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It was an uncomfortably hot Miami night when I awoke at 4 a.m. to a noise I'd never heard before. It sounded like a cat growling. The only one of my three cats I'd ever heard growl was Scarlett, and it wasn't her. And it couldn't be Vashti, who was so unassertive that her meows came out as tiny squeaks. That left Homer, the orphan I'd adopted as a 3-week-old after an eye infection had required the surgical removal of both his eyes. I named him after the Greek poet who had imagined magnificent epics even though he couldn't see.
The mere fact of Homer's growling (he was usually as friendly as a puppy) already had me scared. I squinted and struggled to see him in the darkness. Faint light streamed through the blinds from the streetlights, but Homer, black and eyeless, was invisible. I could feel him close by, though. I sat up and flipped on my bedside lamp.
Homer stood in the middle of the bed, puffed up to about three times his normal size. His back was arched, and every hair on his body stood straight up, his tail bristled and stiff as a pipe cleaner. His legs were set wide apart, and his ears were at full attention. He moved his head and ears evenly from side to side with the precision of a sonar dish. His front claws were extended farther than I would have thought physically possible. His growl continued, low and unbroken -- not completely aggressive yet, but a definite warning.
Beyond Homer, standing at the foot of my bed, was a man I'd never seen before. I stifled a gasp as every muscle in my body stiffened and tensed. The buried nightmare of every woman living alone -- the scenario that has spawned thousands of horror movies -- was playing out right here, right now, in my bedroom. My eyes darted around the room, considering each object I saw and its value as a weapon.
The intruder looked as startled as I felt and, for a crazy moment, this struck me as ridiculous. Surely, among the three of us, he was most prepared for whatever was about to happen. I mean, who had broken into whose apartment? But then I realized he wasn't looking at me: He hadn't taken his eyes off Homer.
He'd obviously heard Homer growling but, like me, had been unable to find any visual evidence of his presence. It was taking the intruder a second to figure out why this cat -- who gave every indication of preparing to attack -- had been so utterly invisible. There was something weird going on here, something off about this cat...
Under more benign circumstances I would have been deeply offended by the look of horror that spread over his face when he realized what it was.
Homer's growl rose dramatically in both volume and pitch. Some cats growl and bristle as a way of avoiding a fight, slowly backing up while maintaining an intimidating posture in the hope that their adversary will back down first. But not Homer. He wasn't backing up -- he was creeping forward, toward the intruder.
If you'd asked me a day earlier I would have sworn that Homer would never attack anybody, that even if for some altogether unimaginable reason he departed from his usual happy-go-lucky nature, the sound of my "No!" would have stopped him instantly. Homer was a daredevil and a mischief-maker, but he never disobeyed me outright. This fact was a cornerstone of our relationship, one of the fundamental qualities, apart from his blindness, that set him apart.
Yet in that moment I knew that, if Homer decided to attack this man, I would be unable to stop him. The only question was how clawed-up and bloodied this burglar, or I, or both of us, would get in the process of trying to subdue him.
It had been just seconds since I'd switched on the lamp, and my next move was so obvious I couldn't believe I hadn't done it already: I picked up the phone and started to dial 911.
"Don't do that," the man said, speaking for the first time.
I hesitated for the briefest instant, then looked over at Homer. Be like Homer, a voice in my head urged. Act tougher than you really are.
"Go to hell," I said to the man and finished dialing.
Then everything seemed to happen at once. "There's somebody in my apartment!" I screamed into the phone as Homer finally sprang into action. He might not have realized how very much smaller he was than this man standing menacingly over my bed, but he did know how to pinpoint a location based on sound. By speaking, the intruder had let Homer know precisely where he stood.
With a loud hiss that bared his fangs (which, until this moment, I'd naively thought of as "teeth"), Homer thrust the whole weight of his body forward and brought his right front leg into the air, stretching it up and out so far that it looked, bizarrely, as if the bone connecting his leg to his shoulder had come out of its socket. His claws extended even further (good Lord, how long were they?). Glinting like scythes in the lamplight, they slashed viciously at the intruder's face, missing by a fraction of an inch -- and only because the man reflexively snapped his head back.
"Okay, ma'am, I'm dispatching officers now," the 911 operator said. "Stay on the phone...."
I never heard the rest, because at that point the intruder turned and ran. Homer, his tail still upright, leaped from the bed and raced after him.
"Homer!" My shriek was unlike anything that had ever come out of my own mouth. It made my throat feel torn and bloody. "Homer -- No!"
I dropped the phone and sprinted after them. Like competing runners panting toward a finish line, two separate and distinct fears vied for primacy in my brain. The first was that Homer might actually catch up to the intruder. Who knew what this man would do if he saw Homer's talons coming at him a second time? But I was also terrified that Homer might chase the burglar out my front door and into the long, labyrinthine corridors of my apartment complex -- and, unable to see his way back home, be lost to me forever.
As this picture played in my head, I was shocked to realize how deep-seated my fear was, that Homer's getting lost had always lain in the background of my thoughts, coiled and silent but ready to rear up at a moment's notice.
Homer made it out the front door and was about 6 feet into the hallway before I finally caught up with him. At the far end of the corridor I saw the emergency exit door swing closed. I scooped Homer up in one hand. The staccato pounding of his heart alarmed me, though my own chest felt full of liquid fire. Homer resisted mightily, flailing his front claws at random and catching the skin inside my forearm with his back claws, raising angry red welts. It wasn't until I'd reentered the apartment that he seemed to come back to himself.
"When I say no I mean no!" I screamed. "You're a bad cat, Homer! A bad, bad cat!"
Homer was panting heavily, his rib cage expanding and shrinking in rapid-fire succession. Then he took a deep breath and cocked his head slightly to one side. One of those things about Homer that had always clutched at my heart was the way he seemed truly to be trying to understand me when I talked to him -- like right now, as he tilted his face toward the sound of my voice, struggling to make sense of my yelling. On one hand, every instinct in his body told him he'd just done the right thing: There had been a threat and he had defended his territory and chased off the threat. On the other, here was Mommy, yelling at him as he'd never been yelled at before.
Homer didn't creep toward me apologetically the way he usually did when I was angry. He just sat there on his haunches, his tail curled lightly around his front paws like an ancient Egyptian statue. For some reason it brought to mind a scene from Ernest Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. A ragged group of peasants has just done battle with Fascist soldiers in the Spanish Civil War. Among the dead is the loyal horse of an elderly farmer who had joined the fight. Kneeling over the body of the fallen horse, the farmer whispers in his ear, "Eras mucho caballo", which Hemingway translates as "Thou wert plenty of horse." The line had always stuck with me, a single sentence that contained multitudes.
My tiny cat looked even smaller than usual, his head still bent to one side as his fur receded quietly back to its normal dimensions. I knelt down and rubbed him behind the ears. He purred softly in response. "I'm sorry I yelled at you, Homer," I said. "I'm so sorry, little guy."
There was a sharp rap at the door, followed by an extremely welcome shout of "Police!"
"I'm okay!" I called, picking Homer up again and walking toward the door. Ordinarily he didn't like to be held, but now he rested quietly in my arms.
I buried my face in his neck, suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude that he'd saved me from who knows what dire fate. Homer was clearly capable of behavior -- courageous, extraordinary, heroic behavior -- that I never would have predicted three years ago, when I adopted him, or even three days ago. I'd always insisted that Homer was as "normal" as any other cat.
But now he was something else altogether. "Eres mucho gato, Homer," I whispered into his ear. Thou art plenty of cat.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2009.