Good news. My sister, Sandra Driscoll, received a transplanted kidney four days ago at the University of Washington Medical Center from a cadaveric donor. Bad news. A young man died before his time due to high risk behavior. She is now freed from the shackles of dialysis. She has his healthy kidney. She can resume a semblance of a normal life. He can’t, except in so far as he is kept alive in the bodies and imaginations of the lucky organ recipients.
In my mid-twenties, I had a security guard job on the swing shift at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. After shops closed and vendors went home, I carried a ten-pound clock encased in black leather from key-station to station, punching keys into the clock to show on a printed chart that I had visited that location and at precisely what time. This was known as doing the rounds. Rounds included walking into and out of abandoned buildings. One night I came across a dead cat. The cat had been hung. It was in fact still hanging by the neck from a wire attached to a rafter. Whoever had committed this act of animal cruelty had positioned the cat so that its corpse would be visible through the nearest window.
Who would do such a thing? So fascinated was I, on subsequent rounds, I showed up with a sketch pad and drew the cat from various angles. Having no key to the vacant room in which the cat had been hung, I had no means of removing the cat or giving it a proper burial. Over time I watched the cat’s flesh dissolve until it was hardly more than matted dusty fur and sinew and bone.
I did not have an answer for that cat, until I had a character. Anezka, for reasons I cannot disclose, was forced to leave behind a barn cat she had come to see as her child. Below is a description of Chico, the protagonist in Better You Go Home, finding Anezka’s cat:
That odor of putrefying flesh is strong.
Caressed by the breeze, Anezka’s gray cat twists with excruciating slowness.
Its head is canted at an acute angle, its mouth wrenched open, though not
wide, not as though in protest but rather as though struggling to draw a last breath. A wire hung from the rafter loops under its chin. There’s something
odd about the body’s posture. Rigor mortis would have had time to set in,
then relax, and the body would have bloated, but none of this could have
happened recently. This flesh is partly decayed. Were it not for the cold, the
smell would be worse. Its legs are curled in toward the abdomen, suggesting
either that it was tied up or that the cat died while curled in that position…
Height works to my advantage. I unloop the wire. The over-fed cat has
shed much of its bulk but it still weighs several pounds. Breathing through my
mouth, I lay the big gamey stiff cat on the crib blanket. There I see without a
doubt what I only suspected when it was hanging. Allowing for the inflexibility
of stiff limbs, the cat’s posture suggests an animal that had curled up and died,
which, if true, could only mean that someone found the deceased cat and
subjected it to a post-mortem noose. But why? As a cautionary tale of some
In fiction, “why” is dependent on pre-established motivations that causally connect events.
My nemesis character committed this act of cruelty as a sign of love. In her mind, it made perfect sense. Only the cat was preventing Anezka from moving on to a better life. For the love of Anezka, the cat had to go. In the character’s view, death would do the abandoned cat a favor. The added cruelty, well, I had a pretty good model to work with.
An act of cruelty can be an act of salvation. It would be tragically foolish to say that the cat allowed itself to be killed so that its “mother” might live. Likewise, it would be tragically insensitive to suggest that the young man (who had a mother, a father, maybe siblings, certainly those who loved him) gave his life so that my sister might have his kidney and live. Yet… and yet…
The cat was cruelly killed. That cat has a million lives in my imagination. Both are true statements. The young man cruelly died. His organs live in the bodies and imaginations of our loved ones. Both are true statements. In fiction, we posit causal connections in order to consider the question “why.” In real life, sometimes what is just is. Until we allow our imaginations to form the question “why,” though, we remain prisoners of the brute facts.