The cat and the casket; A ‘tail’ of Jules and Mygal

By Patricia Fieldsteel

NYONS, France — In death, as in life, he attracted craziness. My neighbor, Jules. He died on Good Friday of cancer, at 52. He was lowered into the muddy earth in the far reaches of the small cemetery here in Nyons. It was cold. The rain raged relentlessly. We were a group of 35. The route began at the funerarium with an open casket. Morticians in this part of France are not too skilled. One of his dying wishes had been that I bring Mygal, his beloved 10-year-old cat, to view the open casket and be with him for his burial. I had reservations. This was the family’s request; it meant so much to them, for him, his brother Jacques told me. Meshuggah, I thought, but a dying wish is a dying wish.

At his best, Jules had a talent; he attracted people who loved him, who understood and forgave his wild eccentricities, his flights from reality, his crises that at times put the rest of us, his neighbors, in danger and made him a pain in the neck. Somehow, hard as it sometimes was, we understood. We saw the greater person, the good struggling, always, to get out, to predominate. Animals knew, especially cats. They recognized his gentle soul.

Mygal has lived with me since the end of December when Jules entered the hospital for what he thought would be three days. He never returned. Slightly feral, she appeared at the door every day to be fed. Then, slowly, she came inside. It was clear she was pregnant. I already have too many animals, including two of her daughters. I don’t take in unsterilized cats. I also don’t have the money to pay for feline abortions and hysterectomies.

As always, Lydie, my friend and neighbor from Jane Street in Greenwich Village and now here, came to the rescue. “Tek zee cat to notre ami, Ludo [vet]. Tell ’im to poot eet on my bill. ’Ave eet done queek. Zat iz my sug-jes-tion.”

I was nervous. Technically, she wasn’t my cat. People here think nothing of killing a cat, but touching someone else’s, that’s another story.

There was another issue. Jules lived on the margins; his friends were what the French call les marginaux. They are supported by the government and are mostly alcoholics and addicts. They tend to indulge in petty crime and drug dealing. Far too many of them live on this tiny street and they are not people with whom one wants problems.

Jules had always refused to have Mygal spayed, claiming she liked to have three litters a year and that sterilization wasn’t “natural.” Pointing out it wasn’t “natural” for him to kill the kittens for whom he couldn’t find suitable homes, or that he was putting her at risk for cancer held no sway. She was, after all, his cat and he loved her. Over the years, I came to call her “Mommy Mygal”; she was a super mom and everyone knew her kittens were the best.

The marginaux knew I was feeding her and that she often came in the house. The second they saw her belly had been shaved and she was full of stitches and not kittens, I feared being the target of their inebriated wrath.

I sought out Jules’s longtime friend, Marie-Claude, a cat lover and a sweetheart I know from my olive-picking days. Marie-Claude is a gutsy lady with compassion and common sense. “Just have it done,” she said. “If they have a problem, tell them to come to me.” She visited Jules regularly. He was dying and need never know.

The next day Mygal arrived crying at the door. She was smeared in merde, clearly put there by a twisted human. I held her while Marie-Claude took my kitchen shears and cut the crap off. We both feared next someone would poison her. I took Mygal to Ludovic. He removed five kittens and kept her until she recovered and could return to her new home. After the deed was done, Jules gave his permission. Would I keep Mygal for the rest of her life? Left on the street, I knew she wouldn’t last. I didn’t want an eighth cat, but I also knew she was here to stay.

Jules did not want a funeral Mass in the church — just an open viewing and graveside prayers with music he selected. The night before, Jacques knocked on my door. I was roasting a chicken. Jacques was in tears. Would I bring her? Huh? Tomorrow — to the funerarium and cemetery. Her who? Mygal. Jacques wanted her to run free over Jules’s grave at the cemetery. “My brother was a free spirit. She should be free too,” he said. “He wants her there with him.” Despite my strong reservations, my repeatedly saying I didn’t think any of this was wise, I somehow ended up agreeing to bring the cat.

I phoned Lydie. “You will not believe the mess I’ve gotten myself into!” Even though she is the ultimate cat lover, she couldn’t stop laughing. “’Ave a glass of wine,” she advised. In addition to nearly burning the chicken, which I forgot about, I did not sleep well that night.

The next afternoon I drove Mygal in the panier (cat carrier) to the funerarium in Nyons’s industrial zone.

Jules’s mother, sisters, brother, niece and nephew, ex-wife and two young sons were there. And his friends. More than a few arrived in a fog. Marie-Claude helped me with Mygal. Jules had been her close friend for more than 20 years. One of my neighbors, Henri, a true pourriture (scumbag), decided in his heroin haze to open the panier and put poor Mygal in the coffin to say goodbye. “OH NO YOU DON’T! SHE IS MY CAT NOW AND SHE IS STAYING IN THE CARRIER!”

At the cemetery, the procession to the grave was long and slow. The freezing rain didn’t help. Marie-Claude and my friend and guru in all things, Georges, took turns with the panier. The priest did what priests do. The comparison to Jesus dying on the cross on Good Friday was a bit much. Still, I wept. Jacques played a selection of rock on his creaky cassette player. When no one was looking, Henri opened the panier and let Mygal out. The cat’s not dumb. She hightailed it into the woods beyond the cemetery. A group of mourners ran after her. Marie-Claude screamed at Henri for being the idiot he is. She caught Mygal and I put her back in the carrier. It was time to leave. When I arrived home, I had that glass of wine Lydie had recommended.

I got into bed and drifted in and out of a fitful sleep. The rain pounded and the fierce Provençal wind blew. Around 11 p.m., someone knocked loudly on my door. I stuck my head out the bedroom window. “Madame, someone has just killed a white cat. He is dead in the street. Is he yours?” I knew mine were all inside, but I threw a coat on over my pajamas and ran outside. The cat had been hit by a car. He was still hemorrhaging blood from his mouth. It was Porcinette, Mygal’s son. Two years ago, Jules had invited me to see him an hour after his birth. I had held him in my hand. He was snow white with a pale red tail and the most exquisite blue eyes. I started to shake; my teeth were chattering. “Madame, you must go inside. You will become ill.” I rang the bell of Porcinette’s owners; they took his tiny body home.

Yesterday I had coffee at an outdoor cafe with Marie-Claude. We talked about Jules. “You know,” she said, “maybe it’s better he died the way he did. Otherwise, he would eventually have committed suicide.” I agreed. There had been so many attempts. Once he had even tried to hang himself from the head of the statue of Marianne in the Place de la Libération with his belt. Mygal had stayed here. When he was released, he knocked on my door. “Don’t worry, Jules, I’ve got Mygal.” He wasn’t worried about Mygal; did I have his belt? He had to find it.

When Porcinette was born, he told me all cats with blue eyes are crazy. He would have to kill him. Instead, he killed the other four kittens in the litter and kept Porcinette. We laughed. Jules’s logic was what the French call “spéciale.” Once he ran naked through the street at 3 a.m., screaming about “Nazis” and “collabos” with poor Mygal, who’d just given birth, sticking by his side. He had no teeth and his long loose hair reached close to his waist, when he didn’t have it braided and woven with Indian beads and talismans. I’d called the gendarmes, who in turn summoned doctors and an ambulance. Jules had run up to his third-story apartment and thrown everything out the window, knocking the glass out with a hammer, smashing the walls and threatening to kill anyone who came near him.

This was not the first time he’d done that; only this time the pickings he had left to toss were rather slim. After a five-hour siege, Jacques succeeded in calming him down. The gendarmes wrapped a ratty dish towel over his nether regions. As he left, barefoot and walking over broken glass, he shook everyone’s hands, saying that stock favorite French phrase for when things go wrong, “Merci pour votre comprehension. Merci pour votre comprension.” In a few weeks he was back, and for a while, at least, taking his medication. That stage rarely lasted. Jules preferred self-medication with substances not found in pharmacies,

Always, he told me, I was too bourgeois; I needed to learn to be an artist like him, like his friends. I never had the heart to tell him that I was a writer. He had a flair, a personality unequaled in color. His apartment, though squalid, was artistically arranged, filled with beautiful objects he’d retrieved from the garbage or found in secondhand stores. He had an eye. And he loved his cats.

And several weeks later, after seeing how much it meant to the family, do I still think taking a cat to a funeral is meshuggah? As my great-grandmother Ray used to say, “Oy vey iz meir.”