LOST CAT. Has a little bell on her collar. Reward.
When a feline goes missing, the explanations of where she could be are as long as the darkest corridor of the owner’s imagination:
High up in a Douglas fir. In the bellies of the coyotes slinking out in the woods. In a ditch, bleeding, after being smacked by a car. Snatched by a bald eagle. (On the island in Puget Sound where I live, wildlife biologists report, a number of cat collars have turned up in eagles’ nests.)
There was the time my dimwit Persian, Amanda, lodged herself inside the back of my friend’s clothes dryer while I was on vacation, and didn’t come out for five days.
And then there is Bess -- whose fate no one could have imagined.
She is the latest in a line of cats I’ve picked up in my travels as a foreign correspondent.
There was Marie, named after the Bob Dylan song “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” an ersatz Siamese I got for $5 from a pet shop in Cairo. She got run through the dryer by my housekeeper in Moscow but lived to a ripe old age.
There was Peter, a ginger tabby who fatally sailed off the eighth-floor balcony of my apartment in Moscow -- as did Mario, my beloved Burmese from Portland, Ore. Katya survived the move from Moscow to London, only to get hit by a bus.
Is it any wonder the Animal Welfare Society in London wouldn’t let me adopt a kitten?
I tried to make them understand that although these mishaps had befallen my cats, they were exactly that -- bad luck -- and I basically was a woman who doted on cats, whose cats were adored members of the family, who could offer a cat glorious food, a comfy bed, constant attention, frequent compliments, an annoying number of kisses and plenty of lap time.
“Do you have a garden? Because we don’t give out cats unless there’s an opportunity for them to go out and get some sunshine,” the matron at the Hounslow shelter in West London said when she called for my initial home inquiry.
“Oh yes,” I assured her.
“But there’s a fence? The cat can’t get out of the garden?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, not wanting to tell her how Katya had met her fate, “we have a very high fence, but I’m not sure it’s possible to build a fence a cat can’t get over. Is it?”
She moved on. “Do you have a bus route on your street?”
Had someone coached her? “Well, yes, but it’s only one bus,” I said slowly.
“No, I’m afraid that rules you out. We don’t adopt to homes on bus routes.”
So it was that the Times researcher in the London Bureau, who has suffered through the whims of generations of correspondents, drove me out to East London one afternoon two springs ago. A lady there had several street cats, and anyone willing to pay 75 pounds -- about $150 at the time -- was welcome to take one home to a flat with three double-decker bus routes, if they wanted to.
I picked Bess.
She wasn’t the prettiest cat. Mostly black with disjointed splotches of gold and orange, she looked like a Jackson Pollock painting to me, which wasn’t saying anything very complimentary. But she fixed her green eyes on me and wouldn’t let go. I was smitten.
Kolya, a shy tabby we had picked out of a box of kittens in the Moscow subway and taken along with Katya to London, was equally enamored. He and Bess would chase each other from my daughter’s attic room, down two floors to the end of the kitchen, and back again. Then they’d settle into a patch of sun in the living room and take turns giving each other baths. Bess blossomed into a tubby young matron we dubbed “the Potato.”
In July, we moved back home to Bainbridge Island. The cats adjusted well; there was so much room to run around in our old farmhouse that they never seemed to miss going outside, which we had decided would be unwise given the abundance of coyotes, foxes, raccoons and eagles.
Bess disappeared Sept. 28.
We were having a barbecue that night, with lots of loud music and friends and kids and a rambunctious dog. The next morning, when no one could find Bess, we feared the worst.
She probably escaped out an upstairs window one of our houseguests had left open, we reasoned, then ran into the dog tied up on the deck, panicked and headed into the woods -- where the coyotes live.
Still, we printed up posters and tacked them around the neighborhood. We knocked on doors, walked up and down streets calling her name, placed her toys and my daughter’s nightgown in the yard to entice her with familiar smells.
Eventually, even the children admitted she wasn’t coming home. Annabel, 11, was quietly furious. “I don’t want to talk about religion anymore,” she announced after I tried halfheartedly to say something about God having had a reason or some such.
Halloween came, and Annabel said at least we didn’t have to worry about Bess getting out and some teenagers conducting black magic rituals on her.
Some friends visiting for Thanksgiving told us we should think about getting a dog. Had we moved on that much? I changed the subject.
On Nov. 30, the night before our friends left, we had another blowout party. I made chicken tacos, my neighbor’s boyfriend made pitchers of margaritas; we built a fire on the deck and smoked cigars under the stars. Afterward, I stood in the kitchen doing dishes while my friend Kris and her daughter, Sophie, talked in the living room.
There was something in Kris’ voice when she called my name that felt like walking into a freezer. “What?” I asked.
“Kim,” she said again. “Come here.”
I walked slowly into the living room. Then I heard it: a low, weak, persistent “meow” coming from inside the window seat, a bench with a hinged door, that Kris and Sophie had opened up.
A small part of me celebrated before I even got across the room. The rest of me melted in horror. It had been nearly nine weeks since Bess disappeared, probably sneaking into the open window seat when no one was watching. Nine weeks locked in a box, without food and water, or even much air. What was left? What was meowing?
As a war correspondent, I have been trained to put my emotions aside in times of danger, assess the situation and act quickly. This I tried to do. I scooped up the tiny bundle of ragtag fur that was Bess -- leaking a clear, viscous fluid -- and carried her to the kitchen. I grabbed the turkey baster, filled it with water and tried to inject it into her mouth, which was gaping and unresponsive except for the weak howl that came out every few seconds.
I grabbed the phone and called my brother, who is a veterinarian in Bremerton, about half an hour away. He gave me directions to the nearest emergency clinic. Wrapping Bess in a large towel, I climbed into Kris’ car and we sped off.
I spent all that night at Bess’ side as the doctor and technicians pumped an IV sugar solution into her veins and offered her a small plate of food. Like a mad creature, Bess lunged and bit everything in sight, including my finger, and nearly broke her teeth on the spoon as I helped push the food toward her mouth.
She weighed just 4.7 pounds. Her blood was heavy with salt. As morning dawned, she began having seizures -- a signal of possible brain damage from the dehydration or a phenomenon known as “refeeding syndrome,” a potentially fatal metabolic crisis seen in the survivors of World War II concentration camps that can occur when victims of starvation are fed too quickly.
The doctor halted the flow of sugar and backed off on the feedings. I put my hand on Bess’ bird-like rib cage and held my face in front of her vacant eyes. “You have made it through this far and you are going to keep going, you hear?”
Shortly before noon, I went home to get some sleep.
For the next few days, we visited Bess every evening. She was blind. She could barely raise her head, which was oddly bowed toward the ground in a classic sign of thiamine and potassium deficiency. She continued to have what the doctors chillingly described as “neurological events.”
Slowly, however, she got better. After four days, when the vet bills were approaching $3,000, we brought her home.
She is up to 6.4 pounds and seems to have recovered part of her eyesight. She makes her way around slowly -- sometimes pausing as if she is confused about where she is, or has forgotten where she is going. She may have permanent brain damage. Or maybe another miracle will happen, and she will heal herself.
“Did you think she was going to make it when we first found her?” I asked my brother the other day.
“Everything we’re trained on, and I can show you the textbooks, is that most cats will not survive a two-week period without food and water. Some won’t even survive two days. . . . So how this happened,” he said, “I don’t have an answer for you.”
We don’t need one.
Annabel jokes that Bess -- who will be 3 years old next spring -- is now Dory, the charming fish in the movie “Finding Nemo” who can’t remember anything that happened more than a few minutes ago. I like to think of Bess that way. I hope to God she doesn’t remember waiting those long weeks in our living room without once crying out, believing her family would eventually come and help her. I am full of wonder at the fact that, at what must have been the very end, she managed to find a way to call us.
As Annabel and I lie close together on the floor, our hands stroking Bess, feeling her quiet purrs, I feel blessed.