This is the tale of a cat who was lost for six years, and then found again. His name is Grendel, and he lives with me and three other animals in a red barn house in Asheville, North Carolina.
I was one of those English Lit students who actually liked Beowulf. I loved the alliteration, but I was also strangely sympathetic to the monster, Grendel, and tried to look at the situation from his perspective. He was a primal predator and he needed to eat. What better to lunch on than a bunch of drunken he-men acting like primordial heroes!
Later, when my mom went to college in her mid 60s and studied the Anglo-Saxon epic, she, too, liked Grendel. In fact, her best buddy in the class was a young football player who came in one day having just finished the reading assignment, and voiced the sad, sincere complaint, “They killed Grendel’s mom!” She and I always laughed about that phrasing, the thought that Grendel had not just a mother, but a mom.
We were equally delighted by John Gardner’s novel, Grendel, in which the monster tells his side of the story, one of isolation and, ultimately, nihilism. From Gardner’s perspective, Grendel wanted to be heroic like the men he preyed upon, but because he had been exiled from society, his values were, of necessity, not human.
In the year 2000, I adopted two littermate kittens that were found in an abandoned barn. The fluffy calico I dubbed Chickadee, and the beautiful classic black cat was named Grendel. He was shy, but loving, the kind of creature who accepts affection somewhat apologetically and often slinks away from too much human attention.
As a kitten, Grendel had a normal mewing voice. During his “teenage stage,” he once stayed out in the woods on Mountain Springs Road for several days, perhaps undergoing some feline rite of passage. Upon his return, the guttural cry that emanated from his vocal chords seemed to herald some mysterious transformation into a semblance of his literary monster namesake. He now sounded like a combination of a Siamese with a sore throat and what mountain people call a “painther cat.”
Grendel lived with Chickadee, Belial and Jimmy, in a timber framed shed on the property of my Kentucky cabin in the wilderness on Furnace Mountain, near the Red River Gorge. Belial and Jimmy were truly feral cats, and barely touchable, while Grendel and Chickadee were somewhat tame, but still held a distance from most people. They could all come and go as they pleased, and returned to the shed when their automatic feeder dispensed their food three times a day. Theirs was an idyllic life. I recall long walks along the forest service road near my house, trailed by two or three of the shed cats, meandering through the woods at their own leisurely pace. I loved them all, but felt the strongest connection to Grendel. He seemed a bit smarter and more refined than the others.
Changes came to Furnace Mountain in the form of unsustainable logging on adjacent properties. I sold the cabin in 2006 to live for a few years in a city – and the shed cats were not city material. So they went to live in the country with a friend, who eventually ended up taking them to Boones Creek Camp, where I had grown up in the tiny community of Trapp, near Winchester. Jimmy, who was the most skittish, vanished shortly after leaving the mountain. The other three settled into a mostly feral life, holing up like refugees in some abandoned buildings across the road from the camp, but visiting the parsonage and office for regular feedings on the porch of the house I had grown up in.
From early 2008 until the fall of 2010, I lived in Costa Rica and Canada working with a kayak tour operator. I thought of the cats many times, but was not in touch with anyone who knew how they were. Then I returned to Winchester, Kentucky to live with my mom, whose health was beginning to fail. With the stress of adjusting to being a caregiver, it honestly did not occur to me until February of 2012 that some of the shed cats might still be at the camp. I drove the 15 minutes out there one Sunday afternoon, and what I found amazed me. Grendel, Belial and Chickadee were all still alive and well, feasting regularly on the porch of the camp residence/office, and living across the road in the dilapidated remains of an old homestead. They looked great, and they knew me!
The next few months were hectic because by now, my mom was very ill and I was with her round-the-clock. But I would manage to bring a bag of food out to the camp once a month for Angel, the woman who now fed them. Angel had evidently been left instructions from the previous camp director, Jim Smith, in no uncertain terms: something to the effect of, “Whatever you do, do not ever abandon the responsibility of feeding these cats!”
A few months later, mid June, I got a call from Angel. She said coyotes had been seen in the area, and she suspected they had gotten two of the cats, as she now only saw one of them. “Who is left?” I inquired. It was Grendel.
I went to see him soon as I could get away for an hour, and he walked me all around the premises of his dwelling, making his raucous bellow all the while, as if in mourning for his lost mates. He was all alone now, like the beast in Beowulf. He would not let me touch him, but he seemed to enjoy my companionship.
Since Angel was now his feeder, I instructed her to catch him when possible, and bring him to me in Winchester, where I lived with my mom. I would take him to the vet, and if he checked out fine, I’d bring him into our home to be a companion for our kitten, Oki.
Oki was incensed that another cat even existed, much less was in her home. But inside of two weeks, the two were cuddling and grooming one another. We had a monitor in my mom’s room so we could hear her calling out when she needed something, and I recall hearing Grendel, over the roar of the oxygen machine, emitting his guttural roar as my dying mother tried to sleep. She asked me once, politely, “How long will Grendel be staying with us?”
Sadly for Mother, Grendel would be staying much longer than she could; she died in late July, only a month and a half after he arrived.
Nine months after Mom died, Grendel moved with Oki and me to North Carolina. The move was rough for him, and included an embarrassing stop at the Tennessee border to clean him up along the way. My friends Mary and Joe helped out, and when Grendel was ready to travel again, Joe said, in what has become an infamous metaphor, “Let’s get this rock star to the show.”
Now our family has gained three more beings: John, Dukkha Dog and Puppy Ivy. Grendel takes it all in stride. He loves his cushy indoor life, with Havarti cheese cut into 14 tiny cubes at least once a day, a dollop of vanilla ice cream late in the evenings, and a sunny window seat with comfy cushions for his throne. He still slinks away from affection, but always purrs when being carried or sleeping on my feet at night. He and Oki spend hours every day in their outside cabana, and go for walks in my big fenced-in back yard. Occasionally Grendel will jump the fence and stay out on his own for several hours, but he always comes home.
Six years he was a shed cat on Mountain Springs Road, and six years he was feral and survived, thanks to Jim Smith and the camp Angels, and his own cat smarts. Now he is almost 15, and is in great shape.
Sometimes in the wee hours before dawn, he lifts up his raucous voice to the heavens and bellows out a sound that I’m sure would make even Beowulf wonder: Is he giving thanks? Does he miss his mates from the old days? Does he want to prey on a mouse? Or does he just want more of his dry catfood, NOW!