I look up from my breakfast to see Romie the cat sauntering towards me. It’s Saturday morning in Bordo, a 500-year-old village in the Italian Alps where I’m working for two weeks in exchange for food and a place to sleep—something I’ve done in various countries over the past eight months. I’m a new college graduate looking for adventure. In this city block-sized village—a twenty-five minute climb above the nearest road and built entirely with gray stone—there’s an almost even split between people and cats. Romie is one of seven who wander at will, and we’ve become friends.
In the mornings, I watch her sip icy alpine water from the outdoor faucet while I stretch for the day. During my lunch break, between hours of chopping wood for the coming village winter, I find Romie in the grass and scratch her ears while she leans into my hand and purrs. I hold her tight most afternoons so Edith, the German woman who runs the village, can give her an insulin shot in the scruff of her neck. Romie has feline diabetes and receives the daily dose without resistance while Edith whispers German into her ear, and I cradle the cat’s soft weight in my arms.
Now, as Romie approaches me across the wooden porch, her stomach—a balloon hinged on nail-thin hips—sways from side to side. The bulge isn’t from excess but from so many years, bloated by age and diabetes. The graphite-gray fur of Romie’s body is fine and brittle, and her paws curve in as she tiptoes. Her yellow eyes are fireflies in milky glass jars, vibrant but obscure, and they look at me for food.
“That cat’s gonna die any minute,” my travel partner, Alex, said yesterday as we watched Romie climb, rickety and slow, up a flight of stone steps.
I felt my chest tighten when he said that. I felt the back of my neck grow warm.
Romie’s still alive, I had wanted to say to him then, still begging for food. She isn’t done yet.
Last year, when I was twenty-two, my mother died from breast cancer. Her body, like Romie’s, transformed. My mother’s stomach bulged outward but her backside shrunk down. Her fluid-filled legs felt plushy to the touch, and the skin on her gaunt face hung loose—baggy and slack like Romie’s neck.
I knew my mother was sick. Part of me knew she was dying. So I’d lie next to her while she napped, trace with my eyes her jaw, her nose, the freckle on her cheek—learning her as she slept. I breathed in time with her exhales, beautiful and alive, so our stomachs rose and fell in unison.
Soon, I knew, there would be no more afternoon naps.
But another part of me held out for a turnaround. Maybe the bone scans would come back clean. Maybe the white blood cell counts would improve. Maybe this was all a big mistake.
Even on the day she died—her feet on her pillow, her head at the foot of the bed—after the anti-anxiety drugs had taken her words and frozen her eyes, I waited for the comeback. When her breath became almost too quiet and infrequent to hear, I thought, maybe still, it would suddenly grow stronger like she just needed time to catch it. Like in five minutes when she was back to breathing we’d talk about how she almost wasn’t. Instead, with her breaths labored and slow, her lips moved together then sank. I willed another breath to come, but all I heard was nothing.
Tonight in Bordo, I won’t be able to sleep. I’ll wander the small stone village, walk the steps to Romie’s cat bed on the outdoor balcony near my room. I’ll curl myself around her bony body. As I listen to her ragged purr, trying and low, I’ll breathe with her. We’ll take in the cool mountain air, feel it slide through our blood and our bones, while our stomachs move in and out like they could go on that way forever.
Maggie Pahos lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where she is pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at Chatham University. Her writing has appeared in Colonnades, Atticus Review, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment. You can follow her on Twitter @mepahos.