Casper and Harry
by Neal Holtschulte
Casper was a cat's cat, free from litter box, dry food, or human shelter, red in tooth and claw, strong and fierce. You did not pet Casper. You put your hand out and she met it with her forehead like a firm handshake.
Casper had short black hair except for a white spot under her neck. She was lean and wiry. She came and went as she pleased, disappearing into the woods, or stalking small creatures from the shadows beneath the pines. With Casper around, our sliding glass door became a window into the wild.
Harry Mudd was a dog the way we imagine dogs, a platonic dog you might say, loyal, loving, and selfless to a fault, dumb and smelly from his propensity to roll in fresh mulch, but such a g'boy, good boy, yes you are.
Harry was a black lab with hip dysplasia and a skin condition that gave him perpetually greasy fur. Oh Harry, we love you but you're a filthy creature, we would tell him though he would only understand the first part.
Before she was fully grown Casper survived on the grounds of a Scott's fertilizer plant by catching mice until humans caught her. They gave her to our family in October, near Halloween. This wasn’t adoption so much as catch and release of a miniature panther. In keeping with the season, we named her Casper in spite of the gender mix up.
Casper avoided the hard food we put out for her. Not because, like a lot of cats, she expected to train her humans to buy her the Fancy Feast, but because she could get wet gushy food all by herself. She perfected the self-confident stare: I’m disemboweling a mouse. What are you looking at? All she would leave behind would be a blood spot and the gall bladder. She ate mice the way some people peel Starbursts in their mouth, nothing left to do but spit out a bit of wrapper.
Harry made a miserable guard dog. He didn't bark or growl except in his sleep, his legs twitching in imaginary chases. He was bursting with love and compassion for all men and beasts. He learned the hard way that Mr. Skunk did not wish to be his friend and the sharp-clawed Siamese next door was not amused by friendly butt-sniffing.
I misspoke. Harry did not learn. All his learning neurons had been replaced with optimism. With optimism he tried to make friends with the skunk again. With optimism he wrapped his leash around the picnic table, tying himself in knots, and with renewed optimism he struggled to free himself as he heard our car pull in to the driveway. He succeeded only in pulling his chain tighter and stumbling in his food bowl to the delight of the ants streaming across the patio.
Harry came to our family as a replacement. At first we called him Harry Mudd Junior, because young Harry Mudd Senor (no actual relation) was killed by a car on the dangerous road we lived on. The road was well-traveled enough to be paved, but rural enough to have a fifty mile per hour speed limit and our driveway let out just above a hill that produced an awful blind spot.
In the winter Harry slept curled up in the garage on the filthiest mat you ever saw. The grease from his fur soaked into this mat, indelibly marking it as his. Casper came, seeking shelter and though she never let herself depend on the generosity of others, she hopped on top of Harry and curled up to sleep. Casper never sought help and Harry gave of himself without ever expecting anything in return, but in the
winter, they shared their heat.
It was quite a sight, this lump of black fur piled on top of a lump of black fur. We took a picture but in poor lighting it turned out looking more like a black hole in the garage floor than this unlikely bond between animals.
When we walked back to the woods, Harry led. He had to lead. It was in his bones, a genetic compulsion, a dog's duty to act as scout and vanguard, to go on ahead of man though there might be danger.
Casper, too, joined these hikes. We glimpsed her stealing between shadows under the pine trees, then darting into tall grass to watch us unseen. Perhaps she was curious, but more likely she obeyed her own genetically ingrained instincts. What could be more natural for humans’ domesticated creatures than for the dog to lead and the cat to follow, knowing that mice and rats too follow in the wake of humans?
Even when Harry became old and gray, though he shook while lying still, though we merely walked and he struggled to move, he stayed ahead of us. At some arbitrary point we decided we were done with our pleasure walk. We reversed direction to head home. Harry ran, though he wheezed, in order to lead us in this new direction.
In old age when Harry tried to stand, he flailed against the slippery linoleum. His motion served only to push away the rug that gave him traction. We hastened over to push the rug back beneath him and let him out to pee.
Harry showed uncharacteristic self-awareness at the end of his life. One day he made his flailing motions indicating he wanted to be let out. We slid open the back door for him. He never came back. He went out and found a quiet spot far back in the woods and lay down to die with dignity.
Casper should have lived forever. Perhaps the white spot on her neck had grown larger, but besides that she showed no signs of aging. She was as strong as ever, rubbing against our legs like a bear trying to knock down trees, leaving patches of fresh vole blood or bird feathers on the garage floor, evidence of her continued prowess.
In the winter she found the greasy blackened mat in the garage where it had always been. It smelled of Harry but remained cold and empty. She slept there all the same.
Casper died instantly, hopefully painlessly, when the twenty-four ton rock quarry truck ran over her at fifty miles per hour.
She had lived by that road for over a decade during which time Harry Mudd Jr. had been hit by a car and survived, gaining a new plastic hip in the bargain. I won't believe that she made a mistake by running in front of that truck. She knew exactly what she was doing.