Under the Lemon Tree
A Short Story by Maad Abu-Ghazalah
I. Cosmic Alignment
There were all sorts of twists of fortune that led me to be in that exact spot at that exact time. I was travelling from my farm in the West Bank by cab to my temporary home in Jordan. After several checkpoints and bus transfers and interrogations at the Jordan River crossing I ended up at exactly 3 blocks from my home at the exact time traffic stopped. The driver in the car two ahead of us got out of his car and picked up what looked like a soggy rag from the middle of the street and discarded it on the side of the road. He got back in his car and drove off, allowing traffic to continue. As we passed the spot he had stopped, I noticed that the wet rag was actually a tiny kitten. She was sitting exactly where he had left her…just staring at the wall in front of her motionless.
I yelled at the cab driver to stop so I could get her. He just smiled thinking I must have been joking. Why would someone want to stop and go back to pick up a discarded wet rag? I had to repeat myself three times before it registered to him that I was serious. So he parked on the side of the road and I ran back to get the wet rag, which was still staring motionless at the wall.
As soon as I picked her up, she came to life and started meowing and rubbing her head against me. It’s as if she had given up on life and that the hundreds of humans who walked past her simply had no capacity to see kittens like her. Yet she had this capacity to love and she couldn’t wait to express it to someone who actually noticed and appreciated her.
For me, it was love at first sight. She was a beautiful tiger-striped baby who couldn’t hold herself back from expressing the affection that so many people missed the opportunity of seeing in her. I couldn’t wait to absorb it all and give it all back to her. It was a short ride home and I couldn’t wait to play with my newfound friend.
I paid the cab driver who took off, shaking his head at the strange foreigner who hugs wet rags. But this was now my wet rag and she filled my heart with happiness. I didn’t even unpack my bags. I noticed she couldn’t move one of her legs, so I needed to take her to the vet right away. I rescued a cat previously that had a bad leg and the vet amputated it and she’s still alive and healthy today, 6 years later, so I wasn’t too worried. Nonetheless I always get anxious taking animals to vets because you just never know what they might find.
II. Her Leg will be Fine
Fortunately, the vet was available to see her right away. He took her out of her cage and started examining her. The vet quickly examined her leg and moved on. He pointed out she was covered in her own feces. I hadn’t noticed. He let out a sigh and said, “She has a dislocated hip. It’s curable.” At that moment, I desperately wished he would stop talking, and he would cure her leg so I could go home and play with my friend. But he kept talking. “But she’s lethargic and has diarrhea. I’m going to need to test her for panleukopenia.” Ok, sounds like a pretty obscure disease. I’m sure she doesn’t have it but go ahead. The whole time kitty was laying patiently on the cold metal table. She was still the same happy meowing kitten and didn’t give the doctor any trouble as he probed and pricked her with needles. I was so proud of my new buddy. What a good kitty.
“I’m afraid she’s positive. In all likelihood she will be dead within 4 or 5 days. I’m sorry but there is no cure.” Ok, I thought. What’s the next appropriate response? I need to shrug my shoulders and say something stupid like, “Ok, well I’m glad I’ll be able to give her a comfortable last few days,” so that’s exactly what I said. But what was going on in my head was crumbling. My visions of spending my spare time with her playing under the lemon tree in the back yard…crumbled. The thought that this was the luckiest cat on earth…crumbled. The belief that the miserable life she had led up until then would soon be forgotten and that she would now be able to enjoy a happy life filled with love…crumbled. Her faith in humans being something other than heartless automata incapable of distinguishing loving kittens from wet rags…crumbled. The vet did more tests. “…and she has hypothermia. Keep her warm and bring her back tomorrow…if she’s still alive.”
As I drove her home, I had no thoughts whatsoever. Even a single hint of the reality of the situation seeping into my thought process would have made me break down, and right now she needed me. The vet said she was highly contagious, so even though it was sunny and there were only a few more sunny days left in her life, I had to keep her inside her cage. I kept her near the window so she could feel the sun’s rays. I wrapped her in a cot and let her sleep. She was meowing like she was a bit uncomfortable, but it was just a minor complaint. Overall, she looked like a happy kitten who was just happy someone finally loved her.
III. The Surrogate Mother
The next morning I ran down stairs as soon as I woke up and rushed to see if she was still alive. She wasn’t moving so I shoved her hard. It simply wasn’t acceptable for her to be dead. Sure enough, she was just in a sound sleep. She looked up at me and meowed giving me the warmest “good morning” I can recall. I petted her and she rubbed her head against me. But then she started meowing…but she wasn’t mildly complaining like the day before. This time it was high-pitched at first and ended low and guttural. She was scared. I think she knew this was serious. I just hugged her closer and gave her all the body contact she had been deprived laying in the street.
That afternoon, it was time to take her back to the vet. By then, she could no longer stand up, and she could only muster enough energy for her haunting cries for help. She was begging me to help her but there was nothing I could do. So I just stroked her beautiful fur and promised her it’s going to be ok even though I knew it wasn’t.
The vet examined her and gave her some fluids. He said she was severely dehydrated and was not in very good shape. I asked if she was dying now or was there any chance she could recover. He said there is about a 10% recovery rate and left it at that. He said she was still hypothermic and gave me a hot water bottle and sent me on my way.
When I got home, I put the hot water bottle under her and put her next to the window so she could feel the sun for perhaps the last time. She was meowing loudly…angrily, insisting someone help her. I put the hot water bottle under her and she suddenly became quiet and embraced it tightly with her arms as if it where the mother who God only knows where she is. For that brief moment, it honestly looked as if she was smiling and content. She looked like my vision of a sweet innocent angel…wrapped under a cot hugging what she thought was her lost mother. I smiled at her and her surrogate mother and thought that if I were to lose her, this is how I would want to remember her.
After a few hours, I got up to leave. As soon as I got to the door, she started meowing loudly, and wouldn’t stop until I sat back down next to her and put my hand over her. She was smaller than my hand so I just rested my hand over her full body like it was a blanket. Her agitated meowing immediately stopped and she started breathing deeply again. About half an hour later, I got up to go again, but she wouldn’t have it. She started meowing loudly again and wouldn’t stop until I put my hand blanket on her. I have no doubt she was in incredible pain, and I have no doubt me being next to her and especially me touching her gave her some sort of comfort and solace.
IV. The Lemon Tree
It was late at night, and I needed to go to bed. Her breathing was very shallow. That scared me. Sometimes I couldn’t feel her chest moving so I’d shake her to make sure she was still alive and it would start heaving again. She no longer had enough energy to meow, but I could see her throat move in rhythm as if she was still trying to…but no noise came out. I put her next to the TV so she’d know she hadn’t been abandoned, and went to bed.
The next morning I ran downstairs hoping against hope that she was still alive but she wasn’t. She must have passed in the middle of the night. Rigamortis had set in and she was frozen in time with her mouth wide open in one last meow for help that would forever go unheard. I got a shovel, and dug a hole under the lemon tree in the back yard. I shed a tear and buried her there.
I am left with nothing but questions. What had happened in her life in the weeks leading to my finding her on the sidewalk? Where was her mother? Did she die from the same disease? How did her hip get dislocated? But there were also some deeper questions. Mainly…what was the point? What was the point in me rescuing her and giving her hope just long enough for it to be snatched from her as she died in pain? What did I gain from the experience but heartache? Did I really add anything to her life given that she mainly just felt pain from the time I met her? If there is a God…what was he thinking? What was the point of making a kitten who was alive only a week or two and who spent almost her whole life suffering? As I squeeze lemon into my tea, these are haunting questions I will never be able to escape.