One day we found out that an autistic man was going to move in next door. I should remind you that we live in an RV. We rent a site with power and plumbing, but sometimes we have to compromise on privacy. Our south side, our lounge-and-relax area under the awning, is the side we would be sharing with the new neighbor.
I was concerned. How autistic is he? I asked the manager. "It'll be fine, he's very quiet," the manager responded. The manager often tells people what he thinks they want to hear, so I discounted this bit of information. Autism can be a vague diagnosis. It contains so many degrees of malfunction that it has stretched beyond its original meaning of a soul completely lost to human interaction. "A little autistic" could mean almost anything.
When Henry moved in he took a look at me and The Fox and literally said"whew" as if he were relieved at what he saw.
"Whew." Where did he live before he came here? His former neighbors, we later learned, were motorcycle people and meth freaks. Whew, indeed.
Henry divulged little about himself. He said he liked cats. That was fortunate, because our site is something like Cat Central at Vine Haven RV Campground. We have two indoor cats and two outdoor cats, plus a wide variety of feral visitors and neighborhood pets. There's something about this space that draws cats. It might be the plum trees and their abundant population of wrens and robins. We do our best to discourage bird hunting.
There are people who claim their pets have super powers. When I first heard this I was disdainful, but my thinking has changed. Our cat Obsidian is a big brown tabby with green eyes. I've seen him tame people in that Little Prince way, literally capture their unruly spirits and put them back in a more harmonious order. That's Obsidian's super power, the power to restore tranquility.
He's getting old, and so are we. He doesn't jump the fence and climb around with the younger cats any more. He has more important work to do.
Our new neighbor Henry is middle-aged. He is a fearful, cranky and withdrawn man, but we barely know he's here. His social interactions are limited but acceptable. He can be easily upset by minor disturbances. He is so averse to noise that he can be pushed into a ferocious sulk by the mere revving of a motorcycle.
|This is Obsidian|
He has been adopted by our two outdoor cats, wise old Obsidian and his sidekick, the comical black and white Cookie. These cats have given structure to Henry's otherwise bleak world. By loving Henry they have tricked him into loving. I looked out the window one day to see the elusive and feral Cookie sitting calmly on Henry's lap. I had never seen her behave this way. It was strangely impressive. Henry is a cat savant, he has some magical affinity that he didn't know he possessed until he moved close to Obsidian and Cookie.
I assume that you, my readers, understand how easily a friendly animal, a pet (if you will) can become a tyrant who turns your life upside down. Henry is such an innocent that he immediately began flirting with disaster. We had to set him straight without setting him off. If he let Obsidian into his home even once, he would become nothing but a door man, opening and closing all day, all night, at the tabby cat's demand. I caught him just on the verge of doing this very thing and rushed to halt the action.
"Don't let him in, Henry! Close your door, quick!" He was frightened and cut Obsidian off just as he was about to slip between his feet.
I explained what had almost happened. I spoke towards Henry's averted eyes and raised defensive shoulders. I spoke to him as I would speak to any intelligent adult. In Henry's heart, the need to trust someone was rising like a powerful burst of magma from a volcano deep beneath the sea. His need to share the cats' companionship was forcing him to emerge from his shell and talk to us. The cats pushed Henry past his fears. I doubt he's had this much social interaction in a long time.
In the next few weeks we learned more about Henry. It wasn't easy but we supported his struggle to communicate. Then something unexpected happened. Henry and Obsidian fell in love. I'm not being flippant. I'm not suggesting an improper liaison. It's just that simple. When Henry left to visit his mother, Obisidian sat on his front step, waiting for his return. He would emit an occasional sob. There's no mistaking Obsidian's sob. He has an amazing gamut of vocalizations, including a perfectly robin-like cheep that must have been useful during his hunting years.
I can't put it any other way. They were in love with a pure emotional connection. Henry's autism perhaps short-circuited his intellectual activity and left his feelings to flourish without interference from the busy mind. I don't really know. I watched this fountain of feeling take shape between Henry and the cats. I could feel its authenticity in my guts.
Henry leaves the campground for treatment four days a week. When he first went away, Obsidian was inconsolable. He went into a paroxysm of grief. He stared into space for long periods. He moped and cried. But Obsidian gradually learned that Henry ALWAYS comes home. Thus our cat friend's tranquility was restored. He knows Henry will be back and that's enough to comfort him. It took him a few weeks to get this; I watched him unwind and relax. I watched his attention return to his world: the falling leaves and the showoff Cookie with her bounding up and down fences and trees. Obsidian resumed his lordship of his domain. The lost baby possum was under his protection. The upstart kitten Stinker was not welcome and he meant business, even if he had to hire Cookie to teach Stinker a lesson.
Now Henry has left for two weeks. He has gone to Connecticut to visit his sister. Three thousand miles! cried Henry in terror before he was picked up by his ride. The enormity of this journey, its scale and distance, were almost paralyzing. I shared with Henry my own fears about travel: the feeling that I'll never get home, I'll be trapped in some alien environment without the solace of my place and my people and animals and the routines that keep me from flying apart. Henry and I aren't so different. This bit of one on one engagement gave Henry something to take with him on this unprecedented trip. He had shared an emotional link with another human being. And he had given his heart to a big brown cat with green eyes.How different is Henry's world today? That's not for me to say, but I suspect that it's just different enough...enough to make a difference.