in the wider world, which was that a nineteenth-century classic novel had been written there in an ancient barn. I don’t believe that myth for a moment, but what I do believe, because I saw them, was the thick ropes of ancient spiders’ webs which festooned the inside of the barn. The farm was locally famous for the farmer’s wife: for her beauty, for riding around the lanes on her stallion, for her abduction from boarding school at the age of fourteen, and for her scandalous adultery. She bred rare and heritage sheep and goats and used to sing arias to their offspring at seven o’clock in the morning right outside my windows, where the nursery pen was. She had a beautiful voice.

She was half middle-class farmer’s wife and half crazy gypsy, with a pack of dogs as her familiars. At the time I lived there, she had eight sheepdogs, who followed her everywhere. (The last I heard, she had twenty-three, which doesn’t surprise me one bit.) At that time only two of the eight were “rescue” dogs; she hadn’t become as famous (or notorious) as she is now. One of these couldn’t inhibit his barking due to some trauma in his previous existence. She warned me (after I moved in) not to worry if I heard the dogs barking in the middle of the night, that the one with no inhibitions set the others off, and as she suffered from insomnia, she used to walk about the farm in the middle of the night. The other rescue dog had an even nastier habit. He liked to swing on the horses’ tails, and this idiotic woman used to stand and watch him doing it, driving her favorite horse demented, and complain all the while that he was pulling the hair out in clumps and the poor horse hated it. “Why don’t you stop him then?” I asked. “Oh, I couldn’t do that,” she replied. “He’s had too much telling off in his life.”

kittenb&wIn the cottage next door to me lived a woman whom I always thought of as Catwoman. She had a spooky affinity with cats and even looked as if she were turning into one, with thick hair like fur on her legs and torso. She lived with the farmer’s wife’s son, who was almost twenty years younger than she was. (I haven’t got room to unfold that tale, dramatic and unbelievable as it was.) One day several months before my epiphany, Catwoman told me she had discovered that the feral cat who lived in one of the newer barns had had more kittens. Unfortunately, she couldn’t take any more in herself, because her tiny two-room cottage was already heaving with two dogs and three cats, and Bunny (the boyfriend). So I agreed that I would take the kittens, as long as she and Bunny caught them.


These kittens, Sunbeam and Moonbeam, became my family. At first it was because they were in such a terrible state. They had been born under a sheep dip and a tomcat (probably their father) had been stalking them, watching them through the grill, so that the smallest one, Moonbeam, took two weeks before she stopped gazing upwards in terror all the time. Sunbeam, the robust sister, spent nearly as long standing in front of her, as if to protect her and hide her from view. Anyone who has rescued an animal will attest to the strength of the bond that is formed. And as time went on, my kittens grew into a joy and a blessing, helping me through a protracted illness.

They were about six months old when I had to go to England to my brother’s funeral, and of course Catwoman looked after them superbly while I was away. A week after I got back I had to go into hospital for another small operation, made more traumatic by the music they were playing in the operating theatre, which happened to be something that had been played at my brother’s funeral. I had been heartbroken by seeing his body in the funeral parlor; shockingly, I almost didn’t recognize him. And the funeral had been difficult, harrowing even, because of the behaviur of some of the family members and because half the family (most of the Canadian branch) couldn’t be there. The fact that I could hardly walk and was in constant pain from a misplaced stent didn’t help either.

Again, my kittens comforted me. When I got back from the hospital they pulled out all the stops to entertain and console me. There’s nothing worse than other people’s pet stories so I won’t bore you with the details… but I could.

The next weekend I was due to spend a day on a meditation retreat, with a group I regularly meditated with in Glasgow. I wasn’t sure I was well enough to go, but I’d been complaining of patches of mould in the cottage and Farmer’s Wifie had arranged for a man to do something about them that day, so I thought it would make sense to be out when he came (he was a nosy old bodger whom I couldn’t stand). As we left in the morning (my husband was driving me to the retreat), I said: “Shouldn’t I go and remind her to tell Frank about the kittens?” “Stop worrying so much,” Richard replied. “They’ll be fine. She’ll remember about them herself, she gives you enough grief about them.” We were late, so I agreed to drive on.
It was an awful retreat, the first time I’d seen the group since my brother died, where I expected at least recognition of my grief, if not sympathy, and found none. I was still bleeding and in pain and a bit spaced out from pain killers and lack of sleep. I was shocked and angry at the shallowness of this self-described caring community, so I went home as soon as I could. And found no kittens, just a cryptic note in the kitchen. I went round to the farmhouse.

It turned out that it was all my fault, of course. I was starving those kittens, so when FW went round to check up for herself on the mould, accompanied naturally by her dogs, they had shot out as soon as she unlocked the door. She was so startled she ran back to the farm house to get some catfood, forgetting to shut the door, and when she returned, there was no sign of the kittens. “But where were the dogs?” I asked. “Oh, I don’t know, I can’t remember. I told you I should have had the kittens put down — why weren’t you feeding them?”

I could have chopped her in half with a hatchet if I could have laid my hands on one. “They’re kittens,” I hissed at her. “You stupid bitch, how could you leave them with the door open and the dogs?” I was beyond politeness, beyond caring that she was my landlady. “I couldn’t get them to go back in,” she muttered sulkily.

I searched for those kittens for two weeks. I asked everyone I could about them. I put up notices. I tramped about the hills, bleeding at every step. I prayed. I meditated. I cast spells. I had the kittens’ fortunes told. I lit candles. I tried visualising where they were, communicating via ESP. I enlisted Catwoman and Bunny’s help. Nothing. They were just gone. Probably eaten by Barker and Swinger. Farmer’s Wifie avoided me, and I avoided her.

I remembered the gone-ness of my brother. He was just gone, too. In the same way as I had known with such certainty ten years before, on seeing the blue butterfly in the overgrown cemetery, that God, or at least the possibility of God, existed, I absolutely knew now that there was no God. No witchcraft, no magic, no supernatural, nothing. I didn’t know how we got here or what for, but I wasn’t interested. My ten-year delusion was over. When you’re here, you’re here. When you’re gone, you’re gone. And that’s it. There’s nothing else. There is no kind man in the sky feeding my kittens manna; there is no one there to forgive me, when I cannot forgive myself, for abandoning them, for trusting FW to be sensible, for being responsible for their deaths whatever form they took. Sometimes, even now, in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep, I could take a hatchet to myself, if I could lay my hands on one, for not looking after them better.

Since then there have been other deaths: another beloved cat who was killed when my back was turned, other failures of responsibility. But that great weight on my shoulders that was the possibility of God has, I am glad to say, remained lifted… absolutely gone. •

From the November 2008 issue

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Animal Issue, McLeish | Link to this Entry

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