For a cup of milk.
It was pitch black. I felt something soft, like a whisper of air, brush my hand. I went rigid. The summer night air was heavy. I could hear the steady breathing of my family who, like me, bedded down in the courtyard when it grew too hot to sleep indoors. I felt it again and opened my eyes. I relaxed, relieved. It was the tiny white kitten who had adopted me just days before.
Ours was a two-story brick home. My family lived upstairs while my older brother and his family lived beneath us on the ground floor. The two levels were linked by a spiral staircase. Halfway up the stairs sat a wide window where, as a small child, I would sit for hours and watch the neighboring kids play in the adjacent courtyard.
All of the houses in our neighborhood were connected, courtyard to courtyard, via communal walls. The top half was brick, each brick laid with gaps on either end to permit the breezes to flow while still affording a bit of privacy. The bottom half was solid brick and wider, providing sufficient space to top with plants. We grew roses, jasmine, and various Aloe Vera. Beneath this, on the floor, sat a multitude of potted plants.
We would sleep on beds called charpai, which translates to “four feet.” Each bed was made of four wooden pieces laid in a rectangular shape, atop which were ropes laced together. During the summer, everything in the sun became exceedingly hot. The floor of the courtyard would burn our bare feet, so my mother would regularly sprinkle water on the cement to cool it enough for me to run and play on it. Every evening, after the scorching sun had set, my mother would pull out these charpais for us to sit on and spend time together and, later, sleep.
I would like awake at night and try to count the stars. These stars, so familiar to me, were like my friends. I would search the sky in the dark to make sure they were still there, and look carefully to see whether I could spy any new stars. Sometimes a star would appear to move when I stared at it. I would rub my surprised eyes and look again. “The star is running, and I am following it,” I would think, as a soft breeze dipped into the courtyard, carrying with it the fragrant scents of rose and jasmine across my face. My eyes would drift shut. I would open them again, trying to stave off sleep, wanting to savor the wind’s caress. Another puff and I drifted away.
A few days earlier, it had been a lovely morning, a bit of welcome coolness before the intense heat of summer enveloped the courtyard. I had woken, as I usually did, while it was still dark. I rolled over, only to hear a sound, like a spoon had fallen on the ground. Nervously, I pushed aside the cotton sheet. I heard the sound of plates clattering in the kitchen. I looked around. No one else had stirred.
My heart started to beat rapidly. There must be a thief in the house, I thought, and felt fear grip me. Without moving, I looked toward the kitchen, my eyes slowly adjusting to the dark. The door was wide open. Something was moving across the floor. I exhaled in relief. I sat up and crept toward the kitchen and looked through the doorway.
“What are you doing here, my little stranger?” I whispered. It was a tiny white kitten.
“Miaoon! (Just looking!)” the kitten admitted, very frankly.
“What are you looking for?”
“Miaoooon. (I was passing by and smelled something nice.)”
“Miaon, miaon, miaon! (Yes, yes, yes!)”
“Let me give you some fresh milk,” I offered.
“Miiiiiaon. (I love you.)” she said, as she rubbed her soft, white body against my foot.
I reached for a small dish and put some milk in it. The kitten raised its tail and started running excitedly around me. I walked to the entrance of the house and placed the dish outside on the ground. She raced toward it. I blinked and it was empty.
“Miiiiiiiaon? (May I have some more milk?)”
I poured more milk into the dish and she finished that, too.
After that, she lost interest in me, walking around and inspecting the house. I was touched by her sweetness, her innocent curiosity and lack of fear. I glanced at the sky. It was time for my morning walk.
“Can I go out for a walk now?” I asked in hushed tones.
I laughed, and left for my morning walk.
When I came back, she was not there. I asked my mother where the kitten had gone. She had no idea what I was talking about. I asked each of my brothers and sisters. They shook their heads. So, I thought, it was nothing but a chance meeting. Although disappointed, I quickly forgot about it.
The next morning, when I awoke, I was delighted to find her there again. I obliged and fed her more milk. I went for my walk, came back, and, just as the day before, she was gone. She came again the following morning. I fed her again. This time I chose to skip my walk and stay at home. She stayed with me. I introduced her to my family.
After that we became friends. My responsibility was to feed her, and her responsibility was not to bother anyone at home. We each kept our promise. The days became weeks, and weeks months. We suggested a name for her—Bibi—which she accepted gracefully. My white, blue-eyed beautiful cat was the first love of my life.
Every day she would wake me up early in the morning with a very soft miaaon, spoken like a gentle request, delighted if I got up and without resentment if I didn’t. This morning the miaaon was near my ear. She was standing next to me on the bed. I looked at her sleepily, reluctant to get up. To my surprise, she turned around, nestled her chin into the palm of my hand, and closed her eyes. I stared at her, entranced at how she slept so quickly, so peacefully, her complete trust in me washing over me in powerful emotions. I closed my eyes and slept too.
Each morning, our routine was the same. I would walk toward the kitchen, and she would start dancing about in excitement, darting into the kitchen and back until I reached the door. I would reach for the milk pot and she would begin to squeak in anticipation, which never failed to make me grin. I would pour milk in her dish, place it in the usual spot, and she would lap it up eagerly as I watched.
Bibi was very careful about drinking hot milk. She would not touch it until it had had a chance to cool. After drinking her milk, Bibi would curl up, on my shoes, under my bed. She would curve her body into a circular shape so that my shoes were almost entirely covered, and stay there contentedly until I reached for them to put them on.
At breakfast, she would sit under the table. Most lunchtimes would find her there too. At dinnertime, we would eat in the courtyard, where it was cooler, anxious for any light breeze. We would feed her before we ate.
Sometimes, she would jump into my bed to wake me up. She would play with my feet, and if I moved them while sleeping, she would grip them with her tiny claws and I would wake up with a start.
Just as Bibi’s arrival had been a turning point, my life took another turn when I was admitted to university four hours from my home. I lived in a dorm, and only went home on weekends. I was homesick, and used to cry sometimes after my roommate went to sleep. Every Friday evening, I would rush to the bus stop.
Bibi was the first of my welcome reception at the front door of our house. I could never figure out how she knew it was Friday, how she knew that I was coming back, on that day, at that time, but she always did. Even if I arrived on a different day, I would find her inexplicably waiting for me at the exact same spot in the middle of the front doorway. My mother told me that, every time I went back to university, Bibi would disappear and not resurface until the next time I returned.
After a couple of months, I noticed she was getting fat. Kittens, my mom explained. I was very excited. Sure enough, one day I came home and Bibi introduced me to her four little ones. They were all adorable. I was never introduced to their father. Maybe he was busy somewhere out of town. I hoped he would visit occasionally.
The kittens made our time together more joyous. One of us would tie a thread around a small stone and toss it in front of them to watch them leap after it, and we would all laugh in delight. The sound of a Ping-Pong ball bouncing across the floor would startle them, until they pounced after it, playing hockey with it by using their forelegs. They were scared of water. If we sprinkled water on them, they would jump up and run away. Those were joyous days.
After some months, my studies were getting tougher, and I could only come home once a month instead of once a week. Regardless, I would still find her waiting for me at the front door when I appeared.
One day, my mom called to say that Bibi was not doing well. I rushed home the next day. When I reached the front door, she was not there. I felt my heart catch.
I opened the door to find her lying on the floor, dragging her body toward me, as if she was trying to reach the front door to greet me but couldn’t make it. She looked so weak. I tossed my bags to one side and sat down on the floor next to her, caressing her head. She looked up at me, curled up against me, and put her head on my boot. My family gathered and began telling me about her condition, but I could not focus on their words. She twitched and curled her paws around my foot like she was trying to hold onto me. I reached to lift her against me. In the next moment, she was gone. Tears flowed down my face.
“I think she was waiting for you,” my mom said, her hand on my shoulder.
I was stunned. As unexpectedly as she had arrived, she had also left without warning. She had somehow known, I thought, had fought hard to hold on until she could see me one last time and say goodbye. I thought of how, in those last moments, she had rested her head on my foot the way she’d always loved to do since she was a tiny kitten.
The next day, I sat, feeling very sad. I looked at my shoes, half expecting to see her there. My shoes lay there, undisturbed, oddly naked. She was not there. I felt like I was going to cry again. I thought back of her life with us, with me, and the way she had died, surrounded by us. She had wanted to be with me at the end—I was certain of it. I felt a shred of relief that we had all been gathered around her the moment she had to leave us. I was so grateful I had been there, so grateful to my mom for urging me to come home, so grateful that I had been gifted with the chance to care for and love Bibi. Grateful for the gift that she was.
My thoughts turned to my parents and how they cared for me, for all of us, feeding us, making a home for us, something I had invariably taken for granted as just their duty to do so. I never even considered what a gift that was. I thought of Bibi once more, trying desperately to drag herself to me in those final moments, as if to say thank you.
June 19, 2017, 3:45 p.m.
I reached for my shoes and put them on. I raced out to find my mom and throw my arms around her. I whispered, “Thank you, Mom.” Before it was too late.