Our introduction was looming. The cat seemed a bit ethereal as it slid between pockets of light & inky blackness, disappearing momentarily, only to reappear a couple feet nearer. The only way for certain I could tell it didn’t stop somewhere in the dark was that its grumbling purr grew steadily louder. Abruptly, the cat surged from the sharp edge of a deep shadow, startling a surprised “Eeep!” from me. This didn’t faze the cat a bit; it stopped about six inches from my toes & tucked its haunches comfortably beneath itself, tail tip twitching near its front paws. Its wide amber eyes held mine. Again, it pronounced quite precisely, “Mi-aow!” I could feel its rumbling breaths ruffling the hairs on my knuckles, which were still wrapped tightly around my legs.
I didn’t know what to do. We didn’t have cats; the only cats I was even familiar with were the feral cats my grandma cared for around her home. Some were tame enough to pet & hold, but most were terrified of contact. My dad didn’t even like cats, so I was a little worried that this one was even in our yard. What should I do? I peeked at Mom & Dad again. They were smoking & talking, totally ignoring what was taking place a few feet away from them. I looked back at the cat & it regarded me patiently, unblinking, as if it had all the time in the world. It kept purring.
I slowly stretched out my left hand.
The cat didn’t move an iota when my trembling fingertips touched its forehead. Its only reaction was to close its eyes & – unbelievably – amplify even more its internal engine. I stroked its head & down its back, enthralled by the thick silky fur, but also shocked at how skeletal the cat felt beneath the luxuriant coat. When my hand reached the root of its tail, the cat stood & stretched. It opened its eyes & met my gaze as it stepped forward with clear purpose. I quickly folded my legs down into a crisscross style lap & the cat climbed in, circled once, & lay down with a contented sigh, purring heartily. I kept stroking the cat, but it was a while before I realized I was crying.
To my complete surprise, my parents took pity on the hungry cat & allowed me to adopt it. By the light of day, the cat looked even worse; not nearly so mysterious & much more ragged & unkempt. It was clearly starving & in need of loving care. Scabby & bony, but covered in the thickest, richest blue-gray coat I’d ever seen, with huge amber eyes; I also discovered that the cat was male, & unaltered. I bought him food, he got vaccinations & de-worming, & I fashioned a shelter for him against the side of the patio. I found a leather collar at a yard sale & a neighbor engraved his name on it: “Panther.” I officially had a cat.
Panther was one of those cats that made “regular cats” look bad. He was a true friend, a confidant, an unselfish spirit – unlike the majority of felines which demand servitude of humankind. Panther clearly enjoyed loving & being loved; he was simply a happy creature with a huge heart. He would race up & down the alley with me, for no reason but to run & play for the sheer joy in it. I could call him & if he could hear my voice, he would come, although sometimes it would take him almost half an hour to get home from wherever he was meandering… But he’d always race up the sidewalk in response to my call. He recognized sadness in me & would stick to me like a burr when he sensed it. I was never sure whether he was worried about me or if he was trying to comfort me, or perhaps a little of both. Panther never complained. He was happy someone cherished him & held him & told him secrets. He didn’t care that I couldn’t afford the most expensive food. He never bit anyone, he never scratched anyone; he just doled out his calming gaze & his hypnotic purr, letting his love pour over everyone he met. He was very unusual, but it was a wonderful unusual.