The thing you have to remember about Martha was that she was the runt of the litter. When we went to visit the six-week-old kittens at their first home, this squalid little two-bedroom apartment in one of Northampton's less-than-fashionable housing developments, it was little Abbie who came out and said hello and mewled and acted boisterous and licked my hand when I picked him up.
"Dunno where the other one is," the guy at the apartment said. "Probably under the dresser again." And she was, a little black shadow crouched very low under their bedroom dresser, hiding from the two small children and the other cats that the family had. They couldn't afford to spay or neuter any of the cats, all indoor-outdoor, and from the looks of it, the "mama cat" of the bunch was very busy indeed. A week later we stopped by again to pick up the two kittens and bring them to a new place and, eager to prevent them from committing the sins of their uncle/fathers, got them spayed and neutered as soon as was possible.
Martha grew up very quiet and very shy. The big boy cat made a lot of noise, rough-and-tumbled his way about, but Martha was silent and introspective. She didn't even meow. She loved looking out the window, though, and tolerated being held for as long as she wished. She was shy around strangers, but extremely trusting of those she knew. She didn't mind me cradling her like a baby, and often would let me scritch her belly until she decided it was time for a change of scenery. Often she would climb up my shoulder and perch there, which led to the nickname "Parrot Cat" and eventually "Pirate Cat."
As bold as she could get, she spent most of her first few years in hiding. She preferred quiet, dark places. Being a black cat, maybe it was just familiar. My place in Reading, where I lived from 1997 to 2000, had a kitchen cabinet with a wonky latch, and she learned how to nudge it open when she needed a place to sit. She got so good at it she could open it in mid-stride, seamlessly crossing the kitchen and stepping into the shadows when need be. Later on, when we let the cats down into the basement, she preferred to stay down there, and often emerged covered in dust or cobwebs. She learned that the air ducts in the basement were a great spot to hang out, and joyously tromped all over them for booming thuds which echoed all through the house. I said it was just a case of a little cat learning how to make a big noise, and she sure seemed to enjoy it. If you needed to find her all you had to do was go down to the basement and turn the lights on. Eventually you'd see a pair of eyes glowing back at you from up on the ducts somewhere.
Then she discovered the secret escape hatch. This must have been in mid-1999. Frankly, I'm pretty sure it was Abbie who got the idea into his head, as he developed a serious case of wanderlust while in Reading, and made frantic beelines for the door every time he saw someone preparing to leave. (Or, disgruntled at the injustice of not being let out, he'd make a beeline for the unused fireplace and defiantly pee in it, so you'd have to postpone your departure for as long as it took to clean it up and admonish him appropriately.) So I am certain that Abbie discovered the critical flaw in the ground-level basement window. One half of the window contained the dryer vent, held in place by a flimsy piece of sheet metal. If you bent the sheet metal back enough, hey presto, you've just opened up a hole to the outside. Who escaped first I don't know, but one day both cats decided adventures on the outside was a damned good idea. And that's when Martha really surprised me.
I returned home from work that day to find Abbie cowering on the front porch near the door. He desperately wanted in, and rushed inside as soon as I had the door open enough. This was a complete reversal from how things normally worked (I'd open the door and Abbie, on the inside, would attempt to dash out as soon as it was open enough.) He had been outside and hadn't liked what he'd seen, I guessed. My housemate had been away all week, and I knew Abbie hadn't escaped out the door when I'd left in the morning, cause I'd seen him on the stair landing before I left. So I went outside to check for broken windows or open side doors, and that's when I found the basement window by the side of the house.
I also found Martha on the side of the house, staring intently at something under the neighbor's shed, ears flattened and eyes narrow. She was making that special sound cats often make when they're mad, the two-tone combination growl/whine. The one that means "Don't you dare mess with me." I bent down to look under the shed, and saw one of our local stray cats, a big orange tom who was mostly seen around on garbage day. He was cowering under the shed and refusing to move. There was also, I noticed, a grey cat peeking his head out from around one of the other neighbor's fences. I picked Martha up, who put up a bit of a fight, and carried her into the house. The orange cat took off like a shot from under the shed once Martha had broken eye contact, and the grey cat disappeared similarly. Once inside the house, Martha acted like it warn't no thang. I hastily bricked up the windowsill around the sheet metal as a sign of detente.
My big boisterous lump of boy cat had proven to be a real creampuff when it came to outside confrontation, but Martha, dear sweet little Martha, had stared down two neighborhood strays and, Cat Zen-like, put them in their place without so much as a scratch. And that's the story I wanted to tell you about Martha.
Not long after that incident, she started meowing. Just a little bit from time to time, graduating from a "prrp" to full-on vocalization, and near the last few years of her life, really learned how to voice her opinions at me in a most pointed way. She stopped hiding in cupboards or in the tub. She slept out in the open, on the edge of the bed, on my lap, and sometimes on the dresser even though that was Not Allowed. To the end, though, she still retained a bit of the introspectiveness, a quiet sagacity that some cats have been known to possess. She had the mystic in her, and she knew it.
It's a year to the day now since she passed away, and I miss her dearly. But, as I said a year ago, she did things on her own terms. She stayed around for as long as she wished, and then, when she decided it was time to go, she sat down and left. I'm glad for the eight and a half years I had with her. She was such an important part of my life, how I viewed things, even how I kept sane from time to time. I only wish I had eight and a half more years to spend with her.