I don’t remember the year that all fifteen pounds of Xerxes showed up on our door step, but I think it was 1947 or 1948. I was just nine or ten when he came, and so it seems to me that he was always part of my growing up. He was family. Xerxes, a big, beautiful, male, Maltese cat with a clear, gray coat and fantastic yellow eyes, was full-grown when he appeared at our front door, and it was obvious he’d come to stay.
Xerxes trying to fit into a shoebox.
Xerxes was named by my cousin, Steve, who lived with us, but why Steve chose to name the cat Xerxes, after the king of Persia (519?-465 B.C.) I’ve no idea. Xerxes means “ruling over men,” which, to my way of thinking, didn’t fit our gentle Xerxes. On the other hand, he may have been “ruling over hearts.”
Xerxes still trying to fit into a shoebox.
In 1954, I brought home a puppy, whom I named “Buck.” He was part Collie and part Airedale. By way of introduction, Buck blundered into Xerxes, who promptly arched his back, laid flat his ears, fuzzed up his tail, hissed, and swatted Buck on the nose with outstretched claws—drawing blood. Buck in turn fell over backwards and watched Xerxes from a respectful distance. Xerxes, having established the true sovereignty of his domain by prior right of ownership, declared the introduction over and a truce established.
Incidentally, that initial truce lasted as long as both Xerxes and Buck were alive together. They had what, for the most part, might be called a “loving indifference” for each other. Xerxes was aloof, as only a cat can be. Buck, on the other hand, tried now and then to needle Xerxes into playing, but to no avail.
Buck when he was 11 years old.
Through trial and error, Buck learned that if he persisted, sometimes for hours, he could maneuver his way through Xerxes’ high-and-mighty aloofness, and the chase was on. In fact, when I paid close attention to the goings on, I could almost see the wheels turning in Buck’s mind as he chipped away at Xerxes’ aloofness. When Xerxes had absolutely had enough, he whirled, fuzzed up his tail, pinned back his ears, and spat. Buck would then screech to a halt, sometimes running right over Xerxes who stopped faster than Buck anticipated. Xerxes then slipped into the best “above-it-all” act he could muster and walked away in utter disdain of the tail-wagging dog.
Xerxes, the master of “cool,” could at times drive Buck to complete distraction. This was particularly true in the kitchen. Buck had the knack of placing himself in the middle of the kitchen floor, smack dab in front of the refrigerator. Here he would lie without moving, allowing everyone to walk around him or step over him—everyone that is except Xerxes. As soon as Xerxes entered the kitchen, Buck would begin growling, despite the fact that Xerxes was nowhere near, or even looking at, the refrigerator. Buck, for his part, was instantaneously transformed from an average dog just lying on the floor with head resting on his paws into that great hero of dogdom—the fearless guardian of the refrigerator.
The irony was that the more Buck growled, the more Xerxes ignored him, and the more Xerxes ignored him, the more Buck growled. Such behavior continued until Buck simply couldn’t tolerate this flagrantly calculated indifference to his authority as the noble guardian of the refrigerator. With a frustrated bark, he’d be off after Xerxes, who, with impeccable timing, zoomed under the couch, there to lie just out of reach and growl at Buck. Buck in turn, tail spinning in a sweeping circle, stood with rump high in the air and face shoved perilously beneath the sofa, theoretically trying to engage Xerxes. I say theoretically because they both knew it was only an act from which nothing dramatic would happen—or ever did.
Buck’s motto about food was: Anything falling on the floor’s legally mine. But, Buck, unlike any other dog I’ve ever known, didn’t beg by watching me eat to see if something would either drop or be offered to him. He didn’t—as would a common dog—sit drooling or making sad, doggy eyes. His was not a ploy of guilt. Instead, Buck faced me standing, ears cocked, tail curved rigidly upward, focusing his total attention on the floor at my feet so as not to miss the drop of a crumb. Should something fall, he was ready to pounce. With such preparedness, Xerxes had little chance of getting anything.
One day, I decided to test Buck’s devotion to preventing Xerxes from getting any food that fell on the floor. So, I put a small dill pickle just in front of the refrigerator. Buck immediately sniffed it and turned up his nose. I called Xerxes.
As soon as Xerxes appeared in the doorway, Buck lowered his head toward the pickle, all the while watching Xerxes and growling deeply. When I called Xerxes again and pointed to the pickle, Buck instantly ate it, and, with a most pained expression, headed for his water dish. Later in the day, I try a small dish of cultured buttermilk with the same result. Buck’s commitment was total, if not admirable.
Quite apart from any competition with Xerxes, Buck loved two foods, which for a dog always seemed strange to me: grapes and fresh, raw, whole carrots. Grapes he simply gulped down as fast as I gave them to him. But when I gave him a carrot, he took it to a secluded place, positioned it upright between his front paws with the big end to which the greenery was attached against the ground. Then, with delicacy and precision, using his small front teeth, he proceeded to eat the carrot, much as I did as a child—and sometimes still do. Starting at the outside, he carefully ate the dark outer portion off the lighter, sweeter, inner portion, which he almost always saved for last.
There was one thing in which Buck and Xerxes saw eye to eye—no strange dogs or cats were allowed in their yard. This was perhaps the only thing they absolutely agree on. One day in early summer a big, male boxer wandered into their yard while both Buck and Xerxes were in the house. By the time he’d gotten to the back of the house, they had both seen him and urgently wanted out. Not knowing what was going on, I opened the back door, and they were gone in a flash.
I next heard a brief scuffle amidst much growling from Buck and the boxer, to which was added the screaming yowl of a very angry cat. By the time I got outside, Xerxes was on the boxer’s head, all claws dug in and teeth sunk firmly into the poor boxer’s ear, while Buck was biting the boxer’s rear end as they escort him to the street from whence he’d come. Both Xerxes and Buck abandon their mission at the exact boundary of their property.
In the Autumn of 1965, just before I left to work in Alaska, my father came to me one morning and asked me to take Xerxes to the veterinarian’s and have him put to sleep—killed—while the rest of the family was gone during the afternoon. I forget the reason he gave, but I remember Xerxe’s being at least seventeen or eighteen by then.
I’ll always remember that last trip to the vet. Xerxes knew where were going and why. He lay quietly in my arms while the vet tried to find the vein into which to inject whatever he had in the needle. Xerxes’ eyes never left mine. I could see the love, trust, and acceptance in them, and I vowed through my tears, as his head slowly sank deeper into my hand and his eyes dimmed with his departing spirit, that I would never again take an animal—any animal—to the vet to be killed. If it needed to be done, I’d do it myself. After all, he had given me the best years of his life, how could I abandon him now at the end? If I loved him enough, did I not owe him an end to his physical life that was free of pain and fear?
I feel still that I betrayed Xerxes by taking him to a place he hated more than anywhere else because I lack the understanding and courage to kill him myself. Never again, I vowed to Xerxes, would I be a coward in the face of doing whatever’s necessary for an animal I love, or any animal for that matter. And I’ve kept my promise for over 45 years now.
I buried Xerxes amidst racking sobs under a grand, old oak tree behind the house with a view of the Coast Mountains across the valley. Standing there feeling lost and empty, I tried to understand what it would be like after all the years of being with him and loving him to just walk away from this small grave knowing, with such finality, that he was gone.
I don’t know how long I stood there trying to focus on his grave, when out of a dimly-lit corner of memory crept an old secret that had haunted me for years—the recollection of hitting Xerxes. “Xerxes, I never told you this because I didn’t know how. When I was little and locked you in the living room and hit you, which I know you didn’t understand, I did it because I knew that when I caught you you’d cling to me, putting your front legs around my neck as though you were hugging me. It was the feeling of being hugged, which was like being wanted, that I needed so much, the feeling that someone—anyone—wanted me. Xerxes, I love you, and I’m sorry I ever hit you. You didn’t deserve that. It’s just that I was so lost and alone, so lonely. I’m sorry. Can you forgive me? Thank you for just being who you are and what you are and for all these years you shared with me.”
Text and Photos © by Chris Maser 2012. All rights reserved.