Geraldine Meehan

The Syrian Cat.
“The Ugliest thing that I have ever seen is a human being without compassion.” (Unknown).

Trudging through the wasteland, through a bewildering landscape of ruins with smoke and sand billowing in the dawn, a young cat, a Syrian cat, with her family following closely behind, stops to stare; stops to take a moment to breathe the hot, acrid air, air that burns her lungs and causes her little ones to meow in panic. She stares but sees not the destruction, she sees an ancient land, a land where, once upon a time, possibly the first cat walked upon the earth, and it was good. She cannot understand how this land, her land, has been reduced to rubble. This land, known for its breathtaking natural beauty, its historic monuments, its centres of learning and of wisdom, has become a land of desolation, desolation which resides in her heart as she must leave and seek refuge elsewhere. Her little ones stumble, paws burned from the hot, baked sand, cracked and open sores on their faces, eyes half shut. Her shoulders slump in weariness but she must get them to safety or else they will all die. There is no food, no water, her milk has long dried, yet they go on. There is no choice.

After a long, hazardous journey, they finally reach Turkey and there they are met by a Turkish Van cat. He is lazing in beams of sunlight, his long, lithe, well muscled body, glistening. He   looks on this family with pity and shares his food. This is the first act of kindness. “You are one of many to have entered my land,” he tells her,” and there is so little here for us to give you, it might be best for you to travel further in search of your dream.” She has no dream. It has been  shattered, like her homeland.

The Syrian cat and her family are running from persecution, are running away from all that was once theirs, once a place of love and the happy sounds of kittens playing. No more, not in her lifetime, can this be regained. Paw in front of paw, in front of paw in front of paw, each step draining, sapping energy, they move, at a snail’s pace. West through the vast expanse of the Turkish countryside. West, always heading West, following the setting sun, heading for a safe haven where she hopes her little family can find shelter.

Meandering through wild garlic and sweet smelling plants, with the warm sea breeze ruffling fur as they reach the coast, the kittens stare in wonder and fear. The unknown lies ahead but there, in front of them, lies a vastness of wetness and this terrifies the little family. It is water, but not a stream or a river bubbling softly over rocks. This, as far as the eye can see, goes on forever. The Turkish Van cat did tell her to expect this, it was nothing to worry about, after all, all cats can swim, can’t they? Fatigue, hopelessness, loneliness, overcome her and she falls to the ground. She must, she must, must get up, her little ones depend on her but, with mounting horror, she stares at the oncoming wetness. There is nothing to eat but grass, nothing to drink but salt water and on that long, moonlit night, the little family huddled together for comfort.

They woke to hunger, to thirst, the little kittens pitifully mewing for milk. She had none. She dragged her body upright and, through sheer willpower, roused the kittens and told them not to move, to remain where they were. She needed to hunt before her strength failed her, before her kittens died. Crawling on her belly, her fur ragged and unkempt, her stick thin body battered and  bruised, she came upon a dead thing on the shore. Dead a long time, a scaly thing, but food for all that. She quickly gobbled a little and promptly it came back up. This time she was careful to eat it slowly. In her hunger, she did not forget her kittens, two little ones, utterly dependent on her for survival. She rested a while and then, slowly, slowly, one paw in front of the other, she returned to the kittens. A morsel of food is all she has eaten, she offers the rest to the kittens. “Don’t gulp”, she tells them,” chew, carefully, savour it, it is all we have.” They slept. The mother watched over them and a plan began to form. She knew from the Turkish Van  that the only way to reach the land across the wide expanse of wet was on a thing called a boat. He had described this boat thing and, that morning, as she hunted on the beach, she saw one. It looked flimsy to her, she could see water moving about in the bottom and sunlight piercing the sides but, somehow, she had to get herself and her family onto this thing.

Her tired mind worried at this problem while her little kittens slept fitfully by her side. She had to do it. She had to, but how? The only way she knew, and that meant great danger, was to  pick a kitten up, carry it to the thing, drop it while still sleeping, go back for the second one and do the same. She clambered onto the thing and, one by one, dropped the kittens to the bottom. They were beyond exhaustion and slept through the moving. Now she had to hide them. She clawed at  the slimy, weedy, sea stuff nearby and gently covered the sleeping bodies. Spent, not an ounce of energy left, she covered them with her body.

She awoke to moonlight and remembered many a night looking at the full moon, gazing in wonder at the lights twinkling in the distance and at the stars above. But then one night, when she was just a kitten and had strayed a little distance from her Mother, she heard a whoosh in the sky followed by a loud bang and a huge explosion. She closed her eyes in fear and trembled. When she dared to open them the lights had disappeared, black smoke was rising and covered the stars. She shook, frozen to the spot. In panic, she sought her Mother and found her. Charred, smoldering, burnt, crispy skin and little mats of fur, were all that remained. She sat, in disbelief, in shock, in horror. How could this be? Were the Gods so angry? What had cats done to deserve this? There was no answer from the vastness above. That was the beginning of the bad things, the bad places, the dead places. Alone, petrified with fear, she left that place of death, never to return. She lived in a sea of sand and scavenged where she could. This was survival but only just. She met others of her kind passing through and, on another moonlit night, she met him. He too moved on and, weeks later, her kittens were born; born to a land that was constantly shifting and changing, never the same; born to a land that now saw more and more flashes in the distance, more and more smoke rising, getting closer, forever creeping her way. This was a land laid waste, no longer recognisable. Creatures were dying in their droves. Others were marching away from destruction but the Syrian cat could not leave until her kittens were a little older. She knew she must, she just hoped it would not be too late.

She must leave the land of her birth, the land that had nourished and protected her parents and grandparents, generation after generation. A Syrian cat left her homeland, no possessions, just her kittens and memories of starlit, calm nights before the booms in the sky, before the fires rained down, before the destruction of her habitat and the creatures within.   

Cowering in the thing called a boat, her kittens asleep under her, she listens to the rustles from the undergrowth. Stealthy rustles, but not from four paws. These creatures walk upright and the rustles grow louder, less stealthy, more confident. Hurriedly, she mouths a foul  thing, smelling of  wetness and decay. She quickly gathers it into her mouth, this slippery, slimy plant thing, and pulls it over herself and the kittens. Not a moment too soon. The boat thing rocks and the uprights get in. She can’t see, but she can hear the rustle of paper changing hands. She knows it  is paper, she has played with it as a kitten, before it disintegrated in her paws. There is a smell in the air, the smell of fear, the smell of desperation. She recognises it, she too gives off this smell. Huddled, hidden, covered, she tries to protect her kittens as the uprights climb in, one after another, one after another, one after another until the boat thing rocks and sways dangerously, threatening to disgorge them. The water underneath splashes the thing, little rivulets come in the sides and she fears discovery and death. The smell of fear is overpowering, small uprights mewing, large uprights screaming and then the heavens open. The rain pours down and adds to the fear. Do all cats swim?

The boat thing moves, forwards, backwards, sideways. There is the sound of something hitting water and the thing gains momentum. It is going away from land, from anything known,going to the unknown, deeper and deeper and deeper, further and further and further. All sound stops and then there is a screeching overhead, a bird, circling, heading for land. The water rises, comes over the side, the uprights scream, the little ones mew and, as a giant hand of water, as though it were a caress, grips the boat thing, a little one falls from her Mother’s grasp and is gone, gone, gone, a little furry face barely seen through water. The Syrian cat does not know what to do, her paws cannot reach, the uprights frighten her, she should not be discovered or they might kill her. Then comes the second act of kindness. A large paw, with no fur, reaches into the water, scoops up  her kitten and carefully places it next to her. Blinking in shock, in awe, expecting awful things, she awaits her fate. Her Mother had warned her,” keep away from the uprights, they are dangerous.” The Syrian cat had seen for herself what they had done, the flying  things overhead, the destruction left in their wake, the scattered remains of uprights lying in the dirt, in the sand, in the blood. She tries desperately to protect her wet, bedraggled kitten and her little dry one, she hisses, her eyes blaze as the hand hovers over her, she lashes out, claws at the hand but it is no use. She is gathered up, like flotsam. She closes her eyes and feels a soft touch. In abject fear, fear like no other fear, she feels  her statue like body being touched, but touched with gentleness, with kindness, like the tongue of a Mother cat, grooming and soothing. Her trembles stop, her kittens call to her and they too are gathered and placed next to her. Placed next to a sound that is so familiar though the smell is different. The sound of a beating heart. The furless hand continues its stroking and even if death is to come at least it comes with warmth.

Purring, purring, purring kittens, next to a purring Syrian cat, held close to a heartbeat and the hand moves away. It returns moments later and it smells of food. Something fishy, something delicious, wafts on the sea breeze and is offered. The Mother cat refuses. Her kittens need it if they are to survive. She takes a little from the hand once her kittens have had their share and she sleeps. In the dawn of a new morning the boat thing rocks and shudders and she can see land. As it gets closer and closer, she asks herself, do all cats swim? But, gently, carefully, she and the kittens are placed in a bag as the upright wades ashore. There they are set down, away from the water, and she takes time to sniff the strange, unfamiliar scents of this place called an island. The uprights are herded away, pushed and shoved from the shore and she and her family are alone once more. Out of the gathering light, a Greek island cat appears, sinewy but strong, smelling of fish, of uprights, but not of belonging. The third act of kindness comes her way.” Cats from across the water”, says he, “ hungry, homeless, landless cats seeking refuge but there is not enough here for you. There is food for you, enough to feed your family for a short time and then you must move on”. He offers her food and, for the first time in a long, long time, at last, she and the kittens are  full. That night and for many nights later, he kept watch over the little family and kept them safe. This was his homeland, he knew all the hiding places, the best hunting places, he showed her where to find food, he guarded the kittens while she hunted but food was scarce. There were so many others, way too many, and she knew it was time to move again but she was so tired. Her kittens, her precious little ones, needed her to guide them to a life, a new life, in a strange land, but where?

Her opportunity came one morning as uprights arrived, swinging cameras and laughing. Spreading towels on the sand, soaking up the sun, they did not see her, she was just another refugee with a family. In the chaos of uprights arriving and leaving, refugees, like herself, managed to get on another boat thing. It was hard, trying to haul the kittens, one by one, in her mouth, into that thing, so hard and so dangerous. She knew if they were discovered they would be tossed aside. So many already were. This might be their only chance for a future. She had to risk it, she had to gamble all their lives. Hidden under moving upright feet, amidst cries and sobbing, in a torrent of  melancholy, despondency and despair, she hung her head and grieved for all that was lost. Silently, within her heart, she hoped for life for her little family and all those like her. So many times the boat thing stopped and more uprights came on but these were not like her, not refugees, tourists, she heard, sightseeing, and on their way back to Athens. These uprights did not have the smell of desperation, the smell of  helplessness,  but the smell of the sun on their bodies and of oil, slathered all over them. They sat, silently, and tried not to stare.

Once upon a time she had played in the sun and danced in the moonlight, caught moonbeams and was happy. Now, with water everywhere, inside and out, leaking from the boat thing and from   her, she could no longer see, in her heart, any light. The light from the sky still glowed golden and spread, like a message of hope, spreading over the boat thing but she was dead inside. All that day, and into that evening, they were bobbed up and down, up and down, on the wet. Then, in the far distance, through a hole in the thing, she glimpsed lights, like the lights she once knew before the darkness came; lights gleaming on the water from afar, not the stars but from an upright place, a big place, displacing the dark. Shouts from the land, more lights, uprights on the shore, uprights with cold eyes. The boat thing uprights quickly moved off and were gone, and she, with her kittens, was left. Sagging, head low, she whispered to her little ones,” shh, not a  

sound, we must not be seen”. Do all cats swim?  Creeping, crawling, on their bellies, they stumbled off the boat thing and silently crept up the land. Sleep, her little ones needed sleep, but

they needed food and she had none to give. She watched as they, with eyes closing, fell into exhausted sleep. In the shadows, movement all around, constant murmurings of uprights, of little ones, too tired to sleep. She smelt their tears, she smelt their fears. In the morning, after a night of watchfulness, the murmurings became louder, sobs of despair filled the air. Was this it? Was this the end of her hope? Will they die here, in a strange land?

She chivvied the kittens further away and watched from a safe distance. The uprights were moving, moving as one, a long, straggly band of dispossessed. What to do? Where to go? Did she join or should she stay?” Go”, said an inner voice, the voice of her Mother,” Go or die in a strange land”. And so began the long walk, a walk that brought them to an upright made monster, a terrifying metal thing with eyes that gleamed, an unscalable monster. She overheard an upright say,” this is the train”. This then was the end, there was no way on, no way further. She could not plan, her mind was shut, but wait, what was that? If she could just make a leap onto it, perhaps it could be done. Her scared kittens cried, it was so far up but they must do this and, with encouragement from her, they did. The metal monster moved and they were heading towards the unknown again.

Time passed and the scents on the breeze changed. They were in another land and all they could do was follow the uprights, always remaining out of sight. They jumped down and followed: she was so proud of her little survivors. Walking, walking, walking, always walking, then the uprights made a dash, she heard them say “ Border, must cross border”, another strip of land to walk across, then walking, always walking, exhausted, hungry, thirsty, cold. Another thing called border to cross and more and more walking, worn from walking, from struggling, paw pads raw and stinging, kittens mewling, kittens begging her to stop, to put an end to this walking, but she could not. They must keep moving. Then she saw another place to cross, a border, and another border, and the land smelt fresh and green, with mountains. Her heart sank in her chest. There, before her, was another upright thing, another train thing, but this time she knew what to do. The mood of the uprights had changed, there were even smiles on faces, were they, at last, reaching the end?

They were the last to leave that metal thing called a train that was now sitting in a giant place, filled with the sound of uprights milling about, of uprights talking and laughing, of happy small  uprights held high by large uprights, of other uprights, waiting for the weary but waiting with kindness in their voices. She was lost in a sea of uprights with her kittens lagging behind, getting  further and further away from her as she was surrounded by uprights, constantly moving forward. She could not lose them now, not now.There they were! All together, the three of them  moved on. The air smelling of good things emanating from the uprights waiting at that giant  place, where the train thing ends its journey. A little female upright reaches out her hand to them  and gently strokes the kittens. The tall male upright with her smiles and offers the Syrian cat his hand. Shaken by the long, seemingly endless journey, she sniffs it and feels welcomed. She allows him to pick  up her kittens and then her. An enormous sense of relief fills her whole body, her kittens are purring, they haven’t purred in so long, what was there to be happy about during their journey?

For the first time since she left her homeland of Syria, she feels safe and the fourth act of kindness is bestowed. This upright smells just like  the one on the boat thing, who scooped her

kitten from the water.This upright, with his small upright, has, with that act of kindness, made it all worthwhile, the endless walking, the endless fear, the endless hunger and thirst. He bends,

strokes her head and quietly whispers, “grow strong, little ones, you are safe and coming home with us.” Only her Mother called her little one, a long, long time ago. She knows her Mother would be happy for them and hopes that the sands of time have covered her body and made her one with her Syria. She is at peace, as are they. No longer homeless, no longer dispossessed, no ruins, no smoke billowing in the dawn, no acrid air, no more panic.

They survived because of four acts of kindness, two from her own kind and two from the  uprights; acts that meant the world to them, acts that brought them to the beginning of a new life. Life, life without fear. Their new life may be for just a short time, it may be forever  but, for now, they are safe, warm and loved, within a family, in  a place she and her now grown kittens call home. A home in a foreign land, but home. A Syrian cat and her now grown kittens miss their homeland. Sing her a song of her homeland. Don’t forget her Syria, she will never forget you. One day, she hopes, she can return, with her family and her uprights by her side, and show them her Syria as it rises from the ashes and  then she can be at peace. She is more grateful  than anyone will ever know, grateful for the love and care they receive every day. She is grateful for the acts of kindness that led them here. She is grateful for life bestowed by small acts of  kindness, for the help from cats and uprights that brought  her here, to a safe land, a land

that has welcomed them, not with scorn or derision or hate but with compassion for refugees just  like her. Do all uprights swim?       

Recent studies seem to indicate that the modern cat may have originated in the region now known as Iran/Iraq/Syria.

The Syrian cats journey starts in Aleppo, North West Syria, into Turkey, always walking west,  toward the coast, from there by smugglers boat to the Greek island of Lesbos, then a fourteen hour ferry to Athens on the mainland, stopping to pick up tourists on the way.  From Athens to Thessaloniki by train, then a four hour walk to the border with Macedonia. From Macedonia, a walk to the border with Serbia, (which is over two hours by car). In Serbia a five hour walk to the nearest town, then by bus to Belgrade, cross into Hungary then Austria then a five hour train ride to Munich, Germany. This is but one of the routes travelled, they are constantly changing.

There are many people in need throughout the world, Ireland has her own share of homeless, desperate people and they too need help. If you can help, please do, there are many organisations you can contact to offer your help, too many to list here.

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