There is some point where this hill I call home broke in two. Ten minutes walk uphill from my house, the road forked. One sinks into the valley, and the other climbed up to the peak of the mountain.
If you go up, at some point, you will see a giant rock where you can see the whole valley. Bamboo bushes sprouts up from the bottom of the road below, and giant wildflower reaching up to the sun, carpeting your feet.
On that place two years ago, I took my mother for a walk to show her what kind of place I now live in. While she did admire the view and the sky, she also figured that we might be standing on someone else’s home, pointing out toward a feral cat at the other side of the rock, watching us.
For the next two week afterwards, I walked uphill every morning before I go downtown to work, doling food and water for the colony. It’s a tough job, when you used to be a city person, but I didn’t mind, especially after I noticed that one member of the colony is lame.
She was still a teenager – in human years – She can’t stand straight and it gave me goosebumps watching her scaling the upright rock between the towering wildflowers that shelter them.
They were all dirty and sick, but it’s no wonder seeing what they eat and where they live.
One day when I watch them eat, I saw the lame one watching me from inside the front garden of a house across the street; and when I tried to bring some food her way, she ran into the house.
A woman came out and greeted me with a big smile. She invited me inside, treat me cordially like an old friend, and chatted like we know each other forever.
She told me how happy she is that someone is paying attention to the ferals. She told me that she always give her family’s table scrap to them, and allow them to take cover in her porch if they need some shade. She told me that her father was a farmer and that she grew up with barn cats around her. And she told me she is curious because lately the cats don’t hang out on her yard anymore after breakfast, and instead running across the street and wait in line on the rocks.
I told her I lived nearby and how I found them. I told her what I am doing, and that I intended to spay and neuter the whole colony. I told her a little bit about my animal loving family. I tried my best to dispel her antiquarian belief that cats will go crazy and even die if they are fixed (the lie invented by a local veterinarian); as well as her notion that fixing street cats will make her sin against her Allah because it takes away the animal’s right to breed.
When she told me that she was annoyed that the cats breed so quickly and yet most of them died during childhood, is sick all the time, and that she feels helpless about it, I jumped at the opportunity to convince her about TNR, and she told me she is willing to do it on condition that I adopted the lame one instead of returning her to an unsafe place, and since she has a sister who always watch over her I should adopt her sister as well.
I agreed, and the twin cats become the first refugee of our new home.
After the twin were fixed, a few days after she told me that she is going on hajj and that she would love if I come by and watch the cats in her place. She promised to keep the cats sheltered, she promised to keep feeding the cats (though table scrap), she promised to fix them, one after another, the best she can.
In a semi rural place like Bandung, someone taking a hajj trip is a big thing. It’s a show of sophistication, and increase in social status. In a very short general, a hajj is a better person than laymen like me.
I took her words, watched over the cats when she was away and after she came back home, gradually left the colony so I can allocate my limited resources to the other.
Last month when I come and visit that place again after so long, however, the rock was a different place. The whole cliff had been razed clean and soon will be a new residential cluster for the emerging “new money” of Indonesia.
The colony had lost its home.
But the woman’s house is still there. So I ran across the street in exasperation and peeked into her side yard.
I saw them. The matriarch of the colony who is now a grandma cat, the twin’s junior who now must have been a mom, and several other teens whom I never saw before. They huddled together on top of a barren soil, bracing the wind. Their faces were dirty, their eyes told the story of the loss of life, and the fear of the living.
The side yard has fence, but it’s always open, a typical semi rural places in Bandung. I walked in and try to go near them, but they didn’t recognize me anymore. The grandma hissed, and two kittens darted off as far as they can. Their gestures speak aloud about the atrocities of life that befell them, and I was ridden with such guilt because I was not there for them when they need me. I feel guilty because I dropped the ball and walked away.
I walk toward them very carefully, with an opened Whiskas pouch. I want them to know with my every breath that I am a cavalry instead of a gladiator. I put several paper plates on the ground and emptied some pouches, then backed off one step after another, until they are willing to come toward my offering.
They ate like they never seen food for the rest of their lives; and from the way the kittens stick to the young female cat, I knew that they are not fixed. None of them.
I looked around. There’s no shelter, even for the chickens. When I came back that night I saw the chickens huddled together against the wall across the cats. The wooden box on the ground were closed from all side, and the hanging root that provide some shade will not shelter them from rain.
I took a big breath and swallow my own anger. I figured then that even if I asked I’d be met with all sort of excuses. I was slapped back to reality that if I want to do something right, I have to do it myself because this place is cursed. There’s no right in it, and I shouldn’t hope for some love that extend beyond love=food. Cats are animals, they are lower than human, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
So every evening, after the mobsters’ dinner, I walked up hill with food for them. I am alternating vitamins and immune boosters in their food, I mix in dewormer and repeat the next week because I can’t check on them. I do what I can to restore them while waiting for some fund available when I can fix them.
My joy expanded because along the way from my house to their yard, I had the chance to pick up another colony. I thought at first it’s only two yellow tabbies, but as of late I saw four.
It’s not easy to feed an additional soccer club of cats into my strained budget, but I don’t have any other choice, and basically I don’t mind. I don’t mind scraping a little bit more off my own allowance for some extra food and supplements. I don’t mind living a little bit more frugal if it means saving more lives. I owe those ferals that much for complacently neglecting them all this time.
Taking the economical advantage that I provide by feeding the cats with “gourmet food” as they call it, the woman stopped feeding them. She gives when there’s something left; if not, then no food for the cats.
As days past both colonies grow friendly, especially the ones at the side yard. They recognized the range of times I am there so I don’t have to wait on the street and draw anymore attention.
People start talking. Although I live in the area and some people do know me as resident, I am a stranger to the neighborhood. Whenever I come by I can see them peeking from behind their potted plants. Men chatted around with their neighbor on the porch but their eyes are set on my features. Although everybody said loudly that they don’t really care about the racial differences anymore, here in Bandung, people are still left behind in their last-regime racial prejudice on the yellow skin and the small eyes. The curiosity is peaked by my unusual activities. So much so that some woman walked by my side on my way home for a little interview (from what she asked, it’s for their gossip tea party).
I tried to ignore the attention, but their antics scared the cats away. I do not want all my effort go to waste just because some lout decided to make my business theirs.
I attempted to dodge them by going later. And when they found out and a pair of men deliberately sit close by, light some cigarette and chat aloud, I go even later. I want to take photos but I can’t. At the depth of the night my china brand cell phone camera won’t work, and if I use my camera I must use flash, and flash draw even more attention.
I know I am doing a good thing; and the good thing I do doesn’t cost them a thing, it doesn’t even touch any aspect of their lives, and yet I come and go and feel like a thief.
And then there are the kids. First they just wander back and forth and watch from across the street, then they make themselves at home and watch closer, then they decided they’d join the fun and throw stones at the cats.
When I tried to warn them off, their mothers gleefully jumped out of their hiding. What best opportunity to meddle with a stranger’s business! So they walked up to me and remorselessly defend their kids.
But unlike a savage country in the west where citizens entertain themselves by calling names and being mean to their own president, we in Asia do it discreetly. Mothers came over and ask “What happened? I saw everything but I might not be clear. Is this kid bad?” and after that “Is this kid yours?”
We do it with smile on our faces, we ask questions with polite tone and friendly gesture, we bow to each other, but among ourselves, the thread is bare. Hands off, this is my neighborhood and the kid is not yours so you have no right to tell him what can or can’t be done.
Pumped up by their mothers’ blatant defense, their number grow. First one, then two, then four, six afterwards. What started as some “just harmless kids being kids” turned into a stoning event.
Their parents just look from afar and then turn away when I meet them in the eye.
Sure, I am different, and I do things differently. I am not homogeneous, so it’s my own fault that people treat me like a freak show.
Don’t even ask me why some fifth grader are allowed to roam the street screaming and trashing around at 11 pm at night during school days.
Again, I was left with no other choice but to hang in there, and keep changing my schedule. The cats are smarter, of course, and they are built to fit into more hideout than I am.
When I took below picture last week, the side yard colony no longer hiss. They are waiting for me and run toward me like a hero come home from a battle. They greet me with their coarse meows and head bunt. They allow me to touch them and pick them up. They mind their surrounding, but there are no longer a distant between us.
When I finally sell enough on Etsy to fix the side yard colony, I am halfway late. The kitty season started, and two of the cats are pregnant.
Still, with a song in my heart I prepare everything. I schedule the cat food, litter sand to be delivered at the same time. I bumped up their vitamins so they are good enough to have a surgery, I even scheduled paying my bills beforehand so I don’t have to worry about overspending and not being able to pay the bill, especially the mortgage. There are barely enough for everything but I still do it because this rainy season those cats don’t have to worry about keeping themselves dry and warm and full and still have to nurse some kittens. They can stay on the woman’s porch, if anything, or go somewhere else.
Talking about mortgage, two days before it’s due, the bank told me, not by letter, by mouth, when I come visit, that there is a USD 100 increase on my mortgage due to the recent credit interest adjustment by the central bank.
And the great expectation broke apart.
I have arranged that USD 450 is available for me every end of the month. USD 350 for the mortgage, and the next USD 100 for my personal expenditure as well as some cat necessities because we do not always raise enough.
The mortgage increase robbed me my entire monthly allowance, and I was left there empty handed, feeling dumb and even more angry. That point in life, it is never clearer for me the reason why people choose to abandon their God and become an atheist. My God is so difficult to love, even more difficult to please.
That same night when I go up to feed the cats, I stay near them too long because the money issue keep distracting me, and when I finally realized what other dumb thing I am doing, I rushed up and get going.
The grandma and one of the young cat were trailing behind me, trying to follow me home.
I don’t have anymore food left, so I can’t distract them and run away. I paced up but they keep going, calling me from behind. I shoo them but they just sit there, waiting, and when I start walking they too, start following.
I was saved when a motorcycle passed with such a noise they both freaked out and run back home.
I run back home like a loser; the biggest coward in the world. It was me who sought out their trust in the first place, and when those cats had finally entrusted their lives into my hand, I abandoned them. I ran away.
Not that I don’t want to take them home, really, but my place is full. I have managed to cram more cats than it should by spaying and neutering them all, but I do not have anymore space to add a dozen more cats without bloodshed.
I still go out and feed them, and I will keep my promise; there are already too many broken promises. I can always wait for another fortune, who knows when it comes, but if the colony exploded with kittens after this, It will just be as hard for me to feed them.
My only hope now is only the promise God make that if I ask, I will be answered. He hasn’t broke any promises yet, though He always push me to the end of my limit.
I just hope that this time is not going to be the first.