Nam-Pla's Gift

(a fictional short story but the real Tod-Mon pictured here, having shared some of his nine lives with me, passed on at the far too young age of eight on January 31, 1999. He is missed.)
The telephone rang early that Saturday in May. Working on my first cup of coffee, I answered it somewhat groggily. It was my favorite aunt, Jean. "Nam-Pla has passed from this world", she said sadly. "I awoke this morning to find her lovely body cold and not breathing. Would you be a dear nephew and come over to help me give her a proper burial?" "Of course, Aunt Jean," I replied. "I'll be right over as soon as I feed Tod-Mon. Do you need anything? Can I pick up any groceries for you?"

Aunt Jean and her husband, Carl, had been in an auto accident several years ago and Carl, who was driving, was killed. Jean suffered grave injuries, but recovered, and refused ever to have anything more to do with automobiles or husbands.

"Thanks", Jean said, "but I have plenty of food. I'm a little low on gin, but they deliver."

Aunt Jean had named her Abyssinian cat Nam-Pla, meaning a Thai fish sauce used in almost all Thai dishes. She wanted to buck the traditional naming of Abys after Egyptian Gods and deities such as Akhetaten's Fire or Anshent-won's Anasazi. When she gave me Nam-Pla's son, I kept to her tradition by naming him Tod-Mon. Tod-Mon is a delicious Thai shrimp, fish, and green bean delicacy. When he was mischievous, I told him the Mon in Tod-Mon was short for monster.

As I fed Tod-Mon his breakfast I said softly, "Your mother has died, Tod". Tod looked at me as if he understood, and his lovely yellow/green eyes squeezed shut. "Cats are extremely intuitive animals," Aunt Jean had said.

As I dressed, thoughts of Aunt Jean and Nam-Pla ran through my mind. Aunt Jean was an accomplished author who believed in chiropractors, psychics, ghosts, and naps. "The human race would be a heck of a lot better off if it took more naps," Jean had often said. I think she figured they'd have less time for getting into trouble. For her beliefs, Aunt Jean was considered the weird one in the family. Most of our family are teachers and accountants, something my mother wanted me to be, but I worked instead as a writer for the daily newspaper, circulation five thousand, in our little town in upstate New York.

Aunt Jean liked my writing and encouraged it. In addition to writing, we shared a love of animals and of cats in particular. "You should Always have a cat," she would say. I was honored that she chose me to assist her with Nam-Pla's burial. While driving to Aunt Jean's house, I continued thinking how it was she who took me to museums in the City when I was young, and zoos, and Broadway plays. My parents always looked at Aunt Jean's influence on me as contradictory to an accountant's career and dangerously Bohemian, but let me go anyway.

It was a twenty minute drive to Aunt Jean's, her home being just outside the city in what could only be described as beautiful countryside. Aunt Jean had already said her farewells to Nam-Pla and had placed her beloved cat in a suitable box. We went to the back yard and buried Nam-Pla near the brook where she had loved to watch, and sometimes catch, frogs, butterflies, and grasshoppers. I dug. Neither of us spoke a word or cried, but the hole became blurred a few times by misty eyes. No words were said. None were needed, they'd all been said. The deed done, Aunt Jean asked if I'd like some of her lemonade.

We sat on the porch and Aunt Jean brought out two glasses of lemonade. Mine was "regular" and hers, I suspect, was spiked with a little gin. Aunt Jean liked her gin. We were still somber, showing reverence for her beloved Nam-Pla. Then Aunt Jean spoke in a slow and far away voice, "John, you don't remember your Great Aunt Emma, but she was a wonderfully eccentric old woman. She smoked and drank when 'proper' women didn't and was instrumental in the suffragette movement. She believed in the sentience of animals long before our 'enlightened' views of today became accepted. Your Great Aunt kept two Siamese. Before she died, she told me a story which I dismissed as the ravings of the senile, but I'd like to share it with you now. I have come to believe that her story is true."

Your Great Aunt Emma told me that all cats are magical beings. They possess certain powers that are not readily understood by "normal" humans. The ancient Egyptians knew that what I am about to tell you is true and they worshipped the cat because of it. Later, during the Dark Ages, feline powers were only murkily understood and thus feared during those superstitious times and cats were persecuted and killed. Modern man has lost whatever ability he may have once had to sense this extraordinary power. "Go on," I said, sensing I was to be the recipient of either some GRAND TRUTH or, perhaps, something so strange as to be completely silly. Aunt Jean and Aunt Emma made frequent but brief visits to the planet Bizarro.

"Emma told me that if you had a cat, loved the cat very much, took very good care of it, gave it treats, attended to its medical needs, spoke to it as if it could understand you, treated it as your equal, and let it sleep with you so that it would be warm, that the cat would repay you."

"Sure," I said, "Tod-Mon repays me with love, amusement, and a lowered pulse".

"There's more to it than that," said Aunt Jean. "Emma swore to me that when a human and a cat love each other that much, the cat will actually 'share' some of his 'extra' lives with the human!"

"Do you mean that Emma thought, actually believed, that a cat could prolong its human's life by giving up a life or two of its nine lives?"

"That's exactly what she believed," Jean said. I half expected to see Rod Serling in the corner of the porch smoking and could almost hear the do-do-do-do do-do-do-do music of The Twilight Zone.

"I doubted her, too, at first," said Aunt Jean. "Remember the auto accident that killed your uncle? I was in that car and should have succumbed to my injuries but didn't." The wreck had been horrible by any standards and it was a miracle, we all agreed, that Jean survived it. "Nam-Pla gave up one of her nine lives for me at that time," Jean said. "How can you be sure?" I asked. "People survive terrible accidents sometimes."

"Your uncle didn't like cats," she said, "and he died. Nam-Pla wasn't about to waste a life on the likes of him!"

"And what about my heart attack, when my heart stopped beating before they got me to the hospital? Another miracle?", she asked. "No, Nam-Pla directly intervened to save me at least twice, and maybe more times that I know. How many times does Tod-Mon make you late leaving home by asking for food or play? Who knows, you may have missed that drunk driver or out-of-control truck by just those few minutes. I'm telling you the truth," she said. "I now know Emma was right!"

"Now don't think this gift is purely altruistic," she said. "Of course, the cat is sharing its lives with you because it loves you, but also because it doesn't want a change, either in location or owner - all that getting used to a new place and a new person. Cats abhor change, the little anal retentives," Jean snickered. "Isn't it funny that I think of cat people as having oral personalties and dog people as anal. And yet, if cats are anal, are dogs oral?", I said.

"Hmmm, interesting, we'll have to think about that one," Jean said. "You know that dogs, if they could, would share lives with their humans but they just don't have the lives or that kind of magic."

"Jean," I said, after some thinking, "you're going to get another cat, aren't you?" "No, I don't think so, John. I'm too old now to take on the responsibility of a new kitten. Besides, who could ever replace Nam-Pla? Maybe you'll bring Tod-Mon over to visit sometimes."

"I'm feeling a little tired. It must be nap time," said Jean, yawning. That was my cue to depart. I too took afternoon naps, something from which Aunt Jean had removed my guilt by discussing Thomas Edison and other dedicated nappers.

I thought about Aunt Jean's theory, in fact, it occupied me most of that day. Upon returning home, I queried Tod-Mon about it, but he wasn't about to give away any centuries-old cat secrets. We had a grand nap together, my friends know not to call me in the afternoons, and I dreamt that Tod saved me, by delaying me so I missed my flight, from my recurring dream of death in a horrible plane crash over a city where two rivers meet.

The next day, Sunday, I received another call, this time from my mother who I like to call "The Momster". She was sorry to tell me that Aunt Jean had passed away in her sleep last night. Perhaps it had been the excitement of the previous day, or grief over losing her beloved companion, or how empty her home and her bed must have seemed after Nam-Pla's parting.

"Aunt Jean has died," I told Tod-Mon. Aunt Jean had been the first human to hold him, to stroke his fur, to speak to him. He squeezed his eyes slowly shut. "What a shame Nam-Pla wasn't there to share one more life with her." "Would you like a treat, Tod?", I said. His lovely green almond eyes grew large in anticipation.