I grew up under the reign of the indomitable Kitten Little, First and Fiercest, who was a massive grey and white thundercloud of a cat. She was unquestionably gorgeous, smart as a whip, and meaner than satan with a hangover. She was also very incorrectly named–she was huge and old well before I was born, and only got huger and older as the years went on. During her years as Head Cat of our household, she conducted the complete domination of no less than three dogs (one of whom was a stray doberman), was implicated in the suspicious deaths of two of her predecessors, and supervised the raising of me and my siblings. Because her domain was overrun with tiny humans and inferior pets, she was frequently found lurking on the fireplace mantel, or on the ledge of the second-story balcony that overlooked the living room. From this position of power she could glare down at all of us and be safe from any grabby hands. Not that our hands remained grabby for long–Kitten Little was very clear in her communication that she would be touched on her terms only.
Kitten Little was a capital-C Cat. In her household, you respected animals. Or else.
Even as a small child, I loved all animals, but I adored Kitten Little. She was the iron-fisted ruler that I wanted to grow up to be, and I spent countless hours carefully observing her and trying to win her respect. This adoration was, in part, because of the fact that the neighbor’s German Shepherd refused to go anywhere near her. That dog had gotten loose one summer and bit me in the face, so I was very appreciative of Kitten Little’s dogless bubble. That incident had also instilled in me a fear of large dogs that would last for a good two years.
Being afraid of dogs meant that I absolutely refused to go over to my best friend Alicia’s house, because Alicia’s family were dog breeders. Huskies, mostly, but at that age all I cared about was bitey and bigger than me. She often invited me over, but I always told her no. Finally, around her birthday, she convinced me to come around for a sleepover: we would go to the movies first, and by the time we got to her house, her dad would have put all the dogs in kennels outside, so I could sleep peacefully in a dogless house. Based on these terms, I agreed.
Things went well. The movie was good, the dogs were all outside, and eventually we crashed in Alicia’s room. It was fine until I woke up around midnight and went to the kitchen to get a glass of water.
My night vision is very good, and I didn’t want to wake anyone up by turning on the lights, so the kitchen was dark when I slipped in. That’s why it took me a few seconds to realize there was something on top of the fridge.
Something…pretty large. Something with gleaming eyes, huge ears, and a tail. At first I thought it was a dog—it was too big to be a cat–but the movement of it was wrong. It was too still.
And the tail, draped over the edge of the fridge, was twitching gently at the very tip.
I knew that twitch.
I had seen that twitch a thousand times when Kitten Little had had enough and decided she was about to conduct a little surprise murder.
I realized that whatever was on top of the fridge was a cat. A huge cat. I don’t mean a big housecat–Kitten Little was a good metric for how big house cats could get, and this thing was easily twice her size. And I was small for my age, which meant this thing was at least half my size.
I had studied Kitten Little well. I knew what that tail twitch meant, what that fixed stare and hunched shoulders translated to. There was a fucking wildcat on top of Alicia’s fridge, and it was about to pounce on me.
I knew that there was no way I could outrun this thing, no way I could dodge it. I carefully, carefully, backed out of the kitchen. I did not break eye contact. As soon as I broke line of sight with the thing on top of the fridge, I booked it back to Alicia’s room and shook her awake. “Alicia,” I said calmly, “there is a leopard on your fridge. I think we have to do something about it.”
“No there’s not,” Alicia said.
“Yes, there is, I’m really very very sure there is.”
“No, he’s not a leopard,” Alicia said. And then proceeded to explain that they had a goddam pet serval.
Things that you should know about servals:
- They are a type of african wild cat
- They are primarily nocturnal
- They hunt prey by jumping on it, landing on its back, and biting the back of the neck to kill it
Things that you should also know about servals:
- They make fucking terrible pets, because they are wild cats. It’s very difficult to meet their needs in a home setting, and they will want to do the things they do in the wild, such as jumping on top of small, unsuspecting prey animals. Like myself.
“Alicia,” I said, less calmly, “Why did you not tell me about him?”
“You’re scared of big dogs. He’s not a big dog.”
This was, admittedly, true.
In the morning, I got a proper introduction to the serval, which was actually sort of great; I held no hard feelings about the near miss, and was pretty excited to meet him. It went well overall. Nonetheless, I was relieved to go home, to my dog-less, serval-less house.
Kitten Little sat up on the mantel. Her eyes were huge and gleaming, her ears sharp, her tail poofy and twitching.
“Will you murder me if I try to pet you today?” I asked.
Kitten Little stood, lifted her tail upright, and flopped the very tip over.
I knew what that meant. I clambered up on top of a chair to offer my hand, and Kitten Little permitted me to pet her very soft and fluffy self for about five whole minutes before pulling out the claws to tell me I was done.
The serval might be bigger and scarier, but I knew the truth: no cat was allowed to murder me.
Kitten Little had already called dibs.