The unpleasant surprise in the road

August 11, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 11, 2015

Author’s note: Due to its subject matter, which involves animal mortality, this post may not be suitable for young children or other sensitive readers. MEM

When I left the house Monday afternoon, I unlocked my car trunk with my key (not a remote-control foban actual physical key, like someone trapped in the 20th century). A friend had asked to borrow an air mattress from me, and I wanted to confirm that I had it in my vehicle.

The item was there, so I shut the trunk and started rounding the car to put my backpack in and get behind the wheel. Before I could accomplish any of that, however, I got quite a fright.

The body of a cat was lying in the road, just a foot or so away from my vehicle.

The cat was lying on its left side. It had gray fur with some tan on its hindquarters.

Shaken, I threw my water bottle and backpack into the car without getting in. I closed the car doors and turned to look at the cat without approaching. Was this a pet, a feral cat or a wild cat? I couldn’t say for certain, but I saw no collar or other decorations on the body.

I wasn’t sure why the cat was dead, although I assumed that it had been hit by a car. Rather gruesomely, I was able to see that the cat’s left eye — on the side lying against the pavement — had popped out of its socket. There were no other marks or wounds that I could see. There didn’t seem to be any blood on the pavement.

I wondered if someone nearby was missing a pet. I wandered onto my lawn and pulled out my phone. A number of Durham neighborhoods have e-mail lists, some busier than others, and it’s common to see notices about missing and found animals.

I did a few searches. There were a few recent messages about missing or lost pets, but none of the pictures I checked matched the patterns in the fur of the body on the road.

I persuaded myself that it was time to stop procrastinating. I grabbed the snow shovel that I keep on the side of the house and walked a few steps over to the wooded area that flanks the parking space. I spent a minute or so digging in the needles and pine cones in order to prepare a shallow grave for the cat. When I write “shallow,” I mean “very shallow” — it was surprisingly difficult to dig into the material on the ground.

In the meantime, traffic had been whizzing back and forth on the street in front of my house, as it is wont to do. All of the vehicles so far had avoided running over the corpse, but I realized that unless I hurried, I risked having a much bigger mess on my hands.

I walked back to the pavement. I waited first for a fire truck, siren blaring, to race up the street past my house. Then I paused so a car going in the opposite direction could go by. Then it was time.

I stepped out toward the cat. I muttered something to myself and stooped to prod the body with the shovel. Before I could, I noticed a hornet hovering by a nostril, which it then landing upon. I waved it away with the shovel and then nudged the body. The animal didn’t respond, assuring me that it had in fact died.

Not without reluctance, I went to slide the shovel beneath the corpse. Unfortunately, I only got it partway under, as I discovered when I tried to lift the dead cat.

Unwilling to nudge the body with my foot, let alone a hand, I wound up using the shovel to slide the dead cat up to the curve. I used the to shift the bulk of the body onto the cradle of shovel. Then I lifted my grim bundle and walked over to the burial spot.

I deposited the body and began covering it up. I inspected my work and saw that part of the tail was still exposed. I scraped some more loose needles and other material over the spot.

There was some blood on the blade of the shovel, and a smell of decay. I went to the porch and lay the shovel beside it. Then I fished my keys out of my pocket, unlocked the front door and went inside to wash my hands.

I walked over to the kitchen and began filling a pot with water. When the level was nearly to the top, I gingerly stepped outside and emptied the pot over the shovel. To my relief, nothing stuck to the shovel.

I’m not a religious person, nor even particularly spiritual. Before picking up the body, and before laying it to rest, I thought that I should think or say something to commemorate the cat. But I couldn’t come up with anything specific, so I just tried to assume a sorrowful, respectful mental posture before dealing with the remains.

Death is part of existence. Not every soul can be guaranteed a good end; every individual certainly can’t be guaranteed a good life. I know that, and yet…

I guess I get silly and sentimental sometimes. A dead cat shouldn’t bother me, especially one that I never knew, and one that doesn’t seem to be missed by anyone. But the discovery made me sad anyway.

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